All day long the blazing midsummer sun beat down upon that square mile of abominations: upon tens of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion; upon bare, blistering, cinder-strewn railroad tracks, and huge blocks of dingy meat factories, whose labyrinthine passages defied a breath of fresh air to penetrate them.
Sinclair recalls the ‘rivers of hot blood, and car-loads of moist flesh, and rendering vats and soap caldrons, glue factories and fertilizer tanks, that smelt like the craters of hell’. The rendering vats were integral to the operation. ‘No tiniest particle of organic matter was wasted,’ he observes of Durham’s, a fictional rendering plant.
Out of the horns of the cattle they made combs, buttons, hairpins, and imitation ivory; out of the shinbones and their big bones they cut knife and toothbrush brush handles, and mouth-pieces for pipes … From such things as feet, knuckles, hide clippings, and sinews came such strange and unlikely products as gelatine, isinglass, and phosphorus, bone black, shoe blacking, and bone oil.
The rendering rooms were built around open vats of acid set into the floor, into which the carcasses of animals were deposited. Exhausted workers would occasionally fall in, and ‘when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting.’ Sometimes these workers would ‘be overlooked for days till all but the bones of them had gone out into the world as Anderson’s Pure Leaf Lard’.
Sinclair spent seven weeks in the stockyards researching his novel. He dressed in the dishevelled and filthy clothes of a labourer, and he interviewed dozens of workers, priests, bartenders, policemen and politicians. The Jungle would become one of the most politically influential novels in American history. The public outcry at the unsanitary conditions of the meat processing plants was so loud that President Roosevelt saw fit to dispatch fact-checkers to Chicago to confirm the accuracy of the novel’s claims. They duly reported that the situation was just as bad as Sinclair had described. The Jungle had provided the first popular exposé of the animal industries, and an early portrait of consumer capitalism.
The Chicago stockyards received another visitor shortly after the publication of The Jungle. Like the protagonist of Sinclair’s novel, the visitor ‘watched the men on their killing beds, marvelling at their speed and power as though they had been wonderful machines.’ The brute speed and efficiency of the slaughter line seemed almost miraculous, as each man was allocated a discrete and menial task – hoist, slash, snip, snap – with these tasks orchestrated into a concert of fierce productivity. Henry Ford, the industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company, saw an opportunity.
Fordism is typically understood to have originated in Ford’s car manufacturing plant in Michigan, but its true roots lie in the Chicago stockyard
‘Fordism’ describes the mass production and consumption of standardised consumer goods, wherein unskilled workers assemble preformed parts and are provided with wages such that they can afford to purchase the fruits of their labour. While contemporary capitalism is a more multifaceted affair, dealing in digital abstractions as much as material goods, the mass consumption of standardised products remains intrinsic to its logic. Fordism is typically understood to have originated in Ford’s car manufacturing plant in Michigan, but its true roots lie in the Chicago stockyard. In a poignant inversion, Ford translated the efficiency of the slaughter line into the efficiency of the
automobile production line. The disassembly of animal bodies was transmuted into the assembly of consumer goods.
While animals disappeared from view in the emerging animal industries, consumer products began to quiver and gasp with a life of their own: the car, the sneaker, the smartphone. More than mere goods, these products became imbued with life in the distorted animism of the marketplace, mimetic of the vanished animals whose rendered remains were used in their manufacture.
While the slaughter line provided the logic of mass manufacturing, the rendering industry provided the raw materials for imperial propaganda. The history of colonialism can be told, in part, through the story of soap. ‘The first step towards lightening THE WHITE MAN’S BURDEN is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness,’ one early advert declared. ‘PEARS’ SOAP is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners
of the Earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.’ The soap vats described in Sinclair’s novel produced tallow from rendered beef and mutton fat, and when mixed with sodium hydroxide (also known as lye), the tallow would produce soap. ‘Toilet soap’ became the emblem of American and British colonialism, the speciesism of the stockyard translated into the racism of white supremacy.
‘Toilet soap’ became the
emblem of American and British colonialism, the speciesism of the stockyard translated into the racism of white supremacy
The rendering industry also provided the raw materials for the distraction industry, namely gelatine, a protein extracted from the skin, bones and connective tissues of cattle, sheep and pigs. Gelatine binds light-sensitive agents to a base so that images can materialise, and was used in early film and photography. Indeed, when the word film was first used in the context of cinema, the word referred directly to the gelatine coating upon the photographic material. While there is, of course, great potential for artistry in photography and cinema, the modern entertainment industries more often serve to distract subdued populations from the social inequity, ecological degradation and loss of meaning intrinsic to consumer society. Digital film is more commonly used today, but the use of rendered remains persists, with animal cholesterol a component of the liquid crystals that make up the screens of televisions, computers, smartphones and tablets. If you are reading these words on a screen, you are gazing through distilled residues of slaughtered animals.
As Nicole Shukin documents in her book, Animal Capital, consumer capitalism has been entangled with animal exploitation from the beginning. The American stock market opened amid the noise and stench of Chicago’s stockyards, focussed upon the trade of ‘livestock’. The ‘branding’ which is ubiquitous to modern corporate marketing began with the branding of an animal, logos imprinted on our retinas as heated metal was pressed onto the animal’s flesh. Modern consumer capitalism, Shukin writes, excels in ‘trafficking animal remains (the business of recycling animal trimmings, bones, offal, and blood back into market metabolisms).’ The animal industries have evolved in contemporary conditions into a cannibalistic super-organism, a capital metabolism fed on rendered remains.
The meat industry has never only been the meat industry. Industrial animal agriculture was initially made possible by the rendering of animal body parts, the economics of production requiring that capital was extracted from the whole carcass. The flesh alone would scarcely cover the costs – the value was in the by-products: hides and skins, wool and hair, fat and oil, soap and pharmaceuticals, fertilisers and feed. Rendering also took care of an escalating disposal problem as production intensified. This remains the case today. Roughly 50% of the cow is considered inedible by Americans. Rendering these remains diverts 28 billion kilograms of waste from landfills each year, generating an industry worth more than USD$25 billion.
There is an ecological rationale to rendering, though this rationale must be extricated from the rhetoric of the animal industries. The North American Renderers Association will tell you (and I quote) that –
Rendering is Recycling: Rendering is the cooking and drying of meat and/or other animal by-products not used for human consumption in order to recover fats and proteins.
Rendering is ‘The Original Recycling’: For hundreds of years renderers have been recycling unwanted meat into animal food and fertiliser used to grow the next generation of food.
Rendering is Green and Sustainable: Rendering yields far fewer emissions than and filling or composting. Rendered products help animal agriculture and other customers reduce their environmental footprints and become more sustainable.
There is some truth in these claims, and there are very good reasons to render animal remains. If we are to farm animals, it makes sense to use the whole carcass. If we are to eat animals, it makes sense to eat ‘nose to tail’, and to extract as much utility and nutrition from the creature as possible. There are good reasons to think we should be farming animals, albeit in a carefully defined context. Most modern agriculture relies on fossil fuel fertilisers and mined rock phosphate, a dwindling non-renewable resource. Organic farming manages without these synthetic inputs, but this typically requires animals for fertility cycling. Manures transfer and recycle nitrogen, enriching the soil.
Rendered bones and teeth contain phosphorus, necessary for plant growth. In organic farming, such rendering is enacted in service of regeneration. The life of the soil dictates the role of animals in the system, and animal populations are capped according to the availability of sustainable feed. Industrial animal farming obeys a very different logic. Animals are fed on crops grown using fossil fuel inputs, often on land that has been converted from wild habitat. ‘More meat’ is the mantra, while the animal’s rendered remains are returned to the market as capital. Oleic acid for shampoos, cleansers and creams. Glycerine for glues, solvents and explosives. Stearic acid for rubber. This is ‘recycling’, though it is recycling rooted in escalating extraction and exploitation, indifferent to regeneration or ecological return.
‘They use everything about the hog except the squeal,’ Sinclair observes, in one of the novel’s most memorable lines. In contemporary consumer capitalism they go one further, bottling the squeal and selling it as greenwash. The animal industries might claim sustainability, but it is a miasma masking the insatiable appetite of the market.
(this post is an extract from a longer essay by Rob Percival in the issue)
IMAGE Pronghorn Killed by Train, Blaine County, Montana (48.454867°, –108.468977°) by Christopher Boyer
During the harsh winter of 2011, the snow was so deep that the only place the animals could travel were ploughed highways and railroad tracks which are slightly elevated and therefore blown free of snow by the wind. Carcasses were scattered along more than 100 miles of track, with the worst being near Hinsdale, Montana where approximately 145 animals were bunched up at a bridge when the train ploughed through.It was a demonstration of the unanticipated and unfortunate synergies when the rhythms of nature merge with the discord of infrastructure.
Christopher Boyer’s professional work in aerial survey, mapping and photography has allowed him to become a full-time student and chronicler of a changing planet. Flying low between projects affords him the freedom to document the stories and patterns revealed in gorgeous and tragic landscapes throughout the American West.
Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires
Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.