What does it mean to live a “not quite fatal” existence?

Feature image (top) courtesy of Otwarte Klatki via Flickr

By Sadie E. Hale

Rachel Carson offers us a concept for understanding the poor lives of factory-farmed chickens.

Lockdown in most European countries ended two months ago; but as I write this, cases are rising again, and the sense of impending confinement informs my thoughts. Questions of what constitutes a “good life” and, more chillingly, a “good death” have become more urgent during the pandemic. Yet there is a strong imperative to think about this question from a more-than-human perspective.

In Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson asks:

Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal? [1]

In Carson’s memorable phrase, the not quite fatal is characterized by dissatisfaction and deprivation; various pains pushing at the threshold of what is bearable. Despite the material comforts of the Global North and other wealthy regions of the world, the disease known as Covid-19 has brought populations closer to the reality of mass, unpreventable death, with a world full of invisible, not quite fatal threats.

But millions of animals have not quite fatal existences inflicted upon them by humans every day. At least 70 percent of broilers (chickens raised specifically for their meat), for instance, are estimated to be reared in an intensive manner worldwide. Even under “ordinary” circumstances without pandemics, they are living in what we might call a suspended state of death. And this matters for several reasons.

All farmed animals deserve consideration, but the broiler is a distinctive species particularly worthy of our attention. Firstly, as the creature whose meat is being consumed at a faster-growing rate than any other, and the species with the largest total biomass, possibly in the Earth’s history, I believe there is a moral imperative to understand how it lives and dies. Secondly, intensive farming is commonplace and also very cruel, with direct implications for diseases like Covid-19. Thirdly, as a species that evolved (and survives) only because of intensive human and technological intervention, the broiler chicken exists at the nexus of capitalist interests that commodify and isolate it as a product and, at the same time, within a myriad of entanglements with other beings and forces. It therefore offers unique opportunities for reflection on the spread of disease.

The dreadful details of factory farms will be known to many. Echoing Carson’s not quite fatal, philosopher Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation (1975), Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals (2011), and activist Bruce Friedrich have all made the point that factory-farmed animals are kept in conditions as close to death as possible without actually killing them. As these animals are destined for slaughter anyway, so the logic goes, making their short lives comfortable constitutes an unnecessary expense. Genetically, broilers on any given farm are very similar, so the flock has fewer defenses against disease. Partly because of this, contact with the potentially-contaminating outside world (and other animals) is deliberately cut off. Feed is dispensed automatically and laced with antibiotics as a preventative rather than a responsive measure, so that ill health is already “priced in.”

As Bruce Friedrich put it in an interview on the Ezra Klein Show podcast:

The conditions that farm animals are kept in in confinement is a breeding ground for disease. Massive numbers of them would die. But with antibiotics used prophylactically, so used on animals who are not sick, it allows them to live their conditions that would otherwise be lethal. Then you can cram 100,000 laying hens into a shed. You can cram 50,000 breeder broilers into a shed.

Not only are the links between this kind of agriculture and new diseases, especially variations of flu, well-known [2], but so are connections with antibiotic resistance, which has been called “one of the biggest threats to global health” by the World Health Organization (2018). What is important here is that billions of chickens are given little chance to carry out their natural behavior, and every impulse—to establish a pecking order, to form small social groups, to lay eggs, to roost, to brood, to fly, to eat worms and insects—is denied. Furthermore, broilers are not equipped to survive one day longer than the “optimum” slaughter age of around five weeks: selective breeding has left their bodies so deformed that “if left to live to maturity, broilers are unlikely to survive.” [3] They are bred for death.

The chicken and its entanglements

Keeping animals in such intense conditions cannot be seen in isolation; it is in fact integral to understanding the current pandemic and ecosystem entanglements more broadly. How can we bring to light the multiple entanglements a broiler is part of, despite the fact that it never sees a field or even the sun?

One way of thinking about this is conjured by Anna Tsing in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World. Tsing describes the state of alienation inherent to anything detached from its “lifeworld” under capitalism [4], understood to be the dominant global system that prioritizes financial profits over all other outcomes. In other words, sentient creatures and natural resources, like chickens or trees or the dead bodies of billions of fossilized plankton, become alienated “products” or “private assets” through a process of violent extraction from the “latent commons, human and not human” from which they grew [5]. This cordoning off might be “an emblem for commoditization more generally: the continual, never-finished cutting off of entanglement,” she writes [6].  

For a broiler chicken, this “cutting off” is twofold. As Carys E. Bennett and her colleagues outline, the chicken is a species already far removed from both its geographical and morphological heritage [7]. It has been simultaneously transplanted from its ancestral origins and is denied access to any environment that could be called natural, spending its entire life in a dim, airless barn. Descended from the red jungle fowl native to tropical southeast Asia, it has since spread across the world and become the most numerous bird species, with a standing population of more than 22 billion in 2016 [8].

In addition to this species-level severance, the “modern broiler” has a distinctive body type. As chicken consumption ballooned in western Europe and North America in the 1950s, aggressive selective breeding methods to improve output, efficiency, and the proportion of breast meat have fundamentally altered its physical appearance and biology. Indeed, in Eating Animals, Safran Foer describes farmers in the United States who mourn the loss of “heritage breeds” with distinctive characteristics [9]. Domesticated chickens in the twenty-first century instead suffer from unnaturally wide bodies and respiratory problems due to their confinement in a small space with air reeking of ammonia. They are kept in unstimulating, uncomfortable conditions devoid of opportunities for play or movement to promote rapid growth; the average chicken is now four to five times bigger than its ancestor of just 60 years ago [10].

Returning to Tsing, broilers can be read as alienated products of industrial capitalism, wrenched from their common origins and, nowadays, kept apart from any natural system—social or organic—that might bring them pleasure, and in which they would form a part of “multispecies entanglements” with worms, insects, natural predators, and other birds. Nonetheless, entanglement does exist—with other chickens, with technology, with human food supply chains, and with deadly pathogens. Removing something from its commons is always a risk, even if that risk is outsourced to the environment at large.

Our bodies are not boundaries

It has long been known that viruses can mutate and make a “species jump,” for example from bats to pangolins to humans, in a process known as zoonosis, as is suspected in the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The porousness of human skin, eyes, and orifices, as well as our undeniable entanglement with (and reliance upon) other species, is laid bare in the face of an infectious disease outbreak. As Rachel Carson implored us to understand, “our bodies are not boundaries.”

The spillover of diseases is entirely predictable in factory farms as well as other contexts where animals are kept unnaturally close together in confined spaces, such as “wet markets.” Like the avian and swine flu outbreaks before it, the jump of Covid-19 from animal to human “hosts” was made more likely by these practices. Ordinarily, much of this process is hidden, as is the shared biology that makes many mammals and birds susceptible to the same diseases. Yet as viral outbreaks have shown, broilers are not sterile commodities, and animal bodies threaten us precisely because their immune systems are similar (enough) to ours. We would do well to make kin with chickens, pigs, and pangolins [11].

Conclusions: You are what you eat

Humans have created a Frankenstein’s monster in which broiler chickens are perversely, tragically, dependent on humans for their survival, even as their existence is meted out to five weeks only for the purpose of killing them. Thinking about chickens as already dead products detached from diverse lifeworlds is not an unfortunate side-effect: it is essential to intensive farming. Yet if we are eating carcasses that were never truly alive, at least not in a sense humans would find meaningful, then is it not reasonable that some of that death—that disease—would enter into our bodies, too?

Conditions of confinement have brought a new cognizance with death. As Covid-19 has shown, our bodies cannot always protect us. In the porousness of cell membranes, human skin, and human psychology, we see the impact of one decision, one cough, one prejudice. Our choices matter. Cheap chicken comes at a massive cost—a cost that is mostly hidden, until something like the pandemic confronts us. If we continue to treat chickens as just another “consumer good,” and subsidized meat consumption as an ever-expanding right, then the membranes between health and disease, humans and animals, will become ever more permeable. Renewed knowledge of the artificiality and cruelty that characterizes the lives of industrially-farmed animals should represent an opportunity to re-establish our common biology—and interests—with them.

Photograph courtesy of the author

Lockdown may have taught some of us to appreciate the freedoms we are fortunate enough to have. The striking withdrawal of individual freedoms to move, socialize, and entertain ourselves cracks open the darkened window into the not quite fatal lifeworlds of the animals we exploit. As Carson wrote in 1962, no one would choose that diminished, terror-filled world for themselves. And yet, it is a world that humans inflict upon billions of chickens and other animals across the planet on a daily basis. There is no “good life” or “good death” for them.

[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962) Narrated by Kaiulani Lee (Audible, 2007).

[2] Michael Greger, Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching (New York: Lantern Books, 2006).

[3] Carys E. Bennett et al., “The Broiler Chicken as a Signal of a Human Reconfigured Biosphere,” Royal Society Open Science 5, no. 12 (2018): 7.

[4] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015): 271.

[5] Tsing, The Mushroom at the End, 271.

[6] Tsing, The Mushroom at the End, 271.

[7] Bennett, The Broiler Chicken as a Signal of, 3.

[8] Bennett, The Broiler Chicken as a Signal of, 8.

[9] Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (Penguin, 2011).

[10] Foer, Eating Animals, 7.

[11] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

Further Reading

Jørgensen, Dolly. Recovering Lost Species In The Modern Age: Histories Of Longing And Belonging. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019.

McKenna, Maryn. “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.” National Geographic, 18 August, 2017.

Mukherjee, Jenia and Amrita Sen. “Is Covid-19 A “Capitalocene” Challenge?Seeingthewoods.org, 2020.

Olson, Eric R. “#3 Is Big Chicken A Symbol Of The Anthropocene?Sciencentric Podcast, 2018.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York: HarperCollins, 1975.

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