“It’s okay to eat fish cause they don’t have any feelings,” at least so said Kurt Cobain in one of my favorite Nirvana songs. He was wrong though. Fish do, in fact, have feelings. They have personalities too. That lyric is representative of a general attitude toward animals in our society that needs to change if we’re going to talk about building utopia in any meaningful way.
News broke last week that the U.K. government has formally recognized crabs and octopuses as sentient beings. The update to the Animal Welfare Sentience Bill adds decapods and cephalopods to their list of sentient animals that includes all vertebrates.
It seems strange that such a legal move should be necessary. After all, we ourselves are animals in every sense of the word. However, in our capitalist society where both the lives (pets, zoos, etc) and deaths (meat, leather, furs, and more) of animals have been commodified and turned into tools of corporate profit, such legal measures are unfortunately needed in order to protect the welfare of other animals.
That’s not to suggest that these kinds of laws guarantee any such protection. They mostly, if not always, come with a serious lack of funding and enforcement capability. The result is that too often such regulations are little more than symbolic. It’s always good advice to take such proclamations by corporate states with a grain of proverbial salt while fighting like hell for the strongest enforcement measures possible.
Recognizing, and even more importantly, respecting animal sentience is a key step toward building a better world. Literally thousands of scientific studies back up the fact of animal sentience. Anyone who has had pets knows they have personalities, emotions, joys and frustrations. They get excited and bored. They dream, they get depressed and they mourn. We know animals are intelligent. They learn and communicate, and they form close relationships and bonds, even across species. They actively seek to preserve their lives and to protect the lives of those they care about.
As a species, we humans are very anthropocentric. We believe various gods put us here to have dominion over the Earth. We think we’re special, that we’re in charge, and we act like it. It can be all too easy for us to collectively pretend we don’t know animals are, in essence, no less human than we are.
Such beliefs make it easier for us to own animals, to control and exercise power over them, to eat them, and to treat them like slaves. This is in no way meant to shame pet owners or meat eaters. We have a couple dogs and cats, and even some goats who live with us. I even eat fish somewhat regularly. But that doesn’t mean the way we as a society treat animals is in any way excusable.
If we’re serious about justice, if we’re serious about working together in cooperation to create a new world that can ever be considered something like a utopia, then we need a monumental shift in our social consciousness around the issue of animal sentience and animal rights. It isn’t enough for just science to recognize the truth. We can’t just recognize animal sentience on paper. Rather, we have act like the existence and agency of other species is as important, valuable, and meaningful as our own.
Our lives and the health of our planet depend on them and the entire web of life. We have to end our relationship of domination with the animal world and engage with other species on terms more akin to partnership in the stewardship of our world. Such a shift would be transformational for humanity, for our societies, and for the entire world.
Justine Norton-Kertson (they/he/she) is the co-editor-in-chief of Solarpunk Magazine. They live in rural Oregon with his partner, puppies, cats, goats, and beehives. She can be found on Twitter @jankwrites.