Millions and billions of animals: scales of loss in the Anthropocene

Over a billion animals have already died in the Australian bushfires this season. And this doesn’t include bats, frogs, insects and other invertebrates. Try to fathom this number: more than a thousand; more than a million; than half a billion. A billion. More than a billion.

Timothy Morton might call mass animal death on this scale a ‘hyperobject’ – something real, huge, but beyond human comprehension. Something we can’t touch or understand, made of things we only ever see some at a time.

Scale matters to geographers. Thinking through scale helps us ‘stay with the trouble’ as Donna Haraway famously put it. We may not be able to imagine a billion animals but we can at least try to acknowledge and grasp the immensity of those losses – losses that are becoming more and more common as we enter what many fear is the Earth’s sixth great extinction event. Living in the Anthropocene means we must reacquaint ourselves with scale.

Last summer, Australians were shocked that a million fish could die at Menindee Lakes, victims of drought and mismanagement in the Murray Darling Basin. Since then, hundreds of thousands of fish have died in similar events to much less fanfare.

Farm animals have been similarly decimated by the weather conditions associated with climate change. Just last year, as few of us now remember, over 650,000 cattle – and probably many more wild animals – died in the Queensland floods. This year, mass graves have been dug for the hundreds of thousands of farm animals burnt to death in the fires who, like the Queensland cattle, were tragically fenced in.

The scale of non-human death and suffering reminds us that climate change is a multispecies affair. Climate does not only affect humans but all living things through the interconnections in which we are entangled. The impacts of climate change on current and future generations needs to be thought of in terms of kangaroos, possums, sheep, the now extinct Bramble Cay melomys, bogong moths, Christmas beetles, banksia, eucalypts, and Wollemi pine – not just humans.

However, it is not just the scale of impacts that is important here, but the scale of some of our multispecies relations that drive planetary change. Take cattle. According to Bill Gates, if cattle were a country, they would be the third biggest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the USA. I checked: he’s correct. According to 2017 figures cattle industries are responsible for more emissions than India (the world’s third biggest emitter) and more emissions than Australia, Canada, Russia, England, France and Indonesia combined.

If this is shocking to you, think about the scale of industrial agriculture. Globally, over a billion farm animals are slaughtered each week. A similar amount to all those animals that died in the Australian bushfires – every week. And that doesn’t even include fish. Animal agriculture is another unfathomable, untouchable hyperobject, and it’s growing in size all the time.

The global cattle herd is approaching 1.5 billion and is expected to reach 2.6 billion by 2025. No matter what utopian tales biotechnologists tell us, that can’t happen without a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Cows burp out methane, a potent greenhouse gas, every 90 seconds. That’s 1.4 trillion methane filled cow burps every day. A doubling of the cattle herd would take global cattle industry emissions above the USA to rival China for first place in overall emissions.

Shrinking the global herd and developing more caring relations with cattle are vital but overlooked components of tackling climate change. The weekly slaughter of a billion farm animals is directly linked to the billion animal lives lost in Australia’s fires, the billions of other lives lost to droughts, floods, and intensified cyclones, and the billions of dollars’ worth of damage done. While addressing agricultural emissions on its own is not enough, stopping suffering on the farm can slow suffering in the wild.

We should be shocked by these figures. We should never get comfortable about thousands or millions, let alone billions, of animals dying – anywhere – intentionally or otherwise. However, I worry that in this age of industrialised agriculture and mass extinction we are doing just that. Which is why we need to engage with scale. We need to keep thinking that the loss of a million animals is a terrible tragedy that must be avoided at all costs. We must also realise that the loss of a billion animals is not the same. It’s a thousand times worse.

Recognising the scale of suffering should shock us into action, but it should not make us lose sight of the individual lives involved. Each life lost is unique and tragic, each animal possessing his or her own behaviours, perspectives, lives, emotions, relations, preferences and fears.

Learning to live, mitigate and adapt in a climate changing world means thinking across scales and learning to live better with one another and with non-humans. Perhaps COVID-19 will force us to engage with scales of suffering in new ways. As we scroll through the daily tallies of the dead, we are forced to look past the figures, to imagine the human cost. We know that each death is a terrible tragedy. We know that one death is different to a hundred, which is different to a thousand, which is different to a million, which is different to a billion. We also know that society can mobilise and take action to minimise the scale of human suffering. Just as we can, and should, for our multispecies kin.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Andrew McGregor

Andrew McGregor is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University

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  1. The idea of a ‘hyperobject’ is new to be, but very useful in considering these issues. As something totally tangential, it’s also why subjects like mathematics are so important – they aid in the development of the kind of abstraction needed to even begin to grasp at the edges of the overwhelming seriousness of the issue.

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