‘Why is my five year old worth less than your dog?’

A stupid question, surely. A non-question, even. Apparently not.

This was the query put to Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat by an Afghan interpreter attempting to extract his family from Taliban tyranny. The man was referring to the machinations of one Pen Farthing, a former Royal Marine who – after his tours of duty – had established the Nowzad sanctuary for dogs in Kabul.

‘Operation Ark’ was the title of Farthing’s successful campaign to divert the focus of British diplomats, soldiers and politicians away from aiding vulnerable Afghans, and towards the rescue of his 200 canine charges. With a strong social media presence and a cascade of sympathetic TV appearances, Farthing’s cause was spot-lit.

Emboldened, the former squaddie didn’t bother to hold back when seeking ministerial support, reportedly leaving a voicemail on Ben Wallace’s office phone which warned the defence secretary that failure to help Nowzad would lead Farthing to ‘f*****g destroy’ him.

In the end, the dogs were rescued. They were ferried to their plane by British soldiers who should have been guarding the airport perimeter and helping desperate Afghans. As Tugendhat relayed:

“We’ve just used a lot of troops to bring in 200 dogs, meanwhile my interpreter’s family are likely to be killed.”

So that is what led the interpreter to ponder the ethics of Operation Ark. But if that abandoned Afghan was British himself, he might not have been surprised. We are – as our leaders are so fond of telling us – a nation of animal lovers. Of zoophilists. The RSPCA receives more donations than the NSPCC. A softness for all things furry and four-limbed is a trait we take in with our milk. 

It’s a characteristic that’s been on prominent display this summer, often to ludicrously hypocritical extremes. The killing of Geronimo the alpaca – who had tested positive for bovine tuberculosis – raised outrage, even though 40,000 cattle are slaughtered every year to control the same disease. 

Animals have attained such status on the political scene that courting them is now regarded as a vote winner, hence the government’s introduction into parliament this year of the rather amorphous and wide-ranging ‘Animal Sentience Bill’. 

But as Kabul demonstrated, there’s a point at which a weakness for cuteness starts to undermine normal morality (and it is cuteness, not animals in general; I can’t imagine Farthing getting the same support for the evacuation of a snake sanctuary).

Exhibit A is a snap survey from last month by YouGov which produced the following statistics. Of the 3,291 British adults surveyed, just 49% said that a human life is worth more than an animal life, 40% said they were worth the same, and 3% said animal lives to be of greater worth (8% couldn’t make their minds up).

I wasn’t surprised to find that the scales tipped more in favour of the birds and beasts the younger the demographics became. Within the 18-24 bracket, 37% said human lives counted for more, 42% thought them equal with animals, and 8% favoured animals outright.

I wasn’t surprised because our generation – the 18-24 bracket – is the one most addicted to depressive self-loathing. We seem most likely to endorse the message of Prince Harry, when he said that ‘Everything is good in the world, apart from us humans’ (Has history ever known a more pathetically masochistic dauphin?).

For Harry, and much of the youf, human beings – especially adult ones – are a source of strife, selfish destruction, and greed. A malignant stain on Mother Nature. Consequently, childish innocence is held at a high premium, and given they are completely cut off from human affairs, animals have buckets of it. Compared to the innocent purity of a panda, parrot or pomeranian, we are base, corrupted beings. 

The belief that innocence is a virtue is the same one which propelled Greta Thunberg to a position of global leadership in the environmental movement. I take the outrageous view that children who fail to attend school probably shouldn’t be allowed to assume roles as messianic climate activists. But Greta rose the way she did because most greens hold a deeply pessimistic view of their fellow citizens. For the eco-fanatics, human beings are – like Harry says – a kind of destructive plague. Only a literal child, unsullied by the wicked adult world, could serve as a suitable figurehead. 

Greta hates “fantasies of endless economic growth”. Like the Green Party and Extinction Rebellion – who want UK carbon emissions to reach zero in the next ten years – she is a member of a movement willing to cripple state finances in the name of protecting the natural world. Like Farthing, her priority is not helping other people – at least not directly – it is the natural world as a whole. 

Now I fully appreciate the dangerous threat climate change presents, and the enormous extent to which we rely on the environment. Yet the extremism of Greta and co. would hurt, not help other human beings. Never mind that UK carbon emissions have fallen by 29% in the last decade. Or that the UK was the first major economy to legislate for net zero by 2050. Greta and XR want a green revolution – they say so themselves. A revolution demanding radical changes to all of our lives.

There are countries which already fall in line with Greta’s vision. States like South Sudan, Chad, Mali and Laos produce negligible quantities of CO2. They fulfil her priority, the only goal that matters. If a lot of the world’s advanced economies reverted to those sorts of agrarian societies, we probably would avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change. 

Mission accomplished, says XR. But in all of those states, you’re very lucky if you live to 50.

If Extinction Rebellion were to get their way, then cars would be wiped from the roads, agriculture shattered, and the price of heating, food and air travel would soar. The economy  – the growth and taxation of which feeds public services like the NHS – would shrivel, reducing the government spending pot. People would suffer. The wealthy middle-classes who constitute XR would probably manage, but many others would not. And we would do it all while China constructs the equivalent of one large coal-power plant every week. 

What Greta and Farthing share is a belief that we should be willing to make enormous sacrifices in order to protect animals and nature. They are demanding too much of their fellow human beings. But for them, there are debts to the environment which have to be paid. And to hell with the consequences for people

The same mentality motivates those climate activists who have sat blocking motorways this month. The massive tailback caused a crash, leaving a woman paralysed. It is what drove the ‘Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty’ (SHAC) criminals when they used firebombing, blackmail, death threats and the exhumation of a dead woman’s corpse to intimidate those who supplied animals for medical research at Huntingdon Life Sciences Laboratory. And it is what motivates those affluent left-wing activists who have long campaigned against food technologies like genetic modification, even though they would raise the yields and revenues of subsistence farmers. 

In every case, the needs of other people are relegated to a lower tier. Here is a pernicious disregard for human welfare, and a new religion of economic sacrifice for a greater environmental good. We certainly owe the planet and its non-human inhabitants a duty of care, especially since we’re the only species capable of fulfilling the role of guardianship. But that doesn’t mean valuing the natural world more than each other. 

Aside from its innate cruelty, racism is abhorrent because it is predicated on superficial differences of skin pigmentation. But the differences between ourselves and other species are not superficial. The life of a pig, crow or fish is not equal to a person’s, because they cannot contribute as much as we can to our society. They cannot act or think or speak as meaningfully as you and me.

The animal kingdom, and the wider environment, are beautiful and precious things, but we are the most remarkable of nature’s creations. Our first loyalty is to each other. To do otherwise demands a terrible warping of morality, even abandoning people when they need our help the most.

Illustration by Oliver Buckingham

Oliver Buckingham

Oliver Buckingham is a writer for The Blue, and has his own blog at https://whirlwindofscrappaper.com/. He is a History and Politics student at Lady Margaret Hall, and writes about politics, foreign affairs...