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Where politics fails

by Sue Donaldson

Politics lags behind ethical progress when it comes to animals - but understanding animals as distinct political groups could help us do better.

Two major animal protection traditions have emerged in western societies over the past two centuries: a more individualist one, focused on animals as sentient beings owed an ethical duty of care, individual rights and/or equal consideration of interests; and a more holistic one, focused on biological species and ecological systems offering protection to (some) animals indirectly as part of the conservation of nature. These traditions have secured important advances for animals, but almost everyone agrees that any such gains have been dwarfed by the remorseless and increasing destruction of animal lives due to human encroachment on animal habitat, animal exploitation for food and other products, pollution, biotechnology and now, climate change. Animals may be making inroads into the domains of ethical and scientific thinking, but when the chips are down, they remain absent or expendable in the realm of political and economic decision-making.

This disjunction between scientific and ethical progress on the one hand and political failure on the other is striking. An increasing number of humans acknowledge animals as thinking, feeling individuals entitled to moral consideration and respectful treatment and recognise the urgency of protecting habitats and biodiversity. This shift is reflected in a range of individual ethical behaviours - from adopting veganism to citizen science and rewilding projects, to financial donations to animal protection organisations. More generally, there is growing unease that something has gone deeply wrong in the western tradition concerning our relations with animals and nature and it's time for a reboot - perhaps inspired by Indigenous and other traditions that have followed a different path.

To date, however, these shifts in individual belief and behaviour have made minimal inroads into the domain of politics. It's true that various jurisdictions have adopted the language of respect for animal 'sentience' or 'dignity' in constitutional documents, but these statements are carefully ring-fenced to protect the status quo of instrumental animal use. And while various NGOs do their best to lobby for animals in the political arena, these efforts are ineffective in a system that grants to animals zero political standing, voice, or representation in the corridors of power. Dan Lyons diagnoses the problem as an absence of 'receptors' in the structures of government to receive and act upon pro-animal sentiments and demands: there is, for example, no specific ministry, government department or other effective body empowered and obliged to act to protect animals, either proactively or in response to public concern. When governments make laws and shape the basic institutions of societies and economies, animals simply don't count. They are not part of 'the people' or 'the public good' on whose behalf governments act. Whether policymakers are negotiating trade agreements and arms treaties; structuring national health, education and daycare programmes; regulating research and labour practices; organising disaster response; designing buildings, cities and transport; or mandating accessibility of public spaces and services - animals are simply not included as part of the 'we' that makes the decisions, or whose good defines the public good or national interest.

Animal-friendly political decisions emerge only as an indirect effect of representing human interests. Thus, minor gains for individual animal well-being, such as the creation of off-leash dog parks, or improved welfare standards on farms, are rooted in human rights to make effective use of property or exercise consumer choice for different animal products - not in the rights of animals themselves.

The conservation movement has run into its own limitations: a colonial land-appropriation model that has alienated local populations and sidelined traditional knowledge; a genetic-preservation model that has failed to understand the role of animal culture in the resilience of populations; the embrace of oxymorons like 'sustainable development' (entailing a trade-off in which animals always lose); and a narrow focus on protecting endangered species instead of animal abundance. As Michelle Nijhuis argues, enormous resources have been directed to protecting endangered populations who are often at the point of no return, with little left over to protect the many: the still abundant populations of animals in relatively stable habitats who, unless we act now, will become the endangered species of tomorrow. And Freya Mathews notes the perversity of thinking in terms of an 'ecology of the minimal' - aiming for minimally viable populations when it comes to animals, with no corresponding checks on human expansion into animal habitats. The upshot of this skewed focus on the few over the many and on instrumental use rather than animal rights, is a 60 percent average reduction of wild animal populations since 1970 - a shifting baseline that many of us have experienced in the steady decline of once abundant insects, frogs and birds.

So how do we get animals into the political realm and away from simply being an afterthought to taking care of the big business of human needs, desires and growth? The recent 'political turn' in animal rights theory has taken up this challenge by focusing on the question of representation - getting animals' interests represented in political institutions and governance processes and decision-making.

In my work with Will Kymlicka, we have argued that a crucial first step in representing animals is to shift from thinking of them solely as individuals with interests and moral rights, or as members of biological or ecological categories, like species, to thinking about the diverse kinds of political communities that animals constitute. The idea of 'one person, one vote' obscures the reality that politics is essentially a group activity - it's about how we constitute and relate to one another as members of different 'we' communities. In the UK, for example, human citizens don't get things done in the political arena as individuals or members of the species Homo sapiens. They get things done as 'we', the burghers of London, or the people of Scotland, or citizens of the UK (or, formerly, Europe); or as members of powerful unions, civil society organisations and social movements. Getting things done politically requires complex forms of participation and representation that are overwhelmingly conceived, experienced and realised as 'we' group-level phenomena, not as abstractions, like 'species', nor as simple agglomerations of individual interests.

Many animals also form social and cultural 'we' groups, and politics needs to be responsive to them. As Rafi Youatt argues: 'Just as human politics requires subspecies concepts such as nations, communities and networks, so too does non-human life benefit from a richer subspecies vocabulary.' Consider J-pod, a multi-family pod of orcas which, along with K and L pods, constitute the southern resident orca clan off the west coast of British Columbia and Washington State. J-pod has a distinct history and culture, shaped not just by ecology but by collective relations and decisions at the family, pod and clan levels. This history has also been shaped by centuries of inhabiting waters fished and travelled by Indigenous and settler humans in the Salish Sea and Gulf Islands region. Long before orcas as a species are threatened with extinction, this unique J-pod socio-cultural community is likely to be destroyed by human activity in the form of sound pollution, boat collisions, overfishing and destruction of chinook salmon and their habitat (J-pod's primary food source). Whales need an entry into the political realm, not as a species or individuals, but as members of the distinct 'we communities' to which they belong and as collective stakeholders in the relevant political institutions and processes that impact them (whether that is the British Columbia legislature, First Nation governments, the Canadian government or international bodies). The fate of individual orcas is inseparable from their communities of belonging and it is these communities that need to find 'receptors' in human politics. A possible source of inspiration and guidance are the political traditions of many Indigenous communities, who have long practised 'nation-to-nation' or 'treaty' relationships with the orca, salmon, deer, bear and other animal peoples with whom they share the land, including recognition of animals' sovereignty and self-determination rights.

Animal communities come in many forms - families, clans, flocks, herds, pods and other kinds of communities in which individual flourishing is constitutively tied up with the flourishing of the group (the idea of 'co-constitution' is beautifully captured in the Ubuntu phrase 'I am because we are'). As in the case of humans, animal individuals are distinct and experiencing subjects, but also, in many cases, fundamentally social selves whose flourishing is inextricable from being part of a 'we' (and often more than one 'we' - a whale may belong to her immediate family, her J-pod and the southern resident whale clan as a whole). Communities can be close, intimate networks or consist of more tenuous and looser connections. And they can be multispecies communities - as in cooperative nesting groups comprising chub and other fish, protection partnerships among egrets and cows, grooming arrangements between cleaner fish and their wrasse and other clients, or sanctuary communities of formerly farmed domesticated animals. The key idea is that individuals within these communities recognise each other as belonging to a group entity or cooperative activity in a way that is central to their lives.

In Zoopolis, Will Kymlicka and I developed a framework for thinking about group-based rights for different kinds of animal communities in their relations with human political communities, starting with the three overarching categories of domesticated, wild and liminal animals. 'Domesticated animals' are those who have been selectively bred by humans to serve human interests - to perform work tasks, to develop cancer cells, to be cute and cuddly pets, to grow a higher ratio of white meat or thicker wool and so on. Obviously, justice requires that we stop artificially breeding animals and exploiting and killing them to serve our ends. But what about the future of domesticated animals? At least for now, many are dependent on humans and so can't simply strike out on their own (although some certainly can). In any case, why should they be the ones to leave? So-called human civilizations have been built as much by animals' labour and contributions as by those of humans. Human societies aren't in fact human societies: they are multispecies societies that include domesticated animals, and these societies belong to them as much as to us. The way that we conceive ourselves as a 'we' in political terms needs to reflect this socio-cultural reality. And once we recognise ourselves as members of a shared political community, domesticated animals should have the same democratic right as human members to be socialised into these communities so they can flourish, to share the benefits and burdens of belonging, to develop as agents who can contribute to authoring the norms and institutions of communal life and to define and shape the public good - to be citizens, in other words. Whether we are thinking about the burghers of London, or the people of Scotland, or a union of care workers or emergency responders, or beneficiaries of the NHS, or public space and accessibility activists, we must recognise how these different 'we' groups are multispecies communities that include both human and domesticated animal members.

A second broad category, which we call 'wild animals', are those who prefer to avoid humans and whose flourishing, at both the individual and community levels, tends to be undermined by contact with human settlement and activity. The J-pod orcas are a good example. Their habitat overlaps with humans but they do not typically seek out or thrive in relationships with humans. As is the practice in most Indigenous traditions, nation states and the international community should recognise J-pod (and other orca pods and clans), not as forming a 'we' community with humans, but as forming their own distinct 'we' communities alongside human societies. Our political relations should be understood as 'nation-to-nation' relations where human communities recognise orcas as comprising sovereign communities with the right to self-government within their traditional territories (or new territories insofar as a move is unavoidable due to anthropogenic changes to climate and habitat) and protection from human colonisation. This does not exclude all human activity within orca waters, but it means that human activity is in effect subject to a veto by orca communities over human boat traffic, fishing, pollution and other activities that might undermine their society, culture and capacity for self-governance. Human actions that support wild animals' self-government and preserve openness and possibility for the future of their communities, on the other hand, may be permissible and indeed required (e.g. habitat restoration and rewilding).

In between domesticated and wild animals lies a third category, such as the raccoons of Toronto, the hyenas of Harar, or the temple monkeys of Bali. These animals seek out or adapt to human communities and often thrive in relations with them. This is not to say that individuals aren't subject to various intentional and inadvertent harms, but rather that particular monkey troops, hyena clans and raccoon families have discovered many benefits, as communities, of living in close proximity with humans. Hyenas, monkeys or raccoons in other places might eschew human settlement. One way of thinking about the difference between liminal and truly wild animals is to imagine that the Rapture happens tonight and all humans are whisked away to the heavens. This would be very good news for the J-pod orcas, but probably bad news for the Toronto raccoons, who have appropriated the human-built environment and adapted to human ways. Many animals, such as foxes, coyotes, crows, house sparrows and countless others, are often 'liminal animals' in this sense. They are somewhat dependent on human society in a general way, but without forming the thoroughly interdependent, close and cooperative relationships with particular humans possible for domesticated animals.

Our political relations with liminal animals should start from the recognition that, unlike wild animals, their flourishing isn't best understood in terms of limiting human impacts and involvement, but rather in terms of negotiating fair terms of co-existence in relation to the infrastructure and activities that we both relate to. For example, one could imagine a range of policies that would limit harms to liminal animals and explore possibilities for mutual cooperation and benefit, from preservation of hedgerows, non-lethal crop protection (such as encouraging bee colonies to deter elephant raids) and pollution controls in agricultural areas, to green corridors and redesigned buildings and roads in urban/suburban areas. On the other hand, humans also have self-determination rights in the homes, towns and cities where we live. We are not obliged to lay down the carpet for liminal animals who attack humans (and domesticated animals), or destroy infrastructure, or spoil food, or otherwise impose significant burdens on others. Often, the best relationships between humans and liminals are those in which we share the city but keep our distance, with barriers to protect human homes, food storage areas and so on. Many liminal animals figure this out and use the city at night when humans sleep, or seek out derelict or low-use sites, or exploit aerial, riparian and other corridors less used by humans. In these ways we can see how humans and liminal animals often compose a weak kind of 'we' community. This requires developing practices and expectations for how to share the urban commons in a spirit of mutual toleration without our interactions being close, cooperative, interdependent and norm-governed in the way that our relations with domesticated animals can be.

These broad strokes suggest that, in our relations with different animal communities, we must first consider where they lie on the continuum between the tight bonds of citizenship in a shared political community; looser bonds of resource-sharing and co-existence within a densely populated human-built environment; and more distant relations of justice between sovereign nations whose political communities are governed by their own distinct social and cultural norms, which must be protected from human encroachment and colonisation. These distinctions matter when thinking about the appropriate 'receptors' for effective representation of animal rights and interests. Rather than creating ministries, laws and representative bodies focused on 'animals' as such (whether individuals or species), or pursuing homogenising abstractions that integrate animals into a single representative body or state (such as a 'Parliament of Things' or 'Cosmozoopolis'), we should insist instead on recognising and representing more specific and diverse animal communities within the group-differentiated and membership-based politics that actually broker the exercise of human power.

The idea here is not to force animal communities to conform to anthropocentric political categories and practices, but to share power with them so they can transform politics. Local councils; ministries of trade, health, social services or the environment; unions, NGOs, universities, business and service organisations - all must be called upon to answer to domesticated animal citizens and liminal denizens (and their human allies) as part of their everyday mandate and operations. And national governments and international bodies must be called upon to recognise the sovereign rights of wild animal nations and to develop diplomatic and treaty instruments for recognising these rights, alongside and in step with, decolonisation efforts in relation to Indigenous peoples. In the words of the Honourable Murray Sinclair, we must '[t]ake care of all our relations and be mindful that reconciliation includes our relationship with animals'.

Local politics is one very good place to start, given the numbers of decisions impacting animals that are made at this level. For example, recent campaigns in New York and Paris have taken the first step to raise the visibility of animal residents and their 'right to the city'. Artists like Elizabeth Lo invite us to see the city through the eyes of animal residents, such as the Istanbul street dogs in her marvellous film Stray. The fields of animal-friendly design, architecture, heritage and city planning are exploding, providing abundant resources and ideas that we can all take to town and city halls and local authorities for rebuilding our communities from the ground up. Meanwhile, sanctuaries for formerly farmed animals are incubating ideas of interspecies democracy, exploring what it means for animals to participate in community building and design with us rather than simply expecting them to adapt to decisions we make on their behalf. These diverse and creative projects are bubbling up all around the world and planting the seeds of a new kind of politics, one that revolutionises from the ground up our inherited political ideas about who constitutes 'the people' and what constitutes the public good, democratic relations, citizenship, diplomacy and global justice.

Sue Donaldson

Sue Donaldson is an author, researcher and animal advocate. She has published multiple books and articles about animals and politics, most notably Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights (OUP 2011) with Will Kymlicka. Her work explores new forms of politics that recognise animals as self-determining subjects, members of cultural and political communities and creators of worlds. Sue is co-convenor of the Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law and Ethics (APPLE) research group, and research associate in the Department of Philosophy at Queen's University (Canada).