Reliance on fossil fuels has largely developed in the last 200
years. Before that, most energy was renewable – animal and human muscle, wood, some wind and water power. The harnessing of new sources of energy, especially coal, about 250 years ago was crucial to the industrial revolution and all that followed.
For millennia animals have been harnessed to pull carts, carry loads, transport people, haul water, trash harvests, plough, puddle and weed crop fields etc. Even today, more than half the world’s population depends on animal power for much of its energy. Draught animals operate on more than 50% of the planet’s cultivated areas. In the mid 1990s work by draught animals was estimated to be equivalent to a fossil fuel replacement value of US$ 60 billion. Estimates of the number of animals used for power applications range from 300 million upwards. Oxen are the most frequently used animals and ploughing is the most common function. Almost all species of domestic quadruped are used, however, in a variety of agricultural and transport roles. In agriculture positive effects are seen to be higher crop output, better returns to labour, increased cash income and improved food security.
Despite motorization on all fronts the use of animals is still often more economic than the use of machinery and vehicles, especially in small scale agriculture and in remote areas. Animals are produced and maintained locally and don’t require the infrastructure needed for motorization. Where the value of machinery needs to be depreciated over time, that of animals can appreciate because of growth.
Ox power represents a sustainable and renewable resource of energy.
In terms of agriculture, ox power creates a lighter footprint on the earth than a tractor, which tends to compact the soil. Also in terms of the environment, it takes far less resources to produce a team of oxen than a tractor. How many mining operations and how many factories does it require to produce one tractor? How many drilling and refining operations does it take to fuel it? The “factory” that produces an ox is a cow. For “fuel” the oxen can eat grass and grain which they themselves produce.
And, we should not underestimate the level of benefit that oxen can provide. With the exception of the cultures of the Americas, practically every materially advanced civilization before the crusades – including China, India, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe – relied on oxen as the engine of agriculture and also for local transport, grinding of grains and even building. Many of the great projects of ancient times were all accomplished without the incredible level of pollution it would take to recreate such structures today.
Srila Prabhupada advises, “Petrol is required for long-distance transport, but if you are localized, there is no question of such transport. You don’t require petrol.... The oxen will solve the problem of transport.“
The tractor is a real sore point in agriculture. Tractors are expensive to operate. This expense partly explains why 30,000 to 50,000 small farms collapse every year in US. But ox power, though slower, is far more efficient.
For small farms, oxen do better than tractors. They require no gasoline, cost far less than tractors to maintain, provide free fertilizer, preserve precious topsoil, and don’t foul the atmosphere with carbon monoxide. Bovine waste, when mixed in the traditional way with straw, is the world’s best fertilizer. And when the animal dies, its skin can be processed into leather.
Turning to Gandhi for inspiration, we find that a key requirement for building peace is to provide full employment by emphasizing localized production for localized markets. Gandhi stressed that everything which can be produced locally should be, even if the local economy is less efficient at its production. Since time immemorial, human cultures have lived with and protected cows. Cows have provided many essential services to humanity for very little maintenance. They’re an inseparable part of God’s efficient system for human civilization. Today people employ them in agriculture in India and many other so-called developing countries.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, an ecologist, comments on India’s recent cattle policy while calling it a policy of ecocide of indigenous cattle breeds and a policy of genocide for India's small farmers: “The traditional approach to livestock is based on diversity, decentralisation, sustainability and equity. Our cattle are not just milk machines or meat machines. They are sentient beings who serve human communities through their multidimensional role in agriculture.”
“On the other hand,” continues Shiva, “ externally driven projects, programmes and policies emerging ftom industrial societies treat cattle as one-dimensional machines which are maintained with capital intensive and environmentally intensive inputs and which provide a single output - either milk or meat. Polices based on this approach are characterised by monocultures, concentration and centralisation, non-sustainability and inequality.”
Thus, whether we like it or not, when fossil fuels bid us good bye, we will have to revert back to bull power for fulfilling some of our energy requirements.
What is the use of car? If you locate yourself (get localized) to get everything, your necessity, then where is the use of car? If you require car, you have a bullock cart. That’s all. Why should you hanker after petrol, mobil, oil, machine, this, that, so many things. Why?
-Srila Prabhupada (Conversation, October 5, 1975, Mauritius)