The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals
William Morrow 2016, 292 pp., $26.99
Animal-rights activists and many others who decry the mistreatment of animals for human use—be it intensive confinement on massive factory farms or excruciating experiments in laboratories—have long been dismissed as sentimental and naive. These bleeding hearts simply do not understand the harsh reality of economic necessity. In his new book, The Humane Economy, Wayne Pacelle applies his own term to the people who level this charge against the activists: archaic. Indeed, the word serves as leitmotif in Pacelle’s book when describing virtually every traditional business practice based on animal use. Innovation and progress, he argues, are to be found not in old, industrial-scale technologies but in the emerging “humane economy”—which seeks to supplant mankind’s traditional reliance on animals for food, clothing, medical breakthroughs, chemical safety, or entertainment.
Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, the country’s largest animal-protection organization, takes pains to explain that he is no utopian; he understands market forces and economic realities. Far from being sentimental or naive, he sets out in this book to put the “economic sophistry” of defenders of the status quo to shame with his unflinching recognition of harsh realities. Part of earthly reality is change, he writes, and change can mean not just technological, but moral, progress—indeed, the two can go hand in hand.
Pacelle describes features of the emerging humane economy that wed technological progress and solutions to the problems of animal suffering. In many cases these are changes that consumers won’t even notice, much less have to make sacrifices for. Scientists, for example, are already developing the meat of the near future—whether plant-based burgers that would fool a wolf or actual meat grown in a lab from “a pinprick’s worth of muscle cells from a steer or a boar.” No more grilled tofu for compassionate consumers of the future, and the rest either won’t know, or won’t care about, the difference.
The same is true for everything from milk and cheese to leather. Technology promises to liberate industry from the practice of impregnating cows to keep them permanently lactating and taking away their calves—leaving the mothers bellowing for days—to obtain their milk. No more speed-killing at industrial-scale slaughter plants, where cows and pigs routinely miss the stun gun and are dismembered while fully conscious. No more fast-growing chickens with freakishly large breasts so heavy that the birds can barely walk, if at all. As one biofabrication scientist of the humane economy puts it: “Why grow animal products from sentient animals when you can grow them from cells?”
Sound too futuristic? As Google co-founder and billionaire Sergey Brin, who has invested in a meat-of-the-future company, believes: “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.” Pacelle, who has taste-tested various humane-economy companies’ precursors to the future meat, says the current offerings, while not dazzling, are “crossing the threshold from ‘this is ridiculous’ to ‘I can see this happening.’”
Meanwhile, scientists of the old, animal-based, economy are trying to eliminate the “stress gene” in pigs to make them less afraid of pain and death, and creating “easy care” sheep that don’t need shelter or a shepherd. So far, an easy-care flock was battered by hail and attacked by coyotes. But even if these techniques work, argues Pacelle, they won’t address the other consequences of factory farming: the enormous amounts of waste and pollution that endanger not only nature and wildlife, but also threaten the health and daily quality of life of those living near these mass-confinement operations. Furthermore, given an expanding world population, with fast-growing middle classes eating more meat, it could be only a matter of time before the water-guzzling, toxic-waste-generating business model collapses under its own weight: Already, “the world raises seventy-seven billion land animals a year for food”—nine billion of those in the United States alone. World Finance magazine recently ran a feature explaining “Why Factory Farming Is No Longer Sustainable.”
While Pacelle recognizes that in vitro meat and leather are “subversive ideas, calling for changes throughout the whole system of production,” he asks readers to consider whether these ideas will “be any less fantastic” than factory farming—with all its filth and pain and antibiotics and toxic waste—that the majority accepts uncritically today. Given that new ways of creating the same animal products are within reach, “and do[ing] it without all of the moral costs and the waste, isn’t there a moral imperative to do so?” he asks. Not only that, but once these “futuristic endeavors displace the conventional meat industry, they will become case studies in the economic concept of creative destruction—destroying the bad and creating the good in its place.”
While many are troubled by animal suffering, they are not currently prepared to take the seemingly radical step of not eating or using animals. So, guilt-free food and products are around the corner, and technology has freed consumers from the burden of moral choices? Not so fast. While animal-free food may be the norm in the future, “[t]echnology itself is morally neutral,” Pacelle reminds us, and human beings will continue to be moral agents:
It’s always been a question of human motive. A GPS tracking tool can be used to chase down whales for harpooning or to study these majestic creatures for conservation purposes. An automatic weapon can be wielded just as readily by a warden or a poacher…. A tractor-trailer can be used to transport distressed and spent dairy cows to a slaughterhouse or to transport dogs rescued from a puppy mill to safety. Technology can be the worst thing in the world for animals, or the best.
Besides, all that misery-free meat isn’t here yet, and Pacelle doesn’t provide a timeline—so what about the billions of animals who will live and die in agony between now and that happy future? Just as technology is morally neutral, so is the market: The market doesn’t necessarily drive moral progress; it can create humane alternatives, but only if enough people demand them. Pacelle is the first to recognize this reality: “We wouldn’t see the remarkable changes for animals sweeping through our society and economy without passionate, caring people driving this revolution in word and deed.”
Consumer choices are also leading to an end to animal cruelty in safety tests for determining the toxicity levels of household cleaners, hair dyes, and cosmetics. Pacelle describes how computer simulations and petri dish tests can accomplish the same work—better and faster—for which animals would suffer and die needlessly. Cancer research, too, is moving toward the light, with more and more testing organs being grown in labs, with nary an animal in sight—and with more accurate results.
There has also been innovation in areas not generally associated with animal suffering, like film-making. It’s easy to overlook just how many horses, dogs, monkeys, elephants, tigers, or lions have been made to perform for television and the silver screen—and even easier to be unaware of the abuse these animals have suffered for it. As Pacelle points out, the American Humane Association’s well-known “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie” disclaimer means, literally, that no animals were directly harmed in the presence of an Association member while the cameras were rolling. But getting animals to act in unnatural ways on cue requires much off-camera training, which often involves beatings, deprivation, and other abuses. And who ever thinks of what that horse or tiger is doing while not training or filming? Many hours are spent in stressful transportation to and from location, and languishing alone during down time.
Several new movies have dispensed entirely with such sad performances. Pacelle includes a fascinating section on how the directors for the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the 2014 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes used a combination of human actors and advanced computer generated imagery (CGI) to bring the apes to life. No beaten chimpanzees—and no animatronics or people in goofy costumes, either. The 2014 film Noah—whose plot also had environmental stewardship as a central theme—used advanced CGI to bring an abundance of animals to the ark. Still, it’s hard to see how CGI can replace all animals in all movies—such as in this year’s remake of Ben-Hur, which filmed the high-speed chariot races with real horses. Choices and decisions remain.
There are many areas in which consumers could decide to keep things as they are—horse racing, zoos, whales and dolphins in tanks, animal circus acts, puppy-mill breeding, and big game trophy hunting come to mind. Such acts will continue to require people to make moral choices.
Innovations aren’t just technological, Pacelle reminds his readers: Some consist simply of “thinking outside the box” and perhaps doing without a certain form of entertainment, such as Ringling Brothers’ decision to finally retire its circus elephants and abolish future such acts. Cirque du Soleil has been the trailblazer of animal-free entertainment under the big top, and animal-free acts are where the money is. Or take Petco’s and Petsmart’s decisions to no longer sell bred dogs and cats, and to collaborate with shelters, hosting in-store adoption events for homeless pets. The resulting customer loyalty has more than made up for the loss in sales. As Pacelle points out, this decision was a smart marketing strategy, whether the CEOs care about animal welfare or not.
The Humane Economy is centered on the U.S. economy, with some nods to pro-animal innovations in Europe. That the most note-worthy humane innovations stem from the West should not be surprising, as the modern animal-welfare movement is largely a Western development. The fact that developing countries, notably China, are gearing up to expand factory farming just as the United States and other Western countries are recognizing its cruelty and unsustainability, is a topic that deserves discussion—perhaps in another book.
Not all innovation can be left up to dedicated consumers and the free market, however. While Pacelle lambasts the “crony capitalism” of government subsidies for a host of animal-based operations, chiefly for the meat and dairy industries (your tax dollars at work), he believes that government has an important role to play in supporting the humane economy. Pacelle lauds the U.S. government for being “by far the world’s biggest financial backer of research and development,” pointing to important successes, such as the use of robots and in vitro tests to “test tens of thousands and even millions of chemicals—an entirely different order of magnitude from animal testing.” Such “high-impact work,” he adds, “demonstrates that scientists and government have a big role in the humane economy, especially when it comes to basic research and testing.”
Detailed to a fault, Pacelle leaves nothing out of his often-heartrending account of the abuses that are commonplace in the animal-driven economy. At times he seems to be reminding himself as much as the reader that the fight for a more humane alternative continues to face strong opposition not only from powerful business lobbies and entrenched bureaucrats, but also from ordinary consumers who are, as is human nature, resistant to change.
But Pacelle’s optimism and faith in the humane economy win out: “If you are part of the old, inhumane economic order,” he declares, “get a new business plan or get out of the way.”