‘Let’s not kid ourselves. The injustice is complete. This is not a debate over whether our treatment of animals is unethical or not. It’s unethical. We know this…The question is: just how much injustice do we want to partake in?’

Earlier this year, Anna Krien wrote a Quarterly Essay on our nuanced and often contradictory relationship with animals. Her essay reflected on the difficult question of how we can simultaneously maintain that animals are objects, ‘things’ to be used for our benefit, but also ‘beings’ we are drawn to. This Sunday, Krien is appearing at a Melbourne Writers Festival session on the complex interaction between humans and animals, whether wild or domestic.

Here, I asked Krien to elaborate on her essay Us and Them.

You are very candid throughout the work on your doubts about your subject: ‘I mean, really, a Quarterly Essay about animals? In a series of intelligent analysis that has looked at the looming superpower that is China, the origins of conservatism, the history wars, indigenous Australians, climate change, American and local politics – here I am, writing about animals?’

Can you talk about the idea that originally sparked the essay? What was it you set out to discover, and how did the piece evolve?

In hindsight, the doubt I was feeling whilst working on Us and Them was not only about whether my topic could hold its own amongst such important issues but also if I could hold my own amongst such impressive authors. It was a pretty daunting moment when it dawned on me that I had the gig and then thought to wander over to my bookshelf saying, ‘How did Germaine Greer start her essay again? How did Paul Toohey conclude? What did Waleed Aly say? Robyn Davidson? Annabel Crabb! OH MY GOD, what am I doing?’

Anyway … the original spark for my essay on the importance of animals was Edward O. Wilson’s theory of loneliness. I came across Wilson, a biologist and writer (his book The Ants won a Pulitzer in 1991), when I was working on Into the Woods, and his theory struck me in a way that no other panicky notion about the future has.

Many scientists refer to our modern geological era as the Anthropocene, the sixth in a series of extinctions – all caused by extreme phenomenon – in the history of evolution. Of the Anthropocene, it’s largely agreed this sixth extinction is caused by the harmful activities of humanity. But instead of forecasting a dramatic and predictably apocalyptic aftermath, Edward O. Wilson simply describes the period that will follow this extinction as ‘the Age of Loneliness’. A planet with us and not much else. In his writing, there is no apocalypse, no doom, no gates of hell, no wrath of god or mass hysteria – there is only sadness.

It’s this sadness that I wanted to capture. My aim was to not get bogged down in climate politics, moral high ground or animal rights theory, but to simply reveal the importance of animals in an honest way.

You write about a clause we all have inside of us on the treatment of animals: ‘a “that’s not allowed” but “that’s okay.” We have our limits and our permissions.’ Did you come up against your own limits in writing this essay? How did your investigations cause you to reassess and perhaps shift them?

Yes, of course I did! And in a sense, that’s what I set out to do. I live my life to a set of ethics that I am continually testing and questioning, but at the same time I did not see the Quarterly Essay as a platform to outline my daily habits. An interesting outcome of this was the number of readers who tried to corral me to find out whether I was a vegan, vegetarian or neither, as if my answer would allow them to put me in with the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys’. And for the readers of Us & Them whom I left agitated – I sense what they wanted from me was solutions, answers and inevitably, an ideology. A position.

As James R Douglas wrote on Meanjin’s blog regarding the essay, ‘on my first read through I was constantly on the prowl for some kind of contention to hang my hat on or ruthlessly demolish.’ But while some may view my withholding information regarding my own lifestyle as a cop-out, I’ve got to say that I think the same of them. I don’t write for people who already know what they think, or to affirm what they believe and don’t believe, to say what they expect to hear. What I strive to do is simply this –  ‘here are some thoughts, information put in a digestible way, now know your mind, don’t handball this.’

In your chapter on Killing you describe the clean slaughter of one of the cows in an unusual way: ‘I never expected it to be beautiful.’ The sentence surprised me, and was one of the more affecting moments in the work. Can you elaborate on what it was about this moment that was beautiful?

An old man told me I was a disgusting person for writing that sentence and I’ve received a fair swab of hate mail for it too, as if my acknowledgement of beauty in death is somehow condoning the slaughter of animals. But what can I say, life and death just isn’t politically correct, and that was one of those moments when reality kind of cracked my eyes open. Death is mediated to many of us through popular culture as simply ‘bang bang you’re dead’ and then we’re supposed to feel either grossed out, sad, scared, or more perversely, titillated. But in this instance, it was beautiful.

I’d never expected to be able to see, quite literally, life exit a body so gracefully.

The essay deals with graphic and harrowing material, and is at times difficult to read. You’re very open about how you are, in some ways, just as culpable for treating animals as objects: ‘that is not to say that I don’t eat them, don’t wear them, don’t ingest pills that have been tested on them. I have done all these things.’ Did writing this work affect your own life and change your interaction with / use of animals?

Now that we’re post-essay, I can probably allow myself to get personal. I’ve been a vegetarian for 18 years, although on the rare occasion I have eaten meat out of politeness to people who had kindly taken me in. Prior to this essay, I had lapsed a little and was dabbling in the odd fish – but I have to admit I lost a lot of trust in all commercial farming whilst researching Us & Them and I’m back on the straight and narrow. I think, however, that it would be different if I lived on the land, say if I did my own fishing, rabbit hunting or chicken killing. If I could witness life and death, verify its degree of fairness, then yes, my diet would be different. But, that’s not the life I live, so vegetarianism it is.

But food is, in a sense, the easy part. It’s the even less transparent aspects of our society that really make living an ethical life difficult. Animal testing for instance. I was blown away when I discovered that close to 7 million animals are used for research and teaching in Australia each year, or that Sydney has its own baboon colony for testing. This information does not trickle down to the public and as a result it’s incredibly hard to live your life accordingly. Imagine if, for example, animals had to be included in the ingredients of products. Would it be so easy to buy that tub of face cream if you knew how many rabbits and mice went into it?

You imagine yourself at points in the essay as part of a debate, where your editor and the audience are urging you to ‘throw the punch’. The punch is the question: ‘Just how much injustice do we want to partake in?’ Your essay is clearly meant to provoke discussion and a questioning of held attitudes, but what actions – perhaps in terms of policy or legislation – do you hope might come from your Quarterly Essay?

That fictional high school debate is in part homage to one of my favourite books, J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and I did it to show my own vulnerability and naïve collusion in so many of these issues that I am describing. I think one of my key points is that debate around our treatment of other animals needs to evolve. At the moment it is still so ‘101’ – as in ‘do we treat animals ethically?’ I mean, of course we don’t! Why is that still up for discussion? Surely the question is, as you say, ‘Just how much injustice do we want to partake in?’ And at the moment, so much of that rests on the consumer. It is up to the individual to be informed and to choose between an unethical product and an ethical product – a choice that, sadly, often comes down to price. I think that needs to be changed. These are decisions that need to be made at a legislative level, not left to some poor straggler in aisle 7.

— Quarterly Essay 45, Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals by Anna Krien is published by Black Inc. and is available in print and ebook. 

Anna Krien will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival event ‘You Animals‘ this Sunday 26th August, 11.30am