Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Elan Abrell, a cultural anthropologist whose research and writing focus on human-environment interactions, scientific knowledge production, and food-related technological innovation. Elan is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Animal Studies Program at Wesleyan University and an adjunct assistant professor in the Animals Studies MA Program and the Anthropology Department at New York University. Previously, Elan served as a 2017-18 Farmed Animal Law & Policy Fellow at the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard, a visiting assistant professor in the Urban Studies Department at Queens College, CUNY, and a Senior Regulatory Specialist at the Good Food Institute. We’re fortunate to have Elan join us at our Phoenix Zones Initiative Summit in November of 2019.
HF: Tell me about how your broad professional background in law, philosophy, and anthropology has informed your approach to issues affecting the rights, health, and wellbeing of people and animals?
EA: I think each of these disciplines highlights in different ways how socially-constructed categories of difference (including species) shape relationships of inequality and exploitation. In my own work, I try to draw on the different perspectives they each provide for analyzing how these relationships are affected by mutually constitutive processes of difference-making. For example, as much brilliant work on histories of racist oppression and violence has highlighted, the socially constructed (and historically shifting) dividing line between who does and does not count as human has played a significant ideological role in justifying the mistreatment of particular groups of people. Likewise, economic processes—especially under capitalism in its various historical stages—have reinforced this dividing line to rationalize and justify the exploitation and mistreatment of both human and nonhuman animals.
HF: Several years ago you wrote about the de facto legalization of torture and its longstanding consequences for those deemed as “enemies.” Talk a little about how the sanctioning of torture, along with other anti-civil rights policies and related discourse, has contributed to systemic discrimination. Do you see any relation between these policies and discourse and the ways in which animals are treated in society?
EA: Yes, definitely. I think this directly relates to how socially constructed categories of difference contribute to relationships of inequality and violence. In that article, I analyzed how the US government during George W. Bush’s administration used the de facto legalization of torture to contribute to the racialization and vilification of Muslims during the “War on Terror.” I basically argued that by establishing a group of people who could be subjected to torture, the Bush regime was doing a particular kind of cultural work to justify their military actions as well as other Islamophobic policies. It creates a sort of circular logic feedback loop in which people who can be deprived of civil rights, especially the right to bodily autonomy and freedom from violence inflicted by the state, are justifiably deprived of those rights because they are bad enough or inhumane enough that they are not entitled to those rights like other people. Trump boils this logic down to its most basic kernel with his “bad hombres” designation for any group he wants to target with the apparatuses of state violence (such as all Muslims and non-white immigrants).
I think, to some extent, this kind of cultural work has already been completed for most nonhuman animals, especially farmed animals. Nonhuman animals are at a stage where the routine systems of violence in which they are entrenched are such a taken for granted aspect of human society that they do not even need to be conceptualized as “bad” in order to justify; the fact that they are not humans is sufficient (although we still see this logic used to justify violence against invasive or “pest” species, like Florida’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recently encouraging people to kill wild iguanas because of the risk of property damage they were perceived to pose).
Just as in the examples related to violence against humans, though, I think the ongoing violence inflicted on animals helps to maintain categories of difference (in this case species-based) that maintain nonhuman animals as beings that can justifiably be exploited and killed to benefit humans. To some extent, I also think that perpetuating violent systems of animal exploitation, like industrial animal agriculture, allows the ongoing avoidance of any real large scale reckoning with such atrocities. To stop it would mean to acknowledge that nonhuman animals should not be subjected to it, while perpetuating it also perpetuates animals’ relegation to a category for which such violence is tolerable and perpetually delays any large scale moral reckoning.
HF: On the subject of farmed animals, until recently, you served as Senior Regulatory Specialist for the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit that promotes plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy, and eggs as well as “clean meat,” as alternatives to the products of conventional animal agriculture. Please tell me some about the work you did for GFI.
EA: My position at GFI, which ended in June of this year, involved working to help establish a clear and fair regulatory path to market for cell-cultured meat products. Prior to starting at GFI in the fall of 2018, I was a Farmed Animal Law and Policy Fellow at the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Program. While there, I was researching the regulatory challenges facing cell-cultured meat products as part of a larger ethnographic project on cellular agriculture. This experience made me a good fit for the regulatory specialist position at GFI, which allowed me to continue researching these issues while more directly advocating for a beneficial regulatory framework for these innovative products. While at GFI, I worked on a public comment to the FDA and USDA proposing the best approach to regulating these products.
In early 2019, the agencies announced a shared framework that would give FDA responsibility over the culturing process of meat and poultry products, and USDA responsibility over the final products. FDA will also have responsibility over the final products for cell-cultured “seafood” (as they also do for conventional “seafood”). In addition to this work at the federal level, I helped lobby against several label censorship bills introduced in state legislatures in early 2019. Largely backed by the cattle industry, these bills were intended to prevent the accurate use of meat-related terminology of cell-cultured meat (which is not yet on the market) and in some cases plant-based meat products as well in order to protect conventional meat from commercial competition.
HF: You’ve written a fair amount about sanctuary, and you’re working on a book related to animal sanctuary now. Tell me about the book, what you’re exploring, and what you hope to accomplish.
EA: Saving Animals: Practices of Care and Rescue in the US Animal Sanctuary Movement is an ethnography (based on my dissertation research) that examines animal sanctuaries as a model for creating the kind of liberatory interspecies politics that I think will be necessary to move toward a positive vision of the future, or at least to move away from the disastrous one. I compare different kinds of animal sanctuaries (for formerly farmed animals, “exotic” animals, and companion animals) and analyze how sanctuary caregivers navigate the practical and ethical dilemmas created by balancing the unique needs of different kinds of animals within the material constraints of captivity. I hope to show some of the ways that humans are endeavoring to carry out the difficult task of creating new ways of living with other animals during this time of ecological crisis. But I also hope to highlight the importance of this work as a potential model for other liberatory activist projects as well as the limits our capitalist economic system places on such efforts.
HF: When you consider the world as it will be for your child, what do you envision?
EA: This is a difficult question. I have an answer about what I would like to see, which is that human societies have broadly embraced liberatory politics that guide them away from the violent exploitations of other humans as well as other animals and the rest of the environment. But unfortunately the answer about what I expect will happen should we continue to allow global capitalism to shape our social relations is that the ongoing anthropogenic ecocide of the planet that we are watching unfold before our eyes will continue to accelerate leading to social destabilization much worse than what we are currently experiencing under the Trump regime. The one thing that gives me hope is that when I have brought this question up in classes I’ve taught on animals and the environment, college students have expressed an encouraging openness to replacing our current political economic system with social relations built on mutual aid and environmental sustainability. I don’t know that there is enough time to turn our Titanic in a different direction, but I am heartened that younger generations seem so open to radical transformations and I hope that openness continues to grow with the ones following them.
Photo rights: Elan Abrell.