crowd of angry chickens

Yuval Noah Harari, in his brilliant book Sapiens, makes the surprising claim that we live in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. It’s easy to get wrapped up in daily news that recounts shootings, terrorism, and international words and acts of aggression, as well as economic crises, downturns, and instabilities. But here’s the reality, looking through a wide-view lens that spans all of human history:

“We are witnessing the formation of a global empire. Like previous empires, this one, too, enforces peace within its borders. And since its borders cover the entire globe, the World Empire effectively enforces world peace.”

Harari also points out that while there are areas of the world where humans are living in miserable conditions, there are also vast global networks that strive to help people. For every impoverished area, there are people working to bring in food, water, shelter, health care, education, and other necessities for human life.

Thus, according to Harari, we are living in a sort of golden age for humanity. But this golden age is built upon a sickening foundation. Here are some numbers that surprised me. As it turns out, the combined weight of all human life on the planet is more than three times the combined weight of all large wild animal life on the planet. (This includes porcupines and whales, for example, but not insects.) As Harari explains,

“Our children’s books, our iconography and our TV screens are still full of giraffes, wolves and chimpanzees, but the real world has very few of them left. . . . Humanity really has taken over the world.”

Continuing with the mathematical assessment, it turns out that the combined weight of all domesticated farm animals is more than twice the combined weight of all human life. There are truly a lot of chickens, pigs, and cows on earth. Many more farm animals than humans exist, and vastly more farm animals than wild animals exist. The human race as we know it depends on these farm animals for its physical existence and economic prosperity.

But we treat these farm animals like machines. We use them for their resources, while neglecting how they feel. They cannot talk to us in our human languages, but scientists have determined without doubt that they have feelings just as we do. As Harari writes,

“This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction. The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs.”

I would like to share Harari’s personal feelings about this matter. I was interested to learn that he has come to the same conclusion that I, over the years, have. Here is another snippet of the Q&A at the end of my edition of Sapiens:

Q. “Do you think there is moral progress? Are we more ethical than our ancestors?”

A. “There is moral progress in the relationships between humans, but moral regression in our attitude towards other animals. Relationships between humans are far more harmonious today than ever before, with far less international and domestic violence. At the same time, our treatment of animals—both wild and domesticated—is worse than ever before.”

Q. “Did writing the book affect you personally?”

A. “Yes, certainly. For example, while writing the chapters on the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution I read numerous articles and books about the domestication and treatment of farm animals. I was so horrified by what I learned that I decided to limit, as far as possible, my personal involvement with the meat, dairy, and egg industries.”

I, too, am horrified by what I have read, in this book and other sources. In the past, I tried vegetarianism; but, for various reasons, it didn’t feel like the right choice for me. Besides, being vegetarian only partially solved the problem, as I continued to eat eggs and dairy products produced on factory farms. I would have had to become a vegan to truly resist.

Instead, I now try to eat only meat, eggs, and dairy that were produced on local farms that raise animals humanely and use sustainable, ecologically friendly practices. I say I try because I do not always succeed. Eating at restaurants is problematic. I am limited to vegan options, plus fish if it is served without dairy, unless the restaurant is unusually avant-garde in its food sourcing. The good news is that more and more restaurants and grocery stores in my area have been providing ethically sourced foods than in the past. The bad news is that we have a long way to go.

It’s easy to ignore the suffering of farm animals while grocery shopping or dining out. But the suffering goes on, whether you think about it or not. The biggest challenge I personally experienced in moving from factory to local foods was not the convenience, but the cost. Both convenience and cost are vastly better than previously, but a gap still exists. I am fortunate to have the income needed to pay extra for my food, thus hopefully reducing the suffering of others. I am also fortunate to have the resources to be able to raise my own chickens: I have five hens who provide me with eggs (not to mention daily cute entertainment!).

Ethical decision making should be available to all, however, not just those of us with disposable income. In the U.S., the meat, egg, and dairy industries hire lobbyists to sway Congress to pass laws and regulations that are economically advantageous to them. The animals cannot advocate directly with Congress and thus need lobbyists of their own. I think we should fight to make it more economically viable to be a small family farmer using humane and sustainable practices than a large, destructive, cruel corporation. I have read that factory farms can be mentally unhealthy for not just the animals, but also the humans who work there and see the suffering firsthand; so both would benefit from there being fewer factory farms in the world.

In the photo above, the chickens look militant and angry. They look like they are marching for their rights! But the reality is, the chickens of the world are unable to fight back against us humans. Most of the chickens of the world are locked in confined spaces, far from their mothers, unable to do fun, chicken-like activities like pecking for food, scratching the ground, and roosting up high at night.

I have personal experience of being locked in a virtual prison. While suffering from an injury, and having lost hope that it would ever heal, I was trapped at home, unable to do fun, human-like activities like going out with friends, working to earn a living, or even doing simple tasks like going grocery shopping or checking my email. Luckily, I found a path toward recovery and healing, and I eventually regained my fun, human life. I have experienced the horror and come out on the other side. I would not wish that trapped feeling on any kind of organic animal creature, human or otherwise.

Have you ever been trapped in a real or virtual prison?