Coalesences & parrots

Alongside sporadic thoughts, on occasions I am asked what led me to become vegan. I had narrowed it down to a handful of memories which I think planted seeds and laid foundations for later coalescences, intersections. These are memories stretching back to my youth. I consider my first to come from watching the Australian film Storm Boy, released in 1976 (I can’t recall when I first saw the film, though it was quite a few after its release). Storm boy also exposed me to what might be my first recollections of Aboriginal people, and the immense talent of David Gulpilil (a story for another time)… This morning, a pair of King Parrots flew overhead whilst I walked to my office — which brought forth a memory and an associatio:  reflections on society, anthropocentrism and human chauvinism that are also foundational to why I am vegan and see the importance of intersectionality.

I am fortunate to work in a location that has a significant number of open spaces that provide habitat for a range of species. Birds appear to take the most advantage of this, and a number are quite comfortable with the humans that constantly walk by — whether the are in the trees and bushes, or doing their thing on the ground (the birds, that is!). It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work-workplace, one that I note and value every day — with my reflections on seeing a pair of King Parrots this morning being an indicative example.

In Storm Boy, based on a children’s book (which I have never read: now might be a good time), a young boy comes across some newly hatched Pelican chicks. Hunters have shot their parent(s). The young boy takes care of the three before releasing them. One of the Pelicans, Mr Percival forms a relationship with the boy and returns. Spoiler alert: He is subsequently shot by hunters. Recalling the film now fosters a similar level of profundity to when I first saw it. Before I draw directly links with the film and my experience this morning — the connections to which are coming to light as I write this — two other memories which have directly shaped my everyday existence and becoming vegan are prudent.

Much later than Storm Boy, two distinct events shaped my outlook: French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and the Canadian seal hunt. More specifically, protests agains these. The former was influential given the complete disregard for life that such weapons of mass destruction are founded on, and their central role in a culture of war. The latter was more a gateway to inherent anthropocentrism and human chauvinism for socially constructed human vanity (i.e. fashion): seal pups, at times only days old are killed for their fur.

In many ways, as the examples above are, my journey to becoming vegan is about me. The same can be said of my experience this morning, and the connections I am making now. Whereas it can be argued these are anthropocentric, perhaps partial anthropocentrism is a more appropriate moniker. I like to think that my veganism is not about me, in that it emerges from a concerns for other species. I do not seek credit for being vegan, or promote being so for my own benefit. Rather, I see it as a the right thing to do, as justice. Much in the same way that my opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia is similarly about justice for all. Am I tied up in these, most certainly. It can also be (not too difficulty) argued that I benefit from my everyday practices and activism confronting these.

My experience this morning, in seeing a pair of King Parrots and reflecting on the simple beauty, even nonchalance of their existence, their everyday — it is very likely that I was not even a passing thought of theirs — recalled a memory. This memory was evoked in wanting to share my sighting with someone. It is someone I have talked with about the why and what led me (vegan) question in recent times. The memory is not a good one.

In secondary school in Australia, all students participate (or at least did so when I was one) in a work placement (unpaid) for 1-2 weeks. At the time, I was interested in being a vet (which can be read into). I had arranged to undertake this a local small animal surgery (i.e. companion animals). A few days prior to starting, my school had realised that their was a mixup: myself and another student were misconstrued into being one person. In short, they had inadvertently agreed to both of us, thinking it was one person inquiring. As a result, my placement was transferred to a pet shop with a lot of animals. I was informed that they cared about animals, and I would receive some hands on experience. Little did I or the school know what the latter would come to.

During my time there, a ‘shipment’ of King Parrots arrived and were placed in a number of adjacent cages. These were not small — the shop was in an semi-industrial area and was on the larger side. There were also cages, so limited in size. The birds call fly from one side to the other. Not full flight by any means, though much larger than the cages they would likely have ended up in when purchased.

The following morning, on arriving at work, I was asked to clean these cages out. I can’t recall how many of the birds died overnight — it was either all of the three dozen plus the store had received, or all but two or three. The owner hinted that they had likely died of shock. Irrespective of why, I was horrified.

The value of Other life is what I drew from this. Instrumental, anthropocentric value. Vanity. These birds (I viewed them as majestic, though their lives were of no more value than any of the Other species in the pet shop and beyond) had died on speculation. Their deaths were factored into the retail value. Some losses would occur.

At the time, I did not directly link the exploitation of Other animals to relations of capital. It did plant seeds for my later emergent understandings. In reflecting now, based on the recollections emergent through my sight of pair of King Parrots merely doing their thing this morning, this experience — a horrible one — was also foundational for my becoming vegan. Intertwined with class, the essential nature of intersectionality in an analysis of social relations within and across species was also central.

In future recountings of the why and what, this, far from pleasant, experience will likely be included…

Image credit: Male King parrot (Alisterus scapularis) feeding on the seeds of Coastal Wattle (Acacia longifolia), October 31, 2009. Photo: Doug Beckers (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Anthropocentrism, bushfires, class

Australia has quite a (recent) history with bushfires. Some of them very tragic, with significant loss of human life. Of note, the lives of animals rarely rate a mention, unless they are cute — pictures of a koala seeking/receiving water from a human — South Australia 2013; 2015; Victoria 2009 — or there is significant economic loss to a farmer — the death of untold numbers of ‘livestock’. The human impacts of fires, more-so at this time of year, are very much a part of mainstream media and community discussions here. Responses are routinely anthropocentric, both oblivious and willfully ignorant. The fires around the Great Ocean Road on December 25 & 26 added another level for reflection.*

On my mind are reactive calls for further clearing of tree-land around housed, specifically forested land land adjacent to private property (including public and protected lands such as state forests and national parks). Most of the fires in recent years, especially those with loss if human life (at times exceeding 100), have been followed with significant discussion about the ‘necessity’ of such clearing. A small number of associated comments about the appropriateness of living in and adjacent you forested areas are quickly set aside, re-centring anthropocentric assumptions and attitudes. In short, (public and protected) land should be cleared to protect property. The increasing normativity of such attitudes is perhaps most clear in proposals for single homes and multiple housing sub divisions designed with an expectation that trees and other vegetation will be cleared (buffer zones for fire safety) outside of the respective private property. As in, on public and protected lands.

There is no discussion here about the impacts of clearing land on other animals, on ‘private’, public and protected lands. Whereas this is quite normative, those who live and actively chose to live in areas adjacent to forested areas regularly claim a level of affinity with ‘the land’ above and beyond those in more urban-city areas. The level of nonconsideration is quite astounding.

The proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ is the population question. Inherently linked, if slightly different, to the nonconsideration above, it is an issue the ‘left’ ignores effectively as much as the ‘right’. Without exploring it further here, it is much more an (pressing) issue for the west in the light of consumptive practices

The ‘other level of reflection’ spurred by the Great Ocean Road fire on December 25 & 26 is that the homes lost were almost exclusively ‘holiday’ homes. As in, homes owned by well-to-do people, second homes, which are ‘lived’ in for a small portion of the year. Of note, they are not cheap cabins or small houses: a search of current real estate listings includes many (which now, likely, no longer exist) for well in excess on $1 million.

Whereas I find myself with little sympathy for those who have lost these $million + holiday homes, I am certain this would change if lives were lost. Herein lies some of my own hypocrisy. How many livers of other animals were lost and largely nonconsidered in these fires.? How many other animal livers were lost or displaced (and subsequently directly-indirectly lost) in these fires?

The larger question and ongoing issue is the continual displacement of other animals (including direct and indirect loss of life) for further expansion of ‘civilisation’…

* I wrote this as holiday makers were in evacuation centres…

human chauvinism in a leftist defense of GMOs

Episode 20 of Escape Velocity Radio, hosted by Derek Hogue and Chris Hannah (of Propagandhi) —
a monthly podcast which journeys into the depths of science, philosophy, history, ethics, the origins of consciousness, professional hockey and the very nature of reality itself—included what they called a ‘leftist defence of genetically-edified foods’ by Leigh Phillips. Whereas the content of the episode was not the first with which I had a different view to the hosts and their interviewees, there was a stark distinction between my views and theirs. What also stood out for me was that I was a little taken aback with what I saw as views seemingly inconsistent with their politics and values.

In many ways, the approach of Leigh to laying out his critique of (left) opposition to GMOs was smart in how it was constructed. He appropriately exposed inconsistent critiques by activists and others opposed to GMOs, utilising this as a foundation for his broader critique. Such critiques do us all a disservice, making it easier for right wing and (naive/self-centred) libertarian exponents to spout their diatribes.

Leigh may not appreciate the analogy, yet his interview reminded me of the approach of conservative political commentator Ezra Levant in his critique of those challenging Tar Sands: smart in his pointing out inconsistencies and having enough nous and intelligence to challenge less-considered (not necessarily incorrect) and sometimes poorly structured critiques.

Leigh’s challenge to activists here is a necessary one. Too often there is a double standard in approaches, actions, and critiques of progressive folk. For example, we are often critical of the robustness of conservative and neo-con arguments, yet often put out similarly weak, even exceptionalist, critiques.

For me, this is where the robustness of the arguments put forward by Leigh, and accepted by Derek and Chris,  fall victim to his own critique. Primarily, his neo-Marxist account of GMOs, and support for GMOs, fails to see GE and GMOs as an anthropocentric solution to an anthropogenic problem. Here he fell into the all too common trap of technological optimism—I could use technological utopianism here, though I think this would be a little unfair.

Leigh’s faith in technology—which is a key theme and assumption central to modernity—came across as emergent from complete lack of engagement with anthropocentrism. There was no reflection on us, as a species (further) fucking with the world for our own benefit with little or no consideration of the implications.

By way of a lack of symmetry/straw man argument, what is widely deferred to when challenging critiques of GMOs and other technologies applied to the nonhuman, is that, as a species, we have been altering the natural for as long as we have existed. In regards to GMOs, proponents often refer to selective breeding, hybridisation etc. There are two levels of issues here—if we are to make a simplistic dualism. Genetic technologies are far in excess of existing practices of changing ‘nature’, and a further anthropocentric imposition. More foundationally, our interfering with nature having a long history, and the benefits our species largely/almost exclusively take for granted everyday, does not make it OK. Reference to such a history is often made. Irrespective, it does not justify claims (spurious or otherwise) that GM should be embraced with open arms.

At its root, ‘traditional’ and more-scientific genetic approaches are rooted in the same anthropocentrism that enables us to uncritically have our way with other animals and the environment more broadly in our everyday fucking over of everything nonhuman.

This is the major shortcoming of Leigh’s defence of GMOs. And if it is correct to label it as a leftist defence, it reflects the old school and naive Marxist analysis of the 60s and 70s which positioned the environment and women’s movements as petty-bourgeois.

At stake here is (parts of) the left continuing to not reflect on the animal question as much as the environment question. Whereas there has been significant gains in consideration given to the nonhuman, the apparent faith in technology that continues to be rampant in both neo-con, centrists and more mainstream leftist politics is the underlying assumption behind any notions that GMOs should be supported.

In essence, the social construction of nature is talked around without any real engagement beyond didactic constructions of human/nature.

Anthropocentrism is a centrepiece of science. To expose this is not anti-science or technology—a charge oft made and repeated (and whereas it seems Leigh’s at-times-simplistic critique falls squarely on this, he is located on the other extreme with his significantly uncritical faith in science and technology). I give Derek and Chris some credit here: in episode 21 they reflect on some comments on the episode, including one that specifically addressed the notion of science as objective…