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The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals
by Wayne Pacelle
William Morrow, 368 pages, $26.99

Appropriating imagery from the slow-food movement, fast-food behemoth McDonald’s is trying to rebrand itself as a healthy and hip place to eat. “Cage-free eggs,” a recent TV spot advertises. (The smaller print tells you that your McMuffin will definitely include one of those only in the year 2025.) The backstory to that commercial is told in The Humane Economy. Authored by Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, The Humane Economy documents recent successes of HSUS in areas ranging from our food supply to puppy mills and circus pachyderms.

Underneath the golden arches, things are slowly shifting against egg “farms” that pack millions of hens into warehouses where each chicken is wing-to-wing “with six or seven other birds in a cage about the size of a microwave.” McDonald’s and Walmart are phasing out pork from “gestation crates” where mother pigs are immobilized, made into birthing and suckling implements in an industrialized process that most of us would find ghastly if we saw it up close.

These examples typify the work of HSUS, which has adopted a strategy of offering corporate America the carrot of good public relations before using its shaming stick. While this incrementalism does not lead directly to a bucolic ideal, still, for tomorrow’s breakfast, it is a step toward a slightly less brutal ring of Big Ag hell. At least an occasional change of position or a wing flap is possible, and multiplied by the billions of creatures impacted, that is indeed something.

One wonders, though, whether the bottom line is just the bottom line. The Humane Economy is packaged like a schlocky how to get ahead in business book, complete with a cover blurb from Jack Welch. And as Pacell writes in the introduction: “When it comes to the humane economy, making money and doing good is precisely the point. If ideas about compassion are going to prevail, they must triumph in the marketplace.” As a practical matter, then, the market remains the barometer of everything, including compassion.

The book conspicuously lacks a non-economic ethical framework by which to judge just when corporations should be lauded for having done “the right thing.” We are told that “our increasingly alert moral temperament” is making the world “rife with opportunity” for the humane entrepreneur of today, but the source of that morality is left unexplored.

Pacelle, a vegan, touches on the Genesis account of Adam and Eve’s eating plants and not the animals of the garden—but only in passing, as he commends Darren Aronofsky’s use of CGI-only animals in Noah. As evidenced by the Every Living Thing campaign (which goes unmentioned in the book), HSUS is willing to fund religiously rooted plays for hearts and minds. But here Pacelle seems content to ride the rising wave of concern over animal welfare without inquiring into its origins.

Just where Pacell wants the culture to go remains a bit of a mystery, as well. His cover features a pastoral scene, with cattle munching on lush grasses. Inside, though, the preferred food source of the future looks more like science fiction than like the husbandry of the past. High-tech protein fabricators are quoted to the effect that, while “a cow can only be a cow, we can make anything.” Other fabricators are working to duplicate eggs, “taking the chicken out of the equation.” Another, in a disturbing marketing choice, calls its eco-green concoction “Soylent.”

Pacelle calls the meat industry’s attempts to bioengineer away animal stress “truly insidious,” because livestock would lose “the dignity of being the conscious, feeling animals they are.” Nevertheless, one is left to wonder whether the problem with these industry solutions is their failure to go far enough. A lab-driven world fed by venture capital darlings like Modern Meadow and Beyond Meat is lauded by Pacelle, while a vision of conscious, feeling animals raised the old fashioned way, as at Polyface Farms—Michael Pollan’s foodie paradise, highlighted in The Omnivore’s Dilemma—is simply ignored.

The Humane Economy will be of interest to the already interested. Readers who are new to the issue of animal welfare, though, would be better off finding a copy of Matthew Scully’s Dominion. That 2002 work covers similar territory, but with philosophical depth and superior prose. Though his love for pets and wildlife is clear, Pacelle’s rather rudderless quest to make the world safe for animals seems to be taking us to a world without any livestock at all.

John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School. His writings can be found at johnmurdock.org.

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