An Animal-Based Environmental Ethic

» May 13th, 2014

In the May 12 issue of The Nation Naomi Klein, with manifesto-like intensity, situates our environmental crisis in the rise of industrial capitalism. The first step in atoning for our ecological sins, she explains, requires “recognizing that we are part of an industrial project.”

According to this premise, one shared by much of the environmental movement, the conventional culprits of ecological disaster—big technologies, hyperactive mobility, and the “bullet train” of contemporary consumption—have alienated humans from nature, erected “structural barriers to the next economy,” and ensured the darkness of our doom.

Klein is right—but only to a point. Industrial capitalism obviously accounts for systematic ecological destruction. But, in privileging the influence of industrial capitalism, Klein overlooks a neglected but critically important historical reality: human societies were decimating the environment well before the emergence of industrial capitalism. And they were doing so with staggering efficiency.

With primitive technologies, minimal geographical mobility, and haphazard rates of consumption, pre-industrial cultures in North America created ecological crises from which we have never fully recovered. Pre-industrial ecological devastation could be seen in the elimination of the New England shad fisheries, the deforestation of colonial American East Coast, and the near total depletion of Virginia’s topsoil–all before 1820. And that’s just a short list.

The upshot of this largely unappreciated context is a somewhat terrifying reality. Re-situating today’s environmental crisis in the pre-industrial era, after all, strongly suggests that Klein’s earnest prescriptions to avoid complete environmental doom—slow down, consume less, and observe/appreciate our surroundings—are, if the past is any indication, effectively useless. We cannot go to the past to save the future.

What’s needed, and what views such as Klein’s ignore, is a radically new kind of environmental ethics. The XL Pipeline or the snail darter is what seems to best capture our attention. But it’s the larger mindset within which we situate these issues that matters.

There are all kinds of environmental ethics out there–the land ethic/biocentrism, a sustainability ethic based on human access to resources/an aesthetic based ethic/bioregionalism/social ecology. But one ethic strikes me as superior to all others, especially in light of the fact that humans elevated preindustrial ecological befouling to a science.

That, of course, is the animal ethic. Ponder the deepest origins of our grandest ecological failures and you will likely find the systematic exploitation of animals (and not just nonhuman). That Virginia topsoil devastation required oxen and slaves to pull plows. Those trees were felled to build ships to trade salted fish and slaves. Yes, there are many exceptions, but you get what I’m saying in general.

So, yes, we might consider slowing down, consuming less, and better appreciating our backyards. But if we got truly serious about the conflict we now face and stopped the intentional exploitation of animals—and, in many cases, even unintentional forms of exploitation—then we could walk through an environment of—at the very least—hope.

28 Responses to An Animal-Based Environmental Ethic

  1. John Maher says:

    As Frederic Jameson teaches us, capitalism relentlessly speeds everything up through the extractive mechanism and the need for growth in rates of return (or capital migrates elsewhere to where a greater return on investment (ROI) is offered as Ricardo observed).

    So I am going to pounce on this statement:

    “Klein is right—but only to a point. Industrial capitalism obviously accounts for systematic ecological destruction. But, in privileging the influence of industrial capitalism, Klein overlooks a neglected but critically important historical reality: human societies were decimating the environment well before the emergence of industrial capitalism. And they were doing so with staggering efficiency.”

    I argue that while true as an axiom, preindustrial society was inevitably pointed by capitalism towards technological transformation through industrialization and relentless extraction. Engles writes about the origins of property and animal capital and this is what Gary Francione picks up on and argues humans must reject. So there was no sustainability to a fairy-tale-like pre industrial state which was only a historically inevitable way-station.

    The more cogent observation by JMcW is a rhetorical device which should mean that all capitalism is founded upon types and degrees of slavery and leads to ecological ruin:

    Ponder the deepest origins of our grandest ecological failures and you will likely find the systematic exploitation of animals (and not just nonhuman).

    Klein remains on target even if her ideas are no more original than Thomas Pinketty’s.

  2. Fireweed says:

    For those unfamiliar, this critique by John Sanbonmatsu of the Derek Jensen school of thought, which advocates for a hastening of the collapse of civilization (but a continuation of animal exploitation as if hunting and animal ‘husbandry’ doesn’t reinforce the same hierarchical mindset that has eventually led to wide scale destruction of animals and ecosystem collapse) is still an important, related read I think, James. We sure need more big picture critiques that don’t romanticize a return to ‘the golden age that never was’. And that don’t remain as blind to the animal ethic as Naomi (much as I admire and appreciate so much of her work, generally speaking). human

    Hope IS alive and well for some who would much rather direct their energies towards restoration than the wholesale collapse of civilization advocated by Jensen, etc, (destruction that is only guaranteed to cause far more suffering and misery for animals and humans alike in our imperfect world). Sadhana Forest projects offer such a beacon of hope for me….busy modeling veganism in action with food forest development in some of the most ravaged areas of the world. Their gift-economy fueled eco-restoration project in India has been so successful that they have now expanded into Haiti and Kenya. No contribution to their outstanding work is too small to consider….IMO, far more vegan advocates (and the environmental, social justice communities at large) need to know about what they are doing, and be inspired!

    • John Maher says:

      The “hope” you claim is alive is of course the worst of conditions described by Nietzsche as it presupposes an unoptimized and unfulfilled present. To me hope is a self-indulgent myth at this point. Jensen is not without his critics and while no one wants environmental collapse this is more likely than an awareness of animal consciousness as desired by Jon Sanbanmatsu. Thus I may personally be closer ideologically to Sanbonmatsu and still agree with Jensen that collapse is more likely and civilization and end-stage relentlessly destructive. The big difference is Sanbonmatsu values individual animals within the problematic constraints of humanism and critical theory while Jensen advocates a species ethic in which, despite not having much in common with post humanists, Jensen decenters the human. For anyone who is tempted to dismiss Jensen is a nutjob, just talk to biologists and climate scientists and geologists or go on their listserves: the collapse Jensen predicts is assumed to be happening within the next century and perhaps within the next 20 years. Really depressing and there have even been threads about why bother to publish anything if we are all dead soon and how to live a meaningful life in the time that remains. Maybe they are both right.

      As for this topic, I may have mentioned Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital before and it is basically ‘Empire’ for animals and is extremely comprehensive in its discussion of animals in the political economy and the role of animal slavery in capitalism.

      I always ask students what they think animal law might be like in 25 years of environmental decline. Some get it.

    • Ellen K says:

      Thank you for these links. Sanbonmatsu well worth the long read, and Sadhana site looks great

  3. Fireweed says:

    Woops…here’s an unfettered link to the Sanbonmatsu piece for those who aren’t already familiar with it.

  4. Karen Harris says:

    Interesting blog. I just finished reading two books that speak to what you are saying James: Animal Oppression and Human Violence by David Nibert, and Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin. I think that both are excellent. Thanks to others for the links as well, as I am not familiar with the authors’ viewpoints. Finally, I would love a list of recommended books you and readers deem important – is that possible?

  5. Taylor says:

    This lengthy, statistics-packed article by Brian G. Henning is a must-read.

  6. Mountain says:

    Thank you, James, for pointing out how wrong Naomi Klein is in blaming industrial capitalism for the state of our environment. You phrased it much more kindly than I, of course.

    As you point at, devastation of the environment precedes industrial capitalism by centuries (if not millennia), and was common to pre-industrial societies. So, ecological crises are in no way limited to, or any worse in, industrial societies than they were in pre-industrial societies. So, she’s wrong about the first half of her claim (the “industrial” part).

    Klein is also wrong about the second part of her claim (the “capitalism” part). In the 20th century, environmental devastation was far worse in the Soviet-controlled parts of Europe than it was in capitalist western Europe. This is true in per-capita, per-dollar, or absolute terms. And the industrialization of China, with its epic smog clouds and toxic farmlands, proceeded under a Communist government. Their system isn’t exactly communist anymore, but it’s certainly not capitalism.

    So, one may argue against industrial capitalism on its own merits, but whatever follows isn’t going to be any better for the environment, and could be substantially worse.

    • John Maher says:

      My dear M — your post means you fail to grasp the meaning of capitalism. The Soviet Union and China operated as quasi-capitalist entities and both were always capitalist vis a vis the animals. It is only within the last 200 years that the carbon particles in the air have started to increase past a statistical average due to anthropocentric change. It is all the result of industrial capitalism and its relentless extractive process which funded burning things to move machines ever faster. If that label offends you call it something else. The statement “ecological crises are in no way limited to, or any worse in, industrial societies than they were in pre-industrial societies” is a matter of scale — certainly deforestation and species extermination occurred in pre-industrial societies but not on the scale following capital’s funding of industrialization.

      • Mountain says:

        My dear Johnny Marr (what happened to the T?),

        If you wish to use the term “capitalism” as an empty pejorative, you may– after all, most of academia has done so for decades– but if you wish for “capitalism” to have any meaning at all, you can’t describe the Soviet Union and Maoist China as quasi-capitalist. After all, capitalism is a system in which the flow of capital is controlled by private individuals rather than government officials. The United States may or may not be capitalist, but Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China most certainly were not. Capitalism is about divorcing economic decisions from the political process (for better or for worse), whereas totalitarian or near-totalitarian states are about subjecting all of life to the political process.

        The label doesn’t offend me, but when used this way, it ends up meaningless– much like “fascist” when used by leftists to describe political opponents, or “socialist” when used by right-wingers to describe their political opponents.

        • Ellen K says:

          Good evening gentlemen,
          For what it’s worth, my husband did business in China up until recently (wastewater clean-up), and consistently described it as the rawest capitalism he ever saw, an “old wild west” free-for-all.
          Strong words coming from an HBS MBA
          Anyway, doesn’t the problem of ecological/animal devastation cut across economic camps? i.e., industrial/exploitive/extractive destruction seems inherent to human economic endeavour regardless of which individuals, companies, governments or systems both finance and profit from it, and how. Just a musing from someone in the peanut gallery and way out of her field.

          • Mountain says:

            Hi Ellen, so I’ve heard from friends who have worked in China in recent decades. That’s why I was careful, I hope, to only discuss Maoist China.

            China is a strange case. Nominally, it’s still Communist, but the Party has long been more concerned with power than with ideology. On a practical, street level, it’s vibrantly capitalist, but higher-up, the major industries are still run by state-controlled companies. You could call it fascism, crony capitalism, or national socialism (though that term has some baggage), but I’m not sure any really fit.

          • John Maher says:

            China’s political economy is structured as a merchantile state, much like 16th Century Britain, Holland or France, where the state takes protectionist trade and currency positions and attempts to foster industry and economic growth throw strategic allocation of capital and preferential access to resources and markets via state directed control. In theory (and almost in practice) this leads to a steady state equilibrium (oxymoron) of full employment, a consumerist middle class, and thus an economically engineered transcendent Buddhist joining of heaven on earth in the Harmonious Society. This is state supported capitalism not communism. Maoist dogma aside, China may have been closer to communism in the 50′s through collectives (but not via state socialism) but as a nation they were merchantilist and in reality some worked for others under a communist label of no substance. So let us perhaps get back to definitional substance and avoid the jargon of the political economy?

          • Ellen K says:

            Hi Mountain,
            Yes, you were absolutely clear that you meant Maoist China, and I noted that, but then got lazy about further thought and hit “submit” as I needed to get back to my own means of production (stovetop, saucepan). You and JTM are both accurate in your follow-up thoughts.
            At risk of over-simplifying, I think we’re all on the same page anyway: regardless of political/economic system or label, the practical result for animals, environment, and most people is pretty much the same.
            Now I’ve got The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on repeat in my brain…

        • Taylor says:

          I’ll have to step in and render a split decision in this battle of the titans. Mountain is correct to say it’s very misleading to call the command economies of state socialism “capitalist”; they had a very different modus operandi. On the other hand, John is correct to insist that industrial societies have had a qualitatively greater impact on the natural environment than pre-industrial ones had. Whether in capitalist or state-socialist form, industrialism is the rational organization of society in pursuit of maximizing production and consumption, a project that “desacralizes” nature, regarding it as having only instrumental value.

          Today the world is faced with a triumphant global capitalism that is fouling and destroying its own nest. However, the emerging ecological consciousness that seeks to re-green and re-enchant the world will not necessarily include non-humans in the moral community; it may be a hierarchical eco-consciousness of the kind we see in Michael Pollan et al., one that views non-humans as essentially prey rather than kin. (Even German fascism had a strong green tinge.)

          • John Maher says:

            When the workers, human or animal, are divorced from ownership and control of the means of production, this is capitalism by any label whether in the USSR or PRC or anywhere else. I am sort of chuffed that a discussion on this point ensued and I ask all to reconsider their assumptions. By that same token I argue that while all these economies were basically some type of hybrid or reformed capitalism, there has never been a communist state or even society above the level of a small village. However, in our contortions over assumptions and labels let us not forget the critters. They are clearly consumed as both the workers and capital, as in the case of Green Mountain College in Vermont which worked Bill and Lou and then intended to eat them.

            Ellen is correct about the Wild East except that the structural privileged class and rhetoric of communism remain in China. Taylor’s comment was thoughtful but I am not insisting, say, that I am correct and Mountain is wrong but instead am arguing that the basic use of labour divorced from ownership of the means of production is capitalism in some form whether direct as in the US or indirect as in the former USSR and this even extends to collectives and their management classes and examples such as “ghost” share or voucher holders, another form of absentee ownership, or capitalism. And that for animals it is all capitalism.

            Where this gets interesting is in unequal relationships Haraway calls material semiosis where, say man and dog hunt together. There the human animal relationship is unequal but both contribute capital and labour and benefit and ‘own’ the production. A better topic to discuss is how this realtionship might be extended to reject pure capitalism and its instrumental use of animals.

            I think the “T” was lost when I scrubbed my hard drive and had to relog in to all my accounts.

          • Mountain says:

            Aw, c’mon, Jaunty. Don’t get chuffed. Save that for the Chuffington Post.

            Workers are divorced from the means of production in any system. Any system of government control– whether called feudalism, fascism, communism, or socialism– will necessarily leave control in the hands of government instead of workers. Capitalism is the only system that, in theory, could leave ownership in the hands of workers. In practice, however, specialization will occur, leaving ownership in the hands of some, and leaving most workers divorced from the means of production.

            The only way to avoid this in practice is to have everyone be so poor that everyone is a subsistence farmer, no one specializes, and everyone remains in control of their means of (very meager) production. And even in that Khmer Rougian fantasy, animals will still be subjugated. So forgive me, but I need to grab my means of production (shovel and a bucket) and get back to moving compost into the garden.

          • John Maher says:

            Chuffed is a good thing.

          • Taylor says:

            Mountain: Capitalism, which involves the extraction of surplus value from workers on the basis of competition between enterprises using wage labour, is not identical to private enterprise as such. Small-scale private enterprise in the form of self-employed workers exists during the reign of capitalist private enterprise, but this limited ownership of the means of production by some workers is only a kind of froth on the surface of capitalism. In any case, as Ellen says, we all seem to be on the same page about the practical results.

          • Mountain says:

            I use “capitalism” in the vein of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, in which it means roughly the same thing as free enterprise. This is still how I usually see it defined. But you’re certainly right that capitalism as practiced in nominally capitalist countries (most of the world) is far removed from free enterprise. And I think more and more people are defining it that way (the way it’s practiced), rather than the way it’s supposed to work. Which is a shame.

  7. Mountain says:

    “Chuffed is a good thing.”

    My apologies for getting turned around by your Britishisms. Mistook a boot for a bonnet, apparently.

    • John Maher says:

      No worries. Been dealing with Brits lately and it seems to have an osmotic effect on my vocabulary. More important: your response to Taylor: “I use “capitalism” in the vein of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, in which it means roughly the same thing as free enterprise.” is still off mark but I cease to quibble and say the focus should be on the main point of the great success of capitalism in achieving ecocide and ordering life so that everything has an extractive value.

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