If you’ve ever watched a nature documentary, you’ve seen a clip of it—a lion with muscles rippling sweeping across the savanna toward a zebra or gazelle. The lion is fully committed to the chase, bursting into top speed at a moment’s notice to satisfy their hunger.
When it comes to getting their food, animals and plants don’t dither. They don’t second-guess themselves, and they don’t hesitate. They know what to go for, and they waste no time in heading there. Whether it’s a plant stretching its roots toward water or its leaves toward the sun, or whether it’s an animal looking for their next meal, they commit fully to their hunger.
Human beings, I notice, are not so single-minded. I’ve watched myself and others spend weeks or months, sometimes years, second-guessing our hungers. Maybe we don’t feel worthy to receive what we need. Maybe we see only obstacles in the way. We might be afraid of change—of having to give up a person or a thing we think we can’t live without. We may not even know what we’re hungry for. Maybe we believe that addressing our deep hunger just isn’t possible. Or we’re afraid our hunger is too big.
There are a million flavors of fear and despair to keep us from committing to our hunger. A million reasons to keep waiting in the grass instead of heeding the growl of our own empty bellies.
But here’s the thing about hunting: to a lion, it’s fun. It’s a form of play, of creativity—focusing all their energies on a single point and pursuing it with the speed of the wind. I can only imagine how pleasurable that must be. When the lion does catch the one they’re chasing, I can also believe a feeling of deep satisfaction—not only filling their belly with food, but also succeeding in what their whole being is primed to do.
Our dogs and cats are the same way. Long ago, I had bought many squeaky toys for my dog before I understood why she loved the squeak so much. Then one evening at the wildlife rehab center where I was volunteering, I heard the real squeak. I was walking toward the coyote pen when a blood-curdling shriek pierced the air. I ran ahead—what could possibly be wrong? I arrived at the fence to find our coyote prancing in circles. And there, at his feet, lay a dead rat. I’d just heard the death scream of a rat. The coyote was having the time of his life. Hearing that shriek marked the end of a game that he loved more than anything else, a game that he had just won.
There is an old tradition in Western culture that satisfying our hunger like an animal is beneath a human being—that we should be better than that. Making a sharp division between humans and other animals is one of the founding ideas of Western thought—a wall between us and the rest of nature that goes way back, at least as far back as the Greek philosopher named Hesiod, around 700 years before the common era. Hesiod was a poet-farmer, and from his poem Works and Days we learn that he grew grains and also raised pigs, sheep, and goats. The whole poem is a meditation on how to live a good and balanced life by following the seasons and the laws of nature.
And right here, in his ideas about the laws of nature, we find something interesting. Hesiod says that Zeus, the god of heaven, gave animals and humans different kinds of law. To animals, he says, Zeus gave the law of biē, a Greek word meaning “brute force” or “raw energy,” which anyone can see, he says, because animals eat each other. But Zeus gave humans a different law, called dikē, or “justice.” To live by justice means to settle disputes with fair-mindedness and without force and violence. Justice, or Dikē, in Greek myth was the young woman holding the scales to show that justice is balanced and rational.
Listen to a few lines of Hesiod’s poem:
Heed dikē [justice] and put biē [brute force] completely out of your mind.
For this way [of brute force] is the norm that Zeus has imposed
on the fish and beasts and winged birds,
that is, to eat each other. For they have no dikē.
But to humans he gave dikē, which is by far the best.
Hesiod shows a confusion here that has plagued Western thinking ever since. He draws a sharp contrast between humans and other animals, but he does it by comparing apples and oranges. When it comes to animals, he talks about satisfying hunger. But when it comes to humans, he talks about settling disputes.
A fairer comparison would have started with the same activity, such as eating. And if Hesiod had started there, he would have found no difference at all. He raised animals, so he shed the blood of others to feed himself and his family, just as wild animals do. Life feeds on life—a law that is just as true for humans as for others. But Hesiod and the whole Western tradition since him have tried to take humans out of the natural world, and one big way of doing it has been to parrot this old Greek idea that animals are innately violent, and humans should operate by a different law.
Which brings us to the second confusion in Hesiod’s idea: he interprets the predator-prey relationship as one of antagonism and violence. Western thought has followed him in this confusion as well, for to this day we talk about how dogs and cats, or lions and gazelles, are “enemies.”
But the relationship of eating has nothing to do with “enemies” in the human sense; it is not at all about anything that humans fight over, such as land or ideas or power. The predator-prey relationship is about eating only—and if you watch a coyote kill a rat or a cat toss a mouse, you can see that the predator is fascinated in a special way by the animal they most enjoy eating. It is a relationship of love, not antagonism. Cats love mice; snakes love baby birds; sharks love sea lions. The predators eat what they most love to eat; the prey are not arguing with the predators, just trying to avoid their hungry mouths.
So there, in the shadowy dawn of Western philosophy, lies an idea about human superiority over animals that became the cornerstone of Western thinking. But it was an idea born of confusion, of tangling up two things—eating and disagreeing—that have nothing to do with each other.
After Hesiod, Greek thinkers remained stuck in the idea that animals are innately violent and that violent tendencies in humans represent a so-called animal part of our nature. Greeks saw animals as the carriers of all strong “appetites”—and by “appetites” they meant everything from sexual desire to the urge for power to gluttony and greed. Any human who acted in any kind of excess, like overeating or forcing their will on others, was acting like an animal; they were abandoning the reason and rationality that are supposed to govern human life.
So those old ideas laid the foundation for a wall of separation between humans and animals. And it’s up to us now to tear down that wall and rejoin the circle of life. And one way to do it is to rehabilitate the idea of appetite. To honor our hungers and commit to following where they lead. To become more animal-like in our appetites, not less.
I see at least three ways we can become more like hungry beasts. For one thing, we can choose the right food. Because what does a hungry animal do? They find the kind of food that appeals to them most. And by eating it, they contribute their part to the circle of life. They fill their niche in the ecocommunity—a specialized role that only they can play—by eating the food that they are best suited to eat.
What does it look like when humans become more animal-like in choosing the right food? It means we listen to our bodies to find out what they’re best suited to eat—because human bodies are not all alike, and some can handle certain foods better than others. It also means that we listen to our hearts, to identify the foods that feed our spirits. Do we hunger for justice? If so, we commit to pursuing that hunger, perhaps finding others who share it so we can organize to make a more just world. Do we hunger for music or art? Then we commit to satisfying it by creating gifts of beauty or insight to share with others. Maybe we long for deep intimate connection with another person or with nature.
Whatever our heart hunger, it is honorable. And honoring our hunger means committing to satisfy it. By following, in this way, the hunger that is particular to our own hearts, we find our own place in the community of life. The unique flavor of our own hunger will lead us toward our specialty, toward the contribution that is ours to make.
And here’s a second thing about hungry beasts. Not only do they hunt the food best suited to them, but when they find it, they eat only as much as they need. The truth about animals and hunger—to be clear—runs exactly counter to those old Greek ideas. When animals’ bellies are full, they stop eating. They don’t keep hunting for the sake of hunting. If they are mountain lions, and the deer they bring down is too much for one meal, they cache it carefully away to come back to another day. If they are squirrels, they tuck their fresh seeds into new hiding places, where if the seeds don’t get eaten they may sprout into new life, or others may find them and benefit.
It is not animals who are greedy, it is humans. In fact, a person who keeps hunting and taking without end is acting in opposition to their animal nature. They are confused about things that other animals are clear about. A person who tries to amass more and more is certainly hungry, but they don’t know for what. They may be substituting one kind of hunger for another, such as wealth and possessions for love. Other animals seem incapable of this kind of confusion—one thing I’ve always found refreshing about them. They are unable to mask their own hungers from themselves or to fool themselves about their desires.
The human ability to misread and misuse our hungers has led us in the West to create an economic system built directly on mistaken notions of hunger. It is no accident that capitalism was dreamed up in a culture that had been confused since the start about animals and appetites. Capitalism encourages people to keep hunting even after their needs are met—to never be satisfied with “enough” and instead to pursue “more than enough,” or profit. It is the most non-animal-like system imaginable—rewarding people for violating the built-in limits on their appetites. Encouraging growth without end. Capitalism tries, in fact, to deny death with its ever-rising indicators and eternal profit.
But animals don’t live forever. And taking our place in the family of Earth will mean honoring the limits on our appetites, as other animals do. It means redesigning our economic systems to respect those limits. It means rethinking our rules of exchange so that no one takes more than they need. It means ending incentives for making a profit and instead handing out rewards for sharing. Many Indigenous cultures have a lot of practice in these economies. I wrote about this in Kissed by a Fox, and you can read more there.
In addition to identifying our own hungers and stopping eating when our needs are met, there is a third way we would do well to become more like beasts, and that is by taking delight in our hunger. For I can imagine it is not only coyotes or lions or other large predators who enjoy chasing their dinners. I suspect that joy is part of the hunt down to the smallest microorganism. I suspect that to a dung beetle, eating feces is a great delight. Why else would they do it? Each animal, each plant, is equipped to get its nutrients in its own way, and for the circular economy of the natural world to keep flowing around and around, it must be fueled by satisfaction, even joy.
For humans to get more joy from our hunger, we need to redesign work. If we can reengineer our economies to reward sharing instead of profit, this one big change alone will change the nature of work. Work will have a chance of becoming more animal-like—not something we do so that others can skim a profit from our labors, but something we do because we enjoy it. Not working for the sake of working, but working at what we are well suited to do. Doing work that brings satisfaction to our souls as well as bodies.
So I’m wishing for all of us to find ways to become more like hungry beasts. To know with the clarity of an animal or plant exactly what we are hungry for. To commit ourselves to satisfying it, and then to take only what we need. And to build a world where everyone has a chance to do work that they can delight in and be satisfied by.
May your hungers always show you the way forward, and may satisfying them bring you great joy.
For digging deeper
Hesiod’s poem Works and Days, written around 700 BCE, appears online in a contemporary and readable translation by Gregory Nagy at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies website. Lines quoted here are 275–79.
The idea that animals are innately violent was one of the starting points of European thinking during the Enlightenment and colonialism, and you can find it especially in Thomas Hobbes. I mused about this pessimism in the middle chapters of Kissed by a Fox. For Graham Harvey’s The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (Acumen, 2013), I showed how that pessimism about animals crept into the thinking of both eighteenth-century economics and nineteenth-century biology: “The Animal Versus the Social: Rethinking Individual and Community in Western Cosmology.” You can download the pdf here.
In chap. 12 of Kissed by a Fox I looked at the potlatch, the economic system of Native tribes of the American Northwest, following the work of Ronald Trosper (Salish/Kootenai), a Harvard-trained economist and social scientist who is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. Trosper’s book on the Northwest potlatch is Resilience, Reciprocity and Ecological Economics (Routledge, 2009). For a brief intro to Indigenous economic thinking, see “Rebuilding Indigenous Economies and Remembering How to Creatively Thrive,” by Pennelys Droz, at NDN Collective.
Ecological economists are working toward bringing the human economy into harmony with the living world. Jason Hickel, an ecological economist in London, explains why our economy is “a death cult” in causing so much destruction of the living world—because it relies on capitalism, with its rules of endless growth. Ecological economists advocate for “degrowth,” and Hickel gives an excellent intro to this concept in his 16-minute talk, “New Economies: How Degrowth Will Save the World,” from December 2020. Ecological economist Lauren Bell provided an intro to the thinking of the field in “Questioning Growth, Fostering Sustainability,” as a guest writer on my blog This Lively Earth in 2009.
I wrote more about capitalism’s unsustainable growth model in “Breathing In, Breathing Out: The Biological Foundation for Sustainable Economic and Social Life,” in The Journal of Sustainability Education.
On how work for the sake of working leads to a dead end, see this recent article in Aeon, “The Tyranny of Work,” by Jamie McCallum. The article’s subtitle is “How the Work Ethic Became a Substitute for Good Jobs.”