Before some of y’all get mad or confused, the title is not an attempt to co-opt the phrase “environmental justice” away from communities of color plagued by environmental, health, and economic inequalities. Nor is it an attempt to replace “animal rights.” This post is concerning issues of space and habitat I’ve been grappling with for a while. As I’ve started working directly with urban animals, urban black communities living in poverty, and this notion of interspecies community, I’ve had to rethink how I go about labeling some of these intersectional issues of habitat quality, the institutional shuffling of African Americans into ghettos that directly decrease their quality of life, the institutional displacement of animals in the city, unless they are “pets” under constant surveillance by “owners”, “entertainment” in a traveling circus, “livestock” in a backyard, captives in a zoo, or victims in a lab facility.
My work has become an issue of space, the allocation of space and environmental quality: Who performs the allocation? Who decides who gets space and who doesn’t and what the quality of that space is? Who benefits from the allocation? Who gets punished for disobeying the allocation (i.e. feral animals, “pests”, homeless humans, humans of color)? I don’t expect to address these questions in the body of this post alone but rather discuss them over a series of posts. My hope is to create ways in which animal rights and environmental justice can meet to bring compassion, renewal, and resilience to disenfranchised, vulnerable communities. In this essay, I’m exploring the frameworks that have influenced and limited my work for animals, all while brainstorming alternatives that can address the issue of liberatory space for animals in society.
I realize that animal rights projects tackling the issue of legal rights may not be focusing on rights to space and good habitat quality specifically, but primarily on the access to basic rights period. By advancing scientific evidence that shows how nonhuman apes and cetaceans share similarities with humans in perception, knowledge-making, emotional experience, and socialization, these projects have resulted in an attempt to make certain animal species as close as possible to humans in the moral consideration hierarchy (see Nonhuman Rights Project).
And since the dawn of wildlife management in the 1930s as a profession, it has, and its subsidiary wildlife conservation, been the monopolizing enterprise over issues of habitat and space. While, in the past, many attempted to protect animals from persecution, slavery, and other forms of violence often at the expense of other animals and humans of color in extreme poverty and disenfranchisement, today’s leading wildlife conservation organizations work with local communities to conserve wild animal species as the natural resources that they are (which is only a natural progression from wildlife management) and insure they as humans’ natural heritage will be around for future generations of humans (see WWF and National Wildlife Federation).
These two types of animal protection only seem to be able to protect animals, their space and habitat, and maybe bring justice for animals so long as they fit one of the two categories: 1) almost human or 2) a natural resource for humans. If they are zebra mussels, carpenter ants, or feral dogs, they are not only out of luck, but considered a threat to the socio-ecological order.
Keep in mind, I’m not dissing any of the aforementioned organizations. While I don’t agree with some of their approaches, I find them all essentially necessary in the grand scheme of things, even if some, mainly the wildlife conservation organizations, aren’t where I think they should be ideologically. They are all relevant because their presence influences the creation of new organizations, grassroots alternative institutions, and counter structures that can get closer to radical social change.
What I propose is to consider animals’ access to space and habitat as a natural right, as natural as breathing oxygen or shitting nitrogen. Let it not be an ideological issue of whether they are very similar to humans or something of use to humans. Because even animals who do not fit those categories deserve that natural right. It is a natural right of life. Life cannot be without the space and habitat for self-reliance, self-determination, and self-actualization. Life cannot adapt and find its way without the space to do so. Accepting this, even for animals we call nuisances and threats, is our great challenge as cultures and as a species.
In his essay “The Importance of Environmental Justice,” Peter Wenz argues that environmental justice is an issue of distributive justice, where societies apportion scarce entities that citizens need or want. And, on the flip side of that, societies apportion toxic entities that citizens neither need nor want. How their governments go about doing that becomes a question of who the societies are structured for. When we’re talking about class in America, society is structured to keep middle class and wealthy Americans comfortable enough to access all their essential needs and consumer wants, while delegating the resulting pollution and displacement to low-income, vulnerable, disenfranchised communities. When we’re talking about race, the same thing applies, except we’re talking about white Americans placing the overwhelming burden of pollution, habitat degradation, and ecological instability on communities of color. When we’re talking about species, satisfying consumers’ needs and wants becomes an act of violating and exploiting those animals who have what they want and persecuting and displacing those who get in the way. As the total human population continues to expand and expand, space becomes more scarce for those who are marginalized to fringes of this expansion. And for those who otherwise manage to thrive in human-occupied spaces, they constantly face persecution and displacement because they attempt to occupy spaces where they “do not belong.”
Imagine then a community-driven social enterprise where low-income, disenfranchised humans of color are empowered to care about the animals with whom they live in community. Imagine then the collective effort to improve habitat quality for the whole community, not just human residents. Imagine the imperative to appreciate animals’ natural rights that would blossom from this collective effort. Imagine environmental justice for all animals, made possible through their own self-determination, their own power.
What comes to mind when you imagine?