In the past I have tended to dismiss the animal welfare movement as another “feel good” liberal cause that does little to redress human oppression and exploitation. I was wrong. A recent lecture by sociologist David Nibert from Wittenberg University has opened my eyes to the historical role of animal domestication in imperialistic wars, colonialism, genocide, and wealth inequality. Even more scary is the rapid spread of the meat-laden “western” diet, an invention of the public relations industry, to the developing world. There it continues to fuel untold violence and cruelty against the poor and disadvantaged, resource wars, and systematic degradation of the complex ecosystems that support human existence.
The title of Nibert’s talk, carried on Alternative Radio, is “The Animal Industrial Complex.” He isn’t being cute. This powerful institution has even more control over our daily lives than either the military or prison industrial complex.
Replacing Our Ancestors with Sheep
After reminding us of the plant-based, “original affluent” society that characterized most of human existence, Nibert traces the rise of the “western” meat-based diet across 10,000 years of human history. After causing thousands of years of European warfare, exploitation, and slavery in the 15th century animal domestication was foisted on the other continents. In South America it destroyed some of the world’ most advanced societies. Back in Europe, the need to provide sheep pasture was the chief rationale for the 18th century Enclosure Acts that drove most of our ancestors off their communal lands (see my review of Fred Harrison’s The Traumatised Society). According to Nibert, this massive expansion of “animal domesecration” was just as important as fossil fuels in the rise of the capitalist economic system.
The drive to clear new pasture to produce meat for global elites led to genocidal wars against native peoples in North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand.
The Socially Engineered Demand for Meat
In the 20th century Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, assisted the food industry in artificially inflating public demand for meat. After World War II, it culminated in what Nibert refers to as the “hamburger culture.”
In the sixties and seventies, corporate demand for new pasture led to US collaboration with right wing Central and South American dictatorships that systematically drove peasant farmers from their lands. Those who resisted were violently suppressed by US-trained troops and death squads, with US supplied bombers, gunships, and guns.
Animal Domestication and Influenza
Aside from the obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, animal domesecration poses an enormous public health threat, even for vegans and vegetarians who don’t eat meat. This stems from viral “zoonotic” illnesses that have spread to humans from chickens and pigs. Nibert reminds us that the 2009 H1N1 outbreak that killed nearly 285,000 people originated in factory farms in North Carolina. During the 20th century influenza pandemics (originating mainly from chickens and pigs) killed more than 50 million people.
Meanwhile, despite the major health and environmental problems caused by the western meat-based diet, demand for new pasture continues to force thousands of peasants from their land in Africa and South America. While desertification and water scarcity (caused by overgrazing) make food commodities and and shares in water companies the primo investment for banks and hedge fund managers.
Nibert finishes the interview with a critique of leftists who think they’re being political correct by only consuming local, free-range animal products:
“I applaud my friends for eating local plant-based foods but have to argue to them that the continued consumption of animal products is more harmful than they know. The reduction in ‘food miles’ from consuming local animal products is overshadowed by the energy and resources necessary for their production and refrigeration. And while the more affluent among us can afford the more expensive grass-fed products and thus avoid eating domesecrated animals plied with pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, the vast majority of people will continue to eat the cheapest fare that the Animal Industrial Complex can produce. And even if the world were more equitable, moral and environmental issues aside there simply is not enough land or water to “free range” the tens of billions of domesecrated animals necessary to meet the growing, socially engineered demand.”
The full presentation can be downloaded from Alternative Radio. A transcript is $3, an MP3 file $5.
Until Oct 25, you can listen to the interview free on line at KEXP 90.3 FM. Go to http://www.kexp.org/archive#/2013/10/12/6AM/00 and click on “LAUNCH PLAYER”