This article at the New Republic argues that we’re about to see an overdue reckoning on the left with the issue of animal rights. The reasons are that many of the issues that newly energized progressive activists are focusing on–e.g., climate change, labor rights–intersect in major ways with animal agriculture. Moreover, the left’s emphasis on expanding the circle of moral concern to include marginalized groups should naturally extend to non-human animals.
I have to say I’m a bit skeptical. Partly because I can remember the last time animal rights had a “moment.” Back in the mid-to-late aughts the question of how we treat the animals we consume for food was getting a lot of attention. Major authors like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Peter Singer, and Jonathan Safran Foer wrote books about industrial agriculture and the toll it takes on farmed animals, and they all advocated more plant-based diets. The Humane Society was aggressively pushing reforms that would ameliorate some of the worst abuses of factory farming. The burgeoning “foodie” and “locavore” movements led urban hipsters to seek humane and sustainable alternatives to factory-farmed meat and other animal products.
And yet, more than a decade later, Americans were consuming more meat than ever (not to mention the rest of the world). Now, maybe a greater percentage of this meat is coming from sustainable and/or humanely raised animals. But even the most optimistic advocates of alternative forms of agriculture concede that a truly humane and sustainable system would require a significant reduction in the sheer amount of meat we consume. There’s simply no way to produce the same quantity of meat without packing animals into factory farms. All told, it’s hard to argue that our last big public debate about animal rights did much to slow, much less reverse, the trends here.
Emily Atkin, the author of the TNR piece, suggests one thing that might make this time different:
A more sweeping analytical framework has lately emerged on the left to diagnose a host of ills that are interconnected: The problem, a growing chorus of environmentalists now suggest, might be capitalism itself. Central to this emerging critique is the interpretation of the environmental exploitation of the earth and its inhabitants as a direct outgrowth of unregulated capitalism. Appalling labor conditions, the destruction of the environment in search of profit, a callous disregard toward marginalized communities, the reliance on an unseen underclass to keep the whole bloody machinery running—these are all, in the anticapitalist wing of environmentalism, indelible hallmarks of both the agriculture industry and a rampant market economy.
However, saying that we’ll be able to address animal suffering just as soon as we abolish capitalism doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of optimism. Leave aside the fact that, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, the actual prospects for turning America socialist seem pretty remote. (Granted that “socialism” seems to cover a lot of conceptual territory these days.) More basically, as long as the economy is organized exclusively for human needs and wants, animals will still get short shrift. Just as the “socialist” economies of the 20th century were as bad for the environment as capitalism (or worse), there’s no guarantee that a hypothetical 21st-century socialism would take into account the interests of non-human animals unless it’s explicitly designed to do so.
This isn’t to say that reformers should ignore chances for the kinds of systemic change Atkin highlights. And I certainly think that appropriate measures to fight climate change, for instance, would probably necessitate major agricultural reform. But some kind of moral paradigm shift is still probably necessary to motivate reforms toward treating animals justly. As a data point, consider the backlash (and subsequent back-pedaling) when conservatives started screaming that AOC’s “Green New Deal” would take away their hamburgers.
Of course, it’s also reasonable to be skeptical that any such widespread moral paradigm shift is imminent. The vast majority of us seem perfectly able to go on consuming animal products while being blissfully unaware (or guiltily half-aware) of the moral and ecological costs. While many people support, or at least pay lip service to, reforms to the way farmed animals are treated, I haven’t seen much evidence that they (we) are willing to make significant sacrifices for it. In fairness, a lot of people are just trying to make ends meet and have a lot of other things to worry about. Animal rights can easily seem like a concern for the already privileged. It’s not terribly surprising that most people aren’t willing to make this a priority.
If there’s any cause for optimism here, it’s that we appear to be on the verge of developing meat alternatives that could satisfy even the blood-thirstiest carnivore. The vegan “Beyond Burger” reputedly looks, cooks, tastes and even “bleeds” like red meat. There’s also the “clean meat” movement to “grow” meat in labs from small amounts of animal cells. In theory at least, this meat would be indistinguishable from the genuine article. While we might long for a moral or political revolution, these technological innovations may provide the best shot at scaling back, or even eliminating animal agriculture altogether.