Animal Cruelty Under Capitalism — 2024 Animal Rights Forum

In February 2024, Abigail spoke at the 2024 Animal Rights Forum in Melbourne, about animal cruelty under capitalism. 

Read Abigail's speech: 

“Animal Cruelty Under Capitalism”

Animal Rights Forum, Sunday 25 February 2024*

Introduction

It is an incredible pleasure to be here with you today, standing on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. This land is, was and always will be Aboriginal land; sovereignty was never ceded. And I reflect, as I often do, on the sustainable economy that First Nations people created and lived in for tens of thousands of years before they were the victims of colonialism, capitalism and the exploitative and destructive practices of the British invaders. And I like to remind people of that fact, particularly when I give talks about economics, because our notion of an economy has become so tied to our rigid understanding of the current economy within which we live that I think we’ve forgotten that an economy is designed by people. And so it can be changed by people. At the end of the day, it’s about shifting and distributing power in different ways. The economy that we’re living in is one of many different possibilities. This is not the only kind of economy that we can have, and we should not be afraid to dream of something better.

Which is why it is so incredible to be here at this conference with the opportunity to talk to you about the interaction between our economic system and animal justice, and I sincerely thank the organisers for making this happen and for inviting me to speak. 

We are here this weekend because we’re not afraid to question the status quo and fight for a better world for animals, for people and for the planet. But we cannot win that fight without questioning our economic system and the power structures that hold it in place. 

So today I’m hoping to encourage you to more actively challenge economic myths and inspire you to commit to create a better economy, one fit for our times and built on our values. Because it is only through challenging the economic system that we will solve the big challenges of our time – and that includes putting an end to the exploitation of and cruelty towards animals across the globe.

And I want to confess at the outset that I am not a fan of capitalism. But I say that as someone who worked for 2 decades in global finance prior to being elected to parliament, and also as someone who was motivated to become more active in politics precisely because I could see how our current economic system was standing in the way of action on climate change, action to reduce economic inequality and, more importantly perhaps, I could see how our economic system was eroding our humanity. How it was destroying our kindness, our relationships with each other, with animals and with the planet, and destroying our sense of self, and our reason for being.

And as time drags on, the task of getting more people to challenge mainstream economics has become more and more urgent. Because capitalism is entirely incompatible with us, or any other being, surviving on this planet for much longer. The climate crisis is upon us, and we have run out of time to be simply tinkering around the edges – we need to urgently reimagine the world we live in.

I was elected to the NSW Parliament in 2019 and my anti-capitalist views have only become more cemented as I’ve seen the way that capitalism corrupts our political system, and how it prevents our laws from reflecting the will of the people. And for the last 5 years as the Greens NSW spokesperson for Animal Welfare, I have seen how capitalism has been responsible for so much cruelty to animals and how capitalism and state capture prevents us from achieving animal justice.

So, today I’m going to talk to you about why capitalism is holding us back from creating the kinder world we all want to see, and what I’ve been doing to try to change the narrative and to get people excited about what a new, progressive, economic model could look like. I also want to talk about how we use this critique of capitalism to tackle the endemic cruelty to animals perpetrated in Australia. 

Part 1 - There’s so much wrong with capitalism 

So, firstly let’s look at what’s wrong with Australia’s economic system.

Our current economic system is based on old-fashioned 19th century principles, crafted at a time before we knew much about global ecological systems, when our knowledge of human psychology was rudimentary and when we couldn’t foresee the impacts of information technology on markets. 

While we’ve made extraordinary advances in technology, medicine, science, research and innovation, the principles on which we run our economy have remained firmly stuck in the past. And the institutions and legal systems framed around this neoliberal-capitalist version of an economy are stuck in the past along with it.

The fact is that our current economic system has passed its use by date. Capitalism is a system that works best for short-term spurts of growth, and the late stage capitalism we’re in now causes far more harm than good. Not only is it the root cause of, and continuing to exacerbate, the current crises we face – particularly climate change and economic inequality – but the current capitalist system has also lost any claim to be a necessary evil, supportable on the basis that there aren’t viable alternatives. There are a myriad of alternatives to the current economic system and it gives me great comfort to see the growing acceptance of progressive economic views putting forward different ways of structuring our economy. 

One of the biggest myths on which our current economic system is based is that we are naturally individualistic, competitive and primarily driven by self-interest. Kate Raworth refers to this as the ‘rational economic man’ concept, which is embedded at the core of mainstream economics. Our focus on individuals as the driver of our economy can be seen in our societal obsession with start-up companies and entrepreneurs, and our relative dismissal of collective pursuits. 

Thanks to decades of psychological research, we now have a much improved understanding of humanity and we know that humans are in fact inherently social beings. We are instinctively collaborative, and co-operative. The knowledge that we are by nature co-operative not only highlights a significant flaw in the assumptions on which neoliberalism is based, but it also points us towards the shape that a new economic system could take. An economy that takes advantage of, and fosters, that collaborative spirit to bring about new levels of productivity, sustainability and wellbeing. 

We’re often told that one of the benefits of capitalism is its historical ability to adapt to changing technologies. However, many of the assumptions underlying our current economic system simply don’t hold true in the face of advances in information technology.

Advances in technology have meant that we can now allocate goods and services, matching buyers and sellers across towns, states, countries, the globe, with the click of a button. And, vitally, without the need for profit-taking intermediaries. We can now predict demand for basic goods with impressive accuracy – supermarkets, for example, only stock as much as their ‘just in time’ inventory systems predict that they will sell (something that many of us didn’t know about until the great toilet paper shortage of 2020). 

Smartphones and the internet have allowed our work lives to blend into our home lives as we work from home and outside of set hours, but this technology has also enabled employers to minimise labour costs and push the risks of patchy demand onto workers in the form of insecure and poorly paid work.

One of the most notable and perhaps problematic products of all this technological innovation has been rideshare platforms. This kind of ‘gig work’ has been lauded by many as the pinnacle of work-life balance - the apparent flexibility to work when you want, where you want, or to juggle numerous jobs at once. 

But the reality is not so rosy. In response to this kind of technological disruption, the response of policymakers has not been to embrace the opportunity for new business structures, but instead to attempt to apply capitalist principles to new scenarios and emerging markets. 

And the result of this policy failure is a continuation of the exploitation of workers, while shareholders reap the rewards of what is an entirely unnecessarily profit-skimming arrangement. There is no need for rideshare, or delivery services, to be run by businesses with this kind of structure, and the fact that they have been allowed to operate in this way shows a severe lack of imagination and foresight from our policymakers.

In the process, we have facilitated capitalist enterprises grabbing new territory that would otherwise have been open to collaborative or open-source enterprises. We should instead be fostering co-operative models of working in spaces where traditional capitalist firms are neither desirable nor necessary.

And we’re not dealing with traditional widgets from mainstream economic textbooks anymore. Unlike products created using scarce resources – whether it be raw physical resources in the production chain or labour – a large part of our economy is now based on selling goods that can be produced in abundance, sold at prices that aren’t anchored to the cost of production, and with a reproduction cost eventually nearing zero. 

The best example of this would be a song sold through say iTunes, costing a certain amount to make the first time, but then replicated millions of times at minimal cost to the producer. This creates contradictions under mainstream economics, which assumes a limited amount of goods and prices and an allocation efficiency based on supply and demand. As a result of our stubborn adherence to capitalist principles, prices for these sorts of goods are set artificially, profit-seeking intermediaries persist, and the result is the income of artists decreasing while the shareholders of large corporations reap most of the reward. Rather than accepting that advances in information technology have reduced the need for intermediaries and allowed individuals to produce certain goods without significant capital outlay, we have instead forced capitalist norms into a space where there was no need for them and where they create even greater inequality.

What’s more, technology has allowed us to share things for free that used to cost money to obtain. Capitalism relies on ever-increasing amounts of economic growth, which in modern times has resulted in the commodification of more and more things that once were free. Paying for education and health services, and for the use of our road system, are just the tip of the iceberg. But think, for example, of how easily Wikipedia replaced costly and quickly out-of-date printed encyclopaedias. Not needing to own a printing press and distribution network, the internet has transformed the way we produce and distribute information. We should be actively encouraging more of this collaborative economy to exist and sit alongside a dwindling capitalist sector, not allowing it to be monetised.

And I think it’s worth underlining just how relevant the perpetuation of this supply and demand and scarcity model of economics is on our action to combat climate change. Because so much of the transition to renewables, and out of our reliance on fossil fuels, has been hampered by it. 

And if you don’t yet believe how dangerous these mainstream economic myths are to our future existence, let me ask you this question. Imagine that tomorrow scientists make a discovery that each of us, every single person across the globe, had the ability to harness energy themselves for free. With no intermediaries. In other words that energy no longer needed to be a commodity.

What would happen? Think for a moment. Celebrations on the streets? The end of anxiety about climate change? Hope for worldwide economic equality, between and within countries? Is that what you think would happen from a discovery that would so obviously benefit humankind and the planet as a whole?

Think again. What we would have would be the complete destruction of our economies. Societal collapse. Widespread poverty. Death and despair. As trillions of dollars was wiped off of stockmarkets, as millions of people lost jobs, the impact of the sudden collapse of fossil fuel interests, of the decommodification of energy would be catastrophic. 

Now, of course I don’t point this out as some sort of excuse for the propping up of fossil fuel companies – far from it – we of course need to manage that transition to renewables to make it as rapid and just as possible – but rather to explain how our current economic system has not only facilitated and exacerbated the degradation of our climate, and the extinction of so many species, but also how it has influenced policymakers in how they’ve responded to the challenges of climate change. It explains why politicians find it so hard to plan industry transitions – since the economics and jobs in renewables are simply not equivalent to those in fossil fuel industries - and why ideas like nuclear energy – an energy source that would not only cost more to produce and employ more people in its operations, but would also make more money in the selling of it – just won’t go away. It is simply not in capitalism’s interests to decommodify energy. And that means policymakers shunning community energy projects, off-grid households, and lower cost energy producers.

And that is the absurdity of the capitalist system we live under – a clear example of how it doesn’t work, and can’t work, to better our lives at this point. Of why we need to now move to a different economic model.

Of course, look no further than greyhound racing for another starkly clear example of how cooked our economic system is. If we go to the very basics of what an economy should be about – to ensure that everyone has the food, clothes, shelter and other essentials to thrive before surplus is distributed – there is nothing productive about greyhound racing. But yet when you try to argue for greyhound racing to be shut down, the response is that the industry, like horse-racing, is making significant amounts of money and keeping people in jobs. Something as exploitative and destructive as greyhound racing is deemed necessary because we have an economic system, not based on providing for people and enabling a good life for all, but predicated on the need for financial growth.

So, to recap:

  1. We are labouring under a capitalist economic system that is not fit for purpose, a system based on assumptions that were either not ever true (such as the rational man concept) or which are no longer true because of advances in technology, 
  2. Stubborn adherence to this outdated economic system is actively harming our productivity and our future prospects - it’s stopping us from nimbly moving out of destructive and unsustainable industries and preventing us from embracing fundamentally better ways of doing things.
  3. Living under this neoliberal economic paradigm has changed the way we relate to each other and the natural world and it has changed the way we think - it has made us more detached, crueller and more exploitative and less empathetic and collaborative.
  4. Whether we want to prevent catastrophic climate change, stop animal cruelty, reduce economic inequality or any other worthy pursuit, a large part of that work would benefit from us all working towards breaking down economic myths and working towards an economic system worthy of our true human nature and flexible enough to adapt to the challenges of our time. Our humanity, our planet and every animal on it depends on us breaking down the economic status quo.

Part 2 – A Marxist critique of animal cruelty under capitalism

If you will indulge me, I would like to delve briefly into a more theoretical discussion as to how we should consider animal welfare within our critique of capitalism. Of course, the most famous critic of capitalism is Karl Marx, and it is through a Marxist lens I would like to attempt this analysis.

There is some discourse as to the correct application of Marx’s theories as they apply to animals. These questions are important as we seek to wage socialist-animalist class struggle and inform a revolutionary pro-animal movement. The first camp puts the idea that animals are wage labourers and that they actually are part of the working class. The leading exponent of this position, Jason Hribal, argues:

First, animals played an indispensable role in the development of capitalism. Second, their indispensable role was that of laborers. Animals worked on the farms, in the factories, and in the cities. They, as much as humans, built the modern world. Third, through the process of the aforementioned revolutions [in the era of mass enclosure and the destruction of the commons] and through their indispensable labour, animals became part of the working class.

Another set of thinkers consider animals to be exploited as slaves, that they perform slave labour. For example, French philosopher Jaques Derrida, writes that non-human animals are ‘enslaved instruments of work’.

A third approach is that best articulated by Bob Torres, who argues that animals are neither wage workers nor slaves. Instead, Torres writes, [W]hile animals have traditionally occupied a historical role in the development and maintenance of industrial and agricultural capital that looks a bit like outright slavery and a bit like wage slavery, it may be useful to be a bit more specific about how we conceptualize the role of animals within capital, rather than relying on the working class designation or the simple designation of slavery. As neither exactly like human slaves or exactly like human wage laborers, animals occupy a different position within capitalism: they are superexploited living commodities.

Another delegation within a Marxist framework, based on a relational understanding of the capitalist mode of production, would be that animals are not wage labourers, slaves or super-exploited commodities, but are rather, as nature in general, super exploited and oppressed by the capitalist class.

And we know that the capitalist class will exploit and oppress any being without the power to fight back. Whether it is the history of slavery of black people, the continued oppression of people of colour in factories in the global south, the devaluation of the work of women in domestic and caring roles, or the brutal exploitation of animals the world over - those determined to make a profit under our capitalist system will do whatever they can get away with to reduce wages costs and better their own financial position. If you view animals as without sentience - something that scientists show us to be patently untrue, despite how inconvenient that is for Big Ag - and convince the public to look the other way, there is nothing stopping widespread animal cruelty in the pursuit for profit.

A historical materialist analysis of human-animal relations examines how these relationships have evolved over time in response to changes in the material conditions of society, including modes of production, technology, and social organisation. 

If we begin with primitive communism and early human-animal relations. In early human societies characterised by primitive communism, humans lived in small, nomadic groups and relied on hunting and gathering for sustenance. Human-animal relations during this period were generally more egalitarian and symbiotic, with humans typically viewing animals as fellow inhabitants of the natural world. Animals were hunted for food, clothing, and tools, but their exploitation was typically limited by the availability of resources and the need for sustainable practices.

Jumping forward, we then reach agrarian societies, which often came hand in hand with feudalist power structures. In this transition to agrarian societies and the rise of feudalism, humans began domesticating animals for agricultural purposes. Feudal lords controlled vast estates and relied on animals for labour, transportation, and food production. Human-animal relations became more hierarchical, with animals serving as property to be owned and exploited by the ruling class. 

From Feudalism, we begin the transition into mercantilism and subsequently capitalist modes of production. The advent of capitalism brought about significant changes in human-animal relations, particularly with the rise of industrial agriculture. Capitalism prioritised profit maximisation and efficiency, leading to the mass production and commodification of animals. Fordist production techniques evolved to become factory farming, which emerged as a dominant practice, with animals confined in crowded and inhumane conditions to maximise production output.

Further technological advancements, such as mechanisation and genetic engineering, further transformed human-animal relations under capitalism. Industrialised farming methods enabled the intensive exploitation of animals on an unprecedented scale, with little to no regard for the welfare or wellbeing. Animals became increasingly commodified, reduced to units of production in the pursuit of profit.

It’s within this sphere of technological innovation, driven on by brutal market capitalist profit incentive, that we see the gravest impacts of intensive agriculture on both human and animal bodies. 

I am going to reference here extensively from the fantastic work, Climate Change as Class War by Matthew Huber, to elaborate on this key concept of capitalist driven technological imperative on the agricultural system. Agriculture hinges on the nitrogen cycle, the key to life itself. Nitrogen, the foundation of amino acids and proteins, is vital for all living things. Plants, the base of the food chain, require nitrogen for growth. Yet, despite making up 79% of the atmosphere, nitrogen gas is unusable by plants. It needs conversion into compounds like ammonia through a process called nitrogen fixation. For most of Earth's history, soil microorganisms handled this task, often forming beneficial partnerships with plants to boost soil fertility.

Thus, as humans began transitioned towards continuous cultivation tey were confronted with a nitrogen challenge. Planting the same crops year after year would deplete the soil’s nitrogen, and therefore deplete the fertility, of that plot. Historically, the main solution to this was simply to move on to more fertile soil, or to rotate crops and thus encourage and perpetuate those symbiotic soil crop relationships. Since the food we eat contains nitrogen, our waste is itself highly nitrogen rich. Farmers soon learnt that animal manure applied to the soil increased its fertility. Most of these methods of increasing soil fertility relied on “free gifts of nature” - available fertile land, forests, soil microbes, animal digestion and waste. However, as more and more land was privatised and the enclosure of the commons made movement between plots harder, farmers began to encounter serious issues with soil erosion and infertility, pushing them towards commercially produced fertilisers. Thus, fertiliser compounds became increasingly sold to farmers to supplement soil fertility, eventually developing in the mid 1800s into a global commercial fertiliser industry oriented around the guano trade. Cultivation of the depleted soils of Europe and America rapidly came to rely on the imperial relationship with hyper-exploited labour in the Peruvian guano fields.

The global reliance on these hyperlocal nitrogen sources created soaring prices as competition for limited resources drove demand through the roof. By 1898, British scientist Sir William Crookes warned that the scarcity of nitrogen fertiliser meant “a catastrophe little short of starvation for the wheat eaters”. This reality led to a scientific rush towards the development of chemical fertilisers, derived through a chemical process to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, transforming it into a form that could be used for fertiliser (or munitions, another prevalent use of nitrogen). The breakthrough finally occurred in 1909 in the laboratories of Fritz Haber and Carl Boshch, where synthesised ammonia was extracted from the air. By the 1920s, the details of the process had made their way to the private chemical capitalists in the United States. The process relies upon finding hydrogen with which to bond with the atmospheric nitrogen to form ammonia. Unfortunately, the chemical process necessary to extract hydrogen from other elements like carbon and oxygen requires enormous amounts of energy - the cheapest feedstock for which was of course fossil fuels. 

By the early 1960s the M.W. Kellogg Company developed ammonia plants on a colossal scale, capable of producing at much higher levels than before. Previous plants produced between 25 and 300 tons per day; these new plants were capable of producing between 600 and 1500 tons per day. In Marxist terms, the innovations dramatically lowered the “socially necessary labour time” it took to produce ammonia, and that, in turn, lowered the value of ammonia products overall. 

In other words, the drive for relative surplus value led to the cheapening of nitrogen inputs to agriculture. A historian of agriculture put it this way: “rapid expansion in the use of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser in the 1950s and 1960s was not so much a matter of a new, improved input (into agriculture) as a large reduction in the cost of manufacturing an old one”.

Fertilizer, alongside tractors, pesticides, and other innovations, sparked a dramatic transformation in farm labor productivity. In the early 1920s, producing 100 bushels of corn required 122 grueling hours. By the mid-1960s, this figure plummeted to just seven hours. This surge in efficiency led to a rapid decline in agricultural jobs. While most of the world's workforce toiled in agriculture during the 1980s, that number had shrunk to only 28% by 2018.

Key to Marx’s theory of relative surplus value is the idea that the cheapening of commodities overall leads to the cheapening of commodities needed to reproduce labour power, and thus widen the amount of surplus value that can be extracted from those workers. Obviously, cheap nitrogen inputs meant cheaper inputs for farmers, but this led to the cheapening of perhaps the most important wage good - food. Cheap nitrogen fertilizer fueled a revolution in food affordability.  It lowered the cost of grain production, a cornerstone of the "corn-soyabean-livestock complex" that enabled inexpensive meat production. While food prices initially spiked after World War II, basic staples like grains became steadily cheaper over time. More significantly, the proportion of income spent on food dropped dramatically. In the US, for instance, consumers went from dedicating 23% of their income to food in 1947 to only 13% in 1970. This decline wasn't just due to rising wages. It also coincided with a significant increase in both food consumption (including waste) and meat intake in the postwar era.

These transformations have led to the overapplication of cheap nitrogen fertiliser on farms. For the first time in human history, farmers could plant the same crops on the same plots year after year without depleting soil fertility. Now farmers often have an economic incentive to apply too much nitrogen, contributing to an astonishing level of waste. And it’s not just economic loss to farmers wasting nitrogen, this lost nitrogen escapes into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide greenhouse gas emissions and circulates into the hydrological system via runoff, leading to eutrophication, or the growth of dense plant life in lakes and rivers that causes mass death from lack of oxygen.

Nitrogen fertiliser today constitutes 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

One of the most profound changes in agricultural production, brought about by its industrialisation, was the displacement of production activities off-farm. In the United States, in 1940 nearly a quarter of the population still lived and worked on farms; by 1970, the share had declined to less than 5 percent. Workers had been driven from the fields and into the production and assembly lines of cities and factories. 

Marx also argues that the cheapening of commodities, cheapens the workers themselves. The postwar era was defined not only by cheap food in an abstract sense, but also by the rise of processed food increasingly devoid of nutritional content and filled with cheap sweeteners, oils, preservatives, and high levels of sodium and fat. As the postwar era of high wages and union jobs faded away from 1980 to the present, the new era was marked by longer working hours and stagnant wages. That led workers to rely more and more on cheap “fast” or other convenient processed food, so as to not interfere with a frantic balancing act between work in the workplace and the work of social reproduction in the increasingly privatised household unit.

It is therefore the mode of production of agriculture on an industrial scale, underpinned by rampant land clearing, harmful chemical practices and brutal conditions for animals, that underpins the capitalist economic system as a whole. It is cheap food that keeps workers cheap that enables their ongoing exploitation while the capitalists extract super-profits.

To quote the geographer and Marxist philosopher, David Harvey “I often ask beginning geography students to consider where their last meal came from. Tracing back all the items used in the production of that meal reveals a relation of dependence upon a whole world of social labour conducted in many different places under very different social relations and conditions of production. … Yet we can in practice consume our meal without the slightest knowledge of the intricate geography of production and the myriad social relationships embedded in the system that puts it upon our table. … We cannot tell from looking at the commodity whether it has been produced by happy labourers working in a co-operative in Italy, grossly exploited labourers working under conditions of apartheid in South Africa, or wage labourers protected by adequate labour and wage agreements in Sweden. The grapes that sit upon the supermarket shelves are mute; we cannot see the fingerprints of exploitation upon them or tell immediately what part of the world they are from.”

Driven from farms into cities, the workers’ source of their sustenance is rendered entirely alien to them. The individual is situated at the very end of a long and opaque supply chain that obscures any number of sins, and which facilitates the exploitation of both human and animal life.

Which brings us back to just how effective neoliberal capitalism has been at changing our very psychology, and our interactions with one another and with the natural world - and consequently how easy it has become for so many people to look the other way, to ignore the realities of the cruel practices behind the food they consume.

Part 3 – Animal activism shakes the foundations of the economic status quo 

Which is why the work of animal activists attempting to stab through this enforced ignorance with facts about what is really happening in industrialised agriculture, and any attempt to wake people up out of their neoliberal trance, threatens Big Ag so much. Because those wanting to exploit animals for profit can only do it if they keep people ignorant and selfish about the plight of the animals they’re exploiting. People like you and I threaten their business model - so they will call us extreme, they will call us vegan vigilantes, and they will do whatever they can to silence us and discredit us in order to avoid more and more people realising that they simply cannot continue to put their money into industries that are profiting off of animal cruelty. 

And unfortunately, Big Ag and the racing industries and all the rest of them have been pretty successful in their attempts. Because those in government, both major parties, and all of their corporate donors, benefit from the same system that allows these animal exploiters to thrive. Which is why we have extreme Ag Gag laws passed across Australia, with only Greens and Animal Justice Party MPs doing whatever we can to stop them in parliament. The major parties and the whole of corporate Australia are desperate to maintain the status quo - an economy that exploits those able to be exploited and allows those with power to maintain their power. 

French anthropologist Noelie Vialles says modern consumers deal with the moral complexities associated with meat production by demanding “it must be non-violent (ideally: painless); and it must be invisible (ideally:nonexistent)”. The meat industry is more than happy to indulge the second half of this demand. They continue to fight to criminalise people knowing the truth about their cruel and inhumane practices, because they know that, when the public find out what they are up to, when we are able to peek past the veil of secrecy and alienation from nature, they will be condemned and forced to change. For the big end of town, ignorance isn’t just bliss, ignorance is profitable.

Attempts to challenge people’s understandings of the role of animal cruelty in our economic system also come as moves to recognise animal sentience in our laws. I have an Animal Sentience Bill before the NSW Parliament and the pushback to the concept has been incredible. There are an increasingly small number in our parliament who argue animals aren’t sentient - it is a very silly proposition in light of all the evidence - but much of the opposition to the concept of animal sentience comes from those who are smart enough to know what it means. If we accept that animals are sentient, even if there is nothing in legislation explicitly requiring industries to act any differently, we risk waking people up to the fact that what we are doing in the exploitation of these sentient beings in untenable, unsustainable and needs to change. The idea of animal sentience shakes the very foundations of our economic system.

One of the first parliamentary inquiries I was involved in after I was elected was the NSW inquiry by the Select Committee on the use of battery cages for hens in the egg production industry, with my good friend Emma Hurst from the Animal Justice Party. I distinctly recall, during a confronting visit to a caged egg facility, walking down aisle after aisle of hens, packed into cages one on top of each other, noting the numbers of cages in which more than the regulated 6 hens were pushed together into the one cage. Each one of these breaches of regulation, I was told, was a simple mistake, and not a ploy to increase egg production through housing more hens than permitted by animal welfare standards.

The difference between the community’s expectations and definitions of hen welfare vs the industry’s expectations of welfare was stark. This wouldn’t matter so much except that the NSW Government has chosen to put responsibility for animal welfare together in the one portfolio with agriculture, with just one Minister overseeing both. The conflict of interest is obvious – here we have a Minister meeting daily with farmers and big ag representatives also in charge of protecting animals from the very actions that make the farming and agriculture industries more profitable.

When I’ve asked about this conflict in parliament, I’m told that ‘farmers love their animals’. I’m told that greyhound trainers ‘love their dogs’. I’m told that those continuing to mules their sheep love those sheep deeply. I’m sure that drives you as crazy as it drives me. Because when you probe further, the real story is that it is in a profiteer’s interests to look after their animals because they will be ‘better produce’. In other words, unlike the rest of the community, these people view animal welfare as synonymous with the concept of ‘quality of stock’. Much as you would want to keep bread in a dry place on the shelf so that the product sold to the consumer is of as good quality as possible, the people exploiting animals for profit are very concerned to ensure that nothing gets in the way of that animal producing or being the very best product possible. That is certainly not the views of the majority of the public when it comes to the concept of animal welfare.

A clear recommendation from that inquiry, back in October 2019, agreed to with the then Labor opposition, was that the NSW Government acknowledge this conflict by establishing an independent office of animal welfare, separate and independent from the NSW Department’s overseeing agriculture, to be responsible for animal protection issues. You will be annoyed, but not surprised, to learn that, now in government, NSW Labor has failed to implement this recommendation or indicate support for my Greens bill to establish such an independent office of animal welfare. 

The story is of course similar when it comes to greyhound and horse racing, the continued practice of mulesing, and a host of other examples where animals are exploited and treated cruelly and without regard for their sentience – time and again, the profitability of these industries is given priority by governments over the welfare of animals. 

 Public outcry over animal welfare abuses often gets met with empty promises from corporations. We're all familiar with "greenwashing" and similar tactics used to create a facade of responsibility.  Unfortunately, the same strategy applies to animal welfare. In 2015, an investigation exposed Sweet Stem Farm, a small Pennsylvania hog farm that boasted of its humane practices. The reality? Pigs crammed in concrete sheds, suffering from illness and neglect. This wasn't an isolated incident; it reflects the everyday suffering of billions of factory-farmed animals.  What made Sweet Stem Farm particularly concerning was their claim of ethical treatment, highlighting the gap between corporate rhetoric and farm reality.

The farm was certified as an “enriched environment” by the Global Animal Partnership. The GAP program was supposed to give consumers greater oversight and confidence about the animal welfare practices of the food they consumed, and through awareness drive a growth in the market. The system also provided privatised oversight and regulation in an otherwise notoriously under-regulated industry. The industry’s lack of regulation is coupled with an obscure and convoluted production chain. As much as we might care, we know very little about where most of our food comes from or the conditions under which it is produced.

I think we have all had experiences where we question how we can have humane certification of products we know to be inhumane. As brands and markets continue to consolidate, mega-corporations provide seemingly ethical alternatives that are really just the same products badged up as the more ethical choice.In the market economy, these mega-corporations attempt to distort, manipulate and appease consumer sentiment to provide a point of difference or new marketing gimmick to underwrite their bottom line.

We need to fundamentally subvert the paradigm if we are to have any chance at transparency and genuine freedom of choice.

Conclusion

There are extraordinary opportunities for freeing ourselves of late-stage capitalism and moving towards a new economy, one in which we share the benefits of automation rather than fear it – increased leisure time sounds like something worth fighting for, doesn’t it? – and to engage in collaboration that is unshackled by the need to feed capitalist enterprises in order to feed ourselves. We can build a new economic status quo that recognises people as social and cooperative beings, inherently kind beings connected to people, the planet and all the creatures living on it.

Working together, attacking the faulty foundations on which our economy rests from different angles, we can break down the economic status quo that is holding us back from tackling all of the issues we’re working for. It is all connected.

So, in addition to my bills in parliament to establish the Independent Office of Animal Welfare and to embed Animal Sentience into our animal welfare laws, I am working across other my other portfolios to paint a clear picture of what a new progressive economy looks like.

We don’t have to discuss all of those initiatives here, and I would encourage you to check out my website abigailboyd.org for more information, but a few of them include:

Thank you again for having me here to talk with you today. It is only through joining all of our multiple struggles together and fighting injustice in all of its forms that we can build a better future.

 

* NB: This an edited version of the speech I gave on Sunday 25 February 2024. The introductory paragraphs have been trimmed down, parts of Part 2 that were skipped over when the speech was given have been included, and some additional tangential material I gave were not recorded (for those interested in the capitalist destruction of Nauru, please do read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything!).

 

References:

Hribal, J. “Animals are Part of the Working Class Reviewed”, Borderlands e-journal, Volume 11 Number 2, 2012: https://www.all-creatures.org/articles/ar-animals-working-class.pdf  

Torres, B. “Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights”, p 39.

Huber, M. “Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet”, 2022, Verso Books

David Harvey (1990) Between space and time: reflections on the geographical imagination. Annals, Association of American Geographers 80(3), 418-434 (quote from 422-3: download here).

Vialles, N. (2008). Animal to Edible.

Peta. (n.d.). Whole Foods 'Happy Meat' Supplier Exposed: https://investigations.peta.org/whole-foods-humane-meat-exposed/

Dutkiewicz, J. “The Moral Meat Market”, Jacobin, 2016: https://jacobin.com/2016/06/whole-foods-gap-factory-farm-sweet-stems-peta-mackey/

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