I am sitting in Assisi, Italy, as I write this, within a stone’s throw of the chapel that was home to Saint Francis of Assisi. The patron saint of Italy and namesake of the new pope, Francis is most well-known for two things: the kindness he showed to animals, and his call to the faithful to return to the basics: love for all of God’s creatures.
The new pope is Francis the First, and his choice of that name is important. It signals a return to a simpler faith. Often, the Catholic Church has a way of making the simple complicated. For example, the little chapel sed by Francis and his monks is perhaps twelve feet high, and maybe twenty feet long. But the Church, wanting to honor a man known for simplicity, built an enormous ornate basilica that surrounds and enshrines the little chapel. The metaphor is wonderful.
I admire Francis because he was unique, a kind man in a century of brutality, a man who believed in kindness by all, to all, without regards for species. The 13th Century was a time of incredible cruelty to those species – whether human or not – who happened to fall afoul of those more powerful. And it is that thought which prompted this article.
If I could go back in time and do one thing, only one thing, that would change the world as we know it, I would go back about five or six thousand years and erase one verse from Genesis, verse 1:26. It reads:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over
the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over
every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
That verse, and in fact all of the Bible, was incorporated in large part in the English Common Law, and those laws were later codified, leading to the statutes that govern us today. This concept of dominion over all things has wormed its way into every part of western culture. Manifest Destiny stems from the divine rights bestowed upon our conquering forefathers by God. The English, the French, and the Spanish conquered their way around the world based upon the notion that they had – literally – a God-given right to take over the world.
Thousands of years later, that concept is ingrained in our world view. Without it, life might be very different. The Navajo view animals as their partners, brought into this plane with them as equals. Even the lowly turkey brought gifts to the Navajo, and for that reason the turkey is not to be hunted. One of the ancestors of the Lakota Sioux was White Buffalo Woman, who taught the people how to hunt, and how to give thanks each and every time they took a life, in appreciation that another had to die to help the people survive. Not every culture believes in the unashamed slaughter of non-human species. We could have traveled another path.
Think of what this world would be like if that one phrase from Genesis never came into being, how the law itself would be different. People scoffed at the Sierra Club v. Morton case (405 U.S. 727 (1972), which sought to give trees standing, so that an oldgrowth forest, here a thousand years before Jesus, could be protected against destruction. If Genesis were re-written, would the English common law have recognized that all species have a right to exist without undue interference?
The holocaust brought on by what is haughtily called “resource development” has caused the extinction of so many species that we cannot keep up with the losses. The International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ latest Red List of endangered, threatened and extinct species reads like a summary of most of the planet’s inhabitants, with the coral reefs and amphibians at the greatest risk of dying out in the next fifty years (www.icunredlist.org). Since 1900, we have forced the extinction of hundreds of species worldwide, with 232 lost in the United States alone. Thousands more are anticipated to be lost in the next 100 years. With global climate change, that number is expected to skyrocket. The situation in the Amazon is tragic; half a in the Amazon is tragic; half a world away, we are losing polar bears at an alarming rate and all because mankind has a God-given right to dominion over all living things.
In the first speech that Pope Francis gave to the faithful, he asked that we all protect the environment and the weak. The two are clearly linked, but I would suggest that the “weak” must include non-human species. In the next issue of CITATIONS, I will address some of the other issues that we have imposed upon the rest of God’s creatures.
Kate Neiswender is a Ventura-based land use and environmental lawyer. She will be lecturing again this year at the July 13-14 No Kill Conference in Washington DC on “Legislating No Kill” and “Use of Public Records in Forcing Shelter Reform.”