Covid19, Ecological Justice, and Veganism

Covid19, Ecological Justice, and Veganism

Hannah Battersby

I recently shared an article on Facebook which discussed the link between the human consumption of animals and the emergence of disease. This connection is well-documented and is being discussed frequently right now, so I was surprised at the vitriolic anti-vegan backlash I received. I was accused of using the current crisis to spread vegan propaganda, but what I was trying to say was that human and animal wellbeing are inextricably linked, and COVID19 exemplifies this relationship.

I intended to highlight that the consumption of meat is a threat to human health regardless of where, or how, it takes place. As a moral philosopher and vegan whose doctoral research concerns interspecies and ecological justice, I have been intrigued by the rampant cognitive dissonance in discussion around COVID-19 and animal consumption. Practices of animal consumption in one culture have been scapegoated without recognition of the overlapping ethical and practical problems shared with other, closer to home, practices. In a similar way, the symmetry and connection between injustices to human and nonhuman communities have been largely ignored.

COVID-19 may have originated from a wet market in China. Some (but not all) of these markets sell a variety of exotic animals that are slaughtered on-site. Much disgust, blame, and criticism has been directed at wet markets despite the fact it has not been proven that COVID-19 started at one. In fact, its origin and the source of its transmission may well be industrial agriculture, as has been the case for other viruses like swine flu.

Despite the uncertainty about its cause, much media attention is directed towards calls to shut down ‘wet markets(often conflating wet markets with wildlife markets). Many commentators (rightly) see wrongness in practices of animal slaughter here, but (wrongly) locate that wrongness within the cultural idiosyncrasies of such practices: within the animal transport and slaughter practices unique to China.

I have yet to hear politicians question to the same extent the fact that, in the midst of a global pandemic caused by animal consumption, meat products are still flying off supermarket shelves, and intensive animal production continues to increase here in the UK. Intensive animal consumption practices of the kind being increasingly used here and in the USA also carry the risk of the transmission of diseases from animals to humans (zoonotic diseases), yet they are going largely unnoticed in the public moral consciousness amidst the clamour to denounce wet markets.

Whether slaughtered while conscious at a wet market in China or after being stunned at an abattoir in the UK, an animal loses its life. Death is harmful to animals regardless of whether they suffer subjectively at death or not. Suffering compounds the objective harm and is a distinct, morally significant experience, yet any slaughter does the same objective harm: an animal loses its life, and the meaningful experiences and activities that it might have contained – often very prematurely compared to its potential lifespan.

With this in mind, I suggest we consider whether intensive processes of rearing and slaughtering animals are any more desirable in terms of morality or public health than more traditional practices. It could be argued that, for the consumer who values ‘naturalness’ with regards to animal welfare, more traditional – i.e. less industrial – forms of animal rearing might be preferable (indeed, research tends to show that consumers associate higher welfare with more ‘natural’, less intensive farming methods).

Much of the horror at intensive animal agriculture that galvanises concern for animal welfare stems from the way animals are perceived as – and treated like – objects; hooked up to machinery that moves them toward death and then dismantles and shrink wraps their bodies, ultimately depositing them onto supermarket shelves in faraway places. While these practices are widely accepted in the Global North, other cultures are uncomfortable with industrial production, with the urbanisation and supermarketisation of food (particularly meat) trade, rejecting the Western supermarket paradigm in favour of traditional markets.

Wet markets (to be distinguished from wildlife markets) prevail because they are fresher, cheaper, and steeped in cultural significance. They are also social hubs of community and knowledge-sharing which respect local produce and tradition, and the freshness of produce along with the closer relationship between farmer and purchaser render them more appealing than supermarkets, for fresh food.

Even if one is not moved by the chilling (and hazardous) methods of industrial animal rearing nor the fact that they ultimately have the same harmful outcome for the animal, it is difficult to ignore the ethical implications of our complicity within the global animal consumption industry. Driven by humanity’s desire to consume meat, the worldwide animal agriculture industry is a key driver of zoonotic disease, pollution, climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. This industry is responsible for rainforest destruction and land clearing; depletion of water resources; and diversion of food away from hungry humans to animals destined for slaughter (for example, over 70% of soy produce is fed to livestock, and over a quarter of fish that are caught get fed to farmed fish).

Clearly, these repercussions are human justice issues. For example, clearing rainforest harms the local human communities by displacing them physically and culturally. It can also spread disease by uprooting wildlife. In addition, BAME communities suffer disproportionately from environmental ills (this is often termed environmental racism), including those resulting from agricultural practices. This kind of exploitative behaviour is also a nonhuman justice issue, for two reasons.

Firstly, it constitutes injustice to the animals that lose their habitats when ecosystems they depend on get destroyed. Secondly, it harms the environment itself. For example, when plant species are eradicated this causes biodiversity loss, which can be interpreted as a form of harm to the environment: a harm that diminishes or destroys a defining attribute of that environment (e.g. diversity). It can be characterised as an injustice because it results from exploitation and domination at the hands of a group abusing its position of power.

COVID-19 is amplifying these injustices. In the human case, those who suffer from marginalisation and inequity are harmed the most. The disabled, the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, refugees, the poor, and indigenous communities are all being burdened disproportionately with the harms and effects of this pandemic. Similarly, injustices to the more-than-human realm are being exacerbated. In the case of animals, laboratory animals going unused due to laboratory shutdowns are being euthanised; animals kept in zoos across the world are suffering from hunger and sickness – they might even be fed to each other; livestock animals endure yet more suffering during transit, due to delays crossing borders. Regarding the environment, the high usage of PPE such as masks and the fear of virus transmission amongst the public mean there’s been increased usage of single-use plastics, thus an increase in plastic waste.

Due to these interconnected harms, caring about human justice and welfare (e.g. fair distribution of food, land, water, and environmental benefits and burdens; representation and participation within legal and political institutions) must involve equal and concurrent concern for justice to, and for, the nonhuman world. Therefore, I advocate a holistic perspective of ecological justice, and I see veganism as one way of realising it. This approach does not prioritise one form of life over others, but instead acknowledges the intrinsic value of the many kinds of life on Earth and seeks to extend moral standing, political recognition, and institutional consideration to all, for the welfare of all.

A vegan lifestyle is one way of enacting the ethos of ecological justice. It is one initial step most of us here in the Global North can take to work towards reducing destructive and hazardous invasion of global economic industries into nature, which might help us avoid even worse pandemics than COVID19, as well as disastrous climate change and the many injustices this will inflict on both human and nonhuman communities alike.

When I originally posted about the connection between human consumption of animals and COVID-19, I did not do so with the intention of advocating for veganism – yet the backlash to that Facebook post has served to galvanise my activism. I suggest that we all try to realise the perspective of holistic ecological justice, for the sake of our fellow human beings, the nonhuman life forms we share occupancy of the planet with, and the environment itself. The most straightforward way for most individuals to do so right now is to adopt a compassionate attitude towards animals and the environment via a plant-based, sustainable pattern of consumption.

 

Hannah Battersby is a first year PhD student in the Philosophy department at the University of Manchester. Her research concerns ecological justice and the extension of justice to the more-than-human community. The aim of her research project is construct a normative theory based on Nussbaum’s capabilities approach that can extend standing under justice to all living nonhuman entities (including the nonsentient), in a way consistent with upholding individual justice entitlements alongside the entitlements of collectives and systems.

Image Credit: Evi T on Unsplash.com

 

3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    May 28, 2020

    I am with you in some measure having given up the consumption of meat and meat products in the 1960s, being then concerned about both the moral and health issues of raising animals for slaughter, and, more recently, the environmental consequences (in the last three decades.)
    And yet I have misgivings. As you say: “This approach does not prioritise one form of life over others, but instead acknowledges the intrinsic value of the many kinds of life on Earth and seeks to extend moral standing, political recognition, and institutional consideration to all, for the welfare of all.” You say that you do not prioritise between forms of life. Well, I think this is absolutely unavoidable, otherwise we would be giving the same life status to a flea – regarded by humans as a mortal enemy (and vice versa, from the perspective of the flea) – as for every other creature.

    But that attribution is a human one, albeit we can try to consider life (or even non-life) from the perspective of, for example, process philosophy. Whatever we think human thought is, by its nature, anthropocentric and any concept we come up with is marked by it. While we can imagine the world from the perspective of another species (zoonosemiotics is one approach), this too is only a human construct about the lifeworld of the animal. To speak of animal rights, similarly, means that we are projecting a form of human reasoning onto animals. Animal rights is therefore oxymoronic since it only means a regard towards animals established within human culture.

    From the perspective of a bat, humans are dangerous creatures, just as we might think bats are dangerous as a source of viral disease (and of course in human culture.) But if we truly held a view of all creatures being of equal moral status there would be no reason to lament the death of humans due to the diseases originating in animals, which account for the majority of infectious human disease.

    We might want to anthropomorphise animals (as Mary Midgley does) but there is no way out of the fact when we do so, it is we, as humans, who do so.

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  2. Avatar
    May 29, 2020

    Your article highlights the inconsistencies in the way we judge practises of different cultures against those of our own, particularly when we suddenly become aware of such practises because of an emergency such as covid19. It is an interesting observation of the way we all (for we all do it) seek to make sense of the world by trying to establish blame outside our own realm of responsibility.
    I think it is more likely that covid-19 originated by accident in a wet market than that it was deliberately released by a hostile goverment (as the conspiracy theorists would have us believe) but accept that the connection has not been proven and that it could well have been caused by industrial agriculture.
    You are right to remind us of the horrors of our own industrial animal consumption industry and to conclude that we must care more about justice and welfare for the non human world as well as the human one.
    But while stories abound of how people have helped each other in this current crisis, as a race we have a mixed record on putting justice and welfare at the heart of our actions. So could we achieve the same ends if we harness the motivation of self interest?
    Consider three problems we currently face:
    1) a current pandemic along with the risks of more
    2) risk of antibiotic resistance
    3) climate change
    Of course there are others such as war, terrorism, civil breakdown and economic collapse which might arise in their own right or as a result of the three causes above.
    The effects of all three are already evident. We can no longer avoid the risks completely. We are currently in a pandemic, there are some antibiotics that are already useless and evidence of climate change is around us all the time. All we can do is mitigate against the impacts, which could include war, terrorism, civil breakdown and economic collapse.
    Those impacts could in all three cases be significantly reduced if we reduced or halted our animal consumption and if we cared more about justice and welfare for humans and the non human world. How could the argument that we ignore justice and welfare for all humans and non humans at our peril be any more straightforward?
    So it is fascinating to hear that you have received such a vitriolic anti-vegan backlash. So much so that I googled ‘why do people hate vegans?’ and found this article. I know that you will have read it but your readers may find it interesting.
    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/oct/25/why-do-people-hate-vegans

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