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SDG18 — Zero Animal Exploitation

Humanity has normalized and justified the suffering of billions of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and research
UN SDG18 - Zero Animal Exploitation

For far too long, humanity has normalized and justified the suffering of billions of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and research. But a growing movement is emerging globally to recognize that our current systematic exploitation of sentient creatures contradicts basic principles of sustainability, compassion and social justice.

There is an ethical imperative for radical change in our relationships with animals, best encapsulated by a proposal for a historic 18th Sustainable Development Goal creating a UN-led roadmap to zero animal exploitation.

In this article, we will explore powerful arguments in favour of such a goal, unpack the realities of transitioning societies clinging to animal use, and make the case for why ending human-driven animal suffering is an essential next step for civilization. For anyone who envisions a future where empathy and non-violence extend not just between humans but also toward other living, feeling beings, this discussion matters deeply.

The Proposal: SDG18 – Zero Animal Exploitation

The concept of SDG18 was put forward in 2018 by the Beyond Cruelty Foundation as an addition to the 17 existing Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015. It calls upon the global community to prioritize animal welfare and rights by reducing reliance on animals to zero by 2030.

Specifically, the proposed SDG18 has the following targets:

  • End factory farming and transition to plant-based food systems.
  • Eliminate animal testing where alternatives exist.
  • Promote a vegan diet and lifestyle.
  • Ban hunting, poaching and harmful wildlife practices.
  • Replace animal agriculture subsidies with plant farming.
  • Phase out industries like fur, leather, silk, wool etc.

Essentially, the goal of SDG18 is to create a global economy that does not exploit sentient beings for human benefit. This represents a major paradigm shift as animals and animal products currently play central roles across industries, cultures and livelihoods worldwide.

The Moral Imperative: Why We Need SDG18

Proponents argue that SDG18 is an ethical obligation and a necessary step for humanity. Here are some of the main reasons cited:

  • Preventing immense animal suffering: Over 70 billion land animals are factory-farmed globally each year, living in cramped, filthy conditions and suffering immensely. SDG18 would alleviate this suffering on a mass scale.
  • Transitioning to sustainable food systems: Animal agriculture strains natural resources and drives climate change through deforestation, land degradation and huge greenhouse gas emissions. SDG18 would accelerate the shift toward eco-friendly plant-based alternatives.
  • Safeguarding public health: Rampant antibiotic use and crowded conditions make factory farms hotbeds for dangerous zoonotic diseases. Curbing intensive animal farming under SDG18 would reduce pandemic risks.
  • Promoting social justice: Low-income groups and marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by issues like environmental pollution from animal agribusiness. SDG18 links sustainability and equality.
United Nations new Sustainable Development Goal 18 – Zero Animal Exploitation
United Nations new Sustainable Development Goal 18 – Zero Animal Exploitation

In essence, the moral argument is that continuing to treat sentient beings as commodities and property contradicts the basic ethical values of compassion and sustainability. SDG18 would enshrine animal welfare as integral to development.

Key Challenges and Counter-Arguments

However, there are also some notable barriers facing this ambitious goal:

  • Feasibility: Achieving zero animal exploitation globally in just 7 years seems extremely unrealistic to most observers. It took decades for issues like poverty and health access to become part of the SDG agenda.
  • Economic disruption: Animal agriculture is a trillion-dollar industry employing millions worldwide. Phasing it out completely would jeopardize livelihoods and require major structural transitions.
  • Cultural barriers: Meat-eating and animal use are deeply ingrained culturally and socially in many communities. Overcoming this would require shifts in belief systems beyond just policy changes.
  • Lack of alternatives: While plant-based alternatives to products like meat and leather exist, they aren’t yet at price or scale viability for mass adoption. Major R&D would be needed to replace all current applications.

Additionally, some argue animals can be used humanely, so reducing all exploitation goes too far. Others say targeting poverty and hunger should take priority over animal issues in developing countries.

With these complexities, SDG18 may face significant opposition from major industries and governments. But its advocates remain adamant that progress isn’t possible without confronting animal suffering.

Case Study: Impact on the Fashion Industry

The apparel sector demonstrates clearly how deeply embedded animal use is across supply chains – and the disruption that reducing exploitation to zero could necessitate.

Impact of SDG18 on the Fashion Industry
Impact of SDG18 on the Fashion Industry

Consider:

  • Over 150 billion animals are killed annually for fashion or human consumption.
  • Popular fabrics like wool, leather, fur, and silk depend on animal agriculture.
  • Emerging brands use various animal derived products such as glues in clothing.

Under SDG18, this would change completely within years:

  • No more mass-produced wool, fur, exotic animal skins.
  • Major brands would overhaul design and materials to an ethical value chain.
  • Consumers would have sustainable apparel options.

SDG18 could catalyze innovation in synthetic materials and fabrics using food crop by-products, mushrooms, and bioengineering solutions. But executing an enormous shift toward ethical alternatives relying on new technologies by 2030 could severely disrupt a $3 trillion industry.

This example highlights the drastic implications SDG18 would have across not just fashion but all sectors utilizing animals extensively. It gives a sense of why achieving full decoupling by 2030 seems like a hugely ambitious target.

Where SDG18 Stands Now

While SDG18 faces substantial hurdles, it represents a growing call to action from thought leaders on sustainability. The Beyond Cruelty Foundation continues to actively campaign for its adoption.

To date, over 50 NGOs and animal organizations have pledged support to the target of zero animal exploitation. Attention to the proposal has also grown through advocacy using #SDG18 on social media.

However, the UN itself has not formally responded to the SDG18 proposal. Getting it officially approved could face opposition from member states with economies highly reliant on animal agriculture.

However proponents believe putting it on the global agenda is an essential conversation starter. Even if the specifics face pushback, it highlights underlying ethical questions about humanity’s relationship with nature that need addressing.

And symbols can be very powerful – having an SDG clearly signalling that animal welfare matters could accelerate society’s shifting attitudes toward exploitation as unacceptable.

A chicken was selected as representation for SDG 18, as they make up the largest number of animals killed for meat every year [70.77 billion in 2020]
A chicken was selected as representation for SDG 18, as they make up the largest number of animals killed for meat every year [70.77 billion in 2020]

Key Takeaways and Looking Ahead

The proposal for a Zero Animal Exploitation SDG forces scrutiny of beliefs and behaviours that have become normalized and embedded globally. While its targets face substantial feasibility constraints, it signifies the growing calls for an ethical, compassionate model for development.

Here are some of the key implications to consider:

  • Shifts mindsets: Having SDG18 would unequally elevate animal welfare as vital to sustainability, helping change social attitudes toward exploitation.
  • Catalyzes innovation: Spurs promising R&D globally into plant proteins, synthetic materials/foods, pharmaceutical testing alternatives.
  • Economic disruption: Jobs, rural livelihoods, national GDPs tied to animal agribusiness could take enormous hits from blanket phase-outs and transitory solutions need to be found.
  • Needs transition plans: Making SDG18 work requires carefully strategized, stepwise roadmaps for affected communities to adapt economically.
  • Feasibility issues: Getting to zero animal use in all spheres by 2030 seems highly challenging, suggesting incremental policy adoption if adoped, may be likelier.

In conclusion, while SDG18 is undoubtedly ambitious, it resonates with a growing portion of society that sees ending exploitation as a moral baseline for humanity’s development.

The conversation started by SDG18 won’t be ending anytime soon. And whether or not it becomes UN policy, it has put animal suffering directly under the sustainability spotlight where it warrants serious attention. Eliminating it aligns with both ethical values and evidence-based development – perhaps not overnight on a 2030 timeline but through gradual, steady societal and economic evolution.

Fundamentally, initiatives like SDG18 that compel us to envision pathways past animal exploitation spotlight the ethical inconsistencies in societies that condemn cruelty toward cats and dogs yet institutionally perpetuate suffering for pigs and cows on enormous scales without question.

A future without animal factories and slaughterhouses may seem unrealistic to some today. But not long ago, so did human rights and racial equality. With committed, values-driven efforts on systemic and mindset shifts, we can build an economy that doesn’t commodify sentient beings.

For those who already see our blind acceptance of animal suffering as morally wrong, having a unifying global goal endorsed by entities like the UN could be validating and a turning point for long-marginalised perspectives. It would also give diverse change-makers rallying around reducing exploitation helpful targets and policy levers.

Most importantly, no single campaign or SDG can replace having compassion be the driving force behind how we treat other living beings with intrinsic worth and sensitivity. Structures reflect collective worldviews – so creating societies where animals are no longer property will need a profound paradigm evolution in how we empathise with other species.

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