“Ecological violence disproportionately affects women of colour and animals.”
With vegan activist, feminist, and gender studies researcher, Charlotte Lim, we spoke about her work, the interweaving of various forms of oppression, ecological violence, bioeconomics, and transhumanism.
Anja Radaljac: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, describe your work in a few words, and explain how it incorporates the research concerning the animal rights question?
Charlotte Lim: Of course! I grew up in Australia surrounded by birds – my own companion animals including chickens, quails, doves, pigeons and cockatiels – and gorgeous native birds such as rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos, magpies, brush turkeys and mynas too. I think being a woman of colour pushed me into the field of Gender Studies, learning how identity markers (such as gender/sex, race, disability, species, class etc.), and systems of oppression intersect to compound the effects of marginalisation and disempowerment. I’ve been vegan since February 2019, which is two years after I had learned about Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality in my first Gender Studies lecture.
AR: In your opinion, what are some of the most prevalent ways in which the questions of gender, speciesism, and ableism intertwine?
CL: Animal agriculture provides the most prominent example of this. To provide some context, I spent a lot of time in 2020 volunteering for an organisation called NSW Hen Rescue. Their mission is to liberate all animals from cages, educate others on how animals are exploited, and inspire other people, whether they be activists, academics or otherwise, to do the same. Many of the animals (but particularly rescued hens, originally bred for cage eggs) had suffered from traumas that resulted in permanent disabilities,which naturally increase the cost, time, effort, and provisions that go into their post rescue care (medications, amputation surgeries, feeding routine, to name a few examples). Since hens are only used for their “utility” in producing eggs, the moment they are seen as “not productive” they are discarded by the industry (and shamefully, backyard owners who don’t see the animals as individuals whose lives matter). In the egg industry, roosters are killed once they hatch and are sexed, while hens are forced into cages to lay eggs until reaching 18 months of age when they too are trucked off to a slaughterhouse. If these birds are “lucky” enough to be broiler chickens (those used for “meat”), they are slaughtered at 6 months. However, their bodies and skeletal frames can’t cope with how humans have engineered them, namely to grow unnaturally. Disabled animals, particularly disabled chickens, aren’t seen as valuable companions – and identity markers such as gender, one’s species and whether or not they have disabilities – impact the value of life placed on the individual.
In activism, gender and sex, but more specifically sexuality itself can be used as a concept to educate others on what the assumed ‘norm’ is: for example, cows who produce milk (bovines) are female, and they are impregnated through forced artificial insemination. This raises questions regarding the sentience and ability of animals to express consent,as well as how animals are perceived as mere tools of production. I find that, particularly in the dairy industry, a lot of activism focuses on the fact that bovines are mothers. To childfree and/or queer folk, that kind of messaging can come off as counter-productive and pushing that notion of the ‘norm’. However, it is an effective tool to convey animal emotions and sentience.
Tying into speciesism and ableism is class: I’ll have to go on a bit of a tangent to begin with – one of the very frustrating issues I’ve encountered throughout my vegan journey has been the idea that veganism is ”inaccessible”. This is frustrating because I understand that inaccessibility all too well. I took 2 years to become vegan, not even “transitioning” to vegetarian because I was preoccupied with how drastically (or so I thought) my life would change. I wouldn’t be able to eat the same food as my family, my favourite dishes all include eggs, and culturally I felt it very challenging to grapple with the idea that I would be marked as “different”, that there is something “wrong” with me or that I’m going through “one of those phases”. Being brought up in a Western colonial society that values animal agriculture as a primary industry, and where animal flesh and secretions are regularly used in food and clothes makes it challenging – vegan food similar to what I was used to eating (for instance, mock meats) is more expensive, and the cost is difficult to justify. I had to un-learn everything I knew about food. I ate kidney beans for the first time in 2019. I had to be creative and experimental with food; both are necessary when you are not only money-poor, but time-poor as well, and it is even exacerbated for individuals who have disabilities.
AR: In what way does ecological violence enter the field of violence towards women and animals? How does racial violence find its way into the mix?
CL: Ecological violence disproportionately affects women of colour and animals. For instance, feminist scholar Astrida Neimanis, in her 2017 book Bodies of Water, explores how North American women’s breast milk is affected – and indeed, turned toxic – by pollutants emerging from various industries located in the US. The women and consequently children who are disproportionately affected by toxic breast milk are those who reside in the Canadian Arctic. Inuit women’s milk contains two to ten times the amount of toxins compared to white women in the south, due to pollutants circulating in oceanic currents and being transported through the bodies of ocean mammals (whose quality of life is severely compromised before they may be consumed by humans). CAS academic Vasile Stanescu wrote a brilliant paper on ‘dietary racism’, which links quite well to this.
Another example: environmental activist Vandana Shiva also wrote a famous paper on the Chipko Movement, and how colonial violence inflicted on Himalayan forests exacerbated what we think of as “natural” (but are they really exempt from human influence?) disasters such as landslides and floods, which impact the safety and security of local communities (whether that be their homes, food and agricultural practices or the spiritual connection to the forest) and the habitat of animals that rely on those forests.
Donna Haraway speaks of ‘naturecultures’ – the inherent entanglement of both nature and human culture, systems and ways of living – and how it is an impossible task to separate one from the other. Hence she provides a useful concept on how ecological violence transgresses between species, race and gender.
AR: What is the best way to address the intertwined questions (of violence) in the sense of trying to reveal as much as possible rather than to conceal it (for example, by inaccuracies or generalizations)? What do you believe is the best way to research the intertwinement of different modes of violence?
CL: It’s a hard question to answer, as it varies from person to person! I’m a very concept-oriented researcher, so I like to just sit and read and think about concepts brought out from what I’ve read, and see how those concepts overlap with the intertwinement of different modes of violence. I feel as though concepts help me unravel the “onion” of violence – that might be a bit strange, but each concept allows you to peel away the different layers to reveal as much as possible when framed under a specific (and usually for me, feminist-oriented) lens.
AR: What is the significance of bioeconomy in your research? Do you perceive it as one of the possible practical ways in which one can address or maybe even resolve ecological violence, violence against animals, and indirectly, maybe even other modes of violence?
CL: I do like the concept of bio-economies – the idea that you can transform bodily materials into new kinds of objects, objects that can be repurposed and made “valuable” in some other way. The concept can definitely provide a way in which one can address ecological violence – how different bodies, between species – can escalate ecological violence, having that flow-on, ripple effects across time and space. I also think that the concept of a bioeconomy can be a practical way in which a researcher or activist can explain how capitalism and anthropocentrism interlock in systems (such as the fashion industry, or the dairy industry) to show others how animals are further oppressed and exploited under human ideologies and the economic system that we currently live under. It is not necessary to incite either a complete overhaul or removal of capitalism, but to show how markets justify the use of animals for profit, and how this is an inherently anti-feminist line of thought.
AR: Could you present to us (in a few words) your paper on down feathers (” Light as a Feather?” ) that you prepared in 2019 for the EACAS conference in Barcelona?
CL: Absolutely! I conducted my research in Sweden by analysing the prominence of “ethical” fashion, which is strongly marketed by Swedes themselves as “good, reliable and high quality” brands. I investigated the ways both corporations and consumers attempt to justify the use (and thus, exploitation) of animals to generate profit. The term for this is ‘welfarism’, which claims to abide by the “ethical” use of animals, enabling consumers to resist challenging the normative status of animals who are impacted. Rather than examining welfarism in animal agriculture (e.g., egg or dairy production), I chose to channel those efforts into down-feather jackets, and how marketing strategies such as the “Down Transparency Standard” attempts to make invisible the suffering and harm inflicted upon geese whose down is live-plucked. Animals who are entangled in industries in which they are used but perhaps more invisibilised is something I wanted to examine, and subsequently critique.
If you’re interested in further reading, Jana Canavan wrote an excellent paper on welfarism that shaped my own understanding of the term and how to apply it not only in academia, but in everyday life as well.
AR: Some of the themes you deal with seem to be in some kind of synchronicity with what we encounter in the trans-humanist thought, which many researchers understand as a possible ‘way out’ of the use of animals. What is your stance on such ideas?
CL: As far as I understand, ‘transhumanism’ advocates for the enhancement of the human species by creating, developing and/or harnessing sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human abilities – whether those be physical (for example, longevity) or mental (cognitive function). I take the phrase ‘a way out’ to mean the ‘possibility to not use animals anymore’, as technological advancements would eradicate the need for this (i.e., lab-grown meat, replacement of animal testing with computer models for clinical trials).
I think of these kinds of human advancements as the “lesser of two evils” – for instance, lab grown meat is cultivated by the use of foetal bovine serum – a by-product of slaughtered animals. While I do think there is hope that one day, there will be purely plant-based, vegan alternatives that do not make use of any animal product, it’s difficult to remain enthusiastic while the path towards the creation of these technologies still relies on the use (and abuse) of non-human beings. In saying that though, I am hopeful that with increased awareness of and understanding for the ethical and environmental push towards developing technologies that minimise harm towards our non-human companions, that eventually, we will come to a vegan world.
AR: Since you research questions asexuality, race, economy, handicap, how do you perceive some phenomena in animals rights (or rather vegan) activism that is based on emphasizing sexuality, able-bodied notions, current economic model, etc.?
CL: My approach to all activism is centred on intersectionality, so when I see animal rights campaigns that overly emphasize sexuality or able-bodied notions etcetera, it makes me immensely frustrated. Veganism is, I firmly believe, a form of feminism – how can someone advocate for the rights of animals when they disavow equality for other marginalised groups? Feminism is about advocating for equality despite systemic and structural impositions such as race, class, sex/gender, dis/ability, age, nationality, etc. When approaching animal rights activism it is so important to be mindful of privilege and other metrics of oppression to ensure that the underlying ethics (i.e., equality for all) of activism shines through.