Animals and Us: Maintaining Hope and Keeping Our Dreams Alive in Difficult Times - Marc Bekoff

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This essay was first published here by Psychology Today.

Little things count when we make humane choices concerning animals

We live in a troubled and wounded world that is in dire need of healing. We all should be troubled and terrified by what we have done and continue to do. Humans are an arrogant lot and we have made huge and horrific global messes that need to be repaired now. The overriding sense of turmoil is apparent to anyone who takes the time to pay attention. Researchers and non-researchers alike are extremely concerned about unprecedented global losses of biodiversity and how humans suffer because of our destructive ways. We are animals and we should be proud and aware of our membership in the animal kingdom. However, our unique contribution to the wanton decimation of the planet and its many life forms is an insult to other animal beings and demeans us.

Humans are big-brained, invasive, and omnipresent mammals who seem to think they can do almost anything they want. Individuals in most cultures claim to love nature and other animals but then go on to wantonly abuse them in a multitude of ways. Clearly, our relationship with the rest of the world is a very confused one and our actions are often contradictory and paradoxical.

[How will the next generation treat animals?]

Ecosystems and webs in nature are being recklessly and routinely destroyed. Animals are dying and vanishing before our eyes - even as you read this essay - and concerned citizens all over the world are asking, "Where have all the animals gone?" We are deep in a serious crisis out of which it will be difficult to emerge successfully. We have annihilated the planet in very undignified and shameful self-centered ways.

There can be no doubt that animal suffering continues in all corners of the world. However, there are also "good" things happening and these can be used to keep us inspired and engaged when it looks like there is little or no hope. From time to time people ask me about animal activism, burnout, and other matters associated with working for animals, so I've penned some short "one-liners" that I've found helpful over the years. Whether you agree or disagree with some of them, I know you all agree that we must keep on working for animals and earth and peace and justice for all. So here are some thoughts that keep me going, in no particular order.

-- Think positively. Don't let people get you down. I'm not a blind optimist but along with all the 'bad' things there are 'good' things happening and that's what kindles and rekindles me, at least. Negativity is a time and energy suck and all of you good people need to keep doing what you are for as long as you can and this means, at least for me, rekindling from time to time and taking deep breaths and enjoying whatever it is I enjoy. The bottom line is take care of yourself so you can do what you do for as long as possible.

-- We are not the radicals or the "bad guys" who are trying to impede human "progress." We are caring people and we don't have to apologize for feeling. We should be unapologetic and compassionate activists working for a better world. In fact, those who care about animals and earth should be seen as heroes who are not only fighting for animals, but also for humanity. Biodiversity is what enables human life as well as enriches it. It is imperative that all of humanity reconnects with what sustains the ability of our species to persist and that we will act as a unified collective while coexisting with other species and retaining the integrity of ecosystems. There are no quick fixes and we need to realize that when animals die, we die too.

-- Be proactive. We need to look at what's happening and prevent further abuse and not always be "putting out the fires" that have started.

-- Be nice and kind to those with whom you disagree and move on. Sometimes it's just better to let something go, so pick your "battles" carefully and don't waste time and energy. Don't waste time 'fighting' people who won't change and don't let them deflect attention from the important work that needs to be done. Don't get in 'pissing matches' with people who want you to waste precious time and energy fighting them, time and energy that must go into working for animals and earth and peace and justice.

-- If we let those who do horrible things get us down or deflect us from the work we must do, they "win" and animals, earth, and we lose. While this may be obvious I thought it worth saying again because it's a common ploy to get people to get into tangential discussions and arguments that take them away from the important work that must be done.

-- Teach the children well, for they are the ambassadors for a more harmonious, peaceful, compassionate, and gentle world (Bexell et al. 2010a,b, Myers 2006, Clayton and Myers 2009).

In the future there likely will be fewer people who will actually be able to make a positive difference in our relationships with animals and ecosystems. Joel Cohen (2009), head of the Laboratory of Populations at the Rockefeller University and Columbia University, offers the sobering fact that the difference in the population numbers between less developed areas of the world (the have-nots) and more developed regions of the world (the haves) will have increased from two-fold in the 1950s to about six-fold by 2050. This means that it is imperative - perhaps it is truly a moral imperative - that those who can do something good for animals and earth do it because the division between those who can and those are can't is rapidly growing and this will be challenging to humanity as the ratio shifts. Of course, because not all "the haves" choose to do much if anything at all, it is even more essential that those who choose to do something do it for as long as they can and not succumb to the inevitable disappointments, frustrations, and burnout that are associated with animal and environmental activism (Bekoff 2007a,b, 2010, van Dernoot Lipsky and Burk 2009).

We can all make more humane and compassionate choices to expand our compassion footprint, and we can all do better.

We must all try as hard as we can to keep thinking positively and proactively. Never say never, ever. Perhaps a good resolution as we welcome in a new year is that we will all try to do better for animals - both non-human and human - and earth and work for more peace and justice for all. We can and must keep our hopes and dreams alive.

[Ed. Also see this other great article by Marc Bekoff and Jane Goodall]


Bekoff, M. 2007a. Animals Matter. Shambhala, Boston, Massachusetts.
Bekoff, M. 2007b. The Emotional Lives of Animals. New World Library, Novato, California.
Bekoff, M. 2010. The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons For Expanding Our Compassion Footprint. New World Library, Novato, California.
Bexell, S. M., Jarrett, O. S., Xu, P., and Feng, R. X. 2010a. Humane Education, Animal Welfare, and Conservation. In M. Bekoff (ed.) Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. Greenwood Press. Santa Barbara, California. Pp. 320-323.
Bexell, S. M., Jarrett, O. S., Xu, P., and Feng, R. X. 2010b. Nurturing Humane Attitudes toward Animals: An Educational Camp Experience in China Encounter, Winter, 25-27.
Clayton, S. and Myers, G. 2009. Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, New Jersey.
Cohen, J. 2009. Human population grows up. In Mazur, L. (ed.) 2009. A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice & the Environmental Challenge. Island Press, Washington, D. C., pp. 27-37.
van Dernoot Lipsky, L. and Burk, C. (eds.) Trauma Stewardship: In Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, California.
Myers, G. 2006. The Significance of Children and Animals: Social Development and Our Connections to Other Species. Purdue University Press. W. Lafayette, Indiana.

Reprinted with permission from Marc Bekoff.