Critical Tools for the Animal Crisis

Carlo Salzani

Critical Tools for the Animal Crisis

Animal Crisis: A New Critical Theory

by Alice Crary and Lori Gruen

Cambridge: Polity Press, 2022

A basic assumption underlies the thesis put forward by the two authors of this at once alarming and inspiring book: our war against nature is inevitably a war against ourselves.[1] The animal crisis they describe and analyze is a crisis of all animals, including—and, in a sense, above all—the human animal, whose attitudes and actions in the past few centuries, and with a frightening acceleration in the last hundred years or so, have brought the earth to a state of impending catastrophe. Defining our time as the age of environmental catastrophe does not mean succumbing to a defeatist and apathetic apocalypticism; it is instead a call to face our predicament beyond the false optimism and utter impotence of the philosophical, ethical, and political structures that are ultimately complicitous in and responsible for the catastrophe itself. The catastrophe has already happened, and we are out of time, but this means that new tools of resistance and action must be devised.

The book is therefore a scathing criticism of the “old tools,” that is, of the traditional arguments and patterns of standard animal ethics that, by mostly focusing on single and abstract issues such as individual suffering, sentience, cognitive capacities, or moral status, never manage to threaten the systems of domination and oppression that characterize human-animal (but also human-human) relations und ultimately end up reproducing them. The “old tools” lack both a proper grasp of the ecological and social complexities of these relations and a political commitment to rethink and alter them in their very foundations. What is therefore needed, the authors tell us, is a “new critical theory” capable of addressing these complexities and proposing true strategies of resistance and transformation. The reference to the early Frankfurt School’s notion of critical theory is explicit and pertinent: the identification of the structural links between the horrors visited systematically on human beings, nonhuman animals, and nature that thinkers such as Adorno and Horkheimer pioneered is the condition for a true comprehension of our ecological catastrophe, and thus “ideology critique” becomes the essential engine of an overall change of perspective.

The “desperate point”[2] reached by human-animal relations is an index of the civilization crisis that has led to the present environmental catastrophe. The structures of domination and oppression that organize living and nonliving beings into moral and ontological hierarchies produce not only the endless suffering and butchering of billions of sentient beings, not only the destruction and pollution of ever vaster expanses of land and sea, not only dramatic changes in ecosystems and the earth climate at large, but also the subjection, exploitation, and abuse of those human beings (women as well as all other vulnerable, marginalized, racialized, and colonized subjects) who fall low in the hierarchical order. This hierarchical structure is what allows us to conceive some beings, human and nonhuman alike, as mere “resources” and to exploit them in the name of “growth,” “progress,” “profit,” and all the other watchwords of advanced capitalism. It is this hierarchical structure that a new critical theory must urgently address.

The perspective adopted by Crary and Gruen is an ecofeminism imbued with critical theory and reflects the “political turn” that has revived animal ethics since the mid-2010s. In order to understand and address the ecological catastrophe we are facing, they insist throughout the book, it is essential to identify the conceptual and structural links between the ongoing devastation of nature and animal lives and the persistent subjugation of marginalized categories of human beings: the wrongs perpetrated against all these categories are the product of interlocking social mechanisms and must be contested together. Nothing short of a complete restructuring and refounding of our relationships with nonhuman animals, the rest of nature, and fellow humans will allow us to move forward.

The ideology critique that the authors adopt and recommend is also pitted against any “politics of hope”: in the age of catastrophe, hope becomes “a delusive expectation, an attachment to what cannot be achieved.”[3] There is no hope for liberating possibilities within the structures of the present oppressive systems (including their doomed ethical proposals). All these structures can offer is the false optimism of “just-in-time ‘techno-fixes’”[4] that cannot but reproduce, reinforce, and expand the very system responsible for the ecocide they purport to be averting. Hope is thus part of the ideology that distorts and obscures our understanding and that the new critical theory must make visible and dispel. Instead of hope, what is needed is concrete, clearsighted political action. It is always difficult, of course, to identify and pinpoint concrete alternatives, and the call for “care” and “interspecies solidarity” with which Crary and Gruen conclude the book might appear too vague and weak. But this is always the issue with crisis and critique, which are etymologically related and refer to the turning point at which a decision must be made.

The decision we must make, the whole book insists, is to pierce the ideological veil that clouds our understanding and pay attention to the concrete lives, human and nonhuman alike, that are subjected and abused by the current systems of domination. Animal (and human) lives all too often remain mere abstractions in the discussion of animal ethics and politics, and that is why each chapter of this book begins with a story and a concrete problem, which will then develop into a critical analysis. Thus, the chapter on “Crisis” begins with the plight of orangutans, but also of the people with whom they cohabit, in Indonesia and Malaysia; the chapter on “Ethics” with the horrors visited on pigs, but also the existential problems of the people raising them, during the COVID-19 pandemic; and so on. These concrete situations, these real and pressing predicaments, in which humans and nonhumans suffer at different levels but together, are the only spaces from which a different path can be imagined. As the book concludes, the only way out from the catastrophe we are already living is to properly understand and disrupt the animal crisis.[5]

CARLO SALZANI is a research fellow at the department of philosophy of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and a faculty member of PICT.

dePICTions volume 3 (2023): Critical Ecologies

[1] Alice Crary and Lorie Gruen, Animal Crisis: A New Critical Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2022, 126.

[2] Crary and Gruen, Animal Crisis, 14.

[3] Crary and Gruen, Animal Crisis, 138.

[4] Crary and Gruen, Animal Crisis, 137.

[5] Crary and Gruen, Animal Crisis, 146.