Animal exploitation on a mass scale remains a grotesque reality today. But a cultural shift is underway, and animal-rights awareness and activism is on the rise. We sat down with Spanish Green MEP Florent Marcellesi and philosopher and author Corine Pelluchon to discuss change on the horizon.
Green European Journal: What explains the resurgence of animal rights as an issue in politics and society in recent years?
Corine Pelluchon: It’s not a resurgence, it’s an emergence in society, and in politics in particular. It stems from the challenging of a tired, worn-out development model, whose social and environmental counterproductivities are plain to see. Animal rights and awareness of animal suffering and its intensity is made more tangible by images than environmental damage is. The depth of the animal rights issue lies, in my opinion, in its challenging of this development model, which leads beings to become numb and divided, accepting it because it’s intolerable, but it’s also a lever for putting forward another model. It’s the hope that we can promote a society where the interests of humans and animals are taken into account and where we can transform the economy and achieve ecological transition.
On the political side of things, there is, on the one hand, pressure from civil society, animal welfare charities who are mobilising certain politicians, even though animal rights has been slow in becoming a political end in itself. It has still not been accepted as a constitutional principle. On the other hand, while some (including members of the European Parliament) want to improve animal welfare, and even end certain cruel practices, they often lack the means to make themselves heard because representative democracy prioritises the immediate interests of mankind today, and not the long term and other living creatures; it also favours very economistic politics in which lobbies are powerful. I think that there has been a divorce between politicians and stakeholders in civil society. For example, most farmers have understood that they need to change model.
Florent Marcellesi: Just ten years ago, if you said, “I’m a vegetarian”, people would laugh at you. Today, the initial reaction is more likely to be: “I’m doing everything I can to eat less meat.” This very profound cultural shift certainly hasn’t yet led to any major concrete changes, even less so at a political level, be it in Europe or in member states, but change, slow and gradual, has begun in terms of production and consumption. And what is certain is that the power of images, through videos made in abattoirs, for example, partly explain the visibility of the issue. This power of images leads us back to ourselves, to our development model. Nobody would allow our pets to suffer what pigs, cows, or chickens suffer.
Change, slow and gradual, has begun in terms of production and consumption.
In politics, those fighting for animal rights remain somewhat in the minority. I think that the question of animal welfare has already moved forward in a way that cuts across issues more. For example, under Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty, animal welfare is recognised but is also limited by a clause on cultures, as is the case for bullfighting, for example. But the most notable absentee is animal rights. How can we have conceived our representative democracy only in terms of humans? What about ‘non-human entities’? Nature? Sentient beings? The ‘voiceless’ raise a fundamental democratic question about animal rights.
In the current fight to protect animals, should we see a deeper continuity with the fights against injustices such as slavery, racism, and the like? A new front in the struggle against inequality?
Corine Pelluchon: There is a sort of convergence of logic between condemning racism, sexism, and speciesism. However, I think that the issue runs deeper because it’s a question of civilisation, as I showed in Manifeste animaliste. Politiser la cause animale Today, it’s our humanism itself and our idea of ourselves, our identity, which are at stake. In my book Éléments pour une Éthique de la Vulnérabilité – Les hommes, les Animaux et la Nature published in 2011, I took the opposite stance to traditional animal rights advocates, who contrast animalism with humanism, to show that the animal issue, which questions our own humanity, who we are and how we got there, can only be understood as part of a renewed humanism that takes into account subjectivity and vulnerability. The goal is to complete the unfulfilled legacy of human rights, which were founded on an atomist and abstract conception of the subject. All my work in Les Nourritures. Philosophie du corps politique (Seuil, 2015) and Éthique de la considération (Seuil, 2018) is dedicated to this.
Taking responsibility for animal suffering and stepping through the looking glass is something hard to endure.
I was born in the countryside: my father was a farmer. At the time, cows lived for 14 years. They had horns, they all had names. Today, they live for four years, are worn out, have cancers of the uterus because they are inseminated too early and metabolise enormous amounts to produce enormous amounts of milk. Sure, pigs were killed on the farm, but there were no gestation crates, no un-anesthetised castration of piglets. Today, the industrial farming that has been the norm since the Second World War, with an acceleration in the 1980s and 1990s, shocks and scares people, especially the younger generation. I think that everyone is aware and concerned, but there are many people who employ psychological defence strategies, because it’s difficult to take responsibility for this violence, to experience all the negative emotions associated with the shame of making animals suffer what they do. Taking responsibility for animal suffering and stepping through the looking glass is something hard to endure. Turning this suffering into political engagement takes time. That’s why it’s very important to accompany this awareness of animal suffering with words, and not just videos. Today, it’s time that certain countries, particularly France and Spain, which lag far behind, make progress on certain points.
Florent Marcellesi: As soon as you explain the figures to people, they’re horrified. At a global level, 60 billion land animals are sacrificed every year. Added to that are 100 billion sea animals. In Spain, for example: 50 million pigs are sacrificed each year, which is equivalent to the population of Spain. For chickens, it’s 700 million a year, which is more than the population of the European Union! I don’t think that the word ‘exploitation’ is strong enough; we should talk about ecocide. It’s an ‘animal genocide’, as Mathieu Ricard would say, a large-scale massacre authorised and implemented by the system and in which the public authorities and societies are stakeholders.
I don’t think that the word ‘exploitation’ is strong enough; we should talk about ecocide.
I think there are connections between movements for equality. Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King were fighting for animal rights, by extension of the non-violence movement. Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple”, said: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” I think that, just as environmentalism brought nature into democracy, even if it’s still incomplete, animalism will bring animals into it. That’s why there needs to be connections between these different movements. Progressivism forgot about environmentalism, and environmentalism forgot about animalism somewhat. It’s the next step. Of course, adding the interests of animals to the interests of humans and nature further complicates the overall approach. But, whether it’s in the European Parliament or everyday life, it’s very important to change the model of development, production, and consumption to have this complete and holistic vision.
How can we reconcile these different points? What are the different points of friction?
Florent Marcellesi: There are points of friction, it’s undeniable, for example, around invasive species and biodiversity. But there are also many points of convergence that interest me more than points of friction, which can make us lose our way and lose sight of the overall goal. But we must come together around the main thing, which is a sustainable, fair, and democratic development model with more than just the human being at its core.
Corine Pelluchon: That’s exactly my way of doing things. We have to negotiate in politics, find common ground when there is disagreement, accept differences. It’s also important to avoid pointless debates, like whether veganism means not keeping pets. First of all, I think that it’s a shame to cut us off from everything that animals teach us, like otherness. But we also need to stop pitting vegans and non-vegans against each other. Because the real problem is first of all industrial farming with its consequence for the climate, land grabbing, and the fact the demand for animal products has an impact on the 865 million people who suffer from hunger and the two billion who suffer from malnutrition and live in poor countries where cereals are exported for American and European livestock. Not to mention health problems, such as antibiotic resistance due to their massive use in industrial pig farming, like in Germany. The problems that I’m talking about here are enough to find major areas of convergence and to encourage Westerners to halve their consumption of animal products, including dairy products. That’s the recommendation for returning to a consumption level similar to that seen at the beginning of the 20th century, whereas today in France, 70 to 80 kilograms of meet are eaten per person, per year, which is enormous. The most important thing in our actions for moving towards ecological and food transition is that we insist on the convergence between the environment, health, social justice, and animal welfare. The goal is to have tolerant and non-violent partners to achieve profound and long-lasting change.
Florent Marcellesi: In political ecology, it’s the famous slow revolution, part of a long-term radical reformism. Given the figures that we’ve cited, to think that we can abolish animal exploitation overnight is a fantasy. I think that we should have an abolitionist goal. Ethically, it’s the most coherent, but in practice, we need to be able to make day-to-day progress and work with everyone.
Industrial farming is key because it is the crux of the problem and cuts across issues: climate (15 per cent of greenhouse emissions), health (800 million people who are dying of hunger, and 800 million others who have problems with obesity, cancer, and diabetes caused by poor diet, including meat), working conditions in farming (in abattoirs, for example), deforestation in the third world, and, of course, animal suffering. In this context, reducing the consumption of meat is a sustainable and beneficial action: it helps change the system and allows the consumer to live in better health. We need to remind people of the pleasure that comes from eating much less meat. People can live much better and with fewer illnesses. Eating meat twice a week is more than enough and lets people rediscover other sources of protein, such as legumes. To change this means changing two things: on the one hand, changing the production system so that it gives greater importance to vegetable proteins than animal proteins, and on the other hand, of course, changing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in Europe, which currently supports the food industry and mega farms, which are multiplying, but which should support agroecology and small organic and extensive farms.
Corine Pelluchon: I recently spoke to a group called Agrospective. The representatives of McDonald’s, for example, have heard what I’m saying because they notice that consumers are shifting. They respond with vegetarian menus. It was very interesting, and business has high expectations of MEPs in re-orienting the CAP. Personally, I’m also a big believer in encouraging individuals to organise, in terms of land use, for example. This could be done via an environmental and social payment for projects that pave the way for the transition.
2019 European elections: can we hope for a real European movement? Is the European level the most relevant when it comes to animal rights?
Florent Marcellesi: There needs to be a convergence between everyone. If we want a long-term transition with little steps, we need to move forward together. Convergence implies different movements taking animal rights into consideration. For example, it would be useful if a movement like DiEM25 included these animalist issues in its project for Europe. This implies animalist parties taking on questions such as the environment, the fight for gender equality, and so on. And it also implies environmentalists taking a step forwards by declaring loud and clear that the convergences are stronger than the points of friction. I would like us to converge at the elections or at least in the same political group in the European Parliament so we can take on the food industry lobbies that are very much present in Brussels. Work is already underway in this direction with an intergroup in the European Parliament that is fairly well organised, and in which I participate alongside all the MEPs involved in animal rights. We need to strengthen these trends.
Corine Pelluchon: I think exactly the same thing. I would simply add that the environment, if it is taken seriously as wisely inhabiting the Earth and living alongside other living creatures, necessarily includes animal rights. I think that the danger for animalist parties lies in being new in some countries and therefore being potentially isolated, which would be a shame for the European elections. A broad vision can’t be made up as you go along. It involves thinking about humans in their relationships with other beings. The lobbies are extremely well organised, so to fight them we need to be organised and united too.