The question of animal products has increasingly become part of the ongoing culture war. E&M author Clémentine Dècle-Classen delves into the ecofeminist perspective, tying the exploitation of animals to the exploitation of women.

Paris — Steak versus Planet

While unprecedented floods caused by climate change displaced 33 million people in Pakistan in the last month, French people were obsessing over ecofeminist Sandrine Rousseau’s claim that “we must change our mentality so that a steak cooked on a barbecue is no longer a symbol of virility.”

A tsunami of mediatic reactions followed, ranging from social media harassment to confusion regarding the societal relevance of focusing on meat as a symbol of virility.

Why does ecofeminism cast the consumption of meat as a symbol of virility? And how is this relevant and necessary for a socio-environmentally just and sustainable transition?

Back to the basics: Quoi de la fuck is ecofeminism?

Ecofeminism is concerned with the (over)exploitation of (non-human) ‘nature’ as well as women as a result of male domination over society.

While different understandings of ecofeminism exist, the concept emerged in the 1970s following the release of the MIT report The Limits to Growth, which for the first time established the disastrous consequences of infinite economic and demographic growth on Earth — a planet with finite resources.

Capitalism is the reflection of the patriarchal ideal of “unlimitism” and “absolute greed”, justifying overexploitation of the soil, its subsequent destruction, and the over-fertilisation of the human species.

Shortly after, ecofeminist pioneer Françoise d’Eaubonne investigated the concept of the Amazons and pre-patriarchal societies, and discovered that both the Earth and women have been exploited in parallel since antiquity. As men discovered the mechanics of fertilisation both for humans and the land, they asserted power and control over women’s bodies through reproduction, and over the soil through agriculture.

Capitalism is then perceived as the reflection of the patriarchal ideal of “unlimitism” and “absolute greed”, justifying overexploitation of the soil, its subsequent destruction, and the over-fertilisation of the human species. Ecofeminism thus combines the fight against capitalism with feminism and ecology. The purpose is to move away from a productivist and extractivist society rooted in multiple and entangled power relations and systems of oppression, towards an egalitarian society based on local, communal sovereignty and self-sufficiency. This comes with a reduction of non-essential production (and, in doing so, a reduction in labour), depollution, degrowth, the development of renewable energies, as well as the promotion of organic farming, soil restoration, and permaculture.

Ecofeminism and the exploitation of non-human animals for food in the Androcene

To sustain this logic, bodies are commodified, and their value is limited to the economic output they can generate — which disproportionately benefits a minority of people. For most human beings, this output can be generated through (painful) labour, implying effort of and sometimes (severe) damage to the body itself, and through the sale of body parts in extreme cases. Most of this energy is, according to ecofeminists, directed towards the production of unnecessary goods.

Today, women across the world are commonly part of the labour market and are therefore also subject to the commodification of their bodies through what is socially accepted as labour — e.g. production of goods and delivery of services in the economy (as opposed to unacknowledged forms of labour, such as child-rearing).

However, women’s bodies have also been the source of their exclusion from the public decision-making spheres and the labour market, as their reproductive and sexual functions have been essentialised as the sole purpose of women as entities and legal objects for centuries. This was reflected through patriarchal legislation, notably in the West, through marital rules and the denial of any intrinsic rights to women — such as agency over their own body and the right to own property. Their role in society was regulated within the exclusive spectrum in which they were meant to be daughters, then wives and mothers — if not solely sexual objects.

From an intersectional approach, the more an entity belongs to socially constructed categories that have been structurally oppressed — e.g. a poor disabled woman of colour — the more one is likely to experience oppression and dispossession over one’s own body  and the labour that can be extracted from it — the extreme case being slavery.

In the Androcene, non-human entities — including many who are sentient, capable of suffering, and caring — are also reduced to their corporeal existence. This comes as a result of the human-nature Cartesian legacy, considering the body (matter) as a machine and the mind as what distinguishes (certain types of) humans from the rest of the world, which has deprived non-human beings from any or most (intrinsic) ethical consideration — as they were considered mere bodies without the “mind” that is specific to “humans.”

In Rousseau’s words, “the Androcene dehumanises humans and humanises robots.” It is the sapience of an entity over its sentience that is worth ethical consideration: one’s ability to calculate, organise, and rationalise, have become the only noble values of the Androcene. Whether one can feel, experience emotions, pain, pleasure, and empathy have been largely removed from the equation. By extension, the perceived notion of ‘humanness’ is increasingly detached from humans as living entities (sentience) and instead refers to the mere fact of being considered an entity with a higher form of intelligence, experiencing sapience.

Non-human animals are trapped by a similar logic as the one depriving women of intrinsic rights and considerations, reducing them to what their bodies could produce or provide to men.

As the intrinsic value of entities is judged based on perceived notions of ‘humanness’, non-human animals have been structurally framed as having lesser sentience and sapience than humans. Therefore, their phenomenological experiences have been gradually disregarded in how human-animal relationships and agriculture have developed. To render and optimise production of their bodies and secretions, non-human animals have been commodified through the deprivation of most ethical considerations (though these considerations have often been reserved for certain categories of humans, e.g. male, white, rich, straight, cisgender, etc.).

Non-human animals are trapped by a similar logic as the one depriving women of intrinsic rights and considerations, reducing them to what their bodies could produce or provide to men. In most legal systems, they only exist as property — subsequently restricting their rights as such. Their value, within the confines of the factory farming system, is thus reduced to the economic output that can be extracted from their bodies. Beyond their own flesh, female non-human animals are further victims of forced impregnation and separation from their offspring at birth, for the sake of retrieving their bodies’ secretions (e.g. milk) or eggs (“feminised proteins”). In this case, female animals’ reproductive cycles  constitute what the capitalist seeks to exploit.

To be economically profitable, the factory farming system focuses on producing the highest output (flesh, eggs) with the lowest input (feed, water, space, electricity, or attention). This results in the cruel living conditions that most animal rights organisations seek to shed light on — where species such as cows, pigs, chickens, and sheeps are forcefully bred, born, and forced to live drastically shortened lifespans in crowded, highly constrained, and often filthy environments. Antibiotics are usually administered to animals to fight diseases induced by such conditions, to which their chronically suppressed immune systems would otherwise succumb.

This comes with a complete disregard for, and a systemic normalisation of, their suffering — and subsequent (intrinsic) legal protection — for the sake of efficiency and profit.

the intensive and large scale production of animal proteins is a non-essential type of production — on top of being a destructive and violent one.

This state of affairs is arguably rooted in the Androcene’s perception that animal products consumption reflects high social status. Indeed, animal products’ consumption and production seemingly reflects the constructed narrative of what a (successful) human being ought to be — a rational, civilised being, who has both exercised domination over its own “nature” and over the rest of the living world. Accordingly, the 20th Century saw a five fold increase in meat consumption, as a result of public financial incentives to intensify production, resulting in a yearly 72 billion land animals killed for meat in 2018.

From an ecofeminist perspective, the intensive and large scale production of animal proteins is a non-essential type of production — on top of being a destructive and violent one. This is especially the case in high income nations, which can afford to decrease production and consumption of animal products. Indeed, evidence suggests that the production of animal-based proteins carries the largest impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to almost all plant-based proteins, in addition to other environmental consequences (e.g. aquatic bodies eutrophication), which causes inefficiencies in terms of land-use as well as a reduction in the genetic diversity of flora and fauna and ecosystems’ degradation. Some thresholds of the planetary boundaries have already been passed by maintaining the current agricultural system. Yet, increased plant-based production and consumption in high-income nations could reduce as much as 61% of high-income nations’ annual agricultural production emissions both through decreased emissions and increased carbon capture.

The reactions to Rousseau’s statement on barbecued meats as a symbol of virility show a societal refusal to acknowledge that socio-environmentally harmful practices are destroying the planet on which humans depend. Her comment may have been misunderstood as only targeting consumers and therefore generated toxic responses, because individuals who already hold little power in society feel unjustly blamed for the socio-environmental crisis we are facing. However, many reactions also came from privileged members of society, proudly sending pictures of their steaks as a sign of protest. Such reactions are an example of the sort of toxic masculinity and the need to affirm one’s domination over non-human animals as a form of human success.

Refusing to consider the violence and suffering experienced by other living beings is a privilege, and the scope of aggressive reactions to Rousseau’s point illustrates the acute need for this question to be placed on the political agenda.

So what next?

The responsibility does not rest upon individuals, but upon society as a whole to push back against the normalisation of pushing planetary boundaries and bodily limits for the benefits of a privileged minority. Countless scientific studies from various fields emphasise the urgency of decreasing intensive animal husbandry in places that can afford to do so — but policymakers and the population at large seemingly remain ignorant of this existential crisis.

Granting intrinsic, unconditional rights to human and non-human nature, is a complex debate which still needs to develop. Alternative, more realistic, approaches exist in the field of biodiversity and ecosystems preservation: using a “relational” approach or the “nature’s contribution to people” framework. The latter consists of an effort to “assess and promote knowledge of Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystems and their contribution to human societies in order to inform policy formulation.”

Non-human animals and humans have long coexisted, and the living world evolves and develops based on complex interspecies interactions — one of which is the consumption of each others’ bodies and secretions for survival. But our current agrifood model is nowhere near such a “relational” balance and the development of a rights-framework based on such a concept. The factory farming system has a sole purpose: production and consumption at all costs, oblivious to the surrounding social and biophysical fabric.

The responsibility does not rest upon individuals, but upon society as a whole to push back against the normalisation of pushing planetary boundaries and bodily limits for the benefits of a privileged minority.

Based on planetary boundaries and the social foundation necessary to ensure a socio-environmentally just system allowing all humans to meet their needs, while respecting other living entities, it is necessary to rethink the place of non-human animals in the food system in such a way that they, also, enjoy the most rights and thriving life possible. This is not only necessary to ensure a sustainable future, but also part of the work required to go beyond the Androcene and tackle the roots of systemic oppressions this era’s ruling minority perpetuates at the cost of the living world.

Feature image by Clémentine Dècle-Classen and by Neifo.

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    Clémentine Dècle-Classen is a young French scholar and professional in socio-environmental justice and sustainability, a field she approaches in a trans-disciplinary and intersectional manner. Originally from France, she graduated in 2020 from the University of Amsterdam with a BSc (honours) in Politics, Psychology, Law, and Economics (PPLE) and a major in law. She is now finishing an MSc in Governance of Sustainability at Leiden University. Her interests include, among others, the intersection between environmentalism and criminology, human and non-human rights, climate change and social inequality, eco-feminism and post-anthropocentrism, inter-species relationships, as well as food systems sustainability.

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