Today is the first day of the Jewish holiday of Passover. It is also, serendipitously, the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Peter Singer’s essay “Animal Liberation”. Passover is the holiday of liberation, and the Passover seder — the ritual meal that takes place on the first night — is dedicated to presencing the meaning and significance of liberation and calling all those who participate to bring liberation into the world.
Historically, the focus of liberation has been humans and humans alone. What, however, might it mean to bring animals into this conversation, to presence animal liberation as a living possibility, an ethical call?
To many, it might seem bizarre, even unwelcome, to bring religion into the “animal liberation” discussion — especially a religion that gave us the narrative of human supremacy and the relegation of animals to use-objects, which became foundational to dominant Western ethics.
A religion, moreover, which, as represented in by its current state form, is hardly a beacon of the capacious enactment of liberation. I would simply request that those who feel this way bracket such legitimate objections and come with me to draw out two aspects of the seder practice that I see as helpful in approaching the challenge before us, as we seek to meet the still momentous challenge of animal liberation.
First, when people gather at the seder each year, they are asked to engage with the meaning of liberation now, in the context of the actual worlds they occupy. No doubt, liberation marks out a distinct sphere of ethics and politics, but it is a living concept and practice which only and always takes shape against the forms of oppression, violence, and injustice that currently wrack the world, and the responses of those who are subjected to them. If we are to find out what animal liberation means, we must be alive to the world and, specifically, to the scars left by the want of liberation.
The second aspect of the seder I want to mention, then, speaks to the question arising from this challenge of wroughting liberation anew: How to bring such liberation about? In brief, the seder suggests this requires a combination of three types of practice: storytelling (which provokes the moral imagination), philosophy (which asks that we try collectively to make sense of liberation), and bodily practices (like eating bitter herbs, which give us a direct affective experience, intimating liberation and its antagonists). If we are to capture and be captured by animal liberation, we need all three.
What is it, then, about the world that most presses upon us when we try to elaborate the meaning of animal liberation today? There is no shortage of violence and injustice against animals, and front of mind remains the persistent but accelerating crisis of the torture and killing of animals in industrial animal agriculture. The issue that presses powerfully upon me, however, is the climate catastrophe and the suite of related forms of extraction and violence associated with it — fossil-fuelled development, habitat destruction, the devastation of the conditions of animal life and flourishing, and the resultant climate disasters.
I do not want to fill this space with mind-bending statistics, but we do need something of a picture. In the fifty years since Singer’s essay was published, somewhere around 70 per cent of wild animals belonging to all monitored species have been decimated. In the Australian bushfires of 2019–2020, an estimated 3.25 billion animals were killed. And in the coming years, we can anticipate that the combination of the collapse of ecosystems forced by climate change, habitat destruction, and intensified human-wildlife conflicts will result in the extinction of many already critically endangered species.
What this tells us is that the scope or the frame for conceptualising animal liberation needs to radically expand. It makes no sense in this catastrophically climate-changing world to think about or work for animal liberation in ways that abstract this work from ethical attention to the more-than-human world, broadly understood. And I do not mean that we need to protect and ensure justice for ecological systems, or fight against extractive capitalism and fossil fuelled forms of human development in order to achieve liberation for animals. The relationship is not merely an instrumental one. Rather, we need a shift of frame, both at the level of how we understand being and life, and at the level of ethics, such that ecological relationships — including the ecological relationships in which all animal lives are embedded — are primary in decision making, not auxiliary.
To do this effectively will require that the more-than-human world, broadly understood, but also in its heterogeneous forms, be represented in decision making and not simply included as — at best — a defeasible side constraint.
Danielle Celemajer is a Professor of Sociology and Sociology, and Deputy Director of the Sydney Environment Insitute. As a researcher, she is interested in how we rethink the concept of justice when the subjects of justice include humans, other animals and the environment, and their relationships with each other.
This article was originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics.
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