Why animal justice is crucial in addressing the climate emergency
A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, as well as preventing the suffering of animals.
“I refuse to be sidelined and overlooked as a weak-minded sentimentalist. I am vegan for justice. I am vegan as a rejection of violence. I am vegan because what we are doing as a species is wrong. I am vegan with my heart and my soul, but also with my mind, my intellect and my intelligence.” Linda Clark, There's An Elephant In the Room
The environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) burst into public consciousness on 31 October 2018 with a “Declaration of Rebellion” against the UK government, delivered in Parliament Square in London. Responding to the “climate emergency” and advancing behind a narrative calling for systems-level change through nonviolent direct action, XR grew into a global movement that catalyzed worldwide mass civil disobedience demonstrations in April and October of 2019.
The April actions were widely regarded to have been successful; the October actions less so, as acknowledged by Extinction Rebellion national spokesperson Rupert Read in a speech to the Sheffield XR group in December. In his talk Read shared a thoughtful and considered analysis of these actions, and in doing so articulated his belief that XR’s demands and associated values and principles can and must be actualized from “necessity, not ideology.”
In January 2020 Read and his co-authors Marc Lopatin and Skeena Rathor published a pamphlet entitled “Rushing The Emergency, Rushing The Rebellion?,” which represents a significant philosophical reorientation of the movement. The pamphlet calls for “a new story and vision [that] is human-centric, as opposed to environmental…[and] is nearer-term (as opposed to far-flung) as evidenced by the vulnerability of civilisation to locked-in unpredictable and extreme weather.”
Efforts to address this vulnerability are to be grounded in an approach to inequality that is broadly conceived; this new story is “above all, a story about how Mother Nature is making us all one.” But who exactly is included in this unity, and what about the rights of non-human animals in the way the climate emergency is framed and addressed?
“Rebel Alliance” member organization Animal Rebellion was birthed in the interval between the April and October Rebellions by a group of vegan animal justice advocates who were inspired by the impact of XR on the public consciousness. Incorporating the demands, core principles and values of XR and affirming an anti-speciesist stance, Animal Rebellion asserts that “we cannot end the climate emergency without first ending the animal emergency,” and calls for the adoption of a plant-based food system as a foundational means to mitigate climate change. 'Speciesism’ simply means prejudice or discrimination that is based on species membership, rooted in the idea of human superiority.
In the words of Animal Rebellion member Alex Lockwood, “We are not here to replace calls for individuals to go vegan. Our intention was to add to the individual programmes and campaigns that urge, help and support people to go vegan…programmes that are bottom-up processes enacted one person at a time. We want to add to these with a new, top-down mass movement demand focused on the government for immediate system change.” Since its public launch at The Official Animal Rights March in London in August 2019, Animal Rebellion has grown to include over 60 local groups in 12 countries including the US, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Germany.
While it can be said that Animal Rebellion has drawn inspiration from XR, it is equally true that it came into being as a response to the latter’s shortcomings with regard to the consideration it affords to nonhuman sentient beings. Virtually from XR’s launch, the movement had engendered sharp criticism from the global animal justice community regarding its failure to address the profound environmental impacts of so-called ‘animal agriculture’ and the deleterious impact of the active subjugation of non-human sentient beings for the purpose of turning them into commodities such as food. This criticism included powerful pieces by the noted abolitionist animal rights scholar and activist Gary Francione here and here.
These critiques are well-founded: the negative environmental impacts of raising animals for food make this one of the leading causes of ecosystem degradation, if not the leading cause. These impacts include increased emissions of greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide, deforestation, biodiversity loss (including species extinction), and air and water pollution (including ocean acidification). In the words of Oxford University’s Joseph Poore, the lead researcher on one of the largest metanalyses of the environmental impacts of food production:
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”
Substantively animal-generated emissions of methane and nitrous oxide have much more potent near-term impacts as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Moreover, owing to what’s known as the “aerosol masking effect” associated with carbon dioxide emissions – whereby particulates in CO2 reflect a portion of the sun’s rays away from the Earth’s surface and thereby mask their actual warming effects – removing substantive quantities of CO2 in advance of reducing or eliminating methane and nitrous oxide from the atmosphere will serve to increase global average temperatures rapidly.
All this is scientifically true and should be politically compelling, but the genius of Animal Rebellion is as much philosophical and ethical as technical. The movement aims to illuminate the standing of all sentient beings as members of a moral community, and the profoundly damaging impacts associated with remaining ignorant of this fact. As Animal Rebellion’s ‘first value’ states:
“We are an anti-speciesist movement that has a shared vision of change - creating a world that protects beings of all species for generations to come…We are inspired not only by human action but also animal resistance and we believe in co-creating a world with individuals from all species for a just and secure future.”
This stance affirms the landmark 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which states that “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuro-anatomical, neuro-chemical, and neuro-physiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”
In his book Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict, the American sociologist David Nibert points to the domestication of animals (renamed “domesecration") and the associated and unrelenting drive to secure the land and resources necessary to maintain populations of these animals, as being foundational to the development of the acquisitive, violent and expansionist mindset that has informed the creation of an unfettered, ‘grow or die,’ corporate capitalism – which in turn drives the planetary ecocide that has been called the “First Extermination Event” (in contrast to the commonly used term “Sixth Extinction”). As Nibert writes:
“Prejudice against other animals arises from socially promulgated beliefs that reflect a speciesist ideology, created to legitimate economic exploitation or elimination of a competitor. Oppressive practices have deep roots in economic and political arrangements. Therefore, for injustices to be addressed effectively, it is not enough to try to change socially acquired prejudice or to focus only on moral change. The structure of the oppressive system itself must be challenged and changed.”
A more skillful approach to addressing the climate and ecological emergency as affirmed by Read and his co-authors would necessitate that the new story and vision they advocate be centered not merely on human beings, but rather on all beings who demonstrate a unified psychological presence and who are, in the words of the moral philosopher and animal rights activist Tom Regan, the “subject of a life.” It is to all sentient beings that equality must be afforded, with the shared right to be treated with respect honored universally. Mother Nature is indeed “making us all one,” and that unitary domain must therefore include all beings who have the capacity to suffer.
By virtue of its uncompromising anti-speciesist stance and the actions that follow from it, Animal Rebellion can be identified as a progenitor of this new story and its attendant vision. Consequently, it is Animal Rebellion that can lay claim to being the climate justice movement to which all other such movements can and should aspire.
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