What is species justice?
“It is impossible to view a living being as a product, a unit of production, as a profit margin, and not engage in the abrogation of their fundamental rights.”
~ Kristy Alger (Writing Liberation)

Many non-animal industries can be reformed, whether it be by higher wages, greater worker protections, or environmental regulations.

But what happens when the "product" in question is an individual?

Imagine a "humane" dog farm, in which dogs were raised in an environment with plenty of space and good food before being shipped to slaughter after a few months or years. Most people would object to such an industry. Yet for other animals society has deemed to be food animals, we've been conditioned to disregard our core values of equality, consent, and bodily autonomy.

It's time to deconstruct the political notion of animality.

The humane paradox
“You can't have your happy animals and eat them too.”
~ David Oates, Animal Justice Project

Some are surprised to find that many common animal welfare certifications are operated directly by the industry. As it turns out, this is an ingenious strategy for these industries for several reasons:

The more obvious reason is that this allows the industries to set the bar as low as they want while still placating consumers and reducing the perceived need for external government regulation.

A more subtle, but arguably more important, reason is that doing so allows the industry to control the conversation. More specifically, it conveniently reframes the issue to sidestep the question of animal slaughter altogether.

A study by Hahn et al [1] showed that the vast majority of children aged 4-7 think chickens (65%), pigs (73%), and cows (77%) are "not OK to eat". Similarly, Wilks et al [2] demonstrated that "[children] prioritized [the lives of] 10 pigs over [the life of] one human. By contrast, almost all adults chose to save one human over even 100 dogs or pigs". What this tells us is that species discrimination is a learned, not intrinsic, human ideology.

A great example of this learned discrimination is the outrage adults express whenever news surfaces every so often of dead dogs (or cats) being found in someone's freezer. What's notable is that, unlike when a pig or cow is killed, people's first concern is never whether the dogs were given enough room to move around while they were alive, nor whether they were given a certain grade of food by their killer, but rather that they were slaughtered at all.

What children and, sometimes, adults are picking up on here is the so-called "humane paradox". If we kill a nonhuman individual who is sickly and suffering, we could at least try to argue that we're putting them out of their misery (although this is rather disturbing if we are the cause of their suffering). But if we kill a nonhuman individual who is happily enjoying their life, this is arguably worse as they would want to continue living that much more. That is, slaughtering a nonhuman individual is not merely a problem for the one day in which we betray their trust as their caretakers. Instead, it is also an ethical issue for every day that they would have continued living that we are depriving them of. It's why even the most idealized animal farm is not comparable to an animal sanctuary.

With dogs and cats, we already know this intuitively: it's part of why we get upset when a companion animal in a loving home dies prematurely. What's important to recognize, however, is that other animals like cows, chickens, and fish want to continue living just as much. Thus, an industry centered around breeding these animals for slaughter has no place in a just society, regardless of how profitable or normalized it may be.

Systems of injustice
“The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll... Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them-beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.”
~ Ed Van Winkle, former slaughterhouse worker

Contrary to what we are sometimes led to believe, animal liberation is not isolated from other justice struggles.

For instance, in addition to the unimaginable physical violence inflicted against nonhuman individuals in slaughterhouses, we must also consider the psychological damage we inflict on the workers in these facilities. In addition to having one of the highest physical injury rates [3], slaughterhouse workers can also experience a form of PTSD known as Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress ("PITS") [4], often leading to an annual turnover rate of over 100% according to the USDA [5].

Hence, according to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report [6], slaughterhouses largely source their labor from vulnerable communities, including people of color (>65%), undocumented immigrants (as high as 25%), and even state prisons. Similarly, concentrated animal feeding operations are disproportionately located near communities of color [7][8][9][10], leading to residents suffering from increased air pollution [11], respiratory illness [12][13][14], water contamination [15][16][17], mental health issues [12][18], and elevated blood pressure [19].

Furthermore, despite being over twice as likely to avoid animal products as their white counterparts [20], Morland et al [21] calculated that “only 8% of Black Americans lived in a [community] with at least one supermarket,” showing a clear disparity in access to plant-based foods. Similarly, only 13 grocery stores exist in the entire Navajo nation [22]. This is especially disturbing considering the history of native peoples being forced off their arable farming lands in order to further "the profitable expansion of ranching" [23].

Even more fundamentally, contemporary critical race theorists such as Aph Ko and Syl Ko [24][25] have put into focus the racialized history of the human-animal binary. Namely, they argue that white supremacists have used the term "human" not merely as a synonym for homo sapiens but more narrowly as a signifier for the white, cisgender, heterosexual, monied, and oftentimes male "in-group" whilst using "animal" as a catch-all label to degrade anyone who is "other". This theoretical framework provides insight into the results of a psychological study by Costello et al [26], which demonstrates that closing the human-animal divide by "emphasizing animals as similar to humans" (rather than the other way around) resulted in increased empathy towards immigrants, decreased prejudice, and greater immigrant humanization, even among highly prejudiced people. The authors theorize that the intervention worked by "robbing participants of the ability to dehumanize the outgroup" and "[drawing] the outgroup closer to the ingroup by making outgroup members psychologically more human in nature". Bastian et al [27] observed similar anti-racist psychological effects.

Building bridges across movements can be daunting, but when done right, it can be a powerful way to fight back against common oppressors.

“If we are serious about social and economic justice... we must expand our view to everyone—especially the weakest among us. There can be no half-justice for the weak, or justice means nothing at all and we live in a world of might-makes-right.”
~ Dr. Bob Torres, "Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights"

Nonhuman animals cannot give consent because we don't know their language. Consider horse or elephant riding. Even if someone appears content being ridden, would they be more content if they could be free to go where they please and experience companionship without someone telling them what to do? This leads to the question of informed consent: if an animal is broken at a young age or used a certain way their entire life, do they even imagine freedom from servitude as a viable option, or is their consent manufactured?

Likewise, sometimes hens will peck at those who try to take their eggs, indicating a clear denial of consent. What’s particularly interesting, however, is when hens don’t peck at those trying to take their eggs — is this consent? Or is this merely compliance? It is unfair to infer consent, especially when considering the psychological and physical harm taking hens’ eggs has on their wellbeing.

Similarly, consider the dairy industry. In order for a cow to produce milk she must be impregnated and give birth to a calf, and in order to continue producing milk she must be forcibly reimpregnated and give birth repeatedly [28]. The baby calf is stolen from their mother and killed if male or forced into servitude if female. We know that mother cows often cry out for their babies for days [29], but when they don’t, can this truly be considered consent? Or is this merely learned helplessness?

A bee, pollinating thousands of flowers a day, will only produce a teaspoon of honey in their entire lifetime. Is it right that we not only exploit their labor, but also steal the fruits of said labor for ourselves?

Nonhuman individuals resist exploitation every day: they break out of zoo enclosures, jump out of slaughter trucks, and try to rescue each other from slaughter lines. So if we continue exploiting these individuals just because they sometimes comply, or they can't express themselves in our language, what does that say about us as a society?

Our planet, theirs too
“Agricultural production and GHG [greenhouse gas] mitigation goals cannot be reached simultaneously.”
~ U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012 [30]

Animal agriculture is responsible for more emissions than the total exhaust from all vehicles combined [31], and furthermore animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction [32][33], deforestation [34], and habitat destruction [33].

Even more concerning, more recent studies including Bajželj et al [35], Springmann et al [36], and Clark et al [37] have reached a disturbing consensus: agriculture alone will push us over the 1.5°C (and likely even the 2°C) limit unless we as a society change our diets. What this means is even if tomorrow morning all fossil fuels were eliminated, just continuing our current meat-based diets would prevent us from meeting our climate goals.

In contrast, a 5-year study by Poore et al [38] calculated that transitioning to a plant-based food system would result in net negative emissions in the agricultural sector. This would mean, in addition to eliminating net agricultural emissions, we would be soaking up emissions from fossil fuels and other sectors. Hayek et al [39] calculated that this would significantly improve our chances of limiting warming to 1.5°C, increasing our total carbon budget by 163%.

These negative emissions are possible due to the inefficiency of filtering plant nutrients and proteins through other animals. Shepon et al [40] calculated that on average, 93% of the calories that farmed animals eat are dissipated and do not end up in the final animal products. This applies even to "grass-fed" and "free-range" farms: not only are they not scalable [41], studies [42][43][44] show "free range" animals emit significantly more emissions than "regular" factory farmed animals. Ultimately, animal products use "~83% of the world’s farmland [...] despite providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories" [38]. Adopting a plant-based food system would thus shrink our agricultural land use by 75% [38], allowing much of that land to rewild and absorb carbon.

See here for additional detail and FAQs.

Take action
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
~ Audre Lorde

Animal oppression is embedded into the structure of our society. To fight it, we'll need to change the system, via pressure campaigning, direct action, political organization, solidarity work, and other forms of activism.

However, it's also important to address the elephant in the room: the speciesism within ourselves.

The problem with individual action from a solely economic perspective is that it's not enough just on its own: if saving nonhuman individuals and the climate from destruction required convincing 100% of the population to stop consuming animal products within the next few years, then the future might seem bleak considering we can't even seem to convince 100% of the population that, say, climate change is real or trans people deserve basic rights.

However, if we instead look through the lens of building a movement capable of destroying these industries, the story is very different. The way we act influences the way we think [45], and every time we objectify animals with our actions, whether it be by referring to nonhuman individuals as "it", using speciesist idioms, or using animal comparisons as an insult, we reinforce the speciesist conditioning that we have internalized.

Furthermore, when we eat, wear, and ride nonhuman individuals, we develop a conflict of interest in which we are invested in the status quo. Monteiro et al [46] demonstrated that animal consumption is associated with higher rates of carnistic defense, in which a person defends the institution of animal slaughter. This is consistent with previous work by Azevedo et al [47] which shows that "people are motivated to defend, bolster, and justify aspects of the societal status quo as something that is familiar and known".

One of the most revealing studies on this effect was Loughnan et al [48], in which participants were randomly assigned to eat either nuts or dried beef. Afterwards, participants who had eaten beef reported less moral concern for cows as well as a smaller circle of animals which they considered deserving of moral concern. Even more concerning, Bratanova et al [49] showed that when groups of participants were told about an exotic species of kangaroo, merely describing the kangaroo as edible "was sufficient to reduce the animal's perceived capacity to suffer, which in turn restricted moral concern". What this suggests is that merely perceiving animals as food, even if we don't eat them, de-individualizes them in our minds and hence is a important factor in their objectification and commodification. Bilewicz et al [50] tested this by measuring brain waves of people looking at pictures of a fictional animal species and found that merely mentioning that the animal was edible caused certain participants to have less facial-recognition activity in the brain, further demonstrating the de-individualizing effect of perceiving animals as food.

By practicing both systemic and individual anti-speciesism, the animal rights movement has experienced exciting success kicking industries such the fur industry down to their last legs. But in order to save the climate and topple targets as large as the animal agriculture industry, nonhuman individuals are going to need a lot more allies.

“Who, if not you? When, if not now?”
~ Ronnie Lee
Frequently asked questions

For questions or contributions, please email [email protected]

Where can I learn more?


by Christopher-Sebastian McJetters


  • Dominion (free on archive.org) ~ an exposé of the realities of "humane farming" and the inherent injustice of animal exploitation
  • Test Subjects (free on Vimeo) ~ a short film documenting the effects of animal testing on doctoral students

Quick explainers



What about hunting for survival?
As Craig Womack, an Indigenous scholar who has renounced hunting and consuming animals has observed in recalling the last time he shot a deer and watched her die, ‘there is no way to escape the fundamental inequity of the relationship. I would go as far as to say the lack of relationship: she’s dead, we’re not.’
~ Maneesha Deckha [51]

First, it's important to talk about the demographics of today's hunters:

“Hunting in the United States generates as little as $23 billion annually or as much as $38.3 billion, according to 2015 statistics from the NSSF (the Firearms Industry Trade Association). Regardless of what number you use, that’s a lot of money. In fact, it averages out to $2,800 per hunter. All things considered, people living in such financially disparate conditions don’t enjoy the economic mobility to make this such a profitable industry. In fact, the aforementioned USFWS reporting indicates that statistically zero households earning less than $39,999 per year engage in hunting. So although some people may indeed eat the corpses of their victims, it’s unlikely to be out of necessity. [...] According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016, up to 97% of U.S. American hunters are white, and the percentages of other racial groups are so small that they were deemed statistically insignificant.”

~ Christopher Sebastian, “Until the lions have their own historians: the objectification of black and animal bodies in hunting” (CW: racist violence, animal violence)

Furthermore, the population of "game" animals is often artificial. State governments often funnel millions in dollars from hunting licenses into "game farms", in which animals such as deer and pheasants are raised in captivity before being released into the wild for hunters to slaughter [52]. Deer populations are also kept artificially high by clearcutting forests [53][54].

Ultimately, what is the humane way to kill a non-human individual who does not want to die? If someone truly did not have access to food without hunting, then that would mean we failed them as a society and we would need to improve the way we distribute food.


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