‘There’s a Shift in Our Relationship with Nature’

Professor Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers is pushing for transformative environmental change, including respect for the interests of individual animals in sustainable development work.

The ambition to protect Earth’s precious wildlife and habitats is beyond doubt. Yet after decades of international conservation policies, why are we still losing nature at such a devastating pace?

Social scientist Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers believes sustainability policies put too much focus on the physical environmental problems — deforestation, overfishing, climate change — and not enough on the underlying societal drivers for those issues. Photo courtesy of Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers.
Social scientist Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers believes sustainability policies put too much focus on the physical environmental problems — deforestation, overfishing, climate change — and not enough on the underlying societal drivers for those issues. Photo courtesy TedVA Photography.

Social scientist Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers has long pondered this question, and her conclusion is illuminating. She says that sustainability targets fail to address the underlying drivers of the ongoing issues — our fundamental values and relationships with nature.

A professor of environmental policy at Radboud University in the Netherlands, Visseren-Hamakers specializes in transformative environmental governance. Last year, she co-authored the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services . In a recent commentary in Earth System Governance, she calls for an addition to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). An 18th goal, she says, should consider protecting the health, welfare, and rights of animals. “We cannot ignore the interests of billions of animals while developing sustainable food systems, enabling sustainable consumption and production, combatting and adapting to climate change, and rethinking our strategies for the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity,” she writes.

This would require nothing short of reimagining how we value the natural world — and the eight million animal species that live alongside us. But evidence is mounting that a sustainable planet requires living in harmony with all elements of nature. What’s more, Visseren-Hamakers already sees these changing values emerging in policies and laws around the world, such as in the recognition of nature’s rights in places like Ecuador, New Zealand, and communities in the United States.

From her home in the Netherlands, Visseren-Hamakers spoke to me about her vision for an 18th Sustainable Development Goal, our evolving relationship with the natural world, and the need to transform our societal values to achieve “true sustainability.”

Evelyn Smail: You recently published an article calling for an 18th SDG protecting animal rights, welfare, and health. Tell me more about how you arrived at this idea?

Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers: I became an environmental social scientist because I care deeply about nature, animals, and the environment. For me, these issues are all part of the same idea of living in peace with others. Sustainability is a broad concept, and thinking about animals is part of that.

But interestingly enough, I discovered that people thinking about sustainable development do not incorporate thinking about the individual animal when developing and implementing policy. I became intrigued by the fact that these are separate worlds: thinking about the individual animal on the one hand and the environment on the other. And what’s more, in these worlds you can see the separation between the academic realm and policy.

I found it increasingly interesting but also problematic. How can you talk about sustainable food systems if you know that hundreds of billions of animals are suffering because of those systems? So, for me, thinking about sustainable food systems automatically includes thinking about animal welfare or animal rights.

The idea to frame it as the 18th Sustainable Development Goal came from a conversation from teaching. I put to my students, “These are great goals, and everything that you need is in there.” And one student asked, “Well, are they complete?” And that’s where I thought, Oh no, they’re not! I recognized this gap in thinking between animal and environmental issues, but had not yet linked it to the SDGs. This reframed it all for me.

And recognizing the need to change our relationship with animals and nature, is this a new idea for you, or something that has been simmering away for a while?

Until a couple of years ago I’d been keeping my love for animals just as a citizen, and not incorporating that in my work.

Then I started looking into animal policy again, and I found it interesting that there’s a very rich literature on “environmental governance,” but none on “animal governance.” I think I’m even the first to use that term. I found that you see three levels of engagement. The first is animal health: How can we ensure that animals in our farm systems or anywhere else are healthy? The next is animal welfare, where they are also happy. For these concepts, there’s lots of policy already, especially on animal health.

But the third is about animal rights, or having a different relationship between humans and non-humans. This is really still an academic debate or a debate among activists. This has hardly been infiltrated in the policy debates because it really is a different way of looking at our relationships with animals.

I always give the example of: I have a dog. And I own her. The only way for me to have a relationship with my dog is to buy her. I find it a very strange way of having a relationship with another sentient being. I don’t want to call her my dog. She owns me!

Do you see progress in reconciling the gaps between research and policy?

This depends. Sometimes when I see policy documents talking about food systems and sustainable food, and animal welfare is not mentioned, I think that progress is very far away. On the other hand, the [18th SDG] paper has been really well received and lots of people are surprised that it’s not already integrated. Everyone’s like, Isn’t that included, right? And they understand and support the case I’m making.

And the reason is that there’s a shift in our relationship between humans and nature, and humans and animals. I think the movement and support for the ideas are there, but it hasn’t had uptake in mainstream politics.

This is really what I want to do with the [18th SDG] paper: make the link between the separate worlds of academia and policy, and also between environmentalists and people making a case for animal rights and welfare. I’m trying to bridge all of these debates with the paper.

The SDGs each have specific targets to meet before 2030. For the 18th SDG as you propose it, what would those targets be?

That’s a great question. For a target for 2030, no more factory farming. Zero factory farming. That’s a very clear target, it’s very easy to measure.

And no more animal testing. Ten years to get rid of animal testing — we should be able to do that.

Do you see the rights of the individual animal being included in next year’s UN Biodiversity Conference alongside discussions on biodiversity and ecosystems?

I was involved in the Global Assessment Report [on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services] which came out last year, which was meant to serve as the scientific basis for the negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The work on the assessment has really also changed my thinking. You can imagine if you work on a report for three years you get immersed and brainwashed — in a positive way!

Basically, the question we asked in the report is: How can it be that after over half a century of international environmental policy we’re still in the state that we’re in? And we have two main answers to that question.

One is we are very good at making very eloquent policy, but we don’t implement it. The SDGs are great goals, but I’m afraid that if we continue on this trajectory, again in ten years we’ll have to evaluate our lack of progress.

The second is that sustainability policies put too much focus on the physical environmental problems — deforestation, overfishing, climate change — and not enough on the underlying societal drivers for those issues. Our values and how we organize our societies — consumerism, short-term thinking, our economic system, our rules and regulations — all inhibit true sustainability.

So, what we say in the report is we need transformative change: fundamental societal change in order to meet the SDGs and biodiversity goals. We of course need to focus on deforestation, on climate change. But if we only focused on real, tangible environmental problems we won’t solve them because we haven’t addressed these underlying drivers.

So that’s what we mean by transformative changes: really changing the characteristics of our societies including the values underlying our societies. And I think the 18th SDG is part of that — respecting the interest of the individual animal as part of the values that we need to gain true sustainability.

In the current negotiations for the post-2020 [Convention on Biological Diversity] framework, the individual animal is still not on the agenda. I did send my [18th SDG] paper to the Secretariat, and there is a very short mentioning of the animal welfare and rights-based approaches in the Global Assessment. And I know that animal welfare organizations are trying to integrate their thinking, but I’m not sure how successful they’ve been so far.

How does your work on the 18th SDG and transformative change fit into your wider body of work?

I’m working on three main messages these days: the 18th SDG, transformative change, and the third one is addressing this gap between making strong policies but not implementing them.

There is strong support for achieving the SDGs by 2030. We can take that as a given. But what’s needed to implement and actually achieve them by 2030 is a different conversation, and a different line of action. The conversation should start with the question: What do you need in order to be fully sustainable within 10 years? You can ask this to companies, to governments, to individuals, to anyone — and you change the conversation from blaming and shaming into enabling.

So a farmer might be trying to produce healthy and sustainable food, but he or she is locked in a system of receiving subsidies based on unsustainable production. He or she is stuck and needs support to shift. So how can we help address those barriers to sustainability?

I envision a broad network of people with different expertise supporting these activities — ensuring that all of this action is going on the road toward sustainability. It could be lobbyists trying to lobby for sustainable legislation. It could be universities, if there was a question on the knowledge gap.

There are all sorts of initiatives in the Netherlands and it’s very inspiring to see all kinds of actors — companies, individuals, governments — trying to move towards sustainability. But it gets stuck somewhere. We need to work on ensuring all this action becomes focused to address the inherent drivers that are inhibiting our path to sustainability. But to start the conversation with “What do you need? is crucial. And I think ultimately this is one of the best ways to accelerate progress.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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