Upon reading the synopsis, Richard Girling’s The Longest Story appears to take on an ambitious task: cover the relationship between humans and non-human animals throughout all of history in under 400 pages. Yet somehow Girling, a veteran environmental journalist, is successful. Though The Longest Story does almost exclusively favor Western humanity and culture, Girling provides an impressive overview of the relationship between man and animal.
The Longest Story begins hundreds of millions of years ago with the evolution of species from single-cell organisms. Girling chronologically tours readers through various stages of our ever-evolving, tumultuous relationship with non-human animals. Though we have yet to discover how the story ends, Girling brings us to the present, where consumption of animal products continues to ravage the planet.
The journey through Girling’s timeline is, frankly, astounding. Girling has a knack for turning scientific and historical content into beautiful prose and sharing only the most engaging bits of information. Complex philosophical theories become poetic resolutions. Dense case studies become fascinating lore. Girling often highlights the hypocrisy of human thinking and, like many vegan writers often do, critiques the human impulse to define and victimize a collective “other”, regardless of species.
It seems as though few humans throughout history have conquered the trapping of flawed logic. In a chapter on philosophical thinkers of ancient Greece, Girling writes, “Independence of mind is as important to Greeks as independence of body, though pleasure in their own freedom does not lessen their urge to enslave others.” An astute observation, it appears as though the desire of any dominant group to be free is equal to that group’s desire to take away the freedom of others. But at what cost?
Girling brings us to our current state: living with the COVID-19 virus that evolved from a live meat market in Wuhan. With an even hand, Girling writes a poignant ending to a story that has not yet ended. When we destroy animals we destroy ourselves. And yet we refuse to stop due to a falsely perceived sense of superiority. Girling’s work begs the question: how will The Longest Story end?
Olivia Radbill is an LA-based public librarian and archivist. She is a practicing vegan and animal rights advocate.