The conference center, a former slaughterhouse. Photo by Rosielyn Wolf

The conference center, a former slaughterhouse. Photo by Rosielyn Wolf

With speakers hailing from Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, and the US, last week’s third-annual International Animal Rights Conference (IARC) in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, truly lived up to its name. I had the privilege of attending, and I have to say, it had an entirely different feel from AR conferences I’ve been to in other countries.

To begin with, IARC was held inside a former slaughterhouse, and from the tiled, subtly slanted floors to the rusty hooks still dangling eerily beneath conveyors from the ceiling, it was impossible to ignore the tools of a system engineered to kill and disassemble animals. I have been inside factory farms, but this was my first interior view of a slaughterhouse, and it was all too easy to imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of death this place was responsible for. (It was closed not because of lack of business, but because Esch’s residents felt uneasy about having a slaughterhouse in town and wanted the killing done in a more isolated location.) Yet there was something empowering about having an animal rights conference amid the remnants of animal suffering, as if to wave a collective middle finger at industrialized abuse.

Rusty hooks hang from the ceiling of what was once a slaughterhouse

Rusty hooks hang from the ceiling of what was once a slaughterhouse

Another difference was that there was a higher percentage of men among the 400 attendees than I’ve seen at other conferences, and that of the 38 speakers—including Chris DeRose, pattrice jones, Brendan McNally, Sharon Núñez, lauren Ornelas, Claudio Pomo, Kim Stallwood, and Liz Tyson—a refreshingly large percentage were women.

The conference had a very communal feeling, with people gathering for meals (vegan, of course, and mostly organic) in a large tented area with picnic tables. The food was plentiful and generally delicious, and no one went hungry. There was even a bar where you could enjoy beer and wine, and a Saturday night concert featured a lineup of three vegan singers/groups: Tes, Maxime Ginolin, and Gab De La Vega. There was the usual exhibit hall where organizations and retailers had tables (I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Belgian group Bite Back offering Striking at the Roots for sale), and smaller rooms where you could find a quiet corner to chat or get online. A particularly compelling element of the conference was an art display by the German painter Hartmut Kiewert, whose work reflects his hopes for the liberation of animals. And no AR conference would be complete without a few documentaries; the one I caught was a rough cut of Live and Let Live.

Art exhibit featuring paintings by Hartmut Kiewert. Photo by Rosielyn Wolf

Art exhibit featuring paintings by Hartmut Kiewert. Photo by Rosielyn Wolf

Like many other conferences, IARC offered parallel tracks, forcing attendees to choose between at least two interesting topics. Fortunately, it seemed like they recorded all or most of them, so they’ll be posted online soon (check IARC’s Facebook page for updates).

I could easily write a few thousand words on my impressions of this conference, but here are some highlights:

Independent scholar and author on animal rights Kim Stallwood kicked things off on Thursday by delivering the opening plenary. He summarized his critique of the animal rights movement with his paper “Animal rights: Moral crusade or political movement?,” which was published in the academic journal Relations. He addressed the animal industrial complex, the politics of animal rights advocacy, and a new strategy for the animal rights movement. “Most, if not all, social movements struggle with the question of fundamentalism and real politik or abolition and regulation,” Kim said. “Often, they fail to resolve it successfully, and I think that we are no exception. Frequently, this tension is framed as an exclusive choice. I do not support this view. Both are needed to help the other achieve the change they seek. The challenge is to learn how to direct strategies simultaneously and complementarily. This is why animal rights is more than just a moral crusade pursuing idealistic goals of abolition. It is also a pragmatic social movement working to embed the values of animal rights into public policy.” Kim’s observations are always insightful, and I urge you to check out his talk. (His book GROWL will be published by Lantern in 2014, and I can’t wait to read it.)

Longtime animal campaigner Kim Stallwood and yours truly relaxing between presentations

Longtime animal campaigner Kim Stallwood and yours truly relaxing between presentations

On Friday, Food Empowerment Project founder lauren Ornelas addressed a variety of issues with her presentation “Food justice: Making animal rights/human rights more than just a slogan.” lauren pointed out that even the food of vegans—fruits and vegetables—is drenched in oppression, as farm workers are poorly paid and treated and live in terrible conditions; some are even homeless. “These workers are not paid enough to put a roof over their heads,” she said, noting that many don’t even have access to the fresh produce they’re picking for the rest of us. “In the US, eating healthy is a privilege, and it shouldn’t be that way.” lauren said that the same institutions that oppress and exploit animals are responsible for doing it to people too.

For several years now, Food Empowerment Project has been raising awareness about the working conditions of children in the cocoa farms of West Africa—many of these children are slaves taken from their families—and lauren mentioned one of the efforts her group is working on is a campaign to get Clif Bar to disclose where they source their chocolate. (You can sign the petition here.) “Just because something is vegan, that doesn’t mean it’s cruelty-free,” she said.

Food Empowerment Project founder lauren Ornelas

Food Empowerment Project founder lauren Ornelas

lauren emphasized the importance of working on a variety of animal issues—from fur and vivisection to captivity and animals raised and killed for food—as well as the importance of using all the tools available to activists. (This was in response to statements made in earlier sessions implying that advocates should dedicate their energies to fighting factory farming at the expense of other campaigns, since more animals are killed for food than in any other form of exploitation. While this may be true, I think activists should embrace the issues that matter most to them.)

Also on Friday, Steve Best gave an interesting talk called “Future: Tense” in which he painted a rather grim picture of the ecological catastrophe we’re facing. “We live in an era of absolute planetary crisis that is rapidly worsening,” he said. Invoking Thomas Malthus, Steve blamed this crisis on population growth, globalization, industrialization, environmental degradation, modernization, and resource scarcity. “To an important degree, the future is already loaded into the environment,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what we do—although, of course, we must do all we can. There already is a catastrophe waiting to unfold, no matter what we do now.”

The nice folks at Bite Back (Belgium)

The nice folks at Bite Back (Belgium)

At the end of the presentation, an audience member asked Steve what we can do to change the bleak course we’re on, to which he admitted he didn’t have a satisfactory answer.

In her presentation the following day, pattrice jones of VINE Sanctuary offered a response for Steve: “Don’t worry—the feminists are coming!” pattrice’s talk, titled “Intersectionality in theory and practice,” introduced the feminist theory of the intersection of oppression, arguing that understanding the link between the oppression of women and others and the oppression of nonhuman animals is necessary for building a consistent animal liberation movement. She explained how the gender system was built to keep men and women in their place, for example, and how the logic of domination divides the world into binary dualisms, such as nature vs. culture and black vs. white. Relating this to our domination of nonhumans, she offered zoos as an example: “It’s all about saying, ‘We’re so powerful as people we can create a savanna in Sweden!’” In the end, she said, we as activists need to put our efforts into the intersections of social justice, which is where—just like highway intersections—most of the action takes place. “The more that you understand these intersections,” she said, “the more able you’re going to be not just to see connections between different problems, but to make real and meaningful connections with other people who will work with you, and together there will be enough of us to do what we need to do.”

The food was delicious, plentiful, and mostly organic

The food was delicious, plentiful, and mostly organic

I also enjoyed the presentation by Sharon Núñez, one of the founders of Animal Equality. Sharon talked about some of the investigations her group has conducted and how they’ve used tools to achieve results, such as getting more media. She stressed the importance of high-quality images and video footage, and discussed why campaigners need to set SMART goals—goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

The International Animal Rights Conference 2013 proved to be a well-organized event, and I look forward to returning next year.