As a species, humans have become accustomed to considering everything that surrounds them as resources solely at their disposal. While other organisms work as teams to support each other, we tend to focus on short-term economic gains. This limited vision is one of the key factors behind the global decline in biodiversity experienced over the last several decades.
Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance. In early 2020, when the coronavirus crisis started spreading across the world, numerous publications linking the so-called “wet markets” made international headlines. It is challenging to maintain hygiene and food safety standards within wet markets, as exotic and farmed animals are sold and slaughtered side-by-side. All known coronaviruses have zoonotic or animal origins, and the current pandemic is no exception. Therefore, it is worth pointing out that COVID-19 may have jumped to humans in one of these wet markets, although the exact origin of the virus is still unknown.
As the race to find treatments and vaccines progressed, the existence of wet markets and the origin of this global nightmare has been largely forgotten by many who are eager to get their lives “back to normal.” The reason for this willful self-deception, as Prof. Marta Tafalla, explains, can be attributed to cognitive dissonance.
Fear and denial
Prof. Tafalla is the author of Ecoanimal: Una estética plurisensorial, ecologista y animalista (Ecoanimal: An animalist, ecologist, and multisensorial aesthetic) and a professor of Philosophy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain. She explains that humans are adept at cognitive dissonance, which in this case involves detaching ourselves from facts and contributing behavior that has led to distressing outcomes. “We do not want to see the causes of the pandemic,” she says. “If humans were sensible, once the virus has jumped out of a wet market, the reasonable thing to do would be to ban all markets with live animals on the planet.”
In a rational world, Tafalla says, a pandemic should make us stop and examine our ways. “We should have generated a serious debate about how we eat, how we interact with other species, and what should we modify so that it does not happen again.” Instead, she points out, “Right now we are trying to manage the pandemic as best as we can, but we don’t want to talk about why this has happened, and that is a problem.”
Tafalla further explains that our unwillingness to speak about the origin of the pandemic can be attributed to two reasons. “First, because of a matter of fear: we do not want to talk about things that terrify us. And also, we do not want to acknowledge our mistakes. We, humans, have caused this pandemic, but we do not like to think about it. We feel that we are the smartest animal of all,” she says.
The 2020 edition of the Living Planet report, prepared by WWF, indicates that from 1970 until now, vertebrate populations have decreased by 68 percent. Close to 75 percent of the Earth’s surface has been modified by humans, largely due to our food system, which in turn, is one of the main reasons for the decline in biodiversity.
Life on our planet is largely based on a hierarchy of relationships that is driven by teamwork. While other organisms on the planet work for their own survival and growth, they also enable other species to live and thrive in the process, and many plants and animals are dependent on each other to survive.
The problem then, according to Tafalla, is that “there is one species that does not lend itself to these teamwork rules: the human species. Our civilization wants all the resources of the planet just for ourselves.” In Tafalla’s opinion, there are two main pressing problems for our planet. “The first is of an ethical nature. It is unfair to treat other species like we do,” she says. “The other is our own survival: we have taken this situation to such an extreme that we are heading straight to collapse.”
The destruction of natural biospheres for agriculture, mining, and other human uses of land is leading to what is considered the sixth mass extinction of species in the 4 billion years of Earth’s history. In this context, the coronavirus originates amidst the brutal destruction of the world’s ecosystems, and with this destruction comes disorder. Today, pathogens continue to jump from one species to another in places such as wet markets and factory farms, the perfect breeding grounds for disease.
Tafalla highlights two rather radical ideas to stop our path towards collapse. The first one is to decrease our consumption. The second one is rewilding, or helping nature to regain its wild state. Tafalla is clear that “if we do not decrease voluntarily—in an organized way—the biosphere will force us to decrease in very painful ways.”
Research has shown that plant-based diets require less water, less land, and less energy. For example, if we stopped keeping animals as livestock, the territory that we now use for feeding them can be returned to wild fauna. For this reason, Tafalla adds, “the enriched countries should decrease both in population and in consumption.” This is a tall order and to move towards this goal, we have to look at our historic relationship to animals and the growth of speciesism.
Evolution of speciesism
This year marks 50 years since the term “speciesism” first appeared as a noun referring to the relationship between humans and animals from an ethical point of view. Richard Ryder coined the term in 1970 to describe the species-based exclusion of non-human animals from privileges and protections afforded to humans. Ryder tells the story of how he was “at the bathtub, thinking about the demonstrations against racism and against sexism,” and suddenly he thought, “What a shame, no one demonstrates for the animals!” At that moment he realized that there was “a similarity between the different forms of discrimination based on physical differences.”
Unfortunately, it can be argued that we are in a far more critical situation today since Ryder first came up with the term “speciesism” and Peter Singer popularized it. The human population has increased dramatically over the past five decades and as a result, we have encroached aggressively upon natural habitats and have resorted to treating animals as mere commodities, as seen by the growth of factory farms. And it is within this context of activism for animal rights that Tafalla points out that we cannot address one kind of oppression while turning a blind eye to other forms of oppression.
The concept of total liberation—which advocates for an end to all forms of domination and hierarchy of living beings across species—is rooted in ecofeminism. By depicting the female as an irrational being that is “other than” and “less than” human, a hierarchy that justifies the domination of the patriarchy at the top is established. The concept of using subjugation as a means to attain a dominant power structure is not novel and the colonization of North America in the interests of expanding the international trade in fur and leather or more recently, the so-called “American intervention in Mexico” motivated by the benefits of acquiring land to feed animals are more examples of this strategy.
Total liberation takes the point of view that, historically, colonialism has been always connected to the subjugation of entities to benefit the more dominant power—be it humans, animals, or the Earth. In this context, different strategies towards oppressions can be traced back as far as the agricultural revolution in pre-civilized communities as detailed by Prof. David Nibert, a sociologist studying animal rights and human rights. Another publication anonymously authored and titled Total Liberation, advocates for an ethic of liberation from all oppressions, based on a radical critique of capitalism as a system in which “the slightest failure to maintain endless growth is defined as crisis.”
The idea and urgency towards implementing total liberation are perhaps best summed up by Steve Best in his book, The Politics of Total Liberation. “It is imperative that we no longer talk about human liberation, animal liberation, or land liberation as if they were different struggles, to speak of total liberation.” Total liberation, then, is a compassionate approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all beings on the planet and creates links between different activist movements across species that strive to eliminate oppression. A kinder and more equitable community is needed to help us work together if we want to save the world.
María is a Spanish journalist and communications researcher.