“Ruth Harrison, the forgotten animalist”, by Cédric Villani

Great Britain is a pioneering country when it comes to animal causes, unquestionably. First law against animal mistreatment, first association for the protection of animals, first league for the protection of birds… This is the homeland of Charles Darwin and Jane Goodall, two heroes universally identified with the subject. But it is also, we too often forget, the homeland of Ruth Harrison, the founding mother of the fight for farm animals. It is time to pay homage, in France, to this passionaria so ignored in our country that her major work, “Animal Machines”, one of the books that had the greatest impact in political ecology, has never even been translated into our language!

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Born Ruth Winsten in 1920 in London, our heroine has Ashkenazi blood, like many intellectuals who have studied farm animals (Weinberg, Feinstein, De Fontenay, Singer…). Like John Muir or Élisée Reclus, she was raised in a family of high moral and spiritual standards: her parents, recognized artists, adhered to the Quaker movement. And like her father, Ruth is a conscientious objector; paid a high price for it by prison, she finds herself an ambulance in time of war.

The factory farm revolution

Ruth Harrison works in care, in art, in architecture. She was 40 when fate knocked on her door, in the form of a leaflet against cruelty to farm animals. Intrigued, she embarks on a meticulous investigation that will change her life. Two years filled with visits to facilities, meetings with experts, reading of specialized journals. In 1964, she published her conclusions in her book “Animal machines”, with the help of the national press: it was a media bomb that forced the government to take up the issue. That was exactly Harrison’s plan: in the face of the patter of industry, in the face of the pusillanimity of power, she knew she had to bring the subject to the public square. Turning the food industry mantra to its advantage: “We only produce what the public wants. »

Peter Singer, meat, antispeciesism and us

What Ruth exposes to the public eye is a revolution that unfolded on the sly in the 1950s: the replacement of traditional farms by factory farms (factory farms), with their obsession with large size and yield, above-ground confinement of animals. She takes us behind the scenes with many descriptions and photographs. Here are the hens, huddled together in dark hallways, so tightly packed that a worker can’t help but trample them; they will never feel a clod of earth under their feet, nor a breath of fresh air (except perhaps on the day of their painful death). Here are the calves, isolated, thirsty, terrified, images of despair. They are anemic: Harrison demonstrates this by invoking the composition of their diet, the biology of their digestion, the testimonies of veterinarians. And intentionally anaemic, as she also demonstrates with supporting documents, to satisfy the supposed taste of consumers for white flesh (still today, this is the motivation that can be found on the Ministry’s Internet page in France !)

Such is Ruth’s method: quoting the original sources, seeing for herself, establishing irrefutable demonstrations with the very arguments of those she attacks, describing the physical and biological reality. She will go so far as to test carbon monoxide or electricity on herself, stunning techniques touted by manufacturers who see in them the possibility of a more respectful slaughter! A decade later, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer would resume his method, starting from facts and quotes from the opponent himself, rather than from the history of ideas like De Fontenay. But while Singer unravels his conclusions by relentless logic, Harrison always leaves his readers free of theirs. She, who is a vegetarian, does not even mention it in her book, nor will she give diet instructions.

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Harrison’s words and tactics

During his investigation, the emblematic work of Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”, appeared. Ruth quotes Rachel, Rachel prefaces Ruth: these two are linked by a community of interests but also the concept of environmental health, and an ideal of harmony between humans, landscapes and animals, including livestock. And in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that “Animal machines” is to the animal cause what “Silent Spring” is to the environmental cause. If the second caused the creation of the American environmental authority, the first gave rise to the Brambell committee on the welfare of farm animals, followed by a number of national and European councils. All the advances of the last decades in this field are descended, in one way or another, from “Animal machines”.

Meeting with Peter Singer, the “inventor” of animal defense

But beyond the advances in law and standards, it is also Harrison who provides us with the words and the methods to continue the fight, while animal husbandry remains, by far, the most important cause of suffering in the world. animal. When L214 publishes a new video of inhuman farming, when the association CIWF (Compassion in World Farming, created in 1967) campaigns for the improvement of barns, when the Eurogroup on animal condition discusses standards, these are the words and Harrison’s tactics; and these are still his arguments when a citizens’ movement opposes a titanic new factory (the latest project, in France, announced 800,000 chickens a year, piled up at 22 per square meter, all for only two meager salaries and 10,000 euros monthly repayment). So is Ruth well ” Prophet “in the words of Bernard E. Rollin, the father of veterinary ethics.

Ruth Harrison died in 2000, respected, feared, decorated but always so humble, always so fighting, until the end. She who had been able to take advantage of the European Union as the most effective amplifier of her action, would no doubt have been mortified to see her country leave her twenty years later. Let’s hope that Europe will continue its work. Let us hope that in the hour of choice Britain will remember one of its bravest heroines, with a combination of empathy for the living, indestructible rigor and communion with the general public, characteristic of bigger.

To read : “Animal machinery. The New Factory Farming Industry”, by Ruth Harrison, 1964, preface by Rachel Carson, republished in 2013 by CABI, with contributions by Marian Stamp Dawkins, John Webster, Bernard E. Rollin, David Fraser, Donald M. Broom.

Cédric Villani, organic express

Born in 1973, mathematician, Cedric Villani received the prestigious Fields Medal in 2010 and has published several popular science books. Elected MP in 2017 under the LERM label, candidate for mayor of Paris in 2020, he joined Nupès in 2022.

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