The crucial problem with MAS is not just the separation of theory from practice, but also the decontextualization of scholarship from current the rapidly worsening crisis of species extinction and global warming. The “absent referent” (to borrow a phrase from Carol Adams) in animal studies is nothing less that the catastrophe staring us all in the face and nothing short of biological meltdown and ecological collapse. We are not living in just any ordinary period of history, but the most remarkable, important, catastrophic, and challenging era of all, for global climate change is the biggest problem our species has ever faced. This “ecological crisis” is the overdetermined result of human overpopulation and overconsumption, the sixth extinction crisis (the last one occurring 65 million years ago with the demise of the dinosaurs), global climate change, rainforest destruction, and resource scarcity, Moreover, let us not forget, the enormity of animal suffering continues to build to the most severe and dire levels, especially with the globalization of carnivorism and fast-food outlets, as currently up to 50 billion land animals and billions more in the sea die every year on this planet for food consumption alone.
As theorists research in cavernous library rooms; as they stare with bleary eyes into computer screens; and as they present papers and chat in polite, temperate, and civil tones around the hotel bar, something is happening outside of the academic matrix, something we all know is unfolding, but which the majority of academics (like the public in general) nevertheless ignore. In the most egregious possible case of bad faith, professors from all disciplines carry on their research and esoteric concerns as if the ecological crisis – the most serious crisis humankind has ever faced - were not barrelling down on us with a speed and fury shocking even to pessimistic scientists.
While academics play their theoretical fiddles, planetary ecosystems are collapsing. While they live in the historical past, it is the present that demands our utmost attention and the future that merits our most profound concern. We live in this most incredible, singular, unprecedented, do-or-die era that places the most extreme obligations and demands on us that we cannot ignore. In this era, in our age, in this moment right now, as we confront the decisive historical crossroads that stand before us, what we do, or fail to do, will determine the fate of biodiversity on the planet and whether or not the world for future generations will be not only challenging and oppressive, but utterly nightmarish and dystopian.
Thus, the question must surge forth: do we have the luxury to be “merely” theorists or academics when the practical and political demands on us are so great? Of course theories are crucial for understanding the world, and a politics without reflexivity, study, history, philosophy, and social theory is no politics I want to advance. But it is not as if we need to work a detailed social ontology before we can proceed. It is by now somewhat apparent what the forces of destruction are, and what we have to do to resist and transform anthropocentrism, speciesism, global capitalism, and hierarchical domination in all forms. While the social and ecological realities are not transparent, they are clear enough to begin to take informed and decisive action. Our knowledge will deepen in practice, only in and through political struggle, and cannot mature in the study and seminar room. It is not about unilateral application of a pre-formatted theory to social relations and struggle; rather it is about learning and improving on theory from conditions of experience and practical application of knowledge.
One may argue we are not obliged to give up theory, research, and writing in order to spend all of our time in political meetings, demonstrations, actions, and litigations. But can scholars continue to be as isolated from politics and advocacy as they typically are? Can they be complacent about the severe crisis in the world playing out before their very eyes? Can they watch once more on the evening news as the Arctic ice shelves crash into the sea, and retreat to their books and computers as if they saw another heartburn or scalpel itch commercial?
Theodor Adorno quipped that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Could we not pass the same judgment about academic immersion in animal studies or any other topic not directly related, in the most practical and political ways, to this grim time of planetary entropy, biological meltdown, global capitalist omnicide, totalitarian and fascist state power systems (e.g., the UK and US), and nihilistic philosophies which find their functional counterpoint in the extreme pacifism and glacial models of change urged by many of the so-called “new” abolitionists?19