March 10th, 2014

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated” Mahatma Gandhi said many years ago.

Somewhere between this observation and the sustainability debate in recent years, it has gone wrong. If we look at the many sustainability indicators that have been developed over the years, it is striking to see that animal-wellbeing hardly plays a role. Biodiversity and ecosystems indicators put more emphasis on the number and variety of different species than their well-being. Assuming that the words of Gandhi make sense, can we then conclude that the concept of sustainability has nothing to do with civilization? Or is it that animal-wellbeing is a blind spot in the sustainability debate?

Of course is our interaction with the environment, other people and other animals part of our civilization. The reason that ‘animals’ and ‘sustainability’ are not often mentioned together in one sentence is likely to be found in the fact that the sustainability debate has been hijacked in recent years by industry and governments. Their view regarding sustainable development significantly has been subordinate to the dogma of economic growth with little regard for animal welfare. How shortsighted this is, has been illustrated by the various outbreaks of animal diseases in intensive farming, and the development of antibiotic resistance of many pathogens because our cattle are given too many antibiotics. These are just some examples, but it is increasingly clear that our own well-being is closely connected with the welfare of the animals with whom we live.

Take pets, for example. Research shows that people with a pet are in general healthier than non-pet owners. Pets also increase the capacity for empathy and social contacts among children (which are useful characteristics for a healthy and happy life). Furthermore, people who are heavily involved in animal welfare appear to have more compassion for the problems of people. Of course, this supposes a good care of the (domestic) animal. Keeping animals just because it’s (temporary) fun / useful / convenient for us, of course, is not always the most sustainable course of action. We all know stories of neglected pets.

Animal welfare should therefore be central in the sustainability debate: sustanimalism. With this in mind, it is also practical and easy to make a contribution to a sustainable society. Acting animal-friendly – for example, taking good care of your animals and eating less meat – is not only beneficial to your health, but also to a better and more civilized world.

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