By Katy Greco, Deputy Editor and Todd Olive, former Editor in Chief
Inspired by Ryuji Chua’s talk entitled ‘Animals and the Climate Crisis’ delivered at the TED Countdown event organised by TEDxWarwick and GLOBUS
Why do you care about this photo?
Do you care because it represents an endangered species? Or do you care because it’s a cute, fluffy polar bear? Do you care because of what it represents, or because of what it is?
This is the question that animal rights activist Ryuji Chua asked last December in his talk on “Animals and the Climate Crisis” at the GLOBUS and TEDxWarwick countdown event. He posits that we too often forget the plight of individual lives in the face of broad systemic challenges: when we focus on the system, we lose sight of the individual.
Ryuji tells the story of Marius, a giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo who was murdered by his keepers because his life was deemed to have no value in the context of the institution’s “conservation” programme. Marius’ genes were so similar to those of his siblings that his keepers decided he wasn’t worth the food and water necessary to keep him alive, because he would add nothing to his species’ chances of survival or recovery. Never mind that Marius was a member of the very species that the programme was supposed to protect. The conservationists didn’t see a giraffe, they saw a herd. They focused on the ‘greater good’, the collective, the mission – rather than the value of an individual’s life.
Ryuji makes the point that stories like this – a giraffe murdered by its keepers or a hungry polar bear stranded on melting ice – are impactful because they focus on the suffering of an individual. He cites the example of Christine Figgener’s viral video of her team pulling a plastic straw out of the nose of a sea turtle while on a data gathering exercise off Costa Rica: while indicative of the systemic crisis of anthropogenic plastic pollution, this glimpse at one individual’s suffering at the hands of a collective problem is hugely powerful – at the time of writing, in the six and a half years that Christine’s video has been up, it’s garnered nearly 94 million views.
It’s clear that approaching systemic challenges from an individual perspective strikes a chord. People don’t listen when you tell them that millions of animals are dying every day. When you show them a video of a sea turtle screaming in pain, all of a sudden you have their attention.
Ryuji makes the point that when we talk about climate change, we fall into this trap: when we read about record-breaking wildfires caused by anthropogenic climate change, we see a forest on fire – we don’t see a koala choking on smoke with half its skin burned off and eyes melting. Maybe if this was the first image to enter our minds, we would sit up, pay attention, and do something about it.
The Pacific Northwest heatwave hit the headlines in July last year after a rapid attribution study found that it would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change. Reporting described “obliterated temperature records”, overwhelmed hospitals, and a mounting human death count from extreme heat.
Almost as a throwaway, estimates suggested that a billion marine creatures died, boiled alive in their own shells. Humans and animals alike ran from the flames; one group, speeding along a road in rural Washington state, recorded the parallel flight of a herd of terrified horses.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that day through the eyes of one of these horses.
You wake up one July day. It’s sweltering. Sweat drenches your mane.
It hurts to breathe. Yesterday’s smoke sits heavy in your chest. Your throat is dry – as a bone.
A flock of birds takes flight. It’s sudden. The repressive silence of the heat is broken by the sudden movement, the sound of dead leaves and the cracking of brittle branches.
One is on fire.
You’re immediately scared. The air tastes sharper – smoke is in the wind.
A wall of heat washes over you. Something is coming.
Critters rustle through the dry, yellow grass, fleeing from the wood behind you.
Something is coming.
You stumble, scrambling to your feet. It’s hard. You feel heavy, dizzy from the heat.
Something is coming.
There’s a commotion among the herd as everyone stirs, alert to the imminent danger.
You hear the roaring of the flames for the first time.
Blind panic. You run – run – run.
There’s no stopping. There is only the fire.
It’s behind you – every step. Following. Chasing.
You pass others and are passed by them in turn.
Time stops and drags. There is only the chaos.
You stop – finally. Exhausted, collapsed on the side of the black river. The metal horses roar past – not stopping.
You look around. Half the herd is not there.
Back in the wood, in the silent aftermath of the inferno – there they lie. They could not see, or flee, their racing fate – only burn.
This is the cost. This is the cost of our actions. We don’t just kill those we share this planet with a silent, invisible hand. We kill them in fires. In floods. In the fierce fury of nature’s unleashed, unbridled, unstoppable, wrath. The effect we have on our world is not some abstract thing. It’s not statistical or scientific; it can’t, and shouldn’t, be reduced to a number.
Couching global challenges in those very terms is a convenient, catch-all way to describe the destruction of the lived reality of untold creatures – human and not. Headlines don’t tell the story, nor can academic studies ever convey the true horror of our species’ footprint – the Anthropocene.
The Climate Crisis isn’t just about death. It’s about the suffering that comes first. Suffering that is visited, first and foremost, upon individuals. No matter whether that individual is a sea turtle or a giraffe, a koala, or a horse – or a human – Ryuji asks: shouldn’t their suffering be the only reason we need to care?
To read TEDxWarwick’s interview with Ryuji Chua, visit their website.