Britain’s 175th annual Grand National horse race is set to take place on Saturday April 15. The protest group Animal Rising (formerly known as Animal Rebellion), an offshoot of the larger climate movement Extinction Rebellion, plans to disrupt it with direct-action tactics, including activists gluing themselves to the track before the race commences.
The group’s opposition to the spectacle is about much more than the numerous injuries and deaths that horses sustain during races. Animal Rising stands opposed to what it sees as the systemic exploitation of other species which reduces non-human beings to expendable commodities. Crucially, the group also seeks to highlight the inextricable link between the exploitation of other species, ecosystems and the escalating climate crisis.
Animal Rising emerged in the UK in 2019 with a refreshingly holistic perspective, arguing that the systematic exploitation of other species isn’t just ethically unacceptable but also fuels climate change. The group targets animal farming and fishing as particularly devastating devourers of “ecosystems and lives”. Their repertoire of non-violent direct-action tactics include blocking meat and dairy aisles in supermarkets. In 2019, 400 activists occupied the Smithfield meat market in London for 18 hours.
Animal Rising’s attempts to draw attention to the disastrous climate impacts of industrial animal agriculture and fishing are laudable. But is an absolute shift to plant-based subsistence, as the group advocates, the answer?
The treatment of other species as means for human ends stems from anthropocentric worldviews prominent in western societies which frame humans as separate from and superior to nature and other species. Reduced to such an inferior status, other species become prime candidates for exploitation, as seen in medical testing, sport and entertainment and the horrors of factory farming.
Animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change. Livestock are a major emitter of greenhouse gases including methane, which is around 25 times more effective than CO₂ at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. And acquiring land to rear these captive animals drives tropical deforestation, resulting in the further loss of vital carbon sinks and biodiversity.
Recent research has underscored the role that animals in the wild play in keeping climate-warming gases like CO₂ out of the atmosphere. For instance, wildebeest migrating across Africa’s Serengeti consume large amounts of grassland carbon, which is returned as dung and incorporated into the soil by insects.
Animal Rising is right to claim that liberating other species and rewilding the three-quarters of farmland used for livestock production would significantly aid the fight against climate breakdown. But the group’s demand for a plant-based future lacks important nuance.
The campaigners call the urgent transition to plant-based food systems “the key solution” to contemporary environmental crises and an essential component of a more just and sustainable world. The world’s foremost experts would tend to agree. In a recent report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) repeatedly called for a reduction in meat consumption, especially in wealthy countries, highlighting the considerable climate benefits of vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets.
My work looks at how we can ethically reshape our relations to nature and other species along more harmonious and sustainable lines. An absolute ban on consuming other animals, while plants remain fair game, constitutes another arbitrary boundary akin to that used to separate humans from other animals. All animals must take life in order to survive, as we cannot produce our own nutrients or energy. This fundamental aspect of our entangled lives with others is not inherently problematic.
But how we use others in the business of living matters considerably. There’s a world of difference between small-scale subsistence fishing and farming and the profit-driven, industrial-scale extraction under global capitalism. Similarly, plant-based food systems which turn habitats into chemical wastelands devoid of biodiversity are far from ethical or sustainable.
Indigenous peoples the world over explain how to live more ethically and sustainably. Robin Wall Kimmerer, environmental scientist and citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, refers to the “honourable harvest”: when deciding anything, from how and where to build homes to how to produce food and source energy, principles to live by include taking only what we need, always leaving some for others, and sustaining those who sustain us.
Some indigenous communities in northwestern North America practice partial harvesting of trees instead of clear-cutting. By only removing certain parts, the trees continue living and sustaining the wider ecosystem. In the Ekuri community-managed forest in southeastern Nigeria, hunting endangered species and commercial timber extraction is prohibited. These considerate relations to the land and other species are among the reasons why biodiversity tends to thrive on indigenous-managed lands worldwide.
Animal Rising’s fight for a future devoid of exploitation is essential. A substantial shift towards plant-based food systems in wealthy countries could work wonders in that direction, and Animal Rising is right to target these excesses. Let this be the beginning of collective resistance to all forms of exploitation and domination.
As Kimmerer has said, only by respecting and sustaining those who sustain us can the Earth last forever.
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