Aug 30, 2008

What is Meat? (Pt. 2)

Continuing where I left off in post 1, I'm just talking more about vegetarianism here. Not in an effort to convert you, just thinking about it, particularly in an Asian American and "socially conscious" (whatever that means) context.

You know, I still can't take the cruel sad joke that's played on me every time I go to an event where the planners "didn't anticipate" that there would be more than a few vegetarians. I have a friend who gets visibly upset because she wants the offering to contain proteins, not solely starches. Heck, I'm happy if I can get black beans instead of refried, and white rice instead of Mexican, just because I'm careful about whether there are meat by/products used in the production of my food, beyond just big meaty chunks. You'd think that it's not that fringe anymore, but somehow, even if mainstream NYC has caught up, large segments of the Asian American "activist" community are still clueless.

As I said, it's not that I'm trying to convince anyone, because I tend to like the steak-eaters who don't push their diet on me more than the militant tofu-pushers, but I do see vegetarianism to represent many facets of social and personal consciousness:

First, and perhaps most obviously, I do think of it as a moral stance regarding animal welfare. The idea that the act of killing is for sustenance is a brutal and overstated worldview, especially when people have shown in Buddhism and Jainism that it is not necessary to kill to live. But beyond that - the way that animals are treated in massive industrial farms is simply beyond the pale. Upton Sinclair's seminal book, The Jungle, shone a light on the conditions of meatpacking for the humans involved, and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation did a similar job regarding the animals and the systems created to turn fellow life forms into just another (by)product of/for human consumption and waste.

Second, I could argue a health stance regarding my personal health (i.e. heart, blood, etc), and that of global public health for communities and populations around the world. Meat production has shown, especially in recent times, how susceptible it can be to widespread infection. And to think of how many people could be fed on the grains that are given to factory livestock just to "create" one pound of "good" meat. Farm-fresh meat, which is free of growth and other hormones, and allows the animals to live without eating pieces of their brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom, is ever more rare to find. The health consequences are off the chart. Do you really want to be eating that stuff?

Third, I could take an environmental/ecological stance with mega-farms and industrial commodification and genetic manipulation of species as destroying ecosystems and playing god where we shouldn't be. Why aren't those driven by "faith" more angry about this? We're meddling in God's designs: shouldn't there be a line here, as easy to draw as all the lines they draw about morality and abortion? In addition, the level of waste connected to the meat production industry is again, phenomenal. Animals are treated like fodder for the human shovel-headed kill machine, and even as their habitats are cleared and decimated to house our people, their lives have become meaningless and wholly subsumed into serving our "needs." There are also studies that directly link massive meat production to climate change.

Fourth, I could take an intellectual stance regarding the necessity of violence for self-sustenance. Have we not evolved from the "instinctual" enough to think before we destroy? Granted, we always like to think that we're at the top of the food chain, but it's sickening, really. To argue that there is some kind of perverse justification for the wholesale destruction and harvesting of other species in the framework of simple hunter/gatherers is reprehensible to me. The extreme species bias that humans have is reflected in the racial bias that I write about the most on this blog. Maybe man's newfound ability to reason pushed him to separate himself from the rest of the beasts and animals that surrounded him. The separation quickly became the grounds to decide that we are better than the animals, that a higher force put animals in front of us as our sustenance and for no other reason.

This attitude breeds the callous relationship most people have with animals - from the insects and small invertebrates that they carelessly kill, to the beautiful animals that they hunt for "sport." When we place our own interests, even entertainment and recreational, over life, we have lost something and we have become a risk to the rest of the world. There is little that shows that we are at the "top" of the evolutionary chain: it is just that our particular adaptations of reasoning, which led to technology, have allowed us to overcome natural challenges like disease and predators, and allowed our populations to flourish and edge out the natural order in ecosystems around the globe. But we were very wrong to allow this success to go to our heads in a kind of species chauvinism that recasts other species as grist for the mill of human progress. The reckoning, for Earth's own survival, will not be pretty.

Finally, as a matter of faith, vegetarianism and the respect for other life is an important consideration for me. I don't smash bugs or run over animals with my car on purpose. I try to let insects and spiders escape most of the time through an open window rather than just kill them. The Jain philosophy of my ancestors has rejected killing: it has decided that humans and our path on this earth must preserve and respect life. I don't agree with all of the tenets of Jainism, and there are always contradictions inherent in the interaction of these world views (especially those that are millennia old) with modern times, but the fundamental equalizing of the value of life across life beings is very striking. Is it an evolution for humans not to kill? Is our ability to reason our escape from what others believe is the inevitable "circle of life" that makes animals that are striving to survive killers for food, for territory, or for self-defense? I don't know. But it is remarkable for people to actively stop killing, or at least eating the spoils of others' killing.

I'll close here, though there's one (very unfortunate) thing that I found out in the process of writing this piece that will have to come out in part 3. Stay tuned, and whatever you do, don't forget the gravy!

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