(This is a contribution to the Great Transitions Initiative’s discussion – this month, on Eileen Crist’s essay on animals.)

What we have done to animals is a crime with a motive that has nothing to do with animals. It has to do with what we have done to each other. 

The Dreaded Comparison makes clear that our hate towards animals is projected as another facet of our hate for each other and of ourselves. Slavery over humans (whether ‘soft’ or chattel slavery) is an extension of dehumanization which is our justification for treating animals as outside the ambit of ethics. Hobbes dictum that Homo homini lupus est, that we treat each other like wolves, is actually a projection, as wolves for the most part treat each other quite well, as family. (Here is a summary of this fascinating myth and how postwar human projection onto wolves created this misunderstanding). It is the denied dependencies on animals, as with slaves, which makes it so hard for us to quit the addiction of exploitation. 

Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch likewise illustrates the racial and sexed dimensions of property ownership which started with the conceit that only certain humans could be entrusted to own land, documenting the move from guiding herds of animals to keeping them pent up in ranches. By debilitating the animals we sought for food, clothes, or other resources, we became debilitated ourselves, but did not notice, because we perceived the benefits to far outweigh the costs. That calculus, if it was ever valid, scaled up is quickly revealing itself to be hollow; the definition of unsustainability. 

When we try to control all animal life (humans control 96-7% of all mammal biomass), we become as enslaved as the animals we enslave. This, of course, is the essence of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. Our dependency destroys us ultimately, because without the constant input and management of our food sources, of ecosystems, etc – which we can never do with might and technology as elegantly as nature crowdsourced by thousands and millions of organisms can do together – our spinning plates, our factories, our production, ceases. As the Little Prince once was told about his rose, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry). This is simply too much responsibility for any one species, and we have delayed reckoning with that responsibility by trying to control ever more.

As Eileen Crist points out in her excellent essay, our relationship with animals is one of “structural violence, meaning institutionalized and established forms of violence disavowed as being violent or kept hidden from view.” Yet, unfortunately but unsurprisingly (and even necessarily) such structural violence is by no means confined to animals. Paul Farmer’s Power as Pathology shows how this equally works intraspecifically. Having recently ready Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael for the first time well into my adulthood, I was struck at how Taker culture’s obsession with intervening in every situation fits with the tensions driving us to move from an industrial civilization to a planetary one. Aligning system with lifeworld, and not the other way around, as is being practiced, requires the square circle of carnism (as Melanie Joy calls it): not just undoing the century of horrors of CAFOs, medical testing, and the like, but also the drive to take away from animals their own agency. As Dayton Martindale writes, “Farming also removes the animal’s choice in the matter.” Even pets are often smothered under the ‘love’ of their human codependents. 25% of all fish goes to feeding cats, not humans. Many pets suffer debilitating diseases from overbreeding to meet our single-metric aesthetics or fancies. Golden Retrievers, for instance, are victims of hip dysplasia because people are obsessed with ‘races’ of animals and ‘pure’ breeds. 

Crist gets it right emphasizing that transforming the human animal is the key to letting animals become animals again, instead of the contorted creatures we have forced them to become to fit our factories, insecurities, and concepts. Rather than therapy pets, we would do well to rewild our world and come to meet those charismatic animals which attract us with friendship, not ownership. Alloanimals (as we call nonhuman animals in biosemiotics, to emphasize our animality) owe us nothing. Due to millennia of mistreatment, we owe them everything. Finding atonement through a thousands virtuous interventions, from eating them only rarely, and allowing ourselves to be eaten by them without reprisal, allows us to approach a great transition. 

Richard Falk in his response discussed his own addiction to eating dead animals. This western perspective is common, because it is predicated on a relationship of entitlement with our kin, that of carnism. Indigenous people everywhere rarely have such preferences, but see eating and being eaten as part of the web of life. If we wish to eat animals, we should not flinch from being eaten by them as well. Which means maintaining adequate habitat, on the scale of Half Earth (EO Wilson’s concept of leaving half of the earth for wildlife, which borrows heavily on Arne Naess’ original statement that humans ought to meet our needs and live on 1/3 of the earth, have a second 1/3 for hiking and visiting for spiritual and recreational pilgrimages, and leave the final 1/3 for the rest of uncivilized nature, reserved like Mount Olympus for the more-than-human world). 

The ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood was mauled by a crocodile while canoeing in Kakadu National Park, Australia, and had to craw two miles bleeding profusely to save her life; yet she harbored not a shred of malice towards the animal, understanding perfectly well that this was not an aberrant action on the part of the crocodile. She understood that in this instance she was simply prey. It was a fair trade for all the animals she had eaten.

Plumwood’s way teaches us what being in relationship with other animals means: a give and take. Most of all, learning to live and love with our fellow mammals means letting go of controlling them. De-domesticating ourselves as we rewild the earth, creating space for animals to direct their own lives as they best see fit.