Consider the pig. Not so long ago, pigs and people lived in close proximity. But we used them, in contrast to sheep, hens and cows, only for meat. Unsurprisingly we felt guilty and tried to put space between us. So now, with our talk of pork and bacon, product and output, we attempt to disguise their piggy nature. Thinking of the pig as a filthy, greedy thing disguises it further. And then so too does the habitual comparison of the pig with people we don't like - fascists, male chauvinists, the police.
In this suave and stylish book - and I'm impressed by the layout, the cover, the title and the photos heading up each chapter - Arran Stibbe dishes up several such examples, detailing how language can be used to distance, package and render more marketable not only the animals we eat, wear, sample and test but also, as with the activities of the World Wildlife Fund (now known simply as the WWF), those we want most to photograph and cuddle. Particularly telling (and still, more than a decade later, enough to make your blood boil) is his account of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic where, more or less throughout, the media backed the government and farming lobby in their propaganda of so-called "war" on this so-called "deadly disease".
This is all good, although so far neither particularly new nor particularly controversial. But it's only half the story. The book's main argument, advertised in the introduction and then driving the plot throughout, is not only that "destructive" discourses such as these promote both inhumane treatment of animals and ecological mess-ups but also that several allegedly beneficial "counter" discourses such as environmentalism fail to deliver. The game need not be over, however, as it is possible to discover radically different "alternative" discourses that can help us reconnect with animals and the natural world.
There are two problems here. First, somewhat naively, Stibbe seems to take what people say, the language they use, as straightforwardly indicative of what they believe. Surely, though, the WWF's advertising strategists are just after the best way of getting people to part with their money? Here, and elsewhere, counter discourses may fare better in delivering results than the author would have it. And in turn, alternative discourses may fare less well. It's a little hedged about with qualifications, but Stibbe's underlying view is that cultures elsewhere - and he's spent a lot of time reading haiku in Japan - are more likely to set us on the right path. This isn't particularly new either, to be honest, but it's a key ingredient in the mystery-mongering of deep ecology, with its indulgent, incoherent claims about the intrinsic value and equal rights of all living things.
There's something depressing about this. When we've learned not to erase animals, what then? What do we say about them, how are we to deal with them, once we see them for what they are? It is far from straightforward. But any hope of setting things right depends - and I've not the slightest doubt about this - on our doing the best we can within the framework of dispassionate, rational, evidence-based hard thinking about what our lives, and theirs, should be like. Call this a Western, anthropocentric, post-Enlightenment approach if you will, but it's the only game worth playing.
There's an irony here. For someone so sensitive to the uses of language, Stibbe appears remarkably cloth-eared about his own style. He writes throughout in the manner of a modern sociologist, unable to claim that black is not white without giving some reference. It may be what is needed for the academic career, but it's mighty tedious, and makes this book much less digestible than it would otherwise be.
Animals Erased: Discourse, Ecology and Reconnection with the Natural World
By Arran Stibbe
Wesleyan University Press
232pp, £62.95 and £22.50
ISBN 9780819572318 and 72325
Published 15 May 2012