Do You Live an Ethical Life?

By William J. Furney

Leaving the planet better off than you found it is often touted as one of the general aims and purposes of humankind. But much like heady New Year’s resolutions, it’s a lofty aspiration that is generally falling flat. Because due to excessive human greed and pervasive indifference, Earth is in a worse state since we as a species set foot on it, and is predicted to become ever-more imperilled due to rapacious human activities. 

We’ve only been around for roughly 0.0066% of Earth’s 4.54 billion years, since modern humans (not earlier hominid species) first appeared on this tiny blue dot lost in the vast expanse of the universe a mere 300,000 years ago. As we’ve gotten ever-smarter and more intelligent, evolving into the quick-thinking animals we are today, we’ve laid a path of environmental destruction that grows by the day and threatens not only Earth but also our own existence. 

(All this fiddling around with artificial intelligence might wipe us out anyway, warns researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.)

Surely few people need reminding of the urgent challenges facing our world. They include climate change, with record-high temperatures, melting polar ice caps — a loss of 150 billion tons of Antarctic ice and 270 billion tons of Greenland ice per year, data from NASA satellites reveal — and increasingly ferocious, and deadly, storms. 

We’re destroying natural habitats to make way for human developments and animal farming, leading to a growing loss of biodiversity of animal and plant species. Few places are immune from filthy pollution that affects the air we breathe, water we drink and the soil we grow our crops in, and the planet is stretched to capacity with its new milestone of 8 billion people

Targets scientists have set to try arrest the loss of biodiversity most likely won’t be met due to the sheer scale at which climate change and loss of habitats is happening, a new study predicts

The problems we collectively face as a species are real and urgent but also so overwhelming and have gotten so out of hand that they seem insurmountable and we don’t really want to know about them. They’re someone else’s problem — the government’s, the United Nations, all those environmental groups and animal campaigners. No, it’s just not for us. We will keep on consuming to the detriment of the planet; we won’t change our ways; we will, effectively, bury our heads, ostrich-like, in the sand, because we do not want to know that everything around us is coming crashing down. 

It’s this shared failure to take personal responsibility for our home that’s our ultimate downfall. 

I’ve been reading Peter Singer’s groundbreaking work Animal Liberation, following an interview I did with the Australian philosopher who’s considered the father of the animal-rights movement, owing to the 1975 book, and it’s a mind-opening work. Peter, like me, is vegan and, also like me, is aghast at the cruelty meted out to animals, in unnecessary farming and slaughtering them for food. 

Singer, who is professor of bioethics at Princeton University, is primarily concerned with the ethics of how we treat other animals and points to the hypocrisy of people who say they “love animals” while petting a cute dog but then tucking into a hearty steak dinner.  

“To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet, and the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbours not to sell their houses to blacks,” he writes in Animal Liberation. 

I had contacted Singer regarding support he had given to a campaign against the establishment of an octopus farm in Spain’s Gran Canaria island (in which I am involved). More than 110 animal rights groups around the world are taking part in a second international protest against the proposed farm this Sunday. I will be participating, as I did last time, yet people I speak to about the campaign say it’s nuts and just don’t care. 

Others love to devour the mollusc, whether in a tapa, sushi or anything else. So it’s an uphill battle, but one worth fighting, for the fundamental and overarchingly ethical reason that octopuses are sentient, intelligent creatures that deserve a life free of cruelty and should enjoy their lives as much as we do; they should not be people palate pleasers.  

I had dinner at my favourite Tandoori during Easter, with an acquaintance from Holland, a weak-minded man who immediately opted for a lamb dish and could not get his head around my vegan “diet”. It’s not a diet but a lifestyle, and an ethical one at that — not just for animals but the environment and health too. 

My dinner date, reeling from a series of professional and personal disasters, declared his dead-animal curry delicious and invited me, who was enjoying a spicy lentil curry, to try. He wasn’t kidding. I declined. 

“At least taste the sauce!” 

“No, thanks” (it’s contaminated). 

The bill could not come soon enough. 

“As you’re from Holland,” I suggested, “shall we go Dutch?” (I really didn’t fancy paying for his slaughtered lamb, another beautiful, sentient creature whose life was snapped away to stuff a human stomach.) 

“It’s called Dutch Treat in Holland,” he said, and then declined to cough up his half. 

My colleague and friend Danny told me this week that when he changed his diet to vegan, “half my mates stopped talking to me. I can’t lose the other half”, meaning he’s careful how he broaches the subject with them, if at all.  

On Earth Day this Saturday, we are reminded of the fragility of our surroundings, and how we need to examine how we treat our environment and the flora and fauna that live in it. It’s a day when we should also consider our levels of consumption and the impact it has, whether it’s directly contributing to pollution or leaving a heavy carbon footprint, like the hazardous meat and dairy industries. 

Each of us has a part to play in helping our planet, and ourselves, to survive. Something as seemingly simple as forgoing plastic as much as possible and, potentially more challenging, giving up meat and dairy and switching to a sustainable plant-based diet can have enormous ripple effects. 

It’s no longer good enough, or acceptable, to go around telling people you “love animals” and then heap your dinner plate full of their carcases — we cannot be selective about which animals deserve our love and which are destined for a life of slavery, cruelty and our overburdened guts. 

As Singer writes in Animal Liberation: “We are, quite literally, gambling with the future of our planet- for the sake of hamburgers.”

  • Title image is Earthrise, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, from the Moon. (Credit: NASA)

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