Friday, February 01, 2008

When Humanitarianism and Animal Justice Diverge

This Christmas, my parents (knowing my distaste for consumption and love of social justice) decided not to give me “stuff” but instead made a gift to an organization on my behalf. The group is called “Kiva,” and provides ‘micro-loans’ for third world entrepreneurs. It has been touted by the likes of Natalie Portman and Bill Clinton (so you know it must be good) as a model for efficient, ground-level aid to the poor.

The exciting thing about Kiva is that it actually connects people, at least insofar as donors determine exactly to whom their money is loaned. I can, for example, choose between a motorcycle shop in Azerbaijan or a clothing tailor in Pakistan, and I even get to know a little bit about each entrepreneur in the process. All in all, Kiva seems like a pretty good deal: poor individuals are empowered to effect positive change on a local level, and rich (at least, comparatively) donors get to feel good about themselves for a relatively small amount of money, which is eventually repaid (so it’s not a ‘handout’).

As with nearly all things I discover that, on their face, make me feel like the world is not entirely going to hell in a hand-basket, there’s a catch. That is, many of the people requesting loans are looking to expand operations based around animal exploitation. Norah Nabulya in Uganda is looking for money so she can slaughter pigs more efficiently. Jonathan Kipngeno would like a loan so he can purchase more cows to produce milk for his business in Kenya. Pardahol Satto in Tajikistan is looking to improve his stock of animals for agricultural labor.

None of this intended to detract from the undeniable good that groups like Kiva do (for the record, I loaned my $25 to a fruit vendor in Pakistan). The fact that economic empowerment in many cases comes on the backs of animals should in no way be an indictment of the well-intentioned people who loan or the hardworking people who have every right to seek to better the situation of themselves and their families, and are likely unaware of the harm they are causing. I certainly cannot attach such a high value to animal life that I can begrudge any of the individuals on Kiva, or that I could deny them opportunities offered to them from birth.

Nonetheless, the paradox of Kiva – helping humans and harming animals – does speak to a broader conundrum for the animal liberation movement. Saving a human beings almost invariably allows that individual to continue or expand their use of animals. And the problem is not just in animal testing, where there is an often touted trade off between humane treatment of animals and medical advances. Every persona added to the global population adds to the global demand for animals for food, clothing, and entertainment. What’s worse, when people become better off, animals are eventually the victims – it is no coincidence that the United States has the world’s most voracious appetite for animal products, or that, as nations like China develop, they increasingly seek to emulate our consumption, to the extent that their animal abuse only expands. On a more individual level, it is almost inevitable that Ms. Nabulya in Uganda’s pigs will be worse off once she expands her operation and begins to make more money for her family: not only will there be more pigs being slaughtered, their lives will be increasingly mechanized and confined. Whether committed in the name of profit or survival, abuses of animals only increase when we raise people out of poverty.

Certainly, animals have been abused in all sorts of societies – socialist and capitalist. To acknowledge this, however, does not mean that the character and scale of animal abuse does not vary depending on the economic system. While this essay is not intended to be a wholesale indictment of capitalism, I think that the above anecdotes suggest that we as animal activists do need to think not just about the system of production of animals, but this system of production in its entirety. We in the developed world are rich because we have excelled at exploiting our fellow human beings, natural resources, and animals. Now people in the developing world want our privileges, and, with many of their natural resources already exhausted by colonialism and mismanagement, and already at the bottom of the human hierarchy, their economic empowerment comes at the expense of the only individuals valued lower than themselves – animals.

As long as exploitation of anything is the basis of our economic systems, animals will always get the short end of the stick, since they will always be the easiest to exploit. Animal activists need to think seriously about the systematic changes that are required in order to help both humans and animals at the same time. Until we find an economic model in which people can get ahead without causing harm to others, animal activism will always be vulnerable to appearing anti-humanitarian. No movement can ever attract widespread sympathy if its followers busy themselves with telling Cambodian farmers to raise arugula instead of cows.

This blog post owes an intellectual debt to the article “Veganarchy” by Brian Dominick.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! Another instance when animal rights and human justice do not align is the level of meat consumption. As my JP will tell you, as incomes rise, meat consumption also rises, leading to the negative environmental and health consequences that we are familiar with. However, in my “unbiased” and “scientific” JP, I cannot categorically say that increased meat consumption is bad—because it is actually really good for the millions of people suffering from and protein and micronutrient deficiencies.

    On another note, I’m not sure if I share your (or the “Veganarchists’”) skepticism of capitalism. Slavery was also part of the capitalist system in the US, but that doesn’t mean that slavery is necessary for capitalism just like the fact that animal exploitation is a big part of the economy today does not imply that animal exploitation is necessary for capitalism. With sufficient legal rights or protection, capitalism and animals and happily coexist. The hard part is getting that legal protection.