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Person looking in a mirror in the grass
05 Jul
Person looking in a mirror in the grass

Shifting Baselines: How ‘Sub-Human’ Reveals Fashion’s Detachment From Nature

In her new book Sub-Human, Emma Håkansson, activist and founding director of Collective Fashion Justice, explores the wide-ranging impacts of our commodification of the world around us. What we need, Håkansson says, is a new system that prioritises harmonious coexistence with all beings, instead of one that profits off of exploitation.


We need a bolder conversation about systems of change

Change can’t only come from individuals, but from us as a collective. We need systemic solutions that help create a more just, sustainable world for all of us animals.

We all deserve to live within a harmonious societal system. One that, rather than destroying the natural environment we love, depend on, and are a part of, protects and even contributes to it. One that, rather than jeopardising our mental and physical health, nurtures it. One that, rather than seeing the lives of any individuals as expendable for the sake of production and profit, produces only that which is in our best interests, necessary for a good life. Simply, we all deserve to live in a system that values life.

This is not the system we live in. This is not what we get from stripping the Earth back to barren land where forest once stood, humbly tall and seeping with life, where now, animals selectively bred for commodification graze non-native grass covering degraded soil until their not-far-off slaughter date. This is not what we get from a system where industry is ultimately uninterested in individuals—those they profit from, those labouring under them, those dying under them. This is not what we get from a system where consumption is central, and this consumption sees the concaving of our planet around us, the killing off of our compassion and connection to life.

We’ve seen the way our planet is struggling with the impact of a system built on dead animals, exploited beings on an exploited planet. If we continue as we have, we will see not only the worsening of this environmental collapse, but also the societal and economic collapse that shall follow.

Looking back to the 1970s ‘Limits to Growth’ report

Some decades ago, the Club of Rome thinktank commissioned an MIT systems professor and his team to produce computer modelling based on environmental data to see what our future might look like. This work developed the studies of “population, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output and pollution” and how they impact us all. The first of 45 study reports, the Club of Rome’s 1970s publication The Limits to Growth was written by these researchers and shared a non-technical explanation of their findings as well as a message that remains vitally important in our perpetually growing economy today: “The global system of nature in which we all live—probably cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, if that long, even with advanced technology.”

The research team’s data and modelling showed that the way we see growth is deeply problematic, because it is rooted in the constant extraction of natural “resources” from a planet with only so much to offer.

At the time of release, the report and book were criticised as “doomsday fantasy”, the idea of a finite planet that we accept today, mocked. These early findings have been supported by far more recent research by other scientists, including those which specifically sought to discover if the original data was indeed valid and on track with a more modern reality.

We could thrive if we stopped equating progress with growth.

Beyond the frightening and accurate foreshadowing, Limits to Growth came with hope, too: “We can create a society in which we can live indefinitely on Earth if we impose limits on ourselves and our production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium.”

We could thrive if we stopped equating progress with growth. The real growth of our economy, our system, and our society is not in the infinite supersizing of the goods and services a country produces annually (gross domestic product, or GDP) nor the subsequent destruction of our finite planet which follows. Genuine societal growth is in our ability to learn and progress toward putting the lives of each individual and the environment we are a part of first, valuing the quality of these lives rather than the quantity of things we own and dominate.

This is what we need. A system that sees the independent worth of individuals and the Earth, first. All animals have independent worth.

A chicken does not exist to be eaten as a cutlet, a koala does not exist to be “awwed” at until we destroy their homes and lives for cattle farming, cattle do not exist to be laced up as shoes, a human does not exist merely to labour in the production of stuff we don’t need. Stuff made from animals, plants, and minerals we consider only to be resources, not individuals or delicate parts of a phenomenal ecosystem of life. There’s nothing wrong with admiring and caring about things; about art, beauty, and what we can make. But nothing is so beautiful that it should be worth more than life itself.

It can be hard to picture what this different sort of system might look like, and it can also be hard to realise how far removed we have become from nature, how much of it we have decimated.

Dr. Helen Harwatt, a Food and Climate Policy Fellow at Harvard Law, told me that she thought the reason for our unknowingness of the extent of our destruction of the natural environment is due to “shifting baselines” we experience between generations. “Our parents and our grandparents will probably remember different insects and animals compared to what we remember, or they might remember more of an abundance of them compared to what we see now. But we have grown up in a much more barren and depleted ecosystem, so it’s seen as normal.”

How the endless pursuit of growth enables exploitation

Our current, exponential growth form of capitalism demands our economy must grow forever and constantly. Nothing in the natural world grows forever, but many economists for a long time have decided that, essentially, how much stuff and money we make should. More economists today are arguing that this pursuit of growth is not only insensible, but also “quite dangerous,” among them Peter Victor, an economist and environmental scientist. Dangerous, when GDP growth is favoured over things that would benefit us all, like work to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which would help save the planet as we know it, but also would reduce GDP by trillions of dollars. GDP is privileged too, over the development of good social housing and systems that ensure everyone has their basic needs met, and met with respect.

This endless pursuit of growth is also dangerous because as collective liberationist activist and educator Iye Bako further notes, this intense and rapidly growing form of capitalism is monstrous in that it relies on the exploitation and dehumanisation of others. Largely brown workers, for example, like some people in India or Bangladesh, are underpaid and poorly treated in systems that produce our mobile phones, accessories, and many of our clothes. This sort of treatment of white Americans, Australians, or Brits would never be tolerated. But, this aggressive form of capitalism relies on a racism rooted in dehumanisation, which means these people are seen as “less valuable, as commodities, used as a resource to produce more commodities.”

This often-unconscious labelling of others as “sub-human” allows us to render these “others” as “animals” whom we deem acceptably objectified and exploited. This pipeline thinking from “non-human” to “non-being” is clear in the labelling of animals with numbers, not names, within systems commodifying them. Mostly hidden from our sight, and intentionally so, when I spoke to Bako she said that this meant “we don’t have social relationships with these animals, we’ve lost our connection to the Earth and all of nature’s creatures because through capitalism, we see ourselves as separate from our ecosystem. Land, labour, and individual beings are seen as resources, not as individual entities or a part of nature. Because everything is separated off, we don’t have the ability to comprehensively understand that there are other beings here who have lives that they want to live.”

So, despite many animal species, and even trees, facilitating the redistribution of food and water, playing integral parts in the maintenance of life, we do not value them. Instead, a small percentage of humans hoard wealth they will never be able to spend within many lifetimes, built on the backs of these exploited individuals and their environment.

There’s nothing wrong with admiring art, beauty, and what we can make, but nothing is so beautiful that it should be worth more than life itself.

Economists suggesting a move away from GDP-centric thinking and toward the prioritisation of policies that pursue the safety and wellbeing of all we coexist with, are important, but such ideas are not actually new or revolutionary. Indigenous people lived and thrived without GDP and with a far more balanced relationship to nature for thousands of years. What’s more, modern GDP itself only came into existence in response to the Great Depression, which ended in the 1930s, in an effort to improve accountability around what was really happening in an economy.

We need to redefine success around collective wellbeing

While GDP may help us understand and applaud how much stuff we’re making, it helps us with little else. Measuring a country’s GDP is not measuring the wellbeing of those living in that country—the creator of the system himself noting this as the case. There are many different systems, like the doughnut economic systems that prioritise social equality, environmental protection, and regeneration, being taken more seriously now, instead.

Other metrics for success are being considered too, with New Zealand’s former prime minister Jacinda Arden adopting the Happiness Index, announcing national budget changes that focus on improving the lives of New Zealanders. This progressive policy, which explicitly places wellbeing as an objective before economic growth, also isn’t actually new. The Kingdom of Bhutan began using this Index in 2008, measuring psychological health, living standards, community vitality, and environmental and cultural resilience. This Index is then used to inform government policy. There are many systems that would better suit us all on this planet, both ancient, newly formed, and fusions of both, which do not accept environmental or living harm and unhappiness for the sake of a growing economy.

Some animals are considered keystone species in their particular ecosystem because they are so irreplaceable that without them, everything would fall apart. Some sharks, predatory birds, beavers, and even starfish hold this role. However, humans are considered a hyper keystone species, due to our treatment of animals as resources, which so quickly devastates keystone species and everyone else who relies on them.  As humans, we “unite the entire world in a chain of falling dominoes” if we’re not careful.

We are just a small part, though currently a disproportionately impactful part, of a far wider, wonderful, and complex ecosystem we will likely never fully understand. Our greatest growth will be in finding symbiosis within this ecosystem again, while continuing to live and create culture, art, food, clothing, and joy. Without that symbiosis, we live at the expense of the life of everything and everyone outside of our singular species. And we can’t live that way for much longer. A symbiotic society would be a successful society.

Editor's note

This is an edited extract from Sub-Human written by Emma Håkansson and published by Lantern Publishing.

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