Peak Animals

A key cause of climate changeA lot of the questions people have about the WorldWatch article “Livestock and Climate Change” (Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, in the November / December 2009 WorldWatch) comes down to a simple problem: it’s difficult for many people to wrap their brains around what the authors are saying. All they see is something about livestock and a jumble of data. Maybe this is the way we should leave it, so that only the serious scientists will consider the idea. But the spread of an idea depends on its making intuitive sense. Here’s how I would pitch their thesis: you’ve heard of peak oil, the time of maximum production of oil on the planet. This is peak animals. We have an unprecedented (and unsustainable) amount of animal biomass on the planet, and climate change is just one of the symptoms.

Here’s a case in point of how this meme would work. Robert Goodland answers many of the objections raised to their article in the latest issue of WorldWatch (March/April 2010); and the very first issue is the question of livestock respiration. How can breathing cattle contribute to global warming? Don’t wild animals also breathe out carbon dioxide? And if we got rid of all the livestock, wouldn’t wild animals replace them?

Goodland’s answer is that the wild animals won’t be more than a fraction of the livestock. “Many more livestock than wild animals can be reared on any given amount of land . . . In many cases, livestock drive soil oxidation, with livestock’s mass weighing about eight times that of wild animals.”

Eight times? Even with the caveat “in many cases,” this is an astounding revelation.

There are likely more animals (in terms of biomass) on earth right now, than there ever have been since the formation of the planet. I’m considering “animals” not in the biological sense, but as shorthand for “land-based vertebrates.” In Plan B, Lester Brown estimates that 98% of all land-based vertebrates are humans, their livestock, and their pets — leaving just 2% for all the elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, bears, racoons, squirrels, and everything else that’s wild.

All of the problems with food we have on earth unfold from this basic fact. Put all this animal biomass on the planet, and you’ve got soil erosion, deforestation, global warming, and resource depletion all rolled up in a single tangled knot. And it’s all being supported by a highly mechanized agricultural system based on ever-depleting fossil fuel supplies. Climate change is really just part of the larger problem of complete human domination of every last square inch of the earth.