Bangkok, 5 October 2015
For reasons too long to explain, I was recently involved in discussions about the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the several Conventions emanating from that Declaration: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, for instance, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to name but two. At some point, we got into a vivacious discussion about two issues. The first was the rights of future generations: specifically, do we, today’s generations, have the right to use up all the Earth’s resources and poison the Planet, thus taking away from future generations their right to a dignified life? The answer was fuzzy, the problem being that the Conventions deal only with the rights of existing human beings; the unborn, it would seem, have no rights. But how do we square this with international commitments to sustainable development, whose very definition recognizes the rights of future generations? This conundrum was left unresolved. The second, and to my mind much more fundamental, issue we discussed was the rights of other species: do they have any rights, or are they merely goods and chattel which we humans can dispose of as we wish? The answer was even fuzzier, with the sense in the room being that they did not (yet) have internationally recognized rights, although many countries have enacted legislation recognizing that other species do have certain rights – the prohibitions on cruelty to animals fall into this category.
Fast forward to the visit my wife and I made to the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the Sun Bear Sanctuary in Sepilok, on the last day of our visit to Sabah. Both centres receive a steady stream of orphaned baby apes and bear cubs, whose mothers were either killed deliberately to make pets of their babies or died as a side effect of the steady deforestation going on in this part of the world. They also receive adult bears and apes marooned in vanishing islands of jungle. They do stirling work of trying to reinsert their charges back into the wild, or at least giving them a life of dignity if they cannot go back. They, along with the many other rehabilitation centres around the world doing the same thing with other species, deserve our thanks for this work of love.
But as I sat there, listening to what these centres do and watching their charges on the feeding platforms
or sunning themselves in enclosures
I was brought to meditate on that essential question which I had recently debated: do other species have rights, like we do? Specifically, do they have the right to life? Personally, I think they do. Of course, this right, like every right, is not absolute. I mean, if a lion jumps on me, or my wife, or my kids, then I have a right to kill that lion (as I do if it were a member of our own species who attacked us). And to eat, I need to kill species, that’s the way our biology works. This holds true even if I were vegan (carrots, just to take one vegetable, are also a species and so have the same rights as a chicken).
We could go on at length about how rights play out in real life: how about this situation? how about that situation? But the thing is, accepting that other species have rights changes the context of the discussion radically. Just to take the right to life, it’s no longer that it would be nice if we didn’t kill orang utans or sun bears, it’s that we have a duty not to kill them. And if that is the case, then we have to ask ourselves if the people of Sabah have the right, for instance, to undertake large-scale destruction of the orang utan’s and sun bear’s habitat so as to be able to plant oil palm in its place.
But this brings us on a collision course with another right, the right of the people of Sabah “to an adequate standard of living … and to the continuous improvement of living conditions” (I am quoting the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). Is there a way out? Yes there is, at two levels. First, Sabah has to change its model of economic development; the province’s natural habitat must be viewed as an economic asset and not as a nuisance to be swept aside to make place for other economic activities. Sustainable (but truly sustainable) tourism is one possible way of making money from jungle. Sustainable (but truly sustainable) harvesting of forest products is another. Second, and much more fundamentally, Sabah, like just about every other territory on Earth, has to drastically reduce its human population. There are simply too many of us on this planet. I find the following graph one of the most frightening I know.
It shows the growth in the human population over the last nine thousand years. Note the huge, and hugely rapid, jump in our population since the start of the scientific and industrial revolutions (you have to see it on this scale because this is closer to the scales at which evolution works). The result of this growth has been that we are brutally shoving all the other species on this planet into a corner, a corner which is getting rapidly smaller and smaller. They cannot survive these huge shocks to their ecosystems. At this point, then, the right to life of other species trumps our right to create new human life. Many have criticized the Chinese Government for its one-child policy. But not me. We should all have one-child policies until the human population falls to much more acceptable levels, not more than 1 billion (and better 500 million). Yes, we will have old populations. Yes, we will have a problem of spoiled children, the princelings as the Chinese call them. Yes, we will have deflationary economies. Yes, house prices will drop. But our duty to respect the right to life of all species tells us that these are problems we simply have to accept and deal with.
I suppose I’m not painting a pretty picture of our immediate future, but I think it’s better for our species to suffer a little for a little while in the quest for a longer-term happiness than to go on as we are currently doing, destroying everything, which will ultimately destroy us too – because we actually need jungles and all the species in it for our own survival.
Orang utan at rehabilitation centre: https://sabahbooking.com/tours?actionType=details&tid=20&lang=zh_CN
Borneo bear: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sepilok_Sabah_BSBCC-photos-by-Wong-Siew-Te-02.jpg
Population chart: http://aryanism.net/politics/population-and-demographics/