Animal rights activist Poorva Joshipura about her new book and her personal connect to this cause
GN Bureau | November 28, 2023
Survival at Stake: How Our Treatment of Animals Is Key to Human Existence
By Poorva Joshipura
HarperCollins, 328 pages, Rs 499
With science now recognising animal consciousness, intelligence, emotion, and even morality, there must rise an awareness of our own moral responsibilities towards other beings. But there’s another reason to consider animals’ well-being: because it’s intertwined with our own.
In ‘Survival at Stake’, leading animal rights activist Poorva Joshipura argues passionately that, evolutionarily, humans are far more like other animals than we care to believe. She examines how hunting wildlife leads to pandemics and epidemics, which, in turn, harm us; how the production of meat destroys forests and causes climate change, which, in turn, destroys us; how blood sports hurt both humans and animals; how leather production damages the environment and human health; how animal experimentation is often a threat to public health; how cruelty to animals leads to violent crimes; and other issues.
It’s Joshipura’s view that if we reject ‘speciesism’ – the belief in human superiority – and accept that we are animals, too, irrevocably interconnected to other species, from the largest elephant to the smallest bee, and a part of nature, rather than holding dominance over it, we can take the necessary steps towards the betterment of all the planet’s inhabitants.
Joshipura is the author of ‘For a Moment of Taste: How What You Eat Impacts Animals, the Planet and Your Health’ (2020). She is the senior vice president of international affairs for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation UK, through which she oversees numerous global PETA entity operations and projects. She is the former chief executive officer of PETA India and the former director of PETA UK.
Her award-winning work involves stopping cruelty to animals used for experimentation, food, clothing, and entertainment or abused in any other way in countries around the world. She has personally conducted undercover investigations into places where animals are used and has overseen numerous other investigations. Her work for animals extends to courtrooms, corporate boardrooms, government offices, police stations, college campuses, schools, and the streets through rescue and emergency response efforts.
Joshipura answered a few questions from Governance Now as ‘Survival at Stake’ is being released. Here is the interview:
‘Survival at Stake’ reads like an introduction, if someone needed it, to animal rights activism, as well as a manifesto for it, if someone feels compelled to act. How did you come to write this book, after your debut (‘For a Moment of Taste’)?
I wrote the book because many people do not realise that the well-being of humans and other animals is intertwined. For example, meat, egg and dairy production is driving the climate catastrophe along with various forms of pollution and antibiotic resistance, COVID-19 likely originated in wildlife market similar to SARS, and HIV and Ebola is thought to have been first transmitted to humans who hunted other primates. Now, law enforcement experts tell us cruelty to animals is often a precursor to rape and other violent crimes against humans.
I have been personally affected by several of these key crises: I became sick with COVID-19 before the rollout of the vaccine, I lost a dear friend to HIV, and I was in Mumbai during floods that killed over 1,000 people (and countless animals, including buffaloes used by the dairy industry who were tied up in their stalls and couldn’t escape). If we don’t change our current trajectory, more of us will have tales to tell of how matters related to our meddling with animals and nature have harmed us—that is, if we live to tell them at all.
Finally, I wrote ‘Survival at Stake’ to provide food for thought about solutions—ones that I hope readers will be inspired to put into action right away. As with many of these issues, we have limited time to effectively change our current course.
Food preferences are always a controversial subject, but let us take it up first. An argument in favour of non-vegetarian food is that there is not enough vegetarian food in the world to go around, and if everybody were to turn vegetarian, it would drive up prices beyond what many can afford.
Actually, the opposite is true. By that I mean, meat, egg and dairy production is highly inefficient. It uses one-third of the world’s fresh water resources, and one-third of global cropland for feed.
This while water scarcity already affects every continent – over two billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and more than 828 million people still go hungry. Instead, land currently used inefficiently for crops to feed animals reared for animal derived foods can be used to grow crops to feed humans directly instead. In fact, way back in 2010, a United Nations report urged that a global shift towards vegan eating would be the key to saving the world from hunger and the worst impacts of climate change.
On average, a meat-eater now consumes double what they would have about fifty years ago. And today, over 92 billion land animals are used for food each year and up to trillions of fish, many of whom are also farmed. The water and crops we can consume directly is first channeled through these animals for months or years for ultimately a small amount of meat or other animal derived food.
On the other hand, some say vegetarianism is not enough and want to exclude food derived from animals. How would an animal-rights activist respond to that?
In India, cattle are never raised solely for meat or for its co-product, leather. Yet India is a top beef-exporting nation, even ranking first in the world a few years ago. And tests have proved that cow meat has been passed off as buffalo meat for export, which is illegal. India is also the world’s largest milk producer and a key leather exporter. None of this is a coincidence. The beef and leather industries exist because the dairy industry supplies them with cattle to kill. Among these victims are discarded mother cows and buffaloes whose milk production has waned and male calves, who are considered useless since they can’t produce milk. There’s nothing “vegetarian” about supporting the industry that supplies the beef and leather trades if we really think about it.
On animal rights, there could be two views. One is absolutely equal rights for all animals (which would put human beings on par with the rest of them). The other view is relativist or hierarchical. Some people, ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to HH Dalai Lama, would not mind the killing of, say, a mosquito or a snake, though only when needed in order to save a ‘higher’ variety of life, namely, that of a human. How do you see this?
Most of our decisions regarding animals are not made out of desperation or self-defence. Rather, we use animals’ bodies for products we do not need and to fulfill often whimsical desires. We reduce their entire beings to burgers and shoes, use them as test tubes, or torment them in games. In my book I talk about speciesism, a misguided belief of human superiority, a bias in favour of our own species, that allows us to justify all sorts of atrocities, like slitting other living beings throats, tearing off their skin, burning or poisoning them in laboratories, breaking their bones during jallikattu and so on. I make the point that animals, like us, are emotional and intelligent—even if their intelligence may be of a different kind—and argue speciesism is unfair, just as most of us now recognise other ‘isms’ like racism and sexism as unjust.
By ‘different’ intelligence, I also do not mean inferior. Maciej Henneberg, professor of anthropological and comparative anatomy at University of Adelaide, says, ‘The fact that they [animals] may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our “intelligences” are at different levels, they are just of different kinds. When a foreigner tries to communicate with us using an imperfect, broken, version of our language, our impression is that they are not very intelligent. But the reality is quite different.’
Your book makes recurrent references to the climate crisis, the biggest existential threat we have ever faced. In your experience as an activist and campaigner, what has been the response you get from people at large – do they feel alarmed or somewhat concerned or outright apathy to climate matters (and their link to the survival of other species)?
We are being repeatedly warned by scientists that ignoring the climate catastrophe would be at our own peril. They tell us we still have time to change global warming trends now, but not much time, before damage becomes irreversible. They also tell us one of the easiest ways we can help the planet and ourselves is to eat vegan.
Researchers at the University of Oxford say that meat and dairy production’s greenhouse gas emissions are so high, cutting them out of our diet can reduce a person’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73%, making it conceivably the single biggest way to reduce our impact on the planet as individuals. Researchers at the same institute tell us a global switch to vegan eating could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2050 and avoid climate-related damages of $1.5 trillion (US). And that by 2050, vegan eating could save over 8 million lives and result in healthcare-related savings of up to US$1 trillion per year.
On a personal note, what prompted you to make animal rights your calling?
I have always loved animals, but I used to eat and wear them. I used to buy animal tested products without a second thought, and go to the zoo and circus. Many of us are socialised to believe caging animals and these other oppressions are ‘normal’—that animals exist merely for our use. While my parents grew up vegetarian, I did not, and it took a friend from school to challenge my views. One day, while we were eating lunch in a food court, she asked me if I am really going to eat my McDonald’s chicken burger. I looked at her perplexed and she said, “it is an animal”. I still ate the burger that day, but what she said stuck in my head, and lead me down a journey of reading and discovery. And when I learned what we did to animals, how we deprive them of everything natural and important to them, and tear them apart, I thought normal or not—what we do is wrong.
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