Elite priorities: Why social, animal, and environmental justice remains essential with COVID-19

It’s not the sort of thing I expect an omnivore to say:

This [the novel coronavirus] is not nature’s revenge, we did it to ourselves. The solution is to have a much more respectful approach to nature, which includes dealing with climate change and all the rest.[1]


Thomas Lovejoy is mostly commenting on the nonhuman animal to human animal interface, one that humans have imposed upon the natural world, particularly with so-called “wet markets” in which live wild animals are sold for meat. Apparently, in the Guardian‘s paraphrase, “[s]cientists are discovering two to four new viruses are created every year as a result of human infringement on the natural world, and any one of those could turn into a pandemic.”[2]

Zoonotic diseases are nothing new. Jared Diamond considers them a part of the story in which western (European and North American) societies came to colonize the world and it is important to recognize that disease comes not only from wild but as well from farmed animals.[3] But here’s the twist that fully engages vegetarian ecofeminism:

Experts are divided about how to regulate the vast trade in animals, with many concerned the poorest are most at risk from a crackdown. Urgent action on the wildlife trade is clearly needed, said Dr Amy Dickman, a conservation biologist from the University of Oxford, but she was “alarmed” by calls for indiscriminate bans on the wildlife trade.

She is one of more than 250 signatories of an open letter to the World Health Organization and United Nations Environment Programme saying any transition must contribute to – and not detract from – the livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people, many of whom depend on wild resources for survival.[4]

These experts are concerned that a ban would simply push the trade onto the black market, potentially making it even more dangerous.[5]

Which is to say, not only do we need to be taking care of nonhuman animals but the human ones as well. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that while it is still early and the pandemic has a long ways to go before running its course,[6] elites simply cannot wait to get back to treating so-called “essential workers” the way they always have, as expendable workers, that their thirst for austerity, meaning yet more social safety net cuts, even as these render testing and treatment inaccessible for the poor and have made self-quarantines and social distancing impracticable for the poor, is unquenchable.[7] And that’s in the U.S. Never mind about those indigenous people in Africa and Asia depending on wet markets for their survival.[8]

Vegetarian ecofeminism, which combines animal rights and anarchist theory, posits that the power relationships among human animals are of the same essential character as and are in fact indistinguishable from those we impose upon nonhuman animals and upon the environment, that if we seek to remedy social inequality among humans, we must remedy it as well toward the environment and toward nonhuman animals.[9] We are already seeing with environmental devastation and the climate crisis how our attitude toward the environment threatens our own survival. Now, with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, we are seeing something similar with the other two links.

We have to treat each other better. We have to treat nonhuman animals better. We have to treat the environment better.

And that elites refuse to move in this direction, even to avoid human extinction, but rather insist on moving in the opposite direction, informs us as to their priorities.

  1. [1]Thomas Lovejoy, quoted in Phoebe Weston, “‘We did it to ourselves’: scientist says intrusion into nature led to pandemic,” Guardian, April 25, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/ourselves-scientist-says-human-intrusion-nature-pandemic-aoe
  2. [2]Phoebe Weston, “‘We did it to ourselves’: scientist says intrusion into nature led to pandemic,” Guardian, April 25, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/ourselves-scientist-says-human-intrusion-nature-pandemic-aoe
  3. [3]Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).
  4. [4]Phoebe Weston, “‘We did it to ourselves’: scientist says intrusion into nature led to pandemic,” Guardian, April 25, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/ourselves-scientist-says-human-intrusion-nature-pandemic-aoe
  5. [5]Phoebe Weston, “‘We did it to ourselves’: scientist says intrusion into nature led to pandemic,” Guardian, April 25, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/ourselves-scientist-says-human-intrusion-nature-pandemic-aoe
  6. [6]Joe Pinsker, “The Four Possible Timelines for Life Returning to Normal,” Atlantic, March 30, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-social-distancing-over-back-to-normal/608752/; David Wallace-Wells, “We Are Probably Only One-Tenth of the Way Through This Pandemic,” New York, April 17, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/04/we-are-probably-only-a-tenth-of-the-way-through-the-pandemic.html
  7. [7]Anne Applebaum, “The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff,” Atlantic, March 15, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-showed-america-wasnt-task/608023/; David Blanchflower, “Pandemic Economics: ‘Much Worse, Very Quickly,” New York Review of Books, March 26, 2020, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/03/26/pandemic-economics-much-worse-very-quickly/; Kim Hart, “The coronavirus economy will devastate those who can least afford it,” Axios, March 23, 2020, https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-economy-layoffs-children-families-bad-d588cc93-ff26-4031-8be8-5654cce05a15.html; Zoë Hu, “A New Age of Destructive Austerity After the Coronavirus,” New Republic, April 23, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/157417/new-age-destructive-austerity-coronavirus; Sarah Jones, “Dear Rich People: Please Stop Hoarding Things,” New York, March 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/things-are-bad-and-rich-people-arent-helping.html; Hanna Kozlowska, “Coronavirus is revealing ugly truths about social structure in the US,” Quartz, March 14, 2020, https://qz.com/1818548/coronavirus-is-revealing-ugly-truths-about-social-structure-in-the-us/; Eric Levitz, “In the Age of the Coronavirus, Biden’s ‘Results’ Require Bernie’s ‘Revolution,’” New York, March 16, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/who-won-the-democratic-debate-between-biden-and-bernie-coronavirus.html; Tony Romm, “Uber drivers and other gig economy workers were promised unemployment benefits. It may be a long wait,” Washington Post, April 2, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/02/uber-airbnb-lyft-unemployment-coronavirus/; Jenny Schuetz, “America’s inequitable housing system is completely unprepared for coronavirus,” Brookings, March 12, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/12/americas-inequitable-housing-system-is-completely-unprepared-for-coronavirus/; Luke Taylor, “When coronavirus is behind us, will you still think of restaurant and bar workers?” Vox, March 21, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/3/21/21188210/coronavirus-restaurant-bar-workers-economy-service-industry; Reis Thebault, Andrew Ba Tran, and Vanessa Williams, “The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate,” Washington Post, April 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/; Funda Ustek-Spilda et al., “The untenable luxury of self-isolation,” New Internationalist, March 18, 2020, https://newint.org/features/2020/03/18/untenable-luxury-self-isolation; Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Denise Lu, and Gabriel J.X. Dance, “Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury,” New York Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/03/us/coronavirus-stay-home-rich-poor.html
  8. [8]Phoebe Weston, “‘We did it to ourselves’: scientist says intrusion into nature led to pandemic,” Guardian, April 25, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/ourselves-scientist-says-human-intrusion-nature-pandemic-aoe
  9. [9]Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.

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