[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming essay-review of several books on animal extinction.]
There is a great die-off under way, one that may justly be compared to the disappearance of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, or the sudden downfall of so many great mammals at the beginning of the Holocene. But how far can such a comparison really take us in assessing the present moment?
The hard data tell us that what is happening to animals right now is part of the same broad historical process that has swept up humans: we are all being absorbed into what was once comfortably called ‘civilization’, and in the process we are being homogenized, subjected to uniform standards, domesticated. A curiosity that might help to drive this home: at present, the total biomass of domestic mammals raised for food vastly exceeds the biomass of all mammalian wildlife on the planet (it also exceeds that of the human species itself). This was certainly not the case 10,000 or so years ago, at the dawn of the age of pastoralism.
It is hard to know where exactly, or even inexactly, to place the boundary between prehistory and history. Indeed, some authors argue that the very idea of prehistory is a sort of artificial buffer zone set up to protect properly human society from the infinite expanse of mere nature that preceded us. But if we must set up a boundary somewhere, it would be difficult to do better than to choose the moment when human beings began to dominate and control other large mammals for their own, human ends.
We tend, still today, to think about history as by definition human history. Yet a suitably wide-focused perspective reveals that nothing in the course of human affairs makes complete sense without some account of the non-human animal actors who show up as well: history has in fact been a question of human-animal interaction all along. Cherchez la vache is how E. E. Evans-Pritchard claimed the social life of the cattle-herding Nuer of South Sudan might best be summed up --‘look for the cow’-- but in fact one could probably, without much stretching, extend this principle to human society in general. The cattle who now outweigh us are a mirror of our political and economic crisis, just as cattle were once a mirror of the sociocosmic harmony that characterized Nuer life.
Most of history, to the extent that it is understood narrowly as a human affair, has consisted in a patchwork of interconnected, but still largely autonomous, human societies; or at least they were autonomous in their self-conception, even if in fact they were always intricately interconnected by trade, war, migration. In the 18th century, a period in Europe sometimes called the ‘Enlightenment’, thinkers such as Immanuel Kant had come to understand history precisely as the process whereby European civilization radiates out and progressively engulfs the Arctic, the Americas, and the South Sea islands: progressively bringing them, that is, into the fold of history. And however we define ‘history’, it is certain at least that these areas were enfolded into something new and unprecedented. When Kant was writing, the Inuit, for example, lived more or less independently, as hunters and foragers, in a mode of life that was directly adapted to and integrated with their environment. Today, the Inuit live under the administration of a Euro-American colonial state, and many depend for their food on transport of mass-produced, processed commodities from the urban, industrial south.
What is often overlooked in the familiar summaries of this process --overlooked, perhaps, for fear of appearing disrespectful by running indigenous peoples and wild animals together-- is that it has not been limited to a single species. Non-human animals are swept up in exactly the same frenzy: either join up with what is increasingly the only game in town, and you will grow fat, and homogeneous, and your very body will be instrumentalized for economic ends; or die out. Mammalian biodiversity is dropping, while the biomass of cattle is skyrocketing. Cattle, which is to say the bovine portion of modern global civilization, are even driving indigenous humans out of their habitats, most notably in the Amazon, either to assimilate into the urbanized proletariat, or, likewise, to die off.
We do not need to exaggerate the analogy between human cultures on the one hand and biological species on the other in order to appreciate the unitary nature of the process that is under way. History has always been the history of humans within their environments, and it is crucial to understand history in this trans-species way in order to place the recent idea of the ‘anthropocene’ in proper perspective.
It may seem a terribly presumptuous thing to propose that the principle characteristic of the present period of the Cenozoic era is the presence of human beings on the planet. After all, these are divisions in a geological time scale, and the rocks go fairly deep, and hide from even the most ill-thought-out plans of men. But in truth all the epochs and eons, going back to the boundary of the Archean 2.5 billion years ago, have been named according to their representative life forms, and no life form represents the present better than homo sapiens.
The supposed presumptuousness of acknowledging this role fails to take into account that we literally couldn’t have done it without the animals. We brought the world to its present state, but we did so by putting non-human nature to work for us. A crucial part of this has been the exploitation of, and occasional cooperation with, animals, and it is not surprising that as we appear to be approaching some sort of climactic finish, the animals that remain are now principally the ones that have been incorporated into the process in some way or other: the ones that are regulated, conserved, bred, consumed, and in so many other ways made to play a role in the global world system.