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Animals in the fraternity of universal nature

Have you read any poems about animal rights lately? Or perhaps attended a talk or exhibition on this or another environmental topic? Andrew Kelly, director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, has aimed to inspire discussion on controversial issues for the past ten years through public lectures and commissioned art, this year focusing on the theme radical environmentalism. On 26 March Kelly himself gave a lecture entitled “Animals in the fraternity of universal nature,” where he argued that poets and other artists have been drivers of cultural discourse on radical environmental issues, and specifically on animal rights, since the time of the romantic poets. He suggests that Bristol’s exciting cultural line up for 2015 can give us inspiration as a city to improve our relationship with nature in an urban environment.

Kelly’s literary lens on the history of animal rights showed how the romantic poets, and in particular Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who the whole lecture series this year is named after) and William Wordsworth, brought a relationship with animals and philosophy of universal rights for all creatures to a mainstream audience in the 18th century. These poets represented changing times – the growth of industry, the French Revolution, and challenges to the slave trade all changed people’s perceptions of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. In addition, the increasing use of animals as pets or companions, demonstrated that animals had personality, could feel pleasure and pain, and show loyalty.

The lecture struck a difficult balance between inspiration and excitement on the one hand and depression and pessimism on the other. I’d like to believe that art really can make political change – but issues the romantic poets raised in the 1700s are still considered radical today. For example, hunting for sport was decried by the romantic poets as cruel, although at the time hunting was seen as a symbol of courage. It was not until 2004 that hunting (only with dogs) was banned in England under the Hunting Act. Today, public support of this ban stands at 76%. However, other forms of hunting, and wildlife culling, are perfectly legal.

One of the primary animal welfare issues that we face today, and that the romantic poets might never have imagined, is the growth of intensive factory farms for meat, dairy, and egg production. We also face the rapid destruction of rainforest and other habitat for wild animals for production of palm oil and livestock feed, and the rampant poaching of highly endangered rhinos for black market traditional medicines. Kelly feels that the decimation of the natural world that we see today would have greatly saddened the romantics. His pessimism about the future came through as he quoted a vision of the future from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, written in 1895:
“I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained … But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct … I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock.”
Is it possible to make cultural and political change quickly enough to stop the rampant environmental destruction and exploitation of animals that feels inevitable? Can art and discussion convert the human connection with nature into political will? As Kelly described, the romantic poets wrote about cruelty to animals with quills plucked from live geese; today, we debate the badger cull while eating hamburgers from factory farms. After 250 years, will art finally be able to bring radical environmentalism into the mainstream and into policy?
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member and PhD student Josephine Walker in the School of Biological Sciences.
Josephine Walker


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