Is it possible for us humans to coexist peacefully with our fellow animals in a modern capitalist economy? Two books come to opposite conclusions. One argues that the free market economy is bringing about a better world for nonhuman life; the other that modern capitalism is, at its core, little more than a form of institutionalized violence toward those who cannot defend themselves against human greed and selfishness.
In A Humane Economy – How innovators and enlightened consumers are transforming the lives of animals, Wayne Pacelle, President of the Humane Society of the U.S., offers examples of what he sees as an emerging, new, humane economic order that’s steering the world in the direction of kindness and respect toward the other animals:
Concern for animals is ascendant. And today there’s a fast growing, often surprising, hugely promising, and largely unstoppable force for animal welfare, and it’s revealing itself in a thousand varying forms. Welcome to the humane economy …
If you are part of the old, inhumane economic order, get a new business plan or get out of the way. You’re already in danger of being too late … If ideas about compassion are going to prevail, they must triumph in the marketplace.
In The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics, cultural critic and philosopher Adrian Parr makes the case that the free market, even the so-called “green” free market, is directly responsible for the unfolding catastrophe that’s enveloping our planet.
What persists is the condition of violence embedded in neoliberal capitalism as it robs each and every one of us (other species and ecosystems included) of a future.
Pacelle’s examples of how corporations are responding to a more enlightened public opinion are compelling, but they are no match for the relentless drive of greed and self-interest that’s fueled by the capitalist economy.
That’s not to suggest that the changes to which he points aren’t valuable in themselves. Anything that can be done to reduce the suffering of living beings is to be supported in every way possible. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think that they are signs of fundamental change.
Pacelle writes passionately about what he’s seen close up in every field of exploitation from factory farming to sport hunting to vivisection to the entertainment industry. He’s fully aware of the horror of life for a mother pig in a gestation crate, and for cows at dairy farms who are forced to produce so much milk that they are “spent, used up and unable to go on when they’re just three to five years old.” He knows that animal agriculture has become one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet, and he’s witnessed human greed on every continent driving the world’s most iconic species to extinction as human population surges toward nine billion people.
He is nonetheless an optimist, pointing to how some of the most important advances in animal welfare and have come about not so much by advocacy but through progress in business and technology. Like what the automobile industry did for horses:
It was primarily Henry Ford and not American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) founder Henry Bergh who was at the wheel in dramatically reducing cruelty to horses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Similarly, in our own time, he argues, meat grown from cells in laboratories where no animals are harmed may take over from animal agriculture altogether:
A European Union study predicts lab-grown meat could reduce land use by 99.7 percent, drain 94 percent fewer gallons of water from aquifers and rivers, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 98.8 percent.
Changes in public attitudes toward our fellow animals are driving changes all over the business world:
“Reality is becoming harder to hide—which is one reason why factory farmers, for example, are so desperate to outlaw the mere taking of unauthorized photographs of the things they are doing every day. When a company’s greatest fear is a knowledgeable, ethically alert customer, that company has problems that won’t go away.”
The facts Pacelle outlines speak for themselves. The larger question, however, is whether these changes also represent the beginnings of a better world for our fellow animals. In an economy that lives or dies by its ability to keep growing, its growth is dependent entirely upon the exploitation of other living beings as “natural resources.” And so, in a world where these market forces have already driven entire ecosystems to unrecoverable collapse, can there truly be such a thing as a humane economy?
We are both the perpetrators of the crime and, at the same time, its victims.Adrian Parr, a professor of environmental politics, argues that incremental steps like carbon offsets or chickens getting a few extra inches of space at a factory farm are largely distractions from the underlying system that makes them possible. That system is neoliberalism, the notorious trickle-down economics religion that was espoused in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and later described by George H.W. Bush in an unguarded moment as “voodoo economics”.
Neoliberalism (often masquerading as “conservatism” although there’s nothing conservative about it) favors unbridled capitalism, arguing that “free markets” are self-regulating. In other words, as the movie character Gordon Gekko put it, “Greed is good.”
In The Wrath of Capital, Parr writes:
Distractions such as decarbonizing the free-market economy, buying carbon offsets, changing personal eating habits, installing green roofs on city hall, and expressing moral outrage at BP for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, although well meaning, are merely symptomatic of the uselessness of free-market “solutions” to environmental change. Indeed, such widespread distraction leads to denial …
Underpinning the massive environmental changes happening around the world is an unchanging socioeconomic condition … neoliberalism, an exclusive system premised upon the logic of property rights and the expansion of these rights, all the while maintaining that the free market is self-regulating, sufficiently and efficiently working to establish individual and collective well-being …
The “green” free market favors the current system of privatization at the expense of exploring new economic alternatives; for this reason, it is mere cronyism.
When you’re arguing for “free market solutions” to climate change and animal exploitation, you are, like it or not, inevitably enabling the neoliberal capitalist economy. That’s because its fundamental nature is to enrich the owners of “capital” (the proverbial 1%) at the expense of everyone else – in particular all nonhuman life. That’s just the way it is.
Parr calls our behavior toward the natural world “a crime against humanity” and “a terrible injustice being perpetrated against other species, future generations, ecosystems and our fellow human beings.”
It’s a peculiar crime, she says, in that we are both the perpetrators of the crime and, at the same time, its victims. And she argues that the destruction of the planet and its inhabitants (of all species) cannot be addressed by the very system that has brought about this catastrophe.
It is futile to try and solve the harms being inflicted upon the environment using the same mechanisms that produced the problem in the first place. Environmental degradation is the concrete form of late capitalism.
The idea that we can “green” a capitalist economy without radically rethinking the basic premises at the heart of neoliberal economic theory is truly an example of misplaced politics. The system is premised upon a model of endless growth, competition, private property and consumer citizenship, all of which combine to produce a terribly exploitative, oppressive and violent structure that has come to infuse all aspects of everyday life.
Ironically, a classic example of trying to do just that is to be found in a postscript to The Humane Economy, written just as the book was going to press. Here Pacelle presents the “deal” he recently struck with SeaWorld’s CEO, Joel Manby, as another example of the humane economy at work. The destruction of the planet and its inhabitants (of all species) cannot be addressed by the very system that has brought about this catastrophe.
In this deal, Manby has pledged to end the breeding of orcas, thus bringing a slow end to orca shows over the next three-or-so decades. SeaWorld will also work with the HSUS in ocean conservation programs. And in return, the company gets a very public pat on the back from the HSUS, starting with a joint full-page ad in major newspapers that SeaWorld will use to launch a massive PR and advertising campaign bolstering its killer whale shows while denouncing the growing idea that the whales should be retired to sanctuaries.
But as a deal, the agreement makes no sense. There was never a reason for Pacelle and the HSUS to get involved with SeaWorld. The company was already tanking and knew it had to make some dramatic changes. To that extent, Pacelle’s concept of a humane economy was already working. Why not let public pressure, led by animal protection advocates, take its course?
It turns out that Pacelle had received a call from former congressman John Campbell, whose district is just up the road from SeaWorld San Diego. Campbell clearly thought that bringing Manby and Pacelle together would save SeaWorld’s critical role in the local tourist economy and be good for the whales, too.
Pacelle, for his part, may well felt that he “owed one” to Campbell, who had helped him shepherd several animal welfare bills through Congress.
Whatever the case, if Pacelle truly believed in a “humane economy”, he could and should have left the “market” to work its own magic. There was no reason to throw SeaWorld a bone by helping them to fight off the growing efforts of other animal protection groups to pave the way for the whales to be retired to seaside sanctuaries. (By way of full disclosure, I am part of The Whale Sanctuary Project, which is working to create the first North American seaside sanctuary for whales and dolphins.)
Having said that, and whether or not you share Pacelle’s faith in human progress toward a bright future, I recommend A Humane Economy as a book that’s well worth reading. It’s an easy read, and Pacelle is passionate in his concern for our fellow animals. Plus, his knowledge of all the players – the good guys and the bad ones – is also probably unmatched. You’ll get a good overview of the situation for animals all over the planet, and the author gives credit to the many people and organizations that are helping relieve their suffering.
In any case, as the relentless tide of mass extinction gathers steam, thanks in large part to the economic system that Adrian Parr lays out in her book, the only thing that matters now is to do all the good we can, wherever we can.