The Environmental Movement Forgot About Animals

The environmental movement as we know it today is a lot bigger than hugging trees and picking up trash. Major crises like the Dakota Access Pipeline and the leadened water of Flint, Michigan have drawn national attention to the ways that capitalist abuse of the environment harms not only the land itself but important natural resources like water—and, in turn, how vulnerable populations like Indigenous and Black Americans face the most severe repercussions—a result of environmental racism.

When it comes to the survival of planet Earth and its inhabitants, we’ve been moving toward a “rising tide lifts all ships” approach – healthy land, water, and vegetation are important not just for the sake of beautiful landscapes, but for the well-being of every person who relies on the natural world in one way or another (which is all of us). There’s one cause, however, that’s still conspicuously kept out of these conversations: animal welfare.

A lot of activist movements are vast and interconnected these days – community organizations and academics have lent ideas like intersectionality, first coined by critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw during the 1980s. Intersectionality is an analytical framework that takes into account the unique impact of intersecting identities, such as race and gender, rather than only exploring a single phenomenon like racism or sexism at a time. Transcorporeality is another important idea, proposed by humanities scholar Stacey Alaimo around the early 2010s. It refers to the recognition of an interconnectedness between humans, other animals, and other facets of the natural world. These ideas have helped the general public expand the way we conceive of environmental issues and solutions. But one specter we can’t seem to shake is that of speciesism – the assumption that humans are superior to all other animals and thus are singularly entitled to moral consideration.

Granted, environmentalism has come a long way in American culture. From 19th century Walden-esque romanticism and Teddy Roosevelt’s crusade to protect the nation’s natural beauty, through as late as the 20th century, the crux of the issue was conservation (which, believe it or not, was a bipartisan cause for a long time). Societal concerns over the environment mostly had to do with its actual physical status – issues like deforestation, dams, their effect on biodiversity, and an appreciation of nature for its own sake. Come the radical 1960s, those concerns evolved as voices like Rachel Carson drew public attention to the interrelationship between ecological and human health. The stakes suddenly became higher than protecting the places we like to look at – it became clear that harm to the environment means harm to those living within it, and that includes people, no matter how much we may think of modern society as separate from the natural world.

Over the last 50 years, environmentalist critiques have become multi-pronged, taking into account the interrelated issues of race, labor, and the many failings of late-stage capitalism. Impoverished people and underrepresented racial groups are going to face the worst impacts of climate change, like natural disasters. Look only to last year’s hurricane season in the U.S. for examples. Ben Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” over 40 years ago, in the context of toxic farm waste contaminating the soil of a poor Black community in Warren County, NC. Since then the phrase has been applied to a slew of other issues in which people of color are the primary victims of environmental pollution, usually at the hands of powerful companies. Give it a quick Google search and you’ll find no shortage of examples, in the U.S. and beyond. Leaders and intellectuals like Chavis and Carson have dramatically broadened what we think about when we hear the term “environmentalism.”

Despite this increasingly intersectional approach, animal rights are still treated as a fringe issue and often as something non-serious. Scholars and activists critique fossil fuel companies, but many of those same voices have nothing to say about factory farms. When factory farms do earn ire, the focus of the conversation tends to be on emissions, water pollution, land use, and labor conditions. Those are all critical issues, but it seems to me that these conversations tend to dance around the suffering of the animals that make up the very core of these industries and practices.

Here’s a case in point: Naomi Klein, author of “This Changes Everything,” boasts an impressive body of work that brilliantly examines the intersections between the environment and social issues like sexism and poverty. Yet she, by her own admission, isn’t interested in expanding that analysis to nonhuman animals, saying: “I’ve been to more climate rallies than I can count, but the polar bears? They still don’t do it for me. I wish them well, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that stopping climate change isn’t really about them, it’s about us.” As journalist Cory Morningstar puts it, this is “anthropocentrism passing for environmentalism.” Other examples of animal cruelty in the name of environmentalism come to mind, like organizations making a contest out of killing invasive species, and zoos and aquariums keeping animals in captivity for the supposed sake of “conservation.”

Progressive, forward-thinking environmentalists have demonstrated the ability to consider the ways social categories like race, gender, and sexuality intersect with environmental issues – but they often stop just short of considering speciesism. It’s a failure of inclusivity, and is dangerously short sighted.

It’s high time that we begin seeing the well-being of individual nonhuman animals in this framework. For one thing, it’s not merely sentimental or superfluous to acknowledge the inherent value of nonhuman animals, it’s just a matter of fairness. We accept that human individuals matter in their own right, and that a functioning society minimizes the suffering of its members. We accept that biodiversity has an inherent value, not merely for the ways endangered plant and animal species could affect human society, but by the simple virtue that they have a right to exist without avoidable suffering. It’s a basic respect for life, and there’s no unbiased reason it shouldn’t extend to nonhuman animals.

But if respect for life isn’t a compelling enough reason to take animals seriously, let us acknowledge that harm can occur not just between land and humans, but also between humans and nonhuman animals – even on an individual scale. We see this in the case of zoonotic diseases: researchers have identified a number of diseases, from tapeworms to botulism, that are at risk of being transmitted to humans via the hunting and consumption of wildlife. These diseases have the potential to affect humans directly and indirectly (such as economic strain caused by damage to an ecosystem). Some even have the potential to grow into full-on pandemic-level outbreaks.

Admittedly, it’s not as though animal welfare is left out of these conversations as a result of malice or even cold indifference. The unfortunate truth is that it’s difficult enough to make positive change in all these other respects – workers’ rights, racial justice, indigenous land rights, not to mention the all-encompassing threats of climate change and widespread environmental degradation caused by the fossil fuel industries. It’s easy to see how many people—even staunch environmentalists—would deprioritize the issue of animal suffering in light of all these other urgent problems. But as intersectional, environmentally-focused contemporary organizers and academics have taught us, advocacy doesn’t need to be either/or. There’s room for us to care about both, and in some cases, the two issues aren’t discrete at all. Indeed, the fates of human and nonhuman animals are intertwined in more ways than one – we might as well start acting like it.

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