The third part of the Sixth Climate Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recently published, made clear the urgency of climate action. There is an important message that, above all, we must completely change our approach to action in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. A radical transformation is needed. For example, switching to renewable energy alone is not sufficient, although this alone is proving to be a formidable social challenge. In this blog you will read about the idea of recognizing non-human animals or nature in general as stakeholders. Why is this a good idea and how do you deal with it?
One reason for the difficulty of transitions is the lack of a clear and collective vision. Social debates about solutions and the prevailing approach of the business community suggest that climate mitigation can be achieved through a combination of measures, reductions and technical solutions. On the other hand, a growing number of scholars claim that precisely because of this anthropocentric perspective (read: man is above other life forms and can control natural processes), we have run into trouble. That is why it would be good to start with our view of the people and the world if we want to come up with a sustainable and just vision of the future.
Towards a global view centered on the environment
Alternatives to a human-centered world view come from disciplines as diverse as biology, social sciences, and humanities, including communication sciences. Various authors assert that man is part of nature and depends on it and with it all natural processes and networks. An important argument is that a worldview centered around the environment1 in which people do not oppose nature but understand it as part of it can lead to many synergistic effects. Greater respect, concern, understanding and concern for nature forms the basis for the potential restoration of ecosystems from which we all ultimately benefit. This idea is deeply ingrained in many ancient indigenous cultures. Also for this reason, more and more scholars and activists are realizing the importance of these cultures to just transitions.
Figure 1. Humans as a part rather than the top of an ecosystem (S. Lehmann, 2010).
Communication with non-human animals
But what does overcoming a anthropocentric worldview have to do with the practice of communication? Communication and language can reinforce existing values but also change them. For example, everyday words such as dairy, livestock, poultry, agricultural products, breeding or wood, reflect that we often consider animals and plants to be utensils (also called nature’s commodity). Or that devaluing other species’ experiences or negative comparisons (think of advanced organisms as “less” or “stupid as a donkey”) a sign of species discrimination (discrimination against animals) which incidentally is closely linked to racism and other forms of discrimination appears.
In addition to focusing on language, Debra Merskine, professor of media studies at the University of Oregon, says in a recently published chapter that the fact that animals have interests that are influenced by the actions of others means that we should actually see animals as stakeholders. Stakeholder theory is based on the assumption that the organization has a moral responsibility for those whose interests can be affected by the actions of the organization. Following the ecology-centric argument, not only animals but also other or more human beings, such as trees or entire landscapes, can be included here.
Implications for practice
- Thus, organizations follow the legal principle of interspecies justice, with one of the pillars that the precautionary principle also applies to stakeholders more than human beings.
- In order to protect their interests, organizations must learn to listen again. But how do you understand the perspectives of stakeholders who do not speak the same language as you?
- In addition to asking experts such as scientists, but also advocates such as animal welfare or nature organizations, this requires a creative and open approach by communication professionals.
Media scientist Carrie B. Freeman, co-founded with Debra Mersken, co-founded the Animals & Media website where you can find ideas and examples for various areas of communication such as public relations, advertising, and media.
Subjective and unbiased language can take some time to get used to: a non-human animal is no longer a “he” or “something” but “he/she” or “someone,” because we are talking about living things rather than products or utensils. However, an interest in language can contribute to changing social norms. Through values centered around the environment, we may arrive at a common vision that we so desperately need to achieve our climate goals.
About the author
Dr. Anke Wonneberger is Assistant Professor of Corporate Communication at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam.
- Kemper, JA, Hall, CM, & Ballantine, PW (2019). Marketing and Sustainability: Business as usual or changing worldviews? Sustainability† 11(3), 780. You can find the study here.
- Merskine, Dr.; (2021). Circle of Responsibility: Animals as Stakeholders. V De Bomber (Editor), Public Relations for Social Responsibility (pp. 103 – 119). Emerald Publishing Ltd. You can find the search here.
- Freeman, C. B.; Bykov, M, & Bexel, S. M. (2011). Giving a voice to the voiceless. Journalism Studies† 12(5), 590-607. You can find the search here.
This contribution previously appeared on the SWOCC website.