Sustainability: what does it mean for animals
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I’ve been hearing a lot about “sustainability” lately. It is a goal (“a ‘sustainable’ society”), a criticism (“that’s completely unsustainable”), and a justification (“but it’s sustainable”). Sustainability is often presented as the deciding factor in determining if an action or practice is ok.
I was a bit confused about what “sustainability” actually means, so I looked it up.
Mirriam-Webster defines “sustainable” as:
1: capable of being sustained
2 a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society>
Sustainability, in general terms, is the ability to maintain balance of a certain process or state in any system. It is now most frequently used in connection with biological and human systems. In an ecological context, sustainability can be defined as the ability of an ecosystem to maintain ecological processes, functions, biodiversity and productivity into the future.
In the most general sense ,then, sustainability just means a point where the system can be mainained at the status quo indefinitely.
Does sustainability mean anything where animals are concerned? Actually, not much. Animals tend to be viewed as part of the “ecosystem” or as “resources”.
Most discussions of sustainability are anthropocentric, meaning that a system is sustainable if it can sustain human life indefinitely. In this view, any use of animals is justifiable from a sustainability perspective no matter how those animals are treated or how natural or unnatural their life may be – as long as the system can be maintained indefinitely.
A sustainable farming system could involve genetic modification of chickens so that more could be raised in less space with less illness. They could be kept in total darkness and raised to slaughter age in just a few weeks. Practices like beak-trimming or toe-trimming could be regarded as sustainable in this narrow perspective.
Or so it would seem.
But, sustainability is very often tied up in a complicated web with ethics and justice. Taking sustainability on its own and ignoring other concerns seems to me like a mistake.
Take the Canadian Seal Hunt as an example. Or whaling. Or trophy hunting. All of these practices have been defended as being “sustainable”. Perhaps they are from a narrow perspective – if we look only at the single species being affected and their population numbers. But looking at them from a larger perspective, these practices are less and less sustainable, for various reasons. The math of this kind of sustainability is very fragile. There may or may not be a certain population with a certain amount of food in some defined habitat. So many factors make certainty very difficult.
In many cases, costs have been externalized to make the systems appear to work. The Canadian government sends icebreakers to help sealing ships, and when a dozen ships were caught in the ice the coast guard ferried supplies to the sealers for weeks. The government sends ships to enforce the restrictions on seal hunt observers. All of this costs money and uses fuel, which add to the costs of the hunt. Also, the public outcry against the killing of the seals should be a factor in determining if it is sustainable. It increases costs and makes the system more difficult to maintain.
We also don’t really have ways to measure the greater impact of most of our attempts to “manage” the natural world.
If we shift our ideas of sustainability to a larger and less anthropocentric view, I think we would be much more likely to actually achieve real sustainability. If we grant the rest of the world an existence of its own, for its own sake, we will have to be more cautious and conscientious with our own use of resources. This would mean living with the world, not in it or on it.
In this sort of system, how would animals be regarded? They would be fellow inhabitants on the earth, and our rights to use and exploit them would necessarily and rightly be limited. Sustainability would no longer be the property of humans, but would actually be a just, humane, and equitable global system.