Earthlings and the Economics of Happiness: Two Ways to Heal the Planet

With yet another “holiday season” approaching in the consumption-addicted Western world, it is an appropriate time to consider the cost that this pursuit of human material happiness imposes on the non-human animals with which we share this planet. In previous years, we have highlighted the cruelty of industrial turkey “farming” (a cruelty not publicized in the meat departments of supermarkets such as Publix, in order to ensure that shopping remain “a pleasure”); the depravity of the pork industry, which treats highly intelligent, emotional, and social beings as commodities; and the trend toward self-regulation of high-speed slaughterhouses, keeping the cries, blood, and pus not just out of sight and out of mind, but out of control. We have shown how the powerful commercial interests involved in these very practices also ensure that the cruelty of their Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) will spill out into the natural world, by enlisting the help of the federal government in a ruthless and misguided war against predators and pushing, with help from other human groups with their own cruel agendas, for the removal of endangered-species status from the few natural predators who have somehow managed to survive against the odds. More recently, we have documented the premeditated slaughter of some of nature’s most gentle and non-aggressive creatures, whose habitats are coveted by property developers and whose lives were sold for sport in the name of conservation. All of this, for those who are willing to perceive it, amounts to an almost overwhelming body of “traumatic knowledge.” Unfortunately, we have only scratched the surface.

A combined report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London, released in 2014, established that the Earth has lost half its wild animals (animals, birds, and fish) in just the last 40 years. As the WWF succinctly states it, “We are using nature’s gifts as if we had more than just one Earth at our disposal.” This is especially true of the United States, in which sustaining current levels of consumption would require four planets. (Seven other countries actually have larger “ecological footprints” than the U.S. on a per capita basis, but they all have much smaller human populations.) While there have been some conservation success stories1 in the world’s richer countries, most of their wildlife declines occurred long before 1970 and “by importing food and other goods produced via habitat destruction in developing nations, rich nations are “outsourcing” wildlife decline to those Mediterranean Bluefin Tunacountries.” Elsewhere, the WWF has reported that the Earth is losing species at a rate that is 1,000 to 10,000 higher than the “background” or natural rate of extinction. In a depressingly comprehensive survey of the biodiversity crisis, aggregating scientific reports from around the world, notes that 90% of the large fish have disappeared from the oceans in the last 50 years. 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year, many by the barbaric practice of removing their fins, which are valued by humans for commercial purposes but are valued even more by the sharks who cannot swim or live without them. And as much as 70% of the world’s species face extinction if global temperatures rise by 3.5 degrees C. Deprived of sufficient biological diversity and the functions performed by this complex web of interrelationships (nutrient recycling, toxin scrubbing, carbon dioxide processing, food production, etc.) entire ecosystems can – and will – collapse.

Thus, as long as the humans are happy – or, to be more accurate, as long as some humans are happy – with their way of life, and therefore allow humanity to continue on its present course, a predictable catastrophe will unfold, enveloping the humans who caused it and the remaining non-humans who were completely blameless. While the WWF (at least in its public pronouncements) still places faith in the possibility of international negotiations to effect meaningful change, optimism should always be checked by cynicism. To take one recent example, many environmental activists in the United States were heartened by the belated decision of President Obama not to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought oil from Canadian tar sands to the refineries and distribution centers of the southern U.S. But, as the economics writer Rob Urie recently observed, while environmentalists focused on the 1,179-mile long Keystone pipeline, the oil and gas industry built another 8,000 miles of pipelines to transport this most dirty of all oils. The President did not block the project until the market price for oil had made it uneconomic (for now). Meanwhile, the American military industrial complex is the single largest institutional consumer of oil and gas on the planet, and seems preoccupied of late with securing access to additional supplies. And, finally, the loss of expected profits from the cancellation of Keystone XL would be a prime candidate for litigation under the investor-state-dispute resolution mechanism at the heart of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the very same President seeks to leave as his legacy. It goes without saying that non-human animals are not recognized as stakeholders in this shining example of human cleverness, an instrument that enshrines corporate profits at the apex of the human value system, subordinating sustainability and inter-species ethics along with popular democracy and national sovereignty.

If the wounds mankind has inflicted on the planet are to be healed, we can not reasonably expect that process to be initiated by the very institutions, power complexes, and ideologies that collectively wield the knife and plunge it, over and over again, into the aorta of Mother Earth, and then look for ways to make a profit from the river of blood that swirls around their feet. Nothing less than a shift in human consciousness is required. We turn now, then, to two possible avenues for genuine transformation in man’s relationship to the natural world.

Can “Traumatic Knowledge” Heal the Planet?

In 2005, after five years of work, filmmaker Shaun Monson released a movie entitled Earthlings. 2 The film addresses human abuse of animals comprehensively across five main dimensions: pets, clothing, food, entertainment, and scientific research. Monson explained in interviews (here and here) that he felt a responsibility to bear witness to the suffering, and that sharing “traumatic knowledge,” instead of turning away from it, has had a positive effect on many people. (Although the film has its detractors, it is clear from most online discussions that its impact has been massive, immediately converting many viewers into committed vegetarians. Among these is Ellen de Generes, who described her transition to Katie Couric in an interview that is unusually thoughtful and challenging for a network broadcast.) Monson cites the late actress, Gretchen Wyler, founder of the Genesis Awards for animal protection, who stated, “We must not refuse with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies.” But that quote really does not go far enough, for the suffering involved here is far more than physical: it is also emotional, much as it would be for humans. Recent research has proved conclusively that rats – one of many animals often demonized in human cultures, but related to us biologically – feel empathy for one another, and will forsake pleasure in order to help one another escape danger or discomfort. One suspects that such findings, and Shaun Monson’s characterization of speciesism as an evil on par with racism and fascism, would not have surprised Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who wrote in 1789 that:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

They can, and they do.

Monson contends that we must break down our walls of apathy, behind which we hide the suffering of others, and become concerned about the well-being of every living thing, including those who cannot vocalize their objections to our behavior – a step beyond actually listening to what animals are trying to tell us on the kill floors of the slaughterhouse. He quotes from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: “When you feel the suffering of every living thing in your own heart, that’s consciousness.” (The sequel to Earthlings, called Unity, just released in late 2015 and featuring 100 celebrity narrators, develops this point further.) For westerners steeped in the blatantly self-serving mythology of dominion over nature, his invocation of this and other eastern philosophies like Ahimsa and Buddhism requests a cognitive leap every bit as arduous as the meat-eaters’ decision to stop supporting the concentration camps of modern “farming.” But it is not obligatory for us to convert to a new religion. The emerging wildlife-management philosophy of compassionate conservation, which bases a system of inter-species ethics on a firm foundation of modern science, requires us first to do no harm, and then to value the lives of animals as individuals. By encouraging such paradigmatic shifts in our thinking, and thereby resolving the cognitive dissonance that afflicts people who profess to care about other creatures but who behave in ways inconsistent with those values, the traumatic knowledge imparted to us by the movie Earthlings can indeed help us to heal the planet, one human at a time. But there is another avenue through which change may arrive, and it takes us on a very different journey through the other end of the emotional spectrum.

The Economics of Happiness: Recalculating the Theory

For Jeremy Bentham, the best policy was that which produced the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If human affairs were governed by a Benthamite utilitarian calculus that gave an appropriate weight to the suffering of animals, instead of ignoring or depreciating it, then the scale and scope of animal suffering could be minimized. Bentham approved of the use of animals in medical experiments, so long as there was a significant countervailing benefit for humanity. Yet when humans have other means of satisfying their wants and needs that do not necessitate the imposition of suffering on non-humans, that calculus breaks down. It seems clear that Bentham, were we to bring him into the 21st century, would be horrified by our “tyranny” over “the rest of the animal creation,” and would call for us to change. This observation is not just a matter of historical curiosity, for in some respects Bentham is still with us, influencing the very outcomes he would deplore.

Confiscated Siberian Tiger Skins

Confiscated Siberian tiger skins. The suffering inflicted on the former owners of these skins was not factored into the decision-making process of the humans who stole them.

While other systems of inter-species ethics, such as compassionate conservation, do not base themselves on Bentham’s hedonistic or “felicific” calculus – the weighing of pleasure against pain in the decision-making process – modern economics does. Modern economics has applied utilitarian language in its focus on the behavior of individual consumers and firms, each maximizing their own utility (pleasure) and not really caring about anyone else’s utility. Thus, modern economics (as discussed in the movie Inside Job) has become a convenient new religion for the masters of our financial universe, who claim that their pursuit of profits, no matter how high the costs imposed on others, is justifiable in terms of our prevailing intellectual and moral superstructure. But this philosophy does a disservice to Bentham and ignores the work of another frequently invoked patron saint of self-interest, Adam Smith.

In a recent exploration of how to remedy the depraved selfishness of the western financial system, Oxford economics professor David Vines, writing with Nicholas Morris, does not hesitate to blame Bentham for much of what ails us. Indeed, he starts with a quote from John Maynard Keynes, condemning the Benthamite tradition as “the worm which has been gnawing at the insides of modern civilisation and is responsible for its present moral decay.” The central problem, according to Vines, is that the selfish utilitarian calculus inspired by Bentham has caused our economic actors to ignore the importance of our obligations to others. This verdict is rather unfair to Bentham, because he recognized that the pursuit by individuals of their own self-interest could lead to outcomes that were detrimental to society as a whole, and he therefore stressed the importance of legislation in protecting the greatest happiness of the greatest number. That said, Vines’s focus on “the other Adam Smith” is entirely apposite. While most Americans know Smith as the author of The Wealth of Nations, which is constantly invoked as the bible of economic selfishness, Smith intended his pursuit of self-interest to be confined to certain spheres. His less well-known Theory of Moral Sentiments stressed the importance of other-regarding obligations, arguing long before scientists observed the behavior of empathetic rats, that we derive pleasure from the happiness of others:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

For Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Colorado, and one of the “founding fathers” of the doctrine of compassionate conservation, the last point in Smith’s paragraph would no doubt resonate strongly. He has taught an animal welfare class to inmates at the Boulder County Jail for 15 years, and the concern shown by the prisoners for the plight of abused animals has been remarkable.

Both Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith, in their own ways, point to a new calculus of human happiness – one in which we not only recognize the suffering of others previously regarded as property, but also derive positive pleasure from the maximization of the well-being of others. While the titans of high finance and corporate power have steered our intellectual heritage away from such conclusions, the greatest number may be more ready to accept them than our ruling elite might wish.

The Economics of Happiness: Reclaiming the Reality

A prime example of this yearning for a new form of economics is provided by the superb short documentary film, The Economics of Happiness. Driven by the recognition that globalization and financialization are transforming our planet into a corporate-controlled, neocolonial dystopia, the film makes a powerful case for a return to localized economies.  We present the trailer below; the full film is available here. The film begins with the tragic case of Ladakh in Tibet, a remote mountain community that followed an ecologically sustainable, traditional path that was, despite a lack of western technology, remarkably equitable, prosperous, and happy. Once exposed to the outside world and bombarded with western temptations and propaganda, that reality evaporated in just a few years, being replaced by income inequality, divisiveness, depression, and environmental degradation. The film then proceeds to demolish the myth that corporate-centered globalization promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number, highlighting the increase in unhappiness that has attended its remorseless progress, and, along the way, refuting the argument made by many American environmentalists that cities are an ecologically preferable habitat for humanity. Our obsession with economic growth, and our continued use of accounting methods that ignore the costs imposed on society and the planet, portend ecological collapse.

While localization in and of itself does not guarantee an end to animal cruelty, it most certainly rejects the ghastly practices of industrialized agriculture and all they entail for animal misery and environmental devastation. By scaling back the impact of mankind’s activities and thereby cancelling our appointment with the death of the ecosystems that support us, it offers the countless non-human species with whom we share this Earth a reprieve from the ultimate cruelty of anthropogenic extinction. And it resolves the great irony of our current predicament – that the enormous and largely unrecognized suffering of animals coexists with widespread human misery, itself frequently ignored. Human happiness, when properly understood and pursued, does not have to be built on a foundation of ecological tyranny; rather, it can free human and non-human alike from the lash of unworthy masters.


  1. A term we wish we could avoid, given its recent abuse.
  2. Due to aggressive copyright enforcement, the full movie has become almost impossible to find online without venturing into “bad neighborhoods” of the internet. If you can find it, or if you buy it, be warned: the film contains almost unimaginably graphic footage of human cruelty and callousness, and is extremely difficult to watch.


    1. editor

      Thank you. There is much more that could be said about “traumatic knowledge.” Too much can be debilitating and even destructive; were we to truly attempt to feel the suffering of every living thing, we would be broken beyond repair. (There are at least three scenes in Earthlings that I find very difficult to process.) So a balance must be struck, but obviously not at the dissonant point chosen by the vast majority of consumers.

      On the ecology of factory farming, you may enjoy this article by George Monbiot. The statistics and projections are almost as disturbing as the magnitude of the suffering.

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