Confined in crowded conditions chickens will violently peck one another due to the stress. Pigs will bite each other’s ears and tails. The animal agriculture industry’s answer to such problems is to simply cut off the tails and blunt the teeth of piglets prior to confinement so as to minimize so-called “carcass damage” which translates into profit loss. Chickens have the ends of their beaks seared off with a hot blade in a process known as debeaking or sometimes, euphemistically, as beak trimming. The animals are mutilated so as to better fit the industrialized food system while creating minimal friction (i.e. profit loss).
The article accompanying Wolf’s photos explains:
“In the United States, we’re spoiled with space. Even in New York City, where it can sometimes feel as though you’re walking on top of the person in front of you, we have the luxury of expansive parks and comparatively well-sized apartments. To live in Hong Kong is truly to live in a mega-city, where your apartment building can have a population greater than entire towns in Nebraska.”
Like the creation of large scale factory farms, the creation of Hong Kong’s massive high rises is a strategy to maximize profit with attention to the biological needs of the captives being limited to what does and doesn’t interefere with the pursuit of profit:
“The driving force behind Hong Kong’s expansive high-rise culture is purely economic. To maximize revenue, the government needs to keep the land expensive, which means they need to keep it rare. Contractors will bid on a small plot of land, driving the price up, and whoever wins has the choice: Do you build high or low?”
All the economic incentives are in favor of density: packing people into high rises, packing chickens into battery cages. It’s amazing we humans aren’t pecking each other to death…but then again maybe we are.
The consequences of living in such dense spaces and at such vast scales is difficult to determine. Not surprisingly, crude experiments have been carried out on other animals but these have not proven to be conclusive. Most notable are the experiments of John B. Calhoun.
In 1962, Calhoun published “Population Density and Social Pathology” in Scientific American. Calhoun created self contained “rodent universes” (his term) that initially provided for the basic needs of the confined animals but simultaneously set the stage for rapid population growth and severe overcrowding. The results included sexual deviancy, aggression, mothers neglecting or even attacking their pups—in Calhoun’s words “going berserk”. Infant mortality reached levels as high as 96 percent in some groups.
“Like Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s pigeons, Calhoun’s rats came to assume a near-iconic status as emblematic animals, exemplary of the ways in which behavioral experimentation at once marks and violates the human-animal distinction.” (source)
Calhoun was criticized—by J.Z. Young, amongst others—for carelessly extrapolating results from his highly controlled rodent experiments to human society.
Experiments with human subjects carried out by psychologist Jonathan Freedman in 1975 reportedly did not find similarly negative results. Additional studies since that time have seized on numerous variables as to why different people either succeed or fail to cope with dense living environments. In short, the same density does not affect every person in the same way or to the same extent (in fact, not every rat was affected in the same way or to the same extent in Calhoun’s experiments). Much of the stress that is reported is attributed to an excessive amount of unwanted social interaction; some people are better able to manage social interaction and can create their own sense of personal space despite being in a high density population. (source)
But to adequately consider the question of density, it is important not to overlook what might be considered to be the indirect harms of density such as noise and other forms of pollution. These things do negatively affect dense populations even if the subjective experience reported by some individuals being in a densely populated space remains positive. A recent study conducted by NASA scientists and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology established a link between population density (as opposed to simple population size) and air pollution. And an editorial in The New York Times recently cited a study of people living near airports which found that even those who reported sleeping soundly and being undisturbed by airplane noise exhibited “blood pressure spikes, increased pulse rates, and set off vasoconstriction and the release of stress hormones”.
So in the absence of definitive answers, we are left to ponder the photography of Michael Wolf. Wolf, in fact, does not view the density of the high rises as dystopian. He currently lives in a 21 story building and describes the experience of “look[ing] out on a sea of 5000 apartments” as “fascinating”. While I think his photos are indeed fascinating, I see them as fascinating in the same way that turning over a rock and seeing countless crawling creatures quickly scatter is fascinating.
I can’t help but think that only badly mutilated or severely stunted animals—human or nonhuman–could live in such spaces; that we are being mutilated for the sake of a larger system and that such density limits our potential. Like battery chickens, we spend our whole life without the freedom to spread our wings.
Note: John B. Calhoun began his career at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. Jackson Laboratory was the subject of a previous post..
Medical Historian Examines NIMH Experiments in Crowding
Escaping the Laboratory: The Rodent Experiments of John B. Calhoun and Their Cultural Influence
The Urban Animal: Population Density and Social Pathology in Rodents and Humans
Psychological Musings: The Effects of Population Density and Noise