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There are reasons to question the nature of what we often call animal law, rights, protection, welfare, etc. Just putting the word “animal” in a phrase or sentence does not help animals, and can do more harm than good.

This is a problem that can be corrected by treating animal law as inherently requiring inclusivity, and below I lay out the steps for doing so. The result is a conception of animal law that starts with our becoming, through a focus on autonomy and family reforms, a species consistent with mutual liberation.

That is the genesis of unified animal personhood, and the mutuality between humans and nonhumans, and to think otherwise is to commit a fallacy.

The dominant of law, rights, welfare, protection, etc., because it can coerce results, is animal law. Impact, and for the right reasons, is what matters. Adding billions of people to the world without regard to how they will impact nonhumans, when doing that in the past created the crises we face today, and while touting laws that are riddled with exemptions and rarely enforced, is not a beneficial impact.

“Animal law” is really human law that happens to refer to animals, while excluding legal and practical protection for the vast majority of nonhumans (animals in factory farms and in research), and designating the vast majority— wildlife—as property, quietly bundled into an anthropocentric concept of the environment as a human resource designated to absorb and be altered by things like greenhouse gas emissions. That concept begins with a companion concept of future children as the property of their would-be parents that simultaneously disregards the autonomy of the nonhuman world.

That bundling is macro-propertyhood, always undoing the micro-personhood that many animal protection organizations routinely use to fundraise.

Any conception of animal law without reforming this – on balance – hurts animals, and does not address the fundamental and existential threat to nonhumans – the fact that we are replacing them.

How might our thinking of “animal law” or other terms that imply a benefit to nonhumans have been different? Were, long ago, humans to have seen themselves as equal parts of a complex ecology rather than a dominant species capable of shaping the world to its needs, we would have been obligated—in family, food, land use, and dozens of other policy areas—to limit ourselves existentially to just such an ecology.

That means smaller families, parenting delay and readiness, and redistribution to wealth to incentivize these things and ensure equal empowerment of children. This is a comprehensively effective model with a 1/2 dozen positive peer-reviews. Simply said, the same nonsense that having kids is a matter of parental autonomy rather than an interpersonal matter of constituting future societies is the same thing that degraded participatory democracy, causes mass animal suffering and extinction, triggered the climate crises, and blew a gulf between rich and the impoverished.

The solution to that, described above in bold, would have required fundamentally challenging the anthropocentric nature of our legal systems, as well as the entitlements of concentrations of wealth and power, something many of the originators of the term “animal law” and other protective terms evaded doing. To the extent Peter Singer evaded these reforms with a misleading focus on farmed animals — rather than all future animals and future persons’ relations with those animals—as the majority for whom we should be concerned if we want to maximize probability of impact, he played a large role in this misdirection. The climatological effects of that misdirection, alone, cannot be overstated, preventing family reforms that could have saved countless animal lives and creating room reforms that exacerbate the situation.

But media generally ignore this issue, often because of conflict of interest they would not admit – the profit expectations, based on unsustainable growth, of their advertisers and parent companies.

What has the greatest impact on animals?

But nothing is “animal law” or animal-benefitting—except in the thinnest and most useless of senses—if it does not orient from their (and hence our) biodiverse and life-giving world.

In other words, there is no such thing as anthropocentric animal law, unless you want to disregard the function of law—to protect its subjects. Thinking there is commits the common mistake of trying to magically separate humans from their language and ideation as well as the ecologies in which they live, a mistake with massive consequences given the climate crisis.

The misnomer argument is true for conceptual reasons, in that a fundamentally ecocentric system necessitating smaller populations of prosocial persons would have maintained the capacity to be more reflective of its human subjects, but also practical reasons—because requiring our systems to be actually inclusive of its subjects so that they can meaningfully participate, and hence ecocentric rather than anthropocentric, would have avoided much of the climate crisis which now threatens the system such “law” was meant to protect. Surely there is no concept of law, including positivism, that would not require its obligations to actually relate to and ideally reflect the inclinations of its subjects, something dependent on their actuality, their quantities and qualities. If the core condition of positivism is to treat law as obligatory because it derives from social sources, how can we do that without first accounting for people and their role in the process, e.g. their being subject to democratic attenuation through growth?

This can be applied in family reforms (here is a letter urging a major animal protection group to make some simple changes), but also more immediately in things like personhood reform, where we physically reject propertyhood in favor of personhood, rather than exclusively relying on and reifying “official means” and a system that treats animals as property in that hopes that such a system will magically one day liberate animals.

Direct action also has the benefit of often making moderates more included in power structures. These protest movements can often have a greater impact than large extractive organizations that silo off and rarely question the fundamental systems driving the oppression.

Jess, and her friend.

The pathway forward is to treat an ecocentric future, and democracy where the average person maintains the quantitative and qualitative capacity to actually have an impact on the outcomes, as the precondition for the legitimacy of any norms and to alter rights and obligations accordingly. This starts with family law and policy oriented around deep ecology and equity, as a pathway towards true animal law and protection. This answers the otherwise open question left by many theorists, of who the people should be that will actually carry animal-benefitting theories into action. That pathway is animal protection in the most comprehensive sense because it actually includes the full biodiversity of nonhumans, as well as the future persons with whom they would interact.

This is a pathway that could be bricked by an untold number of activists creating compelling narratives about the next big social movement, bottom up, limiting and decentralizing human power, rather than simply waiting for institutional change to come from the top down. Bottom line? We should not take a concept like law, reasonably seen as something that is the product of participatory democracies reflective of the will their constituents, which is itself a concept consistent with animal liberation when you look at the family policies necessary to achieve such systems, and pervert it to serve neither ideal.

In my almost two decades of working in “animal law” I saw the concept become a commodity organizations would use to fundraise – regardless of whether it was on balance helping animals, as if the proliferation of people using the these two words together was what we value. It should not be. Impact, and for the right reasons, is what matters. Adding billions of people to the world without regard to how they will impact nonhumans, when doing that in the past created the crises we face today, and while touting laws that are riddled with exemptions and rarely enforced, is not a beneficial impact.

Animal law begins with fundamental/constitutive power relations that actually helps animals and legitimates legal systems, not downstream window dressing. Not dealing with those relations, and other rent-seeking moves by animal protection organizations, make their claims of progress misleading.

Changes like this are fair.

When I left the Animal Legal Defense Fund in 2022 we were potentially doing more harm to animals than good, promoting the idea of effective animal cruelty laws while rarely if ever prosecuting the companies engaged in the vast majority of cruelty, undercutting direct action activists while fundraising using their hard-earned content and high-risk work, opting for family and ecological baseline policies that would put many more animals in harms way than we were taking out, and alienating the crucial social justice movements we needed in order to de-silo animal rights by ignoring the need for DEIJ reforms, changes in employment policies, and unionization.

All of this suggests the need for a certain matrix when thinking about animal law, which in its ideal form may simply be a perfectionist view of law itself, which is necessary if we are to actually account for the physical and day-to-day relations between powerful humans and vulnerable nonhumans. How do we maximize consent in those relations? (And yes, consent can be measured and quantified, much like utility, but unlike utility consent is primary, necessary to justify the governance that makes systems of utility – like economies – possible). Town halls precede shopping malls if actually take democracy seriously.

The matrix would have two axes. The first, 1) where personhood as consensual relations bookends one end of a continuum, would be 2) bookended on the other end by propertyhood (the total control of animals in a CAFO, unlimited procreative “autonomy” that appropriates future children, and anthropocentric approaches to environmentalism for example).

The other axis would involve tactics for changing that status, which proceed on a continuum from 1) those based on top-down and exclusionary systems of power based on things like litigation under constitutions, 2) moving towards the alternative of direct action systems that reject official obligations (like DXE‘s work) and which instead embrace bottom-up and inclusive systems of power, and 3) ending the axis with actions that incorporate intergenerational justice for the future majority like Fair Start, ecocentric environmentalism, and macro personhood – all forms of fundamental or constitutive change.

Where particular efforts land on the matrix might show 1) how seriously particular advocates take the value of consent (which might mirror decolonization efforts), 2) the probability and level of impact (hundreds of attorneys waiting decades for precedent v. thousands of activists right now telling their stories/cases on many overlapping areas of animal-benefitting state-resistant social justice), and 3) the willingness of advocates to benefit from or challenge (at personal risk) systems premised on the inextricable exploitation of nonhumans and future generations as property.

To be specific, there are specific actions that could further the many forms of social justice, benefitting humans and nonhumans alike: Open rescues at factory farms in extremely oppressed communities timed with Fair Start resource-demand occupations targeting the concentrations of wealth and power that own the farms; climate reparation interventions targeting pro-growth interests to pay climate restoration-level amounts to ensure birth equity; flash-mob demands that executive directors at large nonprofits that shilled for concentrations of wealth and power to tell the #wholetruth about what they did.

Many advocates choose to orient from and reify unjust systems that exploit animals, rather than confronting and overcoming those systems even in simple and incremental ways. But protest and other direct action movements can be more effective than the best charities, a truism that – in the context of animals – relies on the incredible transparency activists can create.

The best outcomes for animals may come from organizations across the spectrum of the axes working together, with fair levels of funding for each. That is the genesis of unified animal personhood, and the mutuality between humans and nonhumans, and to think otherwise is to commit a fallacy.

All of this is to say that if we are going to fight for animals we owe them an examination of all assumptions, and a backing out from those assumptions to assessing raw power in its naked form, and how to limit it – for their sake and ours.

TAKE ACTION: A lot of organizations and people using terms that imply the protection of animals are not actually helping animals, long run and when considering the totality of the circumstances. Urge them to tell the #wholetruth – about their approach to family policy and direct action – and encourage them to make reforms in a way that will actually help animals.

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