Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Regular Contributors:  Herman Daly, Brian Czech, Brent Blackwelder, James Magnus-Johnston, and Eric Zencey. Guest authors by invitation.

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Animal Welfare: Seeing the Forest for the Denizens

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechIf you’re a Huffington Post reader, your love of animals has been nurtured by “Hedgehogs Being Adorable,” “Baby Hippo Has Won Our Hearts,” and other such gems. The Post, The Animal Blog, and various animal-lover media take a heartfelt approach to the appreciation of animals–wild as well as domesticated–reminding us of the needs and vulnerabilities of our fellow creatures. It’s a refreshing approach, compared to the stodgy science and economics of conservation.

And it’s important. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated.” Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.” Animal welfare is a barometer of national “goodness” in a sense that resonates with our common sense.

Yet if we are serious about animal welfare, we have to get beyond the mere adoration of hedgehogs and hippos. We have to face up to the big-picture, systematic erosion of wild animal welfare. It’s all around us and getting worse by the day, and our public policies precipitate it.

The most prevalent source of animal suffering is habitat destruction. Habitat includes food, water, cover, and space. When any of these elements are destroyed or depleted, wild animals suffer and often die more miserable deaths than if killed by hunters or predators.

Some animals survive an initial wave of habitat destruction only to be stranded in an unfamiliar, unforgiving environment. When a food or water source is destroyed, wild animals may starve, die of thirst, or suffer from malnutrition and the associated agonies. When thermal cover is lost, animals expend valuable time and energy trying to regulate body temperature. This lowers the time and energy available for feeding, playing, and mating. When hiding cover is lost, wild animals experience fear and stress, seeking cover from predators that may or may not be present.

What kind of a life does that sound like? It would be like getting thrown out of your home, into a perilous world with no social net, no health system, no Salvation Army, and no street corner to beg from. Yet it’s the life we’ve been forcing animals into by the million. How can we stop?

Nervous now, future worse: pronghorn antelope at the edge of a growing economy. Photo Credit: Michael Shealy

Nervous now, future worse: pronghorn antelope at the edge of a growing economy. Photo Credit: Michael Shealy

We often hear of “human activity” being the cause of habitat loss. That’s a start, recognizing our basic role in the problem, but we have to dig deeper to detect precisely what type of human activity is problematic. After all, the habitat destruction caused by humans beings isn’t spiritual activity, or neighborhood activity, or political activity (at least not directly), but almost always economic activity.

The macroeconomic nature of the problem is evident when we consider the causes of species endangerment. These causes are essentially the sectors and byproducts of the whole, interwoven economy, starting with agricultural and extractive sectors such as mining, logging, and livestock production. These activities directly remove or degrade the habitat components required by wild animals.

Another major cause of endangerment is urbanization. Urbanization reflects the growth of the labor force and consumer population as well as a variety of light industrial and service sectors. Few types of habitat destruction are as complete as urbanization. While extractive activities can be a traumatic experience for the denizens of wildlands, logging, ranching, and even mining usually leaves some habitat components. But when an urban area expands, it does so with pavement, buildings, and infrastructure. These developments are devastating to most of the animals present.

The economic system extends far into the countryside, too. Roads, reservoirs, pipelines, power lines, solar arrays, and wind farms are examples.

It would be hard to conceive of a more prevalent danger to animals than roads. Roads and the cars upon them leave countless animals mangled and left, during their final hours, to be picked apart by wild and domestic scavengers. Power lines induce electrocution, a significant source of bird death and crippling. Power line collisions cause their share as well. Wind farms and solar arrays, thought to be the keys to “green growth,” are the latest hurdles for migratory birds.

Pollution is an inevitable byproduct of economic production. Pollution is an insidious and omnipresent threat to wild animals. Whether it’s nerve damage from pesticides, bone loss from lead poisoning, or one of the many other horrible symptoms of physiology gone wrong, pollutants ensure some of the most excruciating diseases and slowest deaths in the animal kingdom.

Climate change is another threat to species, although its mechanisms are less direct. Temperature is a key factor in the functioning of ecosystems and the welfare of the animals therein. Climate change is pushing polar bears and other polar species off the ends of the earth; at what point will this climate-controlled conveyor belt stop? Climate change, too, is a result of a growing (and fossil-fueled) economy.

We should give thanks for the Humane Society, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. These and related organizations do the good work that Gandhi and Lincoln would have endorsed. Yet when is the last time you’ve heard these organizations give a hoot about economic growth, the single biggest threat to animal welfare?

And why does no one put in a word for our furry and feathered friends when Congress, the President, and the Fed pull out all the stops for GDP growth? Where are the advocates of humane treatment of animals, when the biggest decisions are made about the rate of habitat loss and therefore animal suffering? When a hundredth percentage point less in GDP growth could save hundreds of thousands of animals a year?

Why don’t we have a mainstream media, which isn’t afraid to expose nastiness to horses and chickens, talking about the millions of animals suffering at the cumulative hand of economic growth? Has economic growth become the inconvenient truth for animal welfare?

It’s definitely inconvenient–and that’s an understatement–for millions of animals.

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4 Responses to “Animal Welfare: Seeing the Forest for the Denizens”

  1. Lee Van Ham says:

    I’m wondering whether animal displacement is an explicit inclusion in environmental impact studies. I don’t know the answer, do you? I have a friend who worked with developers encroaching on wetlands. His job as a biologist was to help a developer “plant” a new wetland of similar size being displaced. Haven’t heard of this being done for animal species. Wondering.

  2. Jimmy says:

    Social adaptations begin with asking hard questions and pointing out the 800-lb gorilla in the room…as inconvenient as that may be. Slowly a coalition of allies emerge to press for change. I encourage CASSE to send a copy of this latest blog post to the groups named in the piece. If you won’t, I will.

  3. This is a breath of fresh air. Many of us in the vegan/species rights community has longed for other organizations to recognize the innate suffering that goes hand-in-hand with the destruction of ecosystems. The suffering of farmed individuals from other species is the largest cause of suffering to individuals from wild species, their distinct population segments, and species as a whole. The good news is that we control most of this with one personal change—moving to a vegan human ecology.

    You should send your article to the organizations you cite but they are not the progressive NGOs who will take your advice to heart. In fact, some of them actively endorse, and even fund animal agriculture, trying to make it more “humane” which is a myth. There are people and organizations trying to move the rock of denial, the denial that Earth requires a reformation of our human ecology for the reasons you cite and more. Tragically, the same is true of most environmental organizations. I urge you and others who believe in the environmental movement’s agenda to start with a viewing of “Cowspiracy”, a documentary.

    Please continue to expand on the links between the issues since most organizations seem to need denial as the centerpiece of their strategic planning.

  4. […] Brian Czech makes the point that habitat loss causes a lot of animal suffering. I think this is almost certainly true, and sad. He mostly blames urbanization. I want to argue with that, because a compact, well-designed city should have a relatively small ecological footprint per person living in it, compared to people spread out over a more rural landscape. For example, the Amish way of farming actually is a big contributor to the water pollution destroying the Chesapeake Bay. If there are going to be 7 billion of us, or 10 billion, we can’t all live like the Amish or it would be an ecological disaster. Of course, it is true that the relatively low-impact lifestyle in the city is supported by an enormous rural base of agriculture, forestry, fishing, resource extraction, mining, and manufacturing that has a huge and growing ecological footprint. It’s possible to envision a world where we eventually turn the corner and manage to grow in quality without growing our physical footprint. But we are far from that, and natural ecosystems are certainly the big losers whether or not we are actually on the verge of destroying ourselves. […]

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