The long read: This is what happens when you turn the natural world into a profit-making machine
The most telling symbol of the modern era isnt the automobile or the smartphone. Its the chicken nugget. Chicken is already the most popular meat in the US, and is projected to be the planets favourite flesh by 2020. Future civilisations will find traces of humankinds 50 billion bird-a-year habit in the fossil record, a marker for what we now call the Anthropocene. And yet responsibility for the dramatic change in our consumption lies not so much in general human activity, but capitalism. Although were taught to understand it as an economic system, capitalism doesnt just organise hierarchies of human work. Capitalism is what happens when power and money combine to turn the natural world into a profit-making machine. Indeed, the way we understand nature owes a great deal to capitalism.
Every civilisation has had some rendering of the difference between us and them, but only under capitalism is there a boundary between society and nature a violent and tightly policed border with deep roots in colonialism.
First taking shape in the era of Chistopher Columbus, capitalism created a peculiar binary order. Nature became the antonym of society in the minds of philosophers, in the policies of European empires, and the calculations of global financial centres. Nature was a place of profit, a vast frontier of free gifts waiting to be accepted by conquerors and capitalists.
This was a dangerous view of nature for all sorts of reasons, not least because it simultaneously degraded human and animal life of every kind. What we call cheap nature included not only forests and fields and streams, but also the vast majority of humankind. In the centuries between Columbus and the industrial revolution, enslaved and indentured Africans, Asians, indigenous peoples and virtually all women became part of nature and treated cheaply as a result. When humans can be treated with such little care, its not surprising that other animals fare even worse under capitalism, especially the ones we end up paying to eat.
Animals have been at the epicentre of five centuries of dietary transformation, which sharply accelerated after the second world war. The creation of the modern world depended on the movement of cattle, sheep, horses, pigs and chickens into the new world, reinforcing the murderous advance of microbes, soldiers and bankers after 1492. Capitalisms ecological hoofprint, to use food scholar Tony Weiss well-turned phrase, has become radically globalised ever since. In the half-century after 1961, Weis tells us, per capita meat and egg consumption has doubled, and the number of slaughtered animals leapt eightfold, from eight to 64 billion.
To those with a romantic view of where their food comes from, uncooked meat appears to be a raw ingredient rather than a processed one. Quite the opposite. Feed and oilseed crops form part of what Weis terms the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex. Markets for grain made it possible for meat not just to become cheap food, but also to back financial instruments. Futures contracts in pork bellies, for instance, in turn require the uniformity, homogenisation and industrialisation of the crops they transform. Raw meat in the supermarket is, in other words, cooked up by a sophisticated and intensive arm of capitalisms ecology.
Where theres profit, theres every incentive to realise it efficiently. Modern meat-production systems can turn a fertile egg and a 4kg bag of feed into a 2kg chicken in five weeks. Turkey production times almost halved between 1970 and 2000, down to 20 weeks from egg to 16kg bird. Other animals have seen similar advances through a combination of breeding, concentrated feeding operations and global supply chains. The consequences of the sustained rise in meat consumption are a planetary affair too: 14.5% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are from livestock production.
The environmental consequences of meat production are, of course, external to industrial agricultures bottom line. Nature is merely the pool from which animals are drawn and factory farmed, and the dump into which their, and our, waste disappears. The danger lies in believing the division between nature and society is real, in seeing factory farming as an environmental question and factory production as a social question. Social questions are environmental questions, and vice versa.
Chickens dont turn into nuggets by themselves. Capitalists need cheap work. With the European invasion of the new world in 1492, that labour presented itself in the bodies of indigenous people. By the late 16th century, when Spaniards were desperately trying to revive silver production at the great silver mountain of Potos, in present-day Bolivia, they began using the word naturales to refer to indigenous people. Through hard work and prayer, those indigenous people, and enslaved Africans, might find divine redemption through work and perhaps even, one day long in the future, entry into society as equals.
Work was never meant to be fun. Consider the etymology of the French travail and the Spanish trabajo, each a translation of the English noun work: their Latin root is trepaliare, to torture, to inflict suffering or agony. But the way work works has changed.
For millennia, most humans survived through more or less intimate relations with land and sea. Even those who didnt were closely connected to the tasks and objects of labour. Human survival depended on holistic, not fragmented, knowledge: fishers, nomads, farmers, healers, cooks and many others experienced and practised their work in a way directly connected to the web of life. Farmers, for instance, had to know soils, weather patterns, seeds in short, everything from planting to harvest. That didnt mean work was pleasant slaves were often treated brutally. Nor did it mean that the relations of work were equitable: guild masters exploited journeymen, lords exploited serfs, men exploited women, the old exploited the young. But work was premised on a holistic sense of production and a connection to wider worlds of life and community.
In the 16th century, that began to shift. The enterprising Dutch or English farmer and the Madeiran, then Brazilian, sugar planter was increasingly connected to growing international markets for processed goods, and correspondingly more interested in the relationship between work time and the harvest. International markets pushed local transformations. Land in England was consolidated though enclosure, which concurrently freed a growing share of the rural population from the commons that they had tended, supported and survived on. These newly displaced peasants were free to find other work, and free to starve or face imprisonment if they failed.
This history is alive and well in the modern chicken nugget. Poultry workers are paid very little: in the US, two cents for every dollar spent on a fast-food chicken goes to poultry workers. Its hard to find staff when, according to one study in Alabama, 86% of employees who cut wings are in pain because of the repetitive hacking and twisting on the line. To fill the gaps in the labour force, some chicken operators use prison labour, paid at 25 cents an hour. In Oklahoma, chicken company executives returned to a colonial fusion of work and faith, setting up an addiction treatment centre in 2007, Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery. With judges steering addicts to treatment instead of jail, the recovery programme had a ready supply of workers. At CAAIR, prayer was supplemented with unpaid work on chicken production lines as part of a recovery therapy. If you worked and prayed hard enough for the duration of your treatment, youd be allowed to re-enter society.