Animals/Humans: A Story of Love and Loss

The inspiration for this article comes from the following short trailer for Midway, which provides a heart-wrenching glimpse into the effects of human capitalist consumption and pollution on the lives of our fellow animals:

“Urbanization in the West was based historically on a notion of progress rooted in the conquest and exploitation of nature by culture.  The moral compass of city-builders pointed toward the virtues of reason, progress, and profit, leaving wild lands and wild things –as well as people deemed to be wild or “savage”– beyond the scope of their reckoning.  Today, the logic of capitalist urbanization still proceeds without regard to nonhuman animal life, except as cash-on-the-hoof headed for slaughter on the “disassembly” line or commodities used to further the cycle of accumulation.  Development may be slowed by laws protecting endangered species, but you will rarely see the bulldozers stopping to gently place rabbits or reptiles out of harm’s way. bullzo

Paralleling this disregard for nonhuman life, you will find no mention of animals in contemporary urban theory… Urbanization transforms “empty” land through a process called “development”, to produce “improved land” whose developers are exhorted to dedicate it to the “highest and best use.”  Such language reflects a peculiar perversion of our thinking: wildlands are not “empty” but teeming with nonhuman life; “development” involves a thorough denaturalization of the environment; “improved land” is invariably impoverished in terms of soil quality, drainage, and vegetation; and judgements of “highest and best use” reflect profit-centered values and interests of humans alone, ignoring not only wild or feral animals but captives such as pets, lab animals, and livestock who live and die in urban space shared with people.

Our theories and practices of urbanization have contributed to disastrous ecological effects.  Wildlife habitat is being destroyed at record rates as the urban front advances worldwide, driven in the First World by suburbanization and edge-city development, and in the Second and Third Worlds by a pursuit of a “catching-up” development model which produces vast rural to urban migration flows and sprawling squatter landscapes.  Entire ecosystems and species are threatened, while individual animals crowded out of their homes (or dumped) must risk entry into urban areas in search of food or water, where they encounter people, vehicles and other dangers.  The substitution of pets for wild nature in the city has driven an explosion of the urban pet population, polluting urban waterways as well as leading to mass killings of dogs and cats.  Isolation of urban people from the domestic animals they eat has also distanced them from the horrors and ecological harms of factory farming, and the escalating destruction of rangelands and forests driven by the market’s efforts to create/satisfy a lust for meat.  For most free creatures, as well as staggering numbers of captives such as pets and livestock, cities imply suffering, death, or extinction.”–exceprt from Jennifer Wolch’s (1996) Zoopolis

What is an animal and what is a human?  Where can we effectively draw the line between the two?  Despite –or perhaps due to— Darwin’s theory of evolution that shows a continuation between all species, humans tend to distance themselves from ‘animals’ and consider themselves to be superior beings. Are we not animals ourselves?  Do our lives not revolve around the same things –sustenance, family, survival, happiness? Cheetah-Family-wild-animals-2603080-1280-1024

Human interactions with animals are becoming increasingly alienated, where animals are either pets that entertain us or pests to be exterminated.  Our economic system of capital accumulation does not see environments or animals as important subjects to plan around, but rather as resources to be exploited or once again as pests to be brushed out of the way.  Even our attempts at wildlife conservation involve the separation of humans and ‘animals’, corralling them into delineated zones of human control and management such as National Parks.  This makes fragmented pockets of animal habitats, which not only disrupts many species’ migration routes, but also poses no real challenge to our system of consumption and capitalist growth that makes nature reserves necessary in the first place.  The only people who experience social change when National Parks are created are the poor communities living in the vicinity who suddenly find themselves cut off from the traditional sources of their livelihoods and are forced to migrate to urban areas for work, further alienating humans from ‘nature’.

dead-bird-plastic-belly-fea

If images of animals suffering at the hands of human-made environmental degradation shock and upset us (like the ones shown above in the trailer for Midway), then we have to take seriously the fact that we can no longer consider ourselves separate creatures from our environments and the animals that we share this world with.  We can no longer imagine that each and every one of our trips out to Walmart, or every plastic bottle we unthinkingly use up and throw away is somehow unconnected to the lives and experiences of lands and animals all over the planet, not just in the closest proximity.  If we continue to uncritically pursue “success” defined as capitalist growth and excess, then we would be hypocrites to feel disgusted when presented with images like these poor birds with bellies full of plastic.  We would be hypocrites because we can’t honestly pretend that we aren’t fully aware that we are causing it.  Not only do we need an eco-socialist politics and economy to address this –one that re-naturalizes urban life, re-enchanting it with respect and care for animal lives– but we also need to fundamentally challenge our “Enlightenment” ideas that we are somehow not animals, and that our actions and the way we organize societies should not take animals’ rights to safe, happy, and healthy lives into the same consideration as humans.  people-and-animals-kid-and-dog

As Wolch (1996) aptly explains, “it is clear that for most of (pre)history, people ate wild animals, tamed them, and kept them captive, but also respected them as kin, friends, teachers, spirits, or gods.  Their value lay both in their similarities with and differences from humans.  Not coincidentally, most wild habitats were also sustained.”  If we treat animals with care and respect, then the conservation of their important and biodiverse environments will occur more naturally as well.  Most people would say that they ‘love’ animals, and it tugs at our heartstrings to see them in pain.  But love without wisdom or action will do nothing to address the horrors that animals are experiencing at the hands of our negligence each day.  We need to face the fact that we are living unsustainably on this planet, and in all fairness to its fellow inhabitants, we sorely need to change.

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4 Comments on “Animals/Humans: A Story of Love and Loss”

  1. markus February 21, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    My God…. Thank you for posting this. That video is so upsetting but it’s something people really need to see.

    • utopiandreaming February 22, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

      I agree. It is too easy for us to imagine that our daily actions don’t have devastating effects for animals and environments, like those shown in the clip.

  2. andhastings February 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    God, why did I just watch that video. So upsetting. Thanks for sharing this.

    • utopiandreaming February 25, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

      It really should inspire us to come to terms with the fact that *we* are animals ourselves, and to start involving the welfare of animals and environments in our urban/ suburban planning and ‘sustainable resource use’ policies.

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