Understanding inequality—across ecosystems, species, and human populations.

Author of Total Liberation and professor and Don A. Martindale Endowed Chair of Sociology at the University of Minnesota

The concept of total liberation stems from a determination to understand and combat all forms of inequality and oppression. It is comprised of four pillars: an ethic of justice and anti-oppression inclusive of people, nonhuman animals, and ecosystems; anarchism; anticapitalism; and an embrace of direct action tactics. This is the framework I see animating earth and animal liberation movements, and I explore it throughout this book.

The total liberation frame also speaks to key issues in ethnic and gender studies because it invokes and expands the concept of intersectionality, suggesting that if intersectionality begins and ends with humans, then that concept is unnecessarily restrictive. Total liberation activists contend that one cannot fully grasp the foundations of racism, classism, sexism, and patriarchy without also understanding speciesism (an ideology supporting the dominance of one species such as humans over others) because they are all ideologies and practices rooted in hierarchy and the creation of oppositional superior and inferior subjects. The total liberation frame links oppression and privileges across species, ecosystems, and human populations, suggesting a theory and path toward justice and freedom—something missing in traditional models of intersectionality. Thus the concept of total liberation reveals both the complexity of various systems of hierarchy while also suggesting points of intervention, transformative change, solidarity, and coalition building across group boundaries. Total liberation is, above all, a cultural force because its greatest power lies in the strength and audacity of its vision. And while it may never gain widespread appeal, it is sociologically significant because the ideas embodied in the frame constitute a threat to the core of socioecological inequalities.

One particularly demonstrative interview I conducted was with scott crow, a community organizer, writer, strategist, and speaker, who advocates the philosophy and practices of anarchism for social, environmental, and economic justice. His decades of political activities across social movements with groups as varied as Anti-Racist Action, Greenpeace, Common Ground Collective, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), and A.C.O.R.N earned him the FBI label “domestic terrorist” and, from media sources, the more inflammatory label of “eco-terrorist.” Law enforcement tapped his phone, scoured his tax records, and deployed numerous informants who attempted to entrap crow in various illegal acts for years. The earth and animal liberation movements are made up primarily of white, middle-class, people and therefore comprise persons who—independent of their politics and actions—hail from privileged groups. However, when one takes into account these activists’ politics and actions, the story becomes more complex: that privilege is revealed as contingent. As scott crow told me, “I want collective liberation, and anti-oppression to me is the first step in that it’s recognizing the difference between privilege and oppression and recognizing that people like myself have privilege that we receive from being white males from North America, and all the things, achieving middle class, but that it can be conditional.” I contend that the language and legal apparatus of “ecoterrorism” momentarily places these activists outside the sphere of citizenship. By treating them as threats to national security and the American way of life, the state enables the neutralization of their movements. I therefore view state and corporate repression of earth and animal liberation movements as an example of the production and repression of racial deviants—those whites in the United States who refuse to conform to the nation’s cultural, political, and social disciplinary norms. They are deemed “not quite white” in the state’s political-legal discourse, even if only momentarily (here I draw on the work of feminist scholar Ann McClintock).

“All oppression is linked.” This is a claim often made by radical earth and animal liberation activists and is the foundation of what I call socioecological inequality; that is, the ways in which humans, nonhumans, and ecosystems intersect to produce hierarchies—privileges and disadvantages—within and across species and space that ultimately place each at great risk. Socioecological inequality (SEI), as a research approach, builds upon environmental inequality in a number of ways. While environmental inequality highlights the links between threats to humans and ecosystems with a primary emphasis on human well being, the focus of SEI is on the hierarchical relationships among humans, ecosystems, and nonhuman animals that produce harms across each sphere. In this way, socioecological inequality underscores that humans, ecosystems, and nonhumans are intertwined in the production of inequality and violence and that relationships that might privilege humans in the short run may also place them in jeopardy in the long term.

While activists embracing total liberation bring a host of views to this question, I should be clear about where I stand. The discussions and debates about animal rights often get mired in unproductive and poorly thought-out comparisons between the oppression of nonhumans to humans—particularly women, Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and people of color. I do not subscribe to the notion that oppression of one kind is the same or even remotely equivalent to another kind. I cannot claim to know what one species or population experiences, and I would never draw an equivalence between or among such phenomena. What I do conclude, however, as a sociologist, is that the ideological justifications among humans in support of racism, classism, patriarchy, heterosexuality, nativism, and speciesism operate using a similar logic. That is, while the above are distinct practices that create and legitimate hierarchies across social categories of difference (and certainly the categories themselves are not equivalent and are unique), they all are supported by the idea that one group is superior to another and therefore deserving of superior consideration, treatment, and life chances. This logic of domination and hierarchy is defined and deployed differently across each of these social categories, so that it appears in distinct forms and variations, but it is nonetheless an ideology that supports unearned privileges and advantages for some through the oppression of others. That point should be obvious but, sadly, requires emphasis because it is often lost or rarely if ever stated in these debates. My argument simply focuses on the human ideology of hierarchy itself.

What will surprise readers most about this book? The longstanding and enduring connections between ecological movements and movements for social justice. As an environmental justice studies scholar, I have often asked myself why I became interested in these largely white, middle-class, and relatively privileged radical movements. There are two reasons: first, I was drawn to the radical tactical and direct action work these activists practiced since that pushed the envelope well beyond what I had seen in the EJ movement in the United States. The second reason I became attracted to these movements was that after I began studying them, I realized that some—certainly not all or even most—of these activists were articulating a serious critique of hierarchy and oppression in all forms. Despite its many shortcomings, that combination of radical analysis and action was remarkable.

I am careful not to romanticize these movements. My position is this: I am presenting data and analysis that underscore why these movements are sociologically significant and of possible interest to anyone concerned with ecological politics. I am also critical of these movements for their many shortcomings but make those critiques from a position of solidarity. That has always been my position on the environmental justice movement, and in that regard, this study is no different.


David Naguib Pellow is author of Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement (which can also be found on Facebook) and professor and Don A. Martindale Endowed Chair of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. He is also coauthor of The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden and author of Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice and Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago.

“David Naguib Pellow is a first-rate scholar, and this rich, carefully-researched book demonstrates that fact. His refusal to march lock-step with any given theoretical perspective but, rather, to employ a variety of them to illuminate his data (data from diverse sources) makes this effort all the more impressive. In numerous places I found myself admiring his insights into a movement I have studied for decades.”
—Rik Scarce, Skidmore College

“This is a provocative book. Pellow’s notion of ‘socioecological justice’ broadens the focus of environmental justice theory and research, while his ‘total liberation frame’ captures commonalities across a wide range of diverse movements for justice. Both concepts are likely to spark debate and future scholarship.”
—Riley Dunlap, Oklahoma State University

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