Photo: Vaughan Leiberum / Flickr
We’ve been trying to convince policymakers about the link between wildlife conservation and human wellbeing for a long time,” Beth Allgood, U.S. Country Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told Planet Experts.
“And every time we help establish another protected area or save an elephant from poachers I feel like we are making progress.
“Simultaneously, on a macro level we are facing climate change and entering the sixth extinction; then I think, what we are doing is clearly not working. We need an entire system change.”
Allgood, having worked in conservation and development for over 20 years with organizations like USAID, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and IFAW, has seen first hand that the conventional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measure of success fails to value many of the benefits that animals and nature provide to humans. That’s why she and IFAW, with input from wildlife conservation superstar Jane Goodall, developed the report “Measuring What Matters: True Wellbeing for Animals and People”.
“The health of our communities is interwoven with the health of our natural landscapes, and the decisions we make affect every animal, including humans, on this planet.” wrote Jane Goodall in the paper.
The report encourages the use of alternative measures, like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, to define success with a more holistic approach that goes beyond solely monetary considerations. It then illustrates how kind treatment of animals improves human wellbeing in the nine domains covered by the GNH index:
- Psychological Wellbeing: Animals can help with depression and anxiety, and improve happiness in mentally ill patients. Lack of contact can create nature deficit disorder.
- Health: Animals offer therapeutic benefits. They can decrease blood pressure, reduce seizures, guide blind people and more.
- Education and Learning: Animals provide hands-on application for “social studies, science, language, arts and math.” They also increase student confidence, empathy and emotional understanding.
- The Cultural Diversity and Resilience Domains: Many animals have historical and spiritual importance, and serve as national or regional symbols.
- Community Vitality: Animals act as “normalizers” in social settings. Communities form from conservation efforts.
- Living Standards (Economic Indicator): The value of wildlife tourism exceeds the value of wildlife consumption.
- Ecological Diversity and Resilience: Symbiotic relationships between animals and people create healthy ecosystems. For example, pollinators play a vital role in agriculture.
- The Good Governance Domain: The United Nations notes improved government stability when economic development is balanced with environmental preservation.
- Time Use: Animals reduce labor requirements and can increase productivity in work environments.
Animal lovers and wildlife conservationists don’t need to be convinced by a report that quantifies the anthropogenic utility of humane animal treatment; however, this methodology can be used to speak the language of decision makers who may not consider the benefits animals provide to human wellbeing.
“Even if you don’t care about animals, taking care of animals is important for people. If you care about human development and welfare, you can’t leave animals out of the equation,” said Allgood.
Putting Theory to Practice
There are numerous examples of how improving the treatment of animals and reducing human-animal conflict has improved human wellbeing.
As the report highlights, the Jane Goodall Institute worked with the people of Gombe, Tanzania to revitalize critical Chimpanzee habitats and improve their quality of life.
The region was experiencing rapid deforestation as local communities struggled for economic stability under the stressors of increasing population, immigration from neighboring warring regions and unsustainable agriculture.
Goodall’s organization joined local residents to create short-term strategies to improve agriculture and forestry practices, clean water access, family planning, health care and more, then facilitated the development of a land use plan that prioritized long-term sustainability of the people and the forest. The forest is now recovering, chimpanzee populations are stabilizing and community wellbeing has improved.
“The project turned out to be better for everybody but it couldn’t have worked for the chimps if it didn’t work for the people,” noted Allgood.
A Long-Term Shift Toward Happiness
Success stories like this are heartwarming and motivational. Would the same approach work on a broader scale? How can we mobilize governments and corporations around the world to implement practices that maximize animal and human happiness and wellbeing?
“As a society we don’t measure any of that because the only thing that matters in GDP is short-term economic gain,” noted IFAW’s US Director.
The way we measure success with GDP currently dumps the negative externalities that corporations create – like greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and poverty – on society. People shouldn’t have to clean up the mess created by those in power making profit.
“This system has created global inequality, it’s created poor countries and poor people who can’t feed their families, it’s a greed driven system. We need a long-term shift to value happiness and the planet more than money,” she continued.
How can we dismantle and replace the current paradigm with something that works for everybody including the people, the planet and the animals?
“We have to find what matters because we can’t measure it until we collectively agree what it is, and then we can start growing that. Why are we growing something we don’t want to grow?”
“One of the problems is that we don’t know what to maximize, it’s not as simple as GDP. We should take after G20 and create an H20 where the 20 happiest countries come together and share best practices.”
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”
What are Governments and Corporations Doing?
Despite the overall need to shift what we value and how we measure it, there are some inspiring examples of how governments and businesses are using different ways to measure and promote progress.
Bhutan is a great example “when they consider the expected value of a project they think about how that project influences each the 9 domains equally. If it’s going to destroy a community but make a lot of money it won’t be passed,” shared Beth.
In the U.S., Vermont and Maryland adopted the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and several other states are following suit. GPI considers environmental and social impacts alongside economic factors to determine progress and wellbeing. This measure addresses some of GDP’s flaws, such as the fact that if a disaster happens or a robbery takes place GDP increases due to the money spent to recover from each incident.
Everyone believes that a society with happier people is better; it’s a non-partisan issue. In 2014, IFAW funded an independent poll conducted by Beekeeper, which surveyed over 1000 US Citizens around the country with varying political beliefs. They found that two thirds or more of the surveyed group believe “protection of wildlife and habitats is important in determining a country’s overall well-being and the happiness of its citizens; treatment of companion animals and the health of farm animals are important when determining the overall welling being of a country; having or being around pets contributes to an individual’s happiness; and that the ability to experience wildlife in its natural habitat contributes to happiness.”
Some companies are also taking initiative to go beyond what is called upon them in regards to environmental, social and animal welfare. Corporations like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Tesla follow principles of corporate social responsibility, the triple bottom line and a mission to make the world better.
These alternative measures and practices are a step in the right direction but “they don’t directly correlate animal and human wellbeing,” Allgood pointed out. “Our hope is that the study helps people and policymakers connect the dots.”
What Can You Do to Help?
Each and every one of us can use our voting and purchasing power to support a system that values human, animal and planetary wellbeing over quarterly profits.
“Be aware that animals are living and breathing beings. We don’t need to buy their products. We need to help save their lives and habitats by choosing not to buy products like palm oil and ivory,” said Allgood.
At the same time we can support companies that are dedicated to creating a positive impact on our planet.
We can also encourage politicians to promote alternative measures of growth like the GPI in our states and at the federal level.
“Most people haven’t thought about an alternative to GDP. We can make our society reflect our values by joining together and making our voices heard,” Beth insisted, “You can make a difference by simply being nice to animals and sharing the message that we can change our system.”