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From “Animal, Vegetable, Capital,” an essay that appeared in Issue 3 of Lux Magazine.

Recently, following some rounds of trial and error in search of food that wouldn’t upset my dog’s unusually sensitive stomach, a veterinarian suggested kibble made of kangaroo meat. Apparently, this isn’t as niche as it sounds: a quick search shows that I have several choices among brands of kangaroo dog food (provided I don’t live in California, which bans its import).

While it feels strange to feed my dog the meat of an animal that could probably beat her up, it’s the wildness of kangaroos that produces my discomfort, not the ethics. Most kangaroo breeds aren’t endangered—if anything, some are considered pests. If we follow the perspective of the technologist and writer Jonathan Ledgard, the real problem of kangaroo dog food is one of economics. The market for kangaroo meat offers more financial incentives than kangaroo conservation: in many cases, Ledgard observes, wild animals are worth more dead than alive. His solution to this? Give the animals money.

Ledgard is the creator of Linnaeus, a speculative proposal for an “interspecies money transfer service.” He proposes allocating digital wallets to wild animals so they can purchase conservation services and facilitate payments with humans. (Animal-to-animal transactions don’t really come up.) Distributing these funds would rely on a massive data-collection project, creating comprehensive portraits of biodiversity worldwide. There is mention of facial recognition for giraffes.

How would an animal articulate its desire for financial services? Would animals have to pay taxes on their “income”? What might happen to an animal’s money when it dies? For Ledgard, the stakes are too high to get caught up in specifics. According to the World Wildlife Fund, wild animal populations have decreased by 68 percent on average over the past fifty years. We are living through a mass extinction, and whether we like it or not, capitalism doesn’t appear to be headed toward extinction anytime soon. While the left wastes time squabbling over the correct way to seize the means, why not give wildlife greater agency?

Pop culture is full of animals indulging in capitalist excess (Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales), manipulating debtors into servitude (Tom Nook in Animal Crossing), and hustling in unforgiving industries (Remy in Ratatouille). Capitalism is also rhetorically rich in wildlife: Keynesian “animal spirits” enliven bull and bear markets; deals are made with vulture firms in shark tanks. This metaphorical wildness could be seen as a small way of reinforcing the notion that capitalism is as natural as the wildlife it conquered and commoditized.

There is certainly precedent for giving nonhuman life the kind of agency in law typically afforded to people. Scholars and historians often cite Christopher Stone’s 1972 paper “Should Trees Have Standing?” as the foundational text for “the rights of nature,” which afford nonhuman life legal standing to defend its right to exist. In 2008, Ecuador ratified a constitution that recognized these rights; courts in Colombia, New Zealand, and Bangladesh have granted rights to national parks, mountains, and rivers. The rights of nature are sometimes talked about in relation to indigenous principles of building good relations with the natural world, but it seems like a kludgy settler-colonial approximation of that principle that keeps the state intact.

Of course, the origins of industrial capitalism lie in humans declaring the parameters of personhood for other humans: enslaved people weren’t people, they were property. The capacity to claim property is one measure of personhood within capitalism, and expanding access to property and capital has been a long-standing project of civil-rights movements. In the United States, women couldn’t easily open a bank account or obtain a mortgage, business loan, or credit card on their own until the last decades of the twentieth century. Modern credit scoring was codified in the Seventies in part to address racist lending policies. (Credit-score algorithms, however, have ended up encoding persistent biases of their own.)

Without dismissing the good intentions and hard work of lawyers who speak for the trees, or the generations of activists who fought for my right to accumulate credit-card debt buying dog food, expanding the parameters of legal personhood and access to market participation are harm-reduction measures, not alternatives to capitalism. Unless Ledgard is just really optimistic about the future of interspecies communication—though it’s gauche to think that if we could learn to talk to animals the first concept discussed would be money.

Ledgard argues that the world needs bold, imaginative ideas to respond to the vast, complex challenges ahead. I agree. But Linnaeus comes from a cynical and small imaginary: one that ignores some of the most beautiful lessons from nonhuman life about cooperation and mutual aid. Let us not forget that the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin counted “zoologist” among his many intellectual pursuits. I’d like to believe Kropotkin would be as apoplectic as I was upon learning about Linnaeus. “Don’t compete!” he once wrote. “Competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it!”

Then again, perhaps Kropotkin would be equally horrified by my kangaroo dog food story as a capitalist indulgence. In the end, my dog resolved the moral quandary herself: she hated the kangaroo and refused to eat it. I doubt that interspecies solidarity drove her decision, but as anyone who’s lived with an animal understands, they do often have their own complex, opaque motives.

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February 2022

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