Livestock Research for Rural Development 11 (3) 1999

Citation of this paper

Animals and values in society

John Hodges

Lofererfeld 16, A-5730 Mittersill, Austria

[Reprinted from the Editorial of the Newsletter of the European Association of Animal Production, April 1999, presented originally at the International Congress on "Regujlatikon of A nimal Productikon in Europe" held by Kuratorium für Technik und  Bauwesen in der Landswirtschaft (KTBL) in Wiesbaden, Germany 9-12 May 1999 ]


This paper examines the role that animals have played in the development of civilization, enabling  humanity steadily to rise from primitive conditions to life of higher quality. Large domestic animals made possible the move from hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation to more settled life styles.

It is argued that we have lost touch with the values that our ancestors learned from their animals. Under the influence of science and market economy pressures, values in Western society have lost the holistic approach. It is time to look back to our history and give more respect to the lessons from animals that were key guides to our ancestors on the meaning of wholeness and sustainability.

Wholeness and Sustainability are not negative restrictions on the good life. They are Quality of Life experiences not provided by the search for endless and greater material prosperity. Current values in Western society are divorced from real and long-term meaning and, pursued in singleness of mind, are unable alone to deliver Quality Life. Our present route is not only inequitable; it lacks quality; and it is unsustainable. We must change - or unpleasant change will be forced upon us and our children. We truly miss the animals and the lessons our ancestors learned from them.

Key words: Animals, society, sustainability, equity

Domestic animals and human progress

The history of civilization is closely associated with domestic animals. In the early days of human communities, around 10-12,000 years ago, a few large mammalian and bird species were domesticated which have enabled humanity steadily to rise from primitive conditions to life of higher quality. Large domestic animals made possible the move from hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation to more settled life styles.

How have domestic animals played such a key part in the development of human community? What are the special contributions of animals to human well-being? Animals release people from the hard labour of heavy field work; animals make possible the transport of natural resources and farm products to other communities for barter or sale; animals provide animal fat and protein for improved nutrition; animal milk enables infants to survive and grow when quantities of human milk are insufficient; animals provide leather, wool and horn for clothing and shelter; animal fat is used for lighting; dried manure from large animals is fuel for cooking and heating; animal power is used for extracting water from the ground and from rivers for domestic use and for irrigation; animals contribute to improved and integrated farming systems on cropped land; ruminant animals harvest natural vegetation that would otherwise not enter the human food chain; throughout human history, riding animals was the fastest way to travel over land until the invention of the railway in 1829 - only 170 years ago. The domestication of animals was the first step to improve the quality of life through science and technology.

Today the majority of people in the world still depend upon animals for these services and, without them life, even in the simplest societies, would disintegrate again into the slavery of food production. The major advances in European civilization leading to trade, industrialization, the application of science and the development of market economy capitalism were possible because animals had first freed a proportion of the population from the daily routine of food production. Following further applications of science and technology throughout Europe and North America over the last 150 years, the majority of people have been set free from work on the land, leaving only 5-10% to farm. This fact can be traced back to the first step of domesticating animals. Freed from the necessity for each family to produce its own food, advanced societies have become immensely creative and modern life has become utterly different. Today, one has only to visit rural areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America to see the contrast with the West and the significant contribution of domestic animals. Closer to home, east of the heart of Europe, in many of the 14 new States of the former Soviet Union where the infrastructures of society have collapsed, one can also see the vital role of domestic animals permitting rural people to survive and to maintain human dignity in the current conditions of great poverty.

Influence of domestic animals on human values

For thousands of years everyone was in touch daily with domestic animals. Since animals are a resource of such great value, it is easy to understand why people have held them in high esteem and have sometimes regarded them as sacred. People live in close contact with their animals. Usually each family has a few. Owners give animals food and care to ensure their health, longevity, ability to serve and to reproduce. Their value is recognized at special celebrations including birth, marriage and death. Animals are wealth and are used both for savings and as currency. The status of a family or community leader is often recorded by numbers of livestock owned. In some parts of Africa today, a bride is given in return for livestock. In India, Hinduism, the major national religion, holds the cow in special honour and sees a link between the life of domestic cattle and human life. In Moslem society, sheep and goats are vital for religious obligations. In early Jewish periods, before AD 70 when Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, animal sacrifices were a central part of individual and community worship. Domestic animals have greatly influenced community rituals and values in most early societies.

We need to distinguish traditions and rituals of life from values. Traditions and rituals are often beautiful and they mark for us the pattern of life, but they are rarely essential and we have dropped many of them from life in the West. In contrast, community and public values in a society, as the name implies, are extremely important. Every society has values. Values determine the direction a society takes. Values enable a society to survive and advance - or they cause its decline. Values lie at the heart of a society and determine the goals people will work to achieve. Values direct activities. Values allocate resources in a society and thereby shape its nature.

The values of Western society today are vastly different from those of Europe centuries ago. Values today are focused upon material prosperity, upon economic growth, upon GNP and upon the rights of the individual to do what he or she prefers with the rewards of labour and investment. In a democracy, society's values shape government policy and legislation. Many thoughtful people today are deeply concerned that our current, narrowly focused values in Europe do not provide sufficient care for the environment and for animals and further that they define Quality of Life solely in material terms for immediate consumption.

What has this to do with domestic animals? In my view, the historic inter-relationship of animals and people deeply influenced the way people see life-giving society its world-view. The new Western values and world-view have come about partly because of the lack of daily contact with animals and the natural environment. In rural society domestic animals provide the most personal and intimate connection people have with nature, due partly to the fact that humans and animals live and work together in daily contact. The fact that a person owns individual animals leads to a personal commitment to care for them. When people accompany cattle, sheep or goats into the natural environment for grazing they realize that animals and human communities are parts of the whole natural order. People without animals are lost in slavery. Domestic animals need society for protection. Neither can live in a broken environment. Excessive use of one component, for example over-grazing leading to depleted vegetation, places human life and animals at risk. We are enough like animals to be kept humble; we are enough different from animals to be aware of our unique responsibility as "husbandman" of the natural world.

Thus, the values of simpler societies for thousands of years were based upon a holistic view of life. Community embraced all individuals and every-one knew that each component of life is integrated and that life functions as a whole, like an organism with inter-dependent parts which must be sustained for life to continue. In the West we have lost this world view. We discovered that by focussing upon one component we can make it more productive, but in our enthusiasm we forget the balance of the whole. It is the danger of reductionism. In earlier societies, the intimate dependence upon domestic animals gave more appreciation of the whole environment and helped society to realize that life is entwined with all the natural resources of the world. Although it is not so self-evident, the West today is still dependent upon natural resources. One cannot take endless quantities of everything without upsetting the balance and eventually precipitating a collapse that will reduce quality of life. The earth is in dynamic equilibrium. In tribes owning large herds of cattle, sheep or goats the dilemma and tension are well known. The attractions of larger numbers of animals to ensure that some survive periods of drought have to be balanced against overgrazing and poorer quality animals. Those who prefer more and more animals nearly always lose. We, in the West, need to ponder the deeper implications of the lost relationship of Western civilization with the environment, with domestic animals, with each other in our communities and with other societies on earth. 1 believe better understanding of these relationships is a key to our future options. Thinking more about where we have come from will help us to draw up a balance sheet of what the West has gained, what we are in danger of losing, and where we are going.

Western society today

In the very, very recent past in the West, we have built a new type of urban lifestyle from which we physically exclude animals. In these new societies, we limit our contact with-animals to buying animal products in shops and supermarkets where there is virtually no evidence of the animal itself. The proportion of the European Union population now involved in food production has been reduced overall to less than ten per cent; and, with the option of importing food, sometimes only three per cent of the national population produces food.

This revolution has been brought about by the replacement of animals in modern Western society. We use fossil and nuclear fuels and hydro-electricity instead of animal power for farm work, general transport, cooking, light and heat; clothing of tropical plant or synthetic origin instead of local animal products; inorganic fertilizers on farms instead of animal manure; animal protein but not animal fat. International trade and refrigeration of food have released us from the need to keep animals nearby. We now want animals only for food and, as a by-product, for leather and wool. The increasing demand for sport and companion animals does not replace the older association as we bring these pets into our highly advanced isolation.

The West has experienced a revolution in the use of domestic animals. As little as two hundred years ago everyone in town and country was in personal and daily touch with domestic animals. During my childhood in the UK horses were working everyday on all the roads in town and country. Today people in Western civilization live in comfort unprecedented historically, without contact with domestic animals. Animals have disappeared from the streets, from the town dairies which used to provide milk to urban populations, families no longer keep a pig or chickens, local abattoirs have been closed. On a trip through the country, the tourist sees only cows and sheep in the distance and many of these are hidden in confinement along with pigs and poultry. In the West now we see animals solely as an economic resource, hidden away in remote locations with the objective of serving the market economy with animal products of high hygienic and eating quality. The market is uninterested in the other "old-fashioned" contributions of animals to human life. Our isolation from the environment that supports us is evident when many urban dwellers are timid in the presence of domestic animals and when manure, animal smells and animal noises seem strange and embarrassing. Yet it is our isolation today that produces a truly negative result when tens of thousands of animals in one unit pollute the environment and harm health.


Although we may feel that our Western society is more advanced and economically superior to that available to people in less developed societies, in truth we are the sector of humanity that is now isolated and insulated from many of the real issues which lie at the heart of human survival. Our urban lifestyle is out of touch with the natural cycles of the seasons and the environment of the earth. Yet we need the natural resources of the world as much as ever for long-term survival. We live in a sort of plastic bubble where everything in life is controlled and the rhythms and uncertainties of nature have largely been tamed. People in developed countries, comprise about 20% of the world population and consume 80% of world production of milk and dairy products and 66% of world beef production. These figures for animal products indicate our levels of consumption of most natural resources including energy, food and water. If we continue to inflate the bubble with gross over-consumption it will burst. Then we shall lose our high cost, isolated materialistic life and we shall find the natural environment deeply and permanently damaged - unsustainable. People who venture outside the bubble, physically or mentally, can already see this. The majority living only inside often do not want to know how dependent they are upon the continuance of a healthy environment outside. The earth systems are robust and can absorb much change; but massive over-use, pollution and abuse on an ever-increasing scale can only lead to long-term breakdown that is irreversible on our time-scale.

The application of science through market economy capitalism has changed farming from a way of life into a business for food and fibre production. The model of intensification and specialist large-scale animal production is being applied to the whole of life and currently enables Europe, and the West as a whole, to enjoy a much higher quality of material prosperity than the majority of other people in the world. In the West, society's values and political policy now define the good life as increasing GNP and material prosperity. We have lost touch with the lessons of living with animals; namely that Quality of Life is not a solitary experience but flows into and from inter-dependence and community; and that sustainability must be based upon cycles involving preparation, harvest and post-harvest recovery. We cannot expect to milk a cow every day of her life from birth to death. The nature of things on this planet earth demands that we invest not only hard work and skills but also time, patience and some restraint to gain the reward. The penetrating statement of Jesus 2000 years ago is still as relevant: "Man cannot live by bread alone".

Change in values in Europe

Finally, I briefly review how rapidly values in Europe have changed. As students and young professional animal scientists after the second World War many of my colleagues and I were challenged by the shortage of food. Food rationing in the UK did not end until 1954, nine years after the end of hostilities. We served the farmer, helping him use better science and technology. Through him we served the consumer with cheaper food. The practice of farming was called "husbandry". The farmer was a "husbandman", who cared for his animals, crops, land and water resources. He was the steward of the natural environment and resources temporarily in his care, using sustainable production methods. A good farmer produced quality if simple but varied and wholesome food, conserved the natural resources, with his family lived a satisfying life in rural surroundings and left his farm in better shape both physically and economically for his children.

Since the 1960s the change in values has accelerated. Science has succeeded. Europe produces too much food. All focus is upon reducing unit costs. The farmer is now a business person "husbanding" his or her financial resources. Universities have renamed Animal Husbandry as Animal Science. Science now serves business and business serves the market. Consumers, influenced by advertising, are kings and queens in Europe today.

Of course it is wonderful that there are no longer hungry people in Europe. Here in the West we are light years away from hunger while there are nearly one billion people suffering from under nourishment, malnutrition or starvation. The choices of animal products in our supermarkets are lavish beyond discretion and discernment. They are beyond the imagination of our grandmothers. More important they are beyond the reach of 80% of the world who do not live in the West. The gap is increasing each year.

The real cost

We pay a price. Actually, it will largely be paid by future generations, which makes it less threatening to us. Today our focus is upon profit, reduced unit costs, the desire to make more money this year than last and the supremacy of capital and its cost. All these pressures urge upon the livestock producer the need to succeed as a business person and to neglect the long-standing practices of sustainable production, care of animals and good husbandry of the environment. New scientific techniques and production methods for animals now regularly challenge the sustainability of the environment, put the animal in unnatural conditions, direct its hormonal system into new patterns, modify its genetic constitution and view the animal solely as a resource to be exploited for immediate profit and lower prices. Slowly, under pressure and with reluctance, some governments are legislating minimally against the most extreme practices in the interests of animal welfare and of the environment. Most politicians resist such legislation because of opposition from business and votes from a society largely ignorant and uninterested in these issues.

A life agenda driven only by values that maximize the material prosperity of the individual is a reductionist view. It takes no account of the larger whole. Yet, the history of human civilization is the story of community slowly built up by hard work and wisdom but periodically destroyed by narrow agendas and foolishness. Living as individuals alone in nature was a dangerous and precarious life style.

Civilizations progressed when quality of human life was defined to include transcendence as well as material prosperity. Civilizations declined when a material agenda and individual greed squeezed out higher values. Europe has a heritage which upgraded society over many centuries and defined quality of life in multiple dimensions. But, to our loss, we are neglecting our heritage and increasingly have tunnel vision for immediate and personal material prosperity.

We have lost touch with the values that our ancestors learned from their animals. They knew that if you want your cow to have a calf and to produce milk next year, you cannot take all the resources of the cow this year. Resources need husbanding if they are to produce sustainably in perpetuity. Natural capital can be squandered.

Under the influence of science and market economy pressures, values in Western society have lost the holistic approach. It seems totally irrelevant to the shopper buying animal products to suggest that this way of life is harming the environment. Like all societies, we are driven by our values, which are leading us from legitimate self-interest to greed. Greed always destroys and produces inequity. It is time to look back to our history and give more respect to the lessons from animals that were key guides to our ancestors on the meaning of wholeness and sustainability.

I am not advocating a return to animal power and primitive lifestyles. The world needs good science and responsible business to create wealth to raise the quality of life throughout our exploding world population. Rather, I am calling for higher values in Western society in the business of creating and using the new wealth. Better values are characterized by community which means sharing and interdependence; by genuine self-interest in quality of life for all people instead of individual greed; and by patiently working with nature in the interests of sustainable use.

We are foolish to think that Wholeness and Sustainability are negative restrictions on the good life. Wholeness and Sustainability are Quality of Life experiences not provided by the search for endless and greater material prosperity. Our current values in Western society are divorced from real and long-term meaning and, pursued in singleness of mind, are unable alone to deliver Quality Life. Our present route is not only inequitable; it lacks quality; and it is unsustainable. We must change - or unpleasant change will be forced upon us and our children. We truly miss the animals and the lessons our ancestors learned from them.


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