Podcast: Episode 9 ~ Non-Human Ethics

Sara interviews Dr. Dinesh Wadiwel, senior lecturer in human rights and socio-legal studies, with a background in social and political theory, on the subject of non-human ethics. He has had over 15 years experience working within civil society organisations, including in anti-poverty and disability rights roles, and is author of the book War Against Animals.

I have now been a vegetarian for almost twenty years. I didn’t become vegetarian all of a sudden, there was no epiphany, no ‘eureka’ moment when I decided to stop eating meat, but it was a gradual succession of experiences, where I found myself having doubts about what I was doing, feeling like something wasn’t right.

The first moment I remember occurred when I was very young, growing up in regional Victoria near Shepparton where my parents worked as fruit pickers, and they would – probably once a year – visit a local farmer and have a whole animal slaughtered that they would bring home and freeze, eating the meat over a period of time. I was asked to wait in the car, but the weather was really hot, and so I got out and wandered around, which was a big mistake as I accidentally wandered around and came across the farmer dragging a sheep by its horns, and the sheep was clearly distressed, pushing back and bleating really loudly, and then, the farmer brutally cutting the sheep.

I quickly turned around in shock and walked back towards the, I guess it was kind of like a concrete shed where livestock would be moved around through the chute when trucks arrive to collect or dispatch them, but I am not entirely sure of what the name of that shed is, but I walked around the back of that and came, to a place where there was an opening and I ended up seeing everything again, but right at that moment in particular, the entire head of the sheep had been completely cut off and was flung right in front of me. It was revolting, and distressing, and, just awful. And, not to mention the drive back home, the smell of the blood in the containers at the back of the station wagon of my dad’s car. I remember the whole thing like it was yesterday, it really had a huge impact on me.

The next experience came when I was around 15, when I started working at KFC and we often had a lot of leftover meat. All the chicken that did not sell would get thrown away every single night. Just tonnes and tonnes of chicken being thrown away, and I remember, as I was throwing them away thinking that a poor chicken was slaughtered for no reason, and feeling just awful about it. And I complained, to our managers and to other workers, and they were all completely indifferent to how wrong it was. And I thought, my goodness, if this is the amount that we throw away in just the one store, imagine the hundreds across the country, all the other fast food chains and I started to think about places like McDonalds, I mean, there are over 950 stores across Australia, slaughtering cows and chickens to supply them, and all the rubbish that they produce.

By that stage, I was attending school in a low-socio economic community in Northern Melbourne, where everyone ate fast food because it was accessible, it was cheap, and I saw friends of mine throwing away bags given by McDonalds on the ground, flinging burger containers and I would yell, “pick that up” but even then, most people don’t even have access to a recycling bin, so it still ends up in the landfill. And my friends would just look at me like “what are you so stressed out about this” because they were completely indifferent to the impact that they were having.

It was at that moment that my passion really began and when I chose to become a vegetarian, and I realised, that at the heart of it, my vegetarianism developed as a form of protest against this lack of consciousness.

There I was, as a 16 years old, getting so frustrated at people eating McDonalds and KFC without thinking about the consequences of doing that, of the animal that has been slaughtered, of the mass production that takes place to make that happen, the destruction of our environment and deforestation to make way for the huge quantities needed, and lets face it, industrial farming involves clear cutting of trees, soil degradation, water pollution and depletion, greenhouse gas emissions especially with livestock such as cows who produce as much greenhouse gases as cars, planes and other forms of transport put together. We are literally destroying our planet. And yes, global warming is real. It’s happening, and by cutting down forests like the Amazon to farm animals for fat, lazy Europeans who cant be bothered cooking is actually having a catastrophic impact on the planet, on biodiversity, endangering species, melting ice sheets, precipitation increasing in some parts of the world while drought and the drying up of land in others, this is a whole earth problem.

The protest was my absolute disgust toward this capitalism and commercialisation of animals, but paradoxically, it is not necessarily about eating meat, which may come as a shock to people. I have met vegans who chose that lifestyle only because it is fashionable, because they want to belong to some image and make friends, but they are still mindless drones, there is no real moral consciousness, which is why these very same people often revert back to eating meat, or wear vegan clothes from companies that still use animal hides, or eat the McVegan burger from McDonalds like absolute idiots. I understand the message and the protest, but there still is no consciousness there, it is just an image and they can get swayed in any direction if everyone around them is doing the same thing.

Which is why, paradoxically, I am not against eating meat. I am against that lack of consciousness, whether you are eating meat or not and the impact that it is having on animals and our environment. The way that some farmers treat animals is horrifying and the antibiotics and hormones and cooped up in tiny spaces and the way that they slaughter itself is completely unethical, and the carelessness that they have to the environment around them, including overgrazing and overdrafting or inappropriate irrigation and the impact this can have to the people at large, especially to the indigenous communities who have for centuries practiced this holistic and unified respect for the land and for animals, and I am all for that.

What we need to completely eradicate all fast food chains, immediately, we need to get rid of McDonalds, KFC or Burger King because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, it may not seem like a big deal when you drive through your local maccers, but the impact this industry is having as whole is catastrophic. If we eradicate all fast-food chains, and keep it local and small, the only impact that this will have is positive to our environment, to our health, and to our community. Yeah, we can say job losses, what paying 15 year olds $4 an hour, I don’t think so, it is only going to impact the multi-million dollar paycheck that the McDonalds CEO gets who no doubt uses ferocious marketing strategies to justify their overall disgusting practices, and with Coronavirus forcing the hospitality industry to stop, we are at the right moment to re-think how we live our lives, consciously.

It is not about not eating meat, but about how people think about eating meat, about approaching practical and regenerative farmer who use grazing techniques that is actually environmentally sustainable, for people to completely – and I mean completely – avoid these fast food chains by purchasing meat from ethical meat suppliers who practice such free-range and sustainable methods. And, to also reduce the overall amount of meat that we eat, I mean for heaven’s sake, we don’t need to eat meat every day, I’m still alive and I haven’t eaten meat for twenty years. It is about returning back to our roots, to remember what it was like before capitalism began, to admire the practices of indigenous communities who eat meat, yes, but do so ethically, almost thanking the animal, the earth for supplying all the required elements in perfect harmony, we need to strip back and appreciate how much we can learn from indigenous people, and those living in rural villages for centuries.

We need to think about the impact that we are having at a global scale, and while my views are certainly more social and political, there still remains the philosophical question on how we treat animals, such as whether or not they feel pain or if it is even ethical at all to kill an animal. I am a vegetarian by choice and have been for so long because I personally can’t hurt an animal, I don’t want to hurt anything. Human Rights and Human Responsibilities are not mutually exclusive, they are both one and the same thing to me, and while I don’t think that animals have the same rights, I believe in animal ethics, that we as humans have the responsibility to take care of them, to value their worth, and to understand and appreciate their shared place in this world, that it is irresponsible and unethical to exploit animals or experiment on them, and by mistreating them, we expose our failure as a human.

But, mostly I am disgusted at the capitalism behind it, the mass production and effect this is having on the environment. My next guest, Dinesh Wadiwel, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights and Socio-legal Studies at the University of Sydney explores the relationship between animals and capitalism. His book, the war against animals, argues that our relationship with animals is essentially hostile, and that there we as humans hold onto a claim that we have sovereignty and are superior over animals, both in terms of what we do institutionally as a species to other animals and people – I mean, I am thinking about the centuries of slavery – but also in subjective and epistemic dimensions, which, according to Dinesh is really nothing more than violence. He draws on theories such biopower coined by philosopher Michel Focoult that discusses modern nations using various techniques and regulations to subjugate other bodies and control populations, as well as Peter Singer’s work on animal rights which is arguably one of the greatest works in animal ethics.

He has also had extensive experience working with community organisations and supporting persons with a disability and while navigating conversations on animals rights is very tricky and can get very heated and even quite confusing, Dinesh is amazing at getting to the point with a type of calmness that I hope I can one emulate, given my very active voice on matters that I am very passionate. So please welcome, Dinesh.

For more information on Dr. Dinesh Wadiwel, please visit his academic biography and his book The War Against Animals.