By Jonathan Leighton
Jonathan Leighton is the Executive Director of Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS) and author of The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe
As our civilisation faces monumental threats to its existence, it’s time to embrace an ethic of non-violence and care towards all sentient beings.
When I first wrote this piece in April 2019, the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in London had just taken place, inspiring millions with their energy and enthusiasm, sometimes exuding the cheerful liveliness of a street party. At times one could have forgotten that the underlying issue was deadly serious: that civilisational collapse due to climate change might now be inevitable, with one influential paper from the previous year suggesting it could even happen within a decade.
I don’t believe that we actually face extinction in the near future — that every last member of Homo sapiens is likely to disappear from the face of the Earth as a result of climate change. Humans are resilient, and our species has survived past global catastrophes. At the least, I expect the wealthiest and most privileged to monopolise resources to ensure their own survival and possibly even thrive.
But some degree of collapse seems likely, despite growing political attention to the crisis. We face a possible scenario where much of our food supply shrinks and parts of our global infrastructure are paralysed, where many of us are left scrambling to survive and potentially hundreds of millions or even billions suffer and perish from hunger, disease or hyperthermia, against a backdrop of massive destruction, large-scale migration and violence. There are some dark times ahead, to say the least.
The prospect of civilisational collapse triggers intense emotions as our deeply anchored survival instincts collide with a sense of futility. Our existence on this rare planet becomes something fleeting and precious as our horizon closes in on us and we no longer see an indefinite path ahead.
But the despair felt by so many about the potential collapse of the world as we know it is mirrored by the despair also felt by so many about the world as it is. The violence, the poverty, the greed. The millions of people living in severe physical or emotional pain, often with no access to effective treatment. The billions of animals raised for food under abominable conditions, tortured and killed to meet our insatiable demands. And hidden from view within the recesses of nature, the huge number of wild animals that struggle for survival and die horrible deaths due to predation, hunger and the elements.
While these diverse sources of suffering are being addressed to varying degrees, the legally sanctioned, massive enslavement and torture of animals remains one of the greatest moral catastrophes of our time. This includes approximately 70 billion land animals consumed worldwide every year, most of them raised on factory farms where they live miserable lives of pain and deprivation before being brutally killed. It also includes similar numbers of farmed fish — animals with emotions and personalities and the ability to suffer — kept in a perpetual state of extreme confinement, and probably a trillion or more fish caught in the wild and made to suffer agonising deaths by suffocation. While some populations might have no immediate dietary or economic alternatives, most of the world’s consumption of animal products, also including leather, wool and fur, represents an unnecessary infliction of intense suffering.
With the threat of impending civilisational collapse, the horrors of the present take on a new dimension. Will we still be torturing animals by the billions as our current civilisation draws its last breaths? I certainly don’t believe in divine punishment, nor in karma as an actual phenomenon. But given the scale of the cruelty with which we as a civilisation treat animals, the threats we now face have a karmic aspect in at least a symbolic sense. Do we even “deserve” to continue existing as a civilisation when we collectively tolerate such massive cruelty?
From a more detached perspective that avoids attributing blame, we can see our planet today as the product of random physical processes that, perhaps as part of some deeper pattern inherent to the universe, produced exquisite beauty, bliss and meaning, but also predation, disease, starvation, torture and endless forms of extreme suffering. We might feel that the beauty justifies the horrors until we viscerally grasp the reality of these experiences.
I share the widespread human striving to live and to thrive. I certainly don’t want anyone to die as a consequence of climate change. But I’m less anxious about non-existence than about all the suffering that would precede it. If continued existence were to mean billions of animals suffering horribly on factory farms far into the future, I would far prefer nothingness.
In The Battle for Compassion, I wrote:
In the final, dramatic scene of the film “The Fifth Element”, Milla Jovovich’s character Leeloo views a series of horrific pictures of war, including of Nazi death camps and the explosion of an atomic bomb, and, tears falling, momentarily loses faith in her mission of saving the planet. “What’s the use of saving life when you see what you do with it?” she utters.
As we reach a turning point in the history of humanity, we need to ask ourselves: what is it that we want to preserve, and why? Consciousness and meaning may indeed be a rare and wondrous thing in our universe. But are they worth preserving at any price? A narrow focus on mitigating climate change through legal and technological measures is not enough. We need to look at the societal structures that brought us to this point, but more essentially, at our underlying values as well. A deep ethical reckoning will help ensure that if we manage to come out the other side of this crisis, we will be able to create the best future possible and not repeat the dreadful mistakes of the past.
We will never all entirely agree about the best ethical framework or about our values. But nobody wants to experience extreme suffering. It is therefore only logical to try to spare others extreme suffering as well. That is the basis of the ancient Golden Rule common to so many civilisations: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Extended to encompass all sentient beings, it provides the most rational ethical basis for the future of our civilisation.
The most progressive societies today have adopted the norm that racism and sexism are no longer acceptable. That skin colour, creed, genitals and sexual identity are not a valid basis for discrimination, and that all human suffering matters equally. But there is one last major barrier that still remains to be overcome, and that is speciesism. While human beings are unique in our intellectual abilities and in our capacity to create beauty and meaning, we are no different from other animals in our essential need for love and connection, and most fundamentally, in our need to avoid suffering.
Just as many of us are awakening to the grim truth about climate change and the full extent of the threat to our civilisation, many of us are simultaneously awakening to the truth about the monumental atrocities being committed against non-human animals. These truths are not disconnected. They are both the product of human behaviour and apathy, and of systems based on exploitation. We cannot address one and ignore the other. If we envision a shift in paradigm to save our world, we cannot hold onto some of the worst characteristics of the old paradigm.
If we acknowledge that the suffering of all sentient beings matters, then we must also include animals living in the wild within our circle of compassion, even if we do not have the means to help most of them today. Climate change itself is causing wild animals to suffer, making their natural habitats uninhabitable, depleting their food sources and increasing the incidence of forest fires in which many are burned alive. We more readily care about this suffering because we know that our civilisation bears responsibility for the situation, and because it has been given greater visibility in the media. But compassion transcends past responsibility and means caring as well about suffering we did not cause.
The widely used expression “people and planet” omits mention of other sentient beings, implicitly lumping non-human animals together with water, soil, plants and bacteria as components of an ecosystem that sustains us, rather than explicitly including them as beings worthy of compassion. We personify Mother Earth but relegate individual feeling, breathing, suffering animals to abstract parts of a whole.
Reclaiming our connection to the planet and reversing the destruction that is making it unliveable also requires dispelling the illusory separation between us and its other inhabitants. It is not enough to seek to preserve a system that contains horrendous suffering, just because we ourselves find beauty in the system. Our ethical focus needs to be on the sentient beings contained within the system, and the pleasure and pain they experience. This means exercising neither anthropocentrism, nor ecocentrism, but sentiocentrism. As author Yuval Noah Harari has said, “If it can suffer, it’s real. If it can’t suffer, it’s not real.” Systems and species cannot suffer — only individual animals can suffer, whether human or non-human.
Just as we find the idea intolerable that a wealthy global elite might secure the future for their own offspring while much of humanity is left to die, it would be similarly intolerable for us to preserve the future wellbeing of humanity while neglecting the suffering of members of other species. If we resist domination, we cannot exercise domination. If it’s compassion for which we hope, it’s also compassion we need to show.
If there’s a future worth preserving, it’s one where we transcend our brutality — where we root out the violence that brought us to this point in the first place. We need to imagine and implement new ways of organising ourselves that are rooted in deep, compassionate ethics.
As we seek immediate solutions to the climate crisis, the appeal to reduce beef consumption in order to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions should be welcomed as a means to reduce animal suffering. But if people simply eat more chickens as a result, many more animals will live horrible lives. The convergence of environmental and ethical considerations is a huge opportunity, but it will be a lost one if it means simply abusing different kinds of animals.
The mistaken belief that we need to eat animals persists in discussions about surviving the consequences of climate change. One comes across discussions about using animals as parts of permaculture systems, even though this is entirely unnecessary, or trapping small animals for food, despite the agony this causes. There is also growing interest in raising insects as sources of protein, even though they are almost certainly sentient and very likely have the capacity to suffer.
It’s time for us to stop looking at sentient beings as sources of food and focus on plant-based solutions that cause much less suffering to animals, are better for us and are better for the planet. Reducing beef consumption is only one small step in the right direction: we must strive to eliminate animal products from our diets entirely. Some day we may have the means to alleviate much of the intense suffering that takes place in the wild as well, if it becomes technically feasible. Until then, our guiding principle must be to do no harm, and to help where we can.
The mass popular movement to radically reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the destruction of our planet has already been bringing out some of the best in people with its spirit of love, unity and non-violence, as we saw in the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. It has much in common with the growing animal rights movement, whose passionate activists are also challenging the status quo and are largely supportive of the goals of climate change activism. By explicitly embracing a compassionate ethical framework that includes all sentient beings within its moral circle, the movement to preserve our planet has the potential to be a powerhouse for transformative change that translates deep ethical principles into new governance and societal structures that meet the needs of all and prevent the suffering of all sentient beings.