“Earthling” is an unconventional way to refer to our fellow human beings, one that is more often employed in science fiction movies, when extraterrestrial beings greet human characters under supernatural circumstances. The popularity of the “earthling” trope in science fiction reflects how unusual it is for human beings to think about themselves as part of the earth. The human species has dedicated a tremendous amount of effort to defining what distinguishes us from the other lifeforms that inhabit our planet.
In the end, more than sentience, or language, or the capacity for reason, it is perhaps this propensity to perceive ourselves as distinct from the world around us – a subject in a world of nonhuman objects including the natural world – that has truly distinguished most (though not all) human cultures from the societies of animals and other lifeforms that inhabit this world. It makes a certain sense, then, to have the perception that only an alien would look at human beings and perceive them as just another species, just another inhabitant of earth.
At the same time, the global ecological crisis that grips the world today may demand that we rethink what it means to be human in a way that is alien to us and adopt a perception of human identity that radically departs from what we have grown accustomed to. This is the perspective of Dr. Carrie P. Freeman, Professor at Georgia State University, who has dedicated her recent research to urging humans to recognize their identities as “human animal earthlings” and to organize their politics with this identity in mind.
The concept of the “human animal earthling” builds on the existing scholarly attempts to problematize humans’ exceptional nature, such as “humanimal,” itself a neologism which highlights that humans are one species of animal that can and should not be treated as exceptional. Freeman introduces the “earthling” into this formulation as a way to emphasize the ways that humans are bound up in, and depend upon, the environment (nonhuman and non-animal lifeforms, like trees, and natural systems like rivers and springs).
Dr. Freeman argues for the importance of this multifaceted conception of identity in light of the fact that the dire ecological problems we face today — problems like mass species extinctions and anthropogenic climate change — impact all species, and, consequently, addressing them will require a politics that is ethically sensitive to the value of all life on earth. She urges that enacting this shift necessitates that contemporary social movements and political associations, through adopting a sense of themselves as “human animal earthling,” organize their politics around the ethics entailed by this more inclusive definition of what it means to be a human on this planet. This entails, foremost, movements that advocate for human rights, animal rights, and environmental rights in concert. Dr. Freeman believes that grappling with our current crises demands, not just a change in policy, but the more encompassing shift in values and mindset that comes with perceiving ourselves as humans, animals, and earthlings.
We had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Freeman about her work on the “human animal earthling.” The discussion focused on the chapter “Perceiving Human Animal Earthlings as Ecocultural Identities,” published in the Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity and her recent book The Human Animal Earthling Identity: Shared Values Unifying Human Rights, Animal Rights, and Environmental Movements.
This article is part of a series that explores how scholarship in communication studies engages pressing contemporary issues and other matters of public concern. It draws on our conversation with Dr. Freeman to explore her research and highlights its importance in helping scholars, activists, and the public understand the contemporary ecological crisis and how it relates to issues in human, animal, and environmental rights movements.
Meet the Scholar
Dr. Carrie Packwood Freeman is Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University where she teaches graduate courses in media studies. A prolific scholar and avid activist, Dr. Freeman’s research has focused on the role that media and activist communication plays in animal rights, vegan, and environmental movements, such as in her first book, Framing Farming: Communication Strategies for Animal Rights. Dr. Freeman’s most recent book is The Human Animal Earthling Identity: Shared Values Unifying Human Rights, Animal Rights, and Environmental Movements, which was recognized by the Independent Book Publisher Awards as “Book Most Likely to Save the Planet,” in addition to receiving numerous other book awards.
Dr. Freeman’s scholarly work complements her decades of activism in the vegan and animal rights movement. She is a committed public scholar, who co-authors a media style guide promoting the responsible representations of nonhuman animals, produces the radio show In Tune to Nature, which is also available as a podcast, and serves as faculty advisor to the PEACE Club (People for the End of Animal Cruelty & Exploitation) at GSU.
Dr. Freeman received her Ph.D. in Communication & Society from the University of Oregon, an M.A. in Mass Media Studies from the University of Georgia, and a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising with a minor in Art from the University of Florida.
Defining the Human Animal Earthling
Dr. Freeman’s book chapter “Perceiving Human Animal Earthlings as Ecocultural Identities” is a generative introduction to her research on animal rights and environmental activism, which “embraces the broader goal of merging social movements (for the human and more-than-human world) to create more empowered alliances that can support respectful relationships, justice, and social and ecological responsibility, while fighting against the exploitation of life on an international level.” Achieving this goal requires that social movements work together to articulate and advance a shared set of core values that promote a more altruistic or benevolent relationship between humans and the “beyond human” world.
However, as Freeman observes in her chapter, the moral values around which rights-based movements and political associations have oriented themselves often exclude or omit the actors they are not specifically aimed to protect. Conducting a discursive analysis of the rights charters of six separate organizations, ranging from the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 to the 2000 Earth Charter, Freeman finds that human rights declarations typically do not consider nonhuman animals, and that each rights declaration surveyed tends not to account for the values of the beings they were not focused on (for example, environmental charters tend not to focus on protecting animals, and animal rights charters don’t focus on protecting the environment).
Despite this exclusionary tendency, Freeman also sees in the moral values underlying these rights charters commonalities that could provide the basis for a more inclusive, multidimensional, “interspecies” approach to justice, resulting in a politics capable of responding to our present ecological and humanitarian crises by aiming toward a “total liberation of species.” Constructing these common values requires a radical rethinking of how we understand our identities as human beings: a shift from understanding humans as separate from and superior to both animals and the environment to recognizing our identities as “human animal earthlings.”
The concept of human the animal earthling has its foundation in scholarship and activism that has sought to expand who counts as a morally or politically relevant subject. Dr. Freeman’s chapter defines the importance of each of its component terms as follows. First, the animal component of the “human animal earthling” works to “remind humans that they are indeed animals.” It also provides a “logical bridge between the narrowest category humans (comprising but one animal species) and earthlings,”—that is, it connects humans to the environment they inhabit in a way that emphasizes their commonalities with non-human lifeforms on Earth.
This is a point Dr. Freeman reiterated in our interview, emphasizing that part of the importance of an animal rights perspective exists in its ability to provide “a bridge between human rights and environmentalism.” Dr. Freeman introduces the earthling component to her portrait of human identity in order to bolster this connection, and extend scholarly efforts to trouble the distinction between the human and animal to animals and the environment.
“Earthlings” are all lifeforms, not just animal life. As such, the “the earthling component places humans into a much larger context of all life on earth (transcending species).” Humans, according to this view, “become yet another species interdependent upon thriving ecosystems.” Dr. Freeman’s portrait of the human animal earthling, then, is one in which we share our affinities, kinship, and an interconnected existence with the species that we share the earth with.
At the same time, perceiving ourselves as human animal earthlings does not entail that we reject that the human species has unique qualities or problems that it faces (hence why “human” remains the primary term). The human component of the definition recognizes that there are unique aspects of being human. For example, in our discussion, Dr. Freeman posed that human rights movements including the Civil Rights Movement have tended not to engage with animal rights for reasons “that aren’t necessarily species-ist,” because they deal with issues “like voting or being kept out of prison that are very specific to the human context and might not relate to nonhuman animals at all.”
On the other hand, these differences also confer a unique responsibility to humans, as the species that has been most damaging and alone possesses the capacity to address that damage. Dr. Freeman stressed in our conversation how important it is that “we recognize that we’re talking to ourselves because we’re the most destructive species, or at least many human societies are pretty destructive.”
The Human Animal Earthling and Contemporary Social Movements
Given that the rights charters discussed in Dr. Freeman’s book chapter fall short of the inclusive vision of rights her research recommends, we asked Dr. Freeman if there were contemporary movements or organizations that embrace the type of “multidimensional” identity represented by the concept of the human-animal-earthling and the fight for interspecies justice it demands.
Dr. Freeman referenced the final chapter of her recent book as a key place where she discusses this issue in her research. She noted that, “most NGOs operate within one realm or maybe two, where human rights might overlap with the environment in terms of environmental justice, or where some animal protection would overlap with environmentalism through a wildlife protection angle. It’s not as common for a particular group to focus more holistically on all species at once.”
At the same time, Dr. Freeman offered that there are many “smaller groups that have started up within various movements that are trying to bring an intersectional angle. There are different, smaller organizations — usually People of Color within various movements — who are asking for a more holistic look at things. The farmed animal rights movement tries to revolutionize and update their movement so that it’s more intersectional or multidimensional. For example, APEX, an Atlanta organization formed by Christopher Soul Eubanks, aims to increase the involvement of BIPOC communities in animal activism by framing it as a matter of ‘collective liberation.'”
Another example Dr. Freeman provided was the Food Empowerment Project, founded and directed by lauren ornelas. “She’s a vegan,” Dr. Freeman explained, “and worked for a long time in animal rights, but she’s also concerned about immigrant rights and social justice and so she has a food justice focus within the vegan movement. She’s asking that we make sure when we’re buying chocolate, or bananas, or coffee, things that might have slave labor or very unfair trade practices, that we lobby for fair trade policies, and we’re not just concerned in a narrow sense that something is vegan without being concerned about the way that human workers are treated in that industry–for example the people who pick tomatoes in the United States. I really like to see that kind of thing happening.”
Dr. Freeman also highlighted the vegan world hunger relief organization Well Fed World, discussing how, “In feeding humans, they want to be respectful to the human cultures of the people they’re helping feed, and provide the kinds of foods that are culturally appropriate to them, and are what they’d like to eat, but that are also animal-free. That’s another example of trying to think holistically when you’re problem solving.”
Dr. Freeman contextualized the importance of these groups by noting that, “Both of those examples are from within the vegan movement. Having things be human rights centered, but in a vegan context, would be different than most human rights programs for worker’s rights or hunger relief, which are typically focused on human rights and don’t think as much about the animal rights or environmental rights aspects that are involved when you want to talk about improving the welfare of humans.” As a result, there is a tendency for groups that demonstrate this multidimensionality to come from animal rights or environmental perspectives, where they tend to be “small or niche if they are being multidimensional.”
At the same time, Dr. Freeman believes that these groups, as well as activism within the academy, has the potential to change that. “We are starting to see it,” she explained, “I think we see this multidimensional activism more within academia, with ecofeminism, with critical animal studies, with green postcolonialism, where they’re trying to bring in all kinds of concerns in the scholarly lens they take in analyzing certain issues.”
Dr. Freeman views these movements within the academy as having a revolutionary potential. “I think it’s quite revolutionary to bring in the nonhuman animal as subject in the academic project,” she reflected, “Over the years — especially as we’ve diversified the scholars in academy — scholars have tried to expand the idea of who the subject is that we’re considering so that it’s not just white, straight, able bodied males. We’ve expanded that out. The subject should also be expanded where we’re thinking about all sentient beings and not just the human.”
The Human Animal Earthling and Human Rights
As a redefinition of our identity and a reframing of our obligation to the world around us, the human animal earthling aims to reorient our social struggles around a framework that makes us more sensitive to our moral responsibilities to other lifeforms, and less disposed to “brush aside” animals or the environment in our political and ethical decision making. While the importance of this framework for advocacy in environmental and animal rights is clear in terms of the moral commitments it requires humans to adopt with respect to their beyond human kin, it also presents important considerations for human rights movements.
When we asked Dr. Freeman how she understood the “human animal earthling” as significant to contemporary human rights movements, Dr. Freeman focused on the moral consistency of rights movements and their capacities to resolve conflicts among their interests. Forging unified core values to struggle for environmental justice, she posed, requires overcoming the tendency for social movements to focus solely on the interests of the beings in whom they are invested. Human rights movements either do not always consider animal rights or environmental issues, or tend to advance those causes because they benefit humans. Animal rights movements have not traditionally focused on the non-sentient biological life in our environment, and many environmentalist solutions to ecological problems are competitive with animal rights.
For example, Dr. Freeman observed in our interview that environmental movements often still treat animals as instrumental to their larger aims, noting that, “Environmentalists have lethal solutions to every destructive species but the human. Of course, I don’t like destructive solutions for anyone. I just notice that there’s a privileging of the human species that doesn’t make sense given how harsh they are on other species that harm the environment. In the context where we’re looking at the effects that a group has on the larger ecosystem and how to improve, there needs to be some protection for individual rights. That’s what animal rights asks for. Now, human rights asks for that too, but that’s just for the human species.”
This issue with moral consistency is particularly important when we encounter ethical or political conflicts between the rights or interests of different species. “When you come to issues like what are you going to eat, and whose land is this, and conflicts between wildlife and humans, so-called invasive or introduced species causing problems, you get into situations where you have to resolve those conflicts. This requires thinking about all the different beings involved; however, normally, that’s when the interests of individual nonhumans get brushed aside. It doesn’t make sense to continue to do so, and it’s certainly not fair to continue to do so.”
At the same time, Dr. Freeman astutely points to the idea that advocating for the importance of animal rights or environmental rights solely because that can advance human rights is a large part of the problem. “In some ways,” she said, “I just gave a self-interested answer to your question — that human rights needs animal rights to protect itself. Generally, I don’t like these arguments that reinforce the idea that so long as something protects humans then it’s good, but if it’s just for the good of another species to their inherent value then that’s useless. I do try to steer away from that. I don’t make arguments for veganism that have to do with people’s cholesterol or their weight.”
“The bigger issues,” Dr. Freeman emphasized, “are ecological responsibility and justice issues. In the book, the concept of the human-animal-earthling identity is about being an altruistic person who thinks about others, many kinds of others, not just people who belong to your own group. It’s a very expansive sense of self or inclusive in-group to use the terms psychologists use.”
Lessons from the Human Animal Earthling
Dr. Freeman’s concluding insights drove home the idea that the value of the human animal earthling to today’s social struggle rests in the profound mindset shift it demands of our political and ethical decision making. “In general,” she offered, “I’m trying to get us toward a less self-centered way of making decisions—that is, our continuing to make self-interested decisions in the environmental crisis, where we’re privileging what is best for us and for our own pocketbooks. I get we need to think about our own economic struggles, but that shouldn’t be the primary thing we’re always asked to think about. We should be thinking about taking a more communal approach to us being a team — a planetary team — that needs to be interdependent and coexist. We need to be asked to coexist and that needs to be cultivated as part of what we want to do and what we think is valuable, and not just limit things to the human realm.”
Working as a “planetary team” involves, most critically, a committed departure from the utilitarian way we tend to approach political problems. “I like the idea of inherent value,” Dr. Freeman reflected, “what’s the inherent value of somebody, not their instrumental value. I think we often talk about other species in terms of their instrumental value. I’m trying to get away from that but it seems difficult because notions of interdependence are the ways humans are asked to care about the environment.”
For example, Dr. Freeman addressed the tendency for us to appeal to future human generations in climate change messaging, saying, “When people make environmental pleas or requests they’re usually about thinking about our supposed grandkids, like we’re all going to have grandkids. There are lots of other species’ offspring we need to think about and a lot of us aren’t going to have our own kids. If I’m only asked to do things for the benefit of my future family, well I’m not having any kids, do I not have to do anything?”
The type of relationship to the world suggested by the concept of the human animal earthling urges us to understand other species as kin – as intimately linked through our shared earthly existence – and to treat our responsibilities to animals and the environment accordingly. “I’m very concerned about future generations that have no blood relation to me and I’m very concerned about my impact on future generations and bees and ants and worms and everyone,” Dr. Freeman said, before ruminating on the emotional toll that comes with this commitment, noting “Which is probably why I’m stressed and exhausted right now.”
Indeed, the political and moral commitments entailed by the human animal earthling may seem impossible. However, for Dr. Freeman this difficulty is precisely why we need to struggle to change our system in a way that fosters these politics. Dr. Freeman observed that, “This is something we have already taken on in a globalized world where everything is interconnected. Even shopping can be exhausting if you’re trying to be conscientious. Of course, we can’t control everything, which is why it’s important that the onus shouldn’t be put on the individual level. Those defaults have been set up by our systems. But right now, vegan food is too expensive, organic food is inaccessible. It makes it difficult to do the kinds of things that I think many of us would like to do and would feel good about doing. Many of us in the academy have been calling for systemic changes, and NGOs also often focus on systemic changes. This lets us make it easier for individuals to do what they often want to do because barriers have been removed.”
The value of the human animal earthling to contemporary political struggles is, in this way, both moral and pragmatic. It offers a radically inclusive understanding of identity capable of reorienting our relationship to animals and orienting the type of far-reaching social, cultural, and economic shifts demanded by our current crises. As such, bringing our present systems into line with a multidimensional understanding of identity and a robust sense of interspecies justice; they must struggle against the structures that make living in harmony with beyond human animals and our environment impossible, and construct new ones that foster equitable and interdependent relationships among species. If this poses a monumental task, this is because the current crises we face as a species are monumental in nature.