On Food Choices, part 3: the elephant in the room

I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. (Charles Darwin)

What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. (Morpheus, The Matrix)

The lesson of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot is that the Copernican Revolution is still underway.

It took a long time for me to accept the idea that we’re not at the centre of the universe, that there is no compelling evidence for gods of any sort, of a higher plan, of an afterlife.

Many believe that one or more gods have an unhealthy interest in what we do and with whom.

Some believe that we are special among all the species of the Earth, that we are inexorably destined for greatness, that we alone are worthy of salvation, that we have dominion over all creatures.

But as a species we exhibit both the heights of greatness and the depths of depravity.

The idea that we have a higher moral status, a greater right to be happy, to be free, than other animals is widespread, even though most of us would never articulate it in that way.

This belief is called speciesism.

We might be more intelligent than some of our mammalian cousins, but any claim to be emotionally “superior” to them is on very shaky ground, as is the notion that they have less capacity for pain.

Do we consider the life of an intellectually disabled human less important than a person of “normal” intelligence? If not, then why would it be reasonable for non-human animals?

Even on the most optimistic view of those animals not deliberately exploited (pets), a different standard is applied to them vs us when it comes to choice, e.g. euthanasia (“putting it to sleep”) or reproduction (“neutering”).

The Matrix quote is not accidental. We have constructed our human world. We didn’t discover it fully formed. Societies, industries, economies, religions, ideologies: they are all man-made.

A casual conversation with work colleagues in 2015 planted a seed. In the course of conversation, a documentary called Earthlings was mentioned.

I remembered this now and then but it wasn’t near the top of my priority list. Among other things, hearing about the Yulin meat festival in China raised its priority.

I thought I was aware of factory farming practices, but watching Earthlings suggested otherwise. Dominion, the “Australian Earthlings“, was released in 2018. That brought it even closer to home.

Other documentaries — of varying emphasis and quality — include Speciesism, Cowspiracy, The Ghosts in our Machine, Sustainability, Lucent, What the Health?, Live and Let LiveRotten, and Forks over Knives. Each add to the story in their own way, as do more matter-of-fact sources, such as RSPCA.

Sometimes, you need to see something in a new or different way to discover what you already knew or glimpsed for a moment before forgetting, reminiscent of The Silence of Doctor Who.

The real adventure lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. (Proust)

We have convinced ourselves that it’s okay to call some animals friends and others food or fur.

Once I began to accept that our relationship with animals was broken, it took only a short time to take seriously the idea that this needed to change, that they are not a means to our ends.

In contrast to my transition to atheism, this shift has happened over months instead of years.

That has the tendency to be disruptive to those around you.

In retrospect, I should have been openly talking with people close to me about this sooner, but there was a lot to process and I needed to sort things out first.

That’s largely what these posts are about.

In the end I’ve just been confusing and annoying to be around lately.

More than usual anyway.

I remember thinking that I didn’t know whether I would be able to adapt to life without animal products. I had already switched to soy milk. One day I decided to try a few weeks of lunches at work with no meat. I didn’t miss it. Eventually I started omitting other animal products and replacing them with plant-based ingredients (see part 2).

It’s still a work in progress.

My basic position now is simple:

Perpetuating a demand for food from large scale animal farming is ethically questionable.

This is for two main reasons, one of which was considered in part 1.

First, large scale animal farming is environmentally unsustainable in terms of land and water use and the resulting waste and emissions (carbon dioxide and methane). This will only get worse as the human population continues its exponential growth.

Second, raising livestock for food involves billions of sentient animals worldwide per year being born into servitude and living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow from Leviathan (Hobbes).

Part 2 pointed to a third reason: it may actually be healthier for us (so, more ethical) not to depend so much on animal-based food.

I was on a school camp on a farm in the mid-1970s and a sheep was slaughtered in front of us. Imagine that happening now! There was a request for a volunteer to help pull out the small intestine to show the class how long it was, presumably because “kids like gross stuff” I guess and it was educational in some sense. Naturally, I put up my hand for this and was the “lucky winner”. I don’t remember whether anyone fainted.

As a 15 year old (my daughter’s age) I was a volunteer St John Ambulance cadet and had the opportunity to train for and become a so-called “third man” on ambulances in the late 1970s. I saw my share of motor vehicle accidents and death then and that continued into young adulthood when I trained as a nurse.

So I have a fairly strong stomach.

Yet, as an adult, I couldn’t watch Earthlings or Dominion without a break.

One reasonable objection to all of this is that in nature, animals kill other animals, so why shouldn’t we? Just think of a David Attenborough documentary. In nature lions kill antelope, buffaloes, zebras, young elephants, rhinos, hippos, wild pigs, giraffes, even sometimes apparently mice, birds, hares, lizards, crocodiles and tortoises.

The argument from nature is understandable, but it ignores the fact that as a species, homo sapiens is defined by how it defies nature.

Very little that we do is natural, except for the mandate of bodily functions.

As noted earlier, we have constructed our world. We are tool builders, we wear clothes, live in houses, build machines that “defy” gravity, farm crops and animals on a large scale, pollute the environment, fight wars etc.

Do lions factory farm animals by the thousands at a time?

Do they, or the scavengers that come after, waste much of their prey?

It’s less about the killing of animals per se than the treatment and killing of animals en masse and at a distance.

There is a difference between hunting when trying to survive and purchasing animal products from a supermarket. In the latter case, the unpleasant part is someone else’s job, and the scale is massive.

In The Ethics of What we Eat, Peter Singer and Jim Mason quote Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid:

Ultimately, my objection is to the commercial forces that are seeking to persuade people of the poor world that their best nutritional interests are served by buying into modern, high-throughput farmed animal production processes. With that comes an addiction to high capital input systems, loss of control over the means of production, bad health, and a nightmare animal welfare scenario.

We may not be poor, but this is exactly the situation we find ourselves in.

This was a hard post to write — with a lot of revisions — and probably a bit ponderous to read. It could also be considered overly philosophical and abstract in parts, but it seemed to me to be necessary before returning to more specific topics in future.

Part 4: cultural relevance?

One Response to “On Food Choices, part 3: the elephant in the room”

  1. On Food Choices: a summary (tl;dr) | Strange Quarks Says:

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