What is an animal’s life worth?

News Feed
Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Piglets at a Smithfield Foods facility. | Direct Action Everywhere Why we’ll vote for more humane meat, but won’t pay for it. Putting a dollar amount to the value of one human life is a crude exercise, so let’s leave it to practitioners of the dismal science: In 2016, economists at the Environmental Protection Agency put it at around $10 million (at least for one American life). The number has come about through decades of weighing the cost of government regulations against the number of lives those rules could save. (There’s no one figure here — in 2016 the USDA, for instance, said you’re worth a measly $8.9 million.) We don’t have an equivalent yardstick to measure the intrinsic value of one animal’s life, but some have tried. Canadians say — at least in surveys — that they’d pay $508 per household to protect the nation’s 15,000 polar bears, valuing each one around $420,000. Veterinarian malpractice lawsuits due to the death of an animal have resulted in settlements ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, while in 2006 a California county was ordered to pay out nearly $1 million to a Hells Angels motorcycle club after police killed three of their dogs during a raid. Federal and state government agencies spent $1.5 billion in 2016 to protect some 1,300 endangered and threatened plant and animal species. But for many animals alive today — farmed animals who are raised to be slaughtered and sold on the market — we only know of their commercial value. And during a recent criminal trial we learned the commercial value of one piglet: $42.20. The trial centered on two activists with the group Direct Action Everywhere, who in 2017 entered a Utah factory farm owned by Smithfield Foods at night to get footage of pigs in gestation crates — crates so narrow the pigs are unable to turn around. While on the farm, they encountered two visibly sick piglets. “One was swollen and barely able to stand; the other had been trampled and was covered in blood,” Wayne Hsiung, the group’s co-founder, told the Intercept. Given their condition, there’s a good chance they would’ve been “thumped,” a common pork industry practice of picking up sick and dying piglets by their hind legs and thumping them against the ground — euthanasia by blunt force trauma. So, Hsiung and his fellow activists took them out of the farm and handed them over to an animal sanctuary that treated them. The piglet heist set off a multi-state investigation by local law enforcement and approximately eight FBI agents, and Hsiung and the other defendant were ultimately charged by Utah prosecutors with felony burglary and misdemeanor theft. They faced years in prison if convicted — but in early October, a jury of their peers acquitted the activists on all charges. Direct Action Everywhere Hsiung and another Direct Action Everywhere member, Andrew Sharo, taking the piglets in question — Lily and Lizzie — out of the Smithfield Foods pig farm. Direct Action Everywhere Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer with the pigs they rescued, Lily and Lizzie, at an animal sanctuary. The piglets’ commercial value of $42.20 each was determined by the prosecution using a USDA standard market price index, which would presume the animals were healthy. But because they were sick, due in part to the unsanitary conditions they were in, the piglets were worth next to nothing, according to the animal sanctuary that took them in. That’s because, the sanctuary owner said, both piglets had diarrhea, a disease liability for Smithfield Foods, and that the veterinary care required would’ve cost the company hundreds of dollars. In fact, the pigs’ essentially zero value is baked into the meat industry’s business model: Utah state veterinarian Dean Taylor told the prosecution that 15 percent of piglets die before they’re finished weaning. The pork industry may slaughter over 125 million pigs a year, but they breed far more, knowing many will die from disease and injury. The prosecution in the case went so far as to argue that because it’s unlawful to steal dented cans from a supermarket, it’s also unlawful to rescue two sick piglets. Theft is theft, even of damaged goods, which is what the piglets were to Smithfield. In an emailed statement, a Smithfield spokesperson said, “Those involved in this incident claim to be animal care advocates. They risked the lives of the animals they stole and the lives of the animals living on our farms by trespassing and violating our strict biosecurity policy that prevents the spread of disease.” In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, Hsiung wrote that he spoke to a juror after the trial who told him the jurors acquitted them for three reasons. First, they believed Hsiung and his co-defendant when they said they had no intent to rescue animals, just to document their conditions. Second, the jurors were persuaded by Hsiung’s appeal to conscience — that a not guilty verdict might influence governments and corporations to treat animals better. Third, “the jurors felt that the piglets at issue had no value to Smithfield. The jury thus concluded they could not be the objects of a theft.” While the comparison between a pig and an inanimate object like a dented can may be heartless, it may not be far off from actual consumer behavior; we tend to implicitly treat farmed animals’ lives as if they’re as disposable as a dented can of beans or tomato sauce. Just look at our food waste crisis: The meat, dairy, and eggs from over 35 billion land and sea animals are thrown away each year in the US, and over one-third of that happens in our homes. The prosecution’s comparison was discomfiting, but he was really just saying the quiet part out loud. We may assign some intrinsic value to farmed animals’ lives when they’re actually alive and in front of us, say at a state fair, petting zoo, or animal sanctuary (or increasingly, in viral TikTok videos). But when animals turn from concrete beings to the abstract — from one individual to one of billions, or from right in front of us to far away on a factory farm — their intrinsic value all but vanishes and they’re reduced to their commercial value. The same phenomenon of “size-insensitivity” has been observed in how we think of vulnerable humans: One suffering individual draws more sympathy than thousands. The farmed animal cruelty problem is that, but on steroids: there are tens of billions of land animals farmed each year, and an estimated 840 billion to 2.5 trillion fish and crustaceans caught or farmed. Reducing the suffering of billions of factory-farmed animals is so hard in large part because overcoming human nature is so hard; most people, when given the choice, will choose cheap, conventional meat over the more expensive organic variety (or plant-based versions, for that matter). That’s true even if they’re opposed to factory farming and have the means to spend more on food. Yet that meat isn’t magically cheap; animals pay for it with their suffering. It’s also hard to override how we categorize animals, either as companions, wildlife, food, or pests. When groups like Direct Action Everywhere trespass onto farms, document cruel conditions, rescue two piglets, and attract a ton of media attention with it all, they’re trying to shift pigs and other animals from the “food” to “companion” category. To Smithfield Foods and Utah prosecutors, that’s likely the real threat they pose — not the theft of $84.40 worth of property. Their activism is the slow, grinding work of changing cultural norms — to shift the value of a farmed animal from commercial to intrinsic. That will take decades, if not centuries, if it ever even pans out. Meanwhile, there is a more short-term path to raise the value of farmed animals’ lives, or at least their welfare. We won’t pay for higher animal welfare, but we will vote for it When asked, most of us tell pollsters we care about the welfare of the animals we eat. One recent survey found that about 80 percent of respondents said cruelty to farmed animals is a moral concern for them. Another poll, which was later replicated by Oklahoma State University agricultural economist Bailey Norwood, got the eye-popping result that four in 10 Americans support banning all slaughterhouses. “Most consumers like meat, slaughterhouses not so much,” read one headline about the poll. Norwood told me that when we tell researchers we support something extreme like banning all slaughterhouses, “We’re kind of saying there’s a great world that we wish we could be a part of, and that we wish we could make decisions to get there.” (A lot of people misunderstand questions, too, or just give responses they think will please the researcher.) Yet our behavior veers far from our stated beliefs. Around 99 percent of meat, dairy, and eggs are produced on factory farms, despite surveys in which two-thirds of Americans say they usually purchase meat, dairy, and eggs from humanely raised animals. (As Jessica Scott-Reid wrote for Vox, it may also be the case that so many of us believe we’re buying higher-welfare meat but are misled by pervasive “humanewashing.”) But as Norwood wrote in his book Compassion, by the Pound, co-authored with Jayson Lusk, you can’t just look at people as consumers. “People often express different preferences depending on whether they perceive themselves as in the role of consumer or in the role of citizen,” they wrote. That observation has been borne out over and over again in recent years. The average European eats around 150 pounds of meat each year, yet over a million citizens signed onto an initiative to ban cages for farmed animals across the European Union, an act that will invariably raise the price of meat and eggs, and could take effect as early as 2027. Nearly two-thirds of California voters supported a similar measure in 2018. Pork producers argued before the Supreme Court recently that the California law should be overturned because it would raise the price of pork not just in California, but in all 50 states. It was a somewhat dubious claim but one that even if it were true, most people would probably be okay with. Voters and legislatures in a number of blue, red, and purple states have passed farmed animal welfare laws that will likely lead to modest price increases for meat and eggs with little to no pushback. We want it both ways. We want to believe that the animals we eat are treated “humanely” (a relative, subjective concept), but we don’t want to have to think about it too much or change our own behavior, in the form of spending more on meat or buying less of it. Norwood’s research on willful ignorance is a great example of this. In 2016, he asked 1,000 Oklahomans if, assuming the pork they ate was safe, nutritious, and tasty, would they rather know, or not know, how the pigs were treated? One-third said no. He then asked if they’d rather look at a picture of a sow (a female breeding pig) confined in a gestation crate or a blank screen. One-third chose the blank screen. Norwood says most people are effectively hypocrites not just on animal welfare, but most social matters. “That’s just normal life, you can’t go through life worrying about the consequences of every single one of your decisions, you’d go crazy, you’d be miserable,” Norwood told me. “But I think that’s something that really kind of highlights the consumer/citizen distinction.” We may want to look away from the brutality of modern meat production, but if governments or corporations want to impose stronger farmed animal standards that marginally raise food costs, most of us support it, as it takes the work off of us to have to think and act in response to those brutal conditions. It’s a way we can, ever so slightly, reduce some of the cost of cheap meat that animals pay with their suffering. However, such political tests have their limits when imposed on those who produce meat and dairy. Farmers in the Netherlands are protesting government proposals to shrink their herds to reduce nitrogen pollution, while farmers in France protested vegetarian meals in schools last year. Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest meat producers, spends more on lobbying (proportional to its revenue) than Exxon. And such political tests sometimes have their limits with citizens. Last month, Swiss voters rejected a ballot initiative that would’ve, in essence, banned factory farming by 2050, requiring that animals be given more space, outdoor access, and higher welfare throughout transportation and slaughter. The animal rights side was outspent by the animal agriculture industry by an estimated ratio of 5 to 1, an organizer told me. However, the Swiss animal rights activists still earned 37 percent of the vote to radically transform animal welfare in a country that eats 150 pounds of meat a year. It’s hard to imagine a world that eats trillions of animals a year ever assigning any intrinsic value to those animals. And in what context could it be done, anyway? Value of life estimates are used to either weigh the costs and benefits of regulations, as the government does, or to compensate victims or families of victims, like in wrongful death lawsuits. As long as animals are property under the law, their only value is commercial. However, it is possible to assign value to their welfare, as so many states, countries, corporations, and voters have done. When people vote to require cage-free egg or pork production, knowing full well it’ll raise the price of those foods, they’re implicitly saying that improving an animal’s welfare has value. Welfare Footprint Project, a group of animal welfare scientists, says that for each hen raised in a cage-free barn instead of a cage barn, “an average of at least 275 hours of disabling pain, 2,313 hours of hurtful pain and 4,645 hours of annoying pain are prevented.” Eliminating some of that pain may only cost consumers a few pennies per egg, but it’s more than zero. And voting to improve their welfare could eventually lead to eating fewer of them; correlation does not equal causation, but it makes intuitive sense that the few countries with declining meat consumption rates — Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands — either first passed laws to reduce the suffering of farmed animals or had to follow animal welfare laws passed by the European Union. Those laws made clear that the welfare of animals, even those we eat, matters. It forced an often uncomfortable conversation, but one that may have led to citizens viewing farmed animals a little differently, perhaps with more value, than before. I asked Norwood if he thinks humans will ever assign intrinsic value to farmed animals. “I think it’s certainly possible, just look at how much society has changed in 30 years,” he said, referring to progress on human rights. “We’re just [such] nicer people now. Whether we’ll stay that way, I don’t know, but I don’t see why it can’t. So many people are starting to care about farm animals more, I don’t see why it couldn’t go further.”

A group of piglets inside a Smithfield Foods facility.
Piglets at a Smithfield Foods facility. | Direct Action Everywhere

Why we’ll vote for more humane meat, but won’t pay for it.

Putting a dollar amount to the value of one human life is a crude exercise, so let’s leave it to practitioners of the dismal science: In 2016, economists at the Environmental Protection Agency put it at around $10 million (at least for one American life). The number has come about through decades of weighing the cost of government regulations against the number of lives those rules could save. (There’s no one figure here — in 2016 the USDA, for instance, said you’re worth a measly $8.9 million.)

We don’t have an equivalent yardstick to measure the intrinsic value of one animal’s life, but some have tried. Canadians say — at least in surveys — that they’d pay $508 per household to protect the nation’s 15,000 polar bears, valuing each one around $420,000. Veterinarian malpractice lawsuits due to the death of an animal have resulted in settlements ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, while in 2006 a California county was ordered to pay out nearly $1 million to a Hells Angels motorcycle club after police killed three of their dogs during a raid. Federal and state government agencies spent $1.5 billion in 2016 to protect some 1,300 endangered and threatened plant and animal species.

But for many animals alive today — farmed animals who are raised to be slaughtered and sold on the market — we only know of their commercial value. And during a recent criminal trial we learned the commercial value of one piglet: $42.20.

The trial centered on two activists with the group Direct Action Everywhere, who in 2017 entered a Utah factory farm owned by Smithfield Foods at night to get footage of pigs in gestation crates — crates so narrow the pigs are unable to turn around. While on the farm, they encountered two visibly sick piglets. “One was swollen and barely able to stand; the other had been trampled and was covered in blood,” Wayne Hsiung, the group’s co-founder, told the Intercept. Given their condition, there’s a good chance they would’ve been “thumped,” a common pork industry practice of picking up sick and dying piglets by their hind legs and thumping them against the ground — euthanasia by blunt force trauma.

So, Hsiung and his fellow activists took them out of the farm and handed them over to an animal sanctuary that treated them. The piglet heist set off a multi-state investigation by local law enforcement and approximately eight FBI agents, and Hsiung and the other defendant were ultimately charged by Utah prosecutors with felony burglary and misdemeanor theft. They faced years in prison if convicted — but in early October, a jury of their peers acquitted the activists on all charges.

Two people with flashlights affixed to their forehead inside a dark barn, each holding a piglet. Direct Action Everywhere
Hsiung and another Direct Action Everywhere member, Andrew Sharo, taking the piglets in question — Lily and Lizzie — out of the Smithfield Foods pig farm.
Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer, the two activists on trial for rescuing piglets from a Smithfield Foods facility, kneel in an outdoor pen with the pigs they rescued. In the photo the pigs are no longer piglets, but quite large pigs. Direct Action Everywhere
Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer with the pigs they rescued, Lily and Lizzie, at an animal sanctuary.

The piglets’ commercial value of $42.20 each was determined by the prosecution using a USDA standard market price index, which would presume the animals were healthy. But because they were sick, due in part to the unsanitary conditions they were in, the piglets were worth next to nothing, according to the animal sanctuary that took them in. That’s because, the sanctuary owner said, both piglets had diarrhea, a disease liability for Smithfield Foods, and that the veterinary care required would’ve cost the company hundreds of dollars.

In fact, the pigs’ essentially zero value is baked into the meat industry’s business model: Utah state veterinarian Dean Taylor told the prosecution that 15 percent of piglets die before they’re finished weaning. The pork industry may slaughter over 125 million pigs a year, but they breed far more, knowing many will die from disease and injury.

The prosecution in the case went so far as to argue that because it’s unlawful to steal dented cans from a supermarket, it’s also unlawful to rescue two sick piglets. Theft is theft, even of damaged goods, which is what the piglets were to Smithfield.

In an emailed statement, a Smithfield spokesperson said, “Those involved in this incident claim to be animal care advocates. They risked the lives of the animals they stole and the lives of the animals living on our farms by trespassing and violating our strict biosecurity policy that prevents the spread of disease.”

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, Hsiung wrote that he spoke to a juror after the trial who told him the jurors acquitted them for three reasons. First, they believed Hsiung and his co-defendant when they said they had no intent to rescue animals, just to document their conditions. Second, the jurors were persuaded by Hsiung’s appeal to conscience — that a not guilty verdict might influence governments and corporations to treat animals better. Third, “the jurors felt that the piglets at issue had no value to Smithfield. The jury thus concluded they could not be the objects of a theft.”

While the comparison between a pig and an inanimate object like a dented can may be heartless, it may not be far off from actual consumer behavior; we tend to implicitly treat farmed animals’ lives as if they’re as disposable as a dented can of beans or tomato sauce. Just look at our food waste crisis: The meat, dairy, and eggs from over 35 billion land and sea animals are thrown away each year in the US, and over one-third of that happens in our homes. The prosecution’s comparison was discomfiting, but he was really just saying the quiet part out loud.

We may assign some intrinsic value to farmed animals’ lives when they’re actually alive and in front of us, say at a state fair, petting zoo, or animal sanctuary (or increasingly, in viral TikTok videos). But when animals turn from concrete beings to the abstract — from one individual to one of billions, or from right in front of us to far away on a factory farm — their intrinsic value all but vanishes and they’re reduced to their commercial value. The same phenomenon of “size-insensitivity” has been observed in how we think of vulnerable humans: One suffering individual draws more sympathy than thousands. The farmed animal cruelty problem is that, but on steroids: there are tens of billions of land animals farmed each year, and an estimated 840 billion to 2.5 trillion fish and crustaceans caught or farmed.

Reducing the suffering of billions of factory-farmed animals is so hard in large part because overcoming human nature is so hard; most people, when given the choice, will choose cheap, conventional meat over the more expensive organic variety (or plant-based versions, for that matter). That’s true even if they’re opposed to factory farming and have the means to spend more on food. Yet that meat isn’t magically cheap; animals pay for it with their suffering.

It’s also hard to override how we categorize animals, either as companions, wildlife, food, or pests. When groups like Direct Action Everywhere trespass onto farms, document cruel conditions, rescue two piglets, and attract a ton of media attention with it all, they’re trying to shift pigs and other animals from the “food” to “companion” category. To Smithfield Foods and Utah prosecutors, that’s likely the real threat they pose — not the theft of $84.40 worth of property.

Their activism is the slow, grinding work of changing cultural norms — to shift the value of a farmed animal from commercial to intrinsic. That will take decades, if not centuries, if it ever even pans out. Meanwhile, there is a more short-term path to raise the value of farmed animals’ lives, or at least their welfare.

We won’t pay for higher animal welfare, but we will vote for it

When asked, most of us tell pollsters we care about the welfare of the animals we eat. One recent survey found that about 80 percent of respondents said cruelty to farmed animals is a moral concern for them. Another poll, which was later replicated by Oklahoma State University agricultural economist Bailey Norwood, got the eye-popping result that four in 10 Americans support banning all slaughterhouses. “Most consumers like meat, slaughterhouses not so much,” read one headline about the poll.

Norwood told me that when we tell researchers we support something extreme like banning all slaughterhouses, “We’re kind of saying there’s a great world that we wish we could be a part of, and that we wish we could make decisions to get there.” (A lot of people misunderstand questions, too, or just give responses they think will please the researcher.)

Yet our behavior veers far from our stated beliefs. Around 99 percent of meat, dairy, and eggs are produced on factory farms, despite surveys in which two-thirds of Americans say they usually purchase meat, dairy, and eggs from humanely raised animals. (As Jessica Scott-Reid wrote for Vox, it may also be the case that so many of us believe we’re buying higher-welfare meat but are misled by pervasive “humanewashing.”)

But as Norwood wrote in his book Compassion, by the Pound, co-authored with Jayson Lusk, you can’t just look at people as consumers.

“People often express different preferences depending on whether they perceive themselves as in the role of consumer or in the role of citizen,” they wrote. That observation has been borne out over and over again in recent years.

The average European eats around 150 pounds of meat each year, yet over a million citizens signed onto an initiative to ban cages for farmed animals across the European Union, an act that will invariably raise the price of meat and eggs, and could take effect as early as 2027.

Nearly two-thirds of California voters supported a similar measure in 2018. Pork producers argued before the Supreme Court recently that the California law should be overturned because it would raise the price of pork not just in California, but in all 50 states. It was a somewhat dubious claim but one that even if it were true, most people would probably be okay with. Voters and legislatures in a number of blue, red, and purple states have passed farmed animal welfare laws that will likely lead to modest price increases for meat and eggs with little to no pushback.

We want it both ways. We want to believe that the animals we eat are treated “humanely” (a relative, subjective concept), but we don’t want to have to think about it too much or change our own behavior, in the form of spending more on meat or buying less of it.

Norwood’s research on willful ignorance is a great example of this. In 2016, he asked 1,000 Oklahomans if, assuming the pork they ate was safe, nutritious, and tasty, would they rather know, or not know, how the pigs were treated? One-third said no. He then asked if they’d rather look at a picture of a sow (a female breeding pig) confined in a gestation crate or a blank screen. One-third chose the blank screen.

Norwood says most people are effectively hypocrites not just on animal welfare, but most social matters. “That’s just normal life, you can’t go through life worrying about the consequences of every single one of your decisions, you’d go crazy, you’d be miserable,” Norwood told me. “But I think that’s something that really kind of highlights the consumer/citizen distinction.”

We may want to look away from the brutality of modern meat production, but if governments or corporations want to impose stronger farmed animal standards that marginally raise food costs, most of us support it, as it takes the work off of us to have to think and act in response to those brutal conditions. It’s a way we can, ever so slightly, reduce some of the cost of cheap meat that animals pay with their suffering.

However, such political tests have their limits when imposed on those who produce meat and dairy. Farmers in the Netherlands are protesting government proposals to shrink their herds to reduce nitrogen pollution, while farmers in France protested vegetarian meals in schools last year. Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest meat producers, spends more on lobbying (proportional to its revenue) than Exxon.

And such political tests sometimes have their limits with citizens. Last month, Swiss voters rejected a ballot initiative that would’ve, in essence, banned factory farming by 2050, requiring that animals be given more space, outdoor access, and higher welfare throughout transportation and slaughter. The animal rights side was outspent by the animal agriculture industry by an estimated ratio of 5 to 1, an organizer told me. However, the Swiss animal rights activists still earned 37 percent of the vote to radically transform animal welfare in a country that eats 150 pounds of meat a year.

It’s hard to imagine a world that eats trillions of animals a year ever assigning any intrinsic value to those animals. And in what context could it be done, anyway? Value of life estimates are used to either weigh the costs and benefits of regulations, as the government does, or to compensate victims or families of victims, like in wrongful death lawsuits.

As long as animals are property under the law, their only value is commercial. However, it is possible to assign value to their welfare, as so many states, countries, corporations, and voters have done. When people vote to require cage-free egg or pork production, knowing full well it’ll raise the price of those foods, they’re implicitly saying that improving an animal’s welfare has value.

Welfare Footprint Project, a group of animal welfare scientists, says that for each hen raised in a cage-free barn instead of a cage barn, “an average of at least 275 hours of disabling pain, 2,313 hours of hurtful pain and 4,645 hours of annoying pain are prevented.”

Eliminating some of that pain may only cost consumers a few pennies per egg, but it’s more than zero. And voting to improve their welfare could eventually lead to eating fewer of them; correlation does not equal causation, but it makes intuitive sense that the few countries with declining meat consumption rates — Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands — either first passed laws to reduce the suffering of farmed animals or had to follow animal welfare laws passed by the European Union.

Those laws made clear that the welfare of animals, even those we eat, matters. It forced an often uncomfortable conversation, but one that may have led to citizens viewing farmed animals a little differently, perhaps with more value, than before.

I asked Norwood if he thinks humans will ever assign intrinsic value to farmed animals. “I think it’s certainly possible, just look at how much society has changed in 30 years,” he said, referring to progress on human rights. “We’re just [such] nicer people now. Whether we’ll stay that way, I don’t know, but I don’t see why it can’t. So many people are starting to care about farm animals more, I don’t see why it couldn’t go further.”

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Labs Are Scooping Up Animals Killed by Wind Turbines

Dead birds and bats could help scientists make green energy safer.

This article was originally published by Undark Magazine.“This is one of the least smelly carcasses,” says Todd Katzner, peering over his lab manager’s shoulder as she slices a bit of flesh from a dead pigeon lying on a steel lab table. Many of the specimens that arrive at this facility in Boise, Idaho, are long dead, and the bodies smell, he says, like “nothing that you can easily describe, other than yuck.”A wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, a government agency dedicated to environmental science, Katzner watches as his lab manager roots around for the pigeon’s liver and then places a glossy maroon piece of it in a small plastic bag labeled with a biohazard symbol. The pigeon is a demonstration specimen, but samples, including flesh and liver, are ordinarily frozen, cataloged, and stored in freezers. The feathers get tucked in paper envelopes and organized in filing boxes; the rest of the carcass is discarded. When needed for research, the stored samples can be processed and sent to other labs that test for toxicants or conduct genetic analysis.Most of the bird carcasses that arrive at the Boise lab have been shipped from renewable-energy facilities, where hundreds of thousands of winged creatures die each year in collisions with turbine blades and other equipment. Clean-energy projects are essential for confronting climate change, Mark Davis, a conservation biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says. But he also emphasizes the importance of mitigating their effects on wildlife. “I’m supportive of renewable-energy developments. I’m also supportive of doing our best to conserve biodiversity,” Davis says. “And I think the two things can very much coexist.”To this end, Katzner, Davis, and other biologists are working with the renewable-energy industry to create a nationwide repository of dead birds and bats killed at wind and solar facilities. The bodies hold clues about how the animals lived and died, and could help scientists and project operators understand how to reduce the environmental impact of clean-energy installations, Davis says.The repository needs sustained funding and support from industry partners to supply the specimens. But the collection’s wider potential is huge, Davis adds. He, Katzner, and the other biologists hope the carcasses will offer an array of wildlife researchers access to the animal samples they need for their work, and perhaps even provide insights into future scientific questions that researchers haven’t thought yet to ask.In 1980, California laid the groundwork for one of the world’s first large-scale wind projects when it designated more than 30,000 acres east of San Francisco for wind development, on a stretch of land called the Altamont Pass. Within two decades, companies had installed thousands of wind turbines there. But there was a downside: Although the sea breeze made Altamont ideal for wind energy, the area was also used by nesting birds. Research suggested they were colliding with the turbines’ rotating blades, leading to hundreds of deaths among red-tailed hawks, kestrels, and golden eagles.“It’s a great place for a wind farm, but it’s also a really bad place for a wind farm,” says Albert Lopez, the planning director for Alameda County, where many of the projects are located.A 2004 report prepared for the state estimated the number of deaths and offered recommendations that the authors said could add up to mortality reductions of anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. The most effective solution, the authors argued, involved replacing Altamont’s many small turbines with fewer, larger turbines. But, the authors wrote, many measures to reduce deaths would be experimental, “due to the degree of uncertainty in their likely effectiveness.” More than a decade of research, tensions, and litigation followed, focused on how to reduce fatalities while still producing clean electricity to help California meet its more and more ambitious climate goals.While all this was happening, Katzner was earning his Ph.D. by studying eagles and other birds—and beginning to amass a feather collection halfway around the world. In Kazakhstan, where he has returned nearly every summer since 1997 to conduct field research, Katzner noticed piles of feathers underneath the birds’ nests. Carrying information about a bird’s age, sex, diet, and more, they were too valuable a resource to just leave behind, he thought, so he collected them. It was the start of what he describes as a compulsion to store and archive potentially useful scientific material.Katzner went on to co-publish a paper in 2007 in which the researchers conducted a genetic analysis of naturally shed feathers, a technique that could allow scientists to match feather samples with the correct bird species when visual identifications are difficult. He later towed deer carcasses across the East Coast to lure and trap golden eagles in order to track their migration patterns. Today, part of his research involves testing carcasses for lead and other chemicals to understand whether birds are coming in contact with toxicants.For the past decade, Katzner has also researched how birds interact with energy installations such as wind and solar projects. During this time, studies have estimated that hundreds of thousands of birds die each year at such facilities in the United States. That’s still a small fraction of the millions of birds that at least one paper estimated are killed annually because of habitat destruction, downstream climate change, and other impacts of fossil-fuel and nuclear-power plants. But renewable energy is growing rapidly, and researchers are trying to determine how that continued growth might affect wildlife.[Read: The quiet disappearance of birds in North America]Bats seem attracted to wind turbines and are occasionally struck by the blades while attempting to roost in the towers. Birds sometimes swoop down and crash into photovoltaic solar panels—possibly thinking the glass is water that is safe for landing. A separate, less common solar technology that uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays into heat energy is known to singe birds that fly too close—a factor that has drawn opposition to such facilities from bird activists. But scientists still don’t fully understand these many interactions or their impacts on bird and bat populations, which makes it harder to prevent them.In 2015, by then on staff at the USGS, Katzner and a team of other scientists secured $1 million from the California Energy Commission to study the impacts of renewable energy on wildlife—using hundreds of carcasses from the Altamont Pass. NextEra Energy, one of the largest project owners there, chipped in a donation of approximately 1,200 carcasses collected from their facilities in Altamont.The team analyzed 411 birds collected over a decade at Altamont and another 515 picked up during a four-year period at California solar projects. They found that many of the birds originated from across the U.S., suggesting that renewable facilities could affect faraway bird populations during their migrations. In early 2021, Katzner and a team of other scientists published a paper examining specimens collected at wind facilities in Southern California. Their results suggested that replacing old turbines with fewer, newer models did not necessarily reduce wildlife mortality. Where a project is sited and the amount of energy it produces are likely stronger determinants of fatality rates, the authors said.In Altamont, scientists are still working to understand impacts for birds and bats, and a technical committee has been created to oversee the work. Ongoing efforts to replace old turbines with newer ones are meant to reduce the number of birds killed there, but whether it’s working remains an open question, Lopez says. The installation of fewer turbines that produce more energy per unit than earlier models was expected to provide fewer collision points for birds and more space for habitat. And when new turbines are put in, scientists can recommend spots within a project site where birds may be less likely to run into them. But other variables influence mortality aside from turbine size and spacing, according to the 2021 paper written by Katzner and other scientists, such as season, weather, and bird behavior in the area.On a small road in Altamont, a white sign marks an entrance to NextEra’s Golden Hills wind project, where the company recently replaced decades-old turbines with new, larger models. Not far away, another wind-project sits dormant—a relic from another time. Its old turbines stand motionless, stocky, and gray next to their graceful, modern successors on the horizon. The hills are quiet except for the static buzz of power cables.Some conservationists are still concerned about the area. In 2021, the National Audubon Society, which says it strongly supports renewable energy, sued over the approval of a new wind project in Altamont, asserting that the county didn’t do enough environmental review or mitigation for bird fatalities.Katzner attributes his work in California with the beginnings of the repository, which he’s dubbed the Renewables-Wildlife Solutions Initiative. Amy Fesnock, a Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist who collaborates with Katzner, simply calls it the “dead-body file.”In Idaho, Katzner has already amassed more than 80,000 samples—many drawn from the feather collection he’s kept for decades, and thousands more recently shipped in by renewable-energy companies and their partners. Ultimately, Katzner would like to see a group of repository locations, all connected by a database. This would allow other scientists to access the bird and bat samples and use them in a variety of ways, extracting their DNA, for example, or running toxicology tests.“Every time we get an animal carcass, it has value to research,” Katzner says. “If I think about it from a scientific perspective, if you leave that carcass out there in the field, you’re wasting data.”Those data are important to people like Amanda Hale, a biologist who helped build the repository while at Texas Christian University. She is now a senior research biologist at Western EcoSystems Technology, a consulting company that, along with providing other services, surveys for dead wildlife at renewable-energy sites. Part of her new role involves liaising with clean-energy companies and the government agencies that regulate them, ensuring decision makers have the most current science to inform projects. Better data could assist clients in putting together more accurate conservation plans and help agencies know what to look for, she says, simplifying regulation.“Once we can understand patterns of mortality, I think you can be better in designing and implementing mitigation strategies,” Hale says.The initiative is not without its skeptics, though. John Anderson, the executive director of the Energy and Wildlife Action Coalition, a clean-energy membership group, sees merit in the effort but worries that the program could be “used to characterize renewable-energy impacts in a very unfavorable light” without recognizing its benefits. The wind industry has long been sensitive to suggestions that it’s killing birds.Several renewable-energy companies that Undark contacted for this story did not respond to inquiries about wildlife monitoring at their sites or stopped responding to interview requests. Other industry groups, including the American Clean Power Association and the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute, declined interview requests. But many companies appear to be participating—in Idaho, Katzner has received birds from 42 states.William Voelker, a member of the Comanche Nation who has led a bird-and-feather repository called Sia for decades, says he’s frustrated at the lack of consideration for tribes from these types of U.S. government initiatives. Indigenous people, he says, have first right to “species of Indigenous concern.” His repository catalogs and sends bird carcasses and feathers to Indigenous people for ceremonial and religious purposes, and Voelker also cares for eagles.“At this point we just don’t have any voice in the ring, and it’s unfortunate,” Voelker says.Katzner, for his part, says he wants the project to be collaborative. The Renewables-Wildlife Solutions Initiative has sent some samples to a repository in Arizona that provides feathers for religious and ceremonial purposes, he says, and the RWSI archive could ship out other materials that it does not archive, but it has not yet contacted other locations to do so.“It’s a shame if those parts of birds are not being used,” he says. “I’d like to see them get used for science or cultural purposes.”Many U.S. wind farms already monitor and collect downed wildlife. At a California wind facility a little over an hour north of Altamont, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District tries to clear out its freezers at least once a year—before the bodies start to smell, Ammon Rice, a supervisor in the government-owned utility’s environmental-services department, says. Many of the specimens that companies accumulate are kept until they’re thrown out. Until recently, samples had been available to government and academic researchers on only a piecemeal basis.There are many reasons why a clean-energy company might employ people to pick up dead animals at its facility: Some areas require companies to survey sites during certain stages of their development and keep track of how many birds and bats are found dead. Removing the carcasses can also deter scavengers, such as coyotes, foxes, and vultures. And the federal government has set voluntary conservation guidelines for wind projects; for some companies, complying with the recommendations is part of maintaining good political relationships.Most of the time, human searchers canvas a project, walking transects under turbines or through solar fields. It’s “enormously labor-intensive,” says Trevor Peterson, a senior biologist at Stantec, one of the consulting firms often hired to conduct those surveys. On some sites, trained dogs sniff out the dead bodies.[Read: Are wind turbines a danger to wildlife? Ask dogs.]For years, conservation biologists have wanted to find a use for the creatures languishing in freezers at clean-energy sites around the country. To get a nationwide project off the ground, Katzner started working with two other researchers: Davis, the conservation biologist at University of Illinois, and Amanda Hale, then a biology professor at TCU. They were part of a small community of people “who pick up dead stuff,” Katzner says. The three started meeting, joined by scientists at the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who helped connect the initiative with additional industry partners willing to send carcasses.Building on Katzner’s existing samples, the repository has grown from an idea to a small program. In the past two years, Katzner said in an email, it received about $650,000 from the Bureau of Land Management. It also earned a mention in the agency’s recent report to Congress about its progress toward renewable-energy growth.Davis had already been accepting samples from wind facilities when he started working on the repository. Typically the bodies are mailed to his laboratory, but he prefers to organize hand-to-hand deliveries when possible, after one ill-fated incident in which a colleague received a shipped box of “bat soup.” To receive deliveries in person, Davis often winds up loitering in the university parking lot, waiting for the other party to arrive so they can offload the cargo.“It sounds a lot like an illicit drug deal,” Davis says. “It looks a lot like an illicit drug deal—I assure you it is not.”Recently, Ricky Gieser, a field technician who works with Davis, drove a few hours from Illinois to central Indiana to meet an Ohio wildlife official in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel. Davis arranged for Undark to witness the exchange through Zoom. With latex-gloved hands, Gieser transferred bags of more than 300 frozen birds and bats—lifting them from state-owned coolers and then gingerly placing them into coolers owned by his university. The entire transaction was over in less than 15 minutes, but coordinating it took weeks.Davis studies bats and other “organisms that people don’t like,” with a focus on genetics. He grew up in Iowa chasing spiders and snakes and now stores a jar of pickled rattlesnakes—a souvenir from his doctoral research—on a shelf behind his desk. Protecting these creatures, he says, is of extreme importance. Bats provide significant economic benefit, eating up bugs that harm crops. And their populations are declining at an alarming rate: A disease called “white-nose syndrome” has wiped out more than 90 percent of the population of three North American bat species in the last decade. In late November of 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Davis’s favorite species, the northern long-eared bat, as endangered.For certain species, deaths at wind facilities are another stressor on populations. Scientists expect climate change to make the situation worse for bats and overall biodiversity. “Because of this confluence of factors, it’s just really tough for bats right now,” Davis says. “We need to work a lot harder than we are to make life better for them.”Like other wildlife researchers, Davis has sometimes struggled to get his hands on the specimens he needs to track species and understand their behaviors. Many spend time in the field, but that’s costly. Depending on the target species, acquiring enough animals can take years, Davis says. He used museum collections for his doctoral dissertation, and still views them as an “untapped font of research potential.” But many museums focus on keeping samples intact for preservation and future research, so they may not work for every project.That leaves salvage. Frozen bird and bat carcasses are “invaluable” to scientists, said Fesnock, the Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist. So far, samples collected as part of the Renewables-Wildlife Solutions Initiative have led to about 10 scientific papers, according to Katzner. Davis says the collection could reduce research costs for some scientists by making a large number of samples available, particularly for species that are hard to collect. Catching migratory bats that fly high in the air with nets is difficult for scientists, which makes it challenging to estimate population levels. Bat biologists say there’s much we still don’t know about their behaviors, range, and number.As scientists work to compile better data, a few companies are experimenting with mechanization as a possible way to reduce fatalities at their facilities. At a wind farm in Wyoming, the utility Duke Energy has installed a rotating camera that resembles R2-D2 on stilts. The technology, called IdentiFlight, is designed to use artificial intelligence to identify birds and shut turbines down in seconds to avoid collisions.Prior to IdentiFlight, technicians used to set up lawn chairs amid the 17,000-acre site and look skyward, sometimes eight hours a day, to track eagles. It was an inefficient system prone to human error, says Tim Hayes, who recently retired as the utility’s environmental-development director. IdentiFlight has reduced eagle fatalities there by 80 percent, he adds. “It can see 360 degrees, where humans can’t, and it never gets tired, never blinks, and never has to go to the bathroom.”Biologists say there are still unknowns around the efficacy of these types of technologies, in part because of incomplete data on the population size and spread of winged wildlife.Katzner and his colleagues want the repository to help change this, but first they will need long-term funding to help recruit more partners and staff. Davis estimates he needs between $1 million and $2 million to build a sustainable repository at his university alone. Ideally, the USGS portion of the project in Boise would have its own building. For now, Katzner stores feathers in a space that doubles as a USGS conference room. Next door, in a room punctuated with a dull hum, the walls are lined with freezers. Some carry samples already cataloged. Others hold black trash bags filled with bird and bat bodies just waiting to be processed.

Why Queensland is still ground zero for Australian deforestation

Queensland is still clearing large tracts of land to run more cattle. This comes at a huge cost to our native animals and plants.

Five years ago, bulldozers with chains cleared forests and woodlands almost triple the size of the Australian Capital Territory in a single year. Brazil? Indonesia? No – much closer: Queensland. In 2018-19, truly staggering land clearing, mostly by farmers and cattle graziers, saw around 680,000 hectares of habitat destroyed – more than the preceding 18 years. Even though the state Labor government tightened land clearing rules in 2015, the new rules were riddled with loopholes. If Queensland was a country, it would have been the ninth highest forest destroying nation globally in 2019 – just above China. Clearing is slowing – but nowhere near fast enough. At the end of 2022, Queensland quietly released its latest figures, showing clearing rates in 2019-20 had fallen to under two Australian Capital Territories that year (around 418,000 hectares). The government celebrated it as a win, as did some farming groups. But it’s nothing to be celebrated. Yes, it’s better than the worst year in the last two decades. But as our climate and extinction crises worsen and as the Great Barrier Reef teeters on the brink, clearing as usual is no longer good enough. Queensland’s historical forest and woodland clearing rates by political party in power. Why is Queensland still clearing so much – and why does it matter? In a word, beef. Like Brazil, Queensland tears down its forests and woodlands largely to make way for grass to feed livestock – mainly cattle. The latest 2019-20 figures show 85% of all clearing was done to create new pasture. You might have heard defenders of land clearing claiming the land being cleared is home to low-value vegetation or trees that regrow easily, such as mulga acacia. This is not true. About 52% of all vegetation cleared in 2019-20 was classified as old growth or older than 15 years. The Brigalow Belt and the Mulga Lands accounted for three-quarters of all clearing. Of the clearing in these regions, 80% was full clearing, meaning bulldozing turned forests or woodlands into areas with less than 10% canopy remaining. Nature is forced to give up habitat so cattle have grass to eat. Shutterstock This matters, because Queenslanders are the custodians of more biodiversity than any other Australian state, most of which is found in its woodlands and forests. Queensland’s thousands of unique plant species provide homes and resources for many of Australia’s famous animals. More than 1,800 species of Australian plants and animals are now threatened with extinction – and Queensland’s land clearing is a key threat for many. It can be hard to connect bulldozers clearing trees and the reality of what it does to the animals relying on them. So we cross-referenced the cleared land with threatened species distribution maps. Approximately 417 threatened species lost some of their habitat, with the worst hit including grey falcon, the newly endangered koala, and squatter pigeon. The clearing is a double blow, as many of these species were devastated by the Black Summer fires. Read more: Repairing gullies: the quickest way to improve Great Barrier Reef water quality This large scale destruction also hampers Australia’s ability to meet climate targets. The agriculture, forestry and other land use sector on average, accounted for almost a quarter (23%) of the world’s human-caused emissions. Of these, 45% were from deforestation. If we leave woodlands and forests intact, they look after our interests too. They improve water quality and availability for our uses and for nature. They control erosion by protecting soils and riverbanks. And they increase the productivity of nearby cropland by hosting pollinators and species which prey on plant pests. Ripping out the forests and woodlands not only reduces the carbon they sequester but also makes the ground immediately warmer, making many parts of Queensland even hotter and more drought prone. Native vegetation cleared for pasture near Maryborough. Martin Taylor Destroying old, biologically important woodland and forests at such scale is a terrible idea. It flies in the face of global pledges to end deforestation and maintain the integrity of all of Earth’s ecosystems. Australia is a signatory to both of these. Cynics might wonder whether the rush to clear pasture is linked to the fact many of our trading partners are looking to import beef not linked to deforestation. In December, the European Union passed laws requiring beef exporters to show their operations haven’t contributed to deforestation. Cattle must not have been raised on land cleared after December 2020. Though the EU is not the largest beef market for Australian farmers, the National Farmers Federation reacted angrily. Even in Australia, huge companies such as Woolworths and McDonalds have committed to remove deforestation from their supply chains. Some companies are doing the right thing, but the sheer scale of felling and clearing shows many are not. Both the Queensland and federal governments must fix the problem with better regulation and adequate enforcement, access to data to demonstrate deforestation-free credentials, and incentives for producers to improve their land use to the emerging global standards. In the age of ubiquitous satellite imagery, it’s impossible to hide what you’re doing. One option could be to make the deforestation images publicly available in real time. Brigalow forest cleared for pastures Central Queensland. Credit Martine Maron. Labor has pledged action federally – but the state Labor government must do more There’s a strange disconnect developing where Labor, federally, has signalled they want to reverse Australia’s biodiversity crisis, while at state level, their actions are nowhere near enough. Federal Labor recently signed national and international commitments aimed at halting species extinctions, reversing biodiversity loss, and stopping further land degradation. For that to actually happen, though, it will need the states to play ball – especially Queensland. Lopper removing tree by tree in koala habitat for housing in Springfield Qld. Credit Martin Taylor. Why is Queensland ground-zero for deforestation in Australia? It has water, arable land, and a decentralised population often reliant on farming or mining work outside the major cities. Sugarcane plantations, mango farms, beef cattle, dairy, bananas – it’s hard to shift a long-set path. But if the state government is unable to close the obvious loopholes such as Queensland’s questionable land clearing Category X and stop rampant land clearing, the environmental, social and economic bill will come due. Extinctions, coral death, climate damages, degraded human health and the reputational risk of becoming a pariah. It doesn’t have to be that way. By working with farmers and graziers, they can end the policy ping-pong with laws to encourage all food producers to shift to deforestation-free produce. We can get there. Read more: EcoCheck: can the Brigalow Belt bounce back? Michelle Ward received PhD funding from the Federal Government. Michelle also works for WWF as a Conservation Scientist.James Watson has received funding from the Australian Research Council and National Environmental Science Program and receives funding from South Australia's Department of Environment and Water. He serves on scientific committees for Bush Heritage Australia, SUBAK Australia, BirdLife Australia and has a long-term scientific relationship with the Wildlife Conservation Society. He serves on the Queensland Government's Land Restoration Fund's Investment Panel.

My Vegetarian Dilemma: Tasting Lab-Grown Meat From Live Animals

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. It was a confronting moment for a vegetarian. First, a pork meatball and then slices of bacon, balanced in a sort of mini BLT, were served to eat by beaming, expectant hosts. The meat even came from a named pig, an […]

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. It was a confronting moment for a vegetarian. First, a pork meatball and then slices of bacon, balanced in a sort of mini BLT, were served to eat by beaming, expectant hosts. The meat even came from a named pig, an affable-looking swine called Dawn. With some trepidation, I sliced into the meatball and ate it. I then took a nibble of the bacon. It was my first taste of meat in 11 years, a confounding experience made possible by the fact that Dawn, gamboling in a field in upstate New York, did not die for this meal. Instead a clump of her cells were grown in a lab to create what’s known as “cultivated meat,” a product touted as far better for the climate—as well as the mortal concerns of pigs and cows—and is set for takeoff in the US. “A harmless sample from one pig can produce many millions of tons of product without requiring us to raise and slaughter an animal each time,” said Eitan Fischer, founder of Mission Barns, a maker of cultivated meat that invited the Guardian to a taste test in an upscale Manhattan hotel. The meatball was succulent, the bacon was crisp and, even to a vegetarian, both had the undeniable quality of meat. “We got that sample from Dawn and she’s living freely and happily,” said Fischer, whose company has identified a “donor” cow, chicken and duck for future cultivated meat ranges. “This industry will absolutely be transformative to our food system as people move toward consuming these types of products.” Dawn, whose meat I tasted, remains alive and healthy. Courtesy of Mission Barns Mission Barns is one of about 80 startup companies based around San Francisco’s Bay Area now jostling for position after one of their number, Upside Foods, became the first in the country to be granted approval by the FDA in November, a key step in allowing the sale of cultivated meat in the US. On Monday, Upside said it aims to start selling its cultivated chicken in restaurants this year, and in grocery stores by 2028. More than $2 billion has been invested in the sector since 2020 and many of the new ventures aren’t waiting for regulatory approval before building facilities. In December, a company called Believer Meats broke ground on a $123 million facility in North Carolina it claims will be the largest cultivated meat plant in the world, set to churn out 10,000 tons of product once operational. So far cultivated meat—the nascent industry settled on this name over lab-grown or cellular meat—has only started selling in Singapore, where another Bay Area contender, called Eat Just, was given the green light to sell chicken breast and tenders in 2020. But the “world is experiencing a food revolution,” as the FDA put it, with the rise of cultivated meat holding the promise of slashing the meat industry’s ruinous planet-heating emissions and shrinking its voracious appetite for land, as well as sparing livestock the barbarity of factory farming. “We know we can’t really hit the goals in the Paris climate agreement without addressing meat consumption and we think alternative proteins are the best way to address that,” said Elliot Swartz, lead scientist on cultivated meat at the Good Food Institute (GFI) who envisions a sort of “all the above” approach where cultivated meat, plant-based offerings like Impossible burgers and simply giving up the pork chops and steaks help soften the impact of a growing, and potentially disastrous, global appetite for meat. Switching to cultivated meats, scientists say, would free up vast areas of land and make a big dent in farm emissions—for beef especially. The raising and slaughter of livestock is responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gas pollution of the entire food sector, which in itself is estimated to contribute around a third of total global emissions. Faced with the need to reach “peak meat,” cultivated meat has been pushed forward as a solution as it can cut emissions by around 17 percent for chicken and up to 92 percent for beef, the meat that weighs heaviest on the planet, GFI’s research has found. Vast areas of land, much of it deforested for grazing and vulnerable to outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, meanwhile, could be freed up if meat is instead conjured up in the sort of 30,000-square-foot facility Mission Barns operates. Eating something that’s not been fed with copious amounts of antibiotics is of particular public appeal, too, the company’s research has found. “The production process is more efficient, you have significantly less feed material to get the same amount of calories out and you have a huge opportunity to restore ecosystems and slow biodiversity loss,” said Swartz. “It enables a way to mitigate all of these hard, sticky global challenges.” A report last week identified a rise in plant based meat alternatives as one of three “super tipping points” that could trigger a cascade of decarbonization across the global economy, alongside boosting electric vehicles and green fertilizers. It found a 20 percent market share by 2035 would mean 400 million to 800 million hectares of land would no longer be needed for livestock and their fodder, equivalent to 7 to 15 percent of the world’s farmland today, the report estimated. This challenge is particularly stark in the US, the world’s largest producer of beef and chicken and the second largest producer of pork, a country where meat-eating is deeply embedded through ingrained habit or the lack of available, affordable alternatives to the point that each American eats more than 260lb of meat each year, on average, a figure that appears to be edging up. An excited, yet brief, craze over Impossible and Beyond Meat has underscored American desires for actual meat, rather than plant-based imitations. “In consumer research a lot of people say, ‘I’m not eating that plant stuff, I don’t care how good it tastes,’” said Swartz. The goal for Mission Barns, which hopes to get its own FDA approval shortly and has a range of bacon, meatballs and sausages ready to distribute, is to “appeal to folks who love eating bacon and who love eating meatballs,” according to Fischer, who himself has been vegetarian for more than a decade. “Whether it’s consciously or subconsciously we crave and desire the flavor of animal meat. Plant-based alternatives come close to mimicking them. “But for folks who want that real flavor, I think giving them real pork is definitely the way to go. If we want something that tastes like bacon, it’s not going to be enough to have a piece of tempeh and call it bacon.” Mission Barns tasting room. Courtesy of Mission Barns Since launching in 2018, Mission Barns has embarked on a PR offensive while developing its product, gathering information for regulators and raising money (investors put $24 million toward a “pilot plant” in 2021). A sprawling kitchen that would look at home on TV show set has hosted lawmakers and potential customers—Steny Hoyer, a prominent congressional Democrat, was apparently a huge fan of the bacon—and a handful of outlets have agreed to stock its products once they are approved for sale. Many of the emerging cultivated meat ventures have some sort of niche—companies that aim to sell lab-grown sushi-grade salmon, or bluefin tuna or even foie gras—and Mission Barns’ is one of efficiency, by growing animal fat rather than more laborious and costly muscle and tissue. The fat, which has proteins and seasoning added to it, is created through growing cells in sturdy bioreactors, which replicate the growth of an animal. When actual meat can be stripped of its environmental and cruelty issues, will vegetarians like me begin to accept it? The use of these cultivators, which are more usually deployed by the biopharmaceutical industry to manufacture drugs, presents an issue for cultivated meat because they more typically create small batches at high cost, whereas the food industry requires this equation to be reversed. Creating the first lab-grown burger cost $330,000 back in 2013, and while there have been improvements, the price tag is still a barrier to quickly scale production to rival the traditional meat industry in the short term. Eat Just has a chicken nugget that it said in 2019 costs $50 to make, though its prices have now come down. The process can also be energy intensive, as meat cultivation has to replicate the heating and cooling of an animal, which will require running on a renewable-heavy grid to avoid adding to emissions. But beyond the practical obstacles the onset of cultivated meat raises broader questions. Will the public see any reason to switch to this newly formed flesh? And will this change the concept of what it means to eat ethically? The intended audience for cultivated meat may be those who eat meat at least once a day, to help them sidestep to a more environmentally friendly option without giving up flesh entirely, but the advent of meat from a lab does pose philosophical questions for vegetarians. If you don’t eat meat because of animal welfare or climate reasons, what happens when these issues are stripped away from the food? How much is being a vegetarian about those sort of values, beyond the act of eating meat itself? I pondered this as I dealt with a sort of claggy, oily feeling in a mouth unused to eating meat. Others are less conflicted. “I fully plan on eating this stuff when it’s more available in the US,” said Swartz, who has been a vegetarian for the past four years. “People don’t give up meat because it tastes bad, it’s other motivations. I think we will need some new word, like cultivarian, or something like that.”

One of these underrated animals should be Australia’s 2032 Olympic mascot. Which would you choose?

From a ‘worm’ that shoots deadly slime from its head, to a blind marsupial mole that ‘swims’ underground, let’s take a look at three leading candidates (plus 13 special mentions).

Wes Mountain/The Conversation/ShutterstocklAm I not pretty enough? This article is part of The Conversation’s series introducing you to unloved Australian animals that need our help. Australia is set to host the 2032 Olympic games in Queensland’s capital Brisbane, captivating an audience of billions. With so many eyes on Australia, the burning question is, of course, what animal(s) should be the official mascot(s) of the games, and why? Summer Olympics past have featured recognisable animal mascots such as Waldi the daschund (Munich, 1972), Amik the beaver (Montreal, 1976), Misha the bear (Moscow, 1980), Sam the eagle (Los Angeles, 1984) and Hodori the tiger (Seoul, 1988). Iconic and familiar mammals and birds dominate the list. The trend continued at Sydney’s 2000 games which featured Syd (playtpus), Olly (kookaburra) and Millie (echidna). But the Brisbane Olympics is a great opportunity to showcase lesser known species, including those with uncertain futures. Sadly Australia is a world leader in extinctions. Highlighting species many are unfamiliar with, the threats to them and their respective habitats and ecosystems, could help to stimulate increased conservation efforts. From a “worm” that shoots deadly slime from its head, to a blind marsupial mole that “swims” underground, let’s take a look at three leading candidates (plus 13 special mentions). What makes them so special, and what physical and athletic talents do they possess? Onychophorans, or velvet worms A potential mascot design. Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND Velvet worms are extraordinary forest and woodland denizens thought to have changed little in roughly 500 million years. Australian velvet worms are often smaller than 5 centimetres and look a bit like a worm-caterpillar mash up. They’re found across Australia and other locations globally. Their waterproof, velvet-like skin is covered in tiny protusions called papillae, which have tactile and smell-sensitive bristles on the end. Velvet worms possess antennae and Australian species have 14-16 pairs of stumpy “legs”, each with a claw that helps them move across uneven surfaces such as logs and rocks. A velvet worm from Mt Elliot, North Queensland. Alexander Dudley/Faunaverse Their colour varies between species, often blue, grey, purple or brown. Many display exquisite, detailed and showy patterns that can include diamonds and stripes – clear X-factor for a potential mascot. Although velvet worms may be relatively small and, dare I say it, adorable, don’t be fooled. These animals are voracious predators. They capture unsuspecting prey – other invertebrates – at night by firing sticky slime from glands on their heads. Once the victim is subdued, velvet worms bite their prey and inject saliva that breaks down tissues and liquefies them, ready to be easily sucked out. A velvetine cuddle. A group of adult and juvenile Euperipatoides rowelii. Tanya Latty If this isn’t intimidating enough, one species (Euperipatoides rowelli) lives and hunts in groups, with a social hierarchy under the control of a dominant female who feeds first following a kill. Despite their formidable abilities, velvet worms are vulnerable to habitat destruction and fragmentation, and a changing climate. Jalbil (Boyd’s forest dragon) A potential mascot design. Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND Jalbil is found in the rainforests of tropical North Queensland. They are a truly striking lizard – bearing a prominent pointy crest and a line of spikes down the back, distinct conical cheek scales and a resplendent yellow throat (dewlap) which can be erected to signal to each other. Despite their colourful and ornate appearance, Jalbil can be very hard to spot as they’re perfectly camouflaged with their surroundings. They spend much of their time clinging vertically to tree trunks often at or below human head-height. Some have favourite trees they use more frequently. If they detect movement, they simply move around the tree trunk to be out of direct view. Jalbil (Boyd’s forest dragon) is found in the rainforests of North Queensland’s Wet Tropics. Chris Jolly Reaching lengths of around 50cm, Jalbil mostly eat invertebrates, including ants, beetles, grasshoppers and worms. Males may have access to multiple female mates, and breeding is stimulated by storms at the beginning of the wet season. While Jalbil are under no immediate threat, their future is uncertain. Jalbil are ectothermic, so unlike mammals and birds (endothermic), they can’t regulate their internal body heat through metabolism. Sunlight is often very patchy and limited below the rainforest canopy, restricting opportunities for basking to warm up. Instead, Jalbil simply allow their body temperature to conform with the ambient conditions of their environment (thermo-conforming). This means if climate change leads to increased temperatures in the rainforests of Australia’s Wet Tropics, Jalbil may no longer be able to maintain a safe body temperature and large areas of habitat may also become unsuitable. Itjaritjari and kakarratul (southern and northern marsupial moles) A potential mascot design. Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND These remarkable subterranean-dwelling marsupials really are in a league of their own. Both moles can fit in the palm of your hand, measuring up to about 150 millimetres and weighing about as much as a lemon (40-70 grams). What these diminutive mammals lack in size they make up for in digging power – if only digging were an official Olympic sport. In central dunefields, they can dig up to 60 kilometres of tunnel per hectare. Marsupial moles are covered in fine, silky, creamy-gold fur. They have powerful short arms with long claws, shovels for furious digging. Their back legs also help them push. Instead of creating and living in permanent burrows, they “swim” underground across Australia’s deserts for most of their lives. The impressive adaptations don’t end there either. They also have ridiculously short but strong, tough-skinned tails that serve as anchors while digging. Females also have a backwards-facing pouch and all have nose shields that protect their nostrils, ensuring sand doesn’t end up where it’s not supposed to. Due to living underground for most of their lives, many mole mysteries remain regarding their day-to-day lives. Scientists do know they eat a wide range of invertebrates including termites, beetles and ants, and small reptiles such as geckoes. But while neither species is thought to be in danger of extinction, there are no reliable population estimates across their vast distributions. What’s more, introduced predators (feral cats and foxes) are known to prey upon them. Itjaritjari is listed as vulnerable in the Northern Territory. And 13 special mentions go to… With so many amazing wildlife species in Australia, it really is a near impossible task to choose our next mascot. So I also want to give special mentions to the following worthy contenders: The Australian giant cuttlefish These marine animals put on spectacular, colourful displays each year when they form large breeding aggregations. Some giant Australian cuttlefish reach one metre in length. Nick Payne, Author provided Read more: Why we're watching the giant Australian cuttlefish Arnkerrth (thorny devil) A desert-dwelling, ant-eating machine that can drink simply by standing in puddles. Thorny devils can eat more than 1,000 ants per meal. Euan Ritchie The Torresian striped possum This striking black and white possum is thought to have the largest brain relative to body size of any marsupial. Their extra long fourth finger makes extracting delicious grubs from rotting wood a cinch. The Torresian striped possum moves with speed throughout North Queensland’s rainforests. Shutterstock Kila (palm cockatoo) Our largest and arguably most spectacular “rockatoo”, which plays the drums. The Queensland government moved this species onto the endangered list in 2021. Shutterstock Read more: The 'Ringo Starr' of birds is now endangered – here’s how we can still save our drum-playing palm cockatoos Ulysses butterfly Also known as mountain blue butterflies, the vivid, electric blue wings of Ulysses butterflies can span as much as 130 millimetres. An exquisite local of North Queensland. Willem van Aken/CSIRO Science Image, CC BY-SA The Australian lungfish A living fossil, which is now found only in Queensland, can breath air as well as in the water. The Australian lungfish is restricted to southeast Queensland. Alice Clement Read more: Meet 5 remarkably old animals, from a Greenland shark to a featherless, seafaring cockatoo Mupee, boongary or marbi (Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo) Despite being powerfully built for climbing, Lumholtz’s tree kangaroos are also adept at jumping, when alarmed they’ve been known to jump from heights of up to 15m to the ground. Who knew kangaroos could climb and bounce through trees? Shutterstock Read more: Meet Chimbu, the blue-eyed, bear-eared tree kangaroo. Your cuppa can help save his species The green tree python Green tree pythons are the most vivid green snake you can possibly imagine. While adult pythons are a vibrant green the juveniles may be bright yellow or red (but not in Australia), changing colour when they are about half a metre long. Another reptile with serious wow factor. Chris Jolly The chameleon grasshopper Based on temperature, male chameleon grasshoppers can change colour from black to turquoise, and back to black again, each day. A kaleidoscope of colour in the Australian alps. Kate Umbers Greater gliders These fabulous fuzzballs can glide up to 100m in a single leap. Read more: Greater gliders are hurtling towards extinction, and the blame lies squarely with Australian governments Peacock spiders Peacock spiders come in rainbow colours and the males sure know how to shake it. Their vivid colours, such as in the species Maratus volans, are due to tiny scales that form nanoscopic lenses created from carbon nanotubes. Peacock spiders are found only in Australia. Joseph Schubert Read more: I travelled Australia looking for peacock spiders, and collected 7 new species (and named one after the starry night sky) Corroboree frogs They are a striking black and yellow, and desperately need help. Read more: Our field cameras melted in the bushfires. When we opened them, the results were startling And finally, I’ll always have a soft spot for Australia’s much maligned canid, the dingo. So now, over to you. What are your suggestions for unique animal mascots at the 2032 Brisbane Olympics? Euan G. Ritchie is a Councillor within the Biodiversity Council, and a member of the Ecological Society of Australia and the Australian Mammal Society.

You may be thinking about animals all wrong (even if you’re an animal lover)

Gianna Meola for Vox Philosopher Martha Nussbaum says humans should grant equal rights to animals, even in the wild. Is she right? Martha Nussbaum is a very, very big deal, the kind of philosopher who, when she publishes a book, makes waves well beyond the ivory towers of academia. Her new volume, Justice for Animals, plunges into the animal welfare debate, billing itself as a “revolutionary new theory” in how we humans think about other animals. Which makes it all the more surprising that, at its heart, her theory isn’t very revolutionary at all. Nussbaum, whom the New Yorker once described as “monumentally confident,” contends that pretty much everyone has been thinking about animals wrong — including animal lovers. She rejects the leading ethical approaches to animals and urges us to accept hers: the capabilities approach. And as a philosopher who is also steeped in the law, she wants her theory to change real-world policy. Nussbaum first co-developed the capabilities approach in the 1980s with humans in mind, working with its original architect, the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen. The theory argues that a just society should give each human the chance to flourish, which requires the opportunity to access some core entitlements to at least some minimum degree — things like good health and physical safety that any living thing requires, but also social relationships and play. These aren’t random; they’re things that human beings have specific reason to value because of the type of creatures we are. Now, she wants us to extend this approach to other species. Each species will have its own list of core entitlements, tailored to its unique form of life. The animal’s nature — its intrinsic capacities — would decide how it has the right to be treated, as opposed to us humans deciding how we think it should be treated. The appeal of the capabilities approach is that it gives us clear rules about what we can and can’t do to animals, an ethical formula that can claim to be rooted in something intrinsic or objective. Which would be nice: Life is so complicated and messy; it’s comforting to have a formula! But ultimately, it does humanity a disservice. The obligations we feel to animals can’t be captured by any immutable formula because they don’t only flow from the animals’ intrinsic capacities; they’re also shaped by the relationships those animals can have with us, and by our own historical, economic, and cultural conditions, which are always changing. By clinging to the dominant style of argument in animal ethics — a style that says our obligations to animals are forced on us by the nature of animals themselves or even the nature of reasonableness itself — Nussbaum’s theory ends up leading to some iffy conclusions. It leads to a focus on helping individual animals, not species. And it prompts us to consider the idea that we should intervene to help not just those animals we’ve domesticated, which are utterly dependent on human beings, or those directly harmed by our actions, like endangered species, but also those trillions of animals that suffer and have always suffered in the wild. By the end of the book, Nussbaum is declaring things like this: “To say that it is the destiny of antelopes to be torn apart by predators is like saying that it is the destiny of women to be raped. Both are terribly wrong.” Like I said, iffy. Let’s back up a bit: What are the existing ethical approaches to animals that Nussbaum rejects, and where does she think they fail? One is what she calls the “So Like Us” approach. It says we should particularly protect animals that display intelligence and reason like us. One group that embraces this approach is the Nonhuman Rights Project, which tries to win legal personhood rights for species like elephants and chimpanzees with arguments that are primarily based on the intelligence of those species. But using human-like intelligence as the yardstick for moral value is an old mistake: Ever since Aristotle developed the idea of the Scala Naturae, a “natural ladder” that classified some animals as higher life forms and others as lower, humans (at least in the West) have repeatedly underestimated the cognitive complexity of other species. Suffering from an anthropocentric bias, we tend to think something counts as intelligence only when it looks like human intelligence. But researchers are increasingly recognizing that every species has its own brand of smarts. Each is perfectly adapted to its unique environment and needs. The second approach Nussbaum rejects is that of the 18th-century British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The right question to ask about animals, Bentham argued, is not “Can they reason?” but “Can they suffer?” So instead of using intelligence as the yardstick for moral value, the utilitarian camp uses sentience: the ability to experience pain or pleasure. It says we should minimize pain for any creature that can feel it, a position most prominently held today by the Australian ethicist Peter Singer. Nussbaum likes the emphasis on sentience. She thinks it makes sense to view it as a clear dividing line in nature: Only creatures with sentience deserve rights. But she rejects the utilitarians’ decision to calculate pain and pleasure as an aggregate, with the aim of producing the greatest good for the greatest number. As utilitarian thought experiments show, this approach can produce a result that’s great on net even while making some individuals deeply miserable. That neglects the importance of individual lives, treating them as interchangeable cogs. Nussbaum is determined to preserve the inviolability of each individual animal, and this leads her to investigate a third major theory: that of Immanuel Kant, as read through the contemporary philosopher Christine Korsgaard. According to Kant, you should never treat a human being as a means to an end; people are ends in themselves. It would never be right to harm one person even if it benefits many on net. Korsgaard takes that basic idea and extends it to animals. It’s a move Nussbaum applauds. But she takes issue with the fact that Korsgaard still gives special status to humans because of our ability for complex ethical reasoning. Korsgaard says animals aren’t capable of that, so they can only be passive citizens of the world. “I think that is just much too simple because animals are very active in indicating what they need and want,” Nussbaum told me in an interview late last year. “They have marvelous, complicated ways of speaking or signaling ... and we should be listening to that and taking account of that.” So Nussbaum salvages from the utilitarians an emphasis on sentience, and from Kant an emphasis on the inviolable rights of each end-in-itself creature. She thinks combining these two ingredients sets her up for a better approach: her capabilities approach. But she ends up hamstrung by the limitations of each view. Sentience isn’t the bright dividing line utilitarians believe it is, and Kantians fail to reckon with the need to balance competing needs with each other. Sentience has always been a squishy category. Some experts define it as basic sensitivity — your ability to sense things, like the color red. Others say it’s your ability to feel pleasure or pain. Nussbaum defines it more broadly: You’re sentient if you have a subjective point of view on the world, and there’s something that it’s like to be you (whereas the answer to “what is it like to be a rock?” is “nothing”). It makes sense that she’d embrace sentience as a dividing line in nature. She says justice requires giving each creature the chance to fulfill its significant strivings, so she needs a way to tell which creatures are capable of significant striving. But if we think of sentience in such binary terms — either you’ve got it or you don’t — then we create a sharp border, where those who are “in” have a right to be treated justly, and those who are “out” don’t. This should give us pause because every time we humans have come up with a way of dividing up nature, later generations have overturned it. Historically, societies started by thinking that being a male human is what matters, and then expanded the notion to believe that being a human is what matters, and then that being an intelligent animal is what matters, and now that being sentient is what matters. “In light of that history, we should be a little skeptical of our current impression that we happen to now be fully morally enlightened and are including everybody we should be including,” Jeff Sebo, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, told me in 2021. Philosophers and researchers increasingly believe a binary idea of sentience doesn’t fit well with what we see when we look closely at living things in the natural world. That’s because the more we learn about different species, even simple ones, the more we find glimmers of sentience. For example, people have long thought of fish as emotionally vacant, but recent experimental studies challenge that view; it turns out romantic breakups really suck, even for fish. The same goes for octopuses, lobsters, and crabs, all of which the British government now recognizes as sentient. The 10 quintillion insects on the planet may be sentient, too, evidence suggests. In recent years, some scientists have even argued that plants have sentience. Some thinkers have adapted by proposing that sentience comes in degrees. The primatologist Frans de Waal has suggested there are three levels of sentience: sensitivity, experience, and consciousness. And the philosopher Daniel Dennett has hypothesized that “‘sentience comes in every imaginable grade and intensity, from the simplest and most ‘robotic,’ to the most exquisitely sensitive, ‘hyper-reactive’ human.” But even this is probably too simplistic. If we say sentience comes in degrees, we’re saying it lines up neatly on a single scale, running from “more sentient” to “less sentient,” and suddenly we’re back on Aristotle’s Scala Naturae. There is reason to doubt whether a creature’s sentience can be measured in terms of just one metric, like its number of neurons. Rather than viewing sentience as running on a single scale, some philosophers now argue that sentience is “a multi-dimensional phenomenon.” If they’re right, sentience will go the way of intelligence. Just as people like Nussbaum want to ditch the older framing of “this species is smarter than that species” in favor of “different species are smart in different ways (that are best suited to their form of life),” we’ll want to ditch the framing of “this species is more sentient than that species” for “different species exhibit different forms of sentience (that are best suited to their form of life).” But Nussbaum doesn’t go this route. She is too committed to viewing each individual creature as a Kantian “end in itself” — and that doesn’t come in degrees. It only has one dimension. You either are an “end in yourself” or you’re not. Nussbaum writes that her view sees “animal lives as having intrinsic value” — with the caveat, “ethically, though not in my political theory.” She claims this is just her personal belief and it doesn’t factor into her theory. “What I think metaphysically has nothing to do with it,” she told me. “Because my overall position, in my view, is that in political principles and legal principles, we should never include any controversial metaphysical positions. This is what John Rawls said famously in Political Liberalism — that if we’re in a pluralistic society where people differ about metaphysics, we should never include in our political principles these controversial metaphysical claims about which people differ.” But her controversial claims do factor into her theory. In fact, her whole theory has a strong flavor of moral realism, a doctrine that says there is such a thing as objective moral values. Her underlying premise is that we can find out what objective moral rights an animal has by examining that animal’s objective capacities. The animal’s nature forces obligations on us. In her book, Nussbaum critiques philosophers who take a more anti-realist stance, who argue that value is a subjective human creation, that it doesn’t exist “out there” to be discovered. According to Nussbaum, that’s a controversial position and should be left out. But if anti-realism is a controversial position, Nussbaum’s realism is equally controversial. And it leads her down some very controversial paths. For one thing, Nussbaum argues that “for ethics, it is the individual creature that is the end, not the species.” She does acknowledge that preserving an endangered species may have instrumental value, like scientific or aesthetic value. But she insists that a species doesn’t “count as an end for the purposes of political justice” because “a species has no point of view on the world.” It’s true that a species doesn’t feel or suffer; that’s what the individual animals that make up a species do. But the argument that only individual animals can be wronged runs aground when the needs of different species conflict. This is a problem Australia has recently had to face. Hundreds of millions of feral rabbits — which trace back to just 24 rabbits brought over by an English settler in 1859 — have driven some of the country’s native plant species to the brink of extinction and altered entire ecosystems by munching away at vegetation. In 2011, the Australian government noted that rabbits had “reduced Philip Island to bedrock, leaving at least two plants locally extinct,” and announced that it would kill rabbits to conserve ecosystems. If Australia had applied Nussbaum’s view, it might have been warier about killing the rabbits, even if it meant some native species were decimated. Rabbits are sentient individuals with a point of view on the world, but ecosystems or plants don’t have a point of view on the world, according to Nussbaum, so they are deemphasized in her theory. Placing so much emphasis on who is a sentient end in itself could tip the scales in favor of individual creatures even when an entire species is at stake. Viewing each animal as an end in itself also inflects Nussbaum’s view on our responsibility toward animals in the wild. Partly, she’s driven by the very reasonable observation that there are hardly any truly “wild” spaces left on Earth: Humans control habitats on land, in the sea, and in the air, and through climate change we damage those habitats. It’s disingenuous to say we have no duty to consider the well-being of wildlife. “Wild” versus “domesticated” is a misleading split. But it gets weird when Nussbaum urges us to think not only about remediating human harms, but also about proactively protecting wild animals. Natural types of animal suffering like starvation and disease, which were a fact of life on Earth since well before the first Homo sapiens, trouble her. For her, even the pain of an individual antelope as it’s eaten by a predator is a horrible problem. (Remember her quote from earlier? “To say that it is the destiny of antelopes to be torn apart by predators is like saying that it is the destiny of women to be raped.”) She’s not just worried about whether antelopes as a species survive. She’s worried about each and every end-in-itself antelope, trying to survive in a natural world that is red in tooth and claw. So she says “we must use our knowledge — wisely and deliberately — to protect wild animal lives.” When it comes to predation, she acknowledges there are good reasons to hold off on intervening for now (for all we know, getting rid of the antelopes’ predators might topple the whole ecosystem, harming the very animals we meant to protect). But there are other interventions she’s more bullish about, like using contraceptives for wild animals to tackle population imbalances. She gave me the example of a habitat where elks have reproduced rapidly. Now the elks don’t get enough to eat, and they’re going hungry. “Suppose we concluded that humans have not really caused this problem. I still think that animal contraception should be investigated as part of the solution,” she told me. Overall, when it comes to intervening in the wild, she writes, “How much further can we go in this direction? We need to press this question all the time.” Other philosophers push back on that stance. Take Elizabeth Anderson, who was once Nussbaum’s student at Harvard and who now teaches at the University of Michigan. She subscribes to the school of thought in philosophy known as pragmatism, which sees moral truths as contingent, not objective. This results in a story about animals that is very different from the one Nussbaum tells. Anderson points out that for most of human history, we couldn’t have survived and thrived without killing or exploiting animals for food, transportation, and energy. The social conditions for granting animals moral rights didn’t really exist on a mass scale until recently (although certain non-Western societies did ascribe moral worth to some animals). “The possibility of moralizing our relations to animals,” she writes, “has come to us only lately, and even then not to us all, and not with respect to all animal species.” Anderson notes that we feel different levels of moral obligation to different species, and that has to do not only with their intrinsic capacities like intelligence or sentience, but also with their relationships to us. It matters whether we’ve made them dependent on us by domesticating them — like the more than 30 billion domesticated chickens alive at any given time, most of them suffering terrible pain at our hands — or whether they live in the wild. It also matters whether they’re fundamentally hostile to us. For example, if you find bedbugs in your house, nobody expects you to say, “Well, they’re maybe sentient and definitely alive, so they have moral value. I’ll just live and let live!” It is absolutely expected that you will exterminate them. Why? Because with vermin, Anderson writes, “there is no possibility of communication, much less compromise. We are in a permanent state of war with them, without possibility of negotiating for peace. To one-sidedly accommodate their interests ... would amount to surrender.” Anderson’s point is not that animals’ intelligence and sentience don’t matter. It’s that lots of other things matter, too, including our own ability to thrive. So her view doesn’t require us to draw one bright line through nature. Anderson is inclined to value all living things, including plants, which she notes clearly have interests. And she’s inclined to think protecting a species in some cases can justify getting rid of non-endangered individuals, as in the case of Australia’s action against invasive rabbits. Individuals’ sentience isn’t a trump card. “There’s a plurality of values at stake here, and I’m disinclined to think that any single one of them necessarily overrides all the others,” Anderson told me. “It depends on the context.” Anderson’s insistence on taking seriously a plurality of values also guides her approach to the question of animals in the wild. She thinks it’s bizarre to worry about wild animals suffering at the hands of predators. Suffering, after all, “is inherent to the animal condition,” she told me. “The idea of minimizing suffering becomes a single-minded goal that doesn’t really grasp the vital importance of predators for ecosystems.” It’s possible to wed Anderson’s inclination to value all living things and the ecosystems that support them with Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. You can say, “This is the human form of life, and to some extent it is different from other forms of life. All lives are uniquely wonderful in their own way” — and then to apply the capabilities approach by respecting each and every organism’s form of life as much as you can. But there are two very understandable fears about adopting this view. One is that it’s just going to make things, well, really hard! If every living thing is potentially invested with moral value, that seems to impose on us a crushing amount of responsibility. How could we even move at all in such a world, knowing that every step we take could change that world and the animals that live in it? What would we do when the needs of different species conflict? To which Anderson essentially responds, that’s life. The best we can do is look at creatures’ intelligence and sentience and aliveness and relationships to us as clues about their importance. But it doesn’t tell us how to weight those clues and what to do when they conflict. “There’s no simple formula,” Anderson told me. “I think that’s a hopeless quest.” The other fear you might have is the inverse: Instead of worrying that people will now care about everything, you might worry that people will now care about nothing. If you say creatures do not have objective rights, why shouldn’t we treat nature as a free-for-all — which is largely what humans have done through most of our existence? But that’s the point: History shows that saying creatures have objective rights doesn’t magically convince people to treat animals well. Most people are not moral philosophers and are not swayed by a priori reasoning alone. Where they change their behavior to be more considerate of other beings, it’s often because the economic and cultural constraints operating on them have changed. For example, in the early 1900s there was still a perceived need for women to stay home and perform household labor. But by the middle of the century, the invention of new household appliances — like the washing machine or dishwasher — catalyzed the emancipation of women by undercutting the perceived need for them to labor so long at home. Similarly, if a society feels it needs to eat animal products to get enough nutrition, it might have a hard time viewing all animals as morally valuable. But if a society doesn’t feel it needs to eat animal products, it may have an easier time looking upon animals and feeling awe or empathy. Our ability to access those sorts of emotions is constrained or bolstered by the context we live in. According to that line of thinking, even the cleverest moral arguments may have less influence on animal welfare than the advent of cheap and delicious plant-based meat, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers, as well as plant-based dairy and eggs. This type of tech innovation could free us up to see animals as creatures inspiring awe or empathy, making it easier to adopt kinder practices toward them. Ultimately, concern for animals is not forced on us by the nature of animals themselves. And if it’s not forced on us, that means it has to be a choice. Perhaps the best we can do is influence economic and cultural conditions to make it more possible for people to choose to care. This is an uncomfortable place for most philosophers to land. Many see it as their job to come up with grand theories, totalizing systems that can compel a certain kind of ethical behavior. Nussbaum writes that her capabilities approach “aims to supply a virtual constitution to which nations, states and regions may look in trying to improve (or newly frame) their animal-protective laws.” But even the most convincing of grand theories have never managed on their own to compel everyone to behave a certain way. And any grand theory will be unconvincing for those of us who ask: If morality is conditioned by our cultural context, why would there ever be one universal, timeless formula that tells us how to slice up nature into clear moral categories? Nussbaum’s capabilities approach doesn’t need to present itself as a grand theory in order to make a helpful contribution to our world. Although it won’t, on its own, motivate concern for animals, it can be a very useful framework when we’re trying to figure out how to express our concern. Beyond that, philosophy actually has a crucial role to play: If it acknowledges that our moral beliefs are conditioned by cultural context, it can help show us that there was nothing inherently “normal” or “natural” about our ancestors’ cruel practices toward animals, and that those practices are mostly not necessary now. It can free up our culture to tell a new story about ourselves and other animals. Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Suggested Viewing

Join us to forge
a sustainable future

Our team is always growing.
Become a partner, volunteer, sponsor, or intern today.
Let us know how you would like to get involved!

CONTACT US

sign up for our mailing list to stay informed on the latest films and environmental headlines.

Subscribers receive a free day pass for streaming Cinema Verde.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.