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The Future of Human/Animal Relations

04/09/2014 16:03 BST | Updated 04/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Last week I posted about nature connection being the next big human trend. This week I wish to narrow the focus, to explore our relationship with animals. I propose a different future: a hypothetical outlook at odds with current reality and direction. So, let us fast forward fifty years.

Our abstracted system is a network of individual human choices. An empowered (and rewilded) next generation is the catalyst for phenomenal change that integrates nature in new ways, redefining the wild in an urban context and unravelling the dogma of the industrial age. Environmentally engaged young people recognise the need for critical changes to the way we eat and relate. Though the transition is gradual, this is the start of a change in the way we see animals.

A narrative of identification, of understanding, starts to spread. It is as if the voices of animals, so long ignored, start to resonate. The change, like all change, starts with whispers and debate and a gradual shift in priorities. The realisation that late-stage capitalism is an easy, unthinking route (and the psychological burden this imposes) spreads virally.

Another idea becomes fashionable: the way in which we treat other species directly affects our own future. The words of Duane Elgin ring true: "Our extermination of other species has been compared to popping rivets out of the wings of an airplane in flight." The mass extinction is slowed, and halts.

The legal system adapts. Legislators for earth jurisprudence (proposed by Thomas Berry) start to form their own training courses, organisations and courts. Ecocide, a term popularised by the phenomenal work of Polly Higgins, is broadened to include all pain inflicted on beyond-human beings. Meanwhile, the Nonhuman Rights Project successfully wins a number of test cases, changing forever the legal status of animals from things to beings.

The greatest shift is the understanding of animals themselves. The words of John Rodman are remembered, that animals should be respected for "having their own existence, their own character and potentialities, their own forms of excellence, their own integrity, their own grandeur." The Green Party take power in the UK, their manifesto based on the changing right of animals. Similar political transitions spread rapidly.

The prophetic message of E.O. Wilson underlies the political and social agenda: "The fauna and flora of a country will be thought part of the national heritage as important as its art, its language and that astonishing blend of achievement and farce that has always defined our species." Harried by powerful changemakers (Avaaz, 38 degrees, change.org) corporations can no longer hide their agendas. Those that act against the planet are punished by society.

The fiercest debate rages around the thoughts and feelings of animals. The very idea that something as gentle and integrated into the environment as a cow could be stupid starts to disintegrate, despite stiff resistance. Astonishing rises in vegetarianism and veganism result from advances in understanding the capacity of animals to feel. The ability of forests, plants and insects to organise and think (though in different terms to our thought) sends shockwaves through society. Sensory illustrations that illuminate these extraordinary capacities are broadcast. The realisation, certain and final, that we no longer need to exercise cruelty to stamp our authority on the world grows in scope and popularity.

The benefit of a revised cultural story in relation to animals flourishes. The felt belonging is a return to a home threatened and broken, but a home nevertheless. And with this realisation comes humility, in the words of Vaclav Havel: "there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence." The rematch between human genes and our environment causes a phenomenal uplift in psychological wellbeing.

The recognition of our destiny as animals among other plants and animals is cemented, and with it comes broad questions on our definitions of intelligence. Jung's words in The Earth has a Soul are remembered: "She looks directly into the eyes of an animal, and they are full of woe and beauty because they contain the truth of life, an equal sum of pleasure and pain, the capacity for joy and the capacity for suffering..."

The discourse of transition enters religions. Spirit, forever separated from nature, starts to return in preachings and doctrine. The human spiritual is no longer perceived as being above the animal natural - the extent of their linkage is recognised. Spiritual ecology transcends religious boundaries. The long-held falsity that the spirit has to overcome and separate from nature is debunked. Though the idea causes divisions in the church, there is widespread understanding that humans are neither superior nor separate from animals.

The relationship between religion and pagan beliefs is also acknowledged. There is a rejoining of the rejection that E.O. Wilson thought had "caused the spirits our ancestors knew intimately to flee the rocks and the trees and then the distant mountains." The very heart of the issue is addressed, as Robert Pogue Harrison suggested, "the most archaic religious conceptions that first traumatized the relation between humanity and nature, indeed, that established the relation as a trauma."

Within the narrative, at its very core, lies the indigenous wisdom that never flickered or died, the animal connection that was never lost. The reality, lost for so long in the west, that there is no division between human and wild, regains its momentum. With this sure knowledge, questions open up regarding every aspect of our treatment of animals. Relearning our sensory bodies, people everywhere experience a flood of information long ignored and suppressed. This transition period, a Great Awakening, has been forecast and underway for centuries.

Pre-dating the industrial revolution by 500 years, Hildergard Von Bingen stated: "humans are interrelated with the elements, just as the elements are connected to humans." The perennial philosophy has always taught respect for nature, in the Upanishad ('The man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow") and the Bhagavad Gita ("The Self dwelling in all beings, all beings dwelling in the Self"), and a thousand other examples. The process of Sarvodaya, as advocated by Satish Kumar, places nature firmly at the centre. As he said: "We are part of nature and there is no separation. No one is above and below. Worms are as important as trees. Everything plays its part."

Other animals, as David Abram said, "think with the whole of their bodies." And, critically, "sentience was never our private possession. We live immersed in intelligence, enveloped and informed by a creativity we cannot fathom." The belief system, formed during our lives, that anything causing discomfort would be edited out, falls away. We appreciate our natural affinity with animals, which is celebrated in a way that transcends anthropomorphism. Our very language is reshaped, our destiny is rethought and felt anew. Anthropocentrism, rejected, starts to become taboo.

An underlying conversation starts to be heard, a narrative unfolding for millennia. As Ian McCallum noted, "facial and body language accounts for an astonishing 75 per cent of the information we communicate - and that's without having said a word." Tony Juniper had also highlighted how much our language is a barrier, and once we listen "we find ourselves in an expressive, gesturing landscape, in a world that speaks." The work of countless charities, organisations and individuals contributes to a profound social shift.

The idea of a battery chicken farm or intensive dairy production is seen as a sad cul-de-sac of history. Massively searching legislation forever prohibits and alienates industries such as veal. The attitudes of the early 21st Century are seen as embarrassing, outdated, yet understandable given the complete abstraction forced by the system. The slaughter of animals for meat, where it does go on, is perceived as a personal and highly sensitive process. The idea of eating meat without thinking where it came from is seen as hopelessly historic. Animals become numinous once more, the exchange of their energy returns to being sacred. As Vandana Shiva said, "food is alive: it is not just pieces of carbohydrate, proteain, and nutrient, it is a being: it is a sacred being."

David Abram, drawing on Merleau-Ponty, is taught in schools, where we speak of things "not merely as objects but as animate subjects, as living powers in their own right." This allows, as he says, "the possibility of interaction and exchange, allowing reciprocity to begin to circulate between our bodies and the breathing earth." For as he claimed: "We are in and of the world, materially embedded in the same rain-drenched field that the rocks and ravens inhabit."

Making amends to animals is no easy feat. As Desmond Morris said in The Animal Contract, "The more an animal species has had to offer us, with its flesh or its produce, the worse has been its lot. Instead of honouring the animals that serve us so well, we have degraded them to the level of animal machines. How can we have allowed this to happen at a time when we have in so many other ways become so sensitive?" The reparations take time and the new Bill of Rights for Animals that he proposes is universally upheld. The pioneering work of Tony Juniper, who matches economic value in financial terms with work done for free by animals, affects policy at the highest level.

Of course, as a universal measure of success, the myth of GDP no longer has traction. As Oren Lyons pointed out: "What you people call your natural resources our people call our relatives." Societal values, shifted forever away from consumption, force the adoption of ideas such as the Genuine Progress Indicator and the Happy Planet Index proposed by the New Economics Foundation. Bhutan, the leader of Gross National Happiness, is held up as a template for the changed world.

At last, the words of the poets (the canaries in the coalmine) reveal their true meaning. As Rilke wrote: "And only then, when I have learned enough//I will go to watch the animals, and let// Something of their composure slowly guide//Into my limbs; will see my own existence deep within their eyes." The idea of Gary Snyder, who pointed out that a culture that alienates itself from wilderness is doomed to self-destructive behaviour, is broadly hailed. Yet the very idea of the 'wild' as something beyond and outside us disintegrates and we recognise what has always been true - we are inseparable from the wild. This is the foundation of a changed world.

And, back to the present. I hope that this article showcases a few of the widespread voices already working towards a vast revision of our relationship with the biosphere. The above are just a tiny fragment, a sample of thinkers chosen from tens of thousands of stories, studies and poems that date back centuries. Every step each individual takes towards connection and understanding of nature helps to revise our destiny as human beings on this planet, to contribute to a future of belonging, of which we can be proud. I have no doubt that this inexorable journey is underway, that the foundations of this future are being laid every day.