Animal Property Rights, Totems and Zoöps

Posted March 3, 2019 by Theun Karelse

In “Animal Property Rights, a theory of habitat rights for wild animals” John Hadley explores if animal territories could form the basis of an alternative approach to conservation and potentially even a way to bridge the sometimes bitter divide between animal rights advocates and environmentalists. Who center intrinsic value either on individual organisms or on biomes. Hadley sees how territory might form a bridge between the two.

Animal Property is proposed as a very practical and tangible adaptation to existing conservation practices. Practical since it forms the backbone of human societies. When animal territories are adopted to delineate conservation areas this would form areas more suited to those species than the current model based on human property, which often don’t overlap with species territories. Conservation areas would overlap just as territories of species do. And - Hadley argues - our existing Liberal Property Right Theory doesn’t need much reshuffling to accommodate other creatures. Animals would then be represented by custodians.

For those familiar with Bill Gamage’s “The Biggest Estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia” this rings a lot of bells. The book describes how Aboriginal Songlines and Totems shaped a deeply ecocentric culture. If your families Totem was Emu, you shared Emu Dreaming with the animal, and your family was responsible for its well being and it's habitat. If Emu weren’t doing well, then Emu habitat wasn’t doing well. That all sounds fairly familiar, however Aboriginal culture makes a crucial step beyond those responsibilities of a custodian; in addition to representing the animal and its territory, the Aboriginal family would be considered in crisis themselves if their Totem wasn’t well or their Totem’s habitat wasn’t well. If the Dreaming they all share were corrupted then humans themselves were considered to be in trouble as much as their totem animals.

In the case of pressing environmental issues a meeting would be convened with representatives of many other Totems that may be affected. And these different Totems may have conflicting interests - what may benefit Emu, may not benefit Fire-ant or Viper or River. The different representatives then find common ground on behalf of their Totems. Crucial to all this - according to Gammage - is that the Aboriginal worldview is static. This means that there is always a common interest to gravitate towards, whereas in a linear perspective change may be more open ended, making a preferred outcome less easily defined.

The worldview is cyclical, so Emu Dreaming conflates history and present.

In the BBC documentary “How Art Began” Anthony Gormley can be seen lying on his back to take in the splendor of Aboriginal rock paintings in the heat of the Australian bush. Gormey eloquently describes his direct impressions of seeing a large Wallaby depicted on the rock. Although the image may have been made centuries or millennia ago - Gormley says - it still feels alive, as if it was made yesterday. He feels that such vitality makes that this art does not belong to some archaic age long passed, but should absolutely be considered contemporary art.

Somehow the art has captured the experience of non-linear time and like the Dreaming conflates history and present.

With Latour’s 'Parliament of Things' and natural areas like mountains, rivers and lakes being given legal personhood or even natural personhood, there is much interest at the moment in representation of non-humans. For those who are interested in such topics the way Aboriginals took one step beyond mere representation might be worth exploring.

FoAM Amsterdam is participating in an experimental set-up called Zoöp at Het Nieuwe Instituut, which explores which kinds of infrastructures and organisational models might enable a natural area to represent itself within human society. I don’t really expect to solve the representation question in this set-up, but am interested to see if we could get it to a point where it fails meaningfully - that is - where these infrastructures break down in ways that reveal deeper assumptions, discrepancies and blind-spots that we may currently be unaware off or misinterpret.