May 052014
Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr

Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr

Can pets be part of a sustainable future? I admit this is a ‘pet’ topic of mine, mainly because people love their pets so much in consumer cultures that it’s become taboo to even suggest that perhaps we should start curtailing their populations. I’d argue this is even more taboo than suggestions we need to proactively curb human population.

Recently I wrote an article for The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, which then triggered a outpouring of outrage when it was extracted first for Grist (under the title “The Guardian says your cats are a climate menace,”), and then in Newser, under “Our Planet Just Can’t Sustain Pets,” which so far has gotten 230 comments–probably would’ve been more but community standards removed the angriest!

While I won’t bother extracting too much of The Guardian article here as you can read it there, I will highlight some of the gems of the comments–ignoring the many racist comments about how people value their dogs more than Africans and Bangladeshis. Sigh.

The best comment is the pure emotional sort:

my dogs are my family. you are wrong in your ideas. you must have never had a pet. humans that can’t afford food should quit having kids that have to starve. while i feel sorry for the kids i would still feed my family first. my family represents love and companionship which is a lot more than some humans give. when i saw your name i thought that perhaps you should just keep the first 3 letters of your last name.

It has been more than 20 years since people made fun of my last name–in middle school–so that’s a good sign that I’m hitting a nerve, with people regressing to pre-adolescence in their responses!

Many suggested I hate pets or even all animals, or am incapable of love, which I found funny as I like pets–and have committed my life to sustainability to prevent the mass die off of life on Earth, including humans. Heck, I would even enjoy having a cat, but I don’t because what I know about how close to collapse we are, it’d be irresponsible to (the same reason why I feel compelled to have only one child).

The irony is I actually tried to moderate my tone in the article to encourage constructive debate, for example, removing the paragraph where I suggested replacing some of the 51 million turkeys slaughtered each year with the 3-4 million dogs and cats euthanized each year to grace our Thanksgiving tables. After all it’d be a win-win, reducing ecological impacts of turkey factory farming and the cruel and wasteful practice of gassing and then disposing of dogs and cats (you can watch that horrible process in the below excerpt of One Nation Under Dog).

However, I knew that wouldn’t be a popular suggestion, even though many cultures eat dogs and cats–including some who eat their own pets. Instead I made simple suggestions like taxing dogs that weren’t spayed or neutered at three times the rate and creating ways to maintain the social benefits of pets while reducing their ecological impacts, such as through “pet-sharing” services.

Imagine, for example, if the pet culture shifted away from owning one or more pets per household to more of a “time-share” or Zipcar model? Reserving a play date with your favorite Golden Retriever once a week would reduce pet ownership – and the resulting economic and environmental costs – dramatically as people felt comfortable occasionally playing with a shared pet instead of owning one. While we’re a long way from that future, a few services that promote pet sharing among pet lovers do already exist, like the online pet sharing platform, Pets to Share, and Californian-based nonprofit,

I also suggested once again normalizing productive pets that provided a service other than companionship, like laying eggs or giving milk–I hear goats are quite friendly and can make good pets. And most importantly, I noted the value of rebuilding community, which could make the need and desire for pets much less acute (since right now they play an important social role in our socially-isolated society).

Finally, perhaps the best way to shift norms around pet ownership is to simply start working to rebuild community interactions. Community gardens, book clubs, resilience circles, neighborhood tool and toy libraries, church groups, and transition towns: all of these might go a long way in providing the social engagement that a walk with the dog currently provides. And unlike a dog, community ties will play an essential role in helping people get through the disruptions climate change will bring.

There were a few thoughtful comments, though, with some drawing attention to additional problems of pets, like the billion-plus birds killed by outdoor cats each year, and others who debated whether pets in the end are actually a positive sustainability trend as they suppress consumers’ urges to reproduce–or if they just delay this urge, leading to families with pets and kids (and thus more impact).

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel (Image Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr)

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel (Image Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr)

But in the end, most of the comments were pretty “ruff,” and most importantly revealed just how hard it is going to be to change cultural norms around pet ownership, as this comment demonstrates:

You will get my German Shepherd when you pry her from my cold, dead hands.

And for that, the pet industry and its incredibly successful marketing efforts to convert pets into family members (with their very own clothes, shoes, toys, gadgets, and expensive healthcare), should be applauded.


  8 Responses to “Can Pets Be Part of a Sustainable Future?”

  1. Common Sense is not a common denominator and empathy seems to be limited to a 20 meter radius. Comsumer cultures are insain, they neglect the truth.

  2. I posted a few comments on this Facebook page that raised the question about vegans feeding their pets!

    I re-post one of my comments below. Even though the context was different, I think it is indirectly related to sustainability, and that it is time that people started talking about more and more aspects of modern life from the POV of sustainability:

    The real question is, SHOULD people even own pets such as cats and dogs that require meat to be fed to them, while living in a totally artificial, unsustainable environment such as most cities are? Because, if people choose to own cats and dogs, no matter how much they “love” animals, it would still require the killing of other, often BIGGER animals to feed these pets (of course, pet food is usually made from the “byproducts” of the meat industry). I have friends who “love” animals, but it takes all my political correctness to refrain from commenting on the sourcing of their pet food.

    Historically, dogs started hanging out with people perhaps in a sort of symbiotic relationship. Cats too were allowed in the homes since they could catch the mice that could be a real nuisance and could eat stored grain, while the rats could spread diseases. Modern life does NOT require such symbiotic relationship with animals. A great deal of simplification is required as society moves towards a truly sustainable arrangement. Many things will have to be given up. Perhaps vegans should start enjoying animals in their natural environment. Those who live in a more rural setting could possibly still retain pets like dogs and cats while finding “creative” ways of feeding them without killing larger mammals.

    If the idea behind being a vegan is to avoid killing and inflicting needless suffering on animals, I think vegans should seriously consider finding other ways of interacting with animals, or to enjoy them from a distance, in nature.

  3. I agree we have vastly too many ‘pets’ in the world as witnessed by the number killed each year. I have
    two cats adopted from a shelter that gets them from the about to be killed list from local animal control. I care for them responsibly and as ecologically responsible as possible. They enhance my family’s life tremendously. Pets also lower stress and ease depression. I have witnessed this in my profession which takes me to homes for the disabled and elderly as well as hospitals. Instead of berating those of us who love and take responsible care of our pets work on assisting the spay and neuter programs which are desperate for funds to assist in fasting reducing the production of excessive pet animals. Also to help communities establish strict limits to the number and type of pets owned. My neighbor had 5 dogs. No one can properly care for that number and the ecological footprint is vast. I would say 1 to 2 dogs or cats ought to be the mandated number and litter ought to be limited to only that which is less polluting. Companion animals are often lifesavers to the lonely. This is about quality of life. Just because you do not need a pet does not mean they aren’t lifelines for others. All or nothing thinking on this area will garner you little support and is really just an exercise in a cruel utopian fantasy …..

    • Sustainability Possible

      Good points Isabel. I would agree that service animals are a good use of resources, but not companion animals for the vast majority of healthy people. The Earth just can’t sustain a world where all families have a dog or cat. Or even a world where just a billion families get that elite luxury. A significant progressive tax could be a first step: where one dog or cat costs a few thousand dollars a year in taxes (with exceptions for one service animal per individual truly in need of one) but then second animals (e.g. pets) cost in the 5 digits (in US terms). If the wealthiest want to own several animals and help redistribute their wealth in the process, that’s a good stepping stone to a shift to a culture where pets take a smaller and smaller role.

  4. And I might add that out cats are strictly indoors. Also to address the food issue – my husband and his brother go deer hunting each year ( whitetail deer are overrunning us in this area of eastern PA) and always kill two deer. We eat this meat throughout the year and also use it to make homemade cat food combined with vegetables etc from our garden. I know many people who hunt whitetail deer who are doing the very same thing. We have controlled hunts in many areas of deer over abundance ( Valley Forge National Historic Park nearby is a perfect example) due to a lack of predators and much of the meat goes to waste. This could be addressed if there was the will as well…. Rarely is all or nothing type rigid thinking the answer to anything imho…

    • Sustainability Possible

      And yes, with our excessive deer population hunting will need to be brought back into vogue as well–though I’d still argue that it’s better to feed those deer to people rather than pets.

  5. […] triggered an amazing amount of outrage from readers, and Assadourian backed up his points in a second blog post. It’s rather harsh but still worth the read. It will show you the viewpoint from the other […]

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