Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Do we need a Minister for dolphins?

I've recently become aware of the movement for dolphin suffrage. No seriously. It's an idea with suggests that as dolphins are really smart, and as human actions have huge impacts on them, they should have democratic representation.

Now on one hand this is silly. Dolphins can't vote, and would not understand the process. Registration would be difficult. But it does cast light on an important issue. Should we set aside democratic space to represent non-human interests? Increasingly I think yes.

While it is true that we are discovering ever more about the depths of intelligence and emotions of animals, and have come a long way from when Descartes dismissed their cries of pain as the 'squeeking of a poorly maintained machine', this is not really the point. We should show compassion and responsibility to other living creatures regardless of their level of intelligence.

And yet that is not how we behave. Quite the opposite. The relationship most of us hold to animals is one of absolute horror and destruction. We hide it and look the other way, but from filling the oceans with plastic, to battery farmed pigs or monitor lizards hung in markets with spikes through their sides, its the truth.

Our current systems of government are not really equipped to deal with it either. Most environmental ministries are there to balance the needs of industry and people in accessing and using the environment. Farm ministries balance the needs of farmers, consumers and occasionally, animals. That all makes sense - after all, they are there to represent people, but given the abject state of the natural world, it is hardly enough.

What then if there was a Minister for dolphins? Someone whose jobs it was to imagine that they represented a completely different constituency, and start debates and initiate policy discussions on that basis? It could go further - a Minister for farm animals or the oceans? It wouldn't be a cure, but it could be a useful tool, something to widen our horizons.

Perhaps too they could be installed on a different electoral cycle to the main Parties, with a clear remit to make the awkward points? Imagine a discussion on offshore mining, if there was someone whose job it was to speak up for those with nothing to gain and everything to lose? It would be no replacement for embedding environmental values across other ministries (and that is the great risk), but done properly it would be a useful mirror, something in which we could see our judgements reflected back at us. That would benefit everybody, humans most of all. 

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