Wednesday, December 28, 2022

3539. Growing Up on a Farm Butchering Farm Animals

By Sarah Smarsh, The New York Times, December 21, 2022

Cold days are better for killing animals. Warmer months demand time in the wheat fields. Plus, 

heat and sun quickly turn meat rancid.

On my family’s farm in rural Kansas, we did our butchering in the fall and winter, when the work drew no flies.

On gray afternoons, I would get home from school — after an hourlong bus ride on muddy roads — to see a large, pink carcass hanging near the cinder block farmhouse where I lived with my grandparents.

Grandpa would have already shot a bullet through the heifer’s brain, drained her blood, cut off her feet with a handsaw and begun to peel away her skin. Then, having hooked two of her legs with a steel spreader connected to the long arm of our tractor, he would have used hydraulic controls to lift the heavy creature — who, not two hours prior, grazed in the pasture and huddled against the north wind with her family — and sliced her underbelly from anus to neck.

We would spend the evening in the butchering shed — a small barn next to the house with a garage door, a bloodstained concrete floor and a rosebush growing up its south wall. Grandpa did the carving. Grandma stood at the grinder making hamburger. My job was to weigh the meat on a metal scale, wrap it in butcher paper and label it with a marker. More often than not, friends and family pitched in and left with steaks for their deep freezers. Grandpa saved the heart and liver, which he pickled in a jar in our icebox.

This was an average day for me, growing up. During those formative years, witnessing death did not desensitize me to the plight of our fellow animals. Rather, life on the farm in general strengthened my reverence for the more-than-human world, which so plainly dictated our lives. While we opened and closed the gates that trapped farm animals, we were often at their mercy.

On winter mornings when we would have preferred a warm bed, we crouched in the snow and pulled a breech calf into the world before sunrise. We were aware each day, when we entered the pasture to check the water in the stock tank, that even the smallest of the Charolais cattle could beat us in a fight. We had friends who had been trampled or gored by bulls, and Grandpa told the story of an area farmer who, years before, slipped on a patch of ice while inside one of his pens, hit his head and was eaten by hogs.

On Sundays at the little Catholic church down the dirt road from our house, we stared up at Jesus’ bleeding, hanging body and listened to the sermons about man’s dominion over the earth. But in our bones we knew it was the other way around.

Our humility was not just the result of doing hard, undervalued work. It was also the result of being undervalued people.

Even as a child, I understood that families like mine, poor rural farmers, were low in the pecking order. Television shows and movies portrayed us as buffoons and hicks, always the butt of the joke. Our presumed incivility, and even monstrousness, was suggested in conversations, often to laughter, by humming the banjo tune from the 1972 film “Deliverance,” present in many VHS collections during my 1980s childhood. “Squeal like a pig,” some jokers continued — a reference to that film’s infamous rape scene.

We didn’t need those cues to know that society held us in low esteem, though. All we had to do was look at our bank accounts.

We worked the land and killed animals so that others would eat, so that we would afford propane for the winter, and so that the rich, rigged industry we supplied grain to would become a little richer.

The profound humility instilled in me by my upbringing left no room in my worldview for exceptionalism of any sort. It also left me troubled by the ways that most humans calculate the value of things — animals, plants, land, water, resources, even other people — according to hierarchies that suit their own interests.

More than once, while wrapping meat, I sliced my finger on the sharp edge of the butcher paper. There was nothing special about my blood. It was red just like the pigs’ and the cows’. It was clear to me that there was nothing special about me or my family, either, doing that most essential work of feeding others. Nothing special but also nothing lesser.

From there, near the bottom of the proverbial social ladder — where women drove tractors and people of all races lived in single-wide trailers — I began to see through the many false narratives of supremacy that govern our society. That men are better than women. That white people are better than everyone else. That the rich are better than the poor. Even, yes, that human beings are better than animals.

The experiences of my early life left me forever in mind of the animals that society consumes and the workers who spend their lives among them. It also left me rageful toward industries that devalue both. In some ways, my professional mission to champion the exploited and expose the powerful — as a journalist, an author and an advocate for social justice — can be traced back to lessons I learned on the farm.

Unfortunately, farms like ours — and the ancient, intimate tradition of husbandry into which I was born — have been disappearing for decades, forced out of business by policies that favor large industrial operations.

Today an estimated 99 percent of the meat in the United States comes from factory farms, barbaric places that leverage the selfish, amoral paradigm of human supremacy for immense capitalist gain. Industrialized agriculture has made meat, eggs, milk, leather, cheese, wool and other animal goods readily, cheaply available to the modern consumer but at a terrible cost — both to the animals, who endure savage cruelty, and to the low-wage laborers, many of whom are immigrants of color, who suffer injuries to body and spirit.

This likely isn’t news to you. The details of this dark business, while partly obscured by ag-gag laws, are widely documented, yet they remain underdiscussed. The torturous treatment of animals at the hands of multibillion-dollar monopolies is among the greatest horrors being committed on this planet.

In comparison, our small farm was as humane as any enterprise raising animals for slaughter might be. And while we lived in poverty, according to many definitions, it was a fortune and privilege to grow up with a big garden, with cows and pigs and chickens.

Subsistence through modest land ownership historically has been refused to people of color, stolen from Indigenous peoples and made economically unfeasible for poor folks of all stripes, who set off for cities in order to survive.

Whereas most Americans today have no direct contact with the animals they eat, I carried their manure on my boots. Thus, long before I learned about the industry that delivers chicken tenders and bacon strips to the masses, I had an aversion to factory-farmed products. The beef was too gray. The chicken smelled wrong. The egg yolks were too pale.

Ironically, our culture associates eco-consciousness with higher socioeconomic status, as though greater wealth denotes greater character. But in my experience, environmental impacts are most keenly felt and understood by the poor and unheard.

In fact, as I have climbed out of poverty and into a class of highly educated, financially comfortable liberals, I have found that for all their supposed interest in justice and claims of being on the right side of history, most of my peers give little thought to animal suffering in their eating decisions.

Of course, wealth and class play a role in what food and products you can afford. Socioeconomic barriers to values-based eating choices undeniably exist, particularly in urban areas cut off from healthy food options. But one doesn’t have to afford expensive grass-finished beef or frozen patties engineered from pea protein to make effective food decisions, and white male chief executives didn’t invent plant-based living. Bougie restaurants serving charcuterie boards sure as hell didn’t invent local venison salami, which we made from the deer we hunted.

To be certain, many middle-class and affluent consumers far removed from agricultural work have learned about the problems of factory farming, including its contribution to climate change, and altered their habits. I applaud their important efforts. For some people, though, working near the bottom of the class ladder provides not just knowledge but a knowing, and that knowing deserves respect.

As a young adult, I lived in poverty and faced food insecurity. These conditions limited my choices, but they did not negate my affection for the earth. I grew up driving a farm truck with wheat kernels on the floor of the cab and an “Eat beef” license plate on the front bumper. I knew people maimed by farm machinery and disabled by agricultural chemicals. Regarding the conditions of farm animals and farmworkers, I had no option but to understand.

For me, there is no taste of meat without bodily memory — the heat of a newborn calf in my cold arms, the smell of the mother’s cascading excrement, the danger of her heavy hooves. I could see the cows on our farm from my upstairs bedroom window and the pigs and chickens from our front door.

My early proximity to animals did not cause my empathy for them, I suspect, so much as it starkly revealed it. To be sure, similar experiences did not make animal rights activists out of most of the people in my farming community. But in general, I observed more environmentally conscious behaviors among the rural working poor than in other socioeconomic spaces I’ve inhabited.

Maybe it was because minimizing waste and reusing and repairing old things were economic necessities. Or perhaps it was because carbon-spewing air travel was an unaffordable luxury. Or maybe it was because they had no choice but to look into a cow’s eyes before they killed her.

I do not wish to valorize the working class or demonize those who are better off. Both groups vote in droves for politicians who cater to massive agricultural corporations, the fossil fuel lobby and other powerful entities that destroy our planet.

But guilt for crimes committed against other species and against the earth is not equally shared. Wealthy corporations and the governments beholden to them, choosing profit over sustainability and moral decency, created and fortified the food systems with which the average individual has little choice but to engage.

Navigating those systems today, while living again in rural Kansas after years in cities, I now eat eggs from my neighbor’s hens and, about once a month, chicken, beef or bison raised and slaughtered down the road. At other times, living without access to such food or means to afford it, I went without eating animal products for years at a time. I haven’t consumed dairy in more than a decade, but for those who do, the particular devastation of family dairies makes local milk and cheese much harder to come by.

Still, I am part of the problem. I ate fast-food hamburgers well into my 20s, and my home almost certainly contains products that were tested on animals. My cat eats canned meat from factory farm byproducts, and I’m wearing mass-produced leather sneakers as I type this.

I am sympathetic to the argument that any consumption of animal products is unethical and unnecessary. Realistically, however, the urgent problem for our time is not whether they will be consumed but how.

While it is important that consumers from all socioeconomic backgrounds care about the earth and its creatures, ultimately only policy has the power to restrain the agriculture industry’s worst abuses. I am heartened by long-term legal efforts to extend personhood to other animal species and, more immediately, by the New Jersey senator and famous vegan Cory Booker’s new legislation to make slaughterhouse practices more humane. In a more perfect world, future farm bills would somehow rebuild the nearly four million small farms lost to urbanization and industrialization since the 1930s, allowing future generations the closeness to animals that engenders awareness.

My family, squeezed out like so many others, had to sell our fifth-generation farm more than 20 years ago. I was a first-generation college student by then, working toward a more comfortable life.

No education, however, would surpass the one I received in the butchering shed, where I held a bleeding muscle with my bare hands and placed it on the scale. Today, when I look at that scale — now an antique on display in my kitchen — I give thanks for those who worked and those who died so that I may eat.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

3538. The Anthropocene: For Planet Earth, This Is the Start of a New Age

By Raymond Zanog, The New York Times, December 17, 2022

The official timeline of Earth’s history — from the oldest rocks to the‌ dinosaurs to the rise of primates, from the Paleozoic to the Jurassic and all points before and since — could soon include the age of nuclear weapons, human-caused climate change and the proliferation of plastics, garbage and concrete across the planet.

In short, the present.

Ten thousand years after our species began forming primitive agrarian societies, a panel of scientists on Saturday took a big step toward declaring a new interval of geologic time: the Anthropocene, the age of humans.

Our current geologic epoch, the Holocene, began 11,700 years ago with the end of the last big ice age. The panel’s roughly three dozen scholars appear close to recommending that, actually, we have spent the past few decades in a brand-new time unit, one characterized by human-induced, planetary-scale changes that are unfinished but very much underway.

“If you were around in 1920, your attitude would have been, ‘Nature’s too big for humans to influence,’” said Colin N. Waters, a geologist and chair of the Anthropocene Working Group, the panel that has been deliberating on the issue since 2009. The past century has upended that thinking, Dr. Waters said. “It’s been a shock event, a bit like an asteroid hitting the planet." 

I teach the history of science — you know, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo,” said Francine McCarthy, an earth scientist at Brock University in Canada and member of the working group. “We’re actually doing it,” she said. “We’re living the history of science." 

Still, the knives are out for the Anthropocene, even though, or maybe because, we all have such firsthand familiarity with it.

Stanley C. Finney, the secretary general of the International Union of Geological Sciences, fears the Anthropocene has become a way for geologists to make a “political statement.”

Within the vast expanse of geologic time, he notes, the Anthropocene would be a blip of a blip of a blip. Other geologic time units are useful because they orient scientists in stretches of deep time that left no written records and sparse scientific observations. The Anthropocene, by contrast, would be a time in Earth’s history that humans have already been documenting extensively.

“For the human transformation, we don’t need those terminologies — we have exact years,” said Dr. Finney, whose committee would be the last to vote on the working group’s proposal if it gets that far.

Martin J. Head, a working group member and earth scientist at Brock University, argues declining to recognize the Anthropocene would have political reverberations, too.

“People would say, ‘Well, does that then mean the geological community is denying that we have changed the planet drastically?’” he said. “We would have to justify our decision either way.”

Philip L. Gibbard, a geologist at the University of Cambridge, is secretary general of another of the committees that will vote on the working group’s proposal. He has serious concerns about how the proposal is shaping up, concerns he believes the wider geological community shares. Like the zoologists who regulate the names of animal species or the astronomers who decide what counts as a planet, geology’s timekeepers work conservatively, by design. They set classifications that will be reflected in academic studies, museums and textbooks for generations to come.

“Everybody picks on the Anthropocene Working Group because they’ve taken so long,” said Lucy E. Edwards, a retired scientist with the United States Geological Survey. “In geologic time, this isn’t long.”

The geologic time scale divides Earth’s 4.6 billion-year story into grandly named chapters. Like nesting dolls, the chapters contain sub-chapters, which themselves contain sub-sub-chapters. From largest to smallest, the chapters are called eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages.

Right now, according to the current timeline, we are in — deep breath — the Meghalayan Age of the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon, and have been for 4,200 years.

Drawing lines in Earth time has never been easy. The rock record is full of gaps, “a jigsaw puzzle with many of the parts missing,” as Dr. Gibbard puts it. And most global-scale changes happen gradually, making it tricky to pinpoint when one chapter ended and the next one began. There haven’t been many moments when the entire planet changed at once.

“If a meteor hits the Yucat√°n Peninsula, that’s a pretty good marker,” Dr. Edwards said. “But other than that, there’s practically nothing out there in the geologic world that’s the best line." 

The early Cambrian Period, around 540 million years ago, saw Earth explode with an astonishing diversity of animal life, but its precise starting point has been contested for decades. A long controversy led to the redrawing of our current geologic period, the Quaternary, in 2009.

“It’s a messy and disputatious business,” said Jan A. Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester. “And of course, the Anthropocene brings a whole new range of dimensions to the messiness and disputatiousness.”

Humanity’s Fingerprint

It took a decade of debate — in emails, academic articles and meetings in London, Berlin, Oslo and beyond — for the Anthropocene Working Group to nail down a key aspect of its proposal.

In a 29-to-4 vote in 2019, the group agreed to recommend that the Anthropocene began in the mid-20th century. That’s when human populations, economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions began skyrocketing worldwide, leaving indelible traces: plutonium isotopes from nuclear explosions, nitrogen from fertilizers, ash from power plants.

The Anthropocene, like nearly all other geologic time intervals, needs to be defined by a specific physical site, known as a “golden spike,” where the rock record clearly sets it off from the interval before it.

After a yearslong hunt, the working group on Saturday finished voting on nine candidate sites for the Anthropocene. They represent the range of environments into which human effects are etched: a peat bog in Poland, the ice of the Antarctic Peninsula, a bay in Japan, a coral reef off the Louisiana coast.

One site — Crawford Lake in Ontario, Canada — is small enough to walk around in 10 minutes. But it is so deep that the bottom layer of water rarely mixes with the upper layers. Whatever sinks to the floor remains undisturbed, gradually accumulating into a tree-ring-like record of geochemical change.

The working group’s members also voted this month on what rank the Anthropocene should have in the timeline: an epoch, an age of the Holocene, or something else.

The group isn’t disclosing the results of these or the other votes to be held in the coming months until they are all complete and it has finalized its proposal for the next level of timekeepers to ponder. It is then that a far more contentious debate about the Anthropocene could begin.

Many scholars still aren’t sure the mid-20th century cutoff makes sense. It is awkwardly recent, especially for archaeologists and anthropologists who would have to start referring to World War II artifacts as “pre-Anthropocene.”

And using nuclear bombs to mark a geologic interval strikes some scientists as abhorrent, or at least beside the point. Radionuclides are a convenient global marker, but they say nothing about climate change or other human effects, said Erle C. Ellis, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Using the Industrial Revolution might help. But that definition would still leave out millenniums of planet-warping changes from farming and deforestation.

Canonizing the Anthropocene is a call to attention, said Naomi Oreskes, a member of the working group. For geology, but also the wider world.

“I was raised in a generation where we were taught that geology ended when people showed up,” said Dr. Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard. The Anthropocene announces that “actually, the human impact is part of geology as a science,” she said. It demands we recognize that our influence on the planet is more than surface level.

But Dr. Gibbard of Cambridge fears that, by trying to add the Anthropocene to the geologic time scale, the working group might actually be diminishing the concept’s significance. The timeline’s strict rules force the group to impose a single starting point on a sprawling story, one that has unspooled over different times in different places.

He and others argue the Anthropocene deserves a looser geologic label: an event. Events don’t appear on the timeline; no bureaucracy of scientists regulates them. But they have been transformative for the planet.

The filling of Earth’s skies with oxygen, roughly 2.1 to 2.4 billion years ago — geologists call that the Great Oxidation Event. Mass extinctions are events, as is the burst of diversity in marine life 460 to 485 million years ago.

The term Anthropocene is already in such wide use by researchers across scientific disciplines that geologists shouldn’t force it into too narrow a definition, said Emlyn Koster, a geologist and former director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

“I always saw it not as an internal geological undertaking,” he said of the Anthropocene panel’s work, “but rather one that could be greatly beneficial to the world at large.”




7.7 billion people




How Humans Took Over the Planet

The exponential rise of the human population has transformed Earth. Dense forests became farmland, cities rose and sprawled, fossil fuels that formed over millions of years were burned in a few decades, rapidly heating the planet.




Proposed beginning:

70 years ago

2.5 billion people




4,200 years ago

27 million people



11,700 years ago

4 million people













Years before 2020


HOLOCENE EPOCH 11,700 years ago

Homo sapiens evolve

300,000 years ago


QUATERNARY PERIOD 2.58 million years ago

Late Cenozoic

Ice Age begins

34 million years ago

Dinosaurs go extinct

65 million years ago


CENOZOIC ERA 66 million years ago

Dinosaurs appear

252 million years ago

First mammals appear

178 million years ago


PHANEROZOIC EON 541 million years ago

First life on Earth

form (microorganisms)

3.7 billion years ago

First fungi and

multicellular life

1.5-2 billion years ago

Earth forms





4.6 billion

4 bill