Monday, February 21, 2011

Still Eating Ursula! (Just Desserts?)

 As I've said . . . I think there is a kind of sliding scale of differences in abilities along a gradient between humans and OTHER animals. Of course, there are real material differences in us, and the worlds we inhabit. But these differences don't have to mean that any one way of "having a world," or any one creature need be privileged over any other.
            Does THIS mean we should never eat animals? I must not think so, since I do eat animals. Why not adopt veganism and vegetarianism as principled stands against "doing harm" by eating animals? My feeling, in the first place, is that there are all sorts of thing that we do that compromise our principles every single day.  We live in an incredibly complicated world, and our very existence often puts us at odds with our own ethical positions, and leads us to do things that we would never do (or really try not to do)  if we were fully aware of the consequences of our actions. I'll bring up only one example that relates to my long experience working in Africa – although this example doesn't come from my own work, but from my friend, Jim Smith's, in Eastern Congo.  Virtually every cell phone in the world today has a circuit board that uses material derived from coltan to maintain its charge.  What is coltan? It's a metallic ore that's found, almost exclusively in Eastern Congo.  And the people living in Eastern Congo have been deeply entrenched in warfare for almost 20 years.  These wars weren't started by the quest to mine coltan, but today, the funds derived from the coltan trade are without question exacerbating this warfare, putting more and more young men directly in conflict with one another, subjugating many of them to powerful militia leaders who are eager to exploit the massive amounts of raw human labor needed to extract this ore.  Of course, the pursuit of this valuable commodity has placed women in the area at incredible risk, as rape and sexual slavery are commonplace in these lawless mining zones.  Moreover, these mining regions are often inhabited by endangered mountain gorillas, who not only get displaced by mining operations, but end up as bush meat in all too many cases.  There is no coltan certification process that can assure you, as a cell phone consumer, that your circuit board is made with "clean" coltan, coltan that wasn't derived from these conflict zones. Odds are pretty good that it was.
            This is a horrifying example, but it's not unique. Look at your clothing. Much of it was produced in circumstances that you know almost nothing about as a consumer.  The same is true of the components of your home electronics, your car, the paper products in your house, your energy sources.  I could go on and on. So is slaughtering an animal for meat more objectionable than exploiting farmworkers, seamstresses, unregistered miners, and guerilla warriors that we will never meet?
            To suggest that eating animals is a line that we cannot cross because it breaches principles that should be inviolate raises the question, for me, of how we apply those principles in the world, and not just in the abstract. Can we say that all killing is a line that we cannot cross, but human exploitation is defensible? Is it desirable to avoid all non-human animal killing, but permissible to exploit and degrade other human beings because it's simply unavoidable?  If we say that eating animals is not defensible then it seems to me we have to do so while at the same time acknowledging the kinds of human exploitation we do not, and cannot withdraw from. 
            While I have no real objections to veganism and vegetarianism as practices, I do think that the attempt to take principled stands against all animal slaughter amounts to using other animals as a kind of proxy  - a tangible, concrete substitute – for the many complex problems that we all live with as consumers.  We live in a world where we are hopelessly unable to really KNOW the conditions under which everything we encounter - especially everything we consume – is produced.  We can't know what the lives of so many producers of the things that fill up our own lives are really like.  I'm sure many times we imagine that those lives can't be very satisfying.  And while we feel at a loss to take any meaningful action to change this vast, complicated, hidden process, many may feel that they CAN (at least) exercise control over what they eat, what they put directly into their body.  It's ironic, but the logic of refusing to eat animals is almost identical to the logic that is typical of animal sacrifice in many contexts. In both cases, a challenging situation is addressed by means of representing that situation in a concrete, manageable entity – an animal – and the way that animal is treated demonstrates your wider intention to change the challenging situation you confront.  Whether slaughtered or saved, the treatment of that animal is meant to act on the problem.  I don't think this makes veganism and vegetarianism "bad ideas" (I'm also not opposed to animal sacrifice – I certainly don't think it's an incoherent ethical practice, and the sacrifices I've participated in were at least as humane as any slaughter I've witnessed), I just think the wider issues persist even after the animal has been saved or slaughtered.
           Just to be clear, there are a number of positions that advocate eating meat produced on "sustainable farms" and processed in "humane" fashion, that I also have problems with. There are  trendy chefs who feel that it's vital to learn how to slaughter the animals they serve as a way of owning up to their role in eating the beast, and – as many of them put it  - taking responsibility for the life of the animal. But it's not clear to me how killing a creature is a way of taking "responsibility" in anything more than a momentary and personal way.  Most animals have long intricate lives before they get slaughtered. Their whole lives can't be summed up in their death.  "Taking responsibility" it seems to me, should have more to do with acknowledging the SOCIAL dimensions of our consumption, and recognizing that a lot of (other peoples' - and some "animal") work goes into birthing, and feeding, and treating, and housing, and moving that animal; we don't really "take responsibility" for all of this work simply by putting knife to throat as we take the life of a beast. Bearing responsibility is not the same thing as personal participation.  It's perfectly possible to recognize the hard, demanding, skilled, grueling work of farming and processing, and to acknowledge and work towards IMPROVING the conditions of those who do such work.  Fetishizing one's own personal experience in slaughter so as to bear some "responsibility" for the "life" of the creature strikes me as a kind of self-indulgence that simply ignores the social conditions that actually make such personal experience possible.
            There's also an argument that says we should eat meat because it's only through eating meat that these animals can endure.  Michael Pollan makes the point that for domesticated species to thrive, they need to be raised by meat farmers, or these forms of biodiversity will die out.  He counters animal rights advocates by saying that individual animals may be protected by saving them from slaughter, but animal SPECIES also have an interest in surviving, and that survival is threatened by animal rights.  Pollan has a lot of interesting things to say about corn production and the hidden costs of industrial food; but on this point, he's just wrong. Not that barnyard pigs and cows won't become extinct if we fail to husband them; they will. Even wild pigs need domestic stocks to effectively reproduce their small numbers.  But it's just not the case that "species" have an interest in survival. Species are categories - they are ideas - that biologists (among others) use to classify the world.  Domestic pigs have no more interest in the endurance of the pig species than Cubist paintings have an interest in promoting this artistic style.  Individuals have interests, subjects have interests, even organisms have interest, but ideas  - like "species" or "Cubism" - are of interest to the people who use them. So we might think it would be a shame if domestic species became extinct – and for very compelling reasons – but I don't think "the species" itself can.
            Like Pollan, Donna Haraway includes a discussion of a feast centered on a wild pig roast, and the ethical challenges that posed for her academic dinner partners (her "messmates") in her big book.  For Haraway, eating such animals is – or can be - part of what she calls "killing well," a recognition of the fact that eating and killing go together, but that doesn't mean we should accept any and all kinds of killing as inevitable and permissible. Haraway's argument is too nuanced for me to address it as fully as it deserves here (this is a BLOG post, not a scholarly paper), but what I appreciate about her views are the way she does NOT search for some moral absolute, or some act of personal responsibility to redeem herself and the world, but says that there's an ongoing conversation we all need to be a part of to IMPROVE what are clearly the dangerous, destructive conditions we live with.  Humans have no privileged position that exempts us from slaughter (you might have noticed that we slaughter each other all the time - not that it's defensible - though many DO defend it), but this is NOT because other animals are just as capable as humans are of living rich, compassionate, compelling lives. Animals have their lives, but they are not the same as, or even equal to ours.  Rather, it's because we are all – together – LIMITED in our ability to do these things fully and completely.  We're fallible, so we should be humble. 
            So this is where I've come down on the matter.  I seem to have landed up in a position that will not claim that it's just fine to slaughter animals because they're "only" animals – or because they're so tasty; or that it's fine to do so when you are fully invested in the "life" of the animal whose life you take with due reverence.  Nonetheless, here I am readily eating animals (see all these other blog posts for evidence!) and scarcely regretting it.  How can I have eaten Ursula? Well, the truth is, I do have some regrets about it - but just enough to recognize that there's a difference between treating animals like a product whose entire life is structured around rendering them available to be killed and eaten as profitably as possible, rather than caring for animals in such a way that makes their lives livable in their own terms (well, as best as we humans can possibly understand what that might be) even if this means - in fact, requires – that they be slaughtered for meat.  Right now, there's simply no other way for domesticated farm animals to get to enjoy their lives.  BUT they don't have to be subject to persistent misery and terror (a little bit of misery and terror doesn't bother me too much, we all feel that at some point. We will probably never design a mechanism of slaughter that leaves all animals without any anxiety whatsoever) – and, crucially, neither do the people who work with them – to make this all work.  What I do feel very strongly is that by helping those who are willing and able to take the time and effort – and frequently endure the  unprofitability - necessary to give animals such lives, I am making a positive contribution to the world I live in. I don't think I need to be the one DOING all of this work (although I do enjoy doing what I can when I can).  This is not about "personal responsibility," or a deep spiritual "connection," or attachment to the "life" of the animals (soon to be eaten) in question.  My view centers on recognizing that there are powerful social institutions – corporations, capital, state subsidies, bureaucratic regulations, and so on - also at work that are clearly indifferent to the animal cruelty (in non-human and human form) that they inflict.  If my support for outdoor raised pigs, grass-fed beef, nearly wild chickens, etc. helps to undermine the efforts of these industrial operations, helps to ease the burden on (non) human animal lives subjected to their mechanism, helps to strengthen alternatives to that systematic indifference, then I'm willing - eager - to do that.  I'd like to think it's possible to create a different kind of world, not by establishing hard and fast rules for what we shouldn't do, but by helping to realize productive new possibilities. This is the account I would give of my willingness to eat even the animals that I have come to know.  They've made a difference to me, and I'd like to help make a difference for them.

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