Month: December 2006

Elephants Have Equal Value to Humans, India Court Rules

India has a strange relationship with animals. On one hand, an Indian high court has ruled that an elephant is a “living creature equivalent to a human being.” On the other hand, the £6,850 in compensation for her death by automobile was awarded to the Indian that owned Babli the elephant and used her to support his family by providing scenic tours through Jaipur to as a professional mahout.

Note that, unlike most U.S. stories about animals, nowhere in the article is Babli referred to as “it.”

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My response to Heifer International

Note: I tried posting this in the comments at Inspired Protagonist, but was experiencing grave technical errors that prevented me from doing so. I have modified my opening for this post to reflect that it is being posted at AAFL instead.

I’d like to thank Geoff for inviting me over to The Inspired Protagonist to chime in on Mr. White’s response to my original entry. I’d also like to thank readers who have taken the time to share their thoughts there in the comments section.

I am, frankly, a little concerned that my post may not have been well-read, but was rather reacted to as a generic critique of Heifer International. I infer this because a number of my points are either avoided or simply missed by Mr. White in formulating his response.

Anyone that takes the time to read my post can see quite plainly that a) I’m male (Hi, my name is Eric), b) I do propose alternatives, and c) I provide a link to support the contention that Heifer International is doing more to pave the way for an animal-based agriculture in the developing world than merely providing “livestock” and skills to people in need.

The reason Mr. White and I may not find common ground, despite Geoff’s request that we try to do so, is that Heifer International at its very core considers animals to be livestock, meant for our use, whereas animal rights philosophy, in finding that animals exist for their own purposes, considers the common view of animals inherently unjust.

I mentioned that this philosophy can be somewhat more problematic when advocating in developing countries, as often people square off animal rights against human rights in a false dichotomy. But Mr. White seems to have misunderstood my meaning. I never called people who believe animals are less important than humans “fanatic.” Such a view is, of course, the dominant paradigm of our time.

I merely lamented that, when attempting to espouse animal rights when humans are suffering, people who still see nonhuman animals as things instead of individuals generally argue that humans are more important than nonhumans, rather than seeing that one need not pit the two against one another. One can help humans without harming animals. My point in identifying the common (often knee-jerk) response against animal rights in this arena was to point out that, so far, this sort of third-way thinking has been sadly absent.

Unfortunately, the same mindset that pits animals against humans highlights the very same deep-seated beliefs that Heifer International espouses, namely that animals are ours do with as we please.

But the power and strength to subdue animals and bend them to our will does not make it right to do so. We are a powerful and intelligent species, it’s true. And that is why it is ever more incumbent upon us to find ways not to exploit animals, and to implement compassionate alternatives.

Beyond the philosophical reasons, there are still numerous concrete objections to the use of animals in agriculture, even at this small scale. Mr. White seems to have missed my observation that helping out at this level provides a foundation for the growth of livestock industries in these areas in the future (he’s being disingenuous if he suggests that profit-challenged industries aren’t salivating over the potential to exploit developing economies as Europe and the U.S. become less desirable places to raise and slaughter animals). In other words, contributing to Heifer International now lays the foundation for a society that views animal flesh as a commodity and, as that society grows, so will its flesh consumption, along with all the negative environmental, health, and animal issues attendant to modern “animal agriculture.”

Again, because Mr. White seems to have missed it, I also originally suggested a number of alternatives, including giving to Food for Life or VegFam and reclaiming the deserts. In fact, a number of projects have already done this quite successfully, and you can see links to just a small handful of these in my original post as well (Here’s an additional permaculture website).

Remember that, despite the fact that we may not eat exactly the same food, nonhumans drink the same water as humans, and contribute to desertification. Even in our own country the aquifers are being drained at an alarming rate, with a substantial portion of that water going to “domesticated” nonhumans and the food they eat. Why put all those resources into animals, when they are not an energy efficient source of nutrition for humans? It’s rather well known these days that the lower you eat on the “food chain,” the more efficient and sustainable your diet is.

Bearing all this in mind, I’d suggest that Heifer International promotes reliance on livestock, rather than self-reliance. That is a dangerous position to place people whom you’re trying to help become self-sufficient and to grow into a prosperous society in the long-term.

If anything, developing countries offer people that want to help an opportunity to take the lessons we’ve learned in our own cultures to help others grow in ways that are truly sustainable, from the ground up. That means not hooking them on the animal-based agriculture that–with its contributions to global warming emissions, deforestation, and competition for resources–threatens the very survival of the planet we all share.

Heifer International responds

I don’t think Heifer International’s Ray White is a very careful reader…

It says right at the top of my recent post in response to Seventh Generation’s giving recommendations that my name is Eric (I’m male), but maybe that part wasn’t forwarded to him by Seventh Generation?

At any rate, Seventh Generation has picked up on my entry and invited Heifer International to respond at their blog. Unfortunately, the response seems to have missed the fact that I did propose alternatives, and that I referred readers to a piece from Daniel Hammer at Friends of Animals that highlights some of their problematic activities apart from simply sending animals around the world to be used by people and training them how best to exploit them for more “sustainable” and reliable living in poverty-stricken areas.

The argument also misses the fundamental basis for why I object to the gift recommendation in the first place: It reinforces the notion that cows are livestock meant for human consumption, that our ability to dominate them gives us the right to do so, and that our needs outweigh theirs.

Take a look, and please jump on in with both feet to respond if you have something valuable to contribute. I know that I could not have been as comprehensive as possible, though I’m glad Mr. White feels that my original response “is the most reasonable-sounding objection to our work from the animal-rights position I have ever seen,” but perhaps he needs to hear more, because he seems to have glossed over some important details in my original post when writing his bit of PR for the Inspired Protagonist blog.

Seventh Generation recommends giving livestock as a holiday gift to relieve hunger

Seventh Generation has suggested its environmentally-concerned customers contribute to Heifer International, an organization that is deeply problematic for many reasons.

You may want to write to Seventh Generation asking the company to remove Heifer International from their list of ways to make a difference, and to choose a more sustainable and animal-friendly alternative to help people in the developing world, like Food For Life or VegFam.

Refer the company to Global Hunger Alliance, a site that lays out the inefficiencies and inequities of the types of animal production Heifer International is truly concerned about. It would be nice if Seventh Generation would recognize that we should not be increasing the number of mouths to feed on this planet.

I do want to take a moment to address this issue philosophically. There is no area more fraught with trouble for animal activists and vegans than the developing world, where those with plenty are often seen as dictating food choices and values and not understanding the needs and concerns of local peoples.

For instance, in the developing world and especially areas of extreme poverty, animals are seen as far more valuable and reliable than plant agriculture, to the point that they are seen as currency. This is particularly true in climates where droughts are common, and plant-based agriculture is not well-developed (though one questions why modern science hasn’t made efforts to reclaim this land).

But the FAO, while acknowledging the detrimental impact of livestock on the environment, states the following:

the livestock sector is socially and politically very significant in developing countries: it provides food and income for one billion of the world’s poor, especially in dry areas, where livestock are often the only source of livelihoods. “Since livestock production is an expression of the poverty of people who have no other options,” FAO says, “the huge number of people involved in livestock for lack of alternatives, particularly in Africa and Asia, is a major consideration for policy makers.”

(italics mine)

Everything I’ve ever read about trying to address animal concerns in those climates has demonstrated an uphill battle for animal advocates, usually with well-meaning people arguing that the activists care more about animals than people, and they often take an intractable position once they’ve made up their minds about that.

I do have difficulty understanding why they are so resistant to the notion that one can help both non-humans and humans at the same time.

I agree with HI’s stated goals, that our humanitarian aid should increase self-sufficiency, rather than relying on handouts to fight hunger, teaching techniques for working with one’s environment, and inspiring self-reliance, but one can do this without exploiting animals or taxing the environment. Granted, on a small scale, the environmental impact is geared to be positive, but the ultimate goal of organizations like HI — with which I emphatically do not agree — is to create large markets for livestock around the world, which leads inevitably and unsustainably to factory farming.

We need not support animal exploitation while helping people, whether we want to support vegan hunger relief organizations like Food For Life, desert reclamation projects, or other ingenuous innovations, and Seventh Generation could be an important part of that, with our encouragement.

The online form to contact Seventh Generation is meant for questions, even though it allows for comments, and they require you to choose options to help them route your question, none of which really suit comments related to their giving list. You may want to mail a hard copy, call, or fax the company at:

Seventh Generation, Inc.
60 Lake Street
Burlington, VT 05401-5218
802-658-3773
802-658-1771 (fax)
800-456-1191 (toll free)