Monday, May 21, 2012

Quarterly Essay 45: Us and Them, by Anna Krien

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Anna Krien’s Quarterly Essay on the relationship between humans and animals raises many questions about their ethical treatment, from animal testing to factory farming. Us and Them is compelling and well researched, without resorting to ideological positions. Krien weighs up both sides of the argument to provide a thoughtful, intelligent and considered essay on a complicated question.

Anna Krien is a breath of fresh air in Australian journalism. Her modus operandi is similar to that of George Orwell’s. The journalist tries to divest herself of any preconceived ideas and then fully immerses herself in the subject under investigation. What is experienced is sifted and analysed, then reported back to the reader. To make this sort of journalism successful, the writer has to be intellectually honest and devoid of ideological cant. This means complexity, admitted contradictions and a refusal to offer neat conclusions will feature in the text. For me, Anna Krien’s writings fit this bill perfectly. She offers fresh perspectives on contemporary questions without professing to know the answers.

Her first book, Into the Woods, investigated the Tasmanian timber industry. For this Quarterly Essay, the subject matter moves away from politics, economics and the environment to the difficult subject of the relationship between humans and animals. Krien’s essay doesn’t explore the ethics of animal treatment in a confrontational way, as a battle between animal liberationists and their opponents. Us and Them rather takes a subtle look at the contradictions and many hidden aspects of the human treatment of animals. Krien writes that we are all in an exploitative relationship with animals, the question is: how far are we willing to go?

The essay is divided into three parts. Part one deals with killing animals for food, in which she travels to Indonesia to witness Australian cows being slaughtered. Part two investigates the history of animal testing, interviewing surgeons who transplanted organs from pigs into baboons. The information in this section is really alarming, and the numbers of animals used in Australia today for testing is staggering. There’s so much we don’t know about that goes on in the name of science. If scenes of animal testing were broadcast they would surely have the same impact as the footage of cows being killed in Indonesian abattoirs. Part three looks at hunting, and describes the impact that humans have had on ecosystems. By culling dingoes, Australia’s top predator after humans, we create all sorts of negative knock-on effects down the animal food chain. Predators, it appears, seem to keep animal numbers in balance. Human presence in the environment has resulted in the extinction of an alarming amount of species.

The quality of the Quarterly Essays series waxes and wanes, but Anna Krien’s Us and Them is certainly a high point. Every page is intellectually compelling and deeply considered. Krien matches thoughtful research with lively in the field reporting. She doesn’t waste a word or a moment of the reader’s time, as she genuinely has a lot to say. This essay will stay with you for days after reading it, pondering the many ethical questions it raises.

Quarterly Essay 45: Us & Them: On the Importance of Animals. Published by Black Inc, 2012. ISBN: 9781863955607. RRP: $19.95