ed. note:  link to 2013 update on these issues at end of article

Two Movements and Human-Animal Continuity:
Positions, Assumptions, Contradictions.
Barbara Noske


This article is about the images, representations, and treatment of animals in two movements: the animal welfare/rights/liberation movement - the animal movement for short - and the deep green/deep ecology movement. More specifically it wants to look at the way in which each of these movements comes to terms with - or fails to come to terms with - the natural continuity existing between animals and humans.

No matter how each movement is typified, any definition will contain some form of generalization. This is inevitable since there are people, among them ecofeminists (Warren 1994), who would define themselves as animal advocates as well as deep green.

Individualistic reductionism

Members of the animal movement tend to focus on animal individuals as sentient beings and on our ethics vis-a-vis these beings. The domain for animal defenders is that nature which has evolved individual and sentient, that nature which can feel pain, pleasure and fear (Singer 1990).

Because many animal advocates (short for: the members of the animal movement) live in urban areas, are city dwellers (Francione 1996, Montgomery 2000), the animals they encounter tend to be those we have incorporated into our work and living places such as production animals in factory farms, animals used as organic instruments in laboratories, and companion animals. That is: urban individuals encounter animals that are either domesticated or been made to live (and die) in human-manufactured habitats (Sabloff 2001). Having said this, animal advocates do focus on hunted animals and this concerns wild rather than domesticated animals. Recreational hunting has a long history, especially in North America (Cartmill 1993, Flynn 2002).

The animal movement’s focus on sentience stems from the understanding that there is continuity between the human and animal condition. Human sentience has ethical significance. It is at the root of the condemnation of oppression, torture, genocide. Human-animal continuity implies the acknowledgement that many animals have bodies and nervous systems that resemble ours. If well-being is important to humans, it cannot but be important to animals also. Not only do many animals have bodies like ours, their subjectivity - their mind and their emotional life-bears resemblance to us. Like us, animals are, in Tom Regan’s terms “ subject-of-a-life” (Regan 1983). Human-animal continuity in body and mind calls for parallel continuity in ethics, such that ethical obligations vis-a-vis animals cannot be radically different from those vis-a-vis humans.

Many people in the animal movement tend to be almost indifferent to all nature other than animal nature. Supposedly non-sentient living nature, such as plants and trees, is generally not taken into consideration. Neither are non-living, inorganic natural entities such as rocks, rivers, or even ecosystems. In themselves these parts of nature are not sentient and individually they cannot suffer so the animal movement often overlooks or dismisses them (Hay 2002).

The animal movement is highly critical of the traditional Cartesian notion of ‘animal-machine’ and constitutes the most important group worldwide to condemn factory farming. But it seems to have no objection against similar things done to plants (Dunayer 2001). A concept such as ‘plant-machine’ and the intensive vegetable and plant farming that is currently taking place do not raise the same eyebrows. The movement’s critique of objectification and exploitation seems to rest solely on the aforementioned notion of sentience. The objectification -including things like genetic manipulation- of the rest of nature goes largely unnoticed or is dismissed.

By concentrating on sentient beings, animal advocates abstract from the environmental context of animal existence. Many animal activists have no conception of how animals, even as individuals, are integrated into other nature. One sometimes encounters a certain uneasiness among members of this movement about nature’s meat-eaters - as though the eating of animals by other animals were something that ideally should not exist. Some animal rightists and liberationists tell me that, were it possible, they would like to ‘phase out’ predator-prey relationships or at least liberate (save) the prey animal from the equation (pers. comm. in several countries).

Another example of refusing to accept animal meat-eating as a zoological necessity is the tendency among vegetarian/vegan animal advocates to turn their carnivorous companion animals into vegetarians as well by feeding them plant-derived food often accompanied by special dietary supplements. Admittedly in North America standard pet food is hardly ever fresh and tends to come out of a packet or tin, unlike Europe where one can get fresh and increasingly organic free-range meat for one’s companion animals at the local butcher. While many of these people do acknowledge that their animal’s body may not ‘be built’ for vegetarian or vegan food, it is apparently no problem for them that the necessary daily intake of supplements will make that animal totally dependent on the health industry. Inadvertently these people are turning animals into duplicates of themselves: modern consumers of the manufactured products of an industrial age. The animals’ lives are humanized and colonized – their alienation taken to another extreme. Is this about protecting companion animals from non-ethical food or about imposing human ethics on the animal other? Incidentally, much plant-based and processed food happens to be the end-product of unsustainable monocultures - to which many animal habitats have had to give way - and has been put on the market by the same globalized and diversified agro-industrial complex which also produces standard pet foods (Noske 1997).

Many animal advocates thus seem to have trouble accepting nature as an interdependent system where everything has its place, function, and appropriate physical organisation. Organic beings took a long time evolving in relation to each other and to non-living inorganic nature. Nature is a community where every living thing lives off everything else (food, even vegan food, is living nature in a killed state), and in the zoological realm this means that both plant-eating and meat-eating have their respective raisons d’�tre. Predation is neither a negligible anomaly nor an ethical deficiency in the ecosystem (Plumwood 1999).

At the risk of generalizing too much I see a lack of environmental awareness and environmental critique among many animal advocates. Urbanization, technological optimism, the modern urbanocentric mind-set (Lemaire 2002) are often taken for granted. I have met animal rightists, themselves living in high rise blocks in a North American city, who feel they should persuade Inuit people in the continent’s north to move down south. The argument offered is that by abandoning the frozen lands their ancestors lived on for so many generations these Inuit could take up a more moral lifestyle vis-�-vis animals and become vegetarians (which at present they cannot be for the simple reason that where they are living hardly anything grows.)

I also have come across animal shelters whose managers on principle do not give companion animals to people with a garden, for fear that by going outdoors such animals could escape and come to harm. Accidental death in traffic was seen as infinitely more horrific than a lifelong existence indoors.

Many members of the animal movement seem to move surrounded by machines in an entirely humanized, electronic techno-world and tend to treat this circumstance simply as a given. The hegemony of the car in modern society, for example, hardly seems cause for concern to them. However, even apart from everything else that the car represents, this type of private transport does result in numerous animal deaths. According to Wildcare, a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Toronto, most injured and orphaned animals brought in are victims of auto transport and to a lesser extent cat attacks (pers. communication with wildlife rehabilitator Csilla Darvasi, see Braunstein 1998 for the US). While cars are causing direct death or injury, habitat destruction connected with automobility and road building cause extensive indirect death and even extinction. Members of the animal movement often show no awareness of the violence involved in bulldozing an acre of land or building a road. One doesn’t see much blood but it causes whole communities of animals and plants to perish (Livingston 1994).

In sum: the animal movement tends to portray animals as though they were isolated, city-dwelling consumer-citizens, living entirely outside of any ecological context. Such a view amounts to a form of reductionism: individualistic reductionism.

Ecosystemic reductionism

Animals for people in the deep green/deep ecology movement are first and foremost wild animals, i.e., fauna living in the wild. It is not sentience or cruelty issues that are central here: it is nature, naturalness, and environment (Baird Callicott 1989). Incidentally, the word environment itself is a very problematic term: it literally means that which surrounds us. By definition it is not ‘us ourselves’. In the term environment the separation between ourselves and nature is already final (Noske 1997).

Deep greens tend to come down hard on anything that is no longer considered ‘environment’, no longer pristine or positively contributing to the ecosystem. Feral animals and domesticated animals are not popular in these circles. Central concepts are nature, species, and biodiversity (Low 2001). Only those animals that are still part of a given ecosystem really count for this movement. Animals are approached as representatives of their species. They are almost equated with their species or with the ecosystem of which they are part. The animal as individual is often downplayed.

Feral animals seem to be getting the worst of both worlds: they are neither an interesting species, nor individuals worthy of somebody’s moral concern (Rolls 1969, Soul'/Lease 1995, Reads 2003). If anything, they are seen as vermin. It goes without saying that as species they do pose a threat to the natural ecosystems. Rats, cats, rabbits, dogs, foxes, horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, water buffaloes - animals intentionally or unintentionally brought into the Australian or American continent (by humans) - are threatening local biodiversity. These feral animals can and do destroy the balance in naturally evolved communities. The predators among them sometimes totally wipe out indigenous species whose members have no natural defence against these ‘foreigners’. Herbivorous feral animals can totally devastate habitats that native animals are dependent upon (Reads 2003). (Unfortunately such ecological hazards are sometimes belittled or downplayed by the animal movement.)

Deep green-leaning people perceive feral animals as members of unwanted species and advocate their destruction, often by very inhumane means. Until recently the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Australia was in the habit of shooting brumbies (feral horses) from the air, thereby indiscriminately massacring herds and disrupting whole horse societies and families. In the north of the continent water buffaloes are being run down by 4WDs equipped with huge ‘roo bars’. Rabbits are purposely being targeted with introduced deadly diseases, often by means of specially infected fleas which are then released into their burrows (Reads 2003). Foxes and feral cats and dogs are being killed by means of poison baits. From the literature on human poisoning (Bell 2001) and from quite recent cases of food poisoning in China (newspaper reports September 2002) we know what horrendous suffering is involved in death by poisoning. It can’t be all that different for animals. Among deep greens, however, the suffering of feral and farm animals hardly counts.

Sentience in the deep ecology/deep green discourse is often treated as some sort of byproduct of animal life. So is individuality. The natural capacity of sentience is never included in any notion of environment, ecology or nature.

Some deep greens/deep ecologists such as Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, Paul Shepard, (cf. Leopold 1949, Shepard 1996) endorse modern recreational hunting as a way to be at one with nature. Not many deep greens are taking a critical position on hunting except when it involves endangered species. The issue tends to revolve around numbers rather than the preciousness of individual lives. Neither do deep greens tend to take a critical stance on animal experimentation. After all professional ecologists and conservation biologists often conduct experiments themselves.

Mostly, experimenters are using individuals of numerically strong species or species especially bred for the purpose such as white mice and rats. In the eyes of deep greens and deep ecologists these are no longer ‘nature’ and so their well-being is low on their priority list.

Deep greens/deep ecologists have been known to argue that hunting is part of human nature when it was still in tune with other nature. They usually point toward hunter/gatherer societies. Hunting is natural, they say. In deep green circles the hunting of animals is felt to be more natural than having animals for companions, which is often seen as degenerate. However the roots of the phenomenon of companion animals go as far back as hunting. All societies from Paleolithic times onwards have been known to keep animals as pets or companions. It occurs in all societies, in all periods of history and in all economic classes (Serpell 1986). It may not exactly be ‘human nature’ but apparently many people have felt the need for a face-to-face or touch-to-touch relationship with individuals of another species (L�vi-Strauss 1973, Tuan 1984). So much for the ‘unnatural-ness’ of companion animals.

Because deep greens do not have much time for domesticated animal nature they tend to be rather uninformed and unconcerned about what happens to animals in factory farms and laboratories. During various ecotours in the Australian outback it strikes me time and again how no effort whatsoever is made to avoid serving factory-farmed meat to the participants of such a tour. When queried on the issue, the often ecologically astute tour guides tend to demonstrate an entirely value-free and neutral attitude to where the tour food was coming from. Deep greens/deep ecologists might disapprove of factory farming because of its unsustainability and its polluting effect on the nature outside, but not because of the things done to natural beings inside. Production and companion animals simply do not figure as ‘green’ (Noske 1994).

In sum: the deep green/deep ecology movement tends to equate animals with their species. Equating animals with their species or with their ecosystem amounts to another form of reductionism: ecosystemic reductionism.

Disembodied empathy versus embodied antipathy

Both movements are potentially united in their struggle against anthropocentrism: the idea of humanity as the measure of all things. But apart from this there seem to be few platforms where the two groups actually meet: only during some international campaigns such as the ones against seal-hunting and whaling. The first time a group like Greenpeace showed any concern for individual animal welfare was when many years ago in Canada three whales got stuck in the ice. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, though essentially an animal welfare organisation, does from time to time put forward arguments to do with habitat destruction and extinction of endangered species.

Strangely enough - because one would expect it the other way round - it is the animal movement rather than the deep ecology movement which invokes animal-human continuity as a line of reasoning for considering animals as individuals. On the other hand, many animal advocates are themselves almost the embodiment of human-animal discontinuity. As mentioned before, in this movement there hardly exists any critique of the way present-day technology is alienating humans from their ‘animalness’. This issue is tackled by the deep green/deep ecology movement rather than by the animal lobby.

Again consider the car issue. For all other species, bodily movement is first and foremost organic movement: it involves muscle power, fatigue, or sweat. But for modern humans bodily movement is more and more being replaced by mechanisation and computerizing. They let machines do the moving for them and as a result they are becoming more and more unanimal-like. Hardly anybody in animal advocacy circles looks upon this as something problematic which could stand in the way of the natural human condition, i.e. our physical animalness. For them this issue appears to have nothing to do with human-animal continuity. But continuity is not just about the ‘humanlike-ness’ of animals but also about the ‘animallike-ness’ of humans. There is an existential and crucial connectedness between the two. In circles of the animal lobby, however, human-animal continuity remains largely an abstract moral principle which is hardly ‘lived’ in reality. One could perhaps say that this attitude is characterised by disembodied empathy: the empathy is real but its material basis forgotten.

The deep green/deep ecology movement, by contrast, does appreciate the wonders of nature, is conscious of animal-human continuity, and denounces various technologies (including the car) as alienating and harmful to nature. But there exists a strange contradiction here too.

Though in deep green circles it is acknowledged that modern human practices have been extremely exploitative of nature and the wild, this does not seem to have induced much sympathy for exploited animals. Animal victims, be they domesticated or feral, are blamed for their own predicament and in some cases for posing an active threat to what is perceived as real nature.

Although the deep greens, in contrast to their city-based counterparts in the animal movement, are more likely to opt for a natural lifestyle and to be more mindful of a shared animal-human past, this doesn’t translate into sympathy with animals that have fallen by the wayside. This attitude could be characterised as embodied antipathy. Human-animal continuity is lived and ‘realised’, but instead of empathy is often accompanied by a disdain for those beings that no longer lead natural lives in the appropriate ecosystem. Denatured though such beings may be, they nevertheless are still close enough to nature to possess the natural capacity for suffering whether it be pain, boredom, listlessness, social and ecological deprivation or agonizing death.

Another contradiction is apparent here as well. In regions like North America and Australia the ecosystemic focus is strong and as mentioned before is often expressed by advocating harsh measures against the exotic and the feral (Aslin/Bennett 2000, Reads 2003). One wonders what self-image underlies such attitudes. Is this a curious case of human foreigners (in the ecological sense) condemning animal foreigners? Would such people advocate the eradication of themselves, members of a group of exotic white invaders whose adverse impact on the local ecosystem has been well-documented? Would they be in favour of curbing all - non-aboriginal - human lives and births, not to mention more drastic measures? If the answer is negative, how can such measures be justified with regard to animals? Downplaying animal sentience and animal cruelty issues while at the same time upholding human sentience arguments endorses ethical discontinuity between humans and animals, albeit perhaps unintentionally.

The recent developments in animal biotechnology are going to be a test case for both movements. Some animal welfarists have claimed that genetic engineering may enable us to design animal species that are fully adapted to factory farming conditions (Rollin, 1995). Others, among them veterinarians, are toying with possibilities of cloning and engineering ‘more suitable’ and ‘made-to-measure’ transgenic companion animals (Quain, 2002). For deep greens the issue of genetic engineering highlights pressing dilemmas with regard to species integrity (Birke/Michael 1998).

How will the animal movement react? And will the deep ecology movement tackle the issue at all? Admittedly, the deep green/deep ecology movement concerns itself with species but only with species in the wild. Deep greens may be worried about what will happen if transgenic populations come into contact with naturally evolved wild ones. How will that affect the community of species? Most genetic engineering is done to already domesticated species, the ones the green movement isn’t interested in. But recently there have been calls by green-leaning scientists to bring back extinct wild species such as the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) by way of genetic engineering.

Common ground?

How we are to navigate between individualised ethics and ecosystemic reductionism?

The animal lobby bestows on the sentient in nature a status of individual humanness: it asks how animals are part of human society and ethics. The movement could perhaps bridge the gap which separates it from deep ecology by overcoming its exclusive focus on sentience. It could extend its compassionate ethics so as to include the non-sentient and even the inorganic. The tricky part would be how to include the whole earth without simultaneously humanizing and colonizing it. Moreover there always will be clashes of interest between animals and animals, animals and plants, individuals and species, the organic and inorganic.

If compassionate society is about extending ethics as far as we can, deep ecology is not. It is about compliance with and obedience to nature’s measure, nature’s rhythm, nature’s limitations (Livingston 1994). It concerns compliance with a nature that includes things like mortality, predator-prey relationships, the ‘previousness’ of species, imperfect bodies, our own finiteness. Instead of asking how animals are part of ethics, deep ecology asks how animals and humans are part of nature.

Consider Val Plumwood’s musings about ‘Being Prey’. In 1985 this vegetarian ecophilosopher barely survived a crocodile attack in Kakadu National Park, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Thereby she came face to face with her own edibility. It made her realize that not only had she a body, like all animals she was a body: she was (potential) meat for another animal to devour. The experience has forced her to rethink the ethics/ecology dualism. It is good to focus on large predators such as crocodiles, bears, sharks - those that can take a human life - Plumwood states, because these animals present a test for us (also for the two movements, I would add). Are we prepared to share and co-exist with the free, wild, and mortally dangerous otherness of the earth, without colonizing it into a form that eliminates all friction, challenge, or consequence? Predator populations test our recognition of our human existence in mutual, ecological terms, seeing ourselves as part of the food chain: eaten as well as eater. (Plumwood 1999)

The two viewpoints – compliance with nature and societal ethics – at times seem incompatible. It is a difficult dilemma. Mary Midgley (1983) and Baird Callicott (in Hargrove 1992) tried to solve it by arguing that wild animals deserve our protection as part of the ecosystem and that domesticated animals are entitled to our care, because they are part of a mixed human-animal community and we have ethical obligations to all the individuals of such a community. The problem is: this arrangement would not cover all animals. Feral animals and exotics belong neither to the first group (the original ecosystem) nor to the second (the mixed domestic community). The reason commonly given for persecuting and eradicating these animals is precisely that they do not seem to belong to any community. ‘Pests’ are neither interesting as species nor as individuals, it is felt, and this turns them into outlaws.

Nevertheless all of us, animals as well as humans, somehow exist in nature and also in society (or at least in a human-defined nation-state). Each and everyone of us is a sentient individual, a species-member as well as a ‘place’ in the world. In this world nature and society intersect. It is all there is, nobody and nothing exists outside either.

The animal lobby needs to realize the importance of wildness, the relative ‘otherness’ of non-humans, and what Livingston has called, the “previousness” of species. It should guard against an ethical colonization and humanization of nature. The deep ecology movement will need to pay more heed to matters of sentience, cruelty and suffering in the way it conceives of and treats individual animal beings, including those that objectively do damage to other nature. Many feral species did not choose to live where they are now living. Humanity took them there.
To really do justice to animal-human continuity we must ask ourselves what it is we (should) do with nature but also how we ourselves are ‘of nature’. According to Plumwood (1999) we cannot in a neo-Cartesian way divide the world into two separate domains: an ethical, human realm and an animal, ecological realm. Everyone and everything exists in both. All food is souls, she says – and ultimately all souls are food.


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[1] Hunting would indeed be natural if human hunters would kill their prey with their teeth or nails but they happen to use artefacts such as high tech hunting or fishing equipment which makes hunting ‘cultural’ rather than natural.

[2] Incidentally, the two movements have so far not been all that interested in each other’s literature. While working in a North American faculty of environmental studies I found that my colleagues were generally unfamiliar with animal ethics and animal rights literature other than perhaps Peter Singer’s (whose work they had heard of, not read). A journal such as Society & Animals is unknown among deep greens and wildlife enthusiasts. On the other hand, many of the animal ethicists and rightists I met on book tours and at conferences in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand remain unfamiliar with literature of the deep ecology kind.

Animal Liberation Philosophy and Policy Journal, Volume 2, No. 1, 2004. -- Barbara Noske

I enjoyed Barbara Noske's 2004 paper you've posted on Just to let you know, I've written an update about the issues raised in her article. My vegan background existed while working for NGOs in both environmental and animal welfare/rights sectors. It is titled, This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology / How we find our way to a humane and environmentally sane future (Earthbooks / 2013). You can get some sense of my approach at and
Will Anderson
This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology
How we find our way to a humane and environmentally sane future
[email protected]

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