Countdown Conversations: Ryuji Chua
We heard from Ryuji Chua about animals rights, accountability, and kindness ahead of his Countdown talk: ‘Animals & the climate crisis: a missing perspective.’
Please note: This interview has been edited for increased clarity and readability. Ryuji’s views are still fully represented.
Looking at Marius’ story – which you mention in your talk – how is the way that we treat people similar or different to the way we treat animals? What can we learn from the way we treat animals?
So the story of Marius is a story of a giraffe who lived in Copenhagen Zoo. And what happened is that the people at the zoo killed him on February 9th 2014. And the reason they did that was because they found that he was useless in the captive breeding programme of the zoo – a programme to keep species in existence for as long as possible. They looked at Marius’ genes and went ‘his genes are not helpful to achieve that goal’ – so ‘tough luck’ is basically what they said. And the point of that story is to show that the worth of Marius’ life, in this case, was not predicated on how he was an individual. They couldn't just look at it as ‘well you're a giraffe. You want to live. So okay’, they said ‘you’re a giraffe, but you're useless to the species of giraffes, and so too bad for you.’ And so what they failed to do is to consider him as an individual, they saw him as a means to an end.
So one way this is similar to how we treat humans – though there are different directions this could go – is to look at something like the economy, and what happens when we care too much about it. For example, in the 1930s economists came up with this concept called the GDP, or the gross domestic products – a way to evaluate how well a country was doing. It measures the economic outputs of a country, and the total value of all the goods and services that were produced in a country in a given period of time. And so for decades after that, that's just what we ran with – it was the defining stat that everyone cared about. And the narrative was if GDP goes up, that's good. If GDP goes down, that's bad. And though that somewhat worked – when GDP goes up, generally standards of living go up – the problem with GDP is that it can create the illusion that some people are more valuable than others. So a good example is a stay-at-home mum compared to an investment banker. Now, one could argue, and I probably would argue, that they both contribute equal value to society. And I would even maybe say that the stay-at-home mum contributes more value to society. She's raising the next generation, you know? An investment banker – who really cares what they're doing right. So, in a sense, you could say that she has a lot more value, but yet when we look at it through the lens of just GDP and the economy, the stay-at-home mum has zero value, whereas the investment banker has a lot of value. It creates this risk where we start seeing people and giving them value based on how valuable they are to the economy instead of looking at them as ‘hey you're human. And that's enough for you to be valuable.’
Today in our society, people get rewarded, monetarily at least, based on how valuable they are economically, but that doesn't always reflect how valuable they are to society, and it doesn't always reflect them as an individual. Sometimes we don't see people as individuals, and this is kind of like what the Copenhagen Zoo did to Marius – but we also do this to a lot of people in society.
In your talk, you also mention sea turtles with straws stuck up their noses. Some might argue that this example is an instance of fetishism – as in, directing concentration towards a small, “brandable” issue instead of talking about overarching systems change. What is your response?
I would say that they're completely right. Anytime you say something, or try to create change in a certain way, everything is going to have upsides and downsides. So when we are concentrating on an individual, and we're saying ‘this is the problem’, it runs the risk of people caring about just this thing, and not understanding that it's part of a bigger issue, or that ‘there could be other issues that maybe I'm not seeing with that as well.’ And actually, when you look at this specific example, it's interesting because in the video that I talk about, Christine Figgener and her team are taking a straw out of a sea turtle, and it went viral. It connected with people. So after the video came out, a lot of people did a lot of campaigning – like ‘save the sea turtles’, and this led to big companies announcing plans to phase out plastic straws. Now what's really interesting about this is that it shows the upsides and the downsides of this kind of approach.
First of all, the thing with plastic straws being ditched by these companies – a lot of it was kind of like greenwashing. For example, my understanding is that at Starbucks, the lid they replaced plastic straws with uses more plastic. So there are issues there. But what's interesting is that scientists have been talking about this issue for years. For years, they've been saying plastic pollution harms wildlife – they're screaming this, but they're screaming it in academic papers and within themselves, so they didn't really connect to the audience. So they were talking about this big issue and understood it better than everyone, but they weren't able to communicate it to the public. So the upside of having a story about an individual is that it actually connects with people. But then maybe people ditch plastic straws but still consume other plastic products. Or they don't understand, for example, that most of the plastic that's in the ocean comes from fishing gear. So really, if you wanted to save the sea turtles maybe we should take down the fishing industry and stop eating fish more than giving up plastic straws. They would actually make a bigger impact, but people don't see that because they're just like ‘save the turtles, it's about the plastic straw.’ So obviously there's a downside to that. But there's also an upside which is well at least they got people to care.
So I think we have to decide what is our goal? And we have to understand that there are different ways of looking at it. One way is ‘what is the truth’, ‘what is the actual issue’ and yet the overall issue is a bigger, societal systemic issue. But at the same time, humans are wired to relate and resonate with stories. We care about individuals. So in my opinion, if we are trying to communicate an issue to people, it makes sense to use the stories of individuals because that's effective and it connects with people. And then it's a matter of ‘well how do we tell people that it's not just about this individual, it's about this bigger thing’, and then it's about how they interpret that.
So there are ups and downs to every strategy, and I think the best we can do is to understand them, and work with them.
Humans are wired to relate and resonate with stories. We care about individuals
Another quite controversial talking point is veganism. You advocate strongly for veganism, and other types of change at an individual level. Some might say that this places the responsibility to fix the climate crisis and protect animals on individuals, without holding major companies or governments accountable. What is your response?
Yeah, again, I would say they're absolutely right.
First of all, I should say that my talk specifically is not actually about veganism, and also in the past couple of years I have shifted away from advocating for individual change – – even though I still believe in it, it’s just not something that I've been doing as much for various reasons. And one of the reasons why is because my understanding now is that we should tackle these bigger systems, right? But obviously, there are always different perspectives. One perspective is that if we concentrate on individuals, we're not holding companies accountable. And that's true.
Now, the place I come to individual change from is more personal. The way that I came to become a vegan is through a journey of personal development. So when I was in high school, I was a miserable kid. And through that struggle, I discovered the world of personal development – of people who said ‘hey, you know, if you want a better life, you can build that for yourself if you work hard, and you change your mindset’ and so on and so forth. And that really resonated with me because I was like ‘well, nothing's working. I might as well try this.’ So I did that. And so for years, I read books, I went to trainings and I really tried to work on myself to become who I wanted to become. And what happened through that journey is that I realised at some point that becoming a better person is not just about me getting what I want. It's about how am I impacting the world around me? How am I making the world a better place? How are others living better lives or suffering because of my actions? And that's the angle through which I came to become vegan, because I realised that when I consume animal products I am supporting an industry that treats animals in a way that if I were those animals, I would never want to be in their position. And I thought, if I don't want to be in their position, how do I justify putting them in that position? I found out about all the horrible practices of factory farming and other industries that use animals. And so for me, becoming vegan was a step towards becoming a better version of myself, where I'm taking into consideration others who are around me.
So when I advocate for personal change, the way that I think about it is: I think there are a lot of people who are interested in becoming better people and in aligning their values with their actions, and in creating a better world. With individual changes, if you're interested in becoming a better you, and taking into account your impact on other animals, then this is something that you can do. I think there are a lot of people who are interested in doing that, which is a big reason why I advocate for it. Although I also recognise that that's probably not the pathway through which we're going to change the entire world.
Was there a turning point for you in terms of how you felt about animals?
What's interesting is that I've always considered myself an animal lover, ever since I was a young kid. Every Sunday I remember I would sit in bed and binge-watch nature documentaries – some of my favourite shows on TV. But what I realised later on is that, first of all, I only used to love certain animals. And the way I loved them was that I thought they were cute, or I thought they were cool. Or I thought I had a special relationship with them. It was all about me.
The turning point for me was the first or second time I went to a farm animal sanctuary. This is a place where farm animals – typically most of them are farm animals like chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, goats – live, and they're essentially allowed to live their lives. What a concept, right? So usually what would happen is that these animals are killed at a fraction of their lifespan, or they're exploited for their eggs or their milk. But in these sanctuaries, they're just allowed to be themselves and people take care of them until they die of natural causes – much like we take care of cats and dogs at home. So I went there and that was one of the first times that I had actually encountered farm animals. My entire life, even though I loved animals, there were certain animals I never really hung out with – like a chicken, or I never really hung out with a pig. But when I went to that sanctuary I met them, and I spent time with them, and I was able to see them be happy and live their lives. I would look into their eyes, and I would see very clearly that someone's there, and it's very similar to what it looks like when I look into the eyes of a dog or cat. I recognise that there's like a complex inner thing going on. And I started feeling this way about these animals. In the past, I would kind of objectify them. Or even after I became vegan, I would see like a chicken farm and think, well, the chickens are the same, the pigs are the same. But then I went to a sanctuary and I thought, well, they're different. They have different personalities, and they like eating different things. And they look at you and they know that you're looking at them – and it's all really basic stuff. Later on I came to think well, it should have been obvious that that's the case.
But that was a big turning point for me, because it led me to care about animals because they are individuals, and I started making it about them.
How do you think we can increase the amount of kindness and care directed to individuals in our society?
I think one way that we can increase kindness directed towards individuals in our society is to train ourselves, to see others as individuals – to recognise that no matter who someone is, whether they're human or not, there's something going on in their head and they have a subjective experience of life. They have thoughts, they have feelings, they worry about things, they have good days, and bad days, they have personality, they can suffer. And if we learn to see others like this, I think that it can really help us be more kind. Because often, even with humans, when we talk about tragedies, it’s ‘this many people died’ and it's kind of like a statistic. And I think it's very useful to remind ourselves that each person is important. These numbers are important. Statistics are important, but because they represent individuals. Whether it's one person who suffers or 10 people who suffer – to that one person who's suffering, their suffering is just as important. And I think that if we really learned to recognise this, not just logically but emotionally – if we learn to look into someone's eyes and to see someone there, and to care for that person, because they are someone – I think that will really make the world a better place.
Whether it's one person who suffers or 10 people who suffer – to that one person who's suffering, their suffering is just as important
Transcribed and edited by Alana Gaglio.
The views and opinions presented in this interview belong to Ryuji Chua — not Alana Gaglio, nor TEDxWarwick.
If you have any questions concerning the interview, or opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.