In a Perfect World, There Would Be No Animal Suffering

Utopian visions of a post-COVID-19 future can only come to life if we first consider the needs of all sentient beings, especially those trapped in the food system.

Perspective Law & Policy Policy

Back in May, writing in the New Yorker, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson noted how COVID-19 is “rewriting our imaginations.” He added, “What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era.”

The post-COVID-19 era is shaping up to be one where seemingly unattainable utopian change is now within our grasp. The U.K. four-day working week campaign is enjoying a resurgence as supporters urge governments to consider reducing the working week to save jobs, but longer-term, to help reduce work-related stress and improve work-life balance. With a greater number of employees working from home rather than traveling to offices, people are also becoming more community-minded, says science fiction author Nicky Drayden, who predicts that we’re only going to see more “sharing resources and pooling resources” as time goes on. People are becoming self-sufficient too, according to Andrea Gaynor, Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia, growing their own vegetables and taking a greater interest in the natural world. Working fewer hours, community living, and agrarian self-sufficiency are all common elements of utopianism, dating back to Thomas More’s original socio-political satire, Utopia, published in 1516, which describes a perfect imaginary world set on the fictional island of Utopia. 

In changing how people work and live on a day-to-day basis, COVID-19 may also become a catalyst for bigger scientific and technological utopian projects. What Lyndsey Stonebridge, writing in the New Statesman, described as “A new politics of hope,” transformational political and economic plans in a post-pandemic era could include the implementation of much-lauded Green New Deal policy ideas. The creation of a global standard of health care is another potential post-COVID-19 utopian ideal, given the fact that pandemics clearly require vaccines for everyone to prevent future outbreaks from spreading. And fast-paced broadband internet free at the point of use is another popular post-pandemic policy idea, one which would further facilitate the home-working revolution currently underway. New Atlantis, Francis Bacon’s novel published in 1626, was the first Utopia to embrace science and technology as features of a better future and they remain some of the key elements of utopianism today.  

Of all the Utopian visions of a post-COVID-19 society that are appearing, few, if any, acknowledge a traditional feature of utopianism—abstaining from the exploitation and consumption of animals. Vegetarian diets are a central feature of many utopian practices. Members of real-life utopian ventures such as intentional communities, ecovillages, and cohousing projects, often use diet to “live out their convictions.” In a study of 1960s communes, author Timothy Miller notes how the “chief topic of conversation… was food, not sex or God.” Famous communities established during the 1960s and 1970s that still exist today, such as The Farm (USA) and Gentle World (New Zealand), value the lives of non-human animals and continue to encourage members to adopt vegan diets. These utopian experiments in different ways of living, many of them long-standing, respect and honor the rights of non-humans with whom we share our planet. 

Along with Utopian societies, Utopian literary visions have a long history of promoting animal ethics. In More’s Utopia, the Utopians see animals as “a proper object of our ethical concern,” according to scholar Christopher Burlinson. Causing suffering to animals, More’s Utopians believe, can lead to people developing a cruel nature. Members of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s all-female Utopian novel, Herland (1915), also associate meat-eating with violence and refuse to raise and then slaughter animals for food. Marge Piercy’s 1975 novel Woman On The Edge of Time contrasts a carnivorous dystopia with the mostly vegetarian utopia of Mattapoisett, an agrarian community depicted in the story. And the moral choice of abstaining from eating meat is also alluded to in Ursula Le Guin’s classic 1974 utopian novel The Dispossessed, with its vegetarian protagonist Shevek. These utopian literary visions of different ways of living all address basic principles that are the foundation of animal ethics arguments today. 

Even as utopian visions persist in various forms and are rising in connection with COVID-19, the inhumane treatment of factory-farmed animals actually increased since the onset of the pandemic. Pandemic-related supply chain issues led to a rise in the number of animals being slaughtered prematurely. Due to a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 amongst slaughterhouse employees at several facilities, the responsibility of culling animals—including pigs, cows, and chickens—is left increasingly to farmers who, because of high production costs, must cull a large number of animals quickly and by questionably humane methods. This process of depopulation is done through methods such as ventilation shutdown (VSD) and water-based foam (WBF), both of which, according to World Animal Protection, cause animals to experience distress and pain prior to death. Ventilation shutdown is when the airflow in a barn is turned off, causing the heat inside to rise as high as 120 degrees. Chickens and pigs trapped inside die from a combination of heat stress and suffocation. And water-based foam, which is primarily used to cull chickens, coats a bird’s lungs and will prolong their death from between one to four minutes. The pandemic is causing animal suffering to increase, as these methods become more commonplace in the wake of supply chain disruptions. 

Pandemic aside, animals (especially farmed animals) routinely suffer and are killed en masse in our food system. Billions of animals are slaughtered worldwide each year under business as usual circumstances. And even before these animals have reached the slaughterhouse, inhumane conditions and instances of abuse on factory farms are commonplace. As well as teeth clipping, tail cutting, and ear notching, standard factory farming practices include using gestation crates for pregnant pigs. Male calves are separated from their mothers, who will “bellow for days” after losing a child, according to professor Peter Singer and writer Karen Dawn. And egg-laying chickens are trapped in tiny cages unable to forage, perch, or dust bathe, their eyes tearing constantly from the fumes of their own urine. These decidedly dystopian industrial animal farming practices are worldwide and, in most instances, sanctioned by law.

Humane or progressive change that reflects the utopian visions of a post-COVID-19 future can only occur if we first consider the needs of all sentient beings, including those of non-human animals. Five hundred years since the publication of Thomas More’s original Utopia, post-COVID-19 utopian visions have, in many ways, mirrored More’s work, proffering solutions for poverty, jobs, and health for humans. Yet ignoring the dystopian everyday life of farmed animals and those who raise and slaughter them. Humans may be able to independently make their dreams of a better life come true, but farmed animals can’t. Animal suffering will only end through our collective efforts. Utopia will continue to be elusive, for both humans and animals, so long as we continue exploiting and killing animals for food.

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