According to our traditional use of the term, respect is esteem for or a sense of the worth of a person or some personal quality. In other words, respect is reserved exclusively for people.
One of the things that has made it easy to withhold respect from non-human entities has been our core dualism — the one that has allowed us to thoughtlessly ruin our planet and drive millions of other species toward extinction in the process. This dualism is the one that sees the world as composed of only two classes of things: people and resources. In such a bi-polar world, only humans are deserving of respect, because it's obvious that iron ore, oil, wheat and cattle only need to be useful. In this world-view, if a non-human entity is not being used as a resource by humans at the moment, then there is really no reason for it to even exist. If we can't remove it to make way for something more useful to us, it would be best if it stayed out of our way. Respect doesn't even enter the picture.
Well, as Bob Dylan sang so many years ago, "The times they are a-changin'."
One of the seditious ideas that is finally creeping back into the global consciousness is the notion that perhaps all that other non-human "stuff" out there isn't just stuff after all. Maybe it's all part of the matrix in which we live, a web that we are part of in the same way as whales, honeybees, oak trees and ragweed. Just maybe we are a part of life rather than apart from it. Maybe all that other life out there has its own intrinsic worth and value, independent of its usefulness to us. Maybe all that life has a right to the resources it needs to live, just as we do.
Healing that dualistic separation, recognizing the fundamental equality and interdependence of all life on this fair planet requires a dramatic change in our use of the word "respect". If we recognize the worth of non-human life as being commensurate with our own, then we must extend our respect to it as well. This respect requires that we give non-human life room to grow, that we honour its need for life-sustaining resources and habitat, that we not destroy it unnecessarily, and that we begin to treat it as our partner in the great dance of existence.
The glory of life is that it is the manifestation of the universe's creative nature. Together, human and non-human life in all its uncountable forms co-create the living reality we take for granted every day. Respect seems like such a small repayment for that sacred endeavour. Paying respect to other life is a form of meditation or prayer. Each time we do it, we bring ourselves into closer alignment with the world we live in, this exuberant and generous world that nurtures us and gives us a home.