Chickens Connect to the Climate Crisis - The Years Project

Chickens Connect to the Climate Crisis

By Maya Lilly

“Chickens are one of the most abused animals on the planet.” This is something I would say on repeat a decade ago. At the time I was saying it, I was on national television as a spokesperson for a major animal rights organization. I was their go-to person who could tie animal rights to environmentalism. And it was true. Chickens endure things it would hurt me to describe here, things as close to torture as the word allows, but they also relate deeply to environmental imbalance. The sad phrase etched like calligraphy into a place somewhere between my bones and my heart, and was a main reason I decided to do the unconventional years later: I gave rescue chickens a coop in my backyard, and take care of them. Hell, I love them.

Rescue chickens Gracie, Lucy, Ethel and Sarah. Photo: Maya Lilly.

Chickens aren’t what you expect. They’re inquisitive, familial, and they make far more than just cartoony Cluck Cluck sounds. (Come to think of it, mine never make that sound.) When they are together, they coo at each other, clearly having a quiet conversation. When I arrive with mealworms, decadence like chocolate to them, they make these insistent chirping sounds that sound like mini Thank Yous. Gracie stands on my feet and gazes up at me, like how you dance with a parent when you’re small. And when they are all put to bed at night, the coop tightly closed so predators can’t get in, they cuddle each other and grow deeply, almost disturbingly silent. In the dark, it’s as if they know that everything wants to eat them.

And everything does want to eat them.

Nothing more so than humans.

I didn’t grow up with any understanding of permaculture, animal rights, food sovereignty, or climate change. I grew up in concrete both in Manhattan and Miami. But I caught on pretty quickly when, in 1995, I stumbled across the fact that huge swathes of rainforest were being clearcut to make room for … cattle. I remember thinking it was a joke. But I just had to multiply my dinner x my parents’ dinner x the dinners of all my friends x the state of Florida x the United States x the world and Oh. My. What. … it was huge.

The doorway that opened up to me was one into a deeply, heartbreakingly broken relationship with animals and food systems. (One peek at the documentary Earthlings is really all you need.) And it wasn’t isolated at animal rights. The enormity of the 65 billion chickens we are consuming each year has a distinct carbon footprint. Eating chickens casts a carbon shadow that lands squarely between farmed fish and eggs at 2.9 kilograms of CO2.

That’s way less than beef and lamb, but more than a plant-based diet. Industrial-sized poultry operations also create water pollution, and use 4,325 kg of freshwater on a planet where aquifers are drying up quickly.

The waste produced causes harmful gas emissions. And the classic joke about “humane” free-range farming is that it requires there to be a door to the outside… but doesn’t require it to be unlocked.

I’ve gone back and forth over the years about how much humans should be interfering with natural systems ‘cuz, hey, Mama did it best the first time. I was always against Big Ag. In college for Environmental Studies, I started to believe that we were better off without any agrarian systems, because land cultivation for food itself was the root of dominance to me, leading to patriarchy and warfare. Fast forward to now, and I eat as local, organic, and low on the food chain as humanly possible. I’ve been vegetarian for 20 years now, vegan for many of those, and don’t even miss it when I smell bacon, because all that smells like to me is Big Fat Sorrow and an animal that’s smarter than your DOG. And I gauge my own freedom and evolution with how well I treat the living landscapes around me. But there’s another compelling reason I’m learning food sovereignty.

The climate crisis will increasingly wreak havoc with our food systems…and systems in general. Flooding in the Midwest right now has caused a massive loss of crops this year. California, which is the sole producer for foods like almonds, peaches and pistachios, as well as 14% of all U.S. crops, is facing not just a drought, but a permanent drying out of the west, depleting the water sources for crops.

Climate patterns are changing everywhere, so even smaller farmers can’t rely on any sense of normalcy. All of this has led me to believe that learning how to supply myself with food in a rapidly changing world is the highest skill set I can have. I don’t want to rely on systems that were set up incorrectly in the first place to save me when they face the consequences of what they caused.

And all of this reminds me of one of the greatest survival tips I learned once in an edible weeds class, The Rule of Threes:

You can live three minutes without air.
Three days without water.
Three weeks without food.
And three months without love.

As we look around this changing landscape, we first need clean air, then water, then food. My chickens are helping me with the food part. And I’m helping them with number four.

You can see me with my rescue chickens, Lucy, Ethel, Sarah and Gracie, and hear more about why they’re an integral part of a healthy garden system at Gungho Eco: