|There’s an interesting article by Elizabeth Kolbert in this week’s New Yorker on vegetarianism, and specifically on the disconnect between our adoration of pets and our tolerance for the horrific, lifelong suffering of the animals we eat. It’s really about human nature, Kolbert argues, and specifically that we just don’t want to know about atrocities and suffering we don’t feel we have any control over.
This was the subject of JM Coetzee’s book Elizabeth Costello, that I reviewed six years ago. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
Seven o’clock, the sun just rising, and John [animal welfare activist Elizabeth Costello's son] and his mother are on the way to the airport.
‘I’m sorry about my wife’, he says. ‘She has been under a lot of strain. I don’t think she is in a position to sympathize. Perhaps one could say the same for me. It’s been such a short visit, and I haven’t had time to make sense of why you have become so intense about this animal business.’
She watches the wipers wagging back and forth. ‘A better explanation’, she says, is that I have not told you why, or dare not tell you. When I think of the words, they seem so outrageous that they are best spoken into a pillow or into a hole in the ground, like King Midas.’
‘I don’t follow. What is it you can’t say?’
‘It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidence. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. It’s as if I were to visit friends,and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say “Yes it’s nice isn’t it? Human skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young virgins.” And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says “100% human stearate”. Am I dreaming, I say to myself. What kind of house is this? Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into your wife’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?‘
She turns on him a tearful face. What does she want, he thinks? Does she want me to answer her question for her?
In my review of the book, I asked:
Is there a point in rubbing our faces in it, in forcing people to face up to the horror of concentration camps, slaughterhouses, factory farms, chemical weaponry, mental illness, sexual assault and torture, bullying, spousal and child abuse, animal testing laboratories, political interrogations, what happens behind prison walls, the agony of those in continuous pain not allowed to die and without access to relief, the children whose entire lives are consumed in deprivation and brutality, the suffering of crack babies?
Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, the book that prompted Kolbert’s article, draws obvious parallels between the way we treat farmed animals and the way prisoners were treated in the second world war by the Axis powers. Kolbert explains:
Foer’s position is that all such arguments [those justifying 'humane' eating of animals put forth by Michael Pollan, Temple Grandin et al.] are, finally, bogus. We eat meat because we like to, and we devise justifications afterward. “Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about ‘eating animals,’ they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism,” he says. “It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.” What we know about eating animals is that we don’t want to know. Although he never explicitly equates “concentrated animal feeding operations” with the Final Solution, the German model of at once seeing and not seeing clearly informs Foer’s thinking. The book is framed by tales of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.
Reading the article, I thought about the program of practices I have designed for myself once I retire in a couple of months, whose purpose in part is to reconnect me with my instincts, my emotions, my senses and all-life-on-Earth. When I discuss this with people who don’t know me well, they tend to ask me either “How and why do you think you became disconnected?” or “Why would you want to subject yourself to that anguish?”. These are both questions born, I think, out of subconscious grief — the first is a denial that the life most of us live is in any way emotionally suppressed, tacitly cruel or unnatural, while the second is dismay that we could ever hope to handle that much terrible reality.
It intrigues me that the people who sign up for courses and workshops on emotional reconnection (judging by the research I have done, and on the Joanna Macy workshop videos I’ve watched) seem to be overwhelmingly female and over 30. Why is that adult women are more willing than males, or young people, to “let their hearts be broken”?
This is important, because one of the tenets of social democracy, and activism, is that if a majority of people feel strongly about some facet of the status quo, that this will inevitably produce change. The ending of slavery, women’s rights, and other instances are offered as justifications for political awareness, discourse and activism being necessary and sufficient preconditions for bringing about important change.
But are they? As Foer says, the majority already know that factory farming is an ugly business. But they don’t want to know. They quietly ignore it, turn away from it, satisfy themselves somehow that it’s not that bad or that nothing can change it anyway — it’s an inevitable part of civilization. It’s “natural”. The rationalizations of Pollan and Grandin are music to their ears.
The same is true for what we’re doing to the Earth, and to the struggling nations of the Earth. We know it’s awful, unsustainable, just not right. But we don’t want to know. We rationalize that it’s not really that bad (hence the popularity of the wing-nut Lomborgian climate change deniers, and corporatists who assert that struggling nations benefit from globalization and that “a rising tide lifts all boats”). We tell ourselves we can’t do anything anyway, we do what we can, it’s up to the experts and politicians.
The problem is, these rationalizations are just untrue, and like the nonsense of technophiles in groups like WorldChanging, the religious loonies who believe in the Rapture, and the “humanist” cults that preach about a coming “global human consciousness raising” it is magical thinking, stuff that we tell ourselves because we really, really don’t want to know the truth.
Regular readers are probably tired of me reciting Pollard’s Law of human behaviour, but until it has been effectively refuted I’ll keep saying it: We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. We have no time or energy left to do what’s merely right. It is not in our nature.
Let’s look at slavery. Of course the social movements against slavery were important. But I would argue they were not enough. The US civil war was not fought over slavery, it was fought over the right of one region to declare independence (this is the cause of many wars, which are almost always about power, money, control, and land). Slavery of both blacks and whites (called “indentured servitude”) was legal for many years throughout the US because it was the only way to make passage of workers economically feasible. They did what they had to. Later as travel costs fell, most people could afford their own passage to the “new world”, and slavery was then only essential to agriculture, particularly labour-intensive tobacco, cotton and sugar beet farming. Technology (like the cotton gin) increased manufacturing productivity and hence actually increased the need for more slaves on the farms to feed the new post-harvest automation. Slave owners acknowledged that slavery was (in the words of Robert E Lee) “a moral evil” but rationalized that the slaves were “better off here than in Africa”. You know, like how Aghanis and Iraqis are better off now than they were under the Taliban and Saddam.
After the civil war, slavery was abolished, but, after the brief but disastrous Reconstruction and a severe economic depression, white supremacy was restored in the former slave states in the Compromise of 1877 as Union forces finally withdrew and left the former slave states to sort things out for themselves. Slavery was replaced by sharecropping, blacks were re-disenfranchised, and for most of the following century suffered under brutal, overtly racist, repressive white-controlled governments. Slavery was allowed for prisoners, judicial and police systems treated blacks no differently than they had during the slave era, and segregation of all institutions meant that life for most African-Americans was only marginally better than it had been.
What changed, finally? The decline in the importance of agriculture overall in the US. Access to cheap foreign labour. The Industrial Revolution. As a result, social slavery was no longer necessary. Economic slavery was just as useful, without the blatant “moral evil” that characterized social slavery. Slavery ended ultimately not because of social activism (though that was absolutely necessary), but because it was easier to automate harvesting, import foreign workers (or offshore the whole process to countries unconcerned with “moral evils”), or use the land for something more profitable and less labour-intensive.
Has all this social activism brought an end to racism? Not on your life. Wait until the economic debt crisis hits in the next decade or so and you’ll see that nothing’s changed. Has it really brought an end to slavery? Talk to the Mexican workers in the American fields, or the children working in the blood diamond mines in Africa, or chained to machines in the factories in China, and you’ll get your answer. But we don’t want to know.
I could make an analogous argument for what has happened with women’s rights, but you get the idea. It was easy and profitable to get women into the workforce, for low wages, caught in the Two Income Trap, buying all those things a two-worker family needs that a one-worker family didn’t. And giving women the right to vote didn’t cost anyone anything, nor did it produce any significant power shifts. It was easy. Did women have to fight hard for it anyway, and should we salute them for doing so? Of course. Do women in most of the world still face horrific prejudice and oppression? Damned right. Will they too, with enough decades and centuries of struggle, achieve some reasonable equality in their societies? As long as it’s easy, and doesn’t cost anyone anything, sure.
Now apply this to factory farming. Ending it is not easy. It cannot be made easy. Like combatting the causes of climate change, or coping with the End of Oil and the End of Water, it is a hugely complex problem. The necessary change would be staggeringly expensive, and massively unpopular. Do we need activists to do the “holding actions” to mitigate some of the damage and to increase public awareness and affect public opinion on the need for change in these areas? Absolutely. Will that work, in and of itself, bring about sufficient change in these hugely difficult areas? Not a chance.
We will change when there is absolutely no choice (we do what we must) or when it is dead easy to change. Give us compact fluorescent lightbulbs that cost the same per kilowatt-hour as incandescents and reduce energy consumption by 2/3, and it’s easy — you can then make incandescents illegal and no one will care. Same thing happened with getting rid of the CFCs in refrigerants. No problem.
But reducing CO2 emissions to zero in two decades (necessary to get us down to 350ppm and avert climate catastrophe) will never be easy. Reducing oil and petrochemical consumption by 90% in three decades (necessary to avert The Long Emergency) is unfathomably difficult, if not impossible. Drastically reducing debts, waste, and consumption (necessary to avert a ghastly depression that will make the Great Depression look mild) is unimaginable, even with magical thinking — the cure might be as bad as the disease. And likewise an end to factory farming would require the nationalization and breakup of industrial agriculture, an end to the $150B annual agriculture subsidies to some mighty powerful oligopoly lobbies, and a total, mostly involuntary, change to the way we eat, that would make food much more expensive and its preparation much more time-consuming. This is the antithesis of easy.
These are wicked problems because it will never be easy to solve them. So no politician is going to impose change on the voters, because it would be political suicide. These problems will be solved politically or socially only when there is no other choice. And by then, as every previous civilization has discovered, it will be too late.
Is there a technology fix? The magical thinkers are hard at work. They’re planning on blasting $30B of tiny reflective metal into the stratosphere to deflect the sun’s rays, to combat global warming. It’s called geoengineering. They have no idea what they’re doing, but when things get desperate enough they’ll do it anyway. After all, it’s easy. Oh, and they’re also going to put all the carbon dioxide back into the Earth in a way that it won’t leak out again. That’s called carbon sequestration, and the technology doesn’t exist (the engineers I’ve spoken to say it never will), but, hey, when you’re magical thinking, go for it. Obama’s giving them millions to invent it. Just make it easy for us, please. Whatever the problems, we just don’t want to know.
And the magical thinkers are going to give us high-efficiency wind and solar and geothermal and biomass and “clean coal” and “safe nuclear” to get us off our addiction to oil. No matter that even all of these together barely scratch the surface of what we would need just to keep consuming at current levels (China’s energy use is growing 20%/year and they’re building a new coal-fired power plant every four days). Hey, what happened to cold fusion? In the meantime, we’ll stave off the problem for 4-5 years by turning an area of Alberta the size of Florida into a lunar landscape peppered with thousands of massive toxic tailing ponds. The kids will forgive us, right? We don’t want to know.
The magical thinkers haven’t even put their minds to dealing with the coming economic collapse, or the obscenity of factory farming, because they’re not even acknowledged as problems, let alone wicked ones. We don’t want to know.
Well, I want to know. And apparently a few others, mostly adult women, want to know too. Even if it means letting my heart be broken. Even if it means looking at a photo like the one above, which is offensive. I’ve been inside a slaughterhouse. I’m a vegetarian, but still not a vegan, so I’m complicit in what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses. I drive a car and fly too often, so I’m complicit in the Alberta Tar Sands holocaust. I know better, or at least I should. What’s the matter with me, with us?
What’s the matter is that we’re human. These things that don’t change don’t hit close enough. They’re not personal enough. Slaughterhouses and factory farms and Tar Sands developments are private property, and they don’t want you to know what goes on there. And what would you do, anyway?
Well, perhaps you’d do whatever it took to shut them down. And perhaps, if you got together with enough other people with the same intention, you might come up with some ingenious ways to shut them down. Maybe even as ingenious as the ideas that got these “innovations” started in the first place.
Do we really want to know the truth? I don’t know. We’re a curious species, we humans. If something can reasonably be done to make something better, or less awful, a lot of us seem to want to know what the problem is, and how we might do that.
All I know is that, after a lifetime of turning away, of not wanting to know, I’ve now reached the point where I can’t help knowing, and I can’t turn away, and I have to do something more than the very worthy and necessary but insufficient things that activists do so valiantly and often at great personal risk and sacrifice.
I have to stop these things. How? Don’t know yet. Work with me, and we’ll figure it out.
Last words to Ms Kolbert, a much better writer than I:
“Eating Animals” closes with a turkey-less Thanksgiving. As a holiday, it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But this is Foer’s point. We are, he suggests, defined not just by what we do; we are defined by what we are willing to do without. Vegetarianism requires the renunciation of real and irreplaceable pleasures. To Foer’s credit, he is not embarrassed to ask this of us.
But is even veganism really enough? The cost that consumer society imposes on the planet’s fifteen or so million non-human species goes way beyond either meat or eggs. Bananas, bluejeans, soy lattes, the paper used to print this magazine, the computer screen you may be reading it on—death and destruction are embedded in them all. It is hard to think at all rigorously about our impact on other organisms without being sickened.
And if we’re sickened, then what?