Looking back through the photographs I made on my Antarctic trip, I’m still reflecting on how challenging the voyage was. But I’m starting to think about how much I want to go back. It was uniquely beautiful, and thought provoking.
I came away with an enriched conception of non-human animals, and how humans can relate to them. It reinforced my view that there’s no inherent right for us to use them without considering them as communities and individuals. Even though it’s generally accepted, there’s something deeply misguided in our conception that non-human animals are inferior to humans such that they may be exploited as we see fit.
In rough Antarctic waters, the cooks and wait staff of the Ushuaia did a surprisingly good job of feeding us three meals a day, including providing something for the vegetarians on board. Both lunch and dinner included dessert, which I and my shipmates ate, sometimes because it tasted so good, and sometimes just to pass the time.
Anyhow, this all added up to a lot of desserts. The result was that now, weeks after the end of the trip, I still have no interest in anything sweet. My life-long sweet tooth has changed, which is probably a good thing.
Eating involves a lot of choices. I continue to think that a plant-based diet, involving little or no killing or exploiting animals, is best. It seems self-evident to me that needlessly and cruelly killing other creatures is wrong – fatal to them, and also demeaning to us.
The health benefits of a plant-based diet are also well documented. These include looking and feeling better, and lower risk of the common major diseases associated with eating animals, including heart disease, colon cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. If decency and health weren’t reasons enough, it’s becoming more widely understood that animal agriculture is a major contributor to global warming and all the destruction that comes with climate change.
These facts seem vitally pertinent to me, but most people manage to ignore them. It’s strange, but then again, it’s extremely common for people to carry around beliefs that have no relation to reality, and to tolerate risks that seem to me very worrisome. Fortunately, most of the time, an individual’s ideas don’t do much harm to the individual or to others.
However, I think our ideas about eating animals are more consequential, which is why I think they’re worth discussing. At the same time, I don’t want to pointlessly add to the general angst and feelings of hopelessness. Fortunately, the situation with animals is far from hopeless. In fact, moving away from eating animals and eating a healthier plant-based diet is not that hard. Lots of people are doing it.
Apropos of animals and food, this week I heard a new podcast with a focus on the lives of farm animals and industrialized farming. Leah Garces, president of Mercy for Animals, speaks with Ezra Klein about how the low cost of meat is not really such a good thing. The system is extremely profitable for a few producers, subsidized by taxpayers and protected by law, miserable for most of the farmers involved, and of course, horrific for the animals.
This food system seems fully entrenched, long supported by political and economic power. But, as with our changing climate, the chickens are coming home to roost: industrial animal agriculture is causing more deadly pollution, increased antibiotic resistance, animal-based pandemics, exhaustion of arable land, loss of rainforests, and of course, the psychological trauma of complicity in massive animal suffering. Again, the word is getting around.
On a different note, I’m continuing my project of reading “classic” novels that I encountered as a youth, and just finished one that intersects with issues of animals and food: The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair.
This is a book some of us were forced to read in high school as one of the “great books.” I finished it last week, and didn’t think it was exactly great. The writing was sometimes clunky, and the shape ungainly. But it was undeniably powerful and brave in its account of industrialized animal slaughter in early 20th century, and the brutal exploitation of the immigrants who did most of the dirty work.
Is The Jungle still relevant? Well, the meat industry has gotten a number of states to pass “ag-gag” laws, which make it a crime to document what goes on in the slaughter houses that supply our grocery stores and restaurants. It makes you wonder what they don’t want anyone to see. I’d bet that they think, rightly, that a close up view of modern industrial slaughter operations would be very bad for business.
Of course, I very much doubt our modern slaughter houses are anywhere close to as filthy and disease-ridden as what Sinclair described, but, as Leah Garces explains in the recent podcast, they are still full of misery. Garces’s organization is working to help animal farmers transition to growing other products. She thinks (and I agree) that if we don’t like the system, criticizing it is not enough: it’s important to find and support better alternatives.