Blog: Overcoming ‘speciesism’: how to include other living beings
30 March 2017
In this contribution, Anna Wienhues and Steffen Hirth use theoretical considerations from philosophy and sociology to explore the ways in which ‘the nonhuman’ is – or is not – taken into account. They argue that academics - and society as a whole – must move past ‘speciesist’ perspectives that prioritise humans over other living beings.
Racism, sexism, homophobia - a critical awareness of these issues is well-established among social scientists and philosophers. In contrast, the issue of speciesism still has not reached the mainstream academic awareness. In an era called the Anthropocene (Crutzen 2002), humans’ hegemonic claims of world ownership are the speciesist counterparts to white, male, and heterosexual dominance. Framing humans as outranking other species’ needs is part of speciesist practice (cf. Singer 2009). In one way or another, and especially when it comes to eating, most people - the authors included - are involved in speciesist practices. But inferring that these practices are ‘natural’ reminds us how naturalisation was and is still deployed to enact and legitimise racist, sexist, and homophobic practices.
Methodological speciesism refers to the exclusion of what has been termed by Whatmore (2006) as the ‘more-than-human’ in academic debates and research. Sociologists, for example, still tend to regard ‘the social’ as emerging from interactions between humans, but “[e]ven if the goal of sociology is to explain human behaviour”, as Craig McFarlane (2013: 53) argues, “this goal is not obtainable if the analysis is limited to humans” (italics original). Limiting the analysis to humans-in-relation-to-humans is what “we might term ‘methodological speciesism’” (ibid.) (1).
In Western philosophy, it is at best the fields of environmental ethics and environmental political theory which deliberately take into account the non-human, while in ‘conventional’ philosophy and political theory discussions, the default position is still to perceive humans as separate from ‘nature’ without necessarily much thought about what ‘nature’ is or might include (2). Hence, it becomes too easy to perceive all non-humans as merely a heap of resources that are there for human use and pleasure. This human-nature dualism then easily leads to normative speciesism of ethical frameworks that exclude nonhumans from mattering in theory (and ultimately in practice).
Speciesism in practice
We hope to illustrate speciesist thinking by adopting a biocentric methodological focus (considering all living beings such as animals, plants and bacteria) that may help to realise a sustainable food system (3).
Vine House Farm is an organic farm in Lincolnshire providing supermarkets with courgettes, beans, sweetcorn, brassica, and potatoes. They also produce bird feed. Being “a keen bird enthusiast”, farmer Nicholas Watts, “has for many years been managing the farm in ways best suited to improving wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Shocked at what modern agriculture was doing to bird populations, Nicholas has been monitoring and improving the situation on his land since the early 1990s, planting spinneys, widening dykes, putting up nest boxes and generally managing crops with wildlife in mind”.
Whilst Vine House Farm may appear a non-anthropocentric enterprise, there is a twist to this story which embraces the complex constellation of farmers, wild birds, human ‘wild bird-lovers’, the practice of agriculture, the practice of eating meat and dairy, bovines, feed crops, pastures, and - last but not least - suet balls. The purchasable suet balls, designed to “give birds an immediate and important source of high-energy […] for survival particularly over the winter months” contain beef and lamb suet. This meat content can be quite baffling when combined with a little background knowledge of the flows of energy in agricultural production. There is already something awkward in the thought that it is only with the help of humans that wild birds – apart from carrion-eating species – become capable of devouring parts of giant mammals, but our point here concerns energy and land use. Animal agriculture needs more land than stock free agriculture because each step of energy conversion (solar energy to plant biomass to herbivore biomass to carnivore biomass) involves losses of nutritional energy. For this reason, relative to soy protein the production of meat protein needs 6 to 17 times more land (Reijnders & Soret 2003: 665). It is precisely because of the high energy and large land-use of animal agriculture that wild birds lack habitat and often struggle to survive. In particular, animal husbandry creates fields and meadows which neither provide sufficient food nor shelter for wild birds. While suet balls are supposed to protect the latter, the production of beef and other animal products is part of the problem. Therefore, it is quite ironic when humans feed birds with beef suet – the high-energy food that literally incorporates ‘devoured’ forests.
Speciesism in theory
If considered at all, non-human life such as animals and plants are usually afterthoughts in academic theories that are grounded in deeply human-centric perceptions of the world that normalise the exclusion of the nonhuman. Such starting points attribute, for example, natural ownership rights over the Earth to humanity, implicitly leaving nonhumans dispossessed. In addition, such perspectives often only consider the needs of nonhuman individuals if they are perceived as capable of suffering. Even if the ultimate goal of sustainable development was to save humanity, we believe that the methodological and normative speciesism engrained in mainstream thinking limits the ability of sociologists to explain the nature of social relations, as well as the ability of philosophers to understand the world and prescribe how we can act justly.
In order to remedy some of these theoretical exclusions within political theory, justice – one of the political theory’s central concepts – can be reconceptualised in biocentric terms by taking into consideration all living beings (4). Such an account challenges us to acknowledge their needs as well as the multitude of relationships that link humans with non-humans. This then brings us closer to consider what justice requires on a planet where humans are part of ‘nature’, rather than regarding justice as something that applies merely to human relationships outside of ‘nature’ and only with regard to environmental ‘resources’. Methodological and normative speciesism draw a boundary that makes humans appear exceptional which, in turn, legitimises the exclusion of nonhumans and human dominance (e.g. carnism). In practice, it enacts and maintains power inequalities within social relations that work to exclude others from the realm of justice, from the matter in the sense of meaning and in the sense of being: “They’re just animals!” (6).
In the long run, raising domesticated farm animals on a large scale, and feeding them incidentally to wild birds, will neither be beneficial to birds, nor to humans, and it surely does not do justice to bovines and sheep. If we want to stop the species extinction we have initiated, ‘we’ (the human we) need to claim less methodological and living space so that ‘we’ (the earthling we – all living beings) are able to thrive. Hence, in order to do justice to nature (including but not limited to ourselves), it is crucial to eat food which is less land and energy-intensive. Why not go with the courgettes, beans, sweetcorn, brassica, and potatoes organically produced by Vine House Farm in Lincolnshire?
- Barad K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, London: Duke University Press.
- Castree N (2005) Nature. London, New York.
- Crutzen PJ (2002) Geology of mankind. Nature 415(6867): 23.
- Joy M (2010) Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. San Francisco: Conari Press.
- Low N & Gleeson B (1998) Justice, Society and Nature. London and New York: Routledge.
- McFarlane C (2013) Relational Sociology, Theoretical Inhumanism, and the Problem of the Nonhuman. In: Powell C and Dépelteau F (eds.), Conceptualizing Relational Sociology - Ontological and Theoretical Issues, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 45–66.
- Reijnders L and Soret S (2003) Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78(3): 664S–668S.
- Singer P (2009) Speciesism and Moral Status. Metaphilosophy, 40: 567–581.
- Soper K (1995) What is Nature? Oxford and Cambridge (Mass.): Blackwell.
- Whatmore S (2006) Materialist returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world. Cultural Geographies 13(4): 600–609.
- In the context of sociology avoiding methodological speciesism “would be a mode of explanation that asserts that the human species exists in isolation from the things of this world: plants, animals, rocks, and machines” (McFarlane 2013: 53f).
- For discussions of what is nature see philosopher Kate Soper (1995) or geographer Noel Castree (2005).
- Disclaimer: In no way do we intend to pass criticism on individual persons or the companies mentioned here.
- See Low and Gleeson (1998) for the idea that we can distinguish between environmental justice (justice regarding the fair distribution of environmental goods and bads between humans) and ecological justice (justice to nature).
- Complementary to the dietary ideologies of veganism or vegetarianism, Melanie Joy (2010) uses the term carnism to describe the ideology that eating meat, even if it is not necessary for one’s survival, is fine (which distinguishes a carnist from an omnivore).
- Here speciesism connects to the dominance of the white, male, heterosexual, rational thinker.
- Steffen Hirth
- Anna Wienhues