A couple of months ago I went out for a pub lunch with some relatives. The Sunday roast looked tempting but I couldn’t bring myself to ask if the meat was free range or not. It just felt — wanky. Well, perhaps it was, and the fish was alright anyway, but it led me to think that for all of the jokes about self-righteous lentil-munchers we are still reluctant to be seen to judge others’ eating habits. The thing about vegetarianism is that it is generally treated as an individual peculiarity. If a prospective dinner guest tells you they’re a veggie you’re likely, I’d guess, to feel no different than if they’d said they were gluten intolerant. It is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a personal thing. If I was to ask whether the meat was factory farmed or not, however, I’d be making an obvious judgement of their food – not just stating my preferences.
So, we don’t like to judge eachother but I also think we tend to feel that there’s nothing to judge. The higher levels of our society are wrought by fits of moralism, yes, but they’re so trivial – a footballer player was nasty to another footballer player et cetera – that it feeds into the notion that we’re basically nice. And in many ways we are. In fact, in many ways we’re among the nicest people who’ve lived. But niceness in the sense of having good intentions is not always the same as doing good things, and our society’s empathy has been developing at a slower rate than its ability to inflict harm on a massive scale and in ingenious ways. (It is, of course, not alone in that.) I’m not sure we’re built to comprehend the magnitude of the often grim products of industrialisation. This, I guess, is why social nicieties can feature more prominently in one’s consciousness than the horrors Jeff Tietz detailed in an old essay I’ve come across…
Smithfield’s pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth…
The temperature inside hog houses is often hotter than ninety degrees. The air, saturated almost to the point of precipitation with gases from shit and chemicals, can be lethal to the pigs.
Taken together, the immobility, poisonous air and terror of confinement badly damage the pigs’ immune systems. They become susceptible to infection, and in such dense quarters microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population.
All this to a creature that, as far as we can tell, is smarter than the dog or cat. It’s an imperfect comparison, but think of the outcry if millions of mutts and moggies were found shoved in pens; forced to breathe the toxic gas of chemicals and shit and quaking at the utter horror of it all. Jeez, we flipped out when some lady dropped a cat into a bin yet only a clutch of moral-minded anoraks complain about a phenomenon of such vast atrociousness that her crime seems like a leaking tap next to a Tsunami.
Across the world the consumption of meat is rising. To take a single creature, the consumption of pork rose by almost 10% between 2007 and 2010. In the latter, over 100,000,000 tons of pork were downed, which could have been over a billion pigs. Hundreds of millions of them will have endured similar treatment to those in Tietz’s essay, along with hundreds of millions of luckless cows, chickens, ducks and quail. And, as Westerners keep up their meat-munching and the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and others in the developing world borrow their habits, tens of millions more are going to join them each year. That’s an incomprehensible amount of pain that we’re adding to the universe.
What’s clearly needed are the “conversations of conscience” that I touched on earlier. And the least you can endure for spreading moral principles, I guess, is to sound a bit wanky. Considering all the people who have died for less it’s not a great deal to ask for.