In New England, as English colonisers’ practice of continually farming maize without giving the fields a rest was destroying soils – leading to reduced crop output – the English began hunting local animals for extra food. When these species became depleted, they started to tame and rear domesticated animals to feed expanding coloniser and enslaved populations.
This practice of taming animals was used by colonisers not only to distinguish themselves from the native “savages” they believed to be in their way, but also to assert land ownership through making animal domestication a precondition for claiming private property rights.
This had disastrous results. The Great Plains region in central North America began to be overwhelmed by European domesticated species like cows, pigs, sheep, goats and horses, as well as invasive foreign plants like grasses along with associated insects and microbes.
These species quickly compressed soils and destroyed much of the long grass needed to support key species such as the bison. Bison were not only highly valuable within local ecosystems thanks to their grazing patterns, they also played a vital role in many Indigenous populations’ food systems and spiritual beliefs.
Not only were settlers inadvertently threatening bison populations by their farming habits, they also began slaughtering them in droves for food and their hides. These were used to make drive belts for factories churning out mass produced consumer goods in North America and Europe. As a result, bison populations across North America plunged from an estimated 30 million in 1800 to only 1,000 in 1900.
Cree filmmaker Tasha Hubbard has argued that the destruction of the bison was a form of genocide, since their slaughter was partly designed to render Native Americans and their cultures extinct. The loss of bison also led to declines in Indigenous plant foods and medicines such as wild rye, the compass plant, big bluestem and Golden Alexander – plants which colonisers called weeds.
The birth of the modern meat industry required the transformation of these once biodiverse lands into ecologically sparse tracts for industrial meat production, where animals are crowded together in tiny compounds stretching for many miles. These systems replaced an Indigenous approach of mutual dependence between human and nonhuman animals within a balanced ecosystem.
Although animals were and are hunted by Indigenous populations, the fact that they are also spiritually revered has important consequences. Crucially, hunted populations are allowed to replenish themselves.
In contrast, around two-thirds of farm animals across the world are born and reared on factory farms. Many live in cramped and squalid conditions where mistreatment, abuse and early death are commonplace. A recent example of this in the UK was the mass culling of pigs due to labour shortages in the UK abattoir industry in October 2021.
What’s more, the global meat industry now accounts for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions from food production, which itself contributes 37% of total emissions – creating even greater imbalances in our planetary environment.
But there is an alternative. Indigenous ideas like “relationality” and “reciprocity” can help us all challenge our outlook on nonhuman animals. Relationality is the idea that all living things are interconnected, meaning that human lives depend on the ability to exist ethically alongside other creatures. Similarly, reciprocity describes a commitment to caring for one another through acknowledging the web of ecological, social and spiritual relationships within which we all exist.
For example, cultures such as the sub-arctic Innu and arctic Inuit hunt, kill and eat animals while maintaining strong ethics of relationality and reciprocity. Understanding how the widespread commodification of animals has radically changed ecosystems and driven climate change can help us combat these effects, creating a more sustainable world.
In these communities, hunting, fishing and foraging are ways of life. Yet respect is shown to living creatures to ensure their abundance. This is done by limiting kills, sharing and using all parts of animals, and paying spiritual tribute to animal deities.
Although these activities may not be possible for most of us, we can use similar principles to promote respect for animals – and for the planet – through rewilding land to help wild animals thrive, abolishing industrial farming and transitioning to plant-based diets.
Ultimately, debates on how best to protect our increasingly damaged planet must prioritise, rather than marginalise, nonhuman animals and their immense value.