(Session #3 at the “I Am NOT an Animal!” symposium, Feb 24th, 2017, in Atlanta.)
In this video, author and English professor Randy Malamud brings together two themes: How we “view” other animals (from a position of privilege and exploitation); and how our behavior toward them and toward the planet has led to an irreversible, mass extinction.
The talk is followed by a discussion. Below is a complete transcript of the talk.
The big questions
By Randy Malamud
Let me begin by restating Lori Marino and Michael Mountain’s announcement for this conference, their invitational manifesto – because it was so well-stated, and it’s always good to remember why we’re here.
Our topic for this gathering, and our battle cry [as a species], is: “I am NOT an animal!”
That’s ironic! Why do people keep saying this, pretending this? I am an animal. When I talk about my work in my classes, or at meetings, or in the media, and I refer to human interaction with other animals, I’ve learned to put a slight, barely noticeable, emphasis on the word “other”, and then I wait for it . . . and there will always be a listener who raises his eyebrows for a moment … “Other animals? Oh yeah, ok, whatever.”
“I am NOT an animal!” I like to imagine my cat-companion saying that to me. Or a factory farmed cow. Or a zoo lion. Or an endangered elephant. It’s a fun thought experiment: Imagine these animals making this announcement to you, and think about how you would respond to them. I spend a lot of time thinking about hypotheticals like this – preparing responses for when other animals begin talking to me someday. Wanting to defy Wittgenstein’s famous, ominous prediction: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”
Michael and Lori have asked:
Why is it that despite the continuing work of animal protection, conservation and ecological groups, the situation for most of our fellow animals continues to go from bad to worse?
Why are we humans unable to come to grips with what’s happening and to change our behavior?
What stories have we told ourselves over thousands of years about who we are and who they are?
Why is it so hard to think straight about other animals?
These are the critically important questions we’re all here trying to answer.
The presupposition underlying these questions, with which I agree, is: We are doing a bad job. We are in danger. We are endangered. We are endangering.
We really need to do better, to reform, to turn this battleship around, to learn more accurately than we have done so far how the earth works, how ecology works, how life works, how to share, how to play well with others. We need to appreciate and apply better ethics.
What if it’s too late
Or is it too late? I’m not sure. It may well be. But even if it is, I would suggest the least we can do – as atonement, as expiation, as a lesson to some other future society – is try to figure out where we went wrong, and see, even if it’s too late, just as an experiment, if we can behave otherwise, if we can be otherwise.
Is it too late? Watch this video clip. It’s make-believe, HBO, a pretty good television show from a couple of years ago written by Aaron Sorkin called The Newsroom.
But, of course, it’s not just make-believe: this is what’s happening.
This scene struck me, at first, as simply an amusing and provocative commentary on global warming. But life imitates art. The day after this episode was broadcast, the New York Times ran a story – this is from November 2014, just before the UN climate summit in Lima, Peru:
Scientists and climate-policy experts warn that it now may be impossible to prevent the temperature of the planet’s atmosphere from rising by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding – events that could harm the world’s population and economy.
Recent reports show that there may be no way to prevent the planet’s temperature from rising, given the current level of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and the projected rate of emissions expected to continue before any new deal is carried out.
So, the world is coming to an end. Well, not the world itself: The planet is actually pretty resilient, and will likely continue on its orbit unbothered by the warm spell. It’s just people, along with most other life forms, that will disappear. Geologically, there’s not so much to worry about; biologically, on the other hand, we have a situation.
Our times demand a new rhetorical honesty. It is deceitful and irrelevant to sustain the charade that things may improve. Instead, it’s time to start talking about how we will die.Over the past decade, since Al Gore brought global warming into the mainstream consciousness, the rhetoric has been dire, but at least minimally hopeful: If we start doing this and stop doing that now, we can perhaps just barely salvage what is left of our ecosystem. For a while it made sense, as Will McAvoy the TV anchor was trying to do on his newscast, to cling to a thread of hope in order to motivate reform and prevent people from descending into a paralyzing sense of helplessness.
But now, I suggest, it seems like it might be time to accept our impending demise. Our times demand a new rhetorical honesty. It is deceitful and irrelevant to sustain the charade that things may improve. Instead, it’s time to start talking about how we will die.
As depressing as this is, it has at least the virtue of being true, unlike the kick-the-can-down-the-road policies that pretend the solution for global warming lies in producing cars that get 150 mpg and cities powered by wind farms. And expecting us Westerners to use less stuff (12 percent of the world’s population consumes 60 percent of its resources).
The truth is that America has chosen the path of overconsumption and unsustainability: short-term profits over long-term planning and conservation. As of this week, the EPA, the proverbial finger in the dike, is now under the leadership of Scott Pruitt, who is opposed to clean air and clean water, who says he doubts that climate change is real, who supports efforts by oil, gas, and coal producers to roll back regulations, and who is in my opinion criminally violent against the earth. Ecocide – ecological suicide – is the logical culmination of Donald Trump’s and his minions’ expressed determination to eliminate environmental protection.
If there’s a silver lining, it is not a very satisfying one, but for what it’s worth: I think it may prove refreshing, even exhilarating, to develop a new trope, a new truth, that lets go of the pretense that things will turn out OK.
Next: Page 2: The Myth of Endless Progress