For the Love of Animals
For the Love of AnimalsPhilip McKibbin
An edited version of this article appears in the latest issue of the New Zealand Vegetarian Society's Vegetarian Living NZ magazine.
All around the world, people are becoming more aware of the suffering of animals and are beginning to think critically about our treatment of them. Many of us are trying to eat ethically, and more and more people are transitioning to vegetarianism and veganism.
At the same time, we are realising that love must play a role in politics. Most recently, this has been seen in the realisation of marriage equality in the United States of America, and in the inspiring stances Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken – especially with respect to Canada’s indigenous peoples and refugees.
It is timely to ask, What role should the interests of animals play in our politics?
In May last year, Max Harris and I published an article called ‘The Politics of Love’, in which we argued for a values-based politics infused with love (https://theaotearoaproject.wordpress.com/2015/05/20/the-politics-of-love-max-harris-and-philip-mckibbin/). We believe that love has a central role to play in our politics. I think that the theory we sketched can accommodate a concern for animal welfare, and guide us as we work to promote the interests of animals.
There are many reasons for caring about animals. The appalling conditions in which animals are ‘farmed’ – the fact that globally, nearly 50 billion animals spend their entire lives in tiny confinement systems, unable to experience sunshine, fresh air, exercise, or even the ability to turn around (https://www.ciwf.org.uk/media/3640540/ciwf_strategic_plan_20132017.pdf) – is a strong motivation for many of us to change our lifestyles. We all feel that there is something objectionable about unnecessary suffering, and when we begin to appreciate the scale of suffering that factory ‘farming’ entails, and discover that there are viable alternatives to this, we realise that the case for change is compelling.
It is also important that we recognise the harmful effects the meat and dairy industries have on the environment, and the benefits associated with reducing the volume of animal products that we collectively consume. In 2010, the United Nations advocated a global shift towards veganism, reporting that meat- and dairy-rich diets are unsustainable for the environment (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jun/02/un-report-meat-free-diet). And as we know, the health of the planet affects animals as well as people.
There are self-interested reasons for changing our behaviour, too. In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer notes that vegetarian diets are suitable for all individuals at all stages of the lifecycle, that they are typically lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in other important nutrients, and that they are often associated with health advantages, including lower risk of heart disease, and lower overall cancer rates. He writes:
‘I talked to several leading American nutritionists about this – taking both adults and children as the subjects of my questions – and heard the same thing again and again: vegetarianism is at least as healthy as a diet that includes meat.’
And as millions of people worldwide are proving, vegan diets can be exceptionally healthy, too.
What, then, does love have to do with animals?
In his little book, How to Love, Zen Master Thích Nht Hnh emphasises the connection between body and mind. In teaching us how to nourish our love, he writes, ‘If we eat with moderation, eating only the foods we need and eating the foods that help our bodies to be strong and healthy, then we’re showing love and respect for our bodies and for the Earth.’ Eating in a respectful way can serve as the basis for our respect of other people, and for the planet.
We know that love concerns itself with people, but it should also concern itself with animals. I follow Martin Luther King Jr. and others in holding love to be a concern for all people. I think about Minnie, the cat that lives with my father’s family. I love Minnie, and I feel that, because we have similar temperaments, we understand each other. She is sometimes grumpy – which I suspect is because I call her Minnie Mouse! And we consider her and Galli, her frenemy, to be family members. I know that many people feel similarly about their pets.
If we can extend our concern for people beyond those we are already close to – such as our family, our friends – can we not also extend our concern for animals in a similar way, recognising the importance not only of the animals we have befriended, but of all animals, as animals, and because they have interests? I believe that we can.
Even if you do not have pets or are not especially fond of animals, you will know from the interactions you have had with them that they have interests, and that, like us, they suffer when mistreated. This should make you concerned.
That the animals we use for food suffer is generally well-known, even if the particulars of their suffering are not. As I have written elsewhere, intellectual engagement is integral to love – and each of us has a responsibility to educate ourselves about harmful practices. If you would like to learn more about ‘farming’ practices, I would encourage you to visit Compassion in World Farming at http://www.ciwf.com/.
So, what would loving political action look like with respect to animals?
The most immediate and effective action we can take as individuals with respect to the interests of animals is to reduce our consumption of animal products, and a loving politics would acknowledge the importance of such action.
In our original article, Max Harris and I wrote:
‘We should […] be aware that a lot of actions that do not seem political have a political dimension. Engaging in politics is a broader enterprise than we might think: who we are friends with, how we talk to others, how we operate in the so-called ‘private domain’ of the home – all of this is political, as feminists have long maintained. A politics of love would have love run through all of these decisions and interactions.’
Eating ethically is an excellent example of everyday political action. As well as directly impacting loving political goals – think of the suffering that we eschew – it reduces demand for harmful practices and institutions, and thereby encourages alternative industries that are less harmful to animals and the planet; it sets an example for other people, and so, has the potential to influence opinions in the way that, say, standing up to sexism does; and it opens opportunities for dialogue, not only about the huge difference we can make with our lifestyle choices, but about the importance of animal interests and welfare. All of this can, and should, be understood as political.
The Politics of Love would see all of us becoming vegetarians and, ideally, vegans. Although making such lifestyle changes can be difficult to begin with, vegetarians and vegans will tell you that there is much fulfilment to be gained in knowing that we are acting lovingly and choosing not to contribute to the suffering of animals.
There is also a role for more ‘traditional’ forms of political action. As individuals, we can work to achieve higher animal welfare standards by supporting the campaigns of animal welfare organisations, by lobbying for better legislation to protect animals, and by choosing to vote for political parties that endorse high standards of animal welfare (to offer only a few examples). Indeed, it is political engagement of this nature that has led to improvements in animal welfare legislation and regulations – for instance, Aotearoa New Zealand’s recent bans on sow stalls and cosmetic testing on animals. Such outcomes suggest that, as individuals, we are able to contribute positively to meaningful change for animals.
It is important to remember that our well-being, the welfare of animals, and the health of the planet that we all share are intimately connected. Any politics that takes love, or even people, as its focus would perpetuate as many problems as it fixed if it failed to attend critically to our use (and abuse) of animals. We should actively concern ourselves with these issues.
The Politics of Love, as well as being a politics of people, is a politics that recognises animal interests and concerns itself with them. All of us must act to make our world more loving.
I wish to thank Danielle Duffield for her helpful comments on a draft of this article.
Philip McKibbin is an