Excerpted from Animal Crisis: A New Critical Theory by Alice Crary and Lori Gruen (Polity Books, 2022)

When members of the Human and Orangutan Conflict Response Unit found a 30-year-old female orangutan in a palm oil plantation near Aceh, in Sumatra, Indonesia, they saw she was in very bad shape. Even those who are accustomed to rescuing endangered orangutans were shocked by what they saw. This lactating mother had been shot with air pellets more than 74 times, both of her eyes were badly damaged, she had multiple broken bones, and she had lacerations from sharp tools or spears all over her body. Her baby was later found in a basket in the nearby village, severely dehydrated and traumatized. As rescuers rushed her and her infant to a veterinary clinic, her baby died. Hope, as the mother is now called, is blind due to her injuries, so she will spend the rest of her life at a sanctuary run by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, and similar organizations on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, primarily work to relocate or reintroduce the great apes to protected habitats when they are captured or injured by humans. Direct human conflicts with orangutans have increased over the past several decades as their forest homes have been decimated to create room for palm oil plantations. When the orangutans swing into the plantations, they are shot; when they look for food in villages, they are met with violence; and, when a mother is with her baby, people will try to kill her to capture the infant who can be sold on the black market for upward of $20,000.

Wild orangutans live only on these two islands, where they are now critically endangered. The Wildlife Conservation Society describes them as “the rarest of the rare.” One species of orangutan in Sumatra, the Tapanuli orangutan, is the most endangered great ape species in the world, with only 800 individuals existing. There are only an estimated 13,800 individual Sumatran orangutans remaining. Both of these populations are in steep decline. On Borneo, it is estimated that the population will be down to 47,000 individuals by 2025. Because a mother orangutan stays with her child for six to nine years, steep population decline is particularly difficult to reverse.

The lush rainforests, home to tens of thousands of species, are being destroyed at an alarming rate. As Mel White wrote for National Geographic in 2008, “considering the island’s unsurpassed biodiversity – from orangutans and rhinoceroses to tiny mosses and beetles not yet discovered – and the rate at which its forests are being lost, Borneo’s future may well be the most critical conservation issue on our planet.” By 2015, the Borneo rhinoceros was considered extinct in the wild. The orangutans on both Borneo and Sumatra may not be far behind.

Three acres of native forests are cut every minute to make room for palm oil monocrop plantations. Forests the size of Connecticut are converted every two years to keep up with the world’s insatiable demand for palm oil products. Palm oil is in almost everything, from breakfast items to vegan fare, soaps, cosmetics, shampoo, candies, and snack food. If you look at the ingredients in your cookies, or crackers, or margarine, or peanut butter in your pantry or refrigerator, you will find it listed as palm oil or palm kernel, and most glycerin is from palm oil. Borneo and Sumatra provide 86 percent of the world’s supply. In 2019, global consumption was almost 2 million tons, or roughly 20 pounds of palm oil per person. Even those actively seeking to avoid using palm oil find it challenging, as it is ubiquitous and often disguised (Orangutan Alliance).

In order to grow palm trees that produce the large fruits from which palm oil is extracted, native rainforests are bull- dozed and then burned. From 2000 to 2015, 150,000 orangutans on Borneo died as their forest homes were destroyed and they became exposed to humans. And orangutans aren’t the only creatures to suffer from this massive destruction. In 2015, the fires used to clear the forests burned out of control releasing smoke and ash, severely impacting air quality. Researchers from Columbia and Harvard estimate that this led to 100,000 premature human deaths. The process of cutting down forests, burning what remains, and growing palm trees creates greenhouse gasses, which is ironic given that palm oil is used as a supposedly earth-friendly biofuel. One researcher noted that biofuel production wasn’t going to be better for the climate, “instead, it would create nearly double the greenhouse-gas emissions of conventional fuels” (Lustgartner 2018).

With such destructive impact, why would the people of Borneo and Sumatra welcome palm oil plantations to their ecological diverse islands? This question can be partially answered by looking at the history of exploitation of the islands by outsiders. Extraction of wood, animals, and gold by Chinese and Portuguese traders, then British and Dutch colonists, and, more recently, oil drilling by US and European corporations created vast inequalities

between native people and multinational corporations and their shareholders. The desire for more direct control and the promise of development has led many local people to join forces with the palm oil industries. But this hasn’t always worked out that well. 

Many impoverished villagers view the large orange apes as frightening pests rather than as fellow creatures worth protecting or as indicators of impending environmental col- lapse. The parents of the young boy who almost killed Hope and caused her infant’s death, were resentful that people seemed to care more about the orangutan than their son’s future (Beech 2019). But the choice isn’t a binary one, nor is it an easy one.

A narrow focus on the desperate straits of orangutans on Sumatra and Borneo – a focus leaving out key features of the larger economic and political context – may very well lead to counterproductive responses and make it seem that consumer boycotts of palm oil are enough to solve the problem. But much more is needed, including a wider critical focus on the destructive logics behind extractive industries to fill out the particular tragedies that befall individuals in their profit-pursuing wake. Multinational corporations have already begun “green-washing” their extractive practices, producing allegedly “sustainable” palm oil, which hasn’t helped local people or native animals. We can, and should, care about the orangutans and the villagers who haven’t gotten what they envisioned from the corporations that are exploiting land, labor, and animals around them. Sadly, as long as palm oil plantations continue to wreak havoc on Borneo and Sumatra, furthering global inequality, the future of the boy who shot at Hope and her baby, the future of other native children, and the future of the orangutans and other species look bleak.

The Rapidly Expanding Problem

The environmental destruction that is harming the island inhabitants, human and nonhuman, on Borneo and Sumatra represents just a fraction of the unfolding catastrophe around the globe. Human activities are polluting and destroying animal habitats at such an astonishing rate that we are confronting a “sixth mass extinction” (Kolbert 2014). Pollution is heating the seas and leaving them strewn with plastic detritus that degrades nearly 90 percent of the ecosystems of the world’s oceans (Jones et al. 2018), while the size and number of fertilizer-laden, run-off-triggered, hypoxic aquatic “dead zones” continue to grow.

The destruction of land-based ecosystems has reached a similar scale and is intensifying. Just as on Borneo and Sumatra, so too the rate of animal-killing forest clearing for agriculture and other human purposes continues to increase in many parts of the world. And animals are being killed at ever higher rates by cataclysms brought on by anthropogenic climate change. It is estimated, for instance, that a billion animals were killed by the fires that scorched Australian landscapes during the first few weeks of the hot season 2019–20 (Rueb and Zaveri 2020). And the fires and unusually high temperatures in the US during the summer of 2021 killed many humans and animals, too, including more than a billion sea creatures (Cecco 2021).

Pollution and human-generated cataclysms haven’t spared animals who frequent the skies. Billions of birds have vanished in nearly all areas of North America since the 1970s – a 30 percent loss in overall numbers (Axelson 2019). 

The upshot of these interrelated forms of natural devastation is the progressive destruction of life on earth, or ecocide. 

Anthropogenic animal destruction also includes the deliberate creation, exploitation, and killing of animals in laboratories, hunting grounds on land and in the oceans, aquafarms, and land-based industrial farms. Land-based factory farming alone, increasingly global in its reach, accounts for the slaughter, worldwide, of more than 200 million animals daily (Zamba 2020). The industrialized harvesting of the oceans, taken to encompass industrial fishing and the farming of fish, in turn accounts for the extermination of nearly three trillion creatures annually (Rowland 2017). These technologies of the intentional use and butchering of animals are themselves one of the biggest contributors to the decimation of animal habitats. Worldwide, animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The demand for grazing terrain for farmed animals is a major factor in what scientists estimate is the loss of 12.5 million square acres of forests annually (Pearce 2018), which in turn is responsible for nearly 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, widespread soil erosion, and related polluting run-off into rivers, lakes, and oceans (Derouin 2019).

The reach of human activity into animal lives and environments is so extensive that it would be difficult to find any unaffected individual animal or animal population. The horrors that human beings visit on animals – incidentally as well as deliberately – are so great and of such massive proportions that, once we begin to bring them into view, we can easily feel disoriented and unable even to properly grasp them. If humans killed each other at the same rate we kill animals, the Humane League has calculated, we’d be extinct in 1 days (@HumaneLeague, July 15, 2018).

These horrors demand an urgent response. Notable political and intellectual pro-animal movements are responding. Their ongoing political interventions are multifarious, including – to give a sense of the range – rescuing animals and human beings from adverse weather events; attempting to slow the devastation of forests and oceans, for instance, by means of Indigenous land defenses and youth climate strikes; agitating for systematic political changes that would shift how humans interact with animals and the environment; helping farmers to transition to plant-based food production; bringing plant-based foods to communities without access to them; and exposing the cruel and callous treatment of animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and industrial slaughterhouses.

Alongside these and other political interventions are a range of pro-animal intellectual initiatives aimed at establishing the value of animal lives in ways that would account for the felt need for urgent political responses. These intellectual projects are increasingly recognized within the academy. One sign of this is the emerging acceptance of animal ethics within the discipline of philosophy; only 20 years ago it was still a fringe subject represented at best sporadically in Western universities. In addition to becoming a recognized area of study in philosophy departments, animal ethics is taught in other departments in the humanities and the social sciences, in law schools, and in increasingly common animal studies courses and programs. The upsurge of interest in animal ethics as a field is undeniably driven in large part by the recognition that human–animal relations have reached a desperate point. At the same time, embedding the field in the institutional structures of universities risks detaching it from the kind of responsiveness to worldly events that is its original raison d’être. To counteract the scholarly tendency to disconnect from practical matters, here we interrogate received frameworks for doing animal ethics to determine whether their grounding assumptions are genuinely suited for exposing actual harms to animals and the anthropocentric institutions and systems that authorize such harm.

Excerpted from Animal Crisis by Alice Crary and Lori Gruen. Used with permission from Polity Books.

Click here to read a conversation about Animal Crisis between Alice Crary, Lori Gruen, and Claire Potter.

Lori Gruen is William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University, where she also is the founding coordinator of Animal Studies.

Alice Crary is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School and Visiting Fellow at Regent’s Park College, Oxford.