Credit: Dr. Kristof Dhont
The 2020 COVID-19 outbreak is directly linked to human relations with other animals. Scholars, researchers, and graduate students specializing in the study of Animals & Society share their thoughts on the sociological importance of the pandemic.
If you would like your essay, artwork, audio, video, etc. shared here, please email 2020 Section Chair, Dr. Corey Wrenn at email@example.com.Contributions listed here represent only the opinions and research expertise of contributors and do not necessarily represent that of the Animals & Society Section or the American Sociological Association.
The Anthropocene: Animals and the Covid-19 Pandemic
Catherine Price, University of East Anglia
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the human-animal relationship once again into focus. The Covid-19 virus in all likelihood originated in animals, and scientists are working to establish its origins (Cyranoski, 2020). Humans often like to see themselves as separate to animals, but the Covid-19 virus illustrates that all species are part of the same ecosystems.
Recently, climate change and harm to the environment has made its way onto government agendas and has become more prevalent in people’s consciousness. Extreme weather events and melting ice sheets are now daily occurrences on the planet. But as Haraway (2015: 159) argues, ‘it's more than climate change; it's also extraordinary burdens of toxic chemistry, mining, depletion of lakes and rivers under and above ground, ecosystem simplification, vast genocides of people and other critters, etc., etc., in systemically linked patterns that threaten major system collapse after major system collapse after major system collapse’. This era we now live in has been termed the Anthropocene. ‘The term Anthropocene suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita’ (Steffen et al., 2007: 614, emphasis in original). The Anthropocene is the ‘manifestation of the madness of a species disconnected from the conditions of their world’ (Wright, 2017: 177), and is illustrated by the alteration of the global carbon cycle, the escalating loss of biodiversity and the worldwide fragmentation of forests. This human disconnection from the world is troubling and concerning. Interconnected webs of multispecies entanglements sustain life on Earth. However, in the era of the Anthropocene many of these webs are disentangling. ‘Our inattention to the connectivities we emerge from, and are sustained by, has caused such environmental devastation that we are now the agents of Earth’s sixth mass extinction event’ (Wright, 2017: 178). It is important that we consider these aspects of the Anthropocene in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst it may not be immediately obvious what the relationship is between the Anthropocene and Covid-19, the two are inextricably linked. Here, it is necessary to think of the multispecies entanglements which are present on Earth.
As (Haraway, 2008: 41) argues, there is an entanglement of ‘a motley crowd of differentially situated species, including landscapes, animals, plants, microorganisms, people, and technologies’. The lack of acknowledgement of multispecies entanglements is part of the problem with the Covid-19 pandemic. Humans see nature as a resource to be used and exploited. Rivers can be used as sources of hydroelectric power, mountains can be quarried for building materials, and forests can be used for wood and paper. Animals too can be perceived as resources. They are eaten, hunted, experimented on, and stared at in zoos. Our more than human world also reaches beyond our relationships with animals. Bacteria and viruses are also part of the ecosystems in which we belong. They are also part of humans. ‘I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm’ (Haraway, 2008: 3). This time though, Covid-19 is causing humans and animals harm and is the latest of many diseases to have affected both humans and animals. Others include Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and avian influenza (Rabinowitz, 2018). However, we need to acknowledge that emergent zoonotic disease epidemics and pandemics are caused by human activities. As we live through the Covid-19 pandemic, we are being shown how the effects of human activity create a serious and powerful threat to our own being. The Covid-19 pandemic is not something we should be dismissive of. Donna Haraway (2014) in her presentation of ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble’ spoke about humans ‘incapacity to think the world that is actually being lived. The inability to confront the consequences of the worlding that one is in fact engaged in, and the limiting and thinking to functionality. The limit of thinking to business as usual’. If we continue to think in a business as usual manner, either throughout the Covid-19 pandemic or beyond, we will struggle. Our anthropogenic activities will continue to increase human-animal interactions through losses in wildlife habitats as well as through our consumption of farmed animals. This will serve to continue to facilitate zoonotic disease transmission.
If we wish to think beyond business as usual, then we need to rethink our relationship with animals. We have to think of a multispecies becoming with, and we need to think of multispecies entanglements. Different viewpoints of enacting change need to be considered. Collective reimagining needs to take into account the types of changes we wish to see with our relationships with other animals. We will also need to consider how these changes will be enacted post-pandemic. This will be a radical departure from business as usual and what we are used to. However, only when we acknowledge that we are not separate from nature, and that we cannot manipulate and control other species as objects for profit, will we be able to address some of the problems we face. Covid-19 is a warning shot of what humanity will face if it does not change its ways and start to acknowledge we are only one part of the ecosystems in which we live.
References: Cyranoski, D. (2020) Did pangolins spread the China coronavirus to people? Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00364-2 (Accessed 31 March 2020).
Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, D. (2014) Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble. Available at http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/ (Accessed 30 March 2020).
Haraway, D. (2015) Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities, 6, pp. 159-165.
Rabinowitz, P. M. G., Pappaioanou, M., Bardosh, K. L. and Conti, L. (2018) A planetary vision for one health. BMJ Global Health, 3(5), pp. 1–6.
Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J. and McNeill, J. R. (2007) The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature? Ambio, 36 (8), pp. 614-621.
Wright, K. (2017) Transdisciplinary Journeys in the Anthropocene. Abingdon: Routledge.
Dr Catherine Price is a Research Associate at the University of East Anglia. Her research interests include human-animal relationships, the food system, science and society, and the environment. She tweets at @CatherineJPrice and details of her research can be found at ResearchGate
Resistance as an Instance of Evolution
Bonnie Berry, Social Problem Research Institute
As to the resistance from the discipline of sociology, to view animals-and-society studies as a serious academic venture, I might offer that the resistance is an instance of evolution. I am 66 years old and when I was a college student (1972-1983), gender studies and feminism were also stigmatized to a degree. It was and is baffling that sociologists would be biased against gender studies, as well as against race/ethnicity studies and A&S studies.
I was on the ASA A&S organizing committee and was dismayed at how difficult it was to get the new Division approved by the ASA. However, as we might guess, those who study the devalued (nonhuman animals in this case) are often devalued themselves. I don’t know this for a fact but I wonder (doubt) that other proposed ASA divisions have had as much trouble gaining approval. Can we imagine the uproar if a division on gender or race or SES inequality were to face resistance by a sociology organization? But with these areas of study we are talking about humans.
On matters of race, disability, and other stigmatized categories, we find today that of course these ism’s still exist. However, progress has been made with the civil rights movement, disabilities protection, etc. It’s not perfect but it moves forward.
Another evolutionary factor to keep in mind and with reference to environmental damage, it is painfully obvious that the US presidential administration denies all science, climate and other. Soon, hopefully, Trump will be gone and will be replaced by an administration that treasures scholarship and science.
Specific to COVID-19, we as humans are concerned about it because it affects us. More pointedly as to COVID-19 and nonhuman animals, we learn yesterday that a tiger in the Bronx (NY) zoo has corona virus, contracted from a human zoo worker. We don’t know how many other big cats at this zoo have the virus. This development is heartbreaking to those who admire at least certain kinds of animals, those considered beautiful and exotic.
It is probably a matter of time before we discover that farm animals are infected with COVID-19. They are in captivity and forced to interact with human farmworkers. That will disturb humans because they like to eat animals. Consider also entertainment animals (horses, et al.) who may get the virus because they too are in captivity and in involuntary contact with humans. The list goes on.
Will humans begin to care more about nonhumans because their food source, entertainment, and other exploitative purposes to which nonhumans are put begin to get sick and die from COVID-19? Time will tell.
Progress is unbearably slow, but recall what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Bonnie Berry, PhD, is Director of the Social Problems Research Group in Seattle, WA.
Meat alternatives, China and Covid-19: a Case of Repeated History?
Miri Eliyahu, Northwestern University
For the past 2 years, I have been researching the emergence and expansion of the vegan food market in the US and the UK, as a form of a moral market. During that time, I had collected thousands of archival documents, dozens USDA datasets and interviewed most of the individuals currently involved in the vegan market in both the UK and US, as well as the first entrepreneurs who founded it years ago (54 interviews as these are still small yet expanding markets). I have learned during this time that even though the alternatives to farming animals have increased over time both in product and in manners of production (i.e. plant based alternatives and lab grown meats), the meat industry in the US was not overly concerned.
This does not mean that cattlemen’s associations are not proactive about protectionist legislation, what it does mean that most of the industry leaders in the meat industry have set their eyes on emerging economies; developing countries that now enter wealth accumulation, in which the desire for meat consumption as a status symbol is so great, it makes up for any decrease in meat sales they might experience on the national level due to vegan or plant based alternatives to meet rising.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with the global food industry, I wish to present a brief review of why China is central to both the meat industry, as well as the developing and expanding vegan and lab grown meat alternatives. China’s population is over 1,400,000,000 individuals, most of which, only in recent years encountered wealth accumulation which allows them to mimic western consumption in several ways; one of which is food consumption. The process that is now happening in China is like the US after World War 2, where agriculture subsidies made meat consumption no longer a luxury but rather a commodity (Bonnen and Schweikhardt 1998; Franck, Grandi, and Eisenberg 2013). It is assumed that the US’s historical transformation of the meat industry and consumption is the model for meat consumption demand in developing countries, and even if the vegan market succeeds in western countries, developing countries will still enjoy as similar trajectory of rise in meat sales long before veganism becomes a market category. In other words, there is a curve for meat consumption, and it will be high, as the Chinese population develop an appetite to meat and American foods.
However, there are also ways in which the Chinese market can be expected to behave differently than the US one. Unlike Americans that feel uncomfortable with lab grown meats, East Asian countries are leading the world in developing lab grown seafood as well as lab grown hog as alternatives to animal agriculture. The Chinese perceptions of these are not as rigid as the Western ones, as they were less exposed to the marketing of the animal agriculture groups, nor do they have an aversion to plant based proteins as a large part of their diet and cultural foods are based on soy. This makes China the next battleground for the meat industry and the vegan and lab grown meat producers. To truly influence animal farming and reduce the number of animals harmed the vegan producers must get an early foothold in this rapidly expanding food market as both groups are trying to vie for the attention of palette of these new consumer populations that now have the financial ability to be omnivores at all costs.
Before COVID-19, it was perceived as a fact even, that the vegan market would be a late development in the Chinese food industry, as the appetite for pork and meat grows rapidly in China, making China the largest importer of animal products in the world on the recent decade (feednavigator.com n.d.). Whenever I would ask my informants in the meat industry why are they not worried about the decline in meat sales which might eventually come they all said, “China is buying all the meat right now, not the US”. This was expected to be the trend in food for the next few years, China would increase its consumption of animals, and would be the world’s largest buyer of pork, meat and poultry (“Beef Imports in China Are Expected to Continue to Grow in Volume Over the Forecast Period, 2020-2024 - ResearchAndMarkets.Com” 2020).
For meat consumption at least, recent news show that COVID-19 has flattened the curve of meat consumption in China. Not only that, but the Chinese government has banned the consumption of wildlife animals, a step that before COVID-19 no market expert could have foreseen. China never saw the need to restrict its animal consumption, as wild animals are in many cases considered delicacies. Unlike the US population, many in China have made the connection between animal consumption and the risk of pathogen transference and like the UK after the Mad Cow disease outbreak, they are now as a society, trying to learn more about meat alternatives and avoid the risks of eating animals spurring interest in varied alternatives. If we look at modern history, this has happened before in a different country when there was a severe outbreak of BSE, or better known as mad cow disease, in the UK. The outbreak began in the mid 1980’s, and lasted in ongoing cycles of cattle illness and death until the mid-1990’s. It not only caused the loss of large numbers of animals, but once there was a suspicion of transference to human in the form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a high risk neurological disease, the British public reduced its consumption of meat drastically to a point in which “no one wanted the risk of dying, so for months, no one ate meat” as Craig, a former CEO of a vegetarian meat alternative brand in the UK told me. This was a health crisis for the UK, and Brits quickly learned that in a globalized supply chain it is hard to buy cheap meat with no risks. This contributed to the rise of vegetarian brands such as Quorn, one of the first meat alternatives to dominate the UK food market. For several months, meat sales were non-existent, and the American beef industry feared that it too will suffer if BSE were to migrate to American farms.
This has changed how the British populations consumes animals permanently. Currently, All farms are highly regulated by the government, the import of meats is restricted and only made possible from places who comply with the high restrictions of the UK, such as no hormones, but more than that, meat alternatives became a norm in the UK long before they emerged in the US. A walk through a Tesco store will show diverse selection of meat and dairy alternatives, all situated alongside their animal product counterpart. Even though the US has become a powerhouse of vegan alternatives since Beyond Meat and Impossible foods, in the UK this trend of meat alternatives existed for much longer. Vegan steaks, gyros, hotdogs and so on are available for mass consumption not because of compassion, but because of the risks associated with meat consumption to one’s health. The BSE outbreak in the UK did not eliminate animals from their diet, but it did change the way British consumers view animal products, and the quantities they consume animal products. Even today, over 30 years post BSE, the Brits never reached similar consumption proportions of meat compared to Americans.
It is too early to see if COVID-19 would have a similar long lasting effects on China’s animal consumption but if history is any indication, it seems as if they are following a path that increases the chances of a developing country adopting meat alternatives before they ever adopt meat fully. The panic of contracting illnesses coupled with their flexibility towards innovations such as lab grown meats and plant-based proteins makes them ideal adopter of vegan meat alternatives after the COVID-19 health crisis, and its direct relation to animal consumption. It is no surprise that large plant-based producers such as Impossible foods have set their goals to China amid COVID-19 as now, an emerging market of vegan meat alternatives. I expect that COVID-19, and its connection to animal consumption will have long lasting effects on how the Chinese population views meat consumption, in ways that might reduce animal harm in the food industry as they move towards a different path than post WW2 US.
 Cultured meat lecture, Good food conference, 2019.
 China’s Ban on Wildlife Trade a Big Step, but Has Loopholes, Conservationists Say - The New York Times, taken on 3/28/2020 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/science/coronavirus-pangolin-wildlife-ban-china.html
 Public health threats may mean that a shift away from animal products is on the horizon in China.. taken on 3/28/2020 from https://vegnews.com/2020/3/coronavirus-outbreak-sparks-china-s-interest-in-vegan-just-egg
Miri is currently a doctoral candidate in the Sociology Department of Northwestern University, researching social movements, markets, morality and consumerism. My dissertation explores the emergence of veganism as a moral market, as well as other moral projects that failed to become moral markets.
Shannon Waite, University of Exeter