Written by Metin Güven
The issue of animal rights has become increasingly complex for groups and social movements developing policies based on ecological views. Sustainable agriculture or agroecology methods may involve animal farming. Questions arise whether animal meat or dairy products could be part of these processes or whether universal veganism is the best option to tackle the climate crisis. Similarly, considerations about condemning indigenous people for hunting animals also present themselves.
A variety of approaches are used among groups defending animals: some raise the issue of animal rights, some animal freedom, and other animal exploitation. These different approaches can lead to confusion when the issue is discussed within ecological groups. Another point that complicates the problem is that in some cases wild animals are threatened by domestic animals. Those wild animals could be birds migrating through a city full of stray dogs and cats, or small reptiles trying to survive in an urban park or forest with dogs and cats left behind by their previous owners. From an ecological point of view, it is easy to find common ground with all of these groups advocating animal rights or freedom on issues like meat production, but it becomes far more complicated when the issue of animal exploitation is raised, even if keeping these animals is better from an ecological point of view. Replacing horse carriages (for tourism) with motor vehicles, for example, may cause an escalation in new construction and land speculation but some groups defend this regardless of the consequences.
The Evolution of Second Nature
When analyzing the relationship between humans and animals, first of all, it is necessary to rethink the “second nature” that has evolved through the socialization of human beings. First nature, by contrast, represents the non-human world that evolved without human beings. As a result of this evolutionary process, living organisms and their increasing subjectivity emerged over a very long period of time. In this process, second nature was formed as a result of the emergence of conceptualization and design among human beings. The evolution of second nature can also be seen as the evolution of social institutions. However, if we examine the material conditions that enabled the creation of these institutions, second nature must be seen as the communities formed by human beings, including the animals they tamed and even the evolution of domesticated plants.
The surplus product which allowed leisure, craftsmanship, and social institutions to emerge, was originally achieved by hunter-gatherers. However, as the population increased, maintaining this surplus product only became possible through agriculture and animal husbandry. Agriculture leads to the depletion of minerals in the soil; when minerals such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus are lost, the soil decreases in yield. As a solution to this problem, the first communities that practiced agriculture simply cultivated land somewhere else when they began to experience low crop yield due to soil degradation. However, with this increase in population territorial borders appeared and it became difficult to find new land all of the time. In many parts of the world, the solution to this was to use animal feces as fertilizer. In some regions, animals that mainly provided feces but also provided meat or were used for other purposes solved this problem.
We see that most civilizations that did not produce livestock in the past had difficulty maintaining their existence due to their excessive use of the land. Some societies, such as the Aztecs, even resorted to methods such as eating the meat of prisoners.1 Therefore, it is hard to think of the emergence of civilizations independent from animal husbandry in addition to agriculture. In this symbiotic form of common life, humans met the metabolic needs of the animals they domesticated and developed a sustainable method of agriculture mainly by using their manure. In many civilizations, such as in India and the Middle East, milk from these animals became an essential source of nutrients. Cattle also played an important role in plowing the land. The sacredness given to animals in some regions, such as in India, indicates that these civilizations were conscious that they owed their existence to their domestic animals.
If we go back further, the symbiosis between humans and domestic animals extends to when hunter-gatherer societies tamed dogs and used them to help during hunting. Dogs that helped in hunting survived by getting a share of the meat and bone. They not only helped hunt but also protected the community as well.
The Emergence of the Meat Industry
In most civilizations, animal meat consumption has been a privilege largely restricted to the upper classes. Ordinary people consumed meat mostly during festivals. In India, this practice was restricted in the 2nd century BC, and consequently eating meat was not religiously approved. Despite the Arab, Mongolian, and later British occupations, the majority of non-Muslim Indians have refused to eat meat until today (except in northeastern states where fish is popular and southern states where lactose tolerance is not widespread). The situation is different as agricultural production is limited in semi-nomadic societies. Meat-based nutrition is more common in these societies and has long become part of the culture, even continuing to a certain extent after they transitioned to a sedentary lifestyle.
These patterns have changed with the development of industrial capitalism. Beef in particular was turned into a consumption and status object, generating huge farms created to breed cattle just for meat. Indeed, in the 1880s, beef was the first example of serial production in the USA through the use of disassembly lines. Along the moving hooks, each worker took a certain action to tear the animal carcass apart. This method, developed by the meat industry in Chicago, was later applied by Henry Ford to produce cars using assembly lines.2 Initially aimed at the domestic market in the US and for UK import, the modern meat industry eventually spread all over the world as meat consumption in other countries increased.
Today, over a quarter of the world’s non-ice-covered land is used for grazing domestic animals. One-fifth of the arable agricultural area is used to produce feed for these animals.3 In total, the world is occupied by 385 million tons of people and over 700 million tons of domestic animals. By contrast, the weight of all large wild animals is 100 million tons. Based on weight, 36 percent of mammals are humans, 60 percent are domestic animals and only 4 percent are wild mammals.4 Through industrialization, while the habitats of wild animals were destroyed due to anthropocentric activity, this was largely done for livestock for meat production.
Companies invested in this scale of meat production do not prioritize anything other than maximizing their profits. The methods used in these huge farms do not take into account the well-being of their animals and try to resolve stress-related health problems by giving them antibiotics in advance. Viewed like inanimate objects, animals are treated with mechanical tools. Likewise, it is unimportant whether the meat produced is suitable for human health. GMO corn, banned from sale for direct human consumption, is given to animals as feed; people, in turn, consume this corn in a concentrated form. One-third of antibiotics produced are taken directly by humans, while the other two-thirds are given to animals and indirectly enter into human bodies through meat consumption.
Raising large numbers of animals in huge farms facilitates the spread of infectious diseases in these environments. Viruses that develop here also infect humans, causing swine flu, bird flu, and coronavirus outbreaks. People consuming chemicals from pesticides that accumulate in meat weaken their immune system and makes them more affected by these outbreaks.
Therefore, current meat production practices are unacceptable not only due to the abuse of animals but also in terms of their negative ecological and health-related effects. Moreover, meat production on this scale cannot be carried out without abusing animals or in an ecologically sustainable manner. In short, it wouldn’t be acceptable to breed livestock just for meat production in an ecological society.
Milk and Eggs
Can we approach milk production in the same way as many groups campaigning for animals do? First of all, it should be noted that contrary to meat production, animal abuse is not common among small farmers producing milk in India, which is the largest milk producer in the world, because both the cow and its milk are considered sacred. On average, there are two animals on one farm and their feed is produced on the same farm. Capitalism and its centralized production imperative are the only obstacles to applying these practices in other countries. In capitalist developed countries, milk production is carried out in large dairy farms that cause animal abuse; much as in meat production farms, it is characterized by the use of GMO feeds, chemical hormones, and antibiotics. However, with a radical transformation, these elements could be eliminated, creating small-scale ecological milk production that limits the possibility of animal abuse. This would represent a return to common practices that have been carried out for at least seven thousand years.
This poses the related question of whether the use of domestic animal milk is exploitation or not. It is important to answer this question without forgetting that these animals were domesticated seven thousand years ago and in the process have been genetically changed. During this period these animals have adapted to be fed by people and to provide their milk in return. With a proper diet, domesticated cows can produce milk for up to two years without re-breeding. If these animals possessed rational reasoning, would they really think they were exploited? Or might these animals perhaps support their symbiotic relationship with humans and subsequent global spread simply by providing their manure? Moreover, within current technologies, practically the only alternative to fertilizers produced from animal feces is synthetic chemical fertilizer produced from petroleum and mining. Chemical fertilizers are known for their negative effects on the soil as well as the pollution they cause in rivers and seas. It is therefore not possible to have sustainable agriculture with chemical fertilizers, both in terms of long term soil fertility and its negative effect on global warming. In light of this, even if one day we decide it is unethical to use the milk and feces of animals, it is not possible to completely abandon animal husbandry without developing technologies that can produce enough fertilizer from plant-based resources and human feces. It would probably take decades for these technologies to be widely implemented.
The consumption of chickens and eggs can be similarly considered. The breeding of chickens for meat consumption and the production of industrial eggs (cage eggs) should be discontinued, as they are abused and fed in the same way other animals bred for meat. However, some of the chicken population can survive in backyards and in community gardens. These can be fed with kitchen remnants and natural feed, and their eggs can be consumed. Fertilizer produced from chicken droppings would also be valuable for agricultural practices.
It is prudent to also think about the attitude of some animal rights groups toward diet. As an individual, of course, anyone can choose to adopt any diet and explain its benefits to try and propagate it. The end of industrial meat production will require a widespread switch to primarily consuming a plant-based diet. However, to present a certain diet as universally applicable or to state that there is no other ethical choice ignores the geographic and cultural diversity of the world. For example, recommending a vegetarian or vegan diet to Inuits who live in areas where the soil is under ice or snow most of the time means “white people will feed you.” To expect them to give up their culture and accept such a dependence would be both futile and colonial. Moreover, it is not a rational or ecological proposal to suggest that food be transported to certain geographic regions all of the time due to greenhouse gas emissions. By the same token, would it be ethical to suggest that natives living in the Amazon cut down trees to farm instead of hunting birds and fish to meet their protein needs?
As mentioned above, the end of animal husbandry and the transition of all humanity to a vegan diet also pose the issues of soil renewal and alternative fertilizer technologies. Implementation of this program in a short period is only possible by reducing the population through genocide or by risking a major food crisis. To simply argue that a vegan diet is the only ethical option without making suggestions on this subject is an irresponsible way of campaigning. Another problem with diet-based activism is the idea that these problems can be solved through lifestyle change. As a matter of fact, despite an increase in the number of vegans in the USA, England, or Germany in recent years, the average meat consumption per capita has not decreased in these societies.
Some animal rights groups have gone so far as to disrupt hunting by indigenous communities.5 This racist action reveals their Eurocentric view. Instead, one could advocate re-foresting large pastures now reserved for meat production or to clean polluted rivers and seas so that wild animals can regenerate their populations.
Another problem is that many young people switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet without getting enough information. According to a public opinion poll conducted by CBS News in the USA in 2005, there are three times as many people who have been vegetarians as there are current vegetarians today.6 It is possible that a significant number of these people did not adopt a balanced diet, experienced health problems, and then gave it up. It is difficult not to think that an approach that underestimates the health impact of such a changed diet affects the ability to maintain it.
Pets in Cities
While the world wolf population is approximately 200,000 today, the domesticated dog population is estimated to be 900 million; and, we feed 600 million domestic cats but there are only 40,000 African lions remaining.7 Although it is believed that people who become lonely in modern societies need pets, these animals are part of humanity’s increasing ecological footprint. Pet foods produced with tuna and other animals increases the impact on the wildlife and environment. To take one example, the amount of fish caught for cat food is estimated at 2.48 million tons per year.8 In some developed countries, restrictions on cats and dogs have made it possible for wild animals such as squirrels and lizards to survive in ever-expanding urban areas. In this way, pets’ impact on current bird populations has been minimized.9 However, there is no such control in other countries. In many cities, stray cats and dogs are scattered throughout woodland and forest areas. Some animal rights activists even support their habitation thereby feeding them, rather than removing them from these areas. Yet it is a kind of speciesism to protect these domestic animals at the expense of wild species. On the contrary, stray dogs and cats should be kept away from forests and woodlands, and prevented from being in the streets and parks at night. In this way, wild species can survive in urban areas.
Here the question of the “freedom” of pets arises. Do people have the right to restrict their “freedom”? I think we should consider this question in the context of the relationship between first and second nature. In other words, we have to separate wild animals that are part of first nature from pets that took a different evolutionary path due to human intervention and to consider these cases differently. In this sense, if we have domesticated certain animals and separated them from first nature or put them in a different position from wild animals, it is, therefore, our responsibility to control their impact on first nature. Otherwise, the destructive pressure created by second nature on first nature would reach an undesirable level. This responsibility may also require ending the life of pets if necessary, as already practiced in animal shelters, in order to make more room for first nature.
Beyond that, pets are dependent on people in many ways. Does releasing them in nature really mean liberation? We should not forget that we are talking about a dependence created over seven thousand years. Dogs that roam freely on the streets will even attack each other if people do not provide enough food for them. If the behavioral dimension of such “emancipation” is studied, interesting results would likely emerge.
Priorities for Ending the Domination of First Nature
Today, the climate crisis and global warming are one of the most crucial problems for all living organisms. Hundreds of species disappear from the earth every year as a result of deforestation caused by capitalist industrialization and habitat loss caused by global warming. It is estimated that animal husbandry is responsible for 14.5 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions causing the climate crisis, mostly as the result of animal husbandry for meat production. In addition, the feces that accumulate in industrial livestock farms cannot be used as fertilizer because it contains many chemical pollutants that end up in rivers and the water supply. Ending the meat industry and reforesting grasslands used for this purpose are thus urgent measures, both in terms of the climate crisis and pollution. Industrial meat production is by far the worst offender compared to other forms of animal abuse. Animal advocacy groups can work together with ecologists on this issue, without the baggage of other confusing or unrealistic goals. The rigid pursuit of goals such as universal veganism makes such a coalition impossible.
Ending industrial meat production remains a critical shared goal, both in terms of preserving wild animal habitat and preventing animal abuse. Yet some animal rights activists continue to neglect this issue by giving priority to other concerns, while others mistakenly seek to redress the problem through lifestyle choices such as veganism. As a result the strong, united campaigns this issue calls for have not been carried out.
Another conflict arises because while ecologists are concerned about biodiversity, animal rights activists are concerned about each animal as an individual. As a result, some campaigns aimed at protecting wild animals present hunting as an absolute evil, becoming discriminatory against indigenous peoples as well as politically ineffective. As predators also hunt other animals, hunting is part of wild nature as well as indigenous peoples’ lifestyle. Instead, it is necessary to criticize the policies that bring many species to extinction and to suggest alternatives that will reverse this trend. Hunting by indigenous people is not a problem if those animals are able to reproduce without the risk of extinction. On the contrary, considering that humans made many predator species extinct, hunting may even be necessary to control the population of the animals those predators hunted.
When discussing this subject it should not be forgotten that animals are abused for experimental purposes or in circuses, zoos, or for other entertainment purposes like racing or fighting. These are also important issues in the idea of domination over other species that must be addressed.
For a Society in Harmony with First Nature
With industrialization, people began living so disconnected from first nature that newer generations know neither how agriculture was practiced in the past nor today. Those with some awareness learn about the usage of pesticides and hormones in agriculture and in response perhaps learn some organic gardening techniques. But the methods used to feed millions of people throughout history have in many places been forgotten and suppressed. Yet our political vision has to take these methods into consideration, and we must be creative and solution-generating about how to establish a healthy symbiosis with domesticated animals.
If second nature is to be in harmony with the first nature it can only be achieved by creating a harmonious symbiosis within itself. A humanity that abuses domesticated species and increases their population to such an extent that they leave no room for wild animals also makes harmony with first nature impossible. If humans are to overcome the contradiction of first and second nature and “become nature rendered self-conscious,” then this problem must be solved. This situation is of course deeply linked to capitalism, which created industrial agriculture, and which incentivizes and institutionalizes the domination of human by human. The complete elimination of animal abuse is not possible without creating an ecological society. Abusive relationships between humans and other living beings can only be eliminated in a society where the relationship between first and second nature is mediated based not on economic criteria in order to achieve the highest profit, but with a perspective that seeks harmony with nature.
Just as the tobacco industry has shrunk and been restricted due to regulation, so too could the meat industry also become restricted. Today, as the climate crisis gets more critical it becomes a necessity. Prioritizing this goal does not mean ignoring animal experimentation or other forms of animal abuse: these abuses can and should be prevented. But in the end, the ecology movement and animal rights groups should come together to develop strong campaigns against industrial animal agriculture that will prevent the largest and worst form of animal abuse. Such cooperation will also help pave the way to an ecological society.
1 I do not use civilization here as identical to urbanization. Australian aborigines, for example, created settlements in the form of clustered villages and created a civilization by supporting those settlements with agriculture and fisheries. The abundance of kangaroos and other game animals allowed them to live without the need for livestock.
2 For more details on this subject, see Jeremy Rifkin, “Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture” (Plume, 1993).
5 Stated by Peter Staudenmaier, in his article “Ambiguities of Animal Rights”, accessible at http://social-ecology.org/wp/2005/01/ambiguities-of-animal-rights/ :
“Even indigenous communities engaged in conspicuously low-impact traditional hunting have been harassed and vilified by animal rights activists. The campaign against seal hunting in the 1980’s, for example, prominently targeted Inuit practices. In the late 1990’s, the Makah people of Neah Bay in the northwestern United States tried to re-establish their communal whale hunt, harvesting exactly one gray whale in 1999. The Makah hunt was non-commercial, for subsistence purposes, and fastidiously humane; they chose a whale species that is not endangered and went to considerable lengths to accommodate anti-whaling sentiment. […] Nevertheless, when the Makah attempted to embark on their first expedition in 1998, they were physically confronted by the Sea Shepherd Society and other animal protection organizations, who occupied Neah Bay for several months.”
6 For more details, see Hal Herzog, “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat” (Harper Collins e-books, 2011,), specifically the section titled “Why Do Most Vegetarians Return To Eating Meat?”
According to this source, the dog population, estimated as 525 million 8 years ago, has reached 900 million today.
9 Moreover, with the concept of “green infrastructure” in Europe, green areas in cities are combined with natural areas outside the city through green corridors to ensure that wild animals come back into the city.