Sustainability If

Painting of two bluefin tuna surrounded by swirls of hundreds of little fish

By Lisa Kemmerer

All oppression creates a state of war.

– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

 

“Sustainability” refers to an “ability to endure across time.” In the environmental movement, “sustainability” statements always entail an unstated “if.” In this usage, a particular action is deemed unsustainable if we value and wish to protect and preserve certain aspect of the natural environment.  Certain actions/consumer options are considered sustainable if they do not cause worrisome environmental problems.  Environmentalists who note that our beef habit is unsustainable are really saying that our beef habit cannot be sustained if we are to preserve rainforests and freshwater, if we are to arrest dead zone growth and climate change.  In these instances it is readily apparent that sustainability rests on common shared moral commitments to protecting the environment on which we depend. In this context, if we were to make a full and complete statement with regard to sustainability, we might say:

  • Eating bluefin tuna is unsustainable if we intend to protect endangered species.
  • Eating cheese is unsustainable if we hope to arrest the spread of dead zones.
  • Eating shrimp is unsustainable if we value ocean ecosystems, including essential, fragile deep-sea reefs.

In each of the above cases the “if” is rarely stated, and what we are likely to hear or read would look or sound something like this:

  • Bluefin tuna is unsustainable.
  • Cheese is unsustainable.
  • Shrimp is unsustainable.

When we finish the sentence, stating clearly the unspoken but essential “if,” we realize that statements of environmental sustainability rest on a moral commitment to make selections that decrease, rather than increase, environmental degradation.  In short, we come to see that sustainability statements rest on commonly held moral values.  We also come to see that our responsibility as consumers is often omitted—the product is labeled “unsustainable.”

What is most interesting about the missing “if” in the environmental context is that reinserting this conjunction allows us to see that sustainability is the key not just to environmental justice, but to social justice more broadly. Sustainability can fruitfully be employed in any social justice context. Consider in these more diverse applications of the term:

  • It is unsustainable for racist police to brutalize Black civilians if we hope to arrest the spread of hatred and violence.
  • Forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term is unsustainable if we value self-determination.
  • Permitting only heterosexuals to enjoy the financial and social benefits of legal marriage is unsustainable of we intend to protect human rights.
  • If we are committed to an ethic whereby we value justice and protect the vulnerable from the exploitation of the powerful, eating chickens is unsustainable.

 

Landscape view of a cattle herd in a cleared rainforest area

Sustainability is not just about cycling and recycling, it is also about redistributing wealth, yielding wrongly-gained power to the disenfranchised, and protecting all who are vulnerable from the miseries of exploitation and oppression.  Unsustainable behaviors—racist, sexist, homophobic, speciesist, ableist, ageist, and consumer behaviors—ought to be avoided not only if we value clean water and forests, but also if we value justice and peace.

At the end of the day, these unsustainable behaviors are interconnected. For example industrial fishing is unsustainable not only because it harms ocean ecosystems, but also because it is unjust—industrial fishing harms indigenous communities dependent on depleted ecosystems for subsistence survival.  Industrial fishing is therefore unsustainable if we intend to protect the comparatively powerless—ocean ecosystems, indigenous peoples, and fish—from powerful corporate interests and their indifferent/uninformed consumers. Similarly, factory farming is unsustainable if we value rainforests, fresh water reserves, and the earth’s present climate, and also if we value worker’s rights, the protection of defenseless farmed animals, and the health of unsuspecting consumers who suffer from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and obesity because of animal products they consume. These practices are unsustainable if—but not only if—we intend to protect the natural environment from horrendous environmental degradation. They are also unsustainable if we value justice and peace—if we intend to protect the vulnerable, whether minorities, the disenfranchised, or other species.

 

Further Reading

Kemmerer, Lisa. “Defending the Defenseless: Speciesism, Animal Liberation, and Consistency in Applied Ethics.” Les Ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum 9:3 (2015).

Kemmerer, Lisa. “Ecofeminism: Women, Environment, Animals.” DEP: Deportate, Esuli, Profughe. Ca’ Foscari University of Venezia, Italy, 23 (2013).

Click here to download the introduction to Speaking Up for Animals: An Anthology of Women’s Voices

Click here to download the introduction to Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice

 

KemmererDr. Kemmerer is a professor of Philosophy and Religion and a prolific author in animal ethics.  Her books include In Search of Consistency: Ethics and AnimalsAnimals and World ReligionsSister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice, Call to Compassion: Reflections on Animal AdvocacySpeaking Up for Animals: An Anthology of Women’s Voices, and Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education. She is particularly interested in intersections of Nonhuman Animal advocacy and environmental advocacy in the spirit of Marti Kheel, as is evidenced in her 2015 publication Eating Earth: Environmental Ethics and Dietary Choice and her editorial work for the 2015 anthology Animals and the Environment: Advocacy, Activism, and the Quest for Common Ground.

 

Animal Victimization in the Service of Male Vengeance

Consider the following story line:
1. Woman is assaulted/raped/kidnapped/murdered.
2. Man goes on rampage in revenge.

How many movies (and television shows, video games, comics, etc.) can you think of that follow this plot? Bravehart? Taken? Just about every video game ever created? The victimization of women is an extremely over-used plot device meant to allow for rampant, unabashed violence from leading male-identified characters.

Taken Vegan Neeson

Feminists have taken issue with the trope, not simply because it gives a green light to hyper-masculinized violence, but also because of the ways in which women are presented. In seeing women vulnerable, victimized, dependent on men, and rarely actively involved in their own protection or survival, women become objects. Women don’t exist as persons or meaningful characters–they exist solely as an excuse for Liam Neeson to blow up half of Europe in search of his daughter, or for Mel Gibson to disembowel and behead half the English army.

Consider the impact this imagery has within a sexist culture. Imagine what it is like to be a woman in a media space that is saturated with images of women being hurt. Think about how difficult it can be to watch an action movie or television drama without being subjected to the obligatory rape scene. Media socializes not only male viewers, but female viewers as well.

Are we being encouraged to empathize with the victim, or are we being encouraged to root for the “good guy”/”hero”?  Are we encouraged to think critically about the systemic violence that the victimization is embedded within? Or are we really just pushed to unload our hatred on one individual “bad guy” and his cronies? When images of violence against the vulnerable are presented as entertainment and cheap plot devices, is this not a form of revictimization?

Lee Hall, a feminist and legal scholar in animal rights, has a chapter in her book On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal Rights Philosophy Down to Earth which questions the use of violent images of Nonhuman Animal suffering in a similar vein. Social movement scholars have pointed to the utility of “morally shocking” imagery as a motivation for becoming an activist, but at what point do graphic images simply begin to reinforce the object-status of Nonhuman Animals as helpless victims? What impact could these millions of images be having on our conceptualization of other animals?

To me, it seems that activists are not only blasting the public with these demeaning images, but they are also sharing them within the activist community as a means of exciting rage and desire for vengeance. Crude images of Nonhuman Animals being kicked, beaten, sexually assaulted, dismembered, etc. are shared among activists with encouragements to “GET ANGRY!” or “DO SOMETHING!”

Ecofeminist Marti Kheel has been writing about this “savior complex” in anti-speciesist spaces for decades. Instead of examining the root cause of exploitation, activists and theorists are looking for a reason to call on their inner Liam Neeson. The vegan feminist perspective, however, sees social change grounded in respect for the exploited and peaceful, non-violent education for the exploiters. Kheel explains:

Whereas nature ethicists have tended to concentrate on “rescuing” the”damsel in distress,” ecofeminists have been more likely to ask how and why the “damsel” arrived at her present plight. [ . . . ]

The natural world will be “saved” not by the sword of ethical theory, but rather through a transformed consciousness toward all of life.

“From Heroic to Holistic Ethics,” Ecofeminism,1993, p.243-4

My concern is that “victims in pictures” simply become revictimized when their experiences are shared in a matter that does not necessarily respect their personhood. In doing so, they simply become objects in the story line of activism:
1. Nonhuman Animal is assaulted/raped/kidnapped/murdered.
2. Human goes on rampage in revenge.

Given that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement already operates according to patriarchal norms and generally celebrates violent direct action, it seems quite fitting that Nonhuman Animals are presented as victims in order to allow men the justification they need to rampage. While violent activism is done in the name of social justice, the “might makes right” logic that supports this approach clearly works within an ideology of patriarchy.

Baby elephant smiles and lifts their trunk upwards towards mother, whose legs and trunk frame the shot

Popular media loves to play this victim card so that audiences can quickly “cut to the chase.” But is it wise to employ the same tactic in social justice efforts?  I think it is fair to say that the norm in other movements is to focus on the personhood of victims and survivors, instead of blasting audiences (and each other) with images of bloodied and mangled corpses or near-corpses. The video capturing the murder of Walter Scott by a police offer has gone viral in the Black Lives Matter movement’s media circles, drawing criticism from some that the revictimization of Black men through imagery mimics the same process found in pornography (an argument I have also made regarding the use of rape memes in the Nonhuman Animal rights media):

Yes, we should celebrate that even though an unarmed black man was killed, his killing was caught on film, so there’s a better shot at justice and closure. But I’m trying desperately to make sense of why watching and sharing the video that tore his mother’s heart to pieces is as normal as making your latest Instagram post. So far I’m landing at this: In a world where we are inundated with explicit content, watching black men die on camera provides a thrill that America thought she lost when popular lynchings ended with no need for a “mature audiences only” disclaimer. [ . . . ]

The black man’s death is repeated, reproduced, shared, and celebrated in a macabre way specific to the snuff genre. These films and activities have always existed, but in the past people didn’t consume them so publicly, or so proudly outside of public executions and lynchings.

Perhaps the Nonhuman Animal rights movement should take note. Instead of revictimizing Nonhuman Animals, let’s present them as persons. Let the Nonhuman Animals take center stage, not their human avengers. This is a movement that seeks to restore dignity to Nonhuman Animals. Reproducing victimization through movement media might not be sending the right message.

 

By Corey Lee Wrenn, M.S., A.B.D. Ph.D.

Ms. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is an instructor of Sociology and council member of the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association.