- On May 8, 2017
I’d always wondered where Ralph Nader, the legendary consumer and political advocate, stood on animal issues, and his new book, Animal Envy, answered some of those questions. After reviewing his book, I wanted to probe some questions further, and Ralph agreed to an original interview, which is excerpted below. (Photo of Ralph Nader by Ragesoss. Shared under the GNU Free Documentation License.)
Your argument in Animal Envy focuses on the idea that our mistreatment of animals really boomerangs against us. What kinds of things concern you most in this regard?
It brings out the cruelty from people who are more likely to inflict abuses on relatives and friends. It increases the risk of zoonotic or animal-sourced diseases which account for a majority of sources for infectious diseases. Overdose of antibiotics and hormones in cattle, pigs and chickens spill residues into their human eaters making them more vulnerable to antibiotic resistance when they need such drugs for their healthcare. Lastly, it obscures all that we can learn from animals – their remarkable biological capabilities and their amazing on the ground adaptability to perils and extreme environments.
You’ve indicated that you are what we would call a “reduceitarian” in regard to meat consumption. How has your thinking about diet evolved in light of the issues involved with factory farming and mass-scale slaughter, over the years? What kinds of appeals to the public do you think will lead to more progress?
Never a big meat eater, I visited a big slaughterhouse 45 years ago (Iowa Beef) and was repelled. I also learned about the nutritional and environmental burdens from meat products, as contrasted with vegetable and fruit produce, and that made the difference for me. Also, as a supporter of family farms (see competitivemarkets.com), industrial agribusiness was an anathema to preserving a healthy, decentralized rural economy. Appeals to the public can be made on all these grounds, especially the self-interest in health and environmental safety. The runoffs from gigantic factory farm complexes and other longer-term ecological damage have been the subject of compelling documentaries. People need to see videos of the slaughtering process and the concurrent damage to water, soil, air and humans.
Do you agree with the idea of a humane economy, as I lay it out in my own work, or do you have the view that capitalism is built in a way to foster animal exploitation? Do you agree with my thesis that a combination of moral intention and human ingenuity can solve many of the big problems for animals?
Humans and societies have changed views considered immutable time and time again. How? Through information, education, advocacy that appeals to self-interest, their children and grandchildren, economic advantages, and organizing the best angels inside most people. Slavery, serfdom, overt racist and gender brutalities, cruel homophobia, arbitrary exclusion of people and youngsters with disabilities, all have changed quite a lot, though they’re still works in progress. In more and more jurisdictions, it is now a crime to torture captive animals. All this gradually takes some of the profit motive out of capitalism because laws and changing consumer values and rejection begin costing vendors more if they don’t change their ways.
The neat thing about Animal Envy is that it gives voice to animals through the literary device of the “Human Genius” and his digital translation app that makes it possible for animals to talk with one another and to human beings. You’ve obviously thought about the challenges of animal protection in our democratic pluralist society. But how well do you think the animal protection cause can succeed given that the exploited class cannot speak for itself?
That’s why I chose the fable approach in Animal Envy. We can have the animal world speak to us all the way to the crucial functions of earthworms and other insects. The lowly cockroach, whose chief sin is being an unknowing carrier of pathogens, can reveal to us human newcomers (scientists) how it has adapted and survived for 300 million years, not to mention having a staggering ability to survive intense ionizing radiation exposure. I urge greater use of the fable as a literary way to heightened receptivity by readers of scientific truths and appeals to humane values, if only out of empathy, curiosity and self-interest. All this is not to downgrade well-written non-fiction, photography, videos and poetry to carry the messages that elevate our common humanity.
We’ve used ballot initiatives as the front edge of the wedge to drive corporate and other public policy goals. How do you feel about ballot and referendum initiatives, and do you agree that those measures were instrumental in building a successful, reform-oriented cause? Are there any areas in which you think the animal protection movement should do more, or change its approach?
Given the greater relative ease of obtaining signatures for animal protection ballot initiatives, along with the public educational value of such campaigns, initiatives are a critical tool at both state and local governmental levels. They should always be connected to the humane and human self-interest of voters in the explanatory material. Past successes by ballot initiatives reflect this broader appeal. There is so much more to do – improving conditions in zoos and questioning zoos that restrict themselves to providing spectacles, coming down much harder on inhumane cramming of factory farm animals and the resulting harm to human occupational and environmental health, opposing corporate suppression of free speech and investigation by bad state laws, and being cautious about efforts to accord equal rights to some animals. Animal Envy treats the pros and cons of this movement from the animals’ standpoint. The ethical questions arising out of animal cloning, especially for commercial purposes, need more immediate, straightforward debates. And of course, the looming disasters of extinction for species that don’t even have champions.
How important are cultural works — books, documentaries, art — to animal protection? When did you first start thinking about Animal Envy as a contribution to this kind of cultural production, and what kinds of research or inquiry did you carry out?
Ever better cultural works, like books, documentaries and art, have been crucial in sensitizing people to the plight of animals, impelling some to action, and expanding the memberships of animal rights associations, including starting new ones on behalf of single species, such as tigers and elephants.
I started thinking about writing Animal Envy as I absorbed more and more material, regarding the intelligence of animals, the growing awareness of the interrelated survival connections between humans and the animal kingdom and the awful sadism of the way domesticated and wild animals are treated. As a lawyer I was also impressed by the persistent litigation work of [environmental interest] firms such as Meyer, Glitzenstein & Eubanks. I autograph my book with the inscription “For their Voice and our Fate.”
I read the works of Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, and the National Geographic, as well as more specialized tracts.
One early experience as a nine year old boy became a self-revelation. A rabbit was eating too successfully from our family garden. Dad put me on a rabbit watch. Sure enough, the rabbit came for its regular meal and I chased it away (with a large stone in hand), finally catching up with it. The rabbit froze and looked at me with its large eyes. Something deep within me froze and kept that stone in my hand, as the rabbit scampered away. At that point I discovered in reality my revulsion toward animal violence – even if it cost us some carrots.