David N. Pellow
Total liberation is a phrase presently used by a small group of activists and scholars who identify with radical ecology and animal liberation movements. Though currently not in common use in English, it reflects and captures ideas, aspirations, and actions directed at confronting anthropogenic socioecological crises that have resulted in extraordinary harms across human and more-than-human communities around the globe. But total liberation is more than just a couple of words. It is also a framework for understanding and changing the world. It seeks to describe the world we live in while also offering a vision for transforming it. Consider the Boston Animal Defense League. As one activist publication reporting on the group states,
The Boston Animal Defense League subscribes to the idea of total liberation and collective organization. All forms of oppression must be uprooted, from the exploitation of the Earth to the destruction of human and non-human animals. We have to get to the root of our exploitation if we are to combat it effectively. For this reason, we constantly traverse movements that are often seen as separate struggles, including ecofeminism, deep ecology and workers’ rights, and reject sexism, racism, homophobia and capitalism in the spirit of mutual aid. We are all in this movement together, in One Struggle, One Fight!
The total liberation frame comprises four components: (1) an ethic of justice and antioppression that is inclusive of humans, nonhuman animals, and ecosystems; (2) anticapitalism; (3) anarchism; and (4) an embrace of direct action tactics. These four components combine to produce a critique of the logic of domination—regardless of its source—and present a road map aimed at producing transformative and radical social change. In other words, in this time of massive social and ecological devastation, any efforts designed to make social change that leave existing social systems intact are counterproductive and unacceptable.
I stumbled on the notion of total liberation while doing research on radical ecology and animal liberation movements. In addition to being focused on defending vulnerable nonhumans and ecosystems, it became clear that many activists in these social movements were also raising questions about whether their movements should also be struggles over social inequality more broadly. In other words, segments of these movements that had begun exclusively as radical environmental and animal liberation movements now expanded the terrain of struggle to include a more comprehensive view of social justice. Not only were they focused on defending nonhuman natures (i.e., animals and ecosystems), but they were also confronting oppression within human communities (i.e., racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism, state power, and empire). I wanted to know what sparked the development of this kind of intersectional movement. I found three motivations: (1) an increase in reports of threats to planetary sustainability and continued massive exploitation of nonhuman species and ecosystems associated with capitalist and state-based infrastructures; (2) frustration with the elitism, racism, patriarchy, and tactical reformism of mainstream animal rights and environmental movements; and (3) influences from other radical social justice movements, particularly movements of generations past that emerged from struggles among communities of the white working class and people of color. In order to deepen my understanding of what motivates total liberation activists’ politics and practices, I explore each of these driving forces below.
The first influence on total liberation struggles is the ongoing series of threats to nonhuman species and ecosystems in the current epoch known as the Anthropocene. There is a consensus among leading scientists that damage to ecosystems over the last half century has been more severe than during any other time in human history. The health of coral reefs, fisheries, oceans, forests, and river systems declined dramatically, while climate disruption indicators, rates of species extinction, and air and water pollution rose significantly. At the same time, there has been an enormous increase in factory farming and industrial animal production, consumption, and experimentation that results in the slaughter of billions of nonhuman animals each year. This activity has created and accelerated negative impacts on ecosystems and nonhuman species. In responding to the varied local and global threats to ecosystems and nonhuman animal populations, many earth and animal liberation activists “hear” a “call” or “interpellation” from nonhuman natures that pushes them to defend ecosystems and nonhuman animals. One activist involved in fighting a state highway construction project that threatened a water source and urban forest deemed sacred by indigenous peoples describes this dynamic: “If you open yourself to the land, the land will engage you. . . . We wanted to get direction from the land [as a] sacred space. . . . [so] people [would] go out into the land and to sit quietly with the land however long they wanted to, and listen and [be] open to what the land had to say to them about what we as humans could do to work with the land, to protect it.”
The second influence on total liberation struggles stems from the frustration among radical activists with mainstream ecological and animal welfare movements’ orientation, values, and tactics. These generally include a lack of awareness of and commitment to antioppression politics, an embrace of state-centric and market-oriented “solutions” to socioecological threats, and a rejection of aggressive direct-action tactics in favor of peaceful, primarily lawful activism that seeks to educate and raise awareness rather than directly confront objectionable practices. Such mainstream activism includes direct cooperation with institutions known for threatening the health and well-being of ecosystems and nonhuman animal species. For example, the environmental NGO Conservation International partnered with the Newmont Mining corporation on Walmart’s Jewelry Sustainability Value Network, which allegedly ensures that the gold sold in its stores is produced in socially and environmentally responsible ways. Newmont is one of the world’s largest gold mining companies; many of its facilities around the world have spawned outrage as a result of the ecological and public health concerns associated with leaking cyanide, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic in its mine tailings. Radical activists see efforts like Conservation International’s partnership as reformist or insider strategies because they reinforce existing structures of power that gave rise to anthropogenic socioecological crises in the first place. Total liberationists reject these approaches by challenging the elitism of ecological movements and supporting a greater willingness to risk personal freedom in pursuit of social change against dominant institutions and cultural practices.
The third influence on total liberation struggles comes from radical movements of the past that sought to break with the mainstream in order to pursue more direct and transformative changes in society. In their interviews and conversations with me, total liberationists invoked the Diggers and Levellers of Britain, slavery abolitionists, the Luddites, anarchist movements, the Industrial Workers of the World, movements for civil rights, Black Power, Puerto Rican independence, the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Weather Underground, Women’s Rights and Gay and Lesbian Rights movements, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and many others as their inspirations. These historical movements also endured state repression and saw many of their members jailed and imprisoned. Total liberationists take inspiration from these struggles when their own members face similar consequences. Today’s radical ecology movements pursuing total liberation may be unique with respect to the particular emphases and combination of concerns they articulate, but they have much in common with movements of the past. They have all challenged dominant ideas, institutions, and modes of power, and they have paid dearly for it through state repression. All of these movements were vilified in their time by moderates and liberals yet were lionized decades or centuries later.
The emergence of the Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts (ELF and ALF) in the 1980s and 1990s marked a new stage in the evolution of ecological politics in the United States, Europe, Australia, Latin America, and Canada. This was a moment marked by a discourse of radical analysis and action rarely seen in environmental and animal rights movements until that point. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, segments of these movements were converging around new ideas, producing a broader discourse that linked ecology, social justice, antioppression, and animal liberation. They combined that discourse with direct actions like arson, sabotage/ecotage, animal rescue/liberation, and property destruction directed at a range of targets, including animal research laboratories, slaughterhouses, power lines, elite housing developments, ski resorts, fur farms, and industrial agricultural and poultry facilities. Through these efforts, total liberationists made visible their objections to the violence of capitalism, state power, multiple forms of oppression within human communities, speciesism (the belief that one species—in this case humans—is superior to another), and ecological destruction. Activists practicing direct action made conceptual links between harms to ecosystems and animals, and injustices facing other human beings. The following communiqué reports a direct action in-volving property destruction that reflects this link:
Members of the Earth Liberation Front descended upon the Old Navy Outlet Center in downtown Huntington, Long Island [and] smashed . . . plate glass windows and one neon sign. This action served as a protest to Old Navy’s owners’ involvement in the clear cutting of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. . . . Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic care not for the species that call these forests home, care not for the animals that comprise their leather products, and care not for their garment workers underpaid, exploited and enslaved in overseas sweatshops.
The idea of total liberation stems from a determination to understand and combat all forms of inequality and oppression. These movements organize and mobilize in favor of symbols, practices, and structures of equality and justice to do what social movements have always done: imagine and create a better world. This world would be premised on the idea that inequality and unfreedom in all their known manifestations should be eradicated, including inequalities imposed by humans on nonhuman species.
Total liberation can be said to extend concepts from social movement theory and women of color feminist theory into the nature–culture nexus—that space where humans and more-than-humans exist, collide, and sometimes collaborate. Social movement theory tends to be human-centered and sees social change as occurring exclusively through the work of human actors in isolation from the nonhuman world. Total liberation works to remedy this oversight by reflecting the political ecological reality that social change occurs not only when people interact with and among each other, but also with actors and elements from nonhuman domains (nonhuman animals, ecosystems, technology, paper, machines, tools). Women of color feminist theorists coined the term intersectionality as a way of explaining the fact that gender, race, class, sexuality, and other forms of social difference work together in the experiences of individuals such that we cannot reduce oppression or privilege to a single social category. The total liberation frame goes a step further by suggesting that intersectionality is unnecessarily restrictive if it begins and ends with humans. Total liberationists contend that one cannot fully grasp the foundations and consequences of racism and heteropatriarchy (among humans) without also understanding speciesism and dominionism because the categories of nonhuman, human, race, gender, and sexuality are used to define one another. The concept of total liberation reveals the complexity of various systems of hierarchy while also suggesting points of intervention, transformative change, solidarity, and coalition building within and across species boundaries.
The emergence of the total liberation framework is a response to socioecological inequalities. To realize its promise, earth and animal liberation movements must confront hierarchy both outside and within their ranks. The struggle is necessarily led by humans and is directed at other human beings, institutions, practices, and ideas such as social injustice, oppression, speciesism, dominionism, capitalism, the state, and imperialism. As biologist Barry Commoner notes, “The earth is polluted neither because man is some kind of especially dirty animal nor because there are too many of us. The fault lies with human society—with the ways in which society has elected to win, distribute, and use the wealth that has been extracted by human labor from the planet’s resources. Once the social origins of the crisis become clear, we can begin to design appropriate social actions to resolve it.” Although total liberationists may be a statistical minority, many important aspects of the larger fight against oppressive social systems in society take place within these movements themselves as they grapple with the spectrum of various forms of inequality and violence that have traditionally permeated and haunted environmental and animal rights causes.
Many ideas at the core of total liberation are compatible with environmental justice (EJ) movements, and vice versa. In fact, the ideas that radical animal and earth liberation activists express in their public and internal movement conversations are almost entirely reflective of concepts contained at the heart of the principles of EJ—a sort of founding document of the U.S. EJ movement, penned in 1991. The EJ principles reflect opposition to racism, patriarchy, the excesses of the state and market forces, and ecological harm; they recognize the inherent worth of nonhuman natures and acknowledge the inseparability of humans and the more-than-human world, all of which are cornerstones of total liberation. The EJ and earth/animal liberation movements may oppose myriad forms of hierarchy, inequality, and institutional hegemonies for different historical reasons and with distinct emphases, but their focus on such practices suggests possibilities for cross-movement conversation, analysis, and collaborative action.
However, there are limitations within this emergent discourse. For example, in their work to confront the socially constructed hierarchies and divisions between humans and nonhumans, scholars and activists who embrace the concept of total liberation are invariably faced with the historically entrenched association of non-Europeans and women with a “state of nature,” as highlighted in the writings of Enlightenment-era philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and Samuel von Pufendorf. That is, every step toward fighting speciesism and anthropocentrism is also a step that comes dangerously close to what philosopher David Theo Goldberg calls “naturalism”—those theories of humanity that place non-Europeans and women in an inherent state of inferiority because of their supposed subhuman (read: “animal” or “natural”) qualities. Total liberationists run the risk of reintroducing or reproducing racism, heteropatriarchy, and anthropocentricism that arguably gave rise to contemporary socioecological crises. These activists seek to flatten the hierarchies and divisions between humans and nonhumans, which may sound like an admirable goal. For some groups, such as women and people of color, this is a problem because those hierarchies were already erased centuries ago by scholars, corporations, and state authorities who sought to support racial and gender inequalities that often linked those populations with devalued nonhuman animals. Arguably, we are left with that legacy today, and total liberationists often fail to appreciate that history. This is a major conundrum with no clear and easy resolution, but it has not deterred activists and scholars from enthusiastically exploring these ideas and politics.
Yet total liberation is a valuable loanword. It reveals the myriad creative, affective, material, discursive, generative, and sometimes destructive ways in which some of us work to address the everyday and existential threats associated with socioecological crises and the Anthropocene. Total liberation reflects the ways in which social change makers push beyond the conventions and boundaries of mainstream ecological politics to imagine and enact ecotopian dreams of freedom for all beings and things.
1. “Trenches Spotlight: Boston Animal Defense League,” No Compromise 29 (2006): 31.
2. See David N. Pellow, Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
3. See Paul Robbins, Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007).
4. Anonymous activist interview with the author, October 2010.
5. Newmont Mining Corporation, “Newmont Selected to Partner with Wal-Mart and Conservation International in Responsible Mine-to-Market Jewelry Initiative,” CSR Wire, July 15, 2008, http://www.csrwire.com/.
6. “Peru: Mine Protest Resumes,” Associated Press, January 2, 2012.
7. Leslie James Pickering, ed., “March 5, 2001,” in The Earth Liberation Front, 1997–2002 (Portland, Ore.: Arissa Media Group, 2007), 28–29.
8. The concept of nature–culture allows us to think about the ways in which humans and the more-than-human world are inseparable, intertwined, and collectively collaborate to produce one another. In that way, we come to understand that the fate of each one is necessarily bound up with the other.
9. See Doug McAdam and Hilary Boudet, Putting Social Movements in Their Place (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); and Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
10. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009).
11. Speciesism is the idea that one species is superior to another. Dominionism is the specific form of speciesism that views humans as superior to all other animal species. This view of a human-dominant multispecies order is supported by a cultural framework that declares this arrangement to be morally just.
12. Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (New York: Knopf, 1971), 176.
13. David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002).