What Happens to Animals When the World is on Fire? – Framing Animals as Individuals in Climate Communications
January 7, 2023
As the current and future impacts of the climate crisis become more apparent, the existential threat it poses to all life is increasingly unignorable. Communicators who seek to capture both animal and climate justice face an ongoing challenge: how do we represent animals other than humans as individuals with value within a discourse that often frames them as part of the problem? The challenge lies both in countering the heavily entrenched dominant narratives of human supremacy and exceptionalism, and in representing animals as more than either a ‘problem’ and contributor to the climate crisis (in the case of farmed animals) or as passive victims (in the case of wild animals). In this post, I will explore the ways we unintentionally reinforce dominant narratives of animals as lesser than humans, and provide advice for recentring and reemerging other species in climate communications.
While the words that we use can seem irrelevant or unimportant in the face of the very real physical danger we face as a result of anthropogenic climate change, it is important to remember that our world is constructed through implicit and explicit stories (ACF 2016, p. 26). What we believe shapes what choices we make and what actions we take. Communication has the power to shape how we see the world. By understanding the implicit assumptions in our messaging, we can begin to deconstruct them and build new narratives grounded in common values (ibid). In the case of animals, how we communicate influences whether we are entrenching their status as fundamentally less worthy of life and freedom than humans, or whether we are challenging that at its core and redefining what it means to fight for true climate justice for all.
How Climate Communication Can Erase the Animal
While animals are undeniably equally impacted by the climate crisis than humans, narratives around resilience, adaptation and mitigation all too often focus on the latter while ignoring the former. Although there are many segments of society where this erasure takes place, one that is often unexplored is how the language used in climate communications reinforces a hierarchy of value that places humans at the top and all other forms of life below. The most common ways that this dominant narrative is maintained is through the normalisation of framing that de-individualises animals, the use of language which reinforces the notion of animals as existing for humans and relying on stories that feature animals as the ‘problem’ or cause of a problem.
A key way that we can reinforce a frame of animals as existing for human gain is through the use of language which erases the animal subject in preference for a homogenous species or subtype. One particularly entrenched feature of communications is the use of ‘mass nouns’ (Stibbe 2012) to refer to animals, for instance referring to a population of cows destined for slaughter as cows or referring to animals killed for food using the umbrella term, ‘meat.’ Similarly, the use of industry terms such as ‘livestock,’ ‘beef,’ ‘cattle,’ and ‘pork,’ can further legitimise the perception that animals are mere units of production, rather than thinking, feeling individuals (Nguyen 2019).
Instead of relying on these industry frames and terminology, we can begin to craft new stories that encourage audiences to see animals as being worthy of moral consideration, beyond their use to humans. Simple switches communicators can make are avoiding mass nouns and instead naming species and individuals and referring to their value beyond their use to humans. Additionally, avoiding industry terms, including euphemisms such as culling and processing and instead using direct terms is also a way of deconstructing de-individualising frames. For example, rather than talking about the ‘culling of surplus male cows in the dairy industry,’ we can talk about the killing of 5 day old male calves because they cannot produce milk.
Another way of breaking down these frames is to find new ways to refer to animals outside the labels ascribed to them by animal use industries. In animal agriculture, those raised for food, clothing and research are often referred to by the use they provide to humans. For example, we refer to chickens bred for meat as ‘broilers’ due to the method by which they are cooked and dairy cows as ‘milkers’ due to the product that they provide. This cements a view of animals as existing only for human gain. We can deconstruct this by, again, referring to species and individuals directly and including details about their lives, needs, wants and desires in our communication (Stibbe 2012).
Animals as a Problem
The final communications issue I will explore is the issue of animals being represented as problems or victims in climate communications and the ways in which this reinforces a story of other species as an issue that needs to be solved by humans within a framework of human-centric justice. A common framework used in communications is presenting a story as having a problem, victim and solution. In an animal rights context, the story told is usually as follows:
Problem (exploitative practice e.g. animal agriculture, vivisection) → victim (a species of animal) → solution (go vegan, end this practice etc.) + agent (you, a government).
In climate communications we see a similar formula with one key difference. The problem is usually framed as anything that is contributing to the worsening of the climate crisis, the victim is whoever is both affected and deemed worthy of moral consideration, and the solution is the action needed to avert or mitigate the effects of the problem. However, what we often see when trying to include animals in climate communications is that species other than humans, and particularly farmed animals, are frequently included in the problem category by referring to the destruction caused by the industry that they are part of. For example, animal rights and environmental groups will often describe animal agriculture as a leading cause of the climate crisis or even as the “driving force” behind global warming (PBT 2022). While bringing in the systemic issues inherent to animal farming is essential if we are to precipitate a shift to an alternative food system, by placing animals in this position of being a problem which must be solved by human intervention, we are reinforcing their status as objects without individual moral worth.
Instead of constructing this story, we can instead work to build alternate visions of interspecies communities which view other species as an essential element in transition, recovery and transformation. Critically, this requires organisations to have a complex understanding of their own vision of society, a vision which should answer questions such as how we interact and co-inhabit with other species if we are no longer farming and killing them for food.
In the largest possible sense, communicators are world builders. We use words to build new realities and present people with futures they never imagined to be possible. One of the most axiomatic yet often forgotten truths in communication work is that, in the words of strategic messaging guru Anat Shenker Osario, “words mean things” (Shenker-Osorio 2020). What we say matters and will be interpreted based on a person’s existing understanding of the world. Rather than accepting norms which uphold human supremacy and reduce other species to mere resources or problems, we can use language to build radical, irresistible futures.
- Arran Stibbe, Animals Erased: Discourse, Ecology, and Reconnection with the Natural World (Ukraine, Wesleyan University Press, 2012).
- Hanh Nguyen, Tongue-Tied: Breaking the Language Barrier to Animal Liberation (United States, Lantern Books, 2019).
- Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Narrative Handbook: How to tell compelling stories that move people to action. (first published 2016, Australian Conservation Foundation, Australia)
- Plant Based Treaty (PBT), ‘Why do we need a Plant Based Treaty?’ (Plant Based Treaty 2022) <https://plantbasedtreaty.org/> accessed 20th November 2022
- Anat Shenker-Osorio, ‘Pulling Back the Curtain to Reveal What’s Possible’ The Forge (online July 22, 2020)