A celebration of World Animal Day 2016: “It is too late to be pessimistic”

Animals are "in." There is incredible global interest in the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of animals and in how we choose to interact with them in a wide variety of venues.

When I previously read the manuscript for Matthieu Ricard's latest book called A Plea for the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion I simply couldn't put it down (please see Note 1 for a brief biographical sketch). And, now that I have the published book in hand, I still can't put it down. When I have time I can't wait to pick it up again. 

A Plea for the Animals is a gem. Ever single page has many words of wisdom and the overall message is one of unfettered optimism. It is a wonderful way to celebrate World Animal Day 2016. 

With permission of Matthieu Ricard
Source: With permission of Matthieu Ricard

"Every cow just wants to be happy. Every chicken just wants to be free. Every bear, dog, or mouse experiences sorrow and feels pain as intensely as any of us humans do".

The description for A Plea for the Animals reads:

A powerful and wide-ranging indictment of the treatment of animals by humans--and an eloquent plea for animal rights.

Every cow just wants to be happy. Every chicken just wants to be free. Every bear, dog, or mouse experiences sorrow and feels pain as intensely as any of us humans do. In a compelling appeal to reason and human kindness, Matthieu Ricard here takes the arguments from his best-sellers Altruism and Happiness to their logical conclusion: that compassion toward all beings, including our fellow animals, is a moral obligation and the direction toward which any enlightened society must aspire. He chronicles the appalling sufferings of the animals we eat, wear, and use for adornment or “entertainment,” and submits every traditional justification for their exploitation to scientific evidence and moral scrutiny. What arises is an unambiguous and powerful ethical imperative for treating all of the animals with whom we share this planet with respect and compassion.

My endorsement for this outstanding book reads as follows:

A Plea for the Animals is an outstanding and well-referenced book that surely will make a difference for the billions of nonhumans who routinely suffer globally at the hands of humans, be it in slaughterhouses, laboratories, or other captive situations, or in what's left of their natural environs. Matthieu Ricard's heartfelt plea for us to tap into our caring and compassionate selves and to treat other animals with unbounded dignity and respect will go a long way toward inspiring people to see other animals for whom they truly are, to feel for them deeply, and to recognize how they fully depend on us to grant them the ability to be able to live their lives in peace and safety -- to survive and to thrive in an increasingly human-dominated world. By personally rewilding and understanding what other animals want and need, humans will more easily reconnect and become re-enchanted with other animals so that peaceful coexistence becomes a reality, and it will be a win-win for all concerned.

Two others read:

Are animals mere things, here for us to exploit? Or are they rather sentient, often intelligent beings, entitled to live their own lives? Matthieu Ricard examines theological, philosophical and scientific thinking on both sides of the issue and concludes that without doubt we must recognize each animal is an individual deserving of our compassion and respect. A Plea for the Animals is fascinating, instructive and compelling, speaking to us on both an intellectual and emotional level.   —Jane Goodall

A Plea for the Animals continues and completes the wonderful work Matthieu Ricard did in his Altruism, drawing on science and philosophy to show that compassion cannot be limited to members of our own species but must be extended to all beings capable of suffering.  This is a book for everyone who is willing to consider the case for a radical change in the way we treat animals."   —Peter Singer

An interview with Matthieu Ricard

"The perpetuation of the mass killings of animals constitutes a major challenge to the integrity and ethical coherence of human societies"

I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthieu Ricard about his wonderful new book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have, rereading it many times.

With permission of the publisher
Source: With permission of the publisher

Why did you write A Plea for the Animals?

When I was a child my grandmother took me fishing in Brittany and my father took me to see bullfights when we lived in Mexico. When I turned thirteen, I suddenly realized that I had been completely blind because I did not see these things from the perspective of the animals. It became strikingly obvious that, just as I do, animals want to avoid suffering and try their best to remain alive.

I was amazed at my lack of imagination and empathy. From then on, I clearly saw animals as sentient beings who deserve respect as individuals and as our co-citizens on this planet. I became vegetarian and tried my best to cultivate benevolence and compassion to all living beings.

It also became obvious to me that, although we have made immense progress in the realm of human rights, women's rights, the rights of children, and the rights of minorities and the oppressed, there is still a huge gap in our ethics, based on the ways we treat other species.

The rise of civilization means moving from barbarism to humanity, from slavery to individual liberty, from cruelty to respect for others. We are supposed to uphold ethical values. The next logical step, then, is to move from the unlimited exploitation of animals to respect for all sentient beings. The perpetuation of the mass killings of animals constitutes a major challenge to the integrity and ethical coherence of human societies.

How does your newest book build on your life work?

This book is a logical and essential follow-up to my earlier book, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Its purpose is clearly to demonstrate the reasons and the moral imperative that justify extending our altruism to all sentient beings without any quantitative or qualitative limitations.

Certainly there is so much suffering among human beings throughout the world that one could spend one's whole life just trying to alleviate a tiny fraction of it. However, concern for the fate of the 8 million other species who inhabit this planet is neither unrealistic nor misguided because most of the time there is no need to choose between the wellbeing of humans and the wellbeing of animals. We live in an essentially interdependent world where the fate of each being of whatever species is intimately linked to that of all the others. So what we are suggesting here is not concern for animals only, but concern for animals also.

What are your major messages?

One of the strongest messages that emerged from the research I did while writing the book is that we are all losers if we continue to treat other species the way we do.

Animals are the first victims and are killed on a monumental scale: 60 billion land animals and a thousand billion marine animals are killed every year for our consumption. Human activities are going to be responsible for the sixth major extinction of species, the fifth one going back to the dinosaurs. At the current rate, 30% of all species on earth will become extinct by 2050! This is something that will vastly affect future generations, humans included of course.

Meat consumption is vastly higher in rich countries: the average North American eats 120kg of meat every year, as opposed to 3kg for an Indian, 7 to 10 for an African, and 80 for an European. Meat consumption undermines the fight against poverty. Seven hundred and seventy-five million tons of grain and 200 million tons of soy (90 percent of world production), which could be used to feed the inhabitants of the countries where they are grown, are set aside every year to feed the livestock used for meat production in the developed countries.

Meat production is bad for the environment: animal breeding contributes 14.5 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to human activities, making it the second place polluter after construction and before transport.

Finally, many epidemiological studies have clearly shown that the regular consumption of meat is deleterious to human health and significantly increases the risk of premature death.  

Another message is that nothing but false excuses are used to justify the way we treat animals. Some say that we have the right to exploit animals because we are more intelligent than they are, others say that we have to live from something so the exploitation of animals is a necessity, that this is the law of nature, and so on. None of these makes any sense when carefully examined.

Some also claim that God put animals at the disposal of humans. Just imagine what we would think if some extraterrestrial beings came to earth and told us that their God put humans at their disposal for food, for hunting, for harvesting their skin, for using them for recreational purposes, for making them fight each other to death, etc.

One of the silliest arguments I have been confronted with time and again in the French media is that it was indecent to turn our attention to animals in order to improve their lot when so much suffering is being experienced by human beings in Syria, Iraq, the Sudan, and elsewhere.

If devoting a part of our thoughts, words, and actions to the reduction of the unspeakable suffering that we deliberately inflict on animals, our fellow sentient beings, constitutes the sin of taking human suffering too lightly, then what can be said about spending our time listening to popular songs, engaging in sports, or lying on the beach getting a suntan? Do people who spend their time doing these activities suddenly become abominable just because they are not spending all of their time trying to remedy the famine in Somalia or elsewhere?

Is the lot of Syrian people made better by the fact that we kill billions of animals every year throughout the world? It does not take time and costs nothing to simply stop harming someone else, either human or animal.

Benevolence is not a commodity that needs to be distributed sparingly like cake or chocolate. It is a way of being, an attitude, an intention to do good for those who enter our sphere of attention and the wish to alleviate their suffering. Loving animals also does not mean loving humans less. In fact by also loving animals we love people better, because our benevolence is then vaster and therefore of better quality.

No one has ever come with a sound moral argument to vindicate behavior that inflicts unnecessary and unjust suffering to other sentient beings. Take eating meat for instance. According to a study conducted in Australia, when asked why they were keen to continue eating meet, 78% of people surveyed answer “because I just like the taste of it”, 58% because they did not want to change their habits, 44% claimed that humans are made to eat meat, 43% said that it was because the rest of the family eats meat, and 42% because they did not know what else they could cook. None of these reasons bear the slightest moral value.

How do you maintain hope in these challenging times?

As a friend of mine says: “It is too late to be pessimistic”. In this current era one of our main problems consists of reconciling the demands of the economy, the search for happiness, and respect for other humans, for other species and for our environment. These imperatives correspond to three time scales — short, middle, and long term.

Altruism is the only unifying concept that allows us to find our way in this maze of complex preoccupations. If we have more consideration for others, we will move towards a “caring economics”, we will be more concerned with the improvement of working conditions, family and social life, and many other aspects of existence, and we will care more about the fate of future generations, including other species who share this world with us.

Altruism thus seems to be a determining factor of the quality of our existence, now and in the future and should not be relegated to the realm of noble utopian thinking. We must have the perspicacity to acknowledge this and the audacity to say it.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you or your book?

Well, like any of the books I worked on, I tried my very best to combine serious scientific research, fundamental human values — altruism and compassion first of all — and logical reasoning. Of course, one can always do better and work longer on a book, but I did what I could, trying to maintain intellectual honesty.

What are your current projects?

For those who claim that people who care for the fate of animals tend to neglect the fate of human beings, I am happy to answer that the humanitarian organization I founded 17 years ago, Karuna-Shechen, has served 400,000 people in 2015, providing health and social services as well as education to under-served population in Nepal, northern-India and Tibet. We now have accomplished over 200 projects in these areas.

Besides that, the book published in France in 2016, Three Friends in Quest of Wisdom, based on a 10-day conversation I had with a French psychiatrist and a handicapped Swiss philosopher will soon be translated in English. Next year, another book, based on conversations held over eight years with a neuroscientist, Wolf Singer, Beyond the Self will be published. I am also slowly preparing another book of photography Half a Century in the Himalayas. This being said, I also deeply aspire to go back to live quietly in the mountains! Thank you!

The importance of treating every individual animal with respect and dignity: Personal rewilding as a spiritual transformation 

And thank you dear Matthieu. It's rare when I can't say something more about a book that has deeply touched my heart. But, I can't. So much of what Matthieu Ricard writes in A Plea for the Animals resonates with my own ideas about personal rewilding as a spiritual transformation and sociocultural meme, about which I wrote in Rewilding Our Hearts (please also see "A Rewilding Manifesto: Compassion, Biophilia, and Hope"). 

My humble suggestion is to read this book, read it again, share it with as many people as you can, and live its message of treasuring the lives of each and every other animal and treating every individual with respect and dignity. A Plea for the Animals is a game-changer.

It is, indeed, too late to be pessimistic, and everyone can make a positive difference for the nonhuman animals who depend on us for their very lives. 

Note 1: For those who don't know of Matthieu Ricard, his biography reads as follows: Matthieu Ricard received a PhD in molecular genetics from the Pasteur Institute in 1972 before departing his native France to study Buddhism in the Himalayas, eventually becoming a monk of the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal. Renowned also as a photographer and translator, he is the author of numerous previous books, including Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and Your WorldHappiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, and, with his father, the late Jean-François Revel, The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life. He dedicates all the income of his work to two hundred humanitarian projects run in the Himalaya by the organization he founded, Karuna-Shechen.

Note 2: My last essay titled "The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals" calls for researchers themselves to step in and reclassify rats, mice, and other animals as the sentient beings they truly are. I strongly recommend this book to all of them. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.

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