Complex Worldviews & Animal Agriculture


Sheep, bound for slaughter, are loaded onto transport trucks.The aim of this report is to introduce my research, thinking and action learning around animal-social relations, with a specific focus on the role of animals in agricultural food systems.

I write this as an anarchist, animal liberation organiser and vegan, navigating the complex territory of the differing worldviews in the fields in which I work in, most predominantly agroecology, permaculture and community food movements.

I aim to explore the complex and dynamic worldviews that impact on the species we share this world with, most significantly, a handful of animal species that have been domesticated, farmed and slaughtered to feed the world’s populations. I write from a western, white privileged perspective and my reading and observations mainly emerge from english-speaking countries of significant capitalist and colonial power, including the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.

Navigating complexity

Human relationships to eating animals can rapidly polarise groups of people that otherwise share much common ground. It is an emotive subject, that employs broad and systemic psychological tools to ensure it is given little critical attention or safe spaces to discuss a subject that so greatly informs how we interact with the world. Wide-ranging criticisms dog all manner of stakeholders, whether it is accusations of of pseudo-science, distortion of data, too much or too little emotive influence, spirituality and religious reasoning, ecological justifications, class, race and gender perspectives and more.

What is a worldview?

Most broadly, a worldview is a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world. It is a mental model of reality — a framework of ideas & attitudes about the world, ourselves, and life, a comprehensive system of beliefs.

My Resources and Methodology

Agricultural Workers have complex and dynamic relationships with animals. In my attempt to understand these relationships, I drew on the research of Dr Rhoda M Wilkie, author of ‘Livestock/Deadstock’. In her ethnographic research with the University of Aberdeen, Wilkie wanted to gain an understanding of how those who breed, rear, show, fatten, market, medically treat and slaughter perceive and make sense of their interactions with the animals that constitute the centre of their everyday working lives.

Another key influence during my output period was the work of Dr Melanie Joy, a professor exploring the psychological mechanisms in place that sustain animal agriculture and its rationalisation. She has developed the concept of carnism, a belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals.  

In addition to these resources, I read a significant number of texts exploring animal-human relations, to support myself to embrace and navigate complexity. Complimenting this literature, was the task of processing my worldview as a vegan, and my own process of radicalisation in which I unlearnt a number of cultural assumptions around eating animals, coupled with my dynamic understanding of the world developed through praxis and intellectual cultivation.

The literature review is limited by my personal capacity as a part-time Gaia University Associate with numerous responsibilities and time pressures. Unlike other universities, I am able to pro-actively integrate my own life experiences, observations and outcomes from my action learning.

Different Worldviews around Animal Agriculture

This section is my attempt to summarise some of the key worldviews that inform around our relationships with animal agriculture.

General perceptions of animal agriculture

Dr Rhoda Wilkie writes about Rollin's (1995) idea of the ‘social contract’ that historically characterised livestock-farmer relations. Shifts from animal husbandry to animal industry breached this social contract. This is the point of betrayal felt by animal welfare advocates and many working with animals on a day-to-day basis.

Animal farming is now commonly framed within the context of an animal industrial complex1. Media influence generates both the idea of the ‘happy farm’ as well as the horror of factory farms or CAFOs. Many base their decision on rejecting all animal products from their interfaces with industrial animal agriculture.

Perceptions of this kind of animal agriculture have been influenced through animal advocacy and food movement activists. Fraser (2001), writes how the new perception of animal agriculture depicts commercial animal production as 1) detrimental to animal welfare, 2) controlled by corporate interests, 3) motivated by profit rather than by traditional animal care values, 4) causing increased world hunger, 5) producing unhealthy food, 6) harming the environment.

A number of different groups perceive animal agriculture differently, and the perceptions above greatly influence their baseline views on animal farming.

"The Animal Industrial Complex is a partially opaque network of relations between governments, public and private science, and the corporate agricultural sector. Within the three nodes of the complex are multiple intersecting levels and it is sustained by an ideology that naturalizes the human as a consumer of other animals."
- Dr Richard Twine

Worldviews of Animal Workers

Dr Wilkie writes how “animals can be located and relocated along a status continuum that ranges from commodity to companion, whereby the same animal may at times be seen by the same worker, or by a different worker, as a tool of the trade, a work colleague, a friend, or even a pet.”

What Wilkie’s work shows is that relationships between livestock workers and animals is complex and dynamic, as is the opposing views of those rejecting animal agriculture.

Sanders (2006) describes interspecies interactions as a ‘constant paradox’ - the definition and treatment of animals as functional objects, on one hand, and sentient individuals, on the other. This is illuminated by the comment of a wife of a sheep-farmer in Wilkie’s research, who said “But if you took the trouble to get to know all the sheep that were going off to the abattoir, then you would realise that they were all different…[Then] we’d all be vegetarians,’ cause [we]’d realise they were all individuals.”

Wilkie illuminates how many hobby farmers, and even commercial farmers, utilise a deliberate ‘discourse of ignorance’ that is made possible through the division of labour between who ‘looks after’ animals and who slaughters them. This division of labour is stratified by gender and class.

Wilkie summarises her findings in the table below ‘Typology of emotional relationships with livestock’

Wilkie closes her chapter on the pragmatic nature of producer-livestock relations with “Unless they digress from the normal processes of production, slaughter animals are fairly anonymous and will be processed as part of a de-individualised and commodified group.” 

This is in comparison to different relationships with different animals, for example livestock workers may have a different or deeper relationship with reproductive animals that remain on farms for longer, likewise are more likely to be close to animals that need specific veterinary attention that distinguishes them from the others. Wilkie unveils the complexity of how many livestock workers embrace their trade because of the day to day interaction with animals. This however is impacted by the cognitive dissonance of relating to an animal on economic terms and ending that relationship with death.



Dr Melanie Joy describes carnism as the belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals. She bases her thinking on a number of psychological concepts that I will attempt to briefly summarise:

  • How we classify an animal, in turn, determines how we relate to it.
  • Schemas2 dictate which animals are edible and protects us from feeling any emotional or psychological discomfort when doing so.
  • The primary defense of the system is invisibility.
  • Humans have always avoided eating certain types of animals and have consistently striven to reconcile the killing and consumption of those they do consume.
  • Carnism as an ideology that is so widespread, so entrenched, that its assumptions and practices are seen as simply common sense.
  •  The three N’s of justification are normal, natural, necessary.
  •  Mechanisms of psychic numbing involved in carnism include: denial, avoidance, routinization, justification, objectification, deindividualisation, dichotomization, rationalisation and disassociation.


Stockmanship has been defined as “a human activity that applies the ability, knowledge, skills and common sense necessary in optimising health, welfare, husbandry, management and thereby both physical and financial performance, in animal production” (Benyon, 1991).

I can observe a kind of ‘neostockmanship in my fields of interest. With numerous permaculture practitioners, or those with very little or none animal-based experience, desiring to integrate animals into their systems. Admiring advocates such as Darren Doherty, Joel Salatin, Kirk Gadzia, many are now wanting to farm animals at different scales, from backyard rabbit breeding to broadacre farms.

Dr Melanie Joy describes this trend as ‘neo-carnism’: “Happy meat,” locavorism, and “paleo dieting” are signs of society’s willingness to examine the ethics of eating meat, eggs, and dairy, and they reflect people’s genuine concern for animals (and the environment and health). But they also reflect the resistance of the dominant, meat-eating culture to truly embracing a vegan ethic. The new pro-meat arguments are part of a carnistic backlash against the growing popularity of veganism, and vegans and non-vegans alike must understand and appreciate them in order to move toward a more humane and just society."

In addition to Dr Joy’s analysis my own observations of why permaculturalists/agroecologists reject veganism include:

  • Permaculturalists/agroecologists that desire the integration of animals into their systems, are most likely propelled by a desire to regenerate soil, create healthier systems and so forth. They are influenced by both cultural patterns within the permaculture movement, as well as their existing upbringing in a carnist and capitalist system.
  • These changes require a surrendering of privilege.
  • Places them in the minority.
  • Challenges their desires to be ‘authentic within the permaculture movement. People desire to be perceived as professional, land-based, realistic; by positioning themselves as someone working with animals, they are therefore ‘closer’ to the land. For example, just as stockmen can increase their professional and personal status by working with cattle rather than chickens, so can permaculturalists, when working up the animal food chain.
  • The attraction of models such as ‘RegenAg’ or Holistic Management, I suspect, is also linked to the gendered nature of animal farming. Tolston (1997) writes, “Farming has been traditionally been a patriarchically organised occupation in which senior male figures have undoubtedly shaped the sociocultural and emotional norms for those who work within it.” In her work, Wilkie, observes first hand how gender still informs who works with which animals and why.
  • People have legitimate frustrations with the sourcing of plant-based foods that have still been produced in industrial agricultural systems.
  • The vagueness of the permaculture ethics, which allow for ethical justification of most actions.
  • The roots of permaculture, where influential people of respect and high standing reject veganism, and have other un-analysed speciesist, patriarchical and western values informing their worldviews.
  • Wilkie writes about ‘hobby farmers’ and rare breeds enthusiasts. She explores the tensions in how their activities are perceived by the farming community, with criticisms that people are more content with owning rather than farming land, that people are pushing land values up and that they have little skill, knowledge or experience, compared to that of livestock men. Trends in the direction of RegenAG or HM, I also believe stem from a desire to distance themselves from ‘backyard animal farmers’ to be taken seriously by the farming community. For example, Wilkie writes how hobby farmers openly express their emotional attachment to their animals, attracting labels of being ’soft’ because their livelihoods are so minimally dependent on the value of that livestock. Neocarnists fear being perceived as 'soft'.
  • The complex psychological tensions of breeding, farming and killing animals is often underestimated and then managed with the same psychological mechanisms that sustain carnism. For example, food writer Michael Pollan visited Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, who has an open-air abattoir. When asked how he could bring himself to kill a chicken, Joel Salatin replied: "People have a soul; animals don’t,” he said. “It’s a bedrock belief of mine.” Salatin is a devout Christian. “Unlike us, animals are not created in God’s image, so when they die, they just die.”

Capitalists/Animals as Property

Capitalists have an imperative that influences everything they do: the maximisation of profit and accumulation of capital. This overarching worldview means that animals are objectified and commodified. Economic efficiency is prioritised with the embrace of technologies that can serve this function, for example feed science, farm health technologies (such as antibiotics) and developments in machinery.

In a publication exploring capitalism and animals, ‘Beasts of Burden’, the author demonstrates how “the animal industry was the starting motor of primitive accumulation" - primitive accumulation being the embryonic stage of capitalism around the world, the means by which control of the means of production (i.e. the land) is wrested from the 'producer' by trailblazing capitalists with hordes of livestock.

Most animal farmers are trying to survive capitalism and their choices around how they interact with animals are dictated to by market forces. However this does not deny the fact that economic decisions routinely triumph over animal welfare concerns, and that the ruthlessness of western capitalism has not subjected billions of animals to unimaginable suffering in its need to accumulate wealth.

Our pattern of animal manipulation and modification is now extending to applications such as agricultural biotechnology, genome sequencing of animals and animal cloning.

"To visit a modern CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) is to enter a world that, for all its technological sophistication, is still designed according to Cartesian principles: animals are machines incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this any more, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert your eyes on the part of everyone else."

- Michael Pollan

Animal Rights Actvists/Welfarists

Below however are some key worldviews around animal rights.

Concepts of Intrinsic Worth

Professor Tom Regan’s assertions are that animals have intrinsic value (a value in themselves without reference to human needs) because they have feelings, beliefs, preferences, memories, expectations, and so on. He says, "All animals are somebody - someone with a life of their own. Behind those eyes is a story, the story of their life in their world as they experience it." It is this premise that should afford animals rights. He draws on Enlightenment era thinkers and believes animal rights are a matter of justice, not kindness. He claims that speciesism is what privileges one group over another.


Professor Peter Singer, author of ‘Animal Liberation’ has also been held up as one of the intellectual forefathers of the animal liberation movement. His philopsophical views centre on utilitarian principles: the best solution to a moral problem is the one with the best likely consequences for the majority concerned. Hence, you may be morally justified if you cause relatively little harm to a few beings to minimise a greater harm to more beings. Thus, you might experiment on (but not kill) some humans or animals to save the lives of many more humans or animals; but it would be wrong to kill or cause severe pain to the many to save a little distress to the few.

Animal Welfarists

Another dominant worldview in the debate around animal-human relations is that humans do have a right to use animals, however should be treated better. For example in relation to animal agriculture, the animal welfare position would not object to the consumption of animals, but would seek the elimination of cruel factory farming practices such as confining calves in veal crates, confining pregnant sows in gestational stalls, and debeaking chickens.

The Five Freedoms3 is a widely cited animal welfare document both in Europe and in the United States.

Abolitionist Worldviews

The clearest overview of an abolitionist wordview on animal agriculture, and animal rights more broadly can be found in this overview: The Six Principles of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights4.

A key proponent of abolitionism is Philosophy Professor Gary L. Francione.

"At its deepest level, is feminism being honest if it does not engage in this witnessing? I’m not so sure. Is it fair for us to call for our own dominators to stop, while simultaneously being dominators of billions of others? I don’t think it is. Is it fair to expect that those who oppress us examine their privilege, even though we do not examine one of our most fundamental privileges? Is it fair to demand autonomy, while simultaneously defining animals only in terms of their use to us? Does any group have a right to demand freedom while systematically keeping another group unfree?"

- Carolyn Zaikowski

Feminist perspectives on Animal Agriculture

Feminist thought also has a lens on animal-social relations (not unanimous in feminist movements however). Those that recognise animal issues do so through an understanding that:

  • Both animals and women are dominated by men. The same patriarchical hierarchies dictate in both the domination of women and other gender oppressed peoples, and in the domination of animals, as to how their bodies are objectified, controlled and exploited.
  • Many feminists feel empathy with goals to eradicate animal agriculture because they draw comparisons between the role of reproductive labour and its exploitation to serve capitalism.

Carol J Adams, a pioneering writer linking animal and feminist struggles says:

In The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Porngraphy of Meat, I show how animals are consumed literally and how women are consumed visually and through sexual access to our bodies. The same process of objectification and fragmentation is at work. But advertisements make this process appear innocent. No one seems harmed. The double entendres, the puns, the visual substitutions—they are humor by the dominant culture about women and the other animals who are made consumable, made into objects. Sexual and species inequality has been made funny—to those who benefit from dominance. In images, gender assumptions are used to uphold speciesism. And specisism is used to uphold gender oppression. Species oppression is expressed through gender and gender oppression is expressed through speciesism.”

In her essay, ‘Animal Rights and Feminist Theory’ Josephine Donovan, concludes “We should not kill, eat, torture, and exploit animals, because they do not want to be so treated, and we know that. If we listen, we can hear them.” She locates her observations from a place of care, empathy and respect in an attempt to re-orientate how we think about animals, challenging the notions of awarding rights to animals following a process of hyper-rational thinking and philosophical intellect.

Anarchists perspectives on Animal Agriculture

Anarchists, may be loosely defined as those that see the state and capitalism as harmful and oppressive and work for a world without any forms of domination.

Many anarchists will embrace an intersectional worldview, making a commitment to resisting and eradicating all forms of racism, sexism, colonialism and so forth. However this doesn’t often extend to animals. The perceptions of veganism as a bourgeois or privileged lifestyle choice means many reject its premises. In my historical experience of interacting with anarchists of different stripes in the last decade, I can observe that many will use the same psychological tools identified by Dr Melanie Joy to rationalise and continue their consumption of animals.

However, I also share many of the rejections of consumerist, vegan-capitalist or reformist animal rights/welfare ideologies, and so feel more political affinity with anarchist struggle than that of the mainstream animal advocacy movements.

Aside from extending solidarity to non-humans, I believe there are numerous reasons why animal agriculture needs to be re-centred in our analysis of oppression, historically and contemporarily. For example:

  • Animal agriculture played a key role in the development and expansion of capitalism and colonialism, and continues this pattern today. Jeremy Rifkin writes, “The emergence of the great Western cattle cultures and the emergence of world capitalism are inseparable, each feeding the appetites of the other”. Cattle have been used as vast stores of wealth that could be used to exert power over both people and territory.
  • Animals were used both physically and symbolically in the colonisation of North and South America. They continue to be a colonising force.
  • Animal agriculture has influenced social, economic and physical landscapes beyond comprehension. It has often been the pioneering force for a whole array of capitalist developments, such as gendered and specialised division of labour, the first assembly lines, pharmaceutical and agricultural research, biotechnology and more.

In my final section of this report, Towards an Anarchist Agroecology, I explore some of the more explicit relationships between anarchism and agroecology, and how solidarity with nonhumans in a struggle against the totality of capitalism is necessary (certainly beyond vegan supermarkets and consumerism). 

“I am vegan because I have compassion for animals; I see them as beings possessed of value not unlike humans. I am an anarchist because I have that same compassion for humans, and because I refuse to settle for compromised perspectives, half-assed strategies and sold-out objectives. As a radical, my approach to animal and human liberation is without compromise: total freedom for all, or else.”

- Brian A. Dominick, Animal Liberation and Social Revolution

Resources & References


  1. Animal Industrial Complex - Anthropologist Barbara Noske coined the term ‘animal industrial complex’ to better describe the relationship between the human exploitation of other animals and economic structures and power relations of capitalism. An in-depth contemporary exploration of the term can be found here, in a paper produced for the Critical Animal Studies Journal.
  2. Schemas -  A schema is a psychological framework that shapes and is shaped by our beliefs, ideas, perceptions and experiences and automatically organises and interprets incoming information. A carnist schema dictates which animals are edible.
  3. These five freedoms are:

        1.    Freedom from Hunger and Thirst - by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
        2.    Freedom from Discomfort - by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
        3.    Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease - by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
        4.    Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
        5.    Freedom from Fear and Distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
  4. The Six Principles of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights
    1. The abolitionist approach to animal rights rejects all animal use and maintains that all sentient beings, humans or nonhumans, have one right: the basic right not to be treated as the property of others.
    2. Our recognition of the one basic right means that we must abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalized animal exploitation - because it assumes that animals are the property of humans. We recognize that we will not abolish overnight the property status of nonhumans, but we will support only those campaigns and positions that explicitly promote the abolitionist agenda. We will not support positions that call for supposedly “improved” regulation of animal exploitation.
    3. The abolitionist approach sees abolition as the goal of animal ethics and sees creative, nonviolent vegan advocacy—and not welfare reform—as the means to that end. The abolitionist approach regards veganism as the moral baseline and maintains that we cannot draw a morally coherent distinction between flesh and other animal products, such as dairy or eggs, or between animal foods and the use of animals for clothing or other products.
    4. The abolitionist approach links the moral status of nonhumans with sentience alone and not with any other cognitive characteristic. Sentience is subjective awareness; there is someone who perceives and experiences the world. A sentient being has interests; that is, preferences, wants, or desires. If a being is sentient, then that is necessary and sufficient for the being to have the right not to be used as a means to human ends, which, correlatively, imposes on humans the moral obligation not to use that being as a resource. It is not a matter of “humanely” using that animal. Although less suffering is better than more suffering, no use can be morally justified.
    5. Just as we reject racism, sexism, ageism, and heterosexism, we reject speciesism. The species of a sentient being is no more reason to deny the protection of this basic right than race, sex, age, or sexual orientation is a reason to deny membership in the human moral community to other humans.
    6. We recognize the principle of nonviolence as the guiding principle of the animal rights movement. Violence is the problem; it is not any part of the solution.

References from Livestock/Deadstock

  • Adams, C. (2014). Carol J. Adams - [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Nov. 2014].
  • Benyon, N. (1991). Pig-Primate Interface: Analysis of Stockmanship. Pig Veterinary Journal, 26, pp.66-77.
  • Dominick, B. (1997). Animal Liberation and Social Revolution.
  • Fraser, D. (2001). The 'New Perception' of Animal Agriculture: Legless Cows, Featherless Chickens, and a Need for Genuine Analysis. Journal of Animal Science, 79(3), pp.634-641.
  • Rifkin, J. (1992). Beyond beef. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Dutton.
  • Rollin, B. (1995). Farm animal welfare. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
  • Sanders, C. (2006). "The Dog You Deserve": Ambivalence in the K-9 Officer/Patrol Dog Relationship. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(2), pp.148-172.
  • Tolson, A. (1979). The limits of masculinity. New York: Harper & Row.
  •, (2014). [ARCHIVED CONTENT] Farm Animal Welfare Council - 5 Freedoms. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Nov. 2014].
  • Wilkie, R. (2010). Livestock/deadstock. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Other References

Further links

Photograph credits

From: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

  • Top left - Sheep, bound for slaughter, are loaded onto transport trucks. From the album ‘Sheep Sale Yards’

    These photos were taken over the course of a day at a large animal auction yard in Australia. Staff told me that 32,000 sheep were bought and sold that day, most of them going to slaughter. Additionally, most of the meat would be shipped overseas. Though the stereotype is that sheep are stupid animals, in truth they exist in highly developed social structures. They can identify one another, humans included, even after not having seen a certain face for two years. They can solve puzzles, they enjoy playing and they also experience many of the emotions that humans do, including sadness, happiness, disgust, boredom and anger. Sheep can also be very friendly; one need only to meet sheep who have been rescued and are allowed to live their lives in peace, to know that they enjoy a cuddle or a romp with people. The auction yards are noisy. Humans yell for the best price, dogs chase and climb on the sheep, transport trucks come and go. As a result, the sheep experience high levels of stress, and some break their legs and necks while trying to escape. These photos tell a small part of their story.
  • Top right - Watching and waiting for death.  From the album ‘The Slaughter’ - Bearing witness to animals at their moments of death. Whether dying on the continents of Africa, Europe or North America, we see that they are Someone, not Something. I have stayed with these animals during their deaths. Each one values their lives and wishes to live, just as we humans do. Please bear witness with me, out of respect for the millions of lives taken each day for human consumption and entertainment.
  • Top right, second down - Arriving at the slaughterhouse. From the album ‘The Slaughter’
  • Second left from top - From the album ‘Dairy and Veal Farm’ - A group of us spent a full day at a small-scale dairy and veal farm. We witnessed the milk line production, artificial insemination and the birth of a calf who was taken away from her mother not 15 minutes after she was born. The photo gallery will walk you through our experience, and the experience of those who live, and die, on the farm.
  • Fourth right from top - A lonely existence.
  • Third left from top - From the album ‘Food Animals’ - The numbers are staggering; impossible to understand or feel. An estimated ten billion food animals such as cows, goats, chickens and pigs are killed every year in North America alone. This number doesn't even include fish and other marine life. Animals once raised on family farms are now mass produced in factory farms where they live out short lives in confinement, deprived of sunlight, proper food and even the ability to turn around. I could elaborate on the facts but my job is to document and let the photographs speak for themselves. These are the faces of the meat industry.

Other Images