In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.
By: TRACI WARKENTIN
Assistant Professor, Hunter College of the City University of New York
Perhaps I have become too skeptical as an academic, but I am never comfortable when someone presents me with “the answer,” regardless of the question. I experienced this unsettling phenomenon recently at an animal studies conference, and it catalyzed my thoughts on related issues regarding feminism and animal studies that I’ve been aware of for some time and have been noticing at various academic events. In particular, it helped me recognize connections between a problematically uncritical promotion of veganism and a seeming lack of presence of environmental/eco/feminist praxis in animal studies generally, along with a corresponding amnesia about what it has already contributed to the field.
The catalyst was the 2011 New York University Animal Studies Initiative, cosponsored with Minding Animals International, symposium titled “Animal Studies: Changing the Subject?” Gary Steiner, the first speaker of the day, presented an incisive critique of the dominant bias in Western thought that humans are intellectually superior to all other animals, upon which conventional practices of animal exploitation are then justified. Rather, he argued, animals are the subjects of their own lives, much like humans are the subjects of theirs, and he asserted theoretical consistency with a revised, nonanthropocentric philosophical tradition of humanism (Steiner 2011). Acknowledging the overwhelming, unspeakable suffering of animals in industrial agriculture, he then prescribed what “we” (in the undesignated, universal sense) must do if we care about animals: we must adopt veganism as a strict moral imperative.
In the current North American socioeconomic context, which champions the status quo of an enormous and elite food industry with powerful, vested economic and political interests, I could appreciate the urgency with which he was willing to simplify the solution to an alarmingly complex situation. My lack of ease grew, however, as questions from the audience fell short of drawing out particular complexities that would have added richness to the dialogue and would have made the imperative and its application more robust and democratic. Participants instead generally accepted it and focused on the absolute practical implementation of the imperative, questioning, for instance, if it would be morally acceptable for a vegan to continue using a tennis racquet made from cow intestine, since throwing it away was costly and wasteful. The nature of the questions posed in response to this first paper seemed to set the tone of the conversation, effectively eliminating the possibility for a constructive, nuanced critique of the vegan imperative to follow.
Steiner’s proposal could have benefited from an acknowledged alliance with a long-established environmental/eco/feminist praxis; environmental/eco/feminist scholars and activists have been promoting vegan and vegetarian lifestyles as a manifestation of the personal-is-political moral imperative for at least a couple of decades (see Adams 1990/2010; Donovan 1990; Warren 1990; Adams 1991; Curtin 1991; Kheel 2004). Indeed, Hypatia published a special issue on ecological feminism back in 1991, in which several articles proposed that vegetarianism was a necessary political and moral action. A year earlier, in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary in print, Carol Adams advocated for a vegan lifestyle by providing a nuanced analysis of the intimate linking of women’s bodies and the bodies of animals used for food, showing how they are presented as analogous, eroticized, consumable objects for a masculinized diet and gaze (Adams 1990/2010). She has also shown how meat-eating contributes to violence against women, feminized men, and animals. These are significant intersections, which position dietary choices in direct conversation with social and environmental justice, as well as with animal rights and welfare. Adams’s work, like that of many others, opened up critical dialogue about the patriarchal institutions of food-production and consumption rather than putting both blame and solution solely on individual consumers.
Such an opening also enabled important critiques to emerge from within environmental/eco/feminism about the pitfalls of a universal prescription of a “pure” vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. The development of, and serious engagement in, this internal critique illuminates perhaps one of the most generative characteristics of environmental/eco/feminist theory and practice that is particularly valuable to animal studies: that it can accommodate a diversity of viewpoints and account for the complexity of a given situation, thereby avoiding counterproductive allegations of hypocrisy based on an all-or-nothing type purity; it recognizes that each specific situation may require its own unique and partial resolution. In other words, it allows for rigorously considered grays rather than demanding all-encompassing black or white positions.
Many key contours of feminist, nonanthropocentric environmental and animal ethics include reasoning through a narrative situation, which involves detailed considerations of a highly specific context in which varying degrees of responsibility may arise through human–animal and human–human relationships. There can be no prior assumptions of moral value according to dualistic ontology to provide a one-size-fits-all solution. Environmental/eco/feminist ethics cannot be morally defined in abstract terms or applied from some disembodied, external source. Thus, they are fundamentally different from predominantly rationalist forms of Western environmental ethics, which aim to prescribe a set of universal principles to apply to all people everywhere at any time. Universal moral vegetarianism has long been a subject of deep critical debate among environmental/eco/feminist philosophers, particularly in terms of its dislocated, universal application and potential for a Western ethnocentric and androcentric bias (see, for example, Gaard 1993; George 2000; Plumwood 2000; Warren 2000; Donovan 2003; Gruen 2004); these critiques and debates deserve to enter and provoke wider conversations within animal studies about the morality of dietary choices, perhaps now more than ever.
Of late, it is becoming fairly customary for animal studies conferences to be vegan events. This is a tremendous achievement and can be seen as a positive manifestation of the personal as political. It is entirely appropriate that conference organizers arrange for all of the catered food to be vegan, knowing that the majority of animal food products used in conventional, commercial catering are the direct result of the exploitation of animals and dominantly inhumane practices in the industrial-agricultural food system. Given the diversity of dietary needs among conference participants and across the spectrum of perspectives on animal rights and animal welfare, providing an all-vegan spread is far more democratic since everyone (with the exception of those with specific food allergies, perhaps) can partake of it. Moreover, not all participants have to be vegan to accept that this is an ethically responsible thing to do and in line with some of the main concerns of animal studies scholars. It also provides a potent, material grounding for ethical debate as participants are made tacitly aware of the connections between eating practices and the treatment of animals.
I have noticed, however, that a troubling rift keeps emerging at these events, made visible in the way that participants appear to feel the need to confess whether they are a “vegan” or a “carnivore,” even if the theme of the conference is focused on other issues. I find this trend urgently in need of unpacking for many reasons, most of all because it hints at an assumption that a vegan lifestyle is unquestionably good, and, perhaps, the only ethical choice among animal studies scholars. It is not without irony and extreme hesitation that I make such a statement, given that the dominant attitude in Western industrial society is that human beings are morally justified to use, kill, profit from, and eat animals, with little or no concern for their well-being. I do want to be cautious, however, about the emergence of a reversed dualism—vegan versus carnivore—arising in animal studies that oversimplifies the choices people make as all-or-nothing, and may force us to have to proclaim allegiance to one side or the other, potentially generating a troubling mentality of you’re either with us or against us.
Declarations of veganism may give participants (who may be new to animal studies and environmental ethics) the impression that one must be vegan in order to be an animal studies scholar and not to have the legitimacy of their research undermined, particularly if they don’t voluntarily self-identify. Such an outcome would be unfortunate and unnecessary, since many of us exist in the messy areas in between the extremes of veganism, vegetarianism, and meat-eating and yet are still allied with the goals and values of animal advocacy in multifaceted ways. When asked directly, I refrain from categorizing myself as one thing and rather explain that I practice what I call a “conscious diet.” It is dynamic and specific to my evolving belief system, personal history, digestive constitution, location, and economic means. I avoid food that is produced through industrial animal agriculture because I believe it is an exceptionally cruel and horrifying practice. I don’t eat animal flesh because that is predominantly the way it is commercially produced in North America, and because my economic and geographic realities allow me to have a nutritious diet without it. Although I attempt to eat mostly organic produce, I am painfully aware that many of the fruits and vegetables I consume are still caught up in the larger food-production and transportation system that is tied to industrial animal agriculture and causes massive environmental degradation, destroys habitat, and harms many animals.
Soy, for instance, is one of the largest conventional crops in the United States and the main ingredient in a large majority of vegan food products, which are marketed as ethical alternatives to meat. At present one large corporation, Monsanto, monopolizes soybean growing. Monsanto has the power to dictate that soy has to be grown using other Monsanto products, such as the herbicide Round-up. The “Round-up Ready soybean” seed has undergone extensive genetic modification so it can withstand the spraying of the herbicide, which has enabled Monsanto to patent it and claim total ownership of the seed itself. The patent has created a dependency of soybean farmers on Monsanto and has resulted in drastic legal actions (leading often to bankruptcy) against farmers whose crops have become inadvertently “infected” with the modified seeds. Monsanto’s soybean seeds are potentially dangerous (to environmental, animal, and human health), genetically modified organisms, designed to be grown according to unsustainable, monocrop practices, which are chemical- and fossil-fuel-energy-intensive and environmentally destructive.
Unfortunately, these complicated realities of uncritically adopting a vegan diet in the context of a North American food system dominated by large-scale industrial agriculture appear to rarely come up within academic spheres outside of environmental/eco/feminism. Dietary choices and food-production have already undergone rigorous environmental/eco/feminist intersectional analysis, a method aimed at investigating explicit and implicit connections between the oppression of women, animals, nature, and “othered” humans resulting from powerful institutions and their underlying conceptual frameworks. In addition to the problematic dimensions of soy-production that extend to industrial animal agriculture, further intersectional analysis reveals that it is based upon the exploitation of female reproductive systems, as well as the exploitation and maintained vulnerability and expendability of undocumented immigrant workers. Although still of utmost importance, the rights and welfare of animals is not the only moral imperative here. Animal studies, as an academic discipline and forum for animal advocacy, thus needs to remember and re-engage environmental/eco/feminist theories, practices, and methods if it is also committed to environmental and social justice.
That it is even necessary to make this assertion has confused me for some time, since, as an environmental/eco/feminist scholar, I have known of the field’s contribution to, and vital role in, animal studies for many years. Some clarity on this conundrum came at the Sex, Gender, Species conference at Wesleyan University, when Greta Gaard cogently pointed out that ecofeminists may be largely responsible for their own disappearance, at least with respect to the collective amnesia of their work in other academic disciplines (Gaard 2011). Paying tribute to the historical development of ecofeminism, through grassroots environmental activism to the much needed theoretical critiques of Euro- and ethnocentrism from within, Gaard highlighted the exceptionally reflexive and diverse field that resulted. She then lamented, however, that the ultimate result was an extensive abandonment of the name that gave it a collective identity. With that, Gaard explained, ecofeminism fractured and has been operating “under cover” with many aliases since, including ecological feminism, feminist environmentalism, environmental feminism, material feminism, gender and environment, and queer ecologies, to name a few (Gaard 2011). So, although ecofeminist scholarship and advocacy did not actually disappear, it effectively dissipated and fell off the radar, so to speak, of the wider academic community as a result. This quite possibly has contributed to its lack of a strong, identifiable presence in the newly recognizable and growing field that has been named “animal studies.”
By contrast, animal studies is enjoying a steady rise in recognition and legitimacy within the academy and is serving to bring together scholarship existing in many far-flung disciplines. Unfortunately, vital insights from ecofeminism have been lost or forgotten, and much reinvention appears to be occurring instead of building upon already rigorous work. Generative debate about the ethical treatment of animals and the politics of dietary choices could dramatically benefit from the remembering of ecofeminist work and advocacy. Bringing environmental/eco/feminism (whatever it is called) back in and to the foreground of animal studies is, thus, a vital project. How this project can be accomplished, however, is a question, quite fittingly, without a simple answer.