The treatment of industrially farmed animals is one of the most ethically questionable practices of our times.
As tens of billions of animals, each sentient through the complexity of their social and emotional nature, face life and death on the production line we are being beckoned towards a different way.
Humanity has a long and violent history with animals, one which grew exponentially in its capacity for harm as the industrial revolution brought domesticated animals into factory farms. Unfortunately the human progress associated with the industrial revolution is rarely connected with a drastic increase in the suffering and abuse of animals. To understand how this came about it's essential to understand that even tens of thousands of years ago this dark aspect of human behavior was present. The first humans reaching Australia 45,000 years ago drove to extinction 90% of all its large animals. This would not, however, be the last major ecological impact of ancient humans. The human colonization of America, roughly 15,000 years ago, was similarly devastating wiping out 75% of the large mammal population. Africa, Eurasia and the surrounding coastal islands all suffered the disappearance of a wide variety of species. Looking through the archeological record it's one of the main signs that the human presence had arrived.
Prior to the arrival of humans there is always an opening scene revealing a plethora of species, followed by the remains of fire, fossilized bone, spears and ending with the sudden disappearance of most large animals and a wide variety of smaller ones as well.
It's the same story over and over all around the globe. Before modern human progress was expressed in the planting of wheat fields, the creation of metal tools, the productions of coins or the writing of text, 50% of all large terrestrial mammals had been driven to extinction.
The men and women of earth proceeded into the agricultural revolution transforming from hunter gatherers into permanent, farming settlers. Domesticated mammals and birds had arrived as a relatively minor new presence with fewer than 20 species being domesticated, compared to the countless thousands of wild creatures. The centuries eventually carried this new kind of creature into normalcy. Today 90% of all large animals, creatures a few kilograms and up, have been brought into domestication. In fact ten thousand years ago there was a rare bird confined to relatively small niches of South Asia. Today this creature numbers in the billions on almost every continent save for Antarctica and is the most widespread bird on the planet. We call it chicken and it is technically the most successful animal on earth. The technicality here being that the collective success that keeps their numbers so high is also what creates such incredible individual suffering. While animal suffering isn't new, the agricultural revolution ensured that an entirely new form of suffering would be born.
The frenetic passing of the generations became synonymous with increasingly terrible living conditions as efficiency and productivity made each individual animal increasingly invisible.
The floods, droughts, parasites and predators which the wild creatures were constantly contending with may seem harsh at first glance compared to the newfound abundance of food and shelter being offered to domesticated animals. In this light these creatures were now technically being cared for and protected by humans. While it is true that these animals are all being lead to slaughter one has to ask whether this is worse than the fate leering at them from the wild. Is it worse to be mauled by a human machine than a hungry lion? The context that becomes essential when we ask this question is not just how these animals die, but how they live. How these creatures live can be broken into two different categories. (source) Firstly, humans desired meat, milk, eggs, leather, animal muscle-power and amusement. This desire contends with the second category, which is the survival and long term reproduction of farm animals. Superficially one might assume that this would lead to the care and protection of these creatures, ensuring that they are not the victims of extreme cruelty. A farmer doesn't starve or dehydrate his cow because the milk supply would dry up, and yet myriad ways of causing suffering to these creatures remain normalized. (source) Domesticated animals can be utterly protected in terms of survival and reproduction while horrifically tortured when it comes to the care that is relevant to a sentient being. These animals have inherited a whole range of physical, social and emotional needs from their wild ancestors and this is where we arrive at the crux of the problem. As far as the goals of animal agriculture are concerned these traits are a gross inconvenience, a mere redundancy in the chain of evolution. Since there is no economic price for ignoring these inherited needs the farming industry naturally excludes them.
Farmers numb to this discrepancy rip the young from their mothers, trap them in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, force impregnation until bodies give out and generally work to mutate these creatures to adhere to the morally blind, economic demands at play. Thus billions of animals live in a world of neglect and torture while, maniacally, their populations continue to reach explosive numbers.
If the Darwinian notion (source) that all traits have developed in the interest of survival and reproduction is to be taken seriously then what to make of the social, emotional and physical needs of these creatures which seem to be meaningless as their survival and reproduction continues to rise? What supposed "need" could a pig possibly have that isn't related to survival or reproduction?
Communication, cooperation and competition were all necessary for the wild counterparts of these animals to survive and reproduce. The pressure to develop these traits, essential to the thriving wild populations of the past, simply evaporated on the farm and yet the drives that these pressures shaped remain. The subjective experience of the animal is still continuously molded by the presence of these drives even as the horrors of their newfound existence continue the "success" of the species. In cows, dogs and even humans there remain physical, social and emotional needs that are thousands of years old. These needs are not a reflection of current conditions but rather the pressure exerted in a past that bears little resemblance to our modern day experience. Modern humans don't gorge on sweets as a matter of survival. We know that this penchant for sweets comes from the rare, ripened fruit of our ancestors who were prompted to consume hard to find sugars quickly. The young hunter who risked his life and out performed the other hunters, revealing his strength and masculinity to potential mates is still, genetically speaking, at work today as a macho man driving recklessly, seeking bar fights and out drinking with his college buddies.
The irrelevance of this macho behavior is easily comparable to the modern day, industrialized cow, a creature programmed by socially driven, evolutionary logic to ensure effective communication, cooperation and competition—trapped in a factory. The love of play we see in puppies, kittens and children drives this social behavior and we know that wild cattle used play in the very same way. They needed this play or they would not have survived. Any of these creatures born with an inability to play would have been extremely unlikely to survive and reproduce as their ancestors had. When we see a puppy, a kitten, a child seeking a rich, affectionate bond with their mothers the same evolutionary logic is at work. Any mutation that resulted in the weakening of the infant-mother bond was essentially a death sentence. Until now.
Today, a calf's bond with her mother is immediately severed as she is forced into a minuscule cage, pumped full of vaccines, given food to replace her mothers milk and coerced into a state of maturity deemed appropriate for her to be artificially inseminated with bull semen repeatedly until she can no longer harbor children and is only useful as meat. Objectively speaking the need for maternal bonding and playfulness are suddenly irrelevant to the survival and reproduction of this creature. The human masters have the survival and reproduction worked out to a tee. Of course subjectively speaking, as all of this occurs, the calf is still feeling the strong desire to bond with her mother and play with other calves. As these urges go unfulfilled the calf remains in a world of suffering. The reality is that this is abuse and it will not stop until we stop consuming animals.
Evolutionary psychology offers us this basic lesson: a need shaped thousands of years ago remains today as a subjective experience even if it has become irrelevant to survival and reproduction. It turns out that animal agriculture was a capability we were not morally evolved enough to encounter. We reduced it down to the opportunity to ensure the survival and reproduction of a species while ignoring the subjective needs which they experience as essential. Our creation is a terrifying contradiction. We have created the most successful animals in the world who, on an individual basis, are the most miserable creatures in the history of this planet. It is no secret that the continued progress of this phenomenon, in the form of industrial farming, has only exacerbated the problem. Biochemistry, zoology, epidemiology, genetics are all bodies of knowledge that were comparatively absent in the Roman Empire, medieval China or ancient Egypt. The option to cram 1,000 chickens into the smallest space imaginable didn't exist with the threat of a deadly bird-flu epidemic poised to wipe out all the chickens with some humans on the side. Whatever local experts existed, be they shamans, priests, or witch doctors, had no power to stop such things. As history led to a greater understanding of things like viruses and antibiotics we came into a new level of power in the form of vaccines, hormones, air conditioning, automatic feeders, pesticides, medications.
As a result we can now take 10,000 chickens and cram them into tiny spaces while producing meat and eggs with historical efficiency. This new found power gives farmers the utter freedom of placing these birds into extreme living conditions without their survival or reproduction becoming an issue in any economical sense.
The ethical considerations of this circumstance, the sheer numbers, now press upon humanity with an increasing force. The majority of the large animals humans once so cleverly domesticated now live on these industrial farms. We are often encouraged to think of our planet as a wilderness replete with penguins, lions, whales and elephants. This is an extremely misleading facade, a statistically incoherent fairy tale when we look at the numbers.
There are roughly 40,000 lions on earth while we use this planet to harbor around 1 billion domesticated pigs. We can attest to only 500,000 elephants compared to the 1.5 billion domesticated cows. The 50 million penguins that exist are dwarfed by the 20 billion chickens humanity now boasts. As of 2009 there were 1.9 billion wild birds in Europe, that is, all the species counted together. The European Meat and Egg industry matched this number raising 1.9 billion chickens the very same year. In total, domesticated animals weigh in at about 700m tonnes with humans coming in at 300m tonnes and wild large animals trailing behind weighing less than 100m tonnes.
This is where we have arrived and all of these rising numbers are necessarily equated with the mounting moral failure of our continued consumption of these creatures. When we debate about the fate of farm animals we are dealing with an issue of immense importance to this planet and to humanity. We are, mathematically speaking, dealing with the majority of the earth's large animals who are each, individually, being forced to use their complex emotional, physical and social sensitivity to suffer through the realities of industrial farming. It has become impossible to deny what Peter Singer articulated forty years ago:
Industrial farming is responsible for more pain and misery than all the wars in history put together.
Centuries from now we will likely look back ashamed of what the scientific study of animals contributed to all of this. This growing body of knowledge could have lead to a deeper more meaningful connection with these creatures. Instead it was used to manipulate them into a world of pain and torture maniacally driven by the efficiency of industrial might. The scientific community, throughout the explosive growth of this industry, was indeed continuously delving further into understanding the complex social nature of these beings.
The intricate social patterns that revealed their capacity for pain, fear and loneliness were being empirically revealed. The sheer depth of their happiness and suffering became undeniable (source) and yet looking at the current state of this industry our application of such knowledge is hauntingly absent.
With all of this perspective we now have a chance to live from our hearts and our heads. Our relationship with the animals of this earth is no longer caught between scientific ignorance and emotional sensitivity. We have arrived at a point in history where we can no longer proclaim any meaningful excuses. Our growing knowledge can and should be used to benefit the creatures of this earth, not harm them. We should not be so dim as to believe that the harm we are doing can not reach new heights as we become more powerful creatures. Human intelligent design has begun to eclipse the governance of natural selection. As biotechnology (source), nanotechnology (source) and artificial intelligence (source) loom on the horizon we will have a chance to reshape human potential. We will be brought to choices that have within them the power to move beyond the glory of technological progress. We can discover our capacity to match compassion with industrial might. Our desire to serve the planet can become equal to our desire to realize our intelligence. We can finally match our passion for moral fortitude with our ideals for human success.
As we come to create this new world we must take into account and begin to live by what has now become both wonderfully and terrifyingly obvious. All of the earth's sentient beings now lay in the wake of humanity's future.
*Article by Simon Esler @ FullDisclosureNow.com
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