Swami Omkarananda asked me “Despite being well educated and fully aware of what were doing, why do we feel it is our right to continue to do what we want regardless of environmental impact?”
I think the issue is a complex one and involves a number of factors:
(1) Anthropocentric assumptions – humans assume that we have a right to exploit nature as we wish (part of this stems back to Genesis 1, in which God allegedly gave humanity the right to ‘subdue nature’ and use animals as we saw fit). Many people assume that nature only has value insofar as it is useful to humans and exploitable by us and worthless otherwise.
(2) Valuing immediate profit over long-term sustainability – many people prioritize making profits over treating the environment in a sustainable way. This is actually a self-defeating strategy since if we exterminate a species (e.g. salmon), we can no longer profit of it. However, there is an attitude of “well, let’s use it while we have it and move on to the next one if we run out.” This attitude is operative in humanity’s view of many ‘resources,’ not only living creatures, but also mineral deposits, etc.
(3) Rationalization and denial – other people deny there is a problem, reject the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, or say ‘well, I’m only one person, so it doesn’t make a difference what I eat,” not realizing that it is the sum of the choices of individuals that add up to the devestating collective impact. I have a friend who refuses to even think about the overfished status of fish because she doesn’t want to sacrifice the pleasure she gets from eating them. This is the “bla bla bla, I’m not listening… I’ll do what I want.”
(4) Egoistic selfishness – many people just do what they feel like, not even thinking the impact on others, let alone non-human species.
(5) Reduction of living creatures into economic units – there is also a tendency to reduce non-human species into mere economic units, that is ‘raw materials’ ready to be converted into products. This viewpoint ignores the intrinsic value of the species, their right to exist and to flourish and the richness that they add to the world through their existence, and says they have value only as units in our economy. Since they are in this way stripped of all life and intrinsic value and are treated like other materials in manufacturing processes, people find it easier to disregard the wrongness of abusing them and devastating their species.
(6) Habit – we have become used to eating things like salmon, tuna, and shark and living our livestyle founded on overconsumption. Breaking this habit would cause discomfort and humans try to avoid discomfort, therefore, the habit is, unless we make a strong choice to break it, perpetuated.
(7) Humanity’s notorious shortsightedness – human beings tend to focus on the short-term and overlook long-term consequences. We often hear people say things like “Who knows, the fish populations might bounce back in the future. We might as well enjoy them now.” or “Well, I won’t be around by the time these fish are extinct, so what do I care?” People tend to only attend to their immediate wands in the near future, not thinking about the long term impact of their actions.