Animal Crisis: A New Critical Theory
Polity Press, London, UK, 2022
136 pp. Paper, $23.95
Animal Crisis by philosophers Alice Crary and Lori Gruen is an inspirational and comprehensive book on animal ethics: concise yet packed with an impressive amount of potent information and focused chapters in an easy-to-read narrative. The stunning book would be an excellent core text in an animal ethics class but could work in a range of courses that touch on contemporary social issues, whether in feminist or environmental studies.
Social justice and liberation for “animals,” human or not, is their focus. They say the two leading threads in animal ethics, suffering (Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, 1975) and rights (Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights, 1983), create a shadow around the current crisis since they tend to be more “conceptual” (2) without force for liberation. The strands of animal suffering and rights have been isolated from political, corporate, and capitalistic structures that hurt people or violate civil liberties. Part of the problem involves hierarchies that rank people in social classifications that tangentially serve the degradation of nonhuman animals. To counter this capitalistic and male-dominated hierarchy would necessitate a regrouping to remedy the harms done to animals and members of society who don’t fit at the top of the pyramid. They insist there should not be divisive norms that violate and oppress any other being. By presenting stories of animals from orangutans and cows to octopuses and insects, their critical animal theory highlights the lives of animals more than some traditional philosophies and has “political relevance” (5).
Crary and Gruen begin with the crisis of orangutans in Indonesia where forests are lost to palm oil plantations at an alarming rate. This presents a crisis of looming proportions for the native species, the continuation of biodiversity, and local people living on forest edges. Palm oil is found in nearly every product of human consumption, from foods to shampoos. Forests are clear cut, and what remains is burned, killing off any existing life and threatening the health of humans near and far. Borneo and Sumatra supply most of the world’s insatiable desire for palm oil. As the authors suggest, exploitation goes back to early traders in gold, wood, and then oil. Colonialism and capitalism have created an enormous gap in the social lives of locals and the executives enabled by politicians. Most people of Indonesia have not benefited from the forest devastation and corporate growth. There has been no sharing in a process that skewers people and wildlife. Their point is that we can’t focus only on the plight of orangutans. Their fate is tied to the local people who suffer and whose land and labor rights have been violated. The corporate pattern of capital over people and animals has been unfolding in other forests worldwide, from Africa to the Americas. Their caution is that animal ethics should not reside in academic disciplines alone. Rather, animal ethics needs to be, they rightly note, wed loudly to events like the climate crisis.
The authors highlight how, during dangerous phases of the Covid-19 pandemic when little was known about the disease or how to contain it, workers at slaughterhouses were particularly vulnerable. Men and women, mostly non-white or of immigrant status, had to work closely together in dangerous circumstances. Here, we see the connection the authors want to make between humans and animals: the reality of the ethical situation is that corporate capitalism harms both. As Crary and Gruen assert, these working conditions and the plight of the animals are connected social issues that can change. As they sadly recount, all of the attention to the plight of workers at meat-packing plants, though justified, did not shine light on the harms to animals. The full equation of suffering includes both groups and should be equally addressed. Plant shutdowns, though brief, meant that meat farmers had to exterminate their stocks. The farmers suffered financially and psychologically, another social reality of the connection between humans and animals.
Animals should be valued as sapient and sentient beings as has been shown over and again in scientific research. Their point lies in how often people ignore or deny animal suffering, whether in factory farms or laboratories. This cognitive dissonance is important for their argument since the socially accepted toleration of animal suffering leads to human harms. As they continue, if we can dissociate an animal life and personality by referring to its body as meat, so too can other social disconnections easily occur through linguistic tricks that hide the truth of the matter. In other words, they suggest, there’s an ideology based on human use-abuse of animals that has a negative effect on humans in many forms, from social to environmental. To break the animal domination ideology they suggest using art forms to help children and adolescents comprehend the full extent of how a pig becomes bacon, a cow becomes hamburger, or a chicken becomes nuggets.
Using stories of cows who escaped slaughter with their infants, the authors demonstrate the emotional investment animals have in protecting offspring and the inhumanity of so-called “humane” treatment. Chapter 3 is particularly critical of any utilitarian perspective because that philosophy, looking at the end result or totality of happiness (or pleasure or good) for humans calculates individual animals as disposable. What does it matter if one cow is killed for meat while another is bred to live “humanely” and produce milk for human consumption? The authors go into some detail about the presumably humane killing of cows who have lost their utility as milk producers but whose bodies can be butchered as meat. Animal suffering, even on small farms, has become a commodity to be sold. The result is revenue at the expense of painfully ending individual life. Their point is that philosophical theories (e.g., utilitarianism as an aspect of consequentialism) distract us from the reality of the emotional, social, and intellectual lives of the animals we eat. For a consequentialist, value is based on the best outcome. For a utilitarian, value is placed on function or pleasure over pain. There’s human worth and then animal worth, an inequality that is proportioned unfairly. Results matter for the utilitarian, not the individual; that’s moral irrelevancy.
Behavioral intelligence related to environs, predators, prey, etc. is shown at the beginning of chapter 4 on minds and octopi. This gets to their thesis: normative considerations and meaning are not, as in academia, separated from reality. Animals are not lab subjects or philosophical abstractions; they and their world, the earth we share, are in crisis with extinction along with habitat loss. These are moral concerns since many animals have consciousness and affective states, minds that experience physical suffering and emotional deprivation. The authors discuss animal empathy, especially in rats (chapter 5), and ask, how do we consider the “moral significance” (82) of rats? Like many people, rats are forced into constrained, crowded human places that make us label them as pests. To resolve this dilemma, especially for animal advocates, would be to gravitate away from human-constructed hierarchies and point to the inherent dignity of animals. Rats, for example, shown from experiments in the late 1950s, have demonstrated sympathy for conspecifics in trouble and should not be categorically shunned as vermin.
Likewise, the authors relate, animals are ridiculed in circuses or treated as food for humans. It’s not hard to see the ethical crisis here: many social structures across countries similarly demean and demoralize people. Building away from Kant’s emphasis on human reason, the authors explain through contemporary philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler that animals possess capabilities to live well. Humans are not supreme creatures but live in a community of species, all of whom are “vulnerable” (89) to the present danger of climate crisis. Crary and Gruen confirm that the equation of capitalism includes disdain for and oppression of animals as well as people, especially women, marginalized persons, and those of color. The authors see problems in the emphasis on humanity as separate from animals. While a broader discussion could be made about illegal poaching and trading of animals, hastening their extinction, the authors focus on parrots in chapter 6. Animals should not be considered as commodities to be bought and sold. Colorful birds in faraway places of the Amazon fetch sizeable sums of cash opening an irresistible temptation for poor people.
In their final chapter, Crary and Gruen mention human chemical warfare against insects. The problem is that insecticides kill pollinators and then birds who eat poisoned insects. The authors seem to say that human-animal interactions are governed by politics run by big business. Rather than focusing on individual action, animal welfare, or rights, the core of the animal crisis is the “political structures” (127) that continue to oppress animals as well as people. Policies that harm animals must be challenged. Backed by federal and state agricultural departments, the corporate food industry cares little about animals and uses them for profit, foisting dishonest labels like “free-range” or “grass-fed” onto unreflective and uninformed consumers. There’s a concise but thorough discussion of ecofeminism, a social issue where women along with the environment are seen as resources for labor or profit controlled and manipulated. Using reason and feelings, ecofeminists, they say, help us become aware of the “sensitive discernment of values” (134) concerning connections between any organism and groups marginalized by politically capitalistic structures. Ticks can go many years without sustenance, waiting in suspended time. Humans, however, are short-sighted and live in the moment, ever consuming.
Earth’s destruction by humans is not coming, it’s here. This predicament is why a new critical theory focused on the “animal” crisis is needed, with champions to fight existing corporate, capitalistic, and political systems that debase, demoralize, and ruin people, animals, and the environment. The authors suggest that moral revolution and social resistance, in the form of narrative and visual arts, are needed to create interspecies’ commons, as seen in some ecofeminist sanctuaries they mention, to fight “life-destroying structures” (144).