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Why Animal Rights Is the Next Frontier for the Left

As the left hardens its commitment to fighting climate change, social injustice, and rampant capitalism, the question of what to do about animals will become inescapable.

Last December, the Twitter account for the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) set off a full-fledged media furor. The tweet in question set out to enumerate the linguistic sins of “speciesism”—the practice of discriminating against living things based on their species affiliation. “Words matter,” the group wrote, “and as our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it.” PETA attached a chart of common phrases (e.g. “kill two birds with one stone”) that, by the group’s lights, perpetuate such discrimination and normalize violence against animals. For good measure, PETA’s language policers provided a list of suggested replacements (“feed two birds with one scone”).

Cue the furor. The ensuing backlash was so uniform and so heavy that any onlooker might have thought that the derogation of animal rights is one of the last issues on which Democrats, Republicans, and independents agree. The Washington Post dedicated a mocking 700-word article to the uproar, suggesting that PETA was on a “wild juice chase.” Conservative culture warriors relished the chance to lay into another example of the language-correcting excesses of the left. Liberals meanwhile argued that PETA was minimizing racism, sexism, and homophobia by equating those social justice causes with the fight against speciesism. Many people—myself included—just thought the whole thing was silly. Bringing home the bagels? Okay, PETA—we’ll think about it over a bacon cheeseburger.

But as so often happens when the discussion turns to animal rights, it was impossible to dispel a vague sense of unease. Even PETA’s botched attempt to raise awareness about animal abuse—something so ingrained in our workaday world that it lurks largely unremarked in many of our most common phrases—had touched a sore spot.

As Summer Anne Burton later wrote for BuzzFeed News, people always claim to care about issues associated with animal rights: climate change, drinking water pollution, poor working conditions at factory farms. But the PETA episode shows that instead of engaging seriously with those issues, they’d “rather look away and snicker at the silly vegans.” Taking the complaints of animal-rights groups seriously would mean confronting our own participation in an agricultural system that not only kills and tortures animals on a massive scale, but also contributes to human suffering. Making fun of these groups, Burton argued, is “a way of changing the subject and of keeping away the creeping feeling that you just might be on the wrong side of history.”

But if recent trends on the liberal-left are any indication, the stars may be re-aligning for the forces of reform to track a different historical course. Crucial elements of the contemporary progressive agenda—protecting the environment; protecting marginalized communities; rolling back the unfettered capitalist exploitation of the planet and its inhabitants; and expanding our understanding of what constitutes a victim—all overlap with the issue of animal rights. As those particular priorities claim center stage in ambitious proposals such as the Green New Deal, the question of what to do about animals will become central. More than that—it will be unavoidable.

The modern debate over the ethics of eating animals dates largely from the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975). In that philosophical tract, Singer popularized the idea of speciesism, posing this now-famous rhetorical query: “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?”

More than forty years on, the bulk of humanity remains unconvinced. The question of the moral standing of animals has largely been confined to academic debate, while most everyone else continues to happily munch their meat. As David Foster Wallace once wrote, the notion that animals feel pain and suffering in the way that humans understand pain and suffering is the subject of “hardcore philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics.”

Still, there’s a growing consensus on the American left that there’s something wrong about the way we traditionally consume meat—even if the moral logic behind that consensus is hazy and at times contradictory. The more enlightened among us buy eggs, milk, and meat harvested from animals that have, even in death, been treated “humanely.” Embedded within such consumer choices is the assumption these creatures should have a measure of freedom, whether to forage for grass or live outside a cage—and that, in turn, can be construed as a right of sorts, even if a limited one.

Our divided state of mind on just how to understand this inchoate set of rights has produced two schools of thought that alternately overlap and compete with each other: animal welfare vs. animal rights. Welfare proponents believe it’s acceptable to kill animals so long as we don’t do so in an overtly cruel fashion—or so long as their deaths have benefited human life, as in many forms of medical research. Rights activists, meanwhile, believe it’s almost never acceptable to kill an animal and that animal species possess the same basic rights as humans should. As Steven Zak for The Atlantic observed about the new interest in animal rights in 1989, this latter conviction served as “the source of the movement’s radicalism.”

PETA, the world’s premier animal rights organization, has been criticized for its tactics, which include comparing the struggle of animals to the struggle of marginalized humans.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Thirty years later, a growing and increasingly vocal group of people beyond the movement proper don’t consider the idea so radical anymore. It’s still a minority viewpoint, but 32 percent of Americans believe animals should have similar protections as humans, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. That number is significantly higher than a 2008 survey finding that 25 percent of people held that belief. Thanks to an expansive nexus of interrelated moral and political concerns, the numbers seem poised to continue spiking, particularly among liberals. At the heart of that nexus is a tentative accord to bring animal rights and animal welfare into alignment with one another—together of course, with human rights and human welfare.

To get at the underpinnings of this new consensus, let’s start with the environment. The U.S. meat industry is one of the largest sources of water contamination in the country, and a massive contributor to drought in the West. On a global scale, animal agriculture “puts a heavy strain on many of the Earth’s finite land, water, and energy resources,” according to the advocacy group Climate Nexus. “In order to accommodate the 70 billion animals raised annually for human consumption, a third of the planet’s ice-free land surface, as well as nearly 16 percent of global freshwater, is devoted to growing livestock.” About three quarters of the Brazilian Amazon’s deforestation is attributable to animal agriculture.

And then there’s climate change. Agriculture, along with land use and forestry, accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions globally, with the meat industry making up about one-fifth of those emissions. The biggest emissions source is the animals’ ruminants—a fancy way of saying farts and burps, which get released into the air as methane. Meat agriculture also compounds carbon emissions via widespread deforestation to clear room for raising the animals, and nitrogen-based fertilizer to grow their food.

If meat and dairy consumption continue apace, our dietary habits could eventually contribute to an 80 percent spike in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050—which is why any serious plan to tackle climate change has to include restrictions on the animal agriculture sector. The Green New Deal resolution introduced by New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, calls for removing “greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

It’s a vague suggestion with quite specific implications: In the most immediate way, removing greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector means targeting the meat industry. And targeting the meat industry likely means reducing the number of animals consumed. Thus Republican lawmakers, ever ready to trigger the libs, have taken to claiming that Democrats, in their wild-eyed zeal to stave off an environmental catastrophe that exists only in their overheated imaginations, are going to take away people’s meat. “If this goes through, this will be outlawed,” Representative Rob Bishop of Utah said of the Green New Deal, as he chewed on a cheeseburger. “I could no longer eat this type of thing.”

Bishop, of course, is trolling; the Green New Deal does not ban beef. But he’s also not entirely wrong. It was Peter Singer himself who first raised the issue. “We are, quite literally, gambling with the future of our planet,” he wrote in Animal Liberation, “for the sake of hamburgers.”

And for the sake of these hamburgers, whose future are we gambling with, specifically?

Climate change is a cataclysm for humans everywhere, but it will be felt more keenly by certain humans. It’s well-documented that minorities, people living in poverty, tribal communities, immigrants, and the elderly suffer disproportionately from problems caused by climate change. These populations are less likely to have the resources and amenities that traditionally protect people from extreme weather, such as soundly built structures, air conditioning, and readily accessible health care.

The environmental consequences of animal agriculture also markedly skew against the vulnerable. In the United States, “more than 100,000 miles of rivers and streams, close to 2.5 million acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds, and more than 800 square miles of bays and estuaries” have poor water quality because of fertilizer runoff partly caused by animal agriculture, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Nutrient pollution has been connected to cancer, birth defects, and the deadly Blue Baby Syndrome—the condition whereby infants deprived of blood oxygen literally turn blue. Water contamination is an especially acute problem for the rural poor, who can’t afford to stockpile bottled water or expensive filtration systems. Fertilizer runoff from meat production has also caused an enormous recurring dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the area’s $600 million fishing industry.

The meat industry is also a disaster for labor. Slaughterhouse workers—mainly immigrants and resettled refugees—often face lifelong injuries from their jobs, and likewise are denied the sort of disposable income necessary to treat them. “They describe punishing rates of production, leaving them with a lifetime of pain and physical problems,” a 2016 NPR report read. “Workers making on average $12.50 an hour, or about $26,000 a year, say they can get fired if their injuries prevent them from working harder; companies report constant employee turnover.” Those injuries aren’t just physical, but also psychological. “The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll,” an Iowa slaughterhouse worker told activist Gail Eisnitz. “Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them.”

Leaders on the left wing of the Democratic Party—the only party in this country that can plausibly claim to represent the interests of minorities, low-income workers, immigrants, and other vulnerable people—are perfectly aware of these problems. But their response typically focuses on policy prescriptions aimed at piecemeal solutions rather than more ambitious structural reform. Such proposals include the adoption of new environmental regulations, investment in new technology for low-carbon agriculture, securing a workers’ bill of rights, and expanding workers’ ability to unionize. While these measures, if signed into law under a post-Trump presidency, would certainly start to address some of the environmental and mortal damage caused by animal agriculture, they don’t quite address the crux of the problem.

A more sweeping analytical framework has lately emerged on the left to diagnose a host of ills that are interconnected: The problem, a growing chorus of environmentalists now suggest, might be capitalism itself. Central to this emerging critique is the interpretation of the environmental exploitation of the earth and its inhabitants as a direct outgrowth of unregulated capitalism. Appalling labor conditions, the destruction of the environment in search of profit, a callous disregard toward marginalized communities, the reliance on an unseen underclass to keep the whole bloody machinery running—these are all, in the anticapitalist wing of environmentalism, indelible hallmarks of both the agriculture industry and a rampant market economy. As the essayist Carl Boggs once wrote, “Aside from the military, no sector of American society matches the frightening consequences of the meat complex: ecological devastation, food deterioration, routinized violence, injury, disease, and death to both humans and animals, rampant corporate power.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal recognizes that massive societal shifts are necessary to stave off climate change—including changes to the agricultural sector.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Through proposals like the Green New Deal, the left has recognized that massive societal shifts are necessary to save the planet and achieve equality. And with the Green New Deal’s increasing prominence in the debate over environmental reform, it’s only a matter of time before such shifts will include a serious discussion about the ethics and wisdom of consuming billions of animals every year. Indeed, there are already signs that the discussion has begun: Intercept writer Glenn Greenwald, a fervent animal rights activist, in March launched a video series called Animal Matters, “devoted to discussions and reporting about all matters concerning animal rights, animal welfare, factory farms, and humanity’s treatment of animals.”

Still, as the reflexive mockery of nearly all things PETA shows, a radical shift in our thinking about animals is hardly under way. It’s tempting to blame this status quo on humanity’s well-documented reluctance to give up bacon and steaks. But the growing recognition in America that animals should be treated “humanely” suggests that there is an opening to argue for reduced meat consumption based on the rights of animals themselves. Such an argument, which would vastly enlarge the pool of historical victims of capitalism’s excesses, would have to learn from the mistakes of the traditional animal rights movement—and atone for more than a few of its sins.

There will always be some stubborn pocket of popular resistance when it comes to animal rights. Diligent attention to the issue would, after all, require many of us to make a concerted effort not only to stop eating meat, but also to refrain from wearing leather, going to zoos, and doing hundreds of other things based on the exploitation of animals. “Using animals is a source of pleasure for many people,” said Sue Donaldson, who co-authored with Will Kymlicka the 2011 book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. “I think strategically, we should support people wherever they are on that transition, and recognize that it’s a difficult thing to do.” That’s one thing the traditional animal-rights movement has never been very good at, and the PETA-led culture of aggressively shaming meat-eaters is something that has to change if people are to embrace animal rights.

Crucially, animal rights activists have to stop comparing the struggle of animals to the struggle of black people in America. Because to many on the old-school human left, animal rights activists aren’t just a bunch of silly vegans. They’re a bunch of racist vegans.

Consider PETA’s infamous tweet about “bringing home the bagels.” In response to some light backlash, the group followed up with this retort:

PETA makes this comparison all the time, arguing that killing a cow just because it’s a cow is just as bad as killing a black person because she is black. “[We] know that prejudice in all its ugly forms is wrong,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk wrote in 2017. “It doesn’t matter who the victim is, but when we witness oppression, we should never let it go unchallenged.” The group, as Sarah Grey and Joe Cleffie argued in a 2015 piece for Jacobin, “is notorious for employing lynching and Holocaust imagery; in 2009, PETA members dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes outside Madison Square Garden to protest the ‘eugenic’ breeding practices promoted by the Westminster Dog Show.”

PETA’s stance also hails from the founding text of the modern animal rights movement. In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer frequently makes slavery comparisons. He also cites apartheid to argue hypocrisy on the part of well-meaning meat-eaters. “To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages ... is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbors not to sell their houses to blacks,” he wrote.

But this comparison is flawed and deeply troubling when you consider how racists have long compared oppressed minority groups to dogs and other animals. “The comparison is calculated to degrade, and it stems from the period when U.S. laws treated enslaved black people as legally equivalent to livestock—categorizing them as subhuman,” Grey and Cleffie write.

It’s no wonder, then, that many on the left believe animal rights activism simply serves as a means for white people to ignore the human rights of black people—who, by the way, continue to be oppressed in America. To some, it often feels that people care more about animals than they do about people of color. Burton, who authored the Buzzfeed op-ed on PETA, recalled a conversation in which a woman told her that “animals are treated better by white people than black human beings are.” In a New York Times op-ed, the African-American writer Roxane Gay mourned the shooting of an unarmed black man while the rest of the world mourned the death of Cecil the Lion.

This is the core problem animal rights groups must atone for, said Will Kymlicka: “We want other social justice movements to accept animal rights, but it means animal-rights groups need to be much more responsible members of the family.”

He added, however, that it’s a “two-way street.” Social justice movements can’t be too cavalier in dismissing the animals rights movement, because in doing so, they’re arguing that humans are inherently a superior species and thus have moral dominion over the earth. That mindset actually harms the fight for racial, gender, and other social equalities. At least 10 peer-reviewed sociology and psychology studies show that belief in species hierarchy is “consistently associated with greater dehumanization of disadvantaged or marginalized human groups,” Kymlicka said. “It exacerbates racism, sexism, homophobia, and reduces support for fair wages for workers.”

He added, “Although these studies are looking at different age groups in different countries using different methods, the finding is always the same: Species hierarchy is bad for social justice movements.”

Every year in the United States, humans bring about 8.5 billion chickens, 33 million cows, and 112 million pigs into the world for the sole purpose of killing them and serving them on a plate. To most Americans this is a non-issue. Worse, if Democrats were to make lowering meat consumption, by fiat or policy nudges, part of their platform, it would likely be a losing issue.

But if the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that the assumptions that once undergirded American politics—about what voters want, about the supremacy of the free market, about the very foundations of liberal democracy—are now open to fresh interrogation. The left has seized that opportunity to push the boundaries of debate on a host of subjects, from the economy to the environment to movement-based crusades for social justice. In so doing they have made certain implicit promises. Taken to their logical ends, their proposals suggest the outlines of a broad, holistic case for humans eating much less meat—a case that includes aspects of animal welfare and animal rights.

This is not to say that animal rights should or will become an all-or-nothing proposition. Policy makers will have to meet voters where they are, while proposing an array of approaches that range from the oblique to the direct. But the benefits of convincing people to eat less meat are clear. Production would decrease. Emissions from livestock would drop. Waterways would flush out pollution; aquifers would replenish. Billions of lives would be saved, human lives very much among them.

Or, you know, we could keep eating hamburgers.