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Illustration by Alessia Piacitelli.

We Care About the Environment for the Wrong Reasons

On our never-ending quest to preserve the environment, we forget who we are really trying to save: sentient life.

Trigger warning: This piece contains descriptions of animal abuse.
It is self-evident that the environment has no value in and of itself but only insofar as it benefits us. Still, because of the way language works, we often speak of the natural world as being a concrete entity, almost in the same way as you or me. "Don't litter," we say, "it hurts the environment!" "Introducing an invasive species is bad for the local ecosystem!" We keep calling the Amazon rainforest "the lungs of our planet" – which is not entirely accurate.
To be clear, it is bad to litter and you shouldn't abandon house cats in random forests. But anthropomorphizing the environment, while mostly harmless, does make us forget the reason why we should actually preserve it. Why is it bad to litter? Not because it's bad for the environment, but because it's bad for us – and by us, I mean all the residents of planet Earth.
Would we really care about how clean the oceans were if there weren't any turtles or dolphins choking on plastic bottles? Or about how polluted our air is were it not for the fact that so many people are dying from it? Without sentient life, the environment has no value, precisely because there's no sentient life to appreciate it.
To illustrate this, perhaps a bit grimly, picture in your mind a puppy mill (or even better, check one out here. In a dark basement somewhere, rows of cages with barely enough space for one puppy host five to seven dogs each. The crampedness of these cages, combined with the lack of hygiene — as the animals are forced to eat and sleep right next to their own defecations — cause very high levels of stress and a variety of physical illnesses. Select female dogs are forced to undergo painful artificial insemination in order to ensure a constant supply of new younglings.
The puppies have no sense of time, as day and night blur into each other under the constant hum of the artificial lighting. They have no idea about when, if ever, their torment will end. The worst part? They don’t have to suffer like this. The owner of the puppy mill just reasoned that this was the cheapest, most efficient way to raise highly-sought breeds. And as long as people kept buying puppies from this place, he had no reason to stop. In fact, it is so lucrative that the owner of the puppy mill has recently decided to use his hard-earned money to buy a bigger yacht to throw parties for his rich friends.
Suppose that, after learning all of this, you are justifiably horrified by the amount of suffering that is going on just so that people can have a cute little domestic animal. You want to campaign and protest against it, so you reach out to your friend to see if they can help you. "We should ban all puppy mills! Have you seen what happens inside one? This can't go on!" Promptly, they reply: "I wholeheartedly agree! Have you seen the column of smoke that comes up from it? Those fumes are destroying our environment!"
Yeah, sure, the environment. That's why we should close it down.
Imagine, then, that amidst this terrible situation, one of the puppies was born with a degenerative disease that disfigures it completely. It is absolutely unsellable. Having no moral scruples, its owner decides to strangle the diseased puppy to death and serve it to his rich friends as a prank. To his surprise, they absolutely love it. Even when he comes clean about the joke, his friends demand more and more of the strangled dog meat. At one point, this daring entrepreneur decides the business of selling dog meat is much more lucrative than selling them to pet owners. The business really takes off and while selling his luxury brand of strangled puppy meat, he starts experimenting with killing different animals. Pretty soon every restaurant in the world is selling his premium dog meat, together with beef, chicken and pork.
If you haven't gotten the point of this yet, what I'm saying is there is no real difference between the puppy mill and factory farming. Every year, we systematically torture and execute billions of land animals and marine life. And all of it is completely unnecessary. We are killing animals who have a clear interest in continuing to live, all for the sake of how good a cheeseburger feels on our taste buds. The scale of this issue is unimaginable in dimension: to give an idea, there are more farmed animals killed every two years than there have been humans in all of history.
While many people who decide to become vegan do so out of consideration for the environment or even for health reasons, we should really focus instead on the animals who are suffering currently. Choosing to remove yourself from this cycle of abuse doesn't have to imply foggy benefits for the environment in the future but can only be about very real benefits to animals that would have otherwise been killed, today.
And, to be clear, being vegan is indeed good for the environment. In fact, it is "the single biggest way" to reduce your carbon footprint. All in all, much less land and water are needed to raise vegetables and fruit than to produce meat and dairy. Not only that, but it also prevents further degradation of rainforests like the Amazon.
But then again, what's good about the environment if not for improving the living experience of humans and non-human animals? I don't care about the environment, but I do care about those that can experience it. And it's not just humans.
João Bosco de Lucena is a Staff Writer. Email him at
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