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Animal Crisis: Why Self-Centered Human Supremacism Fails

A new book highlights that what can help other animals can also help us.

Key points

  • The book "Animal Crisis" shows that what works to remove attitudes that oppress nonhumans also will greatly help humans.
  • The authors make an urgent plea to dismantle the human supremacism that is devastating animal lives and hurtling us toward ecocide.
  • Attitudes about the world and human and nonhumans are distorted by ideologies that don’t capture the value of the lives of humans and animals.
  • Their stories draw connections between the plight of animals in particular contexts with the marginalization of humans in those same contexts.

Given my longtime interests in nonhuman animal (animal) protection and how humans can also benefit from efforts to protect other animals, I was pleased to learn about a new book by eminent philosophers Drs. Alice Crary and Lori Gruen called Animal Crisis: A New Critical Theory that offers a new ethic that makes the case that there can be no animal liberation without human emancipation and that human supremacism is absolutely misguided. To wit, systems of thought and action that are failing animals ultimately fail humans.

Many people refer to the Anthropocene as the "age of humanity" when, in fact, it's the "rage of inhumanity" against numerous humans and nonhumans. As I read Animal Crisis—an exceptionally well-written and well-argued book—I thought about another interview I did called "Is Human Intelligence a Gift or a Burden?" in which Justin Gregg also argues against human supremacism.

I'm pleased Alice and Lori could answer a few questions about their novel approach to how we can radically reimagine our relationships with other animals that also will benefit humans. I can see how it easily links to the One Health initiative, the goal of which is to increase the well-being of all animals, human and nonhuman alike.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Animal Crisis?

Alice Crary and Lori Gruen: In the spring of 2018, we started working together on a review essay about the field of animal ethics. It very quickly seemed to both of us that it would be more meaningful to write a short, urgent plea to radically rethink animal ethics—to radically rethink both the philosophical field and its realization within social protest movements.

 Lori Gruen, with permission.
Source: Lori Gruen, with permission.

Anthropogenic activity has plunged the planet into crisis. Human devastation of animals and their habitats has existential implications not only for animals but for humans. Attitudes about the world, and about human and non-human others, are distorted by ideologies that don’t capture the value of the lives and relationships of humans and animals. These distortions permeate standard views in animal ethics, just as they structure many philosophical discussions of social justice.

We are convinced that the ideological obfuscations have to be exposed and contested if we are to arrive at interventions that are capable of promoting liberating political action.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

AC and LG: We hope Animal Crisis will be widely read by social justice scholars and activists and, of course, by animal activists too. Since we both are philosophers who work in ethics, social and political philosophy, and feminist philosophy and, since one of our central concerns in the book is to push animal ethics in politically more meaningful directions, we also hope the book gets uptake among philosophers and animal studies scholars.

But we want to stress that our larger aim is to attract a wider audience. Each of the book’s seven chapters opens with a photograph and a story about the plight of animals today. These stories are written to be accessible to general readers who want to learn more about our fellow creatures.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

AC and LG: Animal Crisis proposes a new critical theory—a critical animal theory—designed to overcome the social and political isolation of traditional animal ethics. Only within the last decade have questions about the violence of larger social structures and the exercise of state power had much uptake within animal studies. These structures not only treat the bodies of animals as free resources to use, but also appropriate the reproductive, care, and sustenance labor of women and racialized people. We draw on insights from ecofeminism, the early Frankfurt School, and other critical theories in arguing that animal ethics should be pursued as a critical theory.

In developing this new approach, we work to bring structures of oppression more clearly into view. Throughout, we seek to make the lives, experiences, and relationships of other animals visible.

Too often in discussions in animal ethics and politics, animals are mere abstractions. In starting each chapter with a story, highlighting animals’ experiences, we are pushing back against this trend. We are capturing how those experiences matter and drawing connections between the plight of animals in particular contexts with the marginalization of humans in those same contexts.

One central case for us is industrial animal agriculture or “factory farming.” We also talk about the palm oil industry, in places like Borneo and Sumatra, how it devastates the lives of animals, and how it causes serious harm to human populations. We discuss the minds of octopuses and other animals, human beings’ complicated relationships with rats, as well as the trade in exotic animals. We think of these cases not as individual crises but as parts of one larger crisis.

We are combating ideologies that make it hard to see connections among individual instances of the mistreatment of animals and the subjugation of human beings and bringing out that the harms to humans and other animals we’re discussing aren’t accidental and one-off but structural and systemic.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

AC and LG: Our book works to give animal ethics greater political relevance by highlighting the predicaments of actual animals in crisis and examining the underlying ideologies that support the subjugation of animals and marginalized humans. Unlike many books in animal ethics that focus on what people might do individually or collectively to help animals, our book focuses on the conceptual and material structures that authorize and promote oppression. And, unlike recent discussions that pursue rights for animals within the framework of liberal capitalism, it raises important questions about the implications for animals and vulnerable humans of these modes of social organization.

MB: Are you hopeful change is in the wind?

We really have to hone our imaginations to come up with more just possibilities for relationships with each other and other animals. One of our guiding beliefs is that meaningful strategies need to be rooted in the particular contexts that call for change. So, there can be no blueprint that will work in all settings.

References

In conversation with Dr. Alice Crary, University Distinguished Professor at the New School for Social Research (also see) and Dr. Lori Gruen, William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University (also see).

Is Human Intelligence a Gift or a Burden?

Clever Dogs, Happy Cats, and Myths of Human Exceptionalism.

How to Be Animal: The Case Against Human Exceptionalism.

Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism.

Why People Should Care About Animal and Human Suffering.

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