Book Review: The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

I’m breaking a series of self-imposed rules in reviewing The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee, assigned to me by a ‘virtual book club’ I joined.

First, the book has nothing to do – apparently[1] – with money or finance, so has no place on this blog.

Second, obviously, one should never join a book club. The only exception to the ‘never join a book club’ rule is that if your charismatic high school English teacher of twenty-five years ago leads the club, then obviously yes you do need to read and review the book. So you see, I had no choice.

The novel’s conceit is that fiction-writer Elizabeth Costello engages in a series of invited academic lectures and debates about our (humanity’s) ethical treatment of animals.

Costello delivers first emotional, then philosophical, arguments for never eating animals, but also for considering animals as persons worthy of at least as much moral and empathetic consideration as any human.

Taboo debate style

Coetzee/Costello seeks to provoke a strong initial reader response by jumping to our most horrific historical comparison. Costello claims that the treatment of animals – the meat processing industry in particular – resembles in industrial form and morality the horrors of the death camps of the Holocaust.

My same English teacher – with whom I share this book club – introduced us twenty-six years ago to Sylvia Plath’s use of the Holocaust to pervert something as (potentially) banal as a father-daughter relationship.[2] We have to have a strong reaction to the analogy, either in agreement or in opposition, or both.

As educated people, we already know that comparisons to Treblinka and Auschwitz should be forbidden, a taboo reserved for something beyond arguments in favor of mere ‘vegetarianism’ or ‘veganism.’ Interestingly, Coetzee too knows this. He immediately argues against Costello, in the form of an elderly Jewish man who articulates in a letter why such metaphors are both facile and offensive.

With this form of fictional argument and fictional response, Coetzee sets up his novelistic technique. The narrator – Costello’s son – objects to his mother’s zealotry in favor of the moral personhood of animals from page one. Costello makes an argument, and the fictional ‘audience’ responds, often in opposition. In this way Coetzee can remain nimble in his argument. Using the debate format Coetzee presents, then refutes, then strengthens, then objects to, his own arguments in favor of an ethical reorganization of our relationship to non-humans.

From Michael Moore’s classic “Roger & Me”

Costello asks us to imagine – as other philosophers have before us – what being an ape, or a dog, or a bat would really be like. Could we think or feel our way into their selves? If we could, would that reorder the way we treat other non-human persons?

Sometimes I read the political news of my city, country, and world and wonder whether a ‘fix’ for our most pressing problems comes down to imagining ourselves in the place of others. I limit that ‘empathy deficit’ diagnosis to human societies. Costello, I gather, would have me expand my empathic prescription into non-human societies as well.

Can I change?

What about the argument in favor of the moral personhood of animals, and therefore against the eating of and experimenting with them?

Costello/Coetzee demand an extreme reprioritization of values, a radical change, for which I’m presently unprepared.

As of now, I can’t change the way I treat animals, or at least the way I relate to the meat industry or leather industry or animal-testing pharma industry. I’m not prepared to embrace Costello’s radical reordering.

I read the novel and found myself somewhat moved in the moment, but then returned to eating meat, wearing leather, and using animal-tested pharmaceuticals as soon as I closed the book. For now, Costello’s arguments remain in the pure thought-experiment realm. Can I imagine caring for non-humans so much that I’d consider their personhood before my own convenience, appetite, and comfort?

Best arguments after the novel

I found the strongest argument in favor of Costello’s worldview not delivered by Costello herself in the course of the novel, but rather in one of the “response essays” included in the book.

Barbara Smuts, a primate anthropologist, describes sharing emotions and mutual understanding with both baboons and her dog. The shared companionship between persons – both Costello and Smuts claim and defend the personhood of animals – precludes killing or animal cruelty. Animal-lovers will recognize Smuts’ description of animal friendships she has had in her life, especially with her dog, Safi. Reading Smuts, I wanted to experience baboon and dog companionship the way she has. If I had, would that be enough to change my behavior and moral relationship toward animals?

One of my favorite essays to highlight our unthinking cruelty and selfishness toward non-humans is David Foster Wallace’s “Consider The Lobster,” from a book of essays with the same name.
Wallace concludes his musing on a Maine lobster festival with an exhortation to consider the pain these creatures actually feel – contrary to our unthinking, greedy, hungry slaughter of them in a pot – while being boiled alive. Chances are, Wallace argues, the lobster experiences extraordinary pain before it dies for our pleasure. Knowing that, can we innocently enjoy a lobster feast?

Again, I read Wallace, I totally appreciate his making me uncomfortable with my unthinking gluttony, and then I return to my lobster feast every summer.

Is this about animals at all?

One of the ways this little novel messes with you (or at least, with me) is the problem of whether this treats mostly of an ethical approach to animals at all.

Or is something else at stake for Coetzee?

The response essay by Marjorie Garber changes the frame of the novel entirely. Garber reminds us that Coetzee’s chosen form – a novel built on a series of academic lectures by a novelist – following lectures that the novelist Coetzee gave in real life at Princeton, creates a kind of game for Coetzee to play hide-and-seek with his own beliefs. How much of Costello’s ideas does he embrace, versus how much does he pursue some other meta-fictional aim?


I had not anticipated Garber’s final response-question, on this meta-fictional point. Garber suggests that Coetzee aims at exploring the value of literature in changing our mindsets. If we can read and engage in Costello’s extreme fictional worldview, do we shift our own view in real life?

Is the point of the novel, maybe, to set up an extreme case of radical empathy? Maybe an extreme case that cannot be fulfilled, since we cannot (at least I cannot) really empathize with a bat? Does the thought experiment of this kind of empathy produce results in readers?

I don’t know. I’m looking forward to my virtual book club discussion in a few weeks time.


[1] Important note: I don’t really know WHAT this book is about.

[2] You kind of never forget the first time reading Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” “I have always been scared of you, With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. And your neat mustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue. Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You –…There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never like you…Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” Good times!







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Solar Industry: Love it, Hate it


I plan to install a solar array on the roof of my house.

Prior to installation, I asked a local solar expert guy to provide specific architectural plans, for my house. He provided estimates on monthly savings I could expect, based on my past energy usage as well as the specifics of my roof.

I love my spreadsheets (who doesn’t?) so I had fun calculating my ‘return on investment’ for a planned solar panel installation. I’ll mention the financial ‘return on investment’ I expect to receive a little further on in this column.

Having mentioned that I plan to install solar panels, there’s a real grumpy part of me that kind of hates the solar industry. Let me explain.

Solar Subsidies

I don’t know how much sense these industry subsidies make.

I start with an aversion to public subsidies for private gain, especially when the private gain will probably be captured by higher-income homeowners, because they are the ones who can afford to make multi-thousand dollar optional improvements to their home. Solar proponents will reply that the public gains broadly when we move toward sustainable energy and away from non-renewables. Financially, however, private households capture the monetary gain from the public subsidy, so it rubs up against one of my principles of private gain on the public dime.

Maybe even more worryingly, I have a pet theory that all the local and federal subsidies over the decades are actually inhibiting solar innovation. It’s relatively easy to read about all the ‘innovative’ solar technology coming down the pipeline. But I also kind of feel like we’ve been hearing about all this innovation since the Nixon administration, and residential solar still isn’t a good financial choice for households, if we removed all the government subsidies.

Some industries over the past forty years – think of advances in telephony, software, or computing power in that span – relentlessly innovate in a competitive market and produce stunning breakthroughs and extraordinary cost reductions. Solar power was not-quite-competitive with non-renewables in the 1970s and it’s still not-quite-competitive with non-renewables in the 2010s. Why is that? I can’t prove this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that an industry built around government subsidies will attract a different set of talents and mindsets than an industry built around market competition.

Which kind of begs the question: Are all the subsidies – in the long run – helping or hurting a faster shift to renewable energy?

I don’t mean to be overly harsh on solar power. Obviously, I’m installing it at my house. In general, I’m in favor of boosting our mix of renewable energy usage versus non-renewables, because that just makes sense. A billion years of future solar power versus even a few remaining centuries of oil & gas certainly argues for using more of the former and less of the latter.


I’m a markets guy, however, and when an industry can’t become market-competitive over the years, it tends to just remain a niche player. Solar power is not yet – in a real markets sense – “sustainable.” As a markets guy I want to put on my Inigo Montoya accent to remind solar proponents who talk about solar power as “sustainable” to say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”


The punchline

Ok, but can I make money installing panels at my house? I estimate that the annual return on my initial investment, after twenty-five years, would reach 6.3 percent. Theoretically, I could earn more than that, if I kept the panels installed for more than twenty-five years. On the other hand, I’ve learned the expected lifespan of the system is about twenty-five years, so it doesn’t make much sense to expect it to last longer than that, in my model.

Is that enough?

What do I think about a 6.3 percent return personally on investment in renewable energy?

It sounds about right, as a private incentive to invest my money. 6.3 percent easily beats what I can earn in a wholly ‘safe’ investment, like a bond or a money market account. It’s also a return on money above what I pay on my mortgage, so that it makes theoretical financial sense to outlay the money for solar panels, rather than just pay down my mortgage principal faster. 6.3 percent is below historical long-term returns from stock investments, but that seems ok too. With any more federal and city subsidy, my “private return on capital” might seem excessive.

Like any model, a large number of assumptions go into calculating a financial return on solar panel installation.


These assumptions include the following:

  1. I get my local utility rebate following installation as promised, which looks right now to total about 30% of the cost of installation.
  2. I get my 30% federal income tax rebate next year, as promised by the IRS.
  3. The solar production of the panels I install generate as expected.
  4. I use similar amounts of electricity in the future as I do now. Specific to my model, my energy needs only increase 1% per year.
  5. The price of energy (essentially the rates my utility charges me) only increases by 1% per year.
  6. The effectiveness of the panels in generating energy only degrades at 0.5% per year
  7. My costs of maintenance on the panels only runs about $120 per year.
  8. I stay in my house enough years to reap the benefits of installing panels. Specifically for my ‘annual return’ estimate, I stay in my house for twenty-five years.

If all those assumptions hold true – admittedly a pretty large set of ‘ifs’ – I’ll reap a pretty good private return on my capital.


A version of this appeared in the San Antonio Express News


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