What Animal Rights Activists Can Learn from the Failures of the War on Poverty

What Animal Rights Activists Can Learn from the Failures of the War on Poverty

by Wayne Hsiung


We have seen massive economic growth, globally, in the past 50 years. Yet, for the poorest and most oppressed, little seems to have changed. As Thomas Pogge, Director of the Global Justice Program and Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, points out, this is especially galling because those of us in the developed world would have to shift such a tiny amount of our income, 2.7%, to totally alleviate severe poverty. 

But despite significant attempts by do-gooders to increase, and make more effective, charitable donations, the long-term problems remain unsolved. Why? Pogge offers an answer:

[A]id on its own cannot overcome the powerful headwind generated by a supranational institutional order designed by the rich for the rich... Only by changing the rules that generate and maintain vast global inequality can we actually realize the proclaimed ambition of our political leaders to end severe poverty by 2030. We must address its root causes, rather than treating its symptoms under the guise of charity.

Aid that goes to the poor, in a world where the rules of the game are skewed against them, ends up getting swallowed up by inefficient bureaucracies, corrupt dictators, or impossible on-the-ground problems (e.g. saving a child from malaria only to have her die the next day from cholera). Without an effort to change rules -- the many forms of which social scientists call "institutions" -- even promising symptomatic interventions are doomed to fail. 

There are lessons here for animal rights activists. Too often, we focus on symptomatic efforts -- changing one person, reforming one form of abuse for one particular species -- without thinking about the root causes -- political, social, and cultural -- of species oppression.

And there are tensions between systemic and symptomatic interventions, not only because resources spent on symptoms cannot go to cures, but because the very way we frame a problem will influence our conception of what it means to find a cure. A physicist will find answers that sound in physics -- she will look at the interaction of atoms and molecules, the operation of basic forces of physical science -- even if the right answer can only be found by looking to biology. 

Similarly, a vegan consumerist will find solutions only in vegan consumerism, even if the right answer can only be found by looking to animal liberation. If we focus too much on individual-level interactions (How do I create an individual vegan?), we may miss out on other variables of our system -- so-called emergent properties -- that are more important if we are to create real and permanent change (How do I create legal, moral, and social rules that condemn violence against animals?). The strategies, messaging, and tactics to affect these latter variables, in turn, might be very different from what we would seek if we were focused only on individual-level change. 

The upshot? As with the war on poverty, creating real and permanent change for animals will require us to change, not just individuals, but the rules under which those individuals operate. And that effort requires far more creativity, strategy, and yes, even radicalism than the mainstream animal rights movement currently acknowledges.