Environment - Finger-lickin’ awful

According to the “chicken nugget” theory of capitalism put forward by Raj Patel and Jason Moore, this ubiquitous processed, undefined animal morsel, is the symbol of the Anthropocene – the age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment. The authors reckon that modern chickens will remain in the fossil record, long after we're gone. In New Zealand, we ate 125 million chickens last year, and at least 50 billion are eaten around the world per annum. In dense warm sheds of tens of thousands of birds, tiny chicks are fed energy-rich food, but denied the ability and opportunity to fulfil their full chicken potential – to flourish and display usual chicken growth and behaviour – so they can be turned into meat in about six weeks' time.

Patel and Moore say this modern love affair with quick protein production, which just happens to be alive, is based on unsustainable, cheap collateral. That's cheap nature – pollution and other externalities; cheap work as shed and “process” workers earn little for inhumane labour; cheap care – as women in particular absorb unpaid costs of looking after children, the sick and the elderly; cheap food – for chickens themselves and for the consumers who eat them; cheap money – as credit to fund production expansion gets less expensive; cheap energy – to sustain these huge operations from growth to slaughter to transport to marketing and preparation; and overall, cheap lives.

Sadly, it's not just the production of chicken nuggets that fits this model. It can apply to most of the commodities in society that are driven by high volume, lowest price, mass-marketed consumer goods. Fast fashion is another example. Seasonal, trend-driven clothes are produced in poor countries in the global south for consumers in the north. Labour conditions, environmental standards, wages and social protections are low.

Wealthy end-consumers want to pay as little as possible, and clothes are disposable by design. Every part of the process devalues the raw resources – workers' time and lives, and the integrity that should be part of making stuff for people to wear. Concerns with fast fashion have given rise to the slow fashion movement – a parallel with the “slow food” movement response to concerns about fast foods.

Christine Rose