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Communicating Vegan Utopias: The counterfactual construction of human-animal futures

The film 'Carnage', in challenging the meat culture and promoting alternatives, is understood as an artistic intervention and the practice of imagining the potential impact of hypothetical events on future scenarios. The film, and the broader approach it represents, offers a distinctive contribution to research, scholarship and activism concerned with effective animal advocacy.

MATTHEW ADAMS: There can be little doubt that industrialized animal agriculture reveals human-animal relations defined by routinized, institutionalized violence on a staggering scale. The number of animals involved is astonishing. There are an estimated 23 billion chickens on the planet at any one time, roughly three chickens for every human, by far the most numerous bird species alive today. The number slaughtered annually is estimated by the United Nations at 66 billion; compared to 1.5 billion pigs and 0.3 billion cattle. The overwhelming majority of these animals are reared and killed in factory-like farms, accurately characterized “as places of unending terror and gratuitous cruelty”.

An ethical critique of animal agriculture on these grounds is increasingly supplemented by challenges drawing on (human) health and environmental narratives. Farmed animals eat a third of all the food grown on the planet, almost four-fifths of agricultural land is used to produce animal feed and a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface is used for grazing. It is hardly surprising then that a growing global population, raising and eating more domesticated animals, significantly contribute to intersecting ecological crises – the extinction of wild species, habitat loss and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Regularly eating significant quantities of processed meat is also closely correlated with health risks such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Greater public recognition of these issues reflects a wider cultural and political questioning of “meat culture” – “the representations and discourses, practices and behaviours, diets and tastes that generate shared beliefs about, perspectives on, and experiences of meat” – accompanied by a growth in the visibility and legitimacy of “plant-based lifestyles”.Footnote1 However, such practices remain decidedly niche in the global context of a rising average per capita and total consumption of meat, a greater proportion of which is processed prior to purchase.

If we accept that the radical reform and overhaul of animal agriculture is vitally necessary for the reasons noted above, how might demand for these changes be encouraged, especially considering the taken-for-granted, intersecting and recalcitrant nature of the myriad practices involved in maintaining the production and consumption of meat? When it comes to effective animal advocacy, what types of artistic and cultural interventions can we add to a campaigning repertoire of rhetorical strategies, discursive and narrative frames?

Whilst the disclosure of violence and mistreatment suffered by farmed animals can be a powerful tool for animal rights and welfare campaigners, a primary assertion made here it that it is unlikely to be an effective rhetorical strategy in isolation. As a result, there is an ongoing need to consider adjunct and alternative means of engaging audiences, and a great deal of scope for examining multiple and varied approaches to animal advocacy.

Research and debate in environmental communication studies, Critical Animal Studies (CAS) and related fields has developed knowledge about the potential or actual effectiveness of different medium, messages and strategies for challenging meat culture and promoting alternatives. Whilst it is argued that we can learn a great deal from this work, new sites of animal agriculture contestation are emerging all the time, integrating both new and familiar rhetorical strategies and narrative frames. The article first outlines how meat culture has been critiqued and alternatives promoted in animal studies and environmental communication studies, identifying key rhetorical strategies for effective animal advocacy as well as persistent obstacles embodied in meat culture.

The article then focuses on a specific, novel attempt to challenge the ideologies and practices associated with meat culture – the film Carnage. It approaches the film as an “unexplored site” in research addressing challenges to meat culture and promoting alternatives, understood as an artistic intervention, but also analyzed as a unique version of the construction of counterfactual futures – the practice of imagining the potential impact of hypothetical events on future scenarios. It is argued that the film and the broader approach it represents offers a distinctive contribution to research, scholarship and activism concerned with effective animal advocacy, with wider potential for related research methodologies. SOURCE…


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