Saturday, June 25, 2016

The World Made Ever More Brittle by BREXIT

It is very telling that the vote in the UK to leave the European Union is followed by calls for referenda in France and the Netherlands--by their own nationalist far-right parties like France's National Front. 

The face of nationalist movements--like America's own "America First" incarnation in Donald Trump and Boris Johnson's "leave" campaign--are thinly veiled forms of racism and xenophobia wrapped in the flag. 

Even more surprising is that such movements would garner support in the UK--a union of countries whose societies reflect reason, great value for multiculturalism, and a deep sense of pride in their compassion for the plight of other peoples.

I understand that among the drivers that set BREXIT into motion is the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in the UK. 

I understand that this is about class, and that there's a more complex story accompanied by decades of economic struggle and social injustice.

But what I also know is that what infuses the very bone marrow of nationalist campaigns like Trump's "America First!," France's National Front (Marine Le Pen), Belgium's Flemish Nationalist Party, and the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats is that fear of the "other" that, simmering just beneath the surface of legitimate discontent, readily becomes fodder for those who'd exploit it to their own geopolitical advantage.

In the face of unprecedented human migration--65.3 million women, men, and children in 2015--decisions like BREXIT suggest that the geopolitics of the planet are driven not by thoughtful deliberation--but by fear, bigotry, and the desperate attempt to save the thing that cannot be saved: the geographically bordered nation state.

To think that such decisions to close a border will protect from terrorism the turf on the other side is daft. 

Indeed, quite the opposite is likely to be true in virtue of the fact that a world characterized by divided fiefdoms--chunks of land devoted only to their own version of "Me First!"--is a world cancered by fissures and faultlines. 

It is a world made very brittle by its own arrogant and medieval territorialism.

What is the difference between the UK determining to leave the EU--and the psycho-maniacal Trumpster's promise to build a wall at the border of Mexico?

 Not really very much. 

Both aim to keep out the "other."

Both exploit shallow flag-waving patriotism to ends far more about privilege, and ethnicity, and money than about respect for country.

Both will make a very few of the already wealthy even richer.

Both will fuel the recruitment campaigns of terrorism. 

There's no doubt: the European Union is beset by many and serious problems. But these will not be solved by flag-waving claims to sovereignty--especially in a world set ablaze by climate change.
Especially at a time when the greatest and most profound issues the world faces demand unified global commitment--not the entrenchment of geographical borders antiquated by the hegemony of multinational corporations. 

BREXIT betokens a very sad day for the UK--and perhaps an even sadder day for the world.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Debauchery of Moral Imagination: Josh Fox, "How to Let Go of the World" and Animal Agriculture

Don't get me wrong. I like Josh Fox. We have loads of things in common--including our opposition to the continuing emission of greenhouse gases.

But that's what makes his new film, "How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change" all the more disappointing--well, actually, disturbing.

I watched the movie very attentively, hoping  that given Mr. Fox' tremendous and loyal following--let's call them the Foxilytes--he'd actually do something courageous, and lend some real substance to his references throughout the film to the concept of "moral imagination."

Indeed, he laid out a cornucopia of climate change catastrophes from Hurricane Sandy to the deforestation of the Amazon to the drowning of entire islands--all of it important and utterly tragic.

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 6.13.16
And all of it entirely anthropocentric--no, actually chauvinistic.

That is, insofar as "How to Let go..." is narrowly and almost exclusively focused on the effects of climate change for human beings and human populations, he actually reinforces precisely what he'd seem to reject, namely, that human self-interest ought to determine value.

Mr. Fox demonstrates this human chauvinism in several ways throughout the film, not the least of which is his merely passing references to the loss of species habitat and diversity, and his persistent need to put himself in virtually every frame--making us wonder if the documentary is about climate change or Josh Fox. 

But these are minor issues compared to his truly stunning lack of courage and honesty concerning the role that animal agriculture plays as a major cause of climate change.

Let me lay this out:

The film included a follow-up Q&A. Mr. Fox called on me in a "very short questions" set of three raised hands at the tail end. I pointed out that I appreciated his mention of animal agriculture in a long list of causes of climate change. He interrupted me--as if I had no question, but simply sought to praise him. I persisted, and asked why--given that animal agriculture plays an enormous role in the production of greenhouse gases--he had not discussed it more thoroughly.

His answer was as peremptory as it was factually bankrupt: "You're wrong. Science says your wrong."

I persisted, and pointed out that the film was, among other things, about the causes of climate change. 

Mr. Fox' answer here was truly mystifying--and disingenuous: "The film's not about the causes of climate change."

I'm quoting Mr. Fox verbatim. Let me get at these one at a time:

Here's the facts about the contribution of animal agriculture--factory farms and more--to climate change:


Livestock contribute both directly and indirectly to climate change through the emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Globally, the sector contributes 18 percent (7.1 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent) of global greenhouse gas emissions. Although it accounts for only nine percent of global CO2, it generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide (N2O) and 35 percent of methane (CH4), which have 296 times and 23 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2 respectively. Methane emissions mostly occur as part of the natural digestive process of animals (enteric fermentation) and manure management in livestock operations. Methane emissions from livestock are estimated at about 2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, accounting for about 80% of agricultural CH4 and 35% of the total anthropogenic methane emissions. Nitrous oxide emissions are associated with manure management and the application and deposition of manure. Indirect N2O emissions from livestock production include emissions from fertilizer use for feed production, emissions from leguminous feedcrops and emissions from aquatic sources following fertilizer application. The livestock sector contributes about 75 percent of the agricultural N2O emissions (2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent). Carbon dioxide emissions from the livestock sector are related to fossil fuel burning during production of fertilizer for feed production, the livestock production process, processing and transportation of refrigerated products. Furthermore, livestock are a major driver of the global trends in land-use and land-use change including deforestation (conversion of forest to pasture and cropland), desertification, as well as the release of carbon from cultivated soils. The overall contribution of CO2 emissions from the livestock sector are estimated at 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2

 [T]he Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that the over-accumulation of these natural and human-made gases since the Industrial Revolution has caused anthropogenic global warming. Global warming is responsible for a range of climate-related events, such as more extreme weather occurences including increased flooding and drought, as well as melting of Arctic ice and the loss of plant and animal biodiversity as a result of changes in temperature. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the animal agriculture sector—which includes the production of feed crops, the manufacturing of fertilizer, and the shipment of meat, eggs, and milk — is responsible for 18% of all GHG emissions, measured in carbon- dioxide equivalent. In fact, the farm animal sector annually accounts for: 9% of human-inducedemissions of carbon dioxide (Co2), 37% of emissions of methane (CH), which has more than 20 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2, and 65% of emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), which has nearly 300 times the GWP of CO2.  Farm Animals in the United States: Nearly 10 billion land animals are raised for meat, eggs, and milk annually in the United States, with many of them confined in the nation’s approximately 18,800 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Typical factory farms intensively restrict animals in large, overcrowded, and barren sheds, denying them the ability to engage in most of their natural behavior. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Factory Farms Farm animal waste and other aspects of the animal agriculture sector generate GHG emissions, as well as ammonia and other air borne pollutants. Carbon Dioxide, CO2 is c onsidered the most powerful GHG as it has the most significant direct-warming impact on global temperature as a result of the sheer volume of its emissions.CO2 is released from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum, and deforestation and other land-use changes that remove vegetative cover. Animal agriculture produces CO2 in a number of ways: High-Energy Feed. Factory-farmed animalsare typically fed high-energy crops such ascorn, which is dependent onlarge amounts of chemical fertilizer.The FAO estimates that the production of fertilizer for feed crops may emit 41 million tonnes of CO2 per year globally. Fueling Factory Farms. Intensive confinement operations require vast amounts of fossil fuel-based energy to cool, heat, and ventilate the facilities, and energy is also used to operate farm machinery to cultivate and harvest feed crops, resulting in at least 90 million tonnes of CO2annually worldwide.

 There is no question that animal agriculture makes an immense contribution to climate change. The implications are absolutely clear:

We in the industrialized West/Global North must stop eating nonhuman animal bodies.

We must discourage it in every corner 
of the developing world. 

We must substitute for it education about nutrition, 
land use, water scarcity, food insecurity, 
species habitat and extinction, and aggressive conservation premised on the scientific facts.

No desirable future can sustain the industrialization of animal bodies.

Mr. Fox didn't touch any of this, and that's not just a lack of courage--it's a gross lack of the very "moral imagination" he makes so much of.

Virtually none in the U.S. have any excuse for continuing the barbaric practice of nonhuman animal body consumption--and note carefully that to this point I haven't even spoken about the abject cruelty of factory farms.

Indeed, even if--as Fox makes clear in a "joke" he makes about the great smell of broiling chicken in a solar cooker--we don't give a tinker's damn about suffering, the effects on human health of animal agriculture are so significant that to ignore these in a documentary about the effects of climate change amounts to a complete distortion of the facts.

Factory farm waste pit from the air
Why would Mr. Fox do that?

Is it that he feels forced to pander to an audience of activists who he surely knows have no interest in giving up their Chik-Fil-A? 

Is it that Mr. Fox himself is committed to KFC? 

Was he telling the truth when he said that the movie wasn't about climate change? Is "How to Let Go and Love..." really just about Josh Fox making a movie about, well, whatever?

Is it that his Kickstarter campaign to raise money for and from the film isn't going to do as well if folks come out of the movie less likely to feel like dancing because their lives as carnivores have been threatened?

But isn't that what we rightly call "pandering" when we point it out in the Sierra Club or the Environmental Defense Fund?

I don't know. What I do know is that it's a grotesque lack of that moral imagination called a conscience to make a movie ostensibly about loving the things climate can't change--and then mislead your audience about the causes of climate change.

In fact, there's only one thing worse: 

Making a movie about love--and then leaving out of the equation the overwhelming majority of the world's sentient beings--
except for when they "smell good" on the grill.

Grilling Chicken body

 Human chauvinism has devastating consequences. To pretend that the only effects of climate change that really matter are the ones that impact human lives and human communities reinforces that conception of value out of which we've built not only speciesism--but its direct and awful correlates: racism, heterosexism, and classism.

Ironic then that Mr. Fox rightly decries the patent bigotry of Donald Trump--but then reinforces its very foundation in the speciesism of his willful omission of animal agriculture.  For that omission can have only one explanation: Mr. Fox simply does not care enough about the experience and suffering of nonhuman animals to consider even what the circumstances of that suffering mean to human health and well-being.

At the end of the film, Mr. Fox prodded his audience to "get up and dance" for all the things climate can't change. Lots of folks did. I didn't. 

He then prodded us further to stand up for a group pic. Nope--not gonna do that either. Not really interested in that group-think manipulation that either convinces us--for a moment anyways--that everything's OK, or shames us into refraining from asking the hard questions.

Discarded slaughtered baby male chicks

Fact: there are no such things as things climate change isn't going to change, Mr. Fox. 

In fact, it's the very worldview that makes us think we're entitled to factory farm, slaughter, and grill that chicken that's going to fuck us.

To think that so long as we human critters can find a way to adapt--to be, what's that corny catch phrase we saw in the movie?--resilient, that the world's going to be habitable for all the other species of living critter on it--especially the ones we manufacture for our own consumption--well, that's not moral imagination.

It's moral failure. 

We earn the right to dance when the least among us have the possibility of being, if  not free from suffering and death, at least free from that suffering and death caused by human greed and the morally depraved capacity to objectify whatever we can subjugate, enslave, and slaughter.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Commodification of Endangered Species and the Pathologies of Capital

Portland, Oregon Zoo, 2014, Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

The following is a draft excerpt from my forthcoming book, Eco-Nihilism: The Philosophical Geopolitics of the Climate Change Apocalypse. It concerns the the commodification of nonhuman animals, particularly endangered species. 


The Commodification of Endangered Species 
and the Pathologies of Capital:
Lowland Gorillas,  
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, 
Purple Pig-Nosed Frogs,
Sumatran Elephants, 
and Male Baby Chicks

(From: Eco-Nihilism: The Philosophical Geopolitics of the Climate Change Apocalypse)

Wendy Lynne Lee
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

What a responsible human-centeredness makes crucial to moral action is that we take seriously that some nonhuman animals are capable of that experience we call broadly "aesthetic," and that erring on the side of caution is more likely to insure the future of experience worth having for all of us.
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

Consider, for example, zoos. In a recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo, Harambe, a Lowland Gorilla, was shot and killed after a toddler fell into his enclosure. In the public hand wringing that followed, many questions were raised about the responsibility of the mother, the enclosure barriers, the zoo’s handling of the case. 

But only a handful of writers, most notably Andrew Revkin and Marc Bekoff raise serious questions about whether Lowland Gorillas ought to inhabit zoos—or whether there ought to exist zoos at all. As Revkin observes,
An overarching factor behind the interspecies tragedy at Gorilla World is how we have uncritically accepted the raising and displaying of gorillas, among our closest kin, behind glass or moats or fences in the first place… Captive apes don’t all die from a gunshot; but almost all die having never really experienced what it is to be a gorilla. Harambe was born in a zoo in Brownsville, Tex.

Few could rationally doubt that Harambe was an intelligent creature capable of a wide and diverse range of experience. What of that experience might qualify as aesthetic—I would not pretend to know. 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014
 But that isn’t what matters. What erring on the side of caution for a responsible human-centeredness demands is that we take the ecological integrity of the habitats of Lowland Gorillas to be of value for them—for their sakes—as a value for us. And what that means is that the first and most egregious wrong done to Harambe didn’t happen when he was shot; it happened when he was born

As Bekoff makes the point:
Being a zoo-ed animal, Harmabe lost all of his freedoms – the freedoms to make choices about how he was to live, what he would eat, when he would sleep and go to the bathroom, where he would roam, and if he were to become a father. While some might say Harmabe had a “good life” in the zoo, it doesn’t come close to the life he would have had as a wild gorilla, with all its attendant risks. Indeed, one might argue that the animal people were seeing was not really a true western lowland gorilla, surely not an ambassador for his species.  (Why Was Harambe the Gorilla in a Zoo in the First Place? Scientific American, Blog, 5.31.16).

Far more than any sum of its parts in not getting to choose where to live, what to eat, when to sleep, where to roam, what Harambe did not get to be was a gorilla. 

And while zoos and aquariums work tirelessly to justify the forced imprisonment, breeding, and menagerie status of their wards, it’s hard to imagine an institution more committed to the commodification of nonhuman animals. After all, zoos are profit-driven enterprises, a fact that makes it all the more tragic that a Lowland Gorilla graces the cover of the Cincinnati Zoo’s 2014/15 Annual Report, where the park reports $40,063,912 income ( 

PhotoWendy Lynne Lee, 2014
What makes this story even more tragic, however, is that Lowland Gorillas are critically endangered numbering just 100,000 in the wild. But instead of working to insure habitat sufficiently robust and protected from human predators such that their numbers could rebound, for example, in the Congo, zoos exploit their status as endangered to make, as Bekoff puts it, zoo-ed animals. 

As reported by Sarah Zhang in Wired:
The Cincinnati Zoo, which has a long track record of breeding gorillas, had planned to let Harambe father baby gorillas when he got a little older, again in accordance with the species survival plan. “It will be a loss to the gene pool of lowland gorillas,” zoo director Thane Maynard said at a press conference this weekend. After Harambe died, the zoo saved and froze his semen, but it’s unclear if they’ll use it to breed gorillas in the future. (

It’s hard to exaggerate the hypocritical insolence of the gorilla survival program since if the zoo genuinely cared about gorillas as endangered—as gorillas—they could put their considerable resources towards stemming the three major factors that threaten gorilla survival in the wild: hunting and illegal trade, habitat loss and degradation, and disease. ( 

Such a program would not, of course, be a money-maker since it doesn’t offer entertainment to human spectators; it doesn’t offer us an opportunity to appear caring when an animal is shot.
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

Harambe’s being a member of an endangered species just makes us feel better about getting to gawk at him.  

And that too is hypocritical insofar as, third, climate change makes of us all potentially endangered species, human and nonhuman. Some are “more immediately endangered” and some “less,” but no desirable future, at least as I’ve argued here, can be reconciled with homo Colossus’ quantifying and commodifying valuation of species and ecosystems.  It’s not just that climate instability makes a mockery of the concept “endangered species.” It’s that the way we assess the value of a species in terms of whether there are enough of them such that we’re “safe” in treating them as disposable eviscerates the world itself as a locus of experience worth wanting.
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

--> In the pathology of conquest capital, an endangered species is simply a special kind of pricey commodity, like diamonds or honest politicians. For the conquest capitalist, the meaning of “endangered” can only be calculated as price; the cost to salvage, the savings to let go to extinction. Endangered, moreover, signals “something important” only if it’s something in demand; hence the value of gorillas is a function of advertising, their beneficiaries the advertisers

Consider, for example, the Ocean Conservancy’s study of the impacts to mammal and aquatic life along the Louisiana gulf coast four years after the BP disaster. In it they document “unusual mortality events” among endangered and non-endangered species, and that “cetacean deaths are thought to be underestimated. One analysis suggested that carcasses are recovered, on an average, from only 2 percent of cetacean deaths.” 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

Given the likelihood that what applies to the cetaceans also applies to other gulf coast species, it’s alarming that[o]f the total number of sea turtles collected 809 (481 dead) were endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.” What’s alarming here, however, isn’t “just” that this species of sea turtle may be closer to extinction; it’s that we’re tempted to take the example seriously only because it’s nearing extinction—because, in other words, there’s not enough to regard them as disposable. It’s an artifact of human chauvinism, in other words, that the value assigned to the sea turtles is primarily quantitative; our alarm is triggered by an immediate threat—and not by the far larger environmental conditions that consign us all to “endangered.” 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

This isn’t just short-sightedness or a product of our capacity for denial; that puts the cart before the horse. What triggers alarm over the destitute condition of the sea turtle is the sense that that, although their value is justly calculated as quantity, there are just too few of them.  

 It’s as if we comprehend it that something would be lost if the sea turtles are allowed to go to extinction, but we’re so acculturated to conceiving value in terms of exchange that the only way we can comprehend this loss is quantitatively. 

This too is pathological since in exempting ourselves from the possibility of extinction, we exempt ourselves from the very forces that impinge on the sea turtles, and in so doing we alienate ourselves from the experience that could move us beyond the determination that a thing is valuable just because there’s not enough of them, namely, aesthetic experience.

As Philosopher John Dewey makes clear, the aesthetic value of an experience is not about its object, per se; that could be witnessing the sea turtle or the gorilla, the Sumatran Elephant, or the Purple Pig-Nosed Frog—or the baby male chicken about to be ground to bits. The value of an experience is in its phenomenal qualities, its feel, its smell, its sound—qualities that cannot be quantified or commodified whether they elicit a sense of beauty or horror, humor or sublimity. 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

To appreciate that value demands the restoration of a world in which that experience can be possible for any and every creature capable of it. 

The critic might argue that some species of creature matter less to biodiversity than others, and therefore that our experience of them is unlikely to be as rich because we know this. Perhaps male chicks matter less than sea turtles, and that’s why we’re comfortable grinding up millions of the former, but we at least feign outrage at the potential extinction of the latter. Perhaps “endangered” or “rare” is a natural quality of aesthetic appreciation. 

The trouble, however, is that we have no way of making that determination--so acculturated we are to accepting as valuable that which is simply advertised to us as such: diamonds are not rare, but we treat them as such and pay great sums accordingly. The Purple Pig-Nosed Frog is rare—critically endangered—and most folks don’t know this creature even exists.  A species of sea turtle may be rare, and that has meant precisely nothing with respect to BP’s return to the gulf coast. 
PhotoWendy Lynne Lee, 2014

For homo Colossus, in other words, fewer sea turtles doesn’t necessarily imply “more valuable”; it implies only “less disposable” if and when someone (or organization or zoo) decides to advertise the value of that creature. That value is thus more about demand for “sea turtles” or “gorillas” as products than about their plight. Given the commodifying pathology of our worldview, we have no more reason to believe that the demand to save them is driven by the desire to experience them in their natural habitat than, say, Big Greens like the World Wildlife Federation have in their selection of polar bears over naked mole rats, Sumatran Elephants over Purple Pig-Nosed Frogs the desire to save any creature from extinction for reasons beyond the continuing existence of WWF. 

After all, were we invested in an experience, we’d neither destroy the biodiversity that makes it possible, nor select to salvage only those species who look good on billboards, nor tolerate the multinationals like BP who return to the scene of the crime knowing the implications. The critically endangered Sumatran Elephant will not likely see the end of the 21st century (, and the reason is because illegally poached ivory is of greater value on the black market than the lives of these creatures. That is the meaning of endangered according to homo Colossus; the criteria for assessing value is the same calculus that determines the replacement of Heinz as compared to Del Monte catsup on the shelves of the Walmart Superstore. 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

We decry the loss of endangered sea turtles, deploying armies of volunteers packing Dawn dish soap to clean the shells of survivors—but continue to buy blue fin tuna despite the fact that “oil caused deformed or damaged hearts in bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack.” 

We acknowledge that, especially since reporters were kept far from “the scene of the crime,” the numbers of dead or dying animals scooped up by the death gyres are abysmally low, but we breathe a collective sigh of relief when BP announces that tourism has returned to the gulf. 
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 2014

We’ll bewail the loss of the Sumatran Elephant, but we’ll fail to see ourselves in the trajectory of that death spiral. 

At our absolute peril.