A dear friend opened my eyes to an interesting perspective on environmentalism.
Essentially, she asked me whether I do things for the benefit of the environment or the benefit of people. Her example, would you take the stairs to your second floor room so that the elevator uses less energy, or do you take the stairs so that the elevator is open for people who really need it at the higher floors? Obviously there are many other motivations, but for the time being lets just pretend there’s only these two.
Such a dichotomy never really occurred to me until that moment, at least not in regards to environmentalism. I recognized this separation in another realm, namely our relationship with animals.
It is getting more common to see people who treat the animals better than the humans in their lives. Many people will treat animals no different than children. Research the “Ikea Monkey” to see how unnerving this can become. There are several explanations for this behaviour, whether it be lonliness, pain, the lack of children in one’s life or an inability to reach out to other human beings.
The reason that seems most important to me is that animals, being incapable of loving, cannot really reject us. They may run away, or bite us or do any other hostile act, but at the end of the day we blame it on the fact that it’s just an animal. To see my point just read the article “Five Reasons Why I Love Animals More Than People” cited at the end of this article. Though the article is probably half joking, for many people it rings true. For a person to say they favour the company of animals over that of humans, is to prefer a mouthful of chalk over piece of turtle cheesecake.
Animals bring comfort, entertainment, awe, wonder and many other emotions. They help us with our work, with healing and many other functions. All of these benefits of animals, however, do not imply that they have free will, conscious thinking or the capacity to love or to reject. Animals live from their instincts, behave in ways which encourage survival and greater chances for reproduction. Human person’s on the other hand have a will, conscious thought, the ability to understand abstract and meaningful concepts, and most importantly the capacity to love through action and choice.
The trend in our culture is growing. We can see more and more people who would rather indulge in an illusory relationship with an animal, in which acceptance is pretended, than risk the messiness of the real thing with living and breathing human beings. Bestiality is the extreme form of unnatural relationship with an animal. It is hard to discover, yet present in all cultures. On the other extreme we have people who will kill an animal not for the purpose of obtaining food or clothing, but to merely place its head and antlers of their wall. Both extremes are disordered.
Animals are capable of being a great benefit to humanity, but at the end of the day one cannot have authentic intimacy with their cat, dog, tarantula or any other creature other than a person. If we give the love that is due to human persons alone to our pets, our actions become disordered; to spend large amounts of time and money on pets that could otherwise be used to relieve human suffering is an immoral act. Animals should be treated with kindness and respect, people should be treated with love.
Just look up pet apparel online. Some items cost up to $250 and much more (2). According to the website of the Hope Mission, a local charity which supplies meals to the homeless, you can supply a human being a meal for a mere $2.70 (3). Instead of a person buying a new Gucci dog backpack, they could feed 88 people a hot meal.
You may be wondering at this point how this all relates to environmentalism. First, we must ask a foundational question.
For whom are we going to preserve the earth, its resources, and the life it contains?
Unless one subscribes to particular new age belief systems, we may acknowledge that the earth is not a conscious being. So, doing good deeds for a massive ball of rock hardly seems like a sensible equation. We might extend our equation to include all animal life on earth, excluding mankind for the present moment. Well yes, sustaining life is important, but I don’t think that deer have the capacity to care whether they are on the brink of extinction or not. Have you ever heard of a wolf not eating a rabbit because it feared the extinction of rabbits? Animals are incapable of understanding complex realities such as justice or the implications of actions.
Of course, all life has the innate desire to reproduce and to remain alive, but we are talking about something greater here. Thousands of species have come and gone during our earth’s long history. Extinction and the creation of new species is just another day in the millions of years of geological time passed by. To my knowledge, no one has ever cried over the extinction of the triceratops or the tyrannosaurus.
We might argue that life is beautiful, precious, fleeting, and whatever other adjective could be added, so for those reasons it must be preserved. Even then, it is only within human reasoning and understanding that things like beauty and the risk of extinction become important.
To sum everything up, if we don’t preserve the earth for the earth’s sake, for the sake of animals, or for the sake of beauty or other concepts, then why do we preserve it?
For the sake of our brothers and sisters, present and future. To care for the environment, but not to strive to love human beings, is akin to a parent keeping their children’s rooms clean while making their kids play and sleep in the shed.
I am guilty of this logical and moral error, the error of valuing the environment over human beings.
I see it often, and recognize it in my own actions. This thing us humans do where we bash people over the head with our environmentalist agendas while we ignore the needs of real human beings beside us, in the present moment. It is a temptation, a forgiveable one, because it is easier to show affection to the environment then it is to human beings. As I pointed out earlier with animals, the earth cannot reject us. It cannot decide to stop, or even start, loving us. It’s tempting to place the earth on a pedestal above human beings, because unlike the earth, humans have hurt us, have caused us pain, have said “no” when we wanted a “yes”.
To authentically love someone requires a level of gift that opens one’s heart to the other.
We become open to their love, confusion, pain, joy, life and sometimes their rejection of us. If we have been hurt badly, it becomes hard to face this challenge of opening up, making it tempting to show our love to other unsuited objects. However, to love an object, like a pet, is a pseudo-relationship; it does not contain real communion. We were made for authentic intimacy and to miss out on it is a grave loss.
In order to love my brothers and sisters, I choose to make sustainable actions. If I support my green crusade at the expense of the people around me, I’ve already failed in my pursuit. Am I guilty of this? Of course. I am no different than the rest of humanity; we are all guilty of confusing our priorities.
So lets put down our “green” bats and become saints.
It is only through sainthood that men and women will finally allow themselves to love humanity with their whole heart and being, which will enable them to have complete freedom in making good decisions for living green, and to know when compromise is necessary.
Even non believers refer to St. Francis of Assisi and his extraordinary tenderness towards animals and creation; however, we must not forget that his principle devotion was to the care of human persons, especially the poor. This is why we don’t remember St. Francis the Environmentalist, but St. Francis the Saint. As we continue down the always interesting and difficult path of human existence on this earth, lets not forget who we are really striving for.