The latest Living Planet report from the WWF makes for grim reading: a 60% decline in wild animal populations since 1970, collapsing ecosystems, and a distinct possibility that the human species will not be far behind. The report repeatedly stresses that humanity’s consumption is to blame for this mass extinction, and journalists have been quick to amplify the message. The Guardian headline reads “Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations”, while the BBC runs with “Mass wildlife loss caused by human consumption”. No wonder: in the 148-page report, the word “humanity” appears 14 times, and “consumption” an impressive 54 times.
There is one word, however, that fails to make a single appearance: capitalism. It might seem, when 83% of the world’s freshwater ecosystems are collapsing (another horrifying statistic from the report), that this is no time to quibble over semantics. And yet, as the ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has written, “finding the words is another step in learning to see”.
Although the WWF report comes close to finding the words by identifying culture, economics, and unsustainable production models as the key problems, it fails to name capitalism as the crucial (and often causal) link between these things. It therefore prevents us from seeing the true nature of the problem. If we don’t name it, we can’t tackle it: it’s like aiming at an invisible target.
The WWF report is right to highlight “exploding human consumption”, not population growth, as the main cause of mass extinction, and it goes to great lengths to illustrate the link between levels of consumption and biodiversity loss. But it stops short of pointing out that capitalism is what compels such reckless consumption. Capitalism – particularly in its neoliberal form – is an ideology founded on a principle of endless economic growth driven by consumption, a proposition that is simply impossible.
Industrial agriculture, an activity that the report identifies as the biggest single contributor to species loss, is profoundly shaped by capitalism, not least because only a handful of “commodity” species are deemed to have any value, and because, in the sole pursuit of profit and growth, “externalities” such as pollution and biodiversity loss are ignored. And yet instead of calling the irrationality of capitalism out for the ways in which it renders most of life worthless, the WWF report actually extends a capitalist logic by using terms such as “natural assets” and “ecosystem services” to refer to the living world.
By obscuring capitalism with a term that is merely one of its symptoms – “consumption” – there is also a risk that blame and responsibility for species loss is disproportionately shifted onto individual lifestyle choices, while the larger and more powerful systems and institutions that are compelling individuals to consume are, worryingly, let off the hook.
The WWF report chooses “humanity” as its unit of analysis, and this totalising language is eagerly picked up by the press. The Guardian, for example, reports that “the global population is destroying the web of life”. This is grossly misleading. The WWF report itself illustrates that it is far from all of humanity doing the consuming, but it does not go as far as revealing that only a small minority of the human population are causing the vast majority of the damage.
From carbon emissions to ecological footprints, the richest 10% of people are having the greatest impact. Furthermore, there is no recognition that the effects of climate and biodiversity collapse are overwhelming felt by the poorest people first – the very people who are contributing least to the problem. Identifying these inequalities matters because it is this – not “humanity” per se – that is the problem, and because inequality is endemic to, you guessed it, capitalist systems (and particularly their racist and colonial legacies).
The catch-all word “humanity” papers over all of these cracks, preventing us from seeing the situation as it is. It also perpetuates a sense that humans are inherently “bad”, and that it is somehow “in our nature” to consume until there is nothing left. One tweet, posted in response to the WWF publication, retorted that “we are a virus with shoes”, an attitude that hints at growing public apathy.
But what would it mean to redirect such self-loathing towards capitalism? Not only would this be a more accurate target, but it might also empower us to see our humanity as a force for good.
Words do so much more than simply assign blame to different causes. Words are makers and breakers of the deep stories that we construct about the world, and these stories are especially important for helping us to navigate environmental crises. Using generalised references to “humanity” and “consumption” as drivers of ecological loss is not only inaccurate, it also perpetuates a distorted view of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.
By naming capitalism as a root cause, on the other hand, we identify a particular set of practices and ideas that are by no means permanent nor inherent to the condition of being human. In doing so, we learn to see that things could be otherwise. There is a power to naming something in order to expose it. As the writer and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit puts it:
"Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step."
The WWF report urges that a “collective voice is crucial if we are to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss”, but a collective voice is useless if it cannot find the right words. As long as we – and influential organisations such as the WWF, in particular – fail to name capitalism as a key cause of mass extinction, we will remain powerless to break its tragic story.
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When we think of “global threats”, we usually imagine terrorist attacks, cyberwars, and weapons of mass destructions. Or maybe, trespassing into the realm of fiction, of James Bond’s Dr. No and other, similar, cats-owning villains.
Obviously, these are all fearsome scenarios and risks (especially Dr.No). However, there’s another “global threat” that is looming above us, even though we probably wouldn’t think of calling it that way. Such a threat is climate change.
Last Tuesday, the Office of the Director of US National Intelligence published its yearly Worldwide Threat Assessment, a hearing of the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has occurred since 2006.
In the report, the US intelligence community lists a series of “global threats” that humanity is currently facing. Amidst transnational organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions, and online operations to interfere with political elections, we find also — grouped in the section relating to “human security” — the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.”
In particular, the assessment highlights how the increased magnitude of these phenomena is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
Three are the main critical points raised by the report. First off, the intelligence community is concerned by extreme weather events and particularly by how they will affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.
Secondly, they link the increasing water and food insecurity around the world with the “changes in the frequency and variability” of heat waves, droughts, and floods.
And, finally, the report zooms in on the issue of diminishing Arctic sea ice, highlighting how this problem paves the way for increased competition with Russia and China over access to sea routes and natural resources.
En passant, the intelligence report reminds its readers that Arctic ice is shrinking constantly. “In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010,” the report warns.
As environmental media outlet Inside Climate News reminds us, The Worldwide Threat Assessment included “climate change” as a global threat to human security also in the past years, so there’s “nothing new under the sun”: the ice is still melting.
However, while other global threats like terrorism are treated as such in the media, climate change is still too often debated not as an imminent threat but as something that, if at all, will strike far in the future. At the opposite, as the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment denounces once again, climate changes' effects are already underway.
A year ago, the UK government asked economist Frances Cairncross to conduct an independent review of the challenges high-quality journalism is facing in the country.
Last Tuesday, the Cairncross Review was published, highlighting nine recommendations that the government and regulators ought to follow to help secure the sustainability of journalism in the future.
The recommendations range from investigating the workings of online advertising (aka the Google-Facebook duopoly) to developing a media literacy strategy.
However, the recommendation that attracted my attention the most, given my particular interest in the charitable sector, was number nine.
It reads: “New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.”
Cairncross is hinting at two tax changes here. The first one is the extension of zero-rating VAT to digital subscriptions and micropayments for online news (currently, the exemption is enjoyed just by print newspapers and periodicals) and the second is granting charitable status to particular types of high-quality, public-interest journalism.
Last June, Cairncross issued a ‘call for evidence’ to gather material for the report and the review reveals that granting charitable status to select news outlets was one of the most frequently raised proposals.
As known, charities benefit from several tax breaks in the United Kingdom so it would be much easier for a news organization with charitable status to attract philanthropic donations that could provide a much-needed additional revenue stream.
However, this is easier said than done. As the report notes, UK’s current charity law is probably incompatible with the role of news organizations since it forbids charities “to undertake certain political activities such as securing or opposing a change in law, policy or decisions affecting the country”.
A solution could then be to add public-interest journalism to the list of charitable causes the 2011 Charities Act set out to advance. But, again, this might take time and be deemed legally too complicated. That’s why the Cairncross report also highlights a “second-best option”: building a journalistic equivalent of the Creative Sector Tax Relief that grants support to creative industries ranging from video-games to film production.
Legal feasibility aside, the indication expressed by Craincross is part of a larger trend that is taking hold in the news industry: non-profit journalism.
Facing shrinking revenue opportunities, several news media startups across the world decide to opt for business models that rely solely on donations, from private individuals or larger foundations.
One of the most notable examples is certainly ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning newsroom established in New York in 2007 to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.
But media organizations that adopt mixed business models are also considering the idea of attracting philanthropic money to fund in-depth reporting with increasing interest.
Just to give a number, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism found that 12 percent of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream in 2019.
Obviously, “philanthrojournalism” is not immune to criticism. How can we make sure that the money comes with no strings attached? And even if we can guarantee that the media outlet retains total editorial control - as in the examples I mentioned above - how could we envision a system where the funding doesn’t necessarily reflect the funder’s interest areas?
These are complex challenges that require bold and imaginative solutions.
Maybe we should think beyond large foundations. In a recent article for The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones contemplates a sort of democratized public subsidy for the whole media industry. His idea, firstly proposed by US media scholar Robert McChesney, consists of the state giving every citizen a yearly allowance of $200 to donate to one or more publications. In Jones’s hypothesis, the allowance would be funded by an annual tax on the advertising industry.
The idea lends itself to an array of criticism. There’s the evident risk, for example, that the funding will just mirror the electorate’s political preferences of the moment resulting in a pro-government press with more money than its competitors.
Regardless, the idea has the merit of being radical and out-of-the-box and that’s the kind of thinking we need in this ongoing brainstorming on the future of journalism.
There are many reasons why people decide to cut animal products from their diet, but the negative health effects of excessive meat and dairy consumption and the enormous environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are popular ones.
However, the suffering of billions of animals each year in factory farming, referred to in a 2015 Guardian article as one of the “worst crimes in history”, is the most powerful motivation for many, including myself.
Refraining from something that causes so much harm and suffering is laudable, but there’s one argument occasionally used in vegan and animal rights campaigns that warrants closer attention – the idea that consuming other creatures is morally wrong in its own right.
Opposing meat eating on ontological grounds – meaning, simply because animals are sentient beings, we shouldn’t eat them – separates humans from nature and prevents truly ethical relationships between humans, animals and the natural world. The late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood coined “ontological veganism” to describe this absolute opposition.
Ontological veganism asserts that beings that count as ethical subjects should not be eaten, in the same way that there’s a widespread taboo about eating humans. While this thinking erects another unhelpful boundary between animals and other life forms, it’s also ironic that the rationale underlying taboos against eating humans is the desire to radically separate humans from other animals.
By framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong, ontological veganism also risks demonising predation. In order to avoid this, a common approach is to “excuse” animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of “nature” while humans, as cultural beings, should be exempt.
Some of us – especially those living in wealthy countries – can indeed choose to opt for vegan products, but this argument reproduces another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. Life is entanglement, with no clear boundaries between “humans” and other species, or between “nature” and “society”.
"Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food. They are with you, not for you."
This quote is from the late utopian author Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Always Coming Home. Her idea is akin to Plumwood’s theory of ecological animalism, which seeks to replace human supremacy over nature with mutual and respectful use between humans and other species.
Ontological veganism would frame using or consuming animals itself as inherently exploitative. But consider forms of mutual use seen in symbiotic relationships, such as those between pollinating insects and plants. In such scenarios, use isn’t oppressive or exploitative. It’s the form of use seen within industrial capitalism, where humans and non-humans alike are treated only as a means to an end, that prevents ethical relationships.
Ecosystems and all living beings depend upon mutual use and consumption. Orcas consume fish and other marine mammals, we must consume living vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms, nourishing them in turn.
If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, then like them, we are food. To deny this is to deny that humans are embedded within the ecosystems they originate from and are sustained by.
The horrific cruelty involved in industrial factory farming reduces living beings to mere profitable commodities. This is why I am a vegan, and it is here where calls for eradicating or at least reforming animal agriculture find firmer ground.
The ways in which animals are currently treated in agriculture represent the exact opposite of respect and mutuality. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed in his poignant ecotopian work, Island, that
"For animals… Satan, quite obviously, is Homo sapiens."
Ecological animalism offers a powerful basis for truly ethical and egalitarian ways of relating to other species. We are all food, and crucially, so much more. We are with and not for one another, and we are all worthy of respect. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved, lest we reproduce the same harmful dualisms we want to dismantle.