According to degrowth.info, degrowth aims to achieve “the well-being of all” and sustain “the natural basis of life”. A prioritisation of well-being considerations has always been central to degrowth, and the call for “a good life for all” has become one of the movement’s popular rallying slogans. What is less clear, however, is who and what is included in this “all” that degrowthers refer to.
Specifically, degrowth’s relation to non-human animals (hereafter, animals) is a topic which seems never to have developed into a substantive or sustained discussion. This is a gap which should be addressed, and I argue that from both an ecological and ethical point of view, dismantling human domination of animals is in line with degrowth’s vision for socio-ecological transformation.
Degrowing animal agriculture
Let’s begin on what is familiar territory for degrowth, by examining the ecological perspective. Degrowth argues for a just and redistributive downscaling of material and energetic throughput in wealthy countries as a means to achieve ecological sustainability. This can be achieved by transitioning away from ecologically destructive industries which are not necessary for achieving a ‘good life for all’, such as fossil fuels, private motor vehicles, and advertising. In the global North, practices of industrial animal agriculture also fit within these criteria. The tremendous ecological and climate impacts of animal agriculture have become a subject of increasing public attention in recent years.
There are any number of statistics which convey the severity of the problem. Around 70 billion land animals are killed each year for food. But whilst meat and dairy provide 18% of the world’s calorific intake, their production takes up 83% of all farmland. Cattle ranching in particular is a primary driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Additionally, 36% of all crop calories produced worldwide go to feed animals reared for human consumption, when these crops could instead feed a larger number of humans directly.
In terms of water usage, the footprint of beef is a huge 112 litres per gram of protein, whilst an alternative plant-based source of protein, pulses (e.g. lentils and beans), use only 19 litres per gram. Furthermore, animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate breakdown. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector contributes 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The ecological case for the contraction of animal agriculture in a degrowth transformation therefore seems quite clear.
Growing awareness of the climate and ecological impacts of animal agriculture has become a central factor driving a sharp rise in veganism, alongside the movement’s fundamental motivation of eliminating animal exploitation, as well as expanding health-based considerations. In the UK, the number of people describing themselves as vegans increased by 350% between 2006 and 2016. In the US, the increase was 600% between 2014 and 2017.
Due to the arguments above, degrowth already makes a strong offer to members of the growing vegan movement who wish to situate their critiques of animal-exploiting industries within a framework for wider societal transformation. Though currently, it is unlikely that many do so. If degrowth were to give greater consideration to animals, for example by taking on a more explicitly critical stance towards animal agriculture, there is accordingly a wealth of further energies which it could stand to benefit from. However, so far, opportunities to broaden alliances with those seeking animal liberation have often been missed.
Of course, these arguments are to be made in a mindful and context-sensitive fashion, beginning by highlighting the ecologically destructive impacts of industrial animal agriculture in the wealthy countries of the global North which degrowth already addresses.
Towards animal liberation
Though the ecological impacts of animal agriculture are stark, this is far from the only – or even primary – reason for degrowth to give greater consideration to the position of animals in relation to the movement. There is also the matter of ethics, and the values upon which a degrowth society should be based. As I have already emphasised, degrowth claims to seek a good life for all, with well-being, autonomy and conviviality often declared as some of its key principles. To date, these principles have almost exclusively been pursued in relation to humans, but if they are to be realised to their fullest potential, why should we stop there?
In our current society, animals are for the most part viewed as commodities to be bought and sold in order to produce further commodities such as food and clothing, all in service of economic growth. At tension with this, one of degrowth’s key ambitions is to shrink the realm of commodified social relations, and extend those based on cooperation and solidarity. The reduction of other sentient beings with which we share the planet to a monetary value, and their utility to humans, should therefore be particularly alarming to degrowthers. Yet, degrowth seems largely to overlook the experiences of farmed animals, and its consideration of animals appears more commonly through biodiversity concerns. This in itself perpetuates anthropocentric framings of animals in terms of their utility to humans, rather than recognising them as sentient beings with moral interests in their own right.
Needless to say, billions of animals experience untold levels of suffering and violence directly at the hands of humans, notably in animal agriculture, but also for purposes such as ‘entertainment’. It is this ability to experience suffering which originally led Peter Singer to argue for Animal Liberation in his 1975 book, which became the defining text of a movement. However, the recent Australian bushfires served as a cruel reminder of the tremendous suffering that animals (as well as humans) also experience as a result of climate breakdown, with estimates that up to a third of Australia’s koalas died in the blazes. Quite rightly, there was an outpouring of public sadness at the sight of both humans and animals suffering in this way.
But if we are horrified by the increasing suffering of animals due to anthropogenic climate breakdown, then why are we less so about the suffering of animals in agriculture or entertainment? The former is more complex, but the latter is more directly inflicted and more easily avoidable. Both the ecological arguments above and these examples of animal suffering show that degrowth and animal liberation can be pursued hand in hand.
Despite the fact that animals are victims of our current society and its accompanying anthropogenic crises, to conceive of them merely as passive beings who need to be saved and protected by humans also ignores our ever-increasing knowledge of animal lives. In fact, evidence continues to suggest that animals exhibit their own moral agency, intervening in dangerous situations to protect other animals, including humans. Perhaps more interesting still, research has shown that animals have their own cultures and languages, and also act politically, participating in their own forms of resistance, protest, voting, and bargaining.
Furthermore, despite the horrific treatment of most animals on Earth, many also already live convivially alongside us in our houses and communities, as valued and respected constituents of society. The predominant consideration of animals in degrowth debates as commodities or through the lens of biodiversity thus fails to appreciate the full scope of animal agency, as well as neglecting degrowth’s aim to establish a good life for all shaped by well-being, autonomy and conviviality.
An ethic of animal liberation, on the other hand, would move degrowth further towards these goals. Animal liberation should not be conceived as an isolated and competing interest within degrowth, however. Rather, we can look to lenses of ‘total liberation’ in order to understand the interconnected destructive impacts of global capitalism and growth on humans, animals and ecosystems. For example, the ecological impacts of animal agriculture have already been discussed here, and much research has also been done into some of the appalling conditions faced by humans working in these industries. Animal liberation can therefore reinforce degrowth’s struggles for social and ecological justice, rather than competing for attention.
A good life for all
Whilst humans and ecosystems continue to receive much consideration, however, it is animals which so far seem to be the missing constituent in degrowth’s narrative of socio-ecological transformation. This can be seen as an important opportunity. Those on the right will continue to extend racist and imperialist narratives of transformation, blaming population growth in the global South for climate and ecological breakdown. Many other transformative discourses on the left make strong social justice arguments whilst perpetuating a techno-optimist faith in green growth and human mastery over ecosystems and animals. The opportunity presented to degrowth then, is to develop an alternative future based on justice for and between humans, ecosystems, and animals. Here lies the promise of truly realising a good life for all.