Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eat meat?

Sometime last year, I posted a question on Yahoo! Answers, re: Would you kill for your own meat? The occasional (and with Yahoo! Answers, inevitable) drooling, slack-jawed idiot answer aside, quite a few answered no, mostly because they were too squeamish to deal the killing blow with a boltgun or whatever. I ask this question a lot (not to vegetarians, obviously) in person, too, and usually meet with a negative response.

Not to mince words about it, I think that's terribly hypocritical. That having been said, I also think it's a very easy trap to fall into, given how far removed the fresh, clean, happy little packets and cans of meat we see in the supermarket are from the bloody horror of the abbatoir. When you eat meat, you take life. There's no two ways about it. Life is a valuable thing (particularly to the entity from whom you are taking it), and I do think it's important for people to realize just what they're buying into when they bite into a ham sandwich or fried chicken or some such. Most will easily understand the price tag one puts on a brattwurst, but far too few really think to draw the connections between calf to cow to lowing, screaming, wide-eyed, twitching, dying beast drowning in its own blood to hamburger.

But, it's unrealistic to expect everyone to go up to an animal and kill it themselves. One of these days, I do hope to go to a farm and really understand with these two hands what it really means to kill to eat, but I'm not so sure how feasible it is to demand this of every meat-eating city-dweller. So I was quite pleased to stumble into Earthlings*. More details on Wikipedia. If you're not vegetarian, I very strongly recommend watching this. In fact, I insist. And don't avert your eyes - you don't have that right.

There were, I felt, a couple of blatantly cheap attempts at yanking on the heart strings. I suppose it would be kinder to say that it was a bit melodramatic at times, but appeals to emotion on matters of any importance strike me as annoying more than anything else. Still, the actual video footage was more than a bit harrowing, and a sharp reminder of how, in the name of profit, humans will sink to such depths. And though I disagreed and doubted (particularly on the veracity of the numbers and the reliability of their sources), the Earthlings experience did have me thinking.

Naturally, while watching Earthlings, I automatically looked at how I live my life in relation to how I impact animals. So here's my thoughts on Earthlings, subject-by-subject:

Pets- My 2 cats are adopted, spayed/neutered and from all outward appearances, have bamboozled me into being their butler, these very words being typed as Haruka slinks across the table, running her stubby little tail under my nose.

Truth be told, I do not consider strays to be an actual, looming, economic threat in and of itself, but a symptom of a deeper, more insidious malaise in modern urban society, namely how little each of us gives a shit about the world around us.

Food- I'm Malaysian Chinese and have therefore consumed an absurd amount of chicken and pork, though I generally loathe having steak of any kind. Nevertheless, I felt a bit guilty having always been aware about battery farms, though not quite so aware about the horrors of pig farming. Just knowing this, the movie Babe seems like a sick joke. As such, I shall endeavour to cut down on meat. And continue to discourage those I know from the consumption of shark's fin soup.

What I was left wondering, however, is this: What kind of person would I become if I was the one handling the boltgun/knife every day? It's very easy to look at these butchers and think ill of them, completely ignoring the situational forces that shape human personalities. So I think it's worth wondering what it would be like to be in their blood-soaked wellies, slitting throats, sidestepping fountains of blood, ears filled with the screams of the dying, nostrils clogged with the stench of death and fear, day in, day out...

My readings into the ideals of Bushido tell me, time and again, that to take life is a very serious matter indeed. Such high ideals seem to ring so very hollow in the face of the gory realities of the modern abbatoir. If animals are to die to feed us, I want it to happen with the least suffering possible. I want them to have a life of blithe contentment before death takes them, swiftly and without warning, with surgical precision. And as we see in Earthlings, what I want is very far removed from the realities forced upon the modern farm by simple economics. To produce more meat at the lowest prices, this is what it has come to. Would you be the one to buy meat at, say, triple the price, knowing it came from a happier cow? And even if you did, what stops corruption from setting in and having you pay higher prices for the same old meat with a different label? What a hole we have managed to dig for ourselves...

Clothing- I have 1 Fossil wallet, which has served me since December 1999. And some of the bits which hold my bamboo blades together are thick leather. Oh, and belt and shoes. Other than that, I've never considered wearing bits of animal about my person, other than woolly sweaters, which saved my hide in the bitter winters of China and Germany.

While the footing was quite shocking (particularly the Chinese fur farm) one is left wondering about the scale of the problem, that is, what I want to know is whether this activity is causing large-scale damage to ecosystems.

Entertainment- I totally consider bullfighting to be unnecessarily barbaric, and do confess to feeling a little glow of schadenfreude** on seeing the bull put one over the men in tights.

Research- Now on this part, I think Earthlings drifts into the realm of the naive. For instance, if, say, I wanted to test a facial soap for whether its irritating to the eye, is not the quickest way to determine whether this is so to squirt some into a living eye? Now, I really don't think all that many research labs have the benefit of enlisting the services of Johnny Knoxville or Steve O and gang, so when there's no way round testing on living tissue, what do you do? Make full use of criminals on death row? Are there not guidelines regarding the use of animals in research? Research grants are not provided to abuse animals on a whim!

In any case, I think the whole business of attacking animal testing is mixing up cause and effect. The long and short of it is, this section of the documentary did not have any impact on me whatsoever because it failed to cite any relevant numbers thus obfuscating the actual scale of the problem.

Now, the reason scale is particularly important with research is because use of animals in food, clothing and as pets is so ubiquitous that it's quite obvious that even small changes in attitudes will have tremendous effects on society in general. Entertainment isn't quite as common but reflective of base, ugly barbarity in the human animal, i.e. deep, dark desires to watch terrible violence inflicted on others or to lord our supremacy over others, whatever form it may take.

Research, on the other hand, is a cold, calculating affair. It is not carried out to satisfy any desires other than the desire for knowledge. Even if it was, rare indeed is the scientist who can afford to ask for grants to dismantle animals simply because he likes the noises they make when their heads explode. It seems to me that the focus would be better placed on the market forces driving the research, i.e. what is the research for? Cosmetics? Weapons? Genetics? Psychology? Neuroscience? Furthermore, to say that research on animals "tells us about animals, not humans" is a painfully ignorant statement worthy of that tiresome Word Salad-monger, Sarah Palin, who famously pooh-poohed research on fruit flies. Suffice to say, this knocked the credibility of this documentary down a few notches.

In sum, Earthlings struck me as a sharp and harsh and absolutely necessary reminder of one aspect of what it is we build the comforts of modern living on. I say one aspect, because, really, there are many, many other ways we exploit our environment or even other nations (human, of course) to feed the machine of capitalism. To what extent the issues raised in Earthlings are a problem to humanity is left fuzzy, thanks to a near total lack of numbers and statistics to bring things into perspective. However, even with the purely qualitative treament given by Earthlings, it is clear that humans as a species are trotting obliviously towards their own destruction. The manner in which we ravage the planet and the natives makes it blatantly obvious that we are a very, very long way indeed from achieving a stable equilibrium with Earth.

* 95 minutes long. I really don't recommend eating while watching this. Have a cup of tea.

** I fucking love that word. I shouldn't. But I do.

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