How to transform our relationship with domestic animals so we can feed everyone in the world and end the mass extinction.
▲ Can you have pets in Edenicity?
For those with pets, it's wrenching to think of not having them anymore. I know because when I was eight, my family moved overseas. Months later, I got to wondering how much I really missed everyone that we left behind: housemates, neighbors, my best friend, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and it made me melancholy. But I didn't cry.
Then I thought about Butch, our beloved black and white long haired cat.
He used to follow us on family walks through the park at twilight. He used to purr me to sleep at night.
But when we moved, we left Butch with a neighbor—
And the floodgates opened.
How is it possible to miss a cat more than any person?
We form such tight bonds with our pets. But pets come at a cost. We feed them while people go hungry in this country. And that land and water and energy we use to feed them? It was taken from many thousands of other species. And now we're in the worst extinction since the dinosaurs.
The goal of Edenicity is to end the mass extinction through design. That's a large scale task. It goes way beyond having pets or not. It's about really understanding how we relate to all animals. Then maybe we can find ways to live and thrive that also let more of all species of animals live and thrive in this world, too.
▲ Intro [music]
Cities designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.
Welcome to Episode 38, where I'll discuss the Edenicity of domestic animals.
▲ What domestic animals do for us
For this discussion, I'll refer to the five zones in the Reference Design.
Domestic animals do so much for us. Dogs are our oldest friend in the world. Thousands of years of breeding have perfected an animal that loves us. And cats? Well, they're a more recent addition. I think of them as lower maintenance fur babies.
I ended up owning cats and dogs later in life, and these helped me build empathy and understanding for all animals.
I had this tom cat who seemed full grown, but it turned out he was still just a kitten. He got huge. He was energetic and mischievous, and he got under foot and made so much trouble that I needed to find new ways to interact with him that were more positive.
So I took up clicker training. Eventually, it got to the point where he would come when he was called, even from another room, rollover, hop up on a stool, stand up, give me five...
Houseguests couldn't believe that a cat would do all these things.
But it was a two way street. When he realized that I was rewarding some behaviors, he started really interacting a lot and communicating and making his needs known. And this got me to realizing that all domestic animals are communicating and interacting all the time. It's just that we people are a little bit too dense to notice for the most part.
Eventually, my sense of being able to communicate with animals extended to other species. On one occasion, I was hand mowing with a scythe, and happened to walk over a yellow jacket nest.
They swarmed me ,climbing all over my sunglasses and my skin, but they didn't sting me because, rather than panic, I froze, and slowly stepped away from the nest. And with each step, several of the Yellowjackets would lift off me until finally they all left.
I got away without a sting. But every time I got within about three or four meters of that nest, they would come out and swarm angrily to warn me that they weren't going to let me off so easy if I stepped on their nest again.
Now, beyond cats and dogs, which are so good at building our empathy, there's also farm animals.
Even without the meat, leather, feathers and fur that we get from them, farm animals provide additional services that can help us manage our farms and our living environment. Cows provide milk and can build soil. Chickens, ducks and other foul stir compost, eat inscts and provide eggs. Goats control poison ivy and other nuisance undergrowth. Pigs till and fertilize, rabbits build garden soil. Bees provide honey. Fish control mosquitoes. And these are just the more obvious things that our animals do for us.
▲ What domestic animals need from us
Now what do our animals need from us? According to a 2017 study in the journal PLOS ONE, cats and dogs in the United States eat as much food as 62 million Americans. Meanwhile, according to Feeding America, 37 million Americans face chronic hunger. National Geographic says it's closer to 50 million.
That makes feeding our pets a social justice problem.
Now, cats and dogs have more meat in their diet than we do. A pound of meat protein takes way more land, energy and fuel to produce than a pound of plant protein. So well over a quarter of the land, water and fuel we use for food in America goes to feed cats and dogs.
That implicates our pets in our environmental justice problems.
According to a 2018 paper in the National Academy of Sciences, humans, together with our pets and farm animals, have wiped out 86% of all wild mammals on Earth. It's not just about climate change. It's mainly about clearing land for crops, grazing, houses and roads. That kills most flora and fauna right away, and the wild animals that survive initially have a hard time finding food, shelter and water.
Most don't make it.
According to that same paper our farm animals outweigh us nearly two to one. They magnify our impacts on the land enormously.
Does that mean we should get rid of them? Will we have to get rid of pets, too?
Spoiler alert: no.
▲ Meeting their needs
But let's talk about meeting their needs. Edenicity is based on there being 25% more people in the world than there are now, with all of them eating much better than Americans do now. Coincidentally, pets add 25% to the American food footprint. So if there's no more population growth, everyone in the world could have as many pets as Americans do. And that's really saying something because right now America has 5% of the world's population and something like 12% of its pets.
Anyway, the point is, yes, people can have pets in Edenicity, but we should still look for specific ways to shrink their environmental impact.
It's easier with dogs. Dogs are omnivores. Most dog food is meaty, but it doesn't have to be. My ferocious dog, a Chow Shepherd mix, happily ate vegan dog food and occasionally, vegan table scraps most of her life. That cut her food footprint sharply.
Cats, by contrast, are obligate carnivores. They need meat to survive. They generally eat herbivores like mice and rabbits, which puts them at what biologists call a higher trophic level. In other words, a gram of herbivore takes 10 or more grams of grain to feed. So a gram of cat food costs 10 grams of food like grains and beans that we could eat.
Now, nutritionally sufficient vegan alternatives do exist in the cat food world. But the one adult cat I tried this with went on a hunger strike!
A company called BecauseAnimals is making pet food from cultured meat. Yep, you guessed it, that's animal tissue (for example, mouse meat) grown like yeast or yogurt in a lab. Now they do have to source the growing medium from normal crops, and it's a high energy operation. Chances are it won't shrink the amount of land, water or energy it takes to feed a cat.
It's a good thing that cats are small: they eat three times less than dogs on average. So if we veganized most dogs and veganize only some cats that still shrinks the food footprint, our pets eat by a lot. Optimistically, I'll say a factor of five.
What about pet waste? Well, pet owners will get specialized bio waste bins in Edenicity, so they can dispose of their kitty litter and dog droppings properly. These go to hot compost for use with the industrial zone fiber crops—never food crops.
Now, what about our farm animals? The good news is they don't eat the same as us. So with proper ecological design, they don't have to compete with us for cropland.
In Episode 10, I explained how Allan savory has shown how cows can restore soils and damaged grasslands when grazed in tight herds that get moved every few days.
Joel Salatin, who wrote the book You Can Farm, follows the cows with chickens, who eat insects in cow manure and scratch it into the soil.
Geoff Lawton, the world's leading permaculturist, has demonstrated that chickens can be raised without imported feed, just on insects that grow in the compost.
Sepp Holzer, who independently invented permaculture in his native Austria, describes a system to rotate pigs through farm paddocks after fallow periods, plowing and manuring them so they are ready to grow vegetable crops.
In Athens, Ohio, some farmers rented out their goats to people who wanted to remove poison ivy and fire prone brush from their land.
Edenicity combines all of these strategies on a much smaller footprint (see episodes 2 and 11 for details). This pushes our diet in the direction of more veggies and less meat, which is good for us (see Episode 4 for details on that), which means Edenicity can cleanly and sustainably supply about 20% of the animal products that Americans eat now. That 20% is only slightly less than the world average meat consumption which is about 25% of what Americans eat.
But uh-oh, remember: right now cats and dogs already eat 25% of the meat in America. Granted, it's generally the lowest grade 25% but as pet food ads strongly imply, it's still edible. So the lesson is clear: we can have more pets, but we, or they, or both will have to make our diets much more plant centered.
▲ Pet food tax
One tool for expressing and living our priorities is the progressive tax structure that I described in Episode 34. It applies to all food, especially pet food that uses animal products. Basically, the more animal based pet food you buy, the more exponentially expensive it gets. This is easy to implement with today's point of sale analytics (more about that next episode).
But hey, wait a minute: what's to keep several families in a row house or apartment floor or even a small cafe from taking turns buying pet food to dodge those taxes and fees? Well, nothing. In fact, that would be great! When several families share a few pets, that means fewer pets overall.
It's also a great deal for dogs and cats. We breed them to love us. We breed them to be social. But when we leave them alone most of the day, they get sad. Depressed. They like when they can be around people and other animals more of the time.
In my neighborhood, there's a grey cat who is friendly with everyone. He'll come right up to you so you can pet him, and trot off happily when you're done.
A shared pet is a happy pet.
▲ Large-scale design
Sometimes I find it amazing how a good design choice can cascade in a positive way throughout our lives and our society.
Sharing domestic cats and dogs could cut their number by four while multiplying their happiness. Feeding them more thoughtfully could cut their food footprint by a factor of up to five. Together these factors drop their consumption by the 95% minimum needed for Edenicity.
But sharing animals means more people get to know more of them. This helps to build our foundation of empathy. Before we can even talk, we discover that all animals are constantly interacting and communicating.
The Zone system brings us closer to farm animals. Fish in Zone 1 rooftop aquaponic greenhouses. Bees and frogs in Zone 2 orchards and ponds. Chickens and cattle among the Zone 3 broadacre crops that surround our villages just a five minute walk from schools in the central square.
Children will grow up seeing generations of animals maturing and raising their young. They'll hear chickens squawking as they lay their eggs and watch them scurry for cover when a hawk flies past. They'll "moo" at cows and laugh at that double take piglets do when someone tries to round them up.
On school field trips and family visits to the Zone 4 forests that surround each town, children will discover birds and snakes and turtles and maybe even beaver dams. They'll gather mushrooms, fruits and nuts and leaves and tubers in season. They'll splash through streams, or canoe among cat tail islands where the wild ducks nest.
Zone 5, the vast wilderness surrounds the city. A large chain link fence grazed and mowed 50 meters on each side keeps domestic animals out of the wild.
In the early days, as we restore ecosystems that were broken by farms and highways, we may use herds managed in the style of Allan Savory. These rebuild soils and biodiversity. They may also provide extra meat that will help to soften the transition to shared pets and a more plant centered diet.
As we restore wild habitats, we'll round up all the feral dogs and cats and rabbits and pigs and goats that we find in Zones 4 and 5. Those that can't be socialized will be neutered and penned for the rest of their lives.
This is hard but necessary work. I grew up in islands so ravaged by feral animals that university zoologists dubbed it the endangered species capital of the world.
Removing these animals is the only way to bring countless species back from the brink of extinction.
In Episode 30, I talked about how wild habitat restoration can be a rite of passage for youth to mark their entry into adulthood. They'll restore creeks, round up animals, plant native grasses and trees, and count bats and owls and deer and wolves.
By the time this happens, they'll have built the needed empathy, having grown up in a much better relationship to their pets, livestock and wild animals than we have today.
This is how design can help us become better friends to all animals: by giving every living being on this planet a better place to live.
▲ Close [music]
If you know anyone who might enjoy Episode 38, please use the share button on your podcast player to let them know about it. And be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss how Edenicity handles privacy.
I'm Kev Polk and this has been Edenicity.