I’m back. Apologies for the lack of entry last week – a combination of jet lag and a cold made sure that didn’t happen.
Today, I wanted to write about something that’s been on my mind for a while. Before travelling for a month, my wife and I decided that, on our return, we’d go vegetarian. This was a relatively complex decision, and I wanted to share my reasoning behind this choice with you.
First, I have no intention of preaching at you. Vegetarianism isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a faith. Nor am I going to preach radicalism, neither of us are going vegan and, while there are plenty of reasons to support veganism, there’s also often an agenda that goes alongside it. Instead, I simply want to highlight the reasons why I believe it’s not necessary to consume meat (in an affluent, Western country).
I’ve written a lot so far about compassion, both from an individual perspective (here), and about the importance of societal compassion (here). Mostly, this has involved the behaviour of humans toward other humans. In retrospect, I realise that I left something rather important out: animals (and the rest of the planet). See, here’s the thing: eating meat involves eating the flesh of another species, often a species with a measurable portion of our own intelligence. To advocate compassion and understanding to another human being also requires some thought toward creatures over whom we wield power. Is it reasonable, in our modern world, to slaughter them for consumption?
Well, maybe we should start with that idea. Most of you reading this article are living in a comfortable world. Food isn’t scarce, protein is cheap and abundant, and life is pretty easy. So much so, that most of what we complain about can be summarised as “first-world problems”. First-world problems aren’t actually problems at all, but because we live luxurious lives (in comparison to even our recent ancestors) we like to make up things to complain about. “The train was late”, “I hate my boss”, “the service at this restaurant is awful”. We get upset by these ‘issues’ (I have) and turn them into a ‘big deal’. But, in reality, most of us live cosseted, comfortable lives without much need. We’re never really hungry or cold. We’re safe, well housed and entertained…
In this comfortable, modern world, we are also distanced from a lot of the ‘real’ world. When we go to the supermarket to stock up on food, we have little to no idea of where the food comes from. It’s all packaged neatly and made attractive by marketing departments. This is particularly the case for meat: carefully packaged in cling wrap and styrofoam, making it as far from an actual animal as possible. When we buy this packaged meat, very few of us think about what it took to get that meat to us; certainly not the transportation of the animal to the abattoir, it’s terror during the lead up to slaughter, and its mechanical, industrial scale dismemberment and subsequent packaging.
Until relatively recently, animal proteins were a pretty essential (and luxurious) part of our diets. Most of our ancestors got meat when they could, and it was pretty much the only way they could get access to a protein source. So, for much of our evolution, killing animals for food made sense. It was also personal. Many of us reared our own animals, and either slaughtered and butchered them ourselves, or had it done by the local butcher or abattoir. We saw first hand where the meat came from, did our best to reduce the animal’s suffering during slaughtering, and made sure we didn’t waste any of it (hence to origin of sausage). Meat, and the animal it came from, was relatively precious, its value reflected in the work of rearing, feeding, and caring for the animal. Come the modern era, it was no longer cost effective to hand-rear our meat, or to have local, small-scale abattoirs. Instead, like car manufacturing, agriculture and clothes making, we industrialised the cultivation and slaughtering of animals. Animals were bred en-mass, turned into a large-scale commodity (no longer seen as living species), and mass-production slaughterhouses were designed and established. The modern abattoir is a horror-show of modern industry: extraordinarily efficient, and astoundingly disturbing. Although, in some countries, thought has been given to the welfare of the animals being processed through these facilities, it is pretty delusional to assume that they don’t suffer. From long-distance transport (in some cases through live export by sea), to cramped, panicked conditions in corralling, to the killing floor, there is pretty good evidence that the animals are terrified throughout. They’re hardly treated gently or with compassion.
Now I don’t know about you, but if meat is no longer necessary for my survival or even my health, and knowing what I know about how animals are treated in the rendering of their flesh for my consumption, it’s pretty hard to call myself a compassionate person if I engage in this process.
So of course, my next question has to be, are animals sentient? Are we slaughtering and eating creatures who can think and feel, or who even possess consciousness? Here’s a little quote from Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder:
“We need to stop pretending we don’t know if other animals are sentient. We also need to accept that we know what they want and need. Their minds aren’t as private as some claim them to be. Surely, we might miss out on some of the nitty-gritty details but it is safe to say that other animals want to live in peace and safety and absent fear, pain, and suffering, just as we do. Despite the erroneous claim that other animals are not known to worry, there is ample evidence that they do indeed worry about their well-being and that excessive worrying and a lack of rest and sleep can be costly. ” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/em/127378).
Professor Bekoff is certainly more qualified than I am in this regard, but given that we eat animals with complex nervous systems and developed brains, it’s a little arrogant to assume that because they don’t display human levels of intelligence, animals aren’t capable of feeling many of the same things we do. At the very least, his point about pain and suffering is salient. If we are exploiting other species for our own needs, why are we doing it in a way that disregards their wellbeing and encourages their suffering?
So now there’s another question to be asked: do we still need to exploit other species? Can we exist without killing living beings and eating their flesh? In the first world, the answer is an obvious yes. We no longer need to exploit animals to maintain our health. For the first time, possibly in our entire existence, it’s now a question of choice. Do I eat a hamburger knowing its provenance, or do I choose something that didn’t have a face?
Let’s go one step further. What about pets? Keeping a pet is an extremely selfish act. We do it exclusively for ourselves so we can have companionship (or whatever our reasons might be). What rights do these animals have? How important is their physical and emotional wellbeing? Dog ownership in Australia is extremely high, and yet many of Australia’s dogs are left by themselves in backyards during the day while their owners are absent. Walk through any Australian suburb and you’ll hear dogs barking constantly. Why? Because, dogs are pack animals that require company. In leaving them by themselves, deprived of their human pack, we subject them to daily torture, and they slowly go mad. Cat ownership is high too. Many cat owners think it’s cute when their little Tiddles brings home a dead bird, without a thought to the decimation of Australian birdlife inflicted by domestic and escaped cats. Just because cats come in small, cute packages, doesn’t mean that they aren’t still hunters.
And there’s the rub: it’s just too easy for us to ignore the things we don’t want to think about, or that we simply can’t be bothered with. It’s easy to ignore the fact that animals are potentially thinking feeling creatures much like ourselves. It’s too easy to dismiss those who care about animals as kooks and cranks. We’re too comfortable in our little worlds, comfortable with our ignorance and satisfied with our level if removal from other species. Out of sight is out of mind.
Look, before I get too carried away here, I’m fully aware of my own hypocrisy here. In choosing not to eat meat, I’m still contributing to the abuse of animals and the degradation of the planet. I’m not going full vegan, I wear leather, I fuck the planet. What I’m proposing in neither fanaticism nor puritanism, rather I’m taking some actions based on the knowledge that in consuming meat, I’m contributing to the abuse of other species in a way that I’m no longer comfortable with.
So rather than a complete life change (which just isn’t going to happen for most people) what’s a balance that most people can achieve? Why even bother? The next time you complain about something, ask yourself: is this complaint justified or even relevant? Am I just whinging? Can I take some action?
Here’s some actions you can take:
Reduce or remove meat consumption;
Be aware of provenance – don’t buy meat from supermarkets;
Encourage small providers who raise their own livestock and slaughter humanely;
Avoid any organisation that engages in or encourages live animal export;
Be aware of the animal-welfare practices of the organisations you purchase from;
Reduce your fish consumption – is it really sustainable?
Educate yourself – don’t buy into the marketing hype about “animal friendly”;
Stop buying palm oil in all its derivations (including the foaming agents in shampoo);
Lobby companies and politicians when you feel it can make a difference – we do, after all, live in a democracy;
Educate yourself about what really goes on (especially with regards the horror of Halal and Kosher slaughtering);
Think long and hard before getting a pet – can you really take care of its needs?
Take your pet’s needs seriously – he or she is not just there for your amusement;
Vote with your wallet…