Everyone speaks about human rights, some raise questions about animal rights. Everywhere on this planet, animals are farmed for their flesh, killed for their skin, trained to entertain us and used in scientific research. However, they are increasingly seen as sentient beings and if the right to raise, use and kill them remains prevalent, a growing awareness of their condition begs an increase in animals’ welfare.
What does it mean being sentient? I didn’t find a clear and simple definition. For Francione and Steiner beings are sentient when they are conscious of pain and pleasure and can experience their lives from the inside. Regan acknowledges sentient beings if they are capable of cognitive complexity. Donaldson and Kymlicka admit that it may never be possible to fully answer this question especially when it comes to molluscs and insects and that is why they are not taken into account in their political theory of animal rights, Zoopolis.
And what about plants? Recently, I watched a documentary about acacias. These trees have many predators that eat their leaves. Their first protection is their thorns, which are very developed when they are young and vulnerable. Later, they produce tannin to discourage animals from eating too many of their leaves. The tannin secretion is a temporary and contingent reaction by a tree against the animals that are eating it. However, when animal density surrounding acacias becomes excessive, the tree permanently secretes a high level of tannin that not only discourages but also kills the predators. Acacias allow predation but only to some extent and they even warn each other. Indeed, information about predation is transmitted from one acacia to another which begins to secrete tannin even before being eaten. Acacias communicate with each other.
In another documentary, scientists study defences of corn against caterpillars. The caterpillars have a natural enemy, a small Mexican wasp. Experimentation shows that corn exudes a particular flavour to attract wasps when threatened by caterpillars. Corn communicates with insects.
Intelligence, emotion, communication with each other and with others species…. Are plants sentient beings? Are they entitled to rights? Shouldn’t we talk about plant rights as we talk about human rights and animal rights? Plants make up the third part of life but most of us disqualify them because of their lack of self-consciousness. They are seen as a means. The avant-garde promotes sustainability, a concept defined as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability is not geared to plants but only to human survival. It is to nature what welfare is to animals, a concept invented by humans for humans.
Extending human rights to animals doesn’t answer the current issues, which are faced by animals and will never be extended to plants. The right is based on the idea of justice. It codifies and offsets power relations among humans by protecting the weak against the strong. But aren’t power relationships only human concerns? Is it a good matrix to regulate the relationships between humans and other living things especially those that are far from human patterns?
If our aim is really to set up a peaceful coexistence between 7 to 10 billion humans and trillions of animals without overexploiting nature, we need more than an adjustment of our human rights. We need new thoughts and new ethics based on responsibility, moderation and symbiosis. From now, everything has to be reinvented.