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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.


The Worst Crime in History

Today, the majority of large animals on planet earth are domesticated farm animals that live and die as cogs in the wheels of industrial agriculture. Earth is home to about 7 billion humans, weighing together about 300 million tons. It is also home to several dozen billion farm animals – cows, pigs, chickens and so forth – whose total biomass is about 700 millions tons. In contrast, if you took all the large wild animals left on earth – all the penguins, baboons, alligators, dolphins, wolves, tune fish, lions and elephants – and put them on a very large scale, they will weigh together less than 100 million tons.

The disappearance of wildlife is a calamity of unprecedented magnitude, but the plight of the planet’s majority population—the farm animals—is cause for equal concern. In recent years there is growing awareness of the conditions under which these animals live and die, and their fate may well turn out to be the greatest crime in human history. If you measure crimes by the sheer amount of pain and misery they inflict on sentient beings, this radical claim is not implausible.

It is undeniable that the regime of modern industrial agriculture is designed to the benefit of humankind, and that the animals inevitably end their lives in the slaughterhouse. But isn’t this regime beneficial in many ways to the animals too? Aren’t cows and chickens better off under human care? After all, they get all the food, water and shelter they need, without making the least effort. They are similarly protected against predators and diseases. And though it is certainly painful for a chicken to end its life slaughtered by a human, how is it worse than being slaughtered in the wild by a fox or an eagle?

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Who domesticated humans?

Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the grueling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.

That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. [i]

Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.

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