Ecology

Ecology

Destroying the world

If you took all the people in the world and put them on a large set of scales, their combined mass would be about 300 million tons. If you then took all our domesticated farm animals—cows, pigs, sheep and chickens—and placed them on an even larger set of scales, their mass would amount to about 700 million tons. In contrast, the combined mass of all surviving large wild animals—from porcupines and penguins to elephants and whales—is less than 100 million tons.

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. There are about 80,000 giraffes in the world, compared to 1.5 billion cattle; 200,000 wolves, compared to 400 million domesticated dogs; 50 million penguins compared with 50 billion chickens; 250,000 chimpanzees—in contrast to billions of humans. Humankind really has taken over the world.

The wild giraffes and penguins have no reason to be jealous of the domesticated cows and chickens, though. From a narrow evolutionary perspective, domesticated species are an amazing success story. They are the most widespread animals in the world. Unfortunately, this evolutionary perspective fails to take into account individual suffering. Domesticated cows and chickens may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived. This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is one of the most important lessons of history.