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2. Understanding, Acknowledging, Representing Environmental Emergency
V/ Appropriating

The Tipping Point? The Covid-19 Crisis, Critical Animal Studies and Academic Responsibility1

Émilie DARDENNE

Résumés

Le Institute for Critical Animal Studies, fondé en 2001 par les chercheurs états-uniens Steve Best et Anthony J. Nocella II vise à « fournir un espace pour le développement d'une approche critique des études animales, laquelle perçoit que les relations entre les animaux humains et non humains ont atteint le paroxysme d’une crise qui implique la planète dans son ensemble » (Best, Nocella, Kahn, Gigliotti, Kemmerer). En nous appuyant sur les études animales critiques, lesquelles établissent un lien explicite entre théorie et pratique, cet article explorera et discutera les valeurs normatives et la responsabilité des chercheuses et des chercheurs dans ce domaine, à un moment où le monde humain est ébranlé par une pandémie mondiale due à une zoonose, où l'exploitation de milliards d'animaux non humains se poursuit sans entrave, et où l'activité humaine occasionne une crise climatique d’ampleur mondiale. La menace que représente l'interaction inappropriée entre les humains et les autres animaux à la fois en matière de santé humaine, de bien-être animal et de réchauffement climatique change-t-elle quelque chose au rôle des universitaires ? Et que dire des critiques, parfois acerbes, qui leur sont adressées lorsqu’elles ou ils adoptent une position normative ? En cas d'urgence, ont-elles, ont‑ils une responsabilité accrue ? Ou bien la frontière qui sépare le monde universitaire du militantisme représente-t-elle un Rubicon qui jamais ne doit être franchi ? Voici quelques-unes des questions que nous aborderons dans cet article, en nous penchant sur l’articulation entre la recherche et les questions de normativité et non sur les relations entre université et pouvoir politique.

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Introduction. The epidemic, the planet and the (human and nonhuman) animals

  • 1 This paper benefited from constructive comments by Marie-Claude Marsolier, Steve Cooke, Dinesh Wadi (...)

Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal”
What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.
Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. (Roy)

1In the face of the Covid-19 outbreak and crisis, a world-changing event, what role should academia play? Does it have an ethical role to play in such an emergency situation? Environmental humanities or animal studies scholars may feel torn between their role as objective, neutral scientific observers who dispassionately study climate, biodiversity or human-nonhuman animal relationships, and a growing urge to alert the community about the scale of the environmental disaster and hardships lived by nonhuman animals. They may be in the grip of an epistemological and ethical dilemma. This quandary is played out between the academic attachment to a tradition of axiological neutrality and the emergency there is to address the multiple crises and to encourage the ecological transition. Should there be a watertight separation between the role of a scholar, citizen and campaigner? Is this division even possible? All three have a responsibility to their community but also towards future generations. Where some academics choose to stick to their area of expertise, others take the plunge, move from facts to opinions and rise up to persuade citizens and policymakers to take action, as does the Scientists’ Warning Foundation. These scholars have, nevertheless, to find the right balance between these two poles.

2The Covid-19 crisis makes the question feel more acute than ever. This is the reason why, in the wake of the global health crisis it is provoking, and in the midst of the moral, economic and social crisis it has triggered, this paper offers to explore its effects from an academic, epistemological and ethical standpoint. This paper will first look at the context in which the Covid-19 crisis emerged and see what it means in terms of human-nonhuman relationships. It will then strive to answer the following questions: does the crisis make it (more) legitimate for academics to support radical change? Is this the tipping point? If a systemic problem calls for a systemic response, should the latter include the intervention of scholars in various disciplines, especially those who work at the interspecies nexus? This paper will rely notably on analyses from mainstream animal studies (MAS) and critical animal studies (CAS). It will also bring in the author’s experience as the director of an animal studies programme which drew fire from the agribusiness lobby for its “antispeciesist bias” (Le Fur). This programme was recently set up in France, a country where, as opposed to English-speaking countries, MAS is a nascent, controversial field, and CAS is virtually unknown. According to the Animals and Society Institute, the vast majority of animal studies degree programmes (excluding veterinary programmes and law school programmes) currently offered around the world are established in English-speaking countries: 37 in the USA, 5 in the UK, 7 in other European countries, 2 in Canada, 2 in Australia and New Zealand (Animals and Society). This can be explained by the fact that late 20th-century animal ethics, which paved the way for MAS, and later CAS, was produced by anglophone philosophy in the analytic tradition, a critical tradition that has inspired political movements as well as the development of academic ventures. Finally, the question that will guide this exploration in CAS is: is this pandemic “the portal, the gateway between one world and the next” (Roy) where radical change can and should be contemplated and advocated by all, including academia?

1. The Covid-19 crisis

3The eruption of Covid-19 near a “wet market” in Wuhan, China (where vendors bring various live wild animals together for purchase, slaughter and consumption) calls our attention to a phenomenon captured by a word now used by mainstream media and not just academic journal: zoonoses. They are infectious diseases that spread from other animals to humans and can be transmitted through direct physical contact, air, water, or through an intermediate host like an insect. These zoonotic pathogens do not usually affect the nonhuman animals in which they reside, but they can represent a major risk to humans who have no natural immunity to them.

4A wide variety of nonhuman animal species can carry zoonotic agents. Domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep, dogs or goats share a great number of pathogens with humans (E. coli, Toxoplasmosa, cowpox virus, etc.). Infectious diseases at the wildlife-human interface have also emerged at an increased pace within the last century. A major study published in April 2020 shows that virus transmission risk has been highest from species that have increased in abundance and expanded their home range by adapting to human-dominated environments (Johnson et al.). Domesticated animals, primates and bats were identified as having more zoonotic viruses than other species. Among threatened wildlife (wildlife that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future), that whose population has been reduced due to exploitation and loss of habitat shared more viruses with humans. Hunting and wildlife trade facilitate close contact between wild animals and humans, while anthropogenic activities that have caused losses in wildlife habitat quality have increased opportunities for human-nonhuman animal interactions and created ideal conditions for viruses to jump the species barrier (Johnson et al.).

5Another study published in April 2014 showed that zoonoses are responsible for an estimated 2.5 billion cases of human illness and 2.7 million human deaths worldwide each year (Gebreyes, Dupouy-Camet, Newport, Oliveira, Schlesinger, Saif, et al.). Emerging zoonoses are responsible for some of the most devastating epidemics (World Health Organisation).

6The list of zoonotic diseases is long, here are just a few examples: SARS, pandemic influenza H1N1 2009, Yellow fever, Avian Influenza, HIV, bovine tuberculosis, rabies, leptospirosis, and most recently, Covid-19, also known as SARS-CoV-2, which spread globally in just a few weeks, and was officially classified by the World Health Organisation as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. It put billions of people in lockdown in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe and America, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, infecting more than 141 million and officially killing more than 3 million (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, 23 April 2021).

7It is likely that the virus came from bats and another intermediate species – it was initially thought that pangolins were possible candidates, but a study has disproved this hypothesis (Liu et al.) – that caught the bat virus and passed it along to humans at a wildlife market. Increased human contact with wildlife is therefore a probable underlying cause of the current Covid-19 pandemic, as the 2020 Johnson et al. study has shown. Who is to blame for the deep, unprecedented modification of natural spaces that has caused such intensification of interaction? In the last fifty years hunting, farming and urbanisation have led to massive declines in biodiversity and increased the risk of dangerous viruses spilling over from nonhuman to human animals. The most direct and significant factor in this transformation is indeed land-use change. The pandemic therefore seems to be anthropogenic.

8There is little hope of improvement on this front at the moment, for the current modifications in land-use are combined with increased commercial exchanges and travel. As viruses move fluidly between humans and other animals, and between countries, the frequency of pandemics is very likely to increase.

1.1 Intensive farming and zoonotic diseases

9However, increased contact with wildlife is not the only cause for zoonotic pandemics, as experts argue: the effect of agricultural intensification on the risk of zoonoses is also high (Jones, Grace, Kock, Alonso, Rushton, Said, McKeever, Mutua, Young, McDermott and Pfeiffer). Although modern agricultural technologies have reduced hunger, improved nutrition and spared some natural ecosystems from conversion to agriculture, they are also responsible for zoonotic disease emergence or resurgence. Academics and experts have long issued warning about the consequences of intensive farming on global health. In 2016, the UN Environment Programme warned of the danger of the “livestock revolution”:

The increasing demand for milk and meat, driven by fast-growing populations of urban consumers in developing countries, is projected to double by 2050. The Livestock Revolution paradigm is leading to rapid increases in livestock populations in developing countries, which increases the likelihood of disease transmission. Demand for livestock products leads to more intensive production, that is greater populations of high yielding and genetically similar stock kept close together. Thus the animals are not only exposed to more contact opportunities but they also lack the genetic diversity that helps resist the spread of disease, a vulnerability known as the monoculture effect. […] Changes in human host behaviours are also drivers of emerging zoonotic disease, including travel, conflict, migration, wildlife trade, globalization, urbanization, and changing dietary preferences (UNEP 23).

10A large scientific and academic chorus is now calling from a wide array of academic disciplines for a reappraisal of human-nonhuman animals interactions, such as those taking place in wet markets (Singer and Cavalieri).

Adapted from U.S. Government Accountability Office. Report to Congressional Requesters. “Biosurveillance. Nonfederal Capabilities Should Be Considered in Creating a National Biosurveillance Strategy.” October 2011, p. 19

Figure 1: Some zoonotic diseases and their affected populations

11Nonhuman animals play a major part in the grand narrative of domestication and the beginnings of the agricultural way of life. Domestication, which represents the most transformative relationship between humans and other animals, has led to increased population density and allowed for more permanent settlement. It has brought stability, with regular, predictable food production. But it has also produced adverse effects on our species, in terms of health and environment, as it has prompted diseases such as measles, mumps or more recently H1N1 (swine flu) and H5N1 (bird flu). Jared Diamond, who challenges the progressivist idea that the living conditions of our species are constantly improving goes so far as to argue that domestication was “the worst mistake in human history”. The American anthropologist claims that domestication allowed the development of countless diseases (Diamond). He draws on the results of archaeological research, which has shown that domestication has had many deleterious effects on our species: less leisure time, a more sedentary lifestyle, a shorter life expectancy and more infectious diseases, especially zoonoses (see also Wilkinson).

12Should we not have known a pandemic-like coronavirus was coming? Other viruses, such as SARS and HIV, also jumped the species barrier from nonhuman animals (Parrish, Holmes, Morens, Park, Burke, Calisher, Laughlin, Saif and Daszak 457-458). With billions of nonhuman animals either used or killed in the world’s current food production system, new viral outbreaks are all but certain. If this were not enough reason for challenging the use of other animals as food, the practice is the primary driver of imminent ecological collapse.

13This crisis is also rooted in the wider context of anthropogenic changes made to the biomass on earth, notably through the exponential increase in certain animal population due to domestication, as researchers in bioengineering, plant and environmental sciences, Yinon Bar-On, Rob Philipps and Ron Milo have documented:

  • 2 Gt C = gigaton of carbon.

Over the relatively short span of human history, major innovations, such as the domestication of livestock, adoption of an agricultural lifestyle, and the Industrial Revolution, have increased the human population dramatically and have had radical ecological effects. Today, the biomass of humans (≈0.06 Gt C2) and the biomass of livestock (≈0.1 Gt C, dominated by cattle and pigs) far surpass that of wild mammals, which has a mass of ≈0.007 Gt C. This is also true for wild and domesticated birds, for which the biomass of domesticated poultry (≈0.005 Gt C, dominated by chickens) is about threefold higher than that of wild birds (≈0.002 Gt C). Comparison of current global biomass with prehuman values (which are very difficult to estimate accurately) demonstrates the impact of humans on the biosphere. […] While the total biomass of wild mammals (both marine and terrestrial) decreased by a factor of ≈6, the total mass of mammals increased approximately fourfold from ≈0.04 Gt C to ≈0.17 Gt C due to the vast increase of the biomass of humanity and its associated livestock (Bar‑On, Phillips and Milo 6508, my emphasis).

14The development of animal agriculture has provided new dynamics for the transmission of zoonotic diseases including, in the case of poultry, the high density of birds on factory farms, and the fact that individuals in a given farm tend to be genetically uniform. If a virus gets introduced into such a flock, it can race through it without meeting any resistance in the form of genetic variants that prevent its spread. If it then spills over into humans, an epidemic emerges.

15With this in mind, one may ask: how can future pandemics due to zoonotic diseases be prevented and how should the current coronavirus crisis be handled?

16Scholars in the life sciences can emphasise the need to address the preservation of ecosystems, as a great overall biodiversity limits the transmission of viruses and helps buffer people against infection. This mechanism has been called the dilution effect: increased diversity within an ecosystem, and greater diversity of genetic outlook dilute the proportion of suitable hosts for a disease, and reduce transmission rates (Swaddle and Calos).

1.2 Time to reconsider the human-nonhuman animal nexus

17American conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy, who coined the term “biological diversity” claims that the huge illegal wildlife trade, as well as persistent infringement upon nature are to blame for this pandemic (Weston). He does not call for an immediate ban on the wildlife trade and wet markets though, as they provide sustenance for hundreds of millions of people, especially poor and vulnerable populations. He rather advocates more regulation, yet moderate: reducing certain activities and separating wild animals from farmed animals to reduce the risk of disease contamination (Weston). Philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri disagree. They think wet markets are “hell on earth for animals” and should be closed not only in China but all over the world, to foster as much wellbeing as possible, for as many sentient beings as possible. Cultural preferences and local economic interests, they argue, are decisively outweighed by the impact that ever more frequent global pandemics would have (Singer and Cavalieri).

18Whatever the disagreements about the form regulation should take, experts agree on the origin of the problem. As the IPBES had warned in 2018: “worsening land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity, driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change.” IPBES experts estimated then that less than 25% of the planet’s land surface has escaped substantial anthropogenic impacts (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).

  • 3 A prudential approach is one that proceeds from prudence, showing care and forethought.

19Philosophy, environmental history, critical sociology, anthropology, as well as CAS scholars also have a role to play. They can explain how the disproportionate human power to affect the rest of the natural environment came to be and how it should now be addressed or possibly deconstructed. Philosopher David Benatar argues in favour of a prudential3 approach to the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. What these and many other examples show, he claims, is that harming animals can lead to considerable harm to humans. This provides a self-interested reason (in addition to the even stronger moral reasons) for humans to treat animals better. (Benatar).

20Simultaneously, Jan Dutkiewicz (political economist), Astra Taylor (filmmaker) and Troy Vettese (environmental historian and animal studies scholar) call for the following changes:

Individually, we must stop eating animal products. Collectively, we must transform the global food system and work toward ending animal agriculture and rewilding much of the world. Oddly, many people who would never challenge the reality of climate change refuse to acknowledge the role meat-eating plays in endangering public health. Eating meat, it seems, is a socially acceptable form of science denial. (Dutkiewicz, Taylor and Vettesse)

21They further advocate the development of a more resilient food system, one that puts less stress on the environment and on public health. This requires, in their view, several interventions, among which putting an end to subsidies to industrial animal agriculture and taxing animal products to incorporate the cost of environmental and public health externalities. The latter measure is backed by other scholars, among whom specialists in population health, international food policy and economics (Springmann, Mason-D’Croz, Robinson, et al. 2017; Springmann, Mason-D’Croz, Robinson, S. et al. 2018).

22Everyone, scholars included, should take advantage of this crisis to reflect on the implications of human-nonhuman relationships, and to question anthropocentrism, to consider the future of relations between human and nonhuman animals from the angle of justice as well as that of our own future, which is conditioned to that of nonhumans. The Covid-19 pandemic, by revealing human vulnerability, encourages human societies to do so to protect themselves from their own erring ways and inconsistent habits. Protecting nature, encouraging biodiversity, putting an end to animal abuse are also imperatives for human health. Besides, the ecological approach to the emergence or spread of an epidemic is at the heart of the holistic “One Health” approach supported by the World Health Organisation. One health means that a global sanitary approach must be expanded as human health is intimately connected to the health of wildlife, the health of farmed animals and the health of the environment.

23Serious concern should also be raised for the cause of the pandemic and possible preventive measures for future zoonotic diseases emergence or resurgence. A new environmental ethics is needed, so is a new ethics of care and respect for sentient life, at the nexus of human health, animal welfare and ecological equilibrium, to foster the harmonisation of the warring elements of this planet in crisis. This is what CAS offers: its critical approach expresses the urgency of our times in the context of crisis. CAS is concerned with the interaction of activism, academia and inhumane treatment of animals. It focuses explicitly on normativity and politics.

2. Critical animal studies, epistemology and academic responsibility

24CAS is dedicated to the abolition of animal and ecological exploitation and domination. It seeks to explore the myriad ways humans relate with nonhuman animals, while emphasising interspecies entanglements, networks, enmeshments and horizontality. It is especially keen on exposing human exceptionalism.

2.1. Linguistics

25How can CAS shed light on the current Covid-19 outbreak? First, it can do so by bringing to light the problem with the word “zoonosis” itself, and its anthropocentric connotation. A word that defines a disease that “can be transmitted to humans from animals” implies two things: first, humans are seen as separated from other animals, and second, all other nonhuman animals are combined into a single, biologically inconsistent collection. The term zoonosis entails human exceptionalism; in its strict scientific sense, though, all animals, included humans, are members of the Kingdom Animalia, also called Metazoa. Instead of using the term “zoonotic”, one should use the term “anthropozoonotic” or “zooanthroponotic” (the words do exist) and define such diseases as those “transmitted to human animals from some nonhuman animals” or “diseases that normally exist in some nonhuman animals but that can infect humans.” Currently, the terms anthropozoonoses, zooanthroponoses, also called “reverse zoonoses,” “refer to any pathogen normally reservoired in humans that can be transmitted to other vertebrates” (Messenger, Barnes and Gray), again isolating humans from other animals (all other vertebrates in this case).

26As Peter Singer wrote in Animal Liberation:

In the popular mind the term “animal” lumps together beings as different as oysters and chimpanzees, while placing a gulf between chimpanzees and humans, although our relationship to those apes is much closer than the oyster’s. (Singer 1975 xv)

27Similarly, in the words of Jacques Derrida: “Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give […]. They have given themselves the word in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” (Derrida 32). This broad concept, however, does not make sense biologically. Nor does it do justice to nonhuman animals who are represented as only lacking, impoverished versions of human beings.

28Language provides a framework for anthropocentric values. As critical animal studies theorists Carol J. Adams and David Nibert have argued, the words chosen to discuss nonhuman animals should be carefully chosen in order not to contribute to normalising a language that devalues them or establishes a discontinuity between them and humans. Joan Dunayer concurs:

29Every negative image of another species helps keep that species oppressed. Most such images are gross distortions. Nonhuman animals rarely possess the character traits that pejoratives assign to them. In reality the imputed traits ate negative human traits (Dunayer 17, emphasis in original).

30Dunayer gives several examples of such distortions: rat societies exemplify peace and cooperation (rats are not “rats” in the derogatory sense) while roosters can be very brave in defending the flock (they are not “chicken” in the pejorative sense).

  • 4 The terme “zoocide” was coined by French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard to refer to the massive, del (...)

31There are other examples, in the current Covid-19 crisis, of how language shapes our perception of nonhuman experiences and obfuscates the zoocide.4 Let us further mention the use of the term “depopulation” or “euthanasia” to refer to the large-scale culling of chickens and pigs in the USA, following slaughterhouse shutdowns due to coronavirus infection rates among workers. Unable to keep animals on their farms, and although they might be reluctant to kill them, breeders have massively slaughtered animals, using various techniques such as “manual blunt force trauma,” gassing, shooting, electrocution, anaesthetic overdose, smothering by a water-based foam, suffocating by shutting down barn ventilators systems and adding CO2 as reported in The Guardian in May 2020 (Kevany). These techniques allow the so-called “depopulation” of animals, a term defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association as “the rapid destruction of a population of animals in response to urgent circumstances with as much consideration given to the welfare of the animals as practicable” (American Veterinary Medical Association 4, my emphasis).

32Besides its interest in language, CAS studies the epistemic, political and normative frameworks that give rise to regimes concerned with human-nonhuman coexistence. At the critical level, it questions these regimes, these uses of nonhuman animals by humans and the representations of other animals. By naming the field, “animal studies” and adding the adjective “critical”, CAS makes visible these relations and the mechanisms of power within them.

2.2 Academia and commitment

33The 21st century is a pivotal period in terms of destruction of ecosystems and animal life. It is therefore relevant that, as Nik Taylor and Richard Twine argue in The Rise of Critical Animal Studies:

[…] Some of the concepts that underpin CAS are increasingly on the mainstream agenda—for both the general public and those within the academy—in part due to global changes and the urgency of climate change that threatens life broadly conceived. (Taylor and Twine 2)

34CAS has been raising the alarm on this for the last twenty years, long before the Covid-19 outbreak hit the human (and nonhuman) world with unprecedented magnitude.

35Among scholars in critical animal studies, mainstream animal studies (MAS) and those working on welfare or other questions pertaining to nonhuman animals, epistemological and political tensions sometimes run high. CAS defends the adoption of the animal standpoint and critique MAS for its conventional approach, theoretical and apolitical character.

36In his foundational article, “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies”, years before the coronavirus crisis, philosopher Steven Best lamented the fact that positivism (which contends that knowledge can and should be developed objectively, without the values of the researchers influencing its development) was still a prevalent ideology in academia, where, he believed, apolitical values were pre-eminent, as the professionalisation of discourse has transformed language from a medium of clarity into a tool of obfuscation that ultimately reinforces systems of power. The strength of CAS, Steven Best claims, it that is eschews positivism and the fetishisation of theory (Best 39).

37Steven Best is a radical abolitionist and aims at the liberation of animals by all possible means. Admittedly, academic foray into the public debate should not be condemned, as it is more often than not in France. It should not be forced on scholars to commit themselves, as it is legitimate for them to target the production of pure knowledge for scientific or educational interest only. However, some of them have a special responsibility, for their research makes them well aware of what is going on. The least they can do when faced with pressing problems like a global pandemic is share this knowledge and be role-models for their students. Some might also adopt a robust social change agenda. Obviously, though, commitment is easier, and more natural in these disciplines that deal with ideas and theory than in those based on empirical material.

38However strongly one may disagree with Steven Best, and however little one wants to confront the question of normativity in academia, it cannot be eschewed altogether, if only at a practical level, when one decides what to eat, or whether to attend this conference that takes place miles away. If such a thing exists, what would a normatively neutral position be in this context? Should academics embrace vegetarianism but refrain from advocating any ethical viewpoint in connection to their diet? Should they go vegan? Or rather adapt to circumstances and adopt flexitarianism, or maybe, in the words of philosopher Roger Scruton, “conscientious carnivorism” (Scruton)? Should they limit their intercontinental flights to one or two trips every year, or use only low carbon impact means of transport, or not concern themselves with these questions and instead let policymakers and institutions decide for them?

39As the planet continues to warm, and the human-nonhuman interface becomes alarmingly destructive of the lives of other animals, ecosystems and human health, researchers and institutions should look at their own carbon footprints and question whether they really need to travel to academic conferences; they should also question the food they serve at conferences, seminars and at the university cafeteria, given what is now known about the greenhouse-gas intensity of meat production (Steinfeld, Gerber, Wassenaar, Castel, Rosales, de Haan); and, they should reconsider animal testing procedures that are carried out inside their very walls. These are personal choices that academics, like everybody else, must grapple with. But these are also questions that universities and research centres need to address as institutions. This does not appear to be directly related to the coronavirus epidemic, but indirectly, these questions are interconnected, as the general intensification of global travelling and excessive consumption of animal products contribute to the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases, and to climate change. Obviously, this is not the sole responsibility of academics, but they, like everyone else, should do their share.

40This debate is not just about the normative focus of academics on questions they examine from their campuses, but it is also about their own practices, as individuals on the one hand, and as institutions on the other. Universities can and should promote change at an institutional level by helping their staff make sustainable, animal-friendly choices. Universities are uniquely placed to take leadership in advocating for social changes that will put the human species on a path towards sustainability.

41Besides, even if scientific and academic evidence is sound justification for political action, the relationship between academia, politics and society is far more complex than what moral orthodoxy and conformity would have us believe. Scholars often disagree on different issues, from epistemological approaches to methodologies, theory and results. Decisions about what kind of academic information is taken into account are also political (Bacevic). The scholars, disciplines and institutions that are picked by politicians reflect the distribution of research funds, prestige and influence, as well as the values and objectives of policymakers who usually favour the kind of science that aligns with their interests (Bacevic). Decisions are also indirectly affected by the power structures of research and higher education themselves, in that they promote traditional disciplines (Weiler 74), and produce methods as well as criteria for the evaluation of scholarship that reinforce existing structures of domination and subordination, to the detriment of new domains of knowledge.

2.3 The postpositivist critique and scientific objectivity

42On a theoretical level, the present-day debate on the social agenda of academics has been reinvigorated by the epistemological critique of positivism undertaken by postmodern currents in critical thought, which rejected positivist concepts of neutrality and objectivity. According to the postpositivist critique, which considers scientific reasoning and common sense as inseparable, all the observations of researchers reflect the particular conditions in which they are produced, and at some level reflect the social identities and social locations of knowledge producers, so that even if they engage in research in an objective way, their cultural experiences, their subjective vision of the world necessarily contaminate their work. This is the epistemology of standpoint theory or situated knowledge. Producing scientific knowledge is one thing; claiming that only scientific knowledge is valid, certain and accurate and that it is thoroughly objective is another. The criteria chosen to judge the validity and adequacy of knowledge as well as the structural arrangements under which knowledge is being produced are both at stake here (Weiler 62). Differences between modern and postmodern conceptions of knowledge are based on various fundamental tensions: truth versus perspective, certainty versus uncertainty, universality versus particularity (Susen 40). Postmodern explorations shed light on the arbitrary nature of binary conceptions of reality commonly used in the social sciences (valid versus erroneous, neutral versus biased, authentic versus inauthentic, etc.). Postmodern scholars have to fend off charges of relativism, but post-positivism has a point in the present-day context of the Covid-19 global crisis, which involves a reappraisal of relations between humans and other animals.

43Although it defends rationality and objectivity, scientific production is largely subjected to its own cultural, gender, racialised, anthropocentric biases. It is also subjected to selection bias. When topics such as the treatment of other animals or the responses to the climate crisis are not on the mainstream research agenda, who will bring them out? Those who do are generally those most concerned by animal issues or climate change, in other words the most committed academics.

44Furthermore, as philosophers Jan Sprenger and Julian Reiss argue, the notion of objectivity itself comes in degrees as results, methods and claims can be more or less objective. The word “objective” used to describe academic venture carries a special rhetorical force with it, but several conceptions of the ideal of objectivity are either questionable or unattainable: “the prospects for a science providing a non-perspectival “view from nowhere” or for proceeding in a way uninformed by human goals and values are fairly slim […]” (Reiss and Sprenger). The authors further contend that there is not just one, but three conceptions of objectivity that can be discussed: faithfulness to facts, absence of normative commitments and value-freedom, and absence of personal bias. They conclude that either science cannot deliver full objectivity, or that it would not be a good thing to try to do so. They point to, among other arguments, Paul Feyerabend’s anarchist critique of the rationality and objectivity of scientific method, which is, in his view, loaded with all kinds of pernicious values and which obfuscates people’s vision and ways of being in the world (Feyerabend 179-180). Additionally, Reiss and Sprenger mention Hilary Putnam’s analysis of the use of language in scientific descriptions. Putnam argues that there are “thick ethical terms”, such as “imprudent”, “generous”, “cruel”, “open-minded”, etc. that make the value/fact distinction collapse because they have sometimes normative and sometimes descriptive content (Putnam). Reiss and Sprenger subsequently draw on the preference bias defined by philosopher of science Torsten Wilholt as the infringement of conventional standards of the research community, aiming at producing a particular result. Certain kinds of corporate grants research in medicine, agriculture or energy in particular may involve such preference biases.

2.4 Industrial lobbying of academic research

45One can, or maybe one must indeed suggest that the academic community is itself one of the sources of the problem of bias in research (see Yancey for a study of bias in American higher education; Larivée, Sénéchal, St-Onge and Sauvé for a study of confirmation bias in academia), which can occur either intentionally or unintentionally (Šimundić). As for the perverse logic of industry-sponsored research in the United States, Tracey Clunies-Ross and Nicholas Hildyard have argued in The Politics of Industrial Agriculture that although they constitute a small portion of total research budgets, corporate grants are a source of power within research departments, bringing stability to projects and opening routes to promotion for researchers (Clunies-Ross and Hildyard 80-81). Industrial agriculture is now able to direct funds into research that best serves its agenda, which, if needs be, deals another blow to the supposedly apolitical, liberal and neutral position of academia. This results in another problem: biotech research for agriculture is being funded, while research work on ecology and resource management is neglected. Obviously, the politics of research within universities and other public institutions percolates through to the curricula of academic training, so that:

With both research and training effectively dominated by the industrial approach to agriculture, industry is able to operate against a policy backdrop that is broadly sympathetic to its aims and views. With a common background and approach, those trained or employed in the mainstream can move freely between the academic sector, the public sector, the private sector and government itself. The result is a hand-in-glove relationship between the industry and its supposed regulators. […] Those who have close links with industry also dominate the committees that approve new techniques or chemicals prior to their being permitted on the market. (Clunies-Ross and Hildyard 81)

46Scientific lobbying is a reality: the corporate world (Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Oil, etc.) exploits academic research for its own ends (Demortain). As university professor and epidemiologist David Michaels has recently shown, powerful multinational corporations undermine scientific consensus in the name of profit. Just as uncertainty about the link between smoking and lung cancer was manufactured by Big Tobacco, Michaels documents how Big Sugar spends millions promoting new research supporting the thesis that all calories are equal and that increased exercise, not switching to a healthier diet, is the best way to address diet-related health issues (Michaels 203-204).

47Big industry also tries to undermine university programmes or studies that do not align with its interests. Two examples can illustrate this in connection with issues pertaining to animal agriculture. First, that of American epidemiologist Steve Wing, who had first-hand experience of the outsize influence of Big Ag on his research in 1999 as he was working on a study looking into the impacts of industrial pig production facilities on human health for the University of North Carolina. When the pork industry heard of the research, they demanded access to all documents that contained results of the study. They went after him, asking to turn over any documentation. They went to the university and got lawyers to try and make him hand his data over. The Pork Council said they would evaluate whether any of the statements were defamatory. The university warned the epidemiologist that if he failed to hand over the documents, he could be arrested and even sent to jail (Wing 441). Second, closer to home, the launch of an animal studies programme at Rennes 2 University in 2019 provoked similar reactions, although it is related to training and not research. French agribusiness was unhappy with the fact that the teaching team included several academics and two animal rights professionals (a lawyer and an animal ethics instructor). The president of the university received several complaint letters from the Beef Industry and the National Confederation of Butchers, while the animal production lobby in Parliament tried to launch a smear campaign in the media and alerted the Ministry of Higher Education about the “blatant vested interests” of this programme (Le Fur), not to mention the traditional monopolisation of knowledge pertaining to animals by the natural sciences. This implicit hierarchy in the knowledge order itself manifested itself most clearly when the animal studies programme launched at Rennes 2 University came under attack from colleagues in the neurosciences. They in turn wrote to the president and deplored the fact that “there are no university specialists either of animals, animal ethics or nutrition” in the programme, even though the director (myself) had been working on animal ethics for many years, and other colleagues had been studying human-nonhuman animal relationships from the points of view of the history of science, sociology or geography.

2.5 Hierarchies of credibility

48This demonstrates several things. First, the hierarchy in the existing knowledge order is still very much prevalent, with a monopolisation of the concept of knowledge rooted in the natural sciences. Second, industrial agriculture does not hesitate to harass and intimidate academics to make them drop their research. Third, although academia is supposed to be independent and research is supposed to advance the public interest, as public funding for university research has dried up (Congress of the United States) and is inappropriately allocated (Comité National de la Recherche Scientifique 10), private industry money has poured in, and corporate interests become increasingly important priorities. Fourth, this echoes what sociologist Howard Becker called the “hierarchy of credibility” (Becker 242). This term describes a phenomenon that occurs in an apolitical arrangement. When a story is told from the point of view of a subordinate party, the suspicion arises that there is a bias in its favour. Becker explains it in the following terms: “We are, if we are proper members of the group, morally bound to accept the definition imposed on reality by a superordinate group in preference to the definitions espoused by subordinates” (Becker 241).

49In a 1966 speech, Howard Becker questioned the fact for specialists in his discipline to refer, or not, to their personal values, and claimed that it was impossible not to take sides: “the question is not whether we should take sides, since we inevitably will, but rather whose side we are on” (Becker 239). In this view, sociological work always involves adopting a specific vantage point. The social affinities and political positions of the researcher necessarily surface, or quite simply, s/he adopts a certain perspective from which the problem is studied, by standing on one side or the other. It is, Becker claims, impossible to do research that is uncontaminated by personal and political sympathies, even though a number of academics do their best to remain unbiased. He added that accusations of bias arise when the study focuses on the experiences of a group subordinate to others in a hierarchical relationship, even more so when the research gives credence to the perspective of the dominated group (Becker 240).

50In the case of Steve Wing’s environmental health research in the USA, superordinates are agribusiness, while subordinates are African-American low-income communities living near pig CAFOs. In the case involving the animal studies training programme in France, superordinates are agribusiness and subordinates are nonhuman animals.

51Howard Becker further claims that the existence of the hierarchy of credibility cannot be denied, even if one disagrees with its injunction to believe the dominant group. When one acquires sufficient sympathy with subordinates to see things from their perspective, one knows that there is clearly a conflict with what “everyone knows” (Becker 243). It may be decided that the perspective of the livestock farmer or agribusiness will be adopted, or the standpoint of poor African-American communities, or the pig’s viewpoint. If one fails to consider the questions raised by the relationship between superordinates and subordinates, one implicitly works on the side of the superordinates.

52What this means for animal studies and critical animal studies is that, as long as the relationship of power and domination that human-animal interactions imply is not critically approached, academics implicitly take sides for humans. Animals need to be considered in their subjectivity, their agency, their autonomy. This way, scholars will be able to take the perspective of the dominated group, and examine it critically, without being discredited for their approach, or at least they will be aware of the side they are working on.

53The issue of normativity is an important dimension of animal studies, even more so critical animal studies. Any researcher in animal studies must confront it. If not, the academic analysis of the relationships between humans and other animals potentially lends itself to the danger of aiming for an objectivity which is nothing more than the uncritical legitimisation of moral orthodoxy, and therefore of anthropocentrism.

2.6 Academic territories of animal studies

54What do CAS, and to some extent MAS academics do that is different from what campaigners do, then? In the case of the Covid-19 epidemic, researchers can give an overall view on the phenomenon from the vantage point of human-nonhuman relationships, or from the point of view of nonhuman animals themselves (insofar as this point of view can be approached). It can then be showed that the situation results from many values, attitudes, traditions that have shaped the view of nonhuman animals and the way they are treated. Here are some examples of the vast academic territories that MAS and CAS scholars explore:

  • Critical sociologists show how in the popular mind, individual farm animals are disconnected from the production that stems from their exploitation (the animal becomes invisible as meat).

  • Anthropologists and philosophers emphasise the fact that the consumption of animals as food is so taken for granted, normalised and habituated that it is simply is not reflected upon as a relationship between humans and other animals.

  • Anthropologists illustrate the variety of ways human cultures think out and organise human-nonhuman relations.

  • Historians document the development of food production modes and their intensification throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (development of zootechnics and veterinary science, land-use changes, demographic changes, etc.)

  • Philosophers trace the origin of the human/nonhuman animal dichotomy upon which anthropocentrism is built, and de-emphasise the ontological distinction as a point of departure for thinking through MAS and CAS.

  • Sociology and cultural studies describe the different categorisations of other animals and reveal what they mean in diverse human cultures as well as how they are perceived (bats as demonic creatures, chickens as dumb and cowardly creatures, etc.).

  • Linguists argue that animal symbolism combined with the systematic depreciation of nonhumans in language, concealment of animal farming and slaughtering through euphemisms and denial contribute to the segregation of nonhumans.

  • Psychologists and economists study the meat paradox, the economics of animal welfare and how speciesism informs consumer behaviour as well as ways of interacting with other humans and nonhumans.

  • Scholars in art and representations studies show that these fields are important sites through which the issues of animal subjection are challenged.

2.7 “The anthropological machine”

55Attitudes that commodify some animals and demonise others (see how bats were vilified in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak) can also be explained by what philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called “zones of indistinction” (Agamben 1998 170), which make individual animals invisible and allow humans to exclude them from the moral community by separating animal life from properly political human life. The category of “bare life,” also conceptualised by Agamben refers to human subjects who are denied legal and political representation. The concept can be extended to include nonhuman animals who fall outside the dictates of human law. They are sub-individual singularities, they live below the human (Agamben 2004b).

56Agamben writes that man as a human being becomes himself through an “anthropological machine”, that is “man is the being which recognizes itself as such, that man is the animal that must recognize itself as human to be human” (Agamben 2004a 26, emphasis in original). As Matthew Calarco has argued, the “anthropological machine” is not simply a descriptive set of concepts and institutions. It is a performative apparatus, inasmuch as it enacts and calls into being a certain reality. It is the machine itself that creates, reproduces, and maintains the dichotomy between human life and nonhuman animal life (Calarco 53-54).

57Carol J. Adams also conceptualised the disappearance of animal in the eating of dead bodies, through which animals become absent referent. Whether they are “indiscernible” beings or “absent referents”, other animals are in the words of CAS theorists Stephanie Jenkins and Richard Twine:

[…] alien to moral community, their lives are available for biopolitical management, industrialisation and commodification. […] Existing in these amoral zones of indifference, non-human animals are not merely exclusions, but persist as the constitutive outside of humanity. Because the lives of animals are derealised and unrecognisable, they exemplify Agamben’s concept of “bare life” (1998), or biological resources that humans can use to pursue their own desires, goals and projects (Jenkins and Twine 234, my emphasis).

58As long as the anthropological machine works and nonhuman animal lives are derealised and unrecognisable, the risk of zoonotic epidemics, climate change and large-scale exploitation of sentient beings is very real. Similarly, as long as humans see themselves as being autonomous from the rest of nature, the possibility that anthropogenic practices have impact that shape the material context of humans will be downplayed.

59To further illustrate how important the deconstruction of the anthropological machine is, let us go back to epistemology. Catharine MacKinnon referred to the approach to the study of the social world as coloured by a masculinist bias as the “male epistemological stance” (MacKinnon 537). Here is how she describes it:

The male epistemological stance, which corresponds to the world it creates, is objectivity: the ostensibly noninvolved stance, the view from a distance and from no particular perspective, apparently transparent to its reality. It does not comprehend its own perspectivity, does not recognize what it sees as subject like itself, or that the way it apprehends its world is a form of its subjugation and presupposes it. The objectively knowable is object. Woman through male eyes is sex object, that by which man knows himself at once as man and as subject. (MacKinnon 537-538, my emphasis).

60I suggest replacing the words “male”, “woman” and “sex” by “human”, “animal” and “species” (the analogy between the emergence of critical animal studies and that of feminism in academia repeatedly surfaces in contemporary CAS work. CAS is also heavily influenced by critical feminist theory) to describe the human epistemological stance:

The human epistemological stance, which corresponds to the world it creates, is objectivity: the ostensibly noninvolved stance, the view from a distance and from no particular perspective, apparently transparent to its reality. It does not comprehend its own perspectivity, does not recognize what it sees as subject like itself, or that the way it apprehends its world is a form of its subjugation and presupposes it. The objectively knowable is object. Animals through human eyes are species object, that by which the human being knows her/himself at once as human and as subject.

61Mainstream science is anthropocentric and partial, whether it is aware of it or not. Critical animal studies challenge this partiality from the nonhuman perspective and critique the alleged generality, disinterestedness and universality of human-centered accounts.

62Scholactivism may be good for the planet, for nonhuman animals and human health, it is also, quite simply, inevitable, although of course it may come in degrees. Scholactivism may be good for another reason: it clarifies issues for readers and students, and focuses on what is most important. It provokes them to think for themselves and take a stand in relation to that of the teacher, professor, author (Wilson).

Conclusion. The epidemic, the planet and the (academic and non-academic) animals

63Does the Covid-19 crisis make it (more) legitimate for academics to take a stand? Yes, it does. Many of them, whether they be conservationists, economists, environmental historians, linguists, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, have already done so. Are they required to support radical change? Yes, if they adopt a critical perspective, they are. Is this the tipping point? It can be. It should be. Scholars should be able to express their concern for a healthier, fairer and more sustainable world. The question of whether they are best placed to do so requires further examination, but they are well equipped to argue for that. Therefore, the first firewall that should be built, beyond preventing the return to business as usual of the logic of blind profit, is to establish interspecies barriers. Therefore, on a global scale, academics should not recoil from advocating:

  • An abolitionist approach to the lucrative wildlife trade.

  • The closing down of wildlife markets.

  • Efforts to change dangerous consumption behaviours including the use of wildlife in traditional medicine and the consumption of animal products.

  • Deep reforms of food production systems and of the intensive and industrial approach to agriculture which are among the main drivers of climate change (and pollute waterways, produce megatons of greenhouse gases, contribute to deforestation as well as the inhumane treatment of farm animals).

  • Staying away from wildlife before any new zoonotic epidemic is on humankind.

  • A reduction in meat-eating (see Espinosa, Tago and Treich).

64The long-term response to the Covid-19 crisis will need to incorporate interspecies social justice. In this sense, the contribution of CAS is crucial. Steve Best asked in 2009: “Thus, the question must surge forth: do we have the luxury to be ―merely theorists or academics when the practical and political demands on us are so great? Of course, theories are crucial for understanding the world […]” (Best 34-35). But when the world is dangerous, changing it becomes the single most important reason to do theory. Therefore, the development of CAS should be supported, while attacks on individual scholars or university programmes by agribusiness should be exposed, contextualised, analysed and condemned by the academic community.

65In this paper it has been shown that:

66(1) Positivism should be challenged as the prevalent ideology in academia. Standpoint theory undermines it; the scientific viewpoint can seldom be uncontaminated by political or social views.

67(2) The academic system itself is part of the problem for there are several types of biases in research, and because researchers do not make necessarily clear which standpoints they adopt.

68(3) At a time of crisis, the role of academia is vital, for the management of emergency and post-emergency such as the Covid-19 disaster relies on traditions, prejudices, emotions (fear, hate, etc.), beliefs and expectations connected to relationships with other animals, whether they are wildlife or farm animals. The nature and evolution of these relationships will be crucial in the emergence or prevention of future anthropozoonotic pandemics, in the fight against climate change, and in the wellbeing of these animals themselves. CAS could also strongly benefit society in helping to prevent new epidemics if institutional funding for such research was increased. A prudential approach to the current crisis sheds light on the paradoxical waste of money incurred by billions spent on treating the crisis and billions lost during hard lockdowns, while budgets dedicated to the prevention of future health disasters are insufficient.

69(4) Finally, scholars in the humanities have a special part to play on account of the nature of their disciplines and their ability to address the normative dimension of knowledge.

70In times of emergency such as the one humankind has experienced with the coronavirus outbreak, academics who work on the cultural representations of nonhuman animals, or biodiversity, or relations between human and nonhuman animals, etc. should not be discouraged from taking a stand, for the future and possibly the very nature of their work is going through a deep paradigmatic change. It is a pivotal moment for ethical reasons related to animal agentivity. Obviously, it is a pivotal moment for prudential reasons as well, for our future wellbeing, and the wellbeing of generations to come is at stake. Finally, it is a pivotal moment for structural reasons as the vested interests of agribusiness in academic research cause biodiversity research as well as CAS approaches to be neglected, as political decisions are increasingly justified by reference to certain specific bodies of knowledge to the exclusion of others. Now more than ever, MAS and CAS need to be named, identified, defined, to exist as fields of research, higher education and thought, for they are an ideal place from which to address the politics of knowledge in connection with human-nonhuman animal relationships.

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Notes

1 This paper benefited from constructive comments by Marie-Claude Marsolier, Steve Cooke, Dinesh Wadiwel, Élise Huchard and Nicolas Treich.

2 Gt C = gigaton of carbon.

3 A prudential approach is one that proceeds from prudence, showing care and forethought.

4 The terme “zoocide” was coined by French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard to refer to the massive, deliberate, endlessly repeated and systematic killing of farm animals.

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Crédits Adapted from U.S. Government Accountability Office. Report to Congressional Requesters. “Biosurveillance. Nonfederal Capabilities Should Be Considered in Creating a National Biosurveillance Strategy.” October 2011, p. 19
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Émilie DARDENNE, « The Tipping Point? The Covid-19 Crisis, Critical Animal Studies and Academic Responsibility »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2021, consulté le 06 août 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/12283 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.12283

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Auteur

Émilie DARDENNE

Rennes 2 Universityemilie.dardenne@univ-rennes2.frEmilie Dardenne is currently senior lecturer in English at Rennes 2 University. She has published articles on animal studies, utilitarianism, and the works of Frances Power Cobbe, Henry Stephens Salt or Peter Singer. She has organised several international conferences and directed three collective volumes. Her book Introduction aux études animales was recently published by P.U.F. (2020).

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