– A SEMINAR ORGANISED BY THE CENTRE FOR ANIMALS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
Anne and I took part in a very illuminating conference today, Leicester … a collection of lectures on ” Wildlife Conservation, Animal Welfare and Public Policy”.
The purpose was to explore ideas on how to improve the protection of animals … mainly wild animals, and I was asked to contribute an opening … an introductory address. This was my text. – see below :
We found the day educational and inspiring.
For those who are interested, here is the agenda for the day.
Much of the discussion centred around the whole question of Bovine Tuberculosis in Cows, its history, and the government’s present intent to kill thousands of badgers in an attempt to control the disease. But many other topics were debated, including fox hunting, badger baiting, and other blood sports, the treatment of Elephants in Thailand, and the present state of wildlife law.
We will be writing up our notes, and we’ll share our thoughts as time goes on.
Onwards! Towards a civilised society – no – not a callous BIG society, thank you very much!
CASJ (Centre for Animals and Social Justice)
Seminar: Wildlife Conservation, Animal Welfare and Public Policy
Thursday 19th April 2012, Stamford Hall, University of Leicester.
Thank you, Dr Alasdair Cochrane. And thank you Dr Dan Lyons, my esteemed friend, for inviting me to speak.
I’m honoured to have been asked to open this very important seminar. It’s interesting for me that we are in Leicester. This is the home of our illustrious Queen bass-player John Deacon – pause for applause – , but also the place where I got into trouble in the very beginnings of the Save-Me Campaign. I crossed swords with a local councillor who had been advocating fox-hunting. He insulted me in the Press, accusing me of ignorance because I used a guitar instead of a ploughshare, judged me unworthy to comment on country matters. And, in one of the very few spontaneous moments of trading insults in my life, I called him a Snivelling Little Dweeb, on my website. This one comment got the Save Me campaign more publicity than anything in that whole period … and perhaps helped in a small way towards stopping David Cameron being voted directly into power – and preventing him from being immediately able to fulfil his promise of reintroducing blood sports. I couldn’t remember the name of the Leicester councillor on the way up here, but I was able to just Google ‘Snivelling little Dweeb’ and up he came ! I’d just like to say – my apologies if I was a little too blunt, and thank you for advancing the cause of animal welfare!
Presumably he is still having fun chasing and tearing apart real or imaginary foxes with hungry dogs – who knows. But for now I’d like to bury the hatchet.
Looking around, I can sense that every one of us here is part of this initiative because we woke up at some point in our life … to the realization that there is something terribly wrong with our country, with our world. And it is to do with our perceptions of why we are here, and what the significance of LIFE really is. It’s to do with what place we see ourselves occupying as animals, in a world with so many different kinds of other animals. It’s to do with something we can call Anthropocentrism. Let me explain.
I’m a musician, but I’m also an astronomer. My doctorate is not in biology but in astrophysics. This gives me an unusual perspective. In Ancient Greece, a thinker called Ptolemy came up with a theory of how the Universe is constructed. In his system, the Earth was the Centre of the Universe. Around it circled the other heavenly bodies … the Moon, the Sun and all the planets (though he had to come up with a very fancy system of ‘epicycles’ to explain their erratic movements in our skies) and of course … all the stars too. This meant that Man was at the centre of the Universe too – a comforting thought, perhaps, and something that religions, including Christianity, found very appealing. But once lenses were invented, enabling us to look more closely at the night sky, it became evident that the Ptolemaic system was completely wrong; and of course it was Galileo, observing the four large moons of Jupiter in his tiny telescope, who had the brilliant insight that they were in orbits around Jupiter. He realized that this blew apart Ptolemy’s whole scheme. And he perceived that it was much easier to explain the movements of the planets if one assumed that they circled the Sun rather than the Earth.
So – suddenly – the sobering secret was out … the Earth was NOT the centre of the Solar System. As Astronomy has developed over the last 200 years, we have discovered the rather shocking truth that not only is the Earth nothing more than a mere satellite of the Sun – but the Sun also is not the centre of our galaxy – it lives in a thinly populated suburb … thousands of light years from the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy. And it gets worse. Our Galaxy is NOT the centre of creation either … but just one of billions of galaxies of all shapes and sizes scattered throughout the known Universe.
In short … the Earth has been relegated to a microscopic corner, and really nobody now thinks it is central in any way.
But somehow, in spite of the findings of a man called Darwin, our perception of ourselves – of MAN in all this, has not caught up. For some reason, in spite of the lack of any kind of evidence, the notion is still abroad that MAN is the central species, the most important species – the ONLY species that matters. The Human animal developed the power of speech, and this led to his ability to dominate the planet. He has used this ability to increase his numbers in an alarming way, to a point where Humans now consume vastly more than their fair share of the Earth’s bounties. Man, in his ignorance, has managed to push all the other mammals – his closest relatives, on the land, to the point of either extinction or total subjugation; he has all but destroyed the habitat of the birds, the fishes in the sea, and the reptiles who used to populate the borders between land and water. Only the insect world continues to rival Man’s domination.
What gives us the right to abuse and destroy the creatures with whom we were put on this Earth? People still come up with words like ‘Man – the pinnacle of evolution’ – as if we were in some way special because of our very survival. But, after millions of years of evolution, logically all the species on this planet are the pinnacle of evolution – perfectly adapted to a world in which they have earned the right to live and procreate.
We – attending this seminar – are all here because we have seen the light. We realize that all creatures are special. Not just all species, but every individual of every species. It’s not enough to talk ecology, and conservation of populations – we need to look at the welfare of every creature to decide which of our actions are morally acceptable.
I, like all who speak today, have to be conscious that we are, within these walls, speaking to the converted … . What we are doing is not debating whether it is RIGHT to change the way we treat animals, but how … in the world outside, we can be heard, and understood by the non-converted, and how we can make the changes which MUST be made if our grandchildren will even have the chance to continue the debate … because soon there may BE no wild animals out there to talk about.
In 2012, animals everywhere are in chains. Our fight for their right to a decent life and a decent death, is very analogous the fight which William Wilberforce engaged in, two hundred years ago to make human slavery a thing of the past. He was reviled, laughed at, for his beliefs – told that the world just could not work without slavery … just as we are told today that the world cannot turn without animal farming, without animal experimentation, and without ‘controlling’ (for which read ‘killing’) wild animals. It’s not very well known that Wilberforce was a passionate campaigner for the decent treatment of animals too … an amazing man.
In my own campaign for the welfare of British wild animals, I have been greatly inspired by Virginia McKenna, who, through her Born Free campaign, has managed to educate – to convince the majority of the English speaking world that it is no longer cool to go out and shoot wild animals in Africa. In Save-Me we have the job of extending this enlightened view to BRITISH wild animals – to wake up a nation of supposed animal-lovers to the realization that we, too, are privileged to have magnificent wild creatures around us, who must remain free, and must be recognized as having legitimate needs in order to raise their families, free from persecution. We hold it self-evident that all creatures are worthy of respect. So we fight against the awful cruelty of Badger Baiting and Dog fighting, against Mr Cameron’s determination to bring back the hideous blood sports of fox-hunting, hare coursing, and hunting stags with dogs, and we work to try to stop the morally unjustifiable slaughter of thousands of mainly heallthy badgers by a government, which it’s increasingly obvious is under the virtual control of Farming interests.
Today we will hear from eminent speakers on 3 aspects of Animal Welfare. These are the main aims of this conference.
1) to look at how humans affect animals – either indirectly through the way we affect climate change and bring about loss of habitat, or directly through neglect or abuse.
2) to consider the ethics of this impact on animals.
3) to try to understand why severe harms are inflicted on animals when there seems to be no reasonable justification, and what solutions there might be to end such injustice.
Science is increasingly providing the hard evidence, if it were needed, of sentience, emotion and cognition in animals – confirming the fairly obvious truth that animals feel pleasure and pain very much as we do. And science has helped quantify the devastating harms we have caused to animals. But science is not without its blind spots too, since so much pain has been inflicted on innocent animals in the name of science.
Ethics has progressed to the point where, at least, it is almost universally accepted that – in principle – the infliction of pain on other sentient animals is a serious moral issue. This seminar is an essential reminder that ‘Nature’ or ‘Planet Earth’ isn’t simply a set of systems that function solely for the benefit of our species.
Yet, humanity’s impact stretches to every corner of the world. Even the most remote areas of wilderness – and their animal inhabitants – are now affected by our pollution, despite our species being a relative latecomer to the animal kingdom. The Arctic now stands on the precipice of incalculable damage as nations and oil companies compete to carve it up to exploit its minerals, for profit.
Last year I contributed a talk to STARMUS, an astronomy conference that was celebrating humanity’s efforts to explore space. To a lecture theatre packed with astronauts, I had the temerity to ask … What are we doing in Space? Are we worthy to take our seed into the wider Universe? Are we justified in trying to extend our behaviour – our wars, our pollution, our cruelty to each other, and our wanton destruction of every other species, out into other worlds? Do we deserve to go off and populate other planets when we have effectively trashed this one? And, supposing we found the other life-forms we seek, out there, how would we treat them? – and how would they treat us if they had the power to do as they wish; would we not be outraged if they treated us in the way we have treated the whales, the orangutans, the badgers, the wolves, the fish, etc?
I was very nervous, as you can imagine, delivering this message amongst all the enthusiasm for space travel in that conference room. But I was well received by the astronauts, and I will be eternally proud that Neil Armstrong himself cited me in his closing address. Armstong, who forever will be the first man to step on another world – the Moon – cares, passionately. He is one of us.
But it is the third aim which provides the main focus for both this seminar and the work of the new Centre for Animals and Social Justice. This involves trying to understand why it is that humans are cruel. It’s about power and inequality – for example, how does commercial self-interest manage to have more influence on law and public policy than ethical principles and public opinion? What is the role of privilege in perpetuating legalised antisocial behaviour? Why is tradition regarded as a justification for cruelty? What psychological need is fulfilled by causing pain to a defenceless animal?
If we are to make headway in bringing about a compassionate, decent society, it is vital to engage with these questions of power and politics – and psychology.
The participants in today’s seminar represent some of the pioneers of the politics of animal protection. There can be few areas of academic endeavour that are more important to our future, and whose impact on the world is more needed.
We need to look at the way national and international bodies, their membership, remit and powers currently function. Governments, hopefully, work towards goals such as equality, the eradication of poverty, and the protection of the environment. But if there are no targets to improve animal protection, and animal welfare isn’t directly incorporated as a factor in assessing various policy options, we can safely assume there is a lack of official value placed on the welfare and lives of other animals. I believe this is an immediate indictment of our present government … which, bafflingly, claims to be the Greenest government ever, yet resists all attempts to implement safeguards against cruelty to animals, whether it be the location of cameras in abattoirs, the protection of foxes and badgers against persecution, or even the simple ban of the use of wild animals in circuses. This reluctance also indicates a lack of understanding of a fact of which the FBI is very cognisant – that animal abuse is directly linked to abuse of children, plus various other antisocial behaviours. In fact it has been shown that levels of abuse to animals are a perfect barometer – an indicator of how far levels of civilisation have slipped in any community. A policy of zero tolerance to animal cruelty is a necessary starting point in the quest for law and order, and civilisation. Ghandi said: You can measure the humanity of a society by the way they treat their animals”. Looking around us, it seems to be true. All the ‘good people’ in the world seem to be the ones who care about animals.
It was recently revealed that a donation of a quarter of a million pounds to the Conservative party will buy you lunch with the PM. It’s hardly necessary to point out the massive divide between ethical principles and an often cynical political system – a system dominated by career-conscious professional politicians, with no experience of the normal life of the man in the street, and little regard for honesty, compassion, or ethics.
How can we expect a house of commons filled with such ambitious people to deliver a decent society?
Change is what we need. A wind of change. We need a massive change, and such things are hard to bring about. But not impossible.
None of us believe that we will achieve all the changes we need just as a result of this conference. But we can sow seeds. We can be part of accelerating a new awareness, which in time, will do for animals what Wilberforce did for human slaves. We, assembled here, are all about freeing the rest of creation from slavery.
Forgive me if you’ve heard this story, it may be very simple, but it still moves me and motivates me when I get despondent.
THE STARFISH STORY
There’s a little girl on the beach, surrounded by hundreds of starfish that have been washed up from the sea, rapidly drying out in the hot sun, and dying. A man come up to her and smiles condescendingly, and says, “This is very touching, little girl, but I’m afraid you’re wasting your time. There are hundreds of these creatures – surely you can’t imagine that you can save them all? The little carefully picks up a starfish, and throws it back into the water. She says, “I saved that one!”