By Rhea Narielwalla
The merit of an argument is compromised when one party realizes a personal bias has crept in, and the other party isn’t even aware that they possessed that bias. In this spirit, I find it beneficial, for the sake of all my future environmental arguments, that I acknowledge my own deep ecology bias. Deep ecology is one of the value systems underlying environmentalism, it is philosophically, rather than scientifically grounded. It asks a question that I find myself asking very often, that is, what makes animal life less valuable than a human life. Science tells us, that we are superior, but can this be called into question? Why don’t we recognize the intrinsic value of a non-human species? Why is it that when faced with a choice between child rights and animal rights, the former takes precedence?
This for me is a critical area, that I personally struggled with when myself and a team of thirteen others started India’s first children-run NGO called “India Forward” in 2012. I often brought up questions of animal welfare, only to be met with “but children should be the focus, they are our way forward. We can teach them from an early age the importance of animal rights and therefore tackle the problem you’ve addressed.” However, this wasn’t a satisfactory response for me then, and it still isn’t.
Animals of all species have inherent value that humans have no right to curtail under any circumstance. But still, governments curb the right to life of multiple species through hunting laws and “ethical” culling regulations, doing their level best to drown dissent out. A prime example is, the case of the Andaman & Nicobar islands administration’s plea to de-notify saltwater crocodiles from the endangered species list in order to tackle recent attacks, with the allowance of temporary “ethical” culling. If we think about this, in the human context, culling to reduce violent acts committed under duress and in self-defence is abhorrent. To justify culling with rhetoric like “the species is overpopulated and needs to be controlled”, leads me to think that individuals within the human population should’ve been culled (ethically, of course!) a long time ago, but instead, population control for us, simply means family planning laws/policies and awareness drives because we subscribe unquestioningly, to the scientific notion that animals do not possess the intellectual faculties to understand the issue.
Even when animal rights are being taken seriously, we often operate within scientifically created constructs, that dictate hierarchies simply because one animal can do something that another cannot. These hierarchies allow us to attach labels like “rare”, “common”, “dangerous” to various species of flora and fauna, which in turn change our perceptions and behaviour towards them. Once established, we use these labels to play God, to decide when a certain species needs to be admired, when it needs culling and when it needs human training (i.e domestication). We give importance to that which fascinates us and to that which serves us emotionally, spiritually and/or economically.
The Kerala and Kodagu floods, a recent and unfortunate “focusing event” has brought to light the consequences of this “labelling”. Should one see a dog or a cow trapped in the rubble of a fallen house, it comes almost naturally to many ordinary people to either call for rescue efforts, or to personally attend to the matter, understanding the emotional distress that the “common”, “domesticated” animal is in. However, the response changes when one finds a distressed snake or a crocodile in a similar plight, the instinct that kicks in is fight or flight because these are not “common”, science labels them “dangerous”. The purpose of this is not to ask every individual to become a snake saver or animal lover, I ask only that one acknowledges and questions the prioritisation science gives humans over all other animals, and recognise how this superiority clouds our perception of animal rights and welfare.
Today, people are realizing that science and technology don’t have all the answers, especially when it comes to global environmental concerns like climate change and pollution. It is a good time for people to use deep ecology to question existing systems, like science, that are often unsustainable for the maintenance of the environment’s complicated balance. In this sense, I also wish to examine the scientific bio medicine-dominated health system. I take the example of two cases, one where a human is afflicted with epilepsy (the mental health issues that come with it) and another where a dog is afflicted with the same. Humans with epilepsy are referred to therapists, given herbal remedies, advised to try acupuncture and chiropractic care. But in my eight years of treating a dog with epilepsy, I was never given these options; All I was given was an allopathic drug “Guardinal” to control seizures. This leads me to ask why, to delve deeper into the issue and marry my interest in health and environment.