In thinking about the Anthropocene, we must also take account of other animals besides ourselves. Not only have we destroyed large parts of the environment, we have made many non-human animals extinct. In North America, for example, the passenger pigeon was once so numerous that it filled the sky. When its feathers became useful as adornments, it was systematically hunted down until it became totally absent from the earth. The same thing is true of bisons–from 500,000, they were hunted until there were only a few left. Fortunately, before they became extinct, they were preserved by human effort. The Anthropocene is the period in which other animals were subordinated to humans, kept in reserves or zoos, or killed for their meat. It is often said that if we could see the process by which our food was produced, we’d all become vegetarians. Does it have to be this way?
In our culture, we see ourselves as totally distinct from other living creatures, so much so in fact that for Descartes, the distinguishing mark of human beings is their capacity for thought. Creatures who resembled us but who cannot think were regarded by him as automata, mere machines. We might wonder what the development of Artificial Intelligence would lead those who possess AI to think of us. Perhaps from their point of view, we would be seen as bumbling entities incapable of true thought and therefore not worth keeping around.
Does it have to be this way? Is it possible to understand the human-animal bond differently? What would it be like from the viewpoint of ecopoiesis? If we speak of ourselves as eco-human, this means that not only are we already intimately bound up with our environment, but also with other living creatures. We are ourselves animals, with distinctive capacities perhaps, but not fundamentally different from other living creatures. If ecopoiesis is the way in which we have made our world and all that is in it, does that not also imply an aesthetic responsibility to all that lives? In that case, it would be our responsibility to enable other creatures to flourish, in so far as that is possible. However, in regarding other living beings as only for us, we have shirked our responsibility to others who are also for themselves. The bond between humans and animals could be regarded as an aesthetic one, in the sense in which, in St. Paul’s words, we “live and breathe and have our being” with them. It is first of all a bond in which we recognize our kinship with other living creatures. To be kin implies to be kind. Just as we think it cruel to be unkind to members of our own family, is there not cruelty in the way that we are with other animals?
In recent North American culture, there has been an attempt by many people to reject rigid definitions of gender. Instead of male and female, they define themselves as “non-binary.” This term is anathema to others who have tried to keep things apart and who insist that gender differences are made “by nature.” However, if we consider ourselves as ecopoietic beings, it becomes clear that the difference is something we have made. Could we similarly think of the difference between humans and other animals this way and define this difference as non-binary? Of course, this would be contrary to the biblical conception of human beings as having been given “dominion over the Earth,” but perhaps that would be a good thing.
Nevertheless, to say that we are non-binary in our relation to other animals does not mean that there is no difference between us. It does imply that the difference is not absolute and that, given our existence as living creatures capable of poiesis, our kinship with other animals who do not possess this capacity, or at least not to the same extent, takes the form of responsibility for them. We could say that we have a responsibility to shape our relationship to them in a way that cares for their existence. In fact, we have been irresponsible in our relationship to other animals, just as we have been irresponsible in our relationship to the environment.
In this issue of the journal, we explore the bond between humans and other animals. Our hope is that our perspectives on this bond will show us not only new ways to think about other creatures but also to act in what used to be called a more “humane” way in relation to them.
Stephen K. Levine