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Animals and climate change: the solution to both is greater caring for our fellow Earthlings

By Paul York

This post is a response to an excellent article (given below, and originally posted to the Science for Peace listserve). The author mentions nature but does not mention animals specifically. So I felt it necessary to draft a response, for my own edification – one that mentions animals specifically. It’s worth pointing out that much environmental concern and concern for climate justice for humanity manages somehow to omit concern for farm animals, who are caught in between the natural and man-made worlds. This response tries to address that gap.

I appreciated the article a great deal, but as a history lesson it neglects to mention an important point. Along with the creation of private property and agriculture 10,000 years ago also came a double subjugation that both psychologically and historically continues to this day: the relegation of women and animals to the status of property and their objectification by men as mere things, not as feeling subjects.

Subjugation of women and animals a root cause of indifference
This double subjugation is (it could be argued) the root cause of the psychic numbing that renders so many indifferent to the fate of humanity and future generations, in this era of unfolding catastrophic climate change, despite their knowledge of what’s happening. In what follows I am going to address the animal issue. The issue of the subjugation of women and how this relates to the climate crisis is an important one – one which some authors such as Rosemary Radford Reuther shed light one. I will address that another time. What follows below, on animals, is – I feel – a key to understanding the climate crisis.

My argument, in summary, is that if we can learn to care more for non-human animals, whose suffering by the hand of man is very great, from this we can also learn to care for our fellow humans more. Our acculturated tendency to objectify animals predisposes us to be indifferent to human beings in other countries where they are more vulnerable to climate change, and to future generations. The one is tied to the other, and as long as we enslave animals, we will not (as a culture) be predisposed to care very much for the fate of future human beings or those in Bangladesh.

This is because the subjugation of human and non-human animals is related, as Kant and others noted in their own way: Kant said that a man who abused an animal was more likely to abuse a human being. We now have empirical evidence of this: there is a higher incidence of domestic abuse among slaughterhouse employees than among the general populace.

Our thinking, from which that psychic split occurred, has resulted in a great deal of misery over the ages that need not have happened, since humanity had enough food from agriculture to live by, but it was not until industrialization within the last 200 years that it was amplified to a point that endangers all life on Earth, because it is changes the very conditions which make life possible on this planet.

Death-camps and slaughterhouses
The problem can seen in many industrial operations, but I will put my attention here briefly on the Holocaust and on factory farms and slaughterhouses to make my point. The death-camps of WWII in Poland are similar to slaughterhouses for farm animals they warrant examination, to help us understand this current problem.

Both the death camps and factory farming use the same industrial methods – e.g., herding into cattle cars and corralling into death chambers and the use of what are essentially factory workers to do this dirty work – and importantly both require the relegation of sentient beings to the status of objects, to be killed in the manner of a production line. Also similar is that the psychic splitting of racism and speciesim in both occur in the same way in the thinking of the oppressors.

Charles Patterson inThe Eternal Treblinka makes this case thoroughly. The quote “eternal Treblinka” in the title of his book is from the Jewish fiction writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story in which the fate of animals under the heel of man is called an “eternal Treblinka” such that to “animals, all humans are Nazis.”

Jewish sociologist Zygmut Baumun in Modernity and the Holocaust doesn’t go into the issue of animals in the same way, but he does note that the conditions that made the Holocaust possible – namely industrialization – continue into the present time. The Holocaust must not be viewed as unique in history, he argues, but as the product of conditions that continue to this day. Industrial methods, to repeat, create a kind of thinking whereby whatever is being processed (cars, animals, humans) is relegated to an inferior status as mere things.

In drawing a lesson from the Holocaust, from Singer’s writing, and from Patterson’s and Bauman’s books, I run the risk of being thought to be irreverent to the victims and survivors. That is not at all my intention, and please forgive me if it seems that way, for my intention is quite the opposite. One could only be offended if one already viewed non-human animals as inferior, but ironically that is precisely the very prejudice I wish to contest by suggesting that we are all first and foremost fellow Earthlings: not to lower victims of the Holocaust to the level of “animals” (deliberately pejorative innuendo used here), but rather to raise animals to the level of human beings in our estimation, and by doing so recognize the infinite worth of both, on the basis of which basic rights must be afforded to both.

The subjugation and murder of one is as morally offensive as the subjugation and murder of another, in my view. Racism and speciesism issue from the same root, and until we address that root cause of looking at others feeling thinking beings in this way, things like the Holocaust will continue. Indeed, they are continuing, in another form, through climate change: industrialization causes the climate change, which endangers all life on Earth.

And not coincidentally, industrialization subjugates human beings in factories, and as consumers, and it subjugates animals too, by reducing them to things consumed. We are all – human and non-human alike – reduced by industrialization. The value of human life is reduced in the same way that all life is reduced on Earth. To correct this, we cannot selectively lift up one, and continue to the degrade the other. We must all be lifted up together. All life must be considered sacred.

Dismissing the fate of those in developing nations, future generations, and animals
Among the most vulnerable to climate change are those in developing nations, animals, and future generations. There is a tragic tendency to dismiss their fate as not our own, and thus unimportant – just as many (though not all) Germans did in the 1930s and 1940s, which allowed anti-Semetic policies to come into being. The mantra “never again” must be heeded seriously, to honour past victims, just as Elie Weisel has argued when trying to prevent similar tragedies in Rawanda and Bosnia. Today, with climate change, as we are facing the possibility of the murder of billions of people and trillions of animals, I feel that that the lessons of history represent an important part of the answer.

The connection of all this to climate change has to be re-stated emphatically. It is not merely that factory farms create 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (conservative estimate, UN report 2007), and they use up water and arable land unsustainably, but more more importantly that the relegation of nature and animals to the status of objects to be used instrumentally, through the ideology of capitalism, is intimately connected to the propensity of decision-makers to sacrifice a great portion of humanity to oblivion, in the current day and age.

Simply put, if we learn to care for animals and grant them a higher position in our sphere of concern, we will also learn how to care for our fellow human beings – who after, are animals like ourselves. The difference between human and non-human animals, as Darwin and behavioral scientists such as Marc Bekoff have showed, is not one of type but of degree. They are intelligent, but not in the same we are, for example.

And is different intelligence and appearance really the reason to use another sentient being instrumentally? That sort of thinking underlies racism. Racism, it could be argued, is behind a great deal of the indifference to inhabitants of African nations or Bangladesh – all of whom are the first major victims of climate change. Essentially, they are all “other” so their fate doesn’t count, is the thinking that underlies so much of Harper and Bush policies. In the same way there is widespread indifference to factory farm animals and wild animals. Racism, it has been argued forcefully by many ethicists (notably Tom Regan) is the moral equivalent of speciesism.

Paradigm shift from assigning instrumental worth to intrinsic worth
To make this shift will require a great turning of the mind and soul – a paradigm shift – which no longer sees animals and nature instrumentally, but rather grants them intrinsic worth. Another way of putting this: cultivating our concern for human rights universally will lead to concern for animal rights and the right of nature (and vice-versa). The author Thomas Berry wrote about this in his books, and it is something of a truism now, but it should be pointed out that even the majority of environmentalists have still not taken this fundamental lesson to heart, and many (most) still eat meat and view animals as objects.

Should it be any wonder then that the majority of humans look upon their fellow humans in the same way? I am convinced, from my studies on this topic and my own personal transformation as a human being and climate change activist over the last two years, that we cannot hope to address the climate crisis with any hope of success unless we learn to address the spiritual and psychological crisis that has led to the relegation of women, animals, and nature to the status of objects to be used.

This historical violence continues today in the failure of world leaders to address climate change. Any solution to the climate crisis which does not take into account human rights and animal rights and the rights of nature will be partial and for that reason ineffective in the long run.

I was writing something on this for Science for Peace (and my own edification) but this article below provided the reason for sharing it today. Thank you for reading this, if you’ve gotten this far. I welcome any debate or discussion on this, as my thinking on it is still far from complete.

Paul York is an animal rights activist in Toronto, Canada, and can be reached at

If you have a Facebook account, send him a friend request: Paul AndBaby York-Vegan

Science for Peace and the Centre for Global Change Science are bringing James Hansen to Toronto to speak on “Climate Reality”, Sept 14th and Sept 15th. We will send further details about these public talks.

Published on Monday, July 19, 2010 by
*Calling All Future-Eaters*
By Chris Hedges

The human species during its brief time on Earth has exhibited a remarkable capacity to kill itself off. The Cro-Magnons dispatched the gentler Neanderthals. The conquistadors, with the help of smallpox, decimated the native populations in the Americas. Modern industrial warfare in the 20th century took at least 100 million lives, most of them civilians. And now we sit passive and dumb as corporations and the leaders of industrialized nations ensure that climate change will accelerate to levels that could mean the extinction of our species. /Homo sapiens/, as the biologist Tim Flannery points out, are the “future-eaters.”

In the past when civilizations went belly up through greed, mismanagement and the exhaustion of natural resources, human beings migrated somewhere else to pillage anew. But this time the game is over. There is nowhere else to go. The industrialized nations spent the last century seizing half the planet and dominating most of the other half. We giddily exhausted our natural capital, especially fossil fuel, to engage in an orgy of consumption and waste that poisoned the Earth and attacked the ecosystem on which human life depends. It was quite a party if you were a member of the industrialized elite. But it was pretty stupid. Collapse this time around will be global. We will disintegrate together. And there is no way out. The 10,000-year experiment of settled life is about to come to a crashing halt. And humankind, which thought it was given dominion over the Earth and all living things, will be taught a painful lesson in the necessity of balance, restraint and humility. There is no human monument or city ruin that is more than 5,000 years old. Civilization, Ronald Wright notes in A Short History of Progress “occupies a mere 0.2 percent of the two and a half million years since our first ancestor sharpened a stone.” Bye-bye, Paris. Bye-bye, New York. Bye-bye, Tokyo. Welcome to the new experience of human existence, in which rooting around for grubs on islands in northern latitudes is the prerequisite for survival.

We view ourselves as rational creatures. But is it rational to wait like sheep in a pen as oil and natural gas companies, coal companies, chemical industries, plastics manufacturers, the automotive industry, arms manufacturers and the leaders of the industrial world, as they did in Copenhagen, take us to mass extinction? It is too late to prevent profound climate change. But why add fuel to the fire? Why allow our ruling elite, driven by the lust for profits, to accelerate the death spiral? Why continue to obey the laws and dictates of our executioners?

The news is grim. The accelerating disintegration of Arctic Sea ice means that summer ice will probably disappear within the next decade. The open water will absorb more solar radiation, significantly increasing the rate of global warming. The Siberian permafrost will disappear, sending up plumes of methane gas from underground. The Greenland ice sheet and the Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers will melt. Jay Zwally, a NASA climate scientist, declared in December 2007, “The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming. Now, as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines.”

But reality is rarely an impediment to human folly. The world’s greenhouse gases have continued to grow since Zwally’s statement. Global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO_2 2) from burning fossil fuels since 2000 have increased by 3 percent a year. At that rate annual emissions will double every 25 years. James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s foremost climate experts, has warned that if we keep warming the planet it will be “a recipe for global disaster.” The safe level of CO_2 2 in the atmosphere, Hansen estimates, is no more than 350 parts per million (ppm). The current level of CO_2 2 is 385 ppm and climbing. This already guarantees terrible consequences even if we act immediately to cut carbon emissions.

The natural carbon cycle for 3 million years has ensured that the atmosphere contained less than 300 ppm of CO_2 2, which sustained the wide variety of life on the planet. The idea now championed by our corporate elite, at least those in contact with the reality of global warming, is that we will intentionally overshoot 350 ppm and then return to a safer climate through rapid and dramatic emission cuts. This, of course, is a theory designed to absolve the elite from doing anything now. But as Clive Hamilton in his book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change writes, even “if carbon dioxide concentrations reach 550 ppm, after which emissions fell to zero, the global temperatures would continue to rise for at least another century.”

Copenhagen was perhaps the last chance to save ourselves. Barack Obama and the other leaders of the industrialized nations blew it. Radical climate change is certain. It is only a question now of how bad it will become. The engines of climate change will, climate scientists have warned, soon create a domino effect that could thrust the Earth into a chaotic state for thousands of years before it regains equilibrium. “Whether human beings would still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point,” Hamilton writes. “One thing is certain: there will be far fewer of us.”

We have fallen prey to the illusion that we can modify and control our environment, that human ingenuity ensures the inevitability of human progress and that our secular god of science will save us. The “intoxicating belief that we can conquer all has come up against a greater force, the Earth itself,” Hamilton writes. “The prospect of runaway climate change challenges our technological hubris, our Enlightenment faith in reason and the whole modernist project. The Earth may soon demonstrate that, ultimately, it cannot be tamed and that the human urge to master nature has only roused a slumbering beast.”

We face a terrible political truth. Those who hold power will not act with the urgency required to protect human life and the ecosystem. Decisions about the fate of the planet and human civilization are in the hands of moral and intellectual trolls such as BP’s Tony Hayward. These political and corporate masters are driven by a craven desire to accumulate wealth at the expense of human life. They do this in the Gulf of Mexico. They do this in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where the export-oriented industry is booming. China’s transformation into totalitarian capitalism, done so world markets can be flooded with cheap consumer goods, is contributing to a dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions, which in China are expected to more than double by 2030, from a little over 5 billion metric tons to just under 12 billion.

This degradation of the planet by corporations is accompanied by a degradation of human beings. In the factories in Guangdong we see the face of our adversaries. The sociologist Ching Kwan Lee found “satanic mills” in China’s industrial southeast that run “at such a nerve-racking pace that worker’s physical limits and bodily strength are put to the test on a daily basis.” Some employees put in workdays of 14 to 16 hours with no rest day during the month until payday. In these factories it is normal for an employee to work 400 hours or more a month, especially those in garment industry. Most workers, Lee found, endure unpaid wages, illegal deductions and substandard wage rates. They are often physically abused at work and do not receive compensation if they are injured on the job. Every year a dozen or more workers die from overwork in the city of Shenzhen alone. In Lee’s words the working conditions “go beyond the Marxist notions of exploitation and alienation.” A survey published in 2003 by the official China News Agency, cited in Lee’s book Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt found that three in four migrant workers had trouble collecting their pay. Each year scores of workers threaten to commit suicide, Lee writes, by jumping off high-rises or setting themselves on fire over unpaid wages. “If getting paid for one’s labor is a fundamental feature of capitalist employment relations, strictly speaking many Chinese workers are not yet laborers,” Lee writes.

The leaders of these corporations now determine our fate. They are not endowed with human decency or compassion. Yet their lobbyists make the laws. Their public relations firms craft the propaganda and trivia pumped out through systems of mass communication. Their money determines elections. Their greed turns workers into global serfs and our planet into a wasteland. As climate change advances we will face a choice between obeying the rules put in place by corporations or rebellion. Those who work human beings to death in overcrowded factories in China and turn the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone are the enemy. They serve systems of death. They cannot be reformed or trusted.

The climate crisis is a political crisis. We will either defy the corporate elite, which will mean civil disobedience, a rejection of traditional politics for a new radicalism and the systematic breaking of laws, or see ourselves consumed. Time is not on our side. The longer we wait, the more assured our destruction becomes. The future, if we remain passive, will be wrested from us by events. Our moral obligation is not to structures of power, but life.

© 2010

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for

Paul York is an animal rights activist in Toronto, Canada, and can be reached at

If you have a Facebook account, send him a friend request Paul AndBaby York-Vegan


3 Comments leave one →
  1. George Albayan permalink
    July 23, 2010 6:12 pm

    The Truth is NOT Pretty; However I needed to read it like only Paul has expressed it…Humanity NEEDS to Face Reality NOW !! Thank you Paul.



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