21 February 2023

colorful artwork of animals in nature
Peaceable Kingdom, serigraph by John August Swanson, 1994


Animal Rights and/or Deep Ecology by Karen Davis

In the 1980s prior to founding United Poultry Concerns in 1990, I read widely on three main subjects: Animal Rights, Deep Ecology, and Genetic Engineering. All three were new, hot topics in the 1980s, with ever-expanding relevance and resonance up to this very minute in 2023. More than three decades later, I would not change a word of “Mixing Without Pain” although I have broken the paragraphs into shorter units. – Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns


Karen Davis
The University of Maryland
College Park
Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics Winter 1989

I am a deep ecologist. I value Nature for its own sake. I see other, nonhuman beings as subjects of an infinity precious and unique life, as wanting and able to live their own lives, and as having the right to do so, just as we do ourselves. I relish John Muir’s thought that “even a mineral arrangement of matter [may] be endowed with sensation of a kind that we in our blind exclusive perfection can have no manner of communication with.”

Like Aldo Leopold, I yearn for the day when the role of Homo sapiens will have changed “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” I share Arne Naess’s passion for an ecological maturity that will allow people to “experience joy when other life forms experience joy and sorrow when other life forms experience sorrow,” that will enable us to “grieve when living beings, including landscapes, are destroyed.”

I do not have to be convinced that wilderness and wildlife have a right to exist or that what is needed nowadays, ecologically, is not so much “hands-on experience” as “hands-off.” I reject the assertion of human superiority over other life. I take the fact of my belonging to an animal species as basic to my existence and my experience.

I am also an animal rights person. I believe that human and nonhuman animals both have rights. I think that animal liberation is human liberation, and vice versa. I share John Bryant’s dream in Fettered Kingdoms of finding “a place where humans, trees, water and wildlife mix without pain” and of creating “a world of peace, where we could walk amongst the other creatures of this planet without them fleeing in panic at the merest whiff of human scent.”

Does our dream make John Bryant and me sound more like shallow sentimentalists than deep ecologists?

In their book Deep Ecology, George Sessions and Bill Devall define deep ecology as “a way of developing a new balance and harmony between individuals, communities, and all of Nature.” An essential part of this way, said Arne Naess, coiner of the term deep ecology, is “to ask deeper questions.” My question has to do with the deep ecology movement’s macho mystique. I wonder to what extent deep ecology is an ecological disguise for machismo fantasies. I find that being an animal rights person gets in the road of my being a deep ecologist. I find that being a woman also gets in the road. It’s the nature of the consciousness that’s obstructive.

I mistrust a philosophy that cannot imagine a human future without violence in it and seems frankly to fight shy of the whole ideas of such a future. I mistrust an ecovision that encourages disdain for the weak and helpless creatures of the world – the “genetic goofies” and “man-made freaks” such as farm animals and other domesticated members of Earth’s community.

Violence sanctified by Myth is no more acceptable to me than violence rationalized in terms of the scientific Model. The fact that the Myth is “encompassing, intuitive, comforting, involving,” whereas the Model is “limited, cold, manipulative, distant from reality” does not solve the problem. For the unconsenting victim of Myth or Model, these distinctions are moot. Violence directed against nonhuman animals is recommended by Sessions and Devall as “a way to encourage maturity” if done with the “proper attitude.” Hunting and fishing, they say, can enable us to develop “a sense of place and intuitive understanding of the connections between humans and nonhumans together with a respect for the principle of biocentric equality” as this principle has been laid down by ecotopian philosophers Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess.

I do not think, though, that any of these men have me, a woman, in mind for this sanguinary discipline. Rather, they sound like men talking as usual to other men.

A few years ago, ecoholist philosopher J. Baird Callicott wrote an article which prototypically asserts that the concept of animal liberation conflicts not only with the anthropocentric assumptions of Western moral philosophy, but with the biocentric assumptions of modern environmental ethics as characterized in Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.” Far from prohibiting human predatory activities such as hunting, fishing and meat-eating, the land ethic vigorously promotes these things if done with the, as it were, “proper attitude.” Unlike John Muir, who neither hunted nor fished and who considered the human desire for animal flesh a “depraved appetite,” Leopold was an avid hunter who “did not see that his land ethic actually ought to prohibit hunting, cruelly killing, and eating animals.”

A moral theory of the environment, based upon Leopold, could thus be advanced that would regard nonhuman animals as beings “to whom ethical consideration is owed and yet not object to some of them being slaughtered (whether painlessly or not) and eaten, others hunted, trapped, and in various other ways seemingly cruelly used.” A salutary type of humanity would be one which relished the chase, ate animal flesh with “respect,” and which cultivated a healthy tolerance for (others?) pain. Although modern society could not be expected to recrudesce the Stone-Age ethos in its pristine form, still this ethos might be not inelegantly adapted by future human societies seeking a more direct contact with Nature than what we in Western culture now have.

Here in a nutshell is the ecotopian vision to which the deep ecology core constituency seems essentially to subscribe. Moral and cultural simplicity are equated with an ersatz primitivism. Courage and relish thrive on ritual pain and death. There does seem to be a limit, though, as to just how far into the wilderness Ecotopian Man is willing to go. So far I know of no deep ecologist, no ecoholist, who advocates, as a way to ecological maturity and “identification with all life,” acting the part of the hunted in a hunt. Deep ecologist Dave Foreman’s desideratum that his dead body shall be food for carrion, not pickled in a lead coffin, dodges the question of how he would care to die.

In fact, the role of humans in the sacred chase is presumed as a matter of course in deep ecology discourse to be that of hunters. Yet why must this be so? After all, shouldn’t being hunted, and what it feels like to be hunted, be counted as an authentic part of the wilderness experience? By what appeal do we deny this part to ourselves? It may be replied that the human being in the role of hunted animal runs contrary to Nature. Humans hunt; they are not hunted, except by noxious insects. Still, we may ask with John Muir, “How about those man-eating animals – lions, tigers, alligators – which smack their lips over raw man?”

For refusing to inflict pain and death on his “earth-born companions and fellow mortals” of the woods and streams, Muir was patronized by his otherwise admiring, deep ecology-minded biographer Michael P. Cohen, who writes in The Pathless Way that Muir “was never aware of the significant bond forged between hunter and hunted, when a man became a part of the flow of energy in Nature.” In Cohen’s estimate, Muir lacked “insight into violence.” By contrast, Aldo Leopold’s interest in hunting may have made him more sophisticatedly savvy “of the role of predators in ecological communities.” Muir, though, “despite frequent contact with Indian culture . . . did not think about hunting as an enlightening activity.”

No, he did not. One reason is that Muir had insight into human violence. He recognized the “indivisibility of violence.” Muir wrote: “From the shepherd with his lambs to the red-handed hunter, it is the same; no recognition of rights – only murder in one form or another.”

An article in Defenders magazine throws a lurid light on hunting as “an enlightening activity” in Indian culture. It says that “The Indians’ favorite method of bear hunting was to force a bear out of its den with flaming torches.” Is this the sort of thing Bill Devall has in mind when he opines that “For at least forty thousand years, humans have hunted bears, yet in primal societies bears were treated with respect and honor due a god”?

What kind of a god? The Dionysian god whose fate was ritually symbolized in tribal ceremonies in which humans and nonhumans were “honored” by being torn to pieces? Shall we resurrect an ersatz version of that drama? Where should atavistic recrudescence stop? Why should it stop if it brings us closer to “Nature” and allows us to renew the sensations of our Mythic Past?

Wild animals have an honorific status in deep ecology. What about domesticated animals? What do deep ecologists say is our responsibility towards animals whose lives have been as foully wrecked by human deformative practices as the lives of ecosystems? Does the “bovine mind” of which Susan Griffin speaks so eloquently and compassionately have a role in deep ecology? Is there an ethical niche for chickens? A place where sheep may safely graze? Somewhere for feral pigs to roam unmolested as “pests”?

How ominous for the future of the deep ecology movement and for all these animals is the fact that Aldo Leopold never seems to have considered “the treatment of brood hens on a factory farm or steers in a feedlot to be a pressing moral issue”? Will deep ecologists follow in Aldo Leopold’s tracks? Should women follow in his tracks? If we heed Constantina Salamone, the answer is No. She asks: “Was woman, gentle aged guardian of the smaller creatures, really a Diana, the huntress, of the classical (male) mythology?”

Ostensibly this question concerns the past. Its true purport, however, is to address the present and the future. Whatever women have been – and like men we seem to have run the gamut in our roles – we can shape ourselves into something new. We can become ecopersons. Together with gentle men we can be a voice not only for Life but for lives – for all the soft and innocent lives who are at our mercy.

To be this kind of a voice requires us to reconcile the rights of animals and the rights of wilderness, the preciousness of individuals and communities, as Karen DeBraal and Susan Finsen have said that we might if we commit our hearts and minds to the effort. As ecopersons, we can seek diligently for ways to mix with other lives without bringing them pain. “Squalling life, animal and human, announces itself at our mercy.” Are we listening? What answer shall we give?

Mixing Without Pain with End Notes

See also:
"The Otherness of Animals" by Karen Davis, Between the Species, Fall 1988

KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domesticated birds including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds - From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl published by Lantern Publishing & Media. Karen hosts a biweekly podcast series titled Thinking Like a Chicken - News & Views!