By Simon Springer
Speciesism. Anthropocentrism. Human Supremacy. Anthroparchy. Whatever label you want to apply to this myopic and profoundly violent worldview, it represents nothing less than a planetary atrocity. Given the intensity of the malevolence that humans unleash against other animals in the name of science, industry, labour, and food, it is astonishing that discussions of the problematic legitimization of violence against animals haven’t factored more prominently into the discourse of contemporary political ecology. As a loosely defined area of inquiry, debates have touched upon global warming, declines in air and water quality, soil degradation, deforestation, intensifying greenhouse gasses, species extinctions, and global population growth. Yet the general outlook of political ecology remains decidedly anthropocentric. Above all else, these destructive processes are lamented for their impacts on human societies, where attention to the wellbeing of the Gaia itself is relegated to a secondary concern or externalized to the domain of ‘deep ecology’. Meanwhile the deaths of non-human animals are usually framed in terms of the loss of biodiversity and the implications that this has for humans insofar as it represents a disappearance of potential future utility. Scant attention is paid to how factory farming plays a key role in environmental ruination, and even those few studies that do take note seem to downplay or discount the unintelligible mass murder of sentient beings and what this means for the development of a greater planetary consciousness that may be able to turn the tides against ecocide.
In demanding a politicization of environmental issues, most political ecologists have been oddly apolitical in terms of their reflections on the agency and sentience of non-human animals and particularly the othering that underpins the very idea of dismembered and decapitated bodies being euphemized as ‘meat’. There is a distinct need to bring political ecology into direct conversation with the violence of indifference that surrounds non-human animals. We must insist on going beyond the confines of contemporary political ecology, with its narrow Marxian focus on class and anthropocentric worldview, to embrace a much wider sense of what I want to call ‘total liberation ecology’. To fulfil its promise as a politicization of ecological concerns I am convinced that political ecology must begin to embrace both a vegan and an anarchist current. If the first principle of radical political ecology is a metaphysics that places humans in nature not above it (Merchant 2005), then speciesism surely should be as big of a concern as class, ethnicity, gender, or any other category of difference. Since the political ecological status of humans is clearly within nature, “one cannot fully grasp the foundations of racism, classism, sexism, patriarchy, ageism, and ableism without also understanding speciesism … because they are all ideologies and practices rooted in hierarchy and the creation of oppositional superior and inferior subjects” (Pellow 2014). Such a thoroughly intersectional approach demonstrates the weakness of Richard Peet and Michael Watts’ (1996) so-called ‘liberation ecology’, which seeks to unleash a process of “broadening environmental issues into a movement for livelihood entitlements and social justice”. On first glance this sounds all well and good, but upon closer examination it is simply not enough. It reflects the same anthropocentric framing that guides the bulk of Marxist thought, thereby representing a continuation of Marx’s species imperialism inasmuch as its dialectic fails to consider how certain forms of oppression remain intact, particularly when livelihoods are built on the back of animal exploitation and justice is confined to the social affairs of humans.
The lives of animals remain marginalized as they continue to be conceptualized largely in terms of utility to human livelihoods and wellbeing, rather than considered as having intrinsic and inalienable value in their own right. Insofar as political ecology is concerned, there is consequently a profound importance to adopting the thoroughly integrative approach of a total liberation perspective. For political ecology to succeed as a worthwhile approach, “it must become as radically dialectical as possible” (Clark 2008), at once ruthless in its outlook on capitalism and destructive in its response to the blinkeredness of anthropocentricism, while also caring for the well being of the biosphere as a whole and creative in its placing of humans back within the web of nature. The thoroughly hybrid and relational ethics of total liberation avoids the limited morality of the animal rights discourse, which problematically ignores the nonhuman majority in elevating small groups of species (for example dogs in America and cows in India) to ethical parity with humans and therefore frames the question of animals once more through an anthropocentric lens. What is at stake in political ecology is nothing less than the very fate of the planet. A burden that we often assume must be shouldered alone. Yet thinking this to be the case is to once more assume a position of human supremacy, renewing the hubris that has long underpinned everything from Marxism to modernization theory. Such anthroparchy also rests at the rotten core of capitalism, a form of domination that much of the Left is not well equipped to transcend given the class-centric outlook that has defined much of its formulation. In contrast, the intersectional spaces of feminism and the integral geography of anarchism offer significant promise for the disavowal of such speciesism (Harcourt and Nelson 2015; Springer 2016).
Reconvening the oneness that has been lost in human civilization’s forward march is the only path of hope, and it is irrefutable that the fates of humans, animals, and the Earth are inextricably tied together. “Progress can no longer entail the zero sum game of human ‘gain’ at the expense of animals and the environment” Stephen Best (2011) argues, “Rather, a deeper concept of progress must emerge that eliminates the opposition between human and animals and society and nature. Most fundamentally, it would understand the profound interrelatedness of all aspects of planetary ecology”. A total liberation ecology allows us to realize that the future will not be decided solely through human intervention. The providence of the Earth is collective, unavoidably bound in unison by the intersections and evolution of all life forms, identities, and processes. As our land bleeds from the lacerations that come with the clearing of its trees, as our oceans choke from being fed with effluence from rivers of shit, and as our skies converge with greenhouse gases that will eventually suffocate the life out of the planet, hope is difficult to find. We’ve been consumed in the throes of a global bloodbath called capitalism, and as with all great noirs, only in the final revelation do we finally recognize that the enemy is inside. In that final scene all moral ambiguity is stripped away, and we see our own selves reflected in this fatalist mirror. We are the criminals. The antagonists. The executioners.
Yet in the grace of humility there exists the potential for a radical transformation of planetary consciousness. Looking within, attuning ourselves to the affective lives of the animal other, and finding the current that flows through all life on this planet is to realize that “what is human and what is natural is always the effect, rather than the grounds for politics” (Lorimer 2009). When we become aware that human interests blend with that of nature, binding us together as a single idea, we can begin to think quite differently. We repair the damages incurred by our predecessors and in this process of having become the consciousness of the Earth (Reclus 1894), we see the beauty of harmony and recognize that love and life are indivisible. Love is the preeminent condition, temporarily shattered only through the falsity of separation. The reflexivity that both veganism and anarchism imply is an attempt to reconnect with this vital frequency and realize the ‘Other’ of nature as ‘Self’. When we establish our politics as a total liberation ecology, the human/nature binary breaks down allowing everything to transform from the assumed fixity of partition to an inherently shared processes of symbiosis and mutual becoming. This unfolding dance has never been choreographed, and the sequence has no beginning and no end. It is a geopoetics traced in air, a bending of the light of existence, a realization of mutual aid through the process of evolution. So it is not our actions as ‘humans’ that will determine the fate of the world, but paradoxically the abandonment of our humanity. By letting go of our ego we might yet come to learn that love, planetary wellbeing, and the immanence of connection are all one and the same.
Best, S. 2011. Total liberation and moral progress: the struggle for human evolution. https://drstevebest.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/total-liberation-and-moral-progress-the-struggle-for-human-evolution-3/
Clark, J. 2001. Contributions to the critique of political ecology. Capitalism Nature Socialism. 12:3, 29-36.
Harcourt, W. and Nelson, I. L. 2015. Practising Feminist Political Ecologies: Moving Beyond the ‘Green Economy’. London, Zed Books.
Lorimer, J. 2009. Posthumanism/Posthumanistic Geographies. International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. 344-354.
Merchant, C. 2005. Radical Ecology: The Search for a Liveable World. London: Routledge.
Peet, R., and Watts, M. eds. (1996). Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements. London: Routledge.
Pellow, D. N. 2014. Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Reclus, E. (1894). The Earth and Its Inhabitants: The Universal Geography. London: J. S. Virtue.
Springer, S. 2016. The Anarchist Roots of Geography: Toward Spatial Emancipation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Simon Springer is a Professor of Human Geography and Director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Newcastle, Australia.