Friday, September 13, 2013

This is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology

Earlier this year, I posted a brief review of Will Anderson's 2012 publication This is Hope.  Having finished it, I can now offer a more thorough discussion.

In my environmentally-focused Sociology department and in my graduate classes, I was very disappointed at how Nonhuman Animals were either objectified or ignored altogether in the green discourse.  For the first time, we have a comprehensive piece where Nonhuman Animals are included in the discussion as meaningful participants, victims, communities, and individuals. Other work touches on the inclusion of Nonhuman Animals, but this book acts a sort of environmentally-themed version of Singer's Animal Liberation.  Anderson argues that environmentalism makes no sense so long as we encourage and protect violence against Nonhuman Animals:  "We are not environmentalists if our vision and effort allow continued ecosystem collapses, extinctions, untold suffering, and unsustainability to continue" (172).

Most environmental literature speaks of Nonhuman Animals, not as individuals, but as a "species."  When the individual is lost from consideration, any number of injustices can be enacted upon individuals in the name of species "conservation," like "hunting" and "wildlife management."  We learn how hunting artificially removes individuals from the environment, thus tampering with evolution as genes are eliminated from populations in ways that would not otherwise occur naturally (as happens when hunters go for males and animals with the largest tusks or antlers).  We see how humans intentionally create fragile ecosystems that ultimately require human management.  The projects of "humane washing" and "green washing" emerge to justify this management and continued exploitation, ignoring the ethical and logical vegan solution.

Anderson's book offers an extensive overview of how Nonhuman Animals, both domesticated and free-living, are impacted by human activity.  In many ways, it offers a rather sociological view of how Nonhuman Animals are otherized. There is a discussion of how nature and the human/nonhuman divide are socially constructed by humans. His approach is personal, often sharing his interactions with various Nonhuman Animal communities, environmental groups and agencies, and his travels across the world.  We learn how Nonhuman Animals matter, with a variety of anecdotal stories, case studies, research reviews, and a discussion of sentience.  He discusses the complexities involved with navigating violence against Nonhuman Animals among indigenous populations.  There is also a discussion of the complexities of human and nonhuman oppression.  Poverty, ecocide, misogyny, speciesism and other oppressions, he insists, are all interrelated.

Anderson presents a case for "neo-predation," that is, human predation on Nonhuman Animals is exacerbated because it is based on our increasing population and our increasing consumption.  In simply taking up space, creating noise pollution, laying roads and road barriers, and introducing invasive species (like cows and crops), we inflict unimaginable damage.

However, important barriers to creating a vegan ecology exist.  For one, environmentalists are wary to adopt veganism for fear of appearing too sentimental (a problem with  many "feminized" social movements striving for social change under a patriarchy).  The Non-Profit Industrial Complex also seems to be at work, as professionalized, funding-dependent NGOs dominate the arena and stifle radical discourse:
Environmentalists and other advocates should lead and inspire our journey out of the current human ecology and into the humane and sustainable new human ecology.  Instead, they are not telling us the entire story about what is required for our biological and moral survival. (179)
Anderson explains that differing cultural beliefs on the environment and Nonhuman Animals mean we have no agreed upon goals, which makes collaboration difficult.  This is aggravated by the hyperfocus on membership and financial support in the professionalized organizations.  Hunters, being important funders, enjoy protected interests and silenced anti-specieism discourse.  Likewise, professionalized groups generally don't want to associate with veganism to avoid seeming unreasonable.  He also analyzes a wealth of counter-claimsmaking promulgated by "fur," "fishing," and "wildlife management" industries.  On that note, I did find it very strange to see a list of recommended Nonhuman Animal NGOs at the end of the book, given that Nonhuman Animal rights NGOs are just as guilty of selling out Nonhumans for fear of losing credibility and funding.  The inclusion of Vegan Outreach was especially disturbing, given their strong stance against veganism!

That said, at least four issues stood out to me as potentially problematic.

First, the entire theory of the book rests on his case for "empathy."  When we are speaking of rights, "empathy" makes me nervous.  I think we should be worried about creating a strong foundation for equality based on the logic of social justice.  "Empathy" can often come off as condescending in a manner that upholds human superiority.  For instance, we would not argue that women deserve rights because men should "empathize" with them, we would argue that women deserve rights because we recognize that as sentient beings, women deserve to be free of murder, rape, harassment, etc.  Empathy is important in motivating concern, but I would hesitate to build a theory of social justice on wavering emotional states.

Secondly, I am hugely deterred by the framing of violence against Nonhuman Animals as "carnism."  "Carnism" is a term coined by Dr. Melanie Joy, and in many ways, is a corruption of the more inclusive term, "speciesism."  Carnism refers specifically to consuming Nonhuman Animals for food, but a true vegan approach would recognize that it is much more than what we eat, it's also using Nonhuman Animals for clothes, entertainment, etc.  Speciesism encapsulates that.  Secondly, even in the realm of food, carnism only refers to "flesh."  If you read between the lines in Joy's writing, you can figure out that she really means to include birds' eggs, cows' milk, etc., but that is not made clear.  I really think the entire "carnism" concept is distracting, confusing, and unnecessary.

Third, Anderson also runs into problems with his focus on population.  He often speaks of quelling the growth of human population in general, but it is developing countries where this is happening specifically.  Population has largely stagnated or even declined in the West, where individuals have greater wealth and greater access to education and other social services.  So, when we talk about reducing human population, we need to be careful about what groups of people we are talking about--it is usually the world's poor and disadvantaged.  These people are not the ones creating the massive amount of destruction and occupying all the space, that's the privileged people living in the West.  Many areas of high population growth are also areas where people live on a dollar a day and are crammed into the highly confined spaces of ghettos and slums.  Anderson acknowledges these social inequalities throughout the text, he just fails to do so in the context of population discussion.  Population growth needs to be stopped and reversed, but he never explains exactly how that will be implemented.  I fear the explanation will lie in targeting poor brown peoples, specifically vulnerable women.

Relatedly, Anderson also suggests that people living in areas where food must be transported at high cost and where considerable energy must be invested into heating and cooling might consider moving.  But, this is an option generally only available to the socially privileged.  I've heard this same argument used for poor Americans of color living in food deserts, but simply moving is not a realistic solution.

Indeed, the same problem arises when Anderson suggests that all populations of the world are "uniquely responsible" for the environmental crisis:  "There are no exceptions" (303):
Rich and poor, indefensible over-consumers and low-scale consumers, all are drawn into the fray because we each have our varying degrees of impact that require responses. (304)
However, we know that the majority of the world's human population is so incredibly impoverished, their responsibility lies in surviving to see tomorrow and putting food in their children's mouths.  Under such strained, day-to-day survivalist existence, I'm not sure how they couldn't be excepted.  Furthermore, it is the world's privileged who have created these drastic inequalities to begin with.  Anderson calls for us to adopt "humanity" as our primary identity, not nationality, ethnicity, or tribal identification.  But, this position overlooks serious social and global hierarchies.  White male Western capitalists have created this problem, not starving, illiterate villagers with dying children who are scraping to exist in the slums and countrysides of Africa, India, and China.  I feel that when he speaks to how we are all "uniquely responsible," he really means those of us with the privilege of taking responsibility:  those of us who will not have to choose between eating or not eating, living or not living.  Dismantling inequalities of this scale will require institutional change, which will first require an attitude shift.  People living in these conditions don't want to live in those conditions, it's not their attitude we need to change, it's our Western, individual, hyper-consumption colonialist attitude that needs to go.  When we see education spread and wealth redistributed, I think there will be a much easier case for environmental stewardship.

Overall, an incredibly sad read.  It was distressing to read of suffering individuals, diminishing communities, human arrogance, NGO corruption, political irrationality, etc.  I will warn you, some of the stories are extremely graphic and traumatizing (like a detailed description of how coyotes react as they are murdered by poison, or how elk slowly meet their death in a disemboweled panic at the hands of bow "hunters").  But, the book is uplifting in that Anderson constantly reminds us that the solution is at our fingertips.  Finally, a strong case is being made for veganism as the most important way of diminishing social inequality and suffering in human and nonhuman societies.

Overall, I think this is a very powerful book that is appropriate for a curious public, nonvegan environmentalists, and college students.  A very engaging read.