Animals, agribusiness and extraction

Animals in emergency: storying multispecies loss, survival, trauma and rehabilitation

Hayley Singer

University of Melbourne

Meaty extractions: mining cattle tales into narrative crisis

Sue Hall Pyke

University of Melbourne

The biophysical limits of extractivism

Mike Joy

Institute for Governance and Policy Studies

Comments 10

  1. Tēnā koutou – Hello everyone. In this global and digital event, I’d like to start by acknowledging the Indigenous people of the many lands on which we participate in this conference, and to honour Indigenous elders, past, present and emerging. I write this from the mana whenua of Rangitāne o Manawatū – the indigenous lands of Rangitāne people of the Manawatū in Aotearoa – New Zealand.

    Today’s session on ‘Animals, agribusiness and extraction’ is one that I am particularly proud to moderate. The theorists today present often unexplored areas of extractive industries and perspectives.

    The first panellist is Hayley Singer, who discusses the ‘enormous discrepancy in the public story of animal death’ in ‘Animals in emergency: storying multispecies loss, survival, trauma and rehabilitation’.

    In the next talk, Sue Hall Pyke navigates a personal history along fence lines in ‘Meaty extractions: mining cattle tales into narrative crisis’.

    This is followed by Serina Stein’s presentation on ‘Kindred Frontiers: Theorizing agro-extractivism in a decade of Brazilian agribusiness in Mozambique’.

    The final talk looks at ‘The biophysical limits of extractivism’, in which Mike Joy discusses the idea of the extraction overdose and the effect of this on ecosystems.

    Please join us here after the panel to ask questions and discuss ideas around ‘animals, agribusiness and extraction’.

  2. Thank you very much for your panels today. This is a question for Hayley, Sue and Mike: cows feature strongly in all three of your panels, and you all do such an excellent job discussing the complex status that cows have in the colonised lands of Australia and New Zealand. From your various positions, how have we come to this place of intensity in terms of our extraction from, perception of and/or reliance on bovine bodies?

    1. Hi Laura,

      Thank you for chairing this panel, I’m excited to be involved.

      Thank you also for asking such a great – and important – question! There is just so much to say in relation to this.

      I come at your question by thinking about the story work that goes on around cows as colonised beings who have also been operationalised as colonising forces in Australia and that makes me think about Cameron Muir’s brilliant environmental history, The Broken Promise of Agriculture (2014), when he notes that colonial landholders sought to turn this continent into a ‘paddock for England’ (2). To do so they needed to produce large food surplus, so the colonial eye was firmly placed on England and in some ways this lead to overlooking the devastating effects of their work on cows, First Peoples and the social ecological systems that had been in place on this continent for millennia. Having said this the colonial archive is rife with acknowledgements of the ecological devastation caused by cows as well as sheep who were brought to this continent. And there are frank admissions of the way cows and sheep were operationalised to incite massacre, as Sue points out in her paper. So there is a tension here between a total commitment to extractive animal agriculture and the recognition of the way it contributes to social ecological violence.

      In her essay published in Meanjin, ‘The roadmakers eat meat three times a day’ (2018), Grace Moore has pointed out that a plentiful meat supply became a significant colonial narrative used to tout the ‘usefulness’ and abundance offered up by this continent. Of course, cows and sheep were consuming the vast grasslands that had been cultivated by First Peoples.

      Another point that I would make is about the positioning of cows as objects, not agents or persons.
      I have not (yet) come across acknowledgement within the colonial archives that violence is done to cows through animal agriculture. And I don’t expect to.
      Cows continue to be relegated to the ‘shadow places’ of society and culture, and I’m using this term via Val Plumwood (‘Shadow places and the politics of dwelling’ 2008). As Plumwood writes, shadow places are those that are relied upon but ignore or their importance denied.

      I think of animals caught up within the global meat complex as ‘shadow beings’. Reliance on their bodies, labour and deaths are ignored and often denied. As Timothy Pachirat writes in his book Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (2011) red meat industries see cows as ‘raw materials,’ not beings.

      The positioning of cows in / as ‘shadows’ is also reinforced by the fact that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and slaughterhouses have been incrementally moved away from public / civic spaces since the 19th Century here in Australia. And with the introduction of Ag gag laws further limits are placed on investigators, journalists and whistle-blowers who might seek to bring animal cruelty to public attention and this furthers the out-of-sight, out-of-mind-ness.

      I have been thinking about Mike’s talk and the importance of showing the way animal agriculture is extractive on many levels, including the use of synthetic nitrogen to show the way that the violence of animal agriculture is link to many other violences – of soil, water & air. I think it is so important that having really difficult conversations about the place of extractive animal agriculture has in our societies is really, urgently, needed. And of course I always think about the role that stories have to play in catalysing and helping to provide the language for us to have uncomfortable but necessary discussions.

      I’ll finish on this point. As I was listening to Sue’s paper, I was struck by the way that extractive storytelling practices – those that reduce complex lives to logistical problems – act like conceptual fences, they keep certain animals in very specific onto-epistemological places, and its so hard for them to get out. I think that in terms of story I want to approach these extractive narratives with the storytelling equivalent of wire cutters!

      1. Thank you for the care and knowledge you’ve put into your response, Hayley. That ‘Australia’ was seen as the spare paddock for England makes a lot of sense of the intensity of the damaging colonial farming practices, and beautifully ties in with Sue’s fenceline narrative thread. It is so hard for cows (and other animals used for farming) to escape our categorisation. Human language is so powerful in that way – or we place such importance on it. I really appreciate how the work of each of you – Hayley, Sue and Mike – has unpicked the concept of bovine extraction at a language level. A very powerful panel!

  3. As well as the panellists, my next question also goes out to others watching these presentations. And I ask this because I’ve been researching in animal studies for a few years and yet these panels really forced me to look at animals and agribusiness with wider eyes. What (in your research, media consumption or daily living) makes you pause when it comes to the concept of extracting from animals? How might we move from the dominant discourse?

    1. I would love to read the answers to your second question Laura.

      To your first, I too found Hayley’s response to Laura-Jean’s question. Christopher Mayes’ work Unsettling Food Politics: Agriculture, Dispossession and Sovereignty in Australia, and a related paper he gave speaking to this work, inspired much of my thinking about the discourse of fences.

      Cows, cattle, so much beef. I agree, the difficulties many humans have in thinking through the singularity, let alone the interiority of non-humans, including the bovine, interstice with established norms of extraction. Laura-Jean, your tour de force, The Animals in That Country, is an exciting exception. At the same time, I’d say, having been a member of a family working a dairy farm in a fire-prone area, that many of those grieving farmers were thinking of individuals, not profit, when the bushfires went through. But clearly, this measure of singularity is not enough to shift extractive norms. There is much active work around this question in critical animal studies (Hayley, I think here of your review of Kathryn Gillespie’s The Cow with Ear Tag #1389).

      But Mike, as your paper shows, this question of singularity does not really enter the aggregated analyses around global warming. Over the past fifteen years, the role played by intensive animal agriculture has been increasingly acknowledged, but the ‘secondary’ (and yet primary damage) you outline seems to be less visible to the mainstream (meat-stream) than your data suggests it should be. How much work is being done to amplify these stories (those terrifying ‘unsafe’ black dots and algae-ridden waterways)? And where do you think Indigenous knowledges might enter (or challenge or extend) these modes of analysis?

      1. Thank you for your great response, Sue. The concepts of individual and collective thinking are so fascinating to apply to this subject. Western capitalist individualism has contributed to intensive farming practices. And from these individualist stances, other animals – especially those used for farming – are viewed as a collective mass. Do you think more collective thinking for humans, while moving our perceptions of other animals from herds to individuals might shift something?

    2. Thanks all for such a great panel. This has really challenged me to reflect on my research (and daily life) in different ways. In reply to your question Laura, to be honest, I think that in much of my research animals are shadow beings… if I think about much of the sphere I move in (research communities focusing on political ecology of land conflict and agrarian change in Southeast Asia), there is ongoing debate on the place of ecology in our PE, but even when the ecology is brought into research that focuses primarily on socio-political dynamics of agrarian change, this often focuses on land, soils, trees, climate, plants rather than animals. Animals might be brought into our awareness as livestock, and almost always in relation to their value for the people who own them. It makes me think of a story I tell in an upcoming piece where I am talking about the enclosures of former commons grazing/shrub land in rural Cambodia for an agribusiness plantation, and how the company hired local men to be security guards, and told them that if villagers’ cattle wandered into the plantation they should shoot the cattle in the leg. I write about a conversation I had with one of these security guards in which he was crying as he talked about the terrible choice he faced – between shooting his neighbour’s cow or refusing to do so and then potentially losing his job and his ability to feed his family. So the cow entered the narrative in a way but only as a shadow. The suffering only entered my narrative in terms of the human suffering. I wonder now what it would look like for me to rewrite (and rethink) this encounter in a way that moves beyond extractivist writing and acknowledges the cow not as shadow object/ livestock for human value but as a being that suffers.

      1. Thank you for your response, Alice. You’ve raised such an important point about the disconnect between environmental research and writing and animal research and writing. While there are certainly different issues at stake, there is some frustration to the fact that these areas don’t intersect more (this is historically the case in ecocritical studies too. I worry that my research is the other way – so focused on animals and rather at a loss as to how to respond to land, ocean and plants!). Sue, Hayley and Mike are doing such excellent work in this area – as they show in these papers and beyond – by looking at the multifaceted impacts of environmental degradation on ecological levels that are also necessarily zoological.

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