Monday, November 26, 2012

The Limits of Vegan Consumption

Juan Karita / AP
When you transform a food into a commodity, there's inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost - Tanya Kerssen

A gluten-,soy-, GMO-free, complete plant protein. Half of the world's quinoa export comes from Bolivia, where 90% of the crop is grown organically, mostly on small family farms, and where growers' unions protect their livelihoods from the appropriation by multinational corporations. Beyond being an allergen-free, fairly traded, nutritional powerhouse, the increase in demand on the global market is funneling wealth into one of the poorest regions in South America. Families are being able to purchase new technologies that can reduce the stress and increase the efficiency of their farms as well as afford to send their children to university. Superfood indeed!

As successful as quinoa has become as a replacement for grains and a go-to answer to "where do you get your protein?," its success is beginning to come at a cost to indigenous ecological and cultural sustainability. In a Time article published earlier this year, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky reported a breakdown in community, "the traditional relationship between llama herding and soil fertilization," and children's SOLE food consumption.

With its entrance into the global market, quinoa has become a force of globalization. Globalization isn't merely a process that attracts wealth, it's also a process that creates an entry for western culture and technology--the good, the bad, and the ugly. The expanse and intensification of quinoa on the Andean high plains disrupts the communal grazing land of llama's, a cameloid who nourishes the harsh earth with their nitrogen-rich guano. Farmers are now competing to establish plot ownership over what has for millenia been 90% communal grazing land, with the result of seasonal kidnappings and violence as well as an increase in soil erosion and use of finite water sources. The rising affluence from the crop also leads to access to media and food once unavailable, corresponding to a change in food preferences away from the indigenous crop toward processed, malnutritious commodities. Further, the tripling of quinoa's market value may make this once local, nutritious, "mother grain" less accessible to locals not directly reaping the economic benefits.*

(Quinoa is of the most benign "cruelty-free" foods when compared to palm oil and chocolate)

"Beyond Veganism"
These less than ideal consequences that trail the otherwise mutual benefits of the global consumption of quinoa is no reason to cut the crop out of vegan diets, but it does offer an opportunity to reflect upon the limits of a consumption-centered vegan ethic (a discourse primarily about what we eat and don't eat rather than the restoration of the social responsibility we feel with all sentient beings).

While the institutional killing of chickens in the US and llamas in Bolivia go against vegan values, so perhaps too does the undercutting of food sovereignty and and biocultural diversity. There is no need to conclude that US vegans ought to condemn international food ways, nor should they finger-wag at the desire of people in the global South to share in modern technologies and western culture. What is important is to be critically engaged with the real impact our lives have on (human and animal) others, to understand that foods do not fit naturally and firmly into categories such as "good" and "bad."

The just production, distribution and consumption of certain foods vary by the methods, the place, and the time for each food. For instance, rice may a have smaller water-footprint when grown in southeast Asia and a than in California; the carbon-footprint may be higher for growing tomatoes in a local greenhouse than on a farm in Florida, but Florida tomatoes may be picked by wage slaves; people living in tundra and desert often depend upon the exploitation and killing of animal others, but by advocating an animal-free diet would force them into dependency on expensive and/or malnutritious outside food and undermine their food sovereignty. In the case of quinoa, a internationally-desired food that at first provided great benefits to Andean farmers may turn into a food that comes at the expense of the local ecology and culture.

Food is complex. General rules (like eat vegan, seasonal/local, fair, permacultural, and organic food) are important for keeping us sane, productive people. But not everyone has the privilege of living in a California vegan cooperative where SOLE food is accessible and abundant year-round. If you live in a food desert or an isolated part of the world unconductive to sustainable agriculture, one is institutionally constrained into prioritizing certain food values over others (such as cost-effectively meeting one's caloric needs with non-toxic food). Rather than simply asking those with less privilege to work towards a vegan practice, vegans can work in solidarity with other people to transforming present food systems away from not only a species hierarchy, but also class, gender, race, and national hierarchy as well. As I wrote before, "[v]eganism will have limited success so long as it remains a luxury reserved for those with privilege, independent of human liberation movements."

Food Empowerment

Friday, August 10, 2012

Confessions from a Sanctuary

I've never shared impromptu thoughts and feelings on this blog before, but tonight is not like all other nights.

HEALTH originated out of a desire to continue my scholarship and advocacy outside of the university. While in graduate school it then became an outlet for personal research and stuff that wouldn't make it into a philosophy term paper. Presently, I've been out of school for eight months. The main difference between now and then (four years ago) is that I became burnt out between teaching apathetic students, struggling as a grad student, frustrated as a scholar, and devastated as a friend and a domestic partner. After the final brutal semester of grad school, I decided I needed new direction, one that centered around creativity and embodiment.

Six months later, I've completed a two month excursion across the West through nine of the USA's National Parks and several of its most exciting cities. Just a month ago, I arrived at an animal sanctuary whose vision is that of reciprocal healing (whereby "people" heal "animals", the animals heal people, and both heal the land). When I found it in a catalogue, it sounded like a perfect opportunity to learn more about animal care taking, therapy, and an alternative to incarceration etc. Unfortunately, this has not been so much the case. I'm going to bite my tongue on this topic and instead share something I've experienced that is much more profound and unsettling.

I. Moral Monsters
If you're on the listserve or email trail of some large animal nonprofit, you are well exposed to brutal narratives of animal cruelty. Upon seeing people kick and torment the animals, one is instantaneously engulfed in moral outrage and perhaps tears: "Those sick monsters! Those evil fuckers are going to hell! They deserve to be treated just like they've treated those poor, innocent animals!" These are just some of the reactions I've seen posted  in response to new investigative footage. For a compassionate and righteous person, these attitudes are expressed effortlessly; one must exercise willpower to hold them back.

Those bearing witness are wounded by these recorded testimonies. The trauma they experience is utter powerlessness. The powerlessness and woundedness they experience are their exposure to a will-less identification with the animal others. What makes these narratives so traumatic is the lack of mercy for those perceived as having so little power. Humans have so much power, the animals have so little, and what an injustice it is to see the abuse of human power over animal innocence.

As much as people generally identify with the animals undergoing abuse, few identify with the perpetrators of the violence. Although the purpose of these videos is to evoke empathy for the animals and consequentially political action on their behalf, the disturbing truth is that those committing the injustices are human, those bearing witness are human, and those bearing witness are often financially supporting the companies that employ these "monsters." To realize this would perhaps be another trauma, one that would move one who cared generally down one of two paths: to recognize one's participation and become veg*n or to experience intense cognitive dissonance and convince oneself that everything will be better once one of these monsters is behind bars.

Neither witness, however, is likely to place themselves in that worker's circumstance and potentially risk confronting a terrifying truth about their own nature. I would (hesitantly) agree that many of the folks in these videos who practice the most wanton cruelty are moral outliers in our society. A recent study by Amy Fitzgerald concluded that of all industrial workplaces, packing plants had the greatest rates of crimes per capita in their communities. Fitzgerald speculated her finding is based on the kind of desensitizing work of the slaughterhouse and/or the type of people who are attracted and willing to work there. Regardless, in no way should environmental conditions or personality type excuse such behavior and guard people from responsibility.

It's difficult imagining myself--an 8-year anti-speciesist from an affluent suburban background with a graduate degree--as one of these animal abusers. With all the sympathy I have for animal others, with all the theory I have learned, without any history in domestic (animal) abuse, and with experience at animal sanctuaries, identifying with these detested human beings would be a stretch. At least, so I thought until recently.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Animal Theory, Going Feral in 2012

Since the late 1970s, scholarship in the field of human and nonhuman animal relations--a development of animal, environmental, and social liberation movements--has significantly developed, testing the limits of the humanism and liberalism that gave birth to it. In the 1980s and 90s, philosophers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, feminists, socialists, and literary theorists have contributed to this academic and cultural project. Research in human and non-human animal relations has particularly come into vogue in the last decade. This new literature developed out of increasing interdisciplinary as well a younger generation with more radical political ambitions, those who were dissatisfied with the presuppositions and/or simplicity of earlier theory.

Below are a few lists of books published between 2010 and 2012 that I would love to read by the end of the year; books such as Zoopolis which re-conceptualizes interspecies ethics as interspecies justice, Critical Theory and Animal Liberation which organizes the most sophisticated collection of critical animal studies theory to date, Creaturely Poetics which articulates a movement in animal ethics away from reason and power toward vulnerability, and Social Lives with Other Animals which investigates the social formation of species identity within the particular intersections of oppression. Animalkind, Beyond Animal Rights, and Animal Ethics in Context further challenge the traditional and universal morality espoused by animal advocates for more nuanced considerations that are far from self-certain. And if these books aren't tricky enough, the first philosophy book entirely dedicated to the moral considerability of plants, Plants as Persons, is bound to give the zoocentrist a run for her money.

Tim Tyler's book CIFERAE and Dominic Pittman's Human Error, and Boddice's Anthropocentrism add further complexity to our understanding of our humanity and the hegemony of anthropocentrism while Pat Shippman and Hal Herzog explore the myths of human-animal relationships with the latest empirical research in anthropology and psychology. Then there is Meat, Animals and Public Health, and Animals as Biotechnology which offer meditations on the relationship between our treatment of animals and the intersections of human, animal, and ecological health. Last but not least, I'm majorly anticipating Kari Weil's Thinking Animals, which seems like it will provide the greatest synthesis of human-animal studies yet published.

If you are interested in contributing a book summary and review to be posted on this blog, please send me an email or comment below.

Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (Sue Donaldson, Will Kymlicka, 2012)
Zoopolis offers a new agenda for the theory and practice of animal rights. Most animal rights theory focuses on the intrinsic capacities or interests of animals, and the moral status and moral rights that these intrinsic characteristics give rise to. Zoopolis shifts the debate from the realm of moral theory and applied ethics to the realm of political theory, focusing on the relational obligations that arise from the varied ways that animals relate to human societies and institutions. Building on recent developments in the political theory of group-differentiated citizenship, Zoopolis introduces us to the genuine "political animal". It argues that different types of animals stand in different relationships to human political communities. Domesticated animals should be seen as full members of human-animal mixed communities, participating in the cooperative project of shared citizenship. Wilderness animals, by contrast, form their own sovereign communities entitled to protection against colonization, invasion, domination and other threats to self-determination. `Liminal' animals who are wild but live in the midst of human settlement (such as crows or raccoons) should be seen as "denizens", resident of our societies, but not fully included in rights and responsibilities of citizenship. To all of these animals we owe respect for their basic inviolable rights. But we inevitably and appropriately have very different relations with them, with different types of obligations. Humans and animals are inextricably bound in a complex web of relationships, and Zoopolis offers an original and profoundly affirmative vision of how to ground this complex web of relations on principles of justice and compassion.

Critical Theory and Animal Liberation (John Sabonmatsu, 2011)
Critical Theory and Animal Liberation is the first collection to approach our relationship with other animals from the critical or 'left' tradition in political and social thought. Breaking with past treatments that have framed the problem as one of 'animal rights,' the authors instead depict the exploitation and killing of other animals as a political question of the first order. The contributions highlight connections between our everyday treatment of animals and other forms of social power, mass violence, and domination, from capitalism and patriarchy to genocide, fascism, and ecocide. Contributors include well-known writers in the field as well as scholars in other areas writing on animals for the first time. Among other things, the authors apply Freud's theory of repression to our relationship to the animal, debunk the 'Locavore' movement, expose the sexism of the animal defense movement, and point the way toward a new transformative politics that would encompass the human and animal alike.

Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (Anat Pick, 2011)
Simone Weil once wrote that “the vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is a mark of existence,” establishing a relationship between vulnerability, beauty, and existence transcending the separation of species. Her conception of a radical ethics and aesthetics could be characterized as a new poetics of species, forcing a rethinking of the body’s significance, both human and animal. Exploring the “logic of flesh” and the use of the body to mark species identity, Anat Pick reimagines a poetics that begins with the vulnerability of bodies, not the omnipotence of thought. Pick proposes a “creaturely” approach based on the shared embodiedness of humans and animals and a postsecular perspective on human-animal relations. She turns to literature, film, and other cultural texts, challenging the familiar inventory of the human: consciousness, language, morality, and dignity. Reintroducing Weil’s elaboration of such themes as witnessing, commemoration, and collective memory, Pick identifies the animal within all humans, emphasizing the corporeal and its issues of power and freedom. In her poetics of the creaturely, powerlessness is the point at which aesthetic and ethical thinking must begin.

Social Lives with Animals: Tales of Sex, Death and Love (Erika Cudworth 2011)
The conventional trilogy of social domination, of class, 'race' and gender has been challenged by new concerns around other distinctions – of place and location, age and generation, sexuality and forms of embodied difference. Despite these important developments, sociology has mostly stopped short at the difference of species. Erika Cudworth draws on various traditions of critical theorizing in sociology and animal studies in arguing that the social is not exclusively human and that species should be understood as a complex system of social domination which is co-constituted with intra-human social dominations. This understanding of species as a social system of relations is exemplified through three case studies: the eating of animals as food, the rearing of animals in industrial agriculture and the keeping of animals as companions. These sites reveal ways in which relations of species domination shape the lives both of humans, and of domesticated animals. Social Lives with Other Animals is a critical sociology of species which takes us beyond theories of speciesism or anthropocentricity and presents a necessary challenge to the power relations in the social formations of species.

Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals (Jean Kazez, 2010)
By exploring the ethical differences between humans and animals, Animalkind establishes a middle ground between egalitarianism and outright dismissal of animal rights. A thought-provoking foray into our complex and contradictory relationship with animals. Advocates that we owe each animal due respect. Offers readers a sensible alternative to extremism by speaking of respect and compassion for animals, not rights. Balances philosophical analysis with intriguing facts and engaging tales

Beyond Animal Rights: Food, Pets, and Ethics (Tony Milligan, 2010)
Issues to do with animal ethics remain at the heart of public debate. In "Beyond Animal Rights," Tony Milligan goes beyond standard discussions of animal ethics to explore the ways in which we personally relate to other creatures through our diet, as pet owners and as beneficiaries of experimentation. The book connects with our duty to act and considers why previous discussions have failed to result in a change in the way that we live our lives. The author asks a crucial question: what sort of people do we have to become if we are to sufficiently improve the ways in which we relate to the non-human? Appealing to both consequences and character, he argues that no improvement will be sufficient if it fails to set humans on a path towards a tolerable and sustainable future. Focusing on our direct relations to the animals we connect with the book offers guidance on all the relevant issues, including veganism and vegetarianism, the organic movement, pet ownership, and animal experimentation

Animal Ethics in Context (Clare Palmer, 2011)
It is widely agreed that because animals feel pain we should not make them suffer gratuitously. Some ethical theories go even further: because of the capacities that they possess, animals have the right not to be harmed or killed. These views concern what not to do to animals, but we also face questions about when we should, and should not, assist animals that are hungry or distressed. Should we feed a starving stray kitten? And if so, does this commit us, if we are to be consistent, to feeding wild animals during a hard winter? In this controversial book, Clare Palmer advances a theory that claims, with respect to assisting animals, that what is owed to one is not necessarily owed to all, even if animals share similar psychological capacities. Context, history, and relation can be critical ethical factors. If animals live independently in the wild, their fate is not any of our moral business. Yet if humans create dependent animals, or destroy their habitats, we may have a responsibility to assist them. Such arguments are familiar in human casesùwe think that parents have special obligations to their children, for example, or that some groups owe reparations to others. Palmer develops such relational concerns in- the context of wild animals, domesticated animals, and urban scavengers, arguing that different contexts can create different moral relationships.