Planet of the Cows

Cows and people are the large animals that most dominate the environment

3 min read
Opening illustration for Numbers Don't Lie opinion column.
Illustration: Stuart Bradford

For years I have tried to imagine how Earth would appear to a comprehensive and discerning probe dispatched by wonderfully sapient extraterrestrials. Of course, the probe would immediately conclude, after counting all organisms, that most individuals are either microscopic (bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi, algae) or very small (insects) but also that their aggregate weight dominates the planetary biomass.

That would not be really surprising. What these tiny creatures lack in size they more than make up in numbers. Microbes occupy every conceivable niche of the biosphere, including many extreme environments. Bacteria account for about 90 percent of the human body’s living cells and as much as 3 percent of its total weight. What would be surprising, however, is the picture the probe would paint of the macroscopic forms of animal life, which is dominated by just two vertebrates—cattle (Bos taurus) and humans (Homo sapiens), in that order.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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