Much of what makes my own life worthwhile—joy, play, meaningful work, loving relationships—is shared widely across species. The hard line between human and nonhuman is blurrier than it appears.
The political Left, especially in its anti-authoritarian strains, has a long history of supporting welfare and even rights for nonhuman animals. Anarchists such as Leo Tolstoy and Elisée Reclus were vegetarian and drew explicit links between violence against humans and other species.
Similar views were common in the British suffragette movement: as one woman put it, “Vegetarianism aims so directly, as we women aim, at the abolition of the unregenerate doctrine of physical force.”
The social ecology of Murray Bookchin also seeks to extend moral consideration beyond the human. And many contemporary municipalist organisers, from Jackson, Mississippi, to Kurdistan, consider environmental goals central to their mission.
But by and large, these social ecologists and municipalists have stopped short of a vegan ethic. In fact, as we’ll see, some have been actively hostile to animal rights advocacy.
While this area lacks consensus among the Symbiosis Research Collective, several of us see animal liberation as central to our political project.
Here, in the first section, I will make the case that nonhuman animals belong on our agenda. Then, using existing municipalist movements as a model, I speculate as to how our movement can best advance animal rights.
Before I go on: the terms “animal liberation” and “animal rights” can encompass a wide range of approaches. Here I use them interchangeably, to mean something like the following: the political project of ensuring all sentient beings—that is, those who feel pain and/or pleasure—are free to pursue their own flourishing.
With this project comes a commitment to taking the moral claims of nonhuman animals seriously; we must stop automatically categorising their needs as less important than those of humans.
Overcoming this “speciesism” would entail, among other things, the abolition of animal agriculture, invasive experimentation, fur farms, zoos, and other institutions that hold animals captive to serve human ends; significant habitat restoration for wildlife; and the restructuring of food and other industries to minimize harm for humans and nonhumans alike, which in most (though likely not all) contexts would mean the adoption of a plant-based diet.
This can only be achieved as part of a broader project that involves overcoming all hierarchies, including those within human societies.
Capitalism treats humans and nonhumans alike as disposable and profits on their exploitation; neither animal nor human liberation is possible under its control. So long as hierarchical ideologies and institutions persist anywhere, no one is safe from domination.
The ambiguities of human supremacy
In social ecology, humans and our societies are seen as a “second nature” that arises out of nonhuman “first nature.” While social ecologists want ethical relations with first nature, they generally have little to say about animals in particular.
Ecofeminist Greta Gaard writes, “for many social ecologists, as for many leftists, animals fall in the space between ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ (or in the case of social ecology, ‘second nature’ and ‘first nature’), and consequently the topic of animal rights is never addressed.”
One social ecologist who addressed the issue is historian Peter Staudenmaier, who wrote a 2005 blog post for the Institute for Social Ecology called The Ambiguities of Animal Rights. In it, Staudenmaier argues that “animal rights is simultaneously much too ambitious and much too timid”—that the ideology is “both anti-humanist and anti-ecological.”
Let’s take “anti-humanism” first: The overambition of animal advocates, Staudenmaier argues, is their aim of putting nonhuman animals on the same moral playing field as humans. This “fundamentally misconstrues what is distinctive about humans and our relation to the natural world.”
For Staudenmaier, what sets humans apart is moral agency—we “can engage in ethical deliberation, entertain alternative moral choices, and act according to [our] best judgement.” Indeed, “[m]oral agents are uniquely capable of formulating, articulating, and defending a conception of their own interests. … As far as we know, mentally competent adult human beings are the only moral agents there are.”
What makes us valuable
Thus, “speciesism” is not arbitrary, but rooted in a significant difference between humans and other creatures.
This line of argumentation is fairly common, so it’s worth examining it in detail. Most alarmingly, after declaring the special status of “mentally competent adult human beings,” Staudenmaier leaves unaddressed what this implies for human children or the mentally incompetent.
As political philosophers Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka note in Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, it is precisely such vulnerable groups that our ethical theories should seek to protect, not exclude.
Moral agency may be what gives us ethical duties, but it is not what makes us valuable. Much of what makes my own life worthwhile—joy, play, meaningful work, loving relationships—is shared widely across species. The hard line between human and nonhuman that Staudenmaier seeks to draw is blurrier than it appears.
Animals ask for freedom
Staudenmaier’s biggest mistake may be his argument that “articulating and defending a conception of their own interests” is specific to humans. “Animals consistently voice preferences and ask for freedom,” writes disabled vegan theorist Sunaura Taylor in Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation.
“We deliberately have to choose not to hear when the lobster bangs on the walls from inside a pot of boiling water or when the hen who is past her egg-laying prime struggles against the human hands that enclose her legs and neck.
"We have to choose not to recognise the preference expressed when the fish spasms and gasps for oxygen in her last few minutes alive. Considering animals voiceless betrays an ableist assumption of what counts as having a voice.”
The differences between humans and nonhumans, in moral capacities as in all else, exist on a continuum. This observation goes back to Charles Darwin, and some contemporary animal behaviorists, such as Frans de Waal, argue forcefully against ranking humankind at the top of some evolutionary ladder of intelligence.
Instead, there are a variety of intelligences, not all of which humans excel at. De Waal goes so far as to call for a moratorium on declaring any defining difference between human and animal, as so many past attempts—such as defining humans by tool use—have been handily disproven.
The second half of Staudenmaier’s argument alleges that animal-rights thinking betrays an “obliviousness to ecological values. … The well-being of a complex functioning ecological community … cannot be reduced to the well-being of … individuals.” Animal advocates’ focus on sentience can obscure the moral claims of “trees, plants, lakes, rivers, forests, ecosystems” and other nonsentient entities.
One can accept this, however—Taylor does, as do Donaldson and Kymlicka—without then saying sentience is irrelevant. After Staudenmaier spends several paragraphs uplifting Homo sapiens over the chimpanzee, it is frustrating to see him argue that differentiating between chimpanzees and bacteria is “anti-ecological.”
Even by his own standards, chimpanzees possess more elements of moral agency—empathy, cooperation, rational decision-making and problem-solving, grief, a sense of what is fair—and thus might require a different moral response.
And besides, moral agency isn’t the only trait that matters: the subjective experience of suffering must count for something. If you kick a dog and kick a rock, only one of them notices (at least that we know of). This is not to sell out bacteria and rocks, or to deny the deep interconnection of all things. My point is only that thinking, feeling creatures require specific ethical responses.
I am here operating according to the commonly accepted view that sentience is unique to animals with a nervous system, but some have argued, more speculatively, that non-animal life or even nonlife might have their own forms of subjectivity.
I am open to the possibility, but this would only weaken the argument for human exceptionalism: in a complex world of myriad interacting subjects, what are the chances that the only morally relevant line to draw happens to be between humans and everyone else? (It’s also worth noting that, this wouldn’t change the underlying theory of animal rights—the commitment to liberation for sentient beings—nor even most of its implications.)
Ironically, Staudenmaier and other social ecologists are effective critics of what they call "ecofascism", an uncritical holism that would sacrifice individual human rights and freedoms in the service of some greater ecological good. Yet his prescription seems to be liberation for humans, fascism for the rest.
Points of agreement
A short article like this might not convince readers to embrace animal liberation. But we can agree that the status quo for nonhuman animals is untenable. Bookchin was no vegan, but believed that “torturing animals in the name of research is monstrous.”
Few would defend the treatment of cows, pigs, and poultry in industrial farms, and investigations have shown that most “humane meat” isn’t treated much better.
This is not even to get into the environmental and public health impacts of modern animal agriculture; on land use grounds alone the practice is woefully inefficient, and a primary driver of climate change and species extinction.
Some maintain that reformed grazing practices will make animal agriculture sustainable (though the evidence remains spotty). But there is little doubt that the actually existing meat industry is harmful. Even if grazing animals does provide ecological benefits in some regions, this does not automatically imply we should breed, imprison and kill them for food.
There may be some contexts, such as among far-north indigenous groups, where the social and environmental harms of going vegan outweigh the benefits. But critically, we do not reach this conclusion by downplaying animals’ moral claims, but by weighing them against other factors - e.g. the lives of the animals killed to grow vegetables and import them to Alaska, and the ongoing social effects of colonialism.
It is impossible to live a life utterly free of harm to our fellow beings. But our societies must strive to minimize or avoid, to the extent humanly possible, the killing of any thinking, feeling creature—be they human or not.
The Kurdish revolutionary Abdullah Ocalan wrote: “The one thing I can still not forgive myself for is snapping off the heads of the birds I hunted [as a child] without any pity. … My only remedy was to pull down the masks of the ‘strong exploiter and ruling man’ who is a mere hunter and whose only talent is power relations and warring. Unless we understand the language of the fauna and flora, we will neither understand ourselves nor become ecological socialists.”
How can we learn to understand that language?
One answer is offered by UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning Jennifer Wolch. “To allow for the emergence of an ethic, practice, and politics of caring for animals and nature, we need to renaturalise cities and invite the animals back in, and in the process re-enchant the city. I call this renaturalised, reenchanted city zoöpolis.”
She goes on: “The reintegration of people with animals and nature in zoöpolis can provide urban dwellers with the local, situated, everyday knowledge of animal life required to grasp animal standpoints or ways of being in the world, to interact with them accordingly in particular contexts, and to motivate political action necessary to protect their autonomy as subjects and their life spaces.”
Evidence backs her up, suggesting that an emotional connection to nonhuman nature can help build environmental consciousness. But there’s an unanswered question here. On the one hand, we need to invite animals back into the city to make humans care. But how are we going to generate the political will to invite animals back in the first place?
A model in Jackson
Here is where a municipalist approach holds promise, a way to start building the reenchanted world we want from the ground up. To understand how, we can look at Jackson, Mississippi.
Currently, the organisation Cooperation Jackson (CJ) contains four worker-owned cooperatives: a farm, a catering company, a 3D printing company, and the Green Team, which does landscaping and composting. These are designed to work together: The farm provides food for the caterers, the 3D printers make materials for the others, etc.
Crucially, all of these are designed to meet not only social but environmental needs. Freedom Farms, at least for now, only produces plant foods (one of CJ’s founders is vegan; another is outspoken on capitalism’s assault on wildllife). The farm operates according to sustainable, wildlife-friendly agro-ecology practices, and the catering co-op started as a vegan café.
CJ’s long-term goals include making Jackson a zero-emissions, zero-waste city, and setting up an “eco-village” of co-ops engaged in green projects from solar installation to waste management to child care and the arts. There’s also an ongoing education component to their work, including a newsletter that explains topics such as “ecosocialism” and in-person film screenings and discussions.
CJ's cooperatives build community buy-in through the valuable services they provide, such as healthy food and landscaping; they also hold volunteer work days. For those too cash-poor to access CJ’s products, the organisation is setting up a time bank so that hours worked can be exchanged for goods and services.
There is even talk of setting up an alternative currency. From the Black Panthers’ survival programs to Greek mutual aid groups to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) brake light repair clinics, social services have long been a way to both meet immediate needs and build long-term movement power.
A possible strategy
So what does all this have to do with animal rights? Using Jackson as a model, we can begin to see what an interspecies municipal strategy might look like—one that brings nonhuman animals as full subjects into everyday interaction with human residents, and allows for symbiotic co-creation of a just, ecological society.
Cooperatively run gardens, farms, restaurants, grocery stores and caterers can help solve the problem of food access inequity, build alternatives to the destructive capitalist food system, and create spaces for education on animals, environment, and health.
They could also aid people in their transition from meat, especially those with health issues that make this transition difficult (in the near future, lab-grown meat could help this as well). Mutual aid projects might provide food for free, or as part of a barter or time-banking system.
As we obtain larger plots of land, we could set up sanctuaries for rescued animals and rehabilitation clinics for wildlife, run cooperatively and integrated into the larger co-op network. Worker-owners would receive a living wage, nonhumans would be given space to live according to their desires, and community members would be encouraged to volunteer, putting their hours toward a time bank.
Other projects a municipalist group might undertake are trash pick-up at parks, habitat restoration along rivers and in forest preserves, non-lethal rodent-proofing measures, dog-walking services, rescue groups for birds injured in building and car collisions, and shelters for dogs and cats.
Film screenings and dinner discussions could explore animal and environment-related topics. And we can plan trips outside of the city, especially for those who can rarely afford to do so, to help with trail maintenance, volunteer at animal sanctuaries, or simply enjoy the great outdoors.
In addition to their immediate effects, all of these help “reenchant” the city, as Wolch writes, which may generate the political will to introduce more pro-animal projects at greater scales.
A few questions remain, of course. For instance, this is a very city-focused plan; the strategy might look different in more rural areas, especially those where interacting with nonhuman animals is already common.
We need mechanisms to navigate differing views, building inclusive organizations without sacrificing principles. And ensuring adequate protections for nonhuman life will require modifying our direct democratic processes, ensuring all interests are represented and placing certain actions off limits. But this is beyond the scope of this article; some of these will be best solved by different municipalities experimenting and comparing notes.
My local animal rights group, Chicago Animal Save (CAS), holds regular vegan potlucks open to all ages, and has become among the most racially diverse social justice groups I’ve been a part of. CAS often brings a chicken named Helen to outreach events and protests.
Helen’s presence turns meat into less of an abstraction, and allows people to engage with a “food” animal in a non-exploitative context. If all hierarchy and domination are oppressive, as social ecology maintains, then my liberation must be wrapped up in hers.
This article was by written by Dayton Martindale (@DaytonRMartind).
The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev