Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: The Ecological Hoofprint

The Ecological Hoofprint:  The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock was recommended to me by David Nibert as it is sociologically oriented and critical of animal product consumption.  It provides an excellent summary of the major environmental arguments against meat in the context of global inequality and the agricultural industrial complex.  It is a good companion to Meatonomics, This is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology, and David Nibert’s work.  In general, I think this work is an excellent introduction into the sociology of food systems and environmental sociology.  It also speaks to animals & society discourse, though it is decidedly anthropocentric and speciesist in its conclusions.

It is very intersectional and critical of capitalism, tracing the historical process towards the system we have today. Weis argues that, in earlier times, most energy came from the sun (rather than fossil fuels) and travel was restricted because it was not efficient (a phenomenon he calls the “friction of distance”). Because the farmers couldn’t move around much, they had to take care of what resources they had locally available and farm more responsibly.  However, capitalism eroded this friction of distance with the rise of globalization and colonialism.  This has led to large scale environmental destruction and climate change.

The book also discusses how environmentalism has been framed in a way that obscures problems and protects capitalist interests.  Weis is refreshingly critical of the overpopulation rhetoric that blames environmental degradation on population (i.e. poor people and vulnerable communities).  This position ignores the role that livestock production plays.  He calls this focus on human population “corporate greenwash” and is critical of how technology, development, and capitalist growth are reframed as solutions, when they are, in fact, the problem.  Overpopulation rhetoric obscures global inequality and focuses on the more easily targeted “distant other”:
Rather than the persistence of high fertility rates being a cause of poverty and degradation, critics counter, these are better understood as a symptom or an effect of things like class, patriarchy, and other inequalities, and the dependence of the poor upon children for such things as labor and old-age security. (35)
This is perhaps the crux of his argument: We are ignoring the Nonhuman Animal component:
The ecological footprint presents a call to understand consumption in terms of the bundles of land, water, resources, pollution, and GHG emissions embedded in production, and in turn the tremendous environmental dimension of economic inequalities. The ecological hoofprint seeks to connect and extend some of these basic concerns to a different and much bigger ‘population bomb’ than what environmentalists have long focused upon: that which is occurring within systems of industrial livestock production. (50) 
A primary goal of the ecological hoofprint as a concept and metaphor is to call attention to the large, wide-ranging, and highly uneven burden of industrial livestock production.  To do this, it develops a political ecological framework for understanding the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex as a system in motion, and how its fundamental economic logic (or imperatives) gives shape to the social and ecological relations of production, including the associated instabilities and the ways they are overridden. (52)
Unfortunately, Weis operates under the assumption that animal products are good for human health, which is indicative that he has not addressed the volumes of research that have demonstrated quite the opposite.  He also hangs on to the falsehood that animal production could ideally be beneficial to humanity, even suggesting that small scale animal agriculture can be beneficial to the environment.  However, he does admit that not all societies relied on livestock or required it.  He also challenges the “contract” justification between humans and other animals (the fantasy that Nonhuman Animals happily give up their children, labor, and lives to be "cared for").  He rightfully refers to this as violent and evidence of human supremacy.  Much of the book also reiterates Nibert’s arguments and claims that animal agriculture is inherently tied to class and gender exploitation as well as colonialist expansion.  The rise of animal agriculture is a project of colonization and oppression.

To some degree, Weis is critical of the objectification of Nonhuman Animals and is quite critical of welfare reform (as it supports the logic of capitalism and only seeks to make industry more efficient).  However, it appears that the return to Old MacDonald's Farm is his ultimate desire:
An ecologically rational conception of efficiency thus turns a basic tenet of modernization on its head: rather than technology displacing labor in large monocultures, there is a need for labor and knowledge to displace mechanization. [ . . . ] In the course of rethinking efficiency, ways must be found to ensure equitable outcomes that valorize the labor, skill, and ecological services of bio-intensive farms [ . . . ].  What this analysis makes clear, though, is that dismantling the industrial-grain-oilseed-livestock complex is at the very center of any hopes of making world agriculture more sustainable, socially just, and humane” (149).
Weis suggests the “livestock population bomb” be addressed to reduce the livestock population dramatically.  He ends with a discussion of vegetarianism, humane farms, and veganism, but is very wishy-washy about veganism, indicating
that it is unrealistic or unnecessary.  This, I believe, is the greatest weakness of the book. Though the majority of the book was astonishingly intersectional, well-argued, and sociologically-sound, his stubborn refusal to seriously acknowledge the scientific research demonstrating the toxic effect of animal products on human health makes this book one I would probably not recommend.  No book that claims to take on environmental problems and issues of social justice but sells out the animals and continues to view them as expendable commodities will be credible social science in my opinion.  For this reason, I would direct readers interested in these topics to the books recommended at the beginning of this review, primarily that of David Nibert.

UPDATE 04/16/2014:

The author has since contacted me and is not happy with some of the conclusions I've drawn, specifically in my claims that he does not address the health risks of animal-based diets and the desire for a turn to "humane" farming practices.  I encourage readers to read the book for themselves and form their own conclusions.  This essay is a reposting from a review I posted on my account. In that review, I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars, as I do think the book has quite a bit to offer the field. Given the choice, however, I would still recommend Meatonomics, This is Hope, or Nibert's 2002 and 2013 publications over this one.