Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How Cattle Destroyed a Planet, Part I

Alternatively titled: F*CK COWS, PART I

How did we get to a point in human civilization where cattle dominate so many aspects of the global economy yet we continually look to other places for blame regarding ecological and humanitarian crises? More importantly why doesn’t anybody care? There are around one and a half billion cattle alive today, at least for a little while. In Australia the number of cattle exceeds the number of people by 40%. South America is about even. Fully one quarter of the earth’s landmass is used for their pasture. Over half of the U.S. population lives within three minutes of a McDonald’s, and more people eat at McDonald
s in a month than attend churches and synagogues throughout the country. It is clear that we still treat this animal as sacred even though it wreaks havoc on our health, social structure and environment. Why?

This next article is something that I have been working on for quite some time now. I have broken it in half so that hopefully readers aren't flooded with too much information. It follows a story that is seldom told and even less often actually understood by the audience for the importance and implications of its main plot. It is an epic tale of death and destruction - or conquest and glory, if you want to believe the shite history books - that has been a ubiquitous part of human existence for more than 20,000 years…perhaps even 100,000 years. We like to think that we, as humans, are the chosen species for this world. That we reside at the pinnacle of evolutionary selection or exist as the very image of any number of omnipotent deities depending upon your belief set. That we stand alone at the top of the food chain, head held high, chests inflated and pronounced. That somehow we are the only animals in this short corner of the universe that are of any import at all. Well, DanielPDansters, I am here to pull back the curtain and expose a very different view of that perceived reality, and the journey, if you are willing to follow, starts in a dark, mildewed cave in the southwest of France.
The image above is a panoramic view of one of the chambers of the famous cave found at Lascaux. The ceilings and walls here are covered in 17,000 year-old Paleolithic artwork much like dozens of other caves found the world over. Take a moment to look at the paintings. What do you see? A lot of animals? Sure. What type in particular? Look like cows to anyone? Well, they aren’t cows. They are the giant aurochs that used to roam the plains of Europe, Asia and Northern Africa at the time. Aurochs were huge beasts that stood six feet tall at the shoulder and weighed in excess of a ton – a fearsome creature, especially since we hadn’t invented high-powered rifles or running shoes yet. They originated in Asia and had migrated to Europe by about a quarter of a million years ago. To the hardy band of humans that wandered the pristine wilderness that was Europe in prehistoric times this animal must have been both a source of hope and intense fear. On one hand their tough hides could be used for clothing, their bones for weapons, and their flesh for food. However, on the other hand you had to be either brave or desperate enough to try to approach a 2500lb bull with 8ft horns and an attitude that makes modern bulls look like Tickle Me Elmo and then poke it with a sharp stick. The utility, status, and sense of awe seen in this animal in Paleolithic life can be seen in these paintings at Lascaux as well as other sites strewn about Eurasia. So why am I giving the history lesson about Barney Rubble’s big game choice, you ask? Well, somewhere around 10,000 years ago someone decided that instead of killing one of the young aurochs they would bring it home as a pet and thus set in motion a chain of events that has caused the death of more people and more worldwide environmental destruction than any other decision made by a human in history, and, boy have we made some doozies. Nice work Barney.

In reality the aurochs were first domesticated in Mesopotamia, not Europe, and were used primarily as a sacrificial animal in various religious rites. In fact the first Western religion was bull worship in Egypt. It’s easy to see why. These animals represented both physical power and natural resources. They were essentially the Swiss Army Knife of their time. They were used as food (meat and dairy), clothing, shelter, fertilizer, blood sacrifices, tools, weapons, currency, sporting attractions, religious idols and (eventually) as draft animals. The ox-driven plow is often considered to be the first power driven tool in Western history. Once we had the plow, we had the ability to grow more food than we could eat locally so trade routes opened. We needed to advance technology for aqueducts, harvesting, food storage, and transportation. Humans mingled with other societies where they never had before. Currency became necessary. Not surprisingly, in Latin money was called “pecunia” which came directly from “pecus” which meant cattle. Similarly, the Spanish word for cattle is “ganado” while the word for property is “ganaderia”. The animal is still a symbol of wealth today in some societies.

Cattle cults became all the rage, and other religions had to either compete or be assimilated. Ancient Hindus used to use the cow in sacrifices and eat its flesh, but in order to separate itself from the early bull-worshiping religions, Hinduism decided to make the cow sacred. It still is today. Christianity, too, competed directly with the cattle cults. Many of the sacred rites and tenets within Christianity come directly from those early religions – “borrowed” in order to make the transition from cow worship to Jesus worship an easy one for the god-fearing masses. Pretty good sales tactics, don’t you think? The blood of a bull was substituted with the blood of Christ. December 25th was the day chosen for Christmas in direct competition with the Mithraic holy day, which celebrated the birth of the sun from a cow. Take a close look at a Christmas nativity scene. What do you usually find lying next to the Son of God? A bull…that’s right. Christians even transformed the bull god into the Devil (although interestingly not in the Bible). Imagine the Devil for a moment. What does he look like? He has horns, right? Of course. And Hooves? Yes, hooves. A tail? Sure why not. Probably blackish skin, too. Smells a bit like sulfur. Hmmm…the guy sure sounds like a cow to me.

While the “modern” religions were duking it out with cattle cults, the trade routes made possible by the development of the land and standardization of currency became larger and larger over millennia until they stretched across continents. Wherever people went cattle followed (or vise versa). By the 1300’s (A.D.) the Ottoman Empire engulfed the Mediterranean Sea so they controlled the main trade route in the Western world at the time. All goods traveling from Asia to Europe passed through Ottoman-controlled lands. By now the aristocracy in Europe was obsessed with cattle meat, and they consumed it nearly daily. The problem was that in the 1300’s refrigeration did not exist so they were continually looking for ways to disguise the taste of rotten meat. Burning it to a crisp was certainly one way, but the most popular method was to cook it with spices that came exclusively from the East. The Ottoman Turks got wise and started to crank up the taxes for these goods flooding into Europe through their lands, but Europeans paid it because the Mediterranean was the only route in town, unless they wanted to sail all the way around Africa…or across the world.

Enter those intrepid explorers that are the heroes of our sixth-grade history books. The truth is they were not looking for adventure or treasure or new lands. They were on government-funded expeditions looking for a new spice route to Asia in order to avoid paying the 800% markup the Turks were charging. It probably would have made more sense to invent refrigeration, but, hey, I wasn’t there. Of course they never found the new route to the East. What they did find was a lush wilderness for grazing their cattle, and Columbus himself began seeding the islands of Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico with horses and cattle before heading home to Spain to announce his “discovery”. Soon those wild cattle began to destroy the pristine island environment and out-compete the natives that lived there…a sad omen of things to come.

In the 1500’s ships began delivering cattle by the hundreds to North and South America where they were they were allowed to run wild. The cattle were then used as a tool to force the native populations to work for the Empire on ranches which would eventually lead to their subjugation, assimilation and/or death. By the mid 1600’s the herds of wild cattle in the South American grasslands were so numerous that some resources say people in particularly overrun areas began to eat beef at every meal and wore only leather clothing. That had to smell real nice {hork}. As an example of how well these newly introduced cattle did in the American environment, in 1600 about 7000 cattle were introduced into what would later become Texas. One hundred years later there were over 100,000 head, and by the mid 1800’s the estimated cattle population of Texas was nearly 4 million.

Meanwhile, right about when the colonies in North America gave the British the biggest middle finger in history, the British appetite for beef was growing. Over 100,000 cattle were being slaughtered every year in London alone, and, famously, British seamen were fed over a half pound of beef daily. Soon there wasn’t enough room in England for the cattle they “needed” so the government started to force themselves into other countries for pasture. Scotland and Ireland were obvious choices since they were right next door, so the locals were pushed off of the best pasture land by the Brits and were forced to farm smaller plots on marginal land. What did they grow? Potatoes. You can see where I’m headed with this, right? In 1846 blight devastated the potato crop causing mass starvation and death despite thousands of cattle grazing on what was once their land. Somewhere around one million people died and a million more had to leave their ancestral lands, many going to the U.S. The servants of the crown then promptly took over the abandoned land for, of course, more cattle.

The next part of the story takes place back in North America where words of “expansion and subjugation” seemed to form the mantra for U.S. society in the 19th century. By then, the cattle industry was booming, consuming more and more land for grazing which spurred border wars and bloody battles between farmers, ranchers, and natives. Since cattle companies didn’t (still don’t) respect the rights of other property owners (and since cattle are too stupid to train) fences had to be put up to protect crops and public land from the devastating effects of cattle grazing. That is why to this day we are cursed with fences from sea to shining sea. The European desire for a fatty, marbled appearance to their beef led the U.S. ranchers to feed the excess corn grown by farmers in the lush Midwest to the cattle just before the trip to the slaughterhouses. The problem was that the cattle drives to the Midwest took their toll on the cattle, so rail lines needed to be constructed. However, there were two little roadblocks that had to be cleared up for the rail lines to be able to move safely across the “deserted” plains - Indians and buffalo.

The story of not only how but also why the west was won is not one that is ever told truthfully. The way we usually hear it is that Indians were savages and buffalo were wild and both had to be tamed by the cowboys who were civilized and replaced by their cattle, which were domesticated. However, essentially, British aristocracy decided that they needed a constant diet of fatty beef that lead to the settling of an entire continent and the subsequent subjugation and genocide of an entire native population… for cows. Over 4 million buffalo were killed in a handful of years as part of this campaign. After their food source was annihilated the surviving Indians were herded onto reservations. The ranchers then sold the cattle that they were now grazing on land once populated with buffalo and natives to the government, which then gave it to the Indians on the reservations to eat. Not the good stuff, of course. Eventually, even the marginal reservations were used illegally by ranchers as pastureland for cattle. The governments of South America were even less accommodating to native populations when it came to cattle ranching, and similar cleansing campaigns were the norm.

So, that's a bit of history that is seldom told - a tale of how we got here. But where is here? What does the picture look like today? We'll cover that next time.

1 comment:

Carol Blackburn said...

Very, very interesting and, you are an excellent writer. I'll be back to assimilate more later. Still too much for this old brain all at once. Just wanted to let you know I was here.