The inextricable connection between the human and the non-human

‘Anthropocene Psychology: Being Human in a More-Than-Human World’ (Routledge) by Matthew Adams, reviewed by Tony Wainwright.

How should psychologists respond to the way human beings are changing the climate and our ecosystems? There is a lot happening on the psychology and climate change front, and not before time. Anthropocene Psychology is a deep dive into the ways in which human beings have changed both the world and themselves psychologically over time, exploring what Adams calls the ‘invitation’ that the Anthropocene gives us to better understand the inextricable connection between the human and non-human.

I have lived alongside animals for many years – currently cats, chickens, geese and other poultry. The book looks at life from their perspective, describing how we objectify non-human animals on an enormous scale in the way we live today. Adams says this defines the Anthropocene and the very worst things that human beings can do to animals – in the same process that is at work when we dehumanise other humans.

The book foregrounds the morally complex and challenging relationship we have with animals and our environment. It covers our relationship with dogs, chickens, and sheep, then extends to our relationship with other species and places. Later, Adams focusses on how indigenous feminist ideas enrich our understanding. Adams writes beautifully and clearly feels very passionate about this topic.  

Our objectification of dogs, chickens and sheep is unveiled, and Adams describes the ‘animal turn’, where we consider the animal’s point of view. This radically different perspective helps us fully appreciate that human beings are part of the natural world, and will help us understand how to change our exploitation of it. It is not an easy read. Adams gets us to really try and see what Pavlov’s experiments on dogs, from which classical conditioning was derived, would have been like for the dogs (see much more on this in Adams’ piece in The Psychologist). Some of Pavlov’s less well publicised work includes ‘breaking’ dogs by alternating shocks and rewards. Such experiments would be considered unethical today of course, but it underlines what our relationship has been.

And this is just the start of Adams’ work on our frame of reference. Next we take the ‘animal turn’ for chickens and explore the ‘meat paradox’, which describes the discomfort many who eat meat feel about how the animal became meat. The numbers involved are extraordinary. For example, in 2016 alone, 66 billion chickens were killed. What are we to make of such numbers from the animal’s point of view? Even from our own perspective, it is difficult to comprehend. Paul Slovic’s work on the arithmetic of compassion helps explain why this is so. Adams balances some of the awful realities with an account of the experience of volunteer shepherds or Lookerers. In this lovely section of the book, he tells what he has learned of the relationship between those caring for the sheep and the sheep themselves. 

I emerged from reading this extraordinary book with many new ideas. I am sure I will be going back over the tapestry of timely and interesting themes in Anthropocene Psychology.

-       Reviewed by Tony Wainwright, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter
-       Find Matthew Adams in our archive: a looking back piece on Pavlov’s dogs from a dog’s perspective, and a letter on psychology’s blind spot for the climate crisis
-       See our collection of articles on psychology and climate change and our issue on veganism

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