Being animal, eating animals

by | 6 Dec, 2020

Helen Gould, New South Wales Regional Meeting

The Australian Quaker Advices and Queries number 44: “All life is interrelated… Do you treat all life with respect, recognising a particular obligation to those animals we breed and maintain for our own use and enjoyment?”  Number 32: “Are you able to contemplate your death… Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully.”

My doctor told me that I needed to eat red meat for the vitamin B12 which I was perilously lacking in.  “Can I get it from vegan foods?”  (Gluten and dairy upset my delicate tummy).  “Some people can, but not you, Helen”.   So I began supplementing my protein intake (mostly chick peas and locally caught fish), with red meat in small portions which satisfy me.  I knew I needed to research the ethics of meat eating.

I had spent a couple of years in the 1970s with Aboriginal people in Arnhem land, and occasionally they shared goanna, snake, magpie goose and more, all delicious.  It matters that the animals I eat are able to live a satisfying, natural life, and that their death is as free of fear and pain as possible.  So sometimes I eat kangaroo.  Also, more of the kangaroo can be eaten than is true of farm animals, according to Eric Rolls[1]. I also sometimes serve lamb, from Breakout River Cowra.  The animals free range on good pastures, and my butcher says that they are slaughtered on-site.

People sometimes say, but it’s better for the environment, to eat your protein in pulses and grains.  Do we actually know?   Farm animals’ waste fertilises the soil, and farmers who care about their soils will manage stocking levels, and move animals regularly to benefit the whole: soil, microbes, fungi, plants, animals and humans.  Cattle do burp a lot of methane, a gas which gives the Earth fever, but if you feed the cattle biochar the methane is reduced.   The animals love the charcoal, and they excrete it.  Dung beetles take it down into the soil where it does lots of good: sequestering carbon, retaining water, providing homes for microbes, and preventing toxins from getting into our food.   A 2019 literature review “demonstrates that the use of biochar as a feed additive has the potential to improve animal health, feed efficiency and livestock housing climate, to reduce nutrient losses and greenhouse gas emissions, and to increase the soil organic matter content and thus soil fertility when eventually applied to soil.”[2]

Moreover, cattle are not our only food source of methane: producing rice and composting can make lots of methane too.

In their book The Ethical Omnivore[3], Dalrymple and Hilliard say (p113) “we rarely actually know where our food comes from, who grew it, how it was grown, or what additives it might contain.”   All intensive, big-agriculture systems of food production are bad for soil and people. “If you’re going to reject intensively produced meat, then the same discretion should be applied to the plant foods you consume… An omnivorous diet that includes a balance of plants and animal products is viable in most [Australian] landscapes because animals can be raised on land that isn’t fit for crops.  But, in the driest inhabited continent in the world with a very low proportion of arable land, if more of us move to a vegetarian diet, how are we going to increase our local, sustainably managed plant food industry to match demand?  Is it acceptable to destroy habitats and clear land for crops?”[4]  Of course destroying habitats kills animals.

We too are animals.  We are born, grow, we eat and shit and piss, we love and make love and fuck, we get pregnant and give birth, suckle our young, we get sick and one day we die.  And animals act, have personal preferences, and feel emotions – like us and in ways unique to them.  Animals, too, have culture.  Birds sing, including songs in frequencies that we cannot hear; and many species teach their young ones.  In my blessed bit of country, I have heard the gradual and sometimes abrupt changes in song-lineages of the grey butcher-birds.  Their families may die out or be displaced, and it’s likely that the occasional bird just decides to improvise a new song.  In northern Australia, palm cockatoos use sticks to play their own unique drum beats, a personal signature.  Birds may mourn the death of their loved ones.  I have seen a corella standing vigil for at least an hour, next to the body of her electrocuted mate.  Magpies remember people who feed them, and remember and harass people, like me on my bike, who they see as a threat when they are nesting.  Roosters sometimes fib – telling a hen that there’s good food right here in order to jump on her – but the hens wake up to that trick very quickly.  We know that many animals can feel affection, love, anger, fear, solicitude for others. Rats have a sense of humour and can laugh; some dogs greet humans by lifting the corners of their lips in a smile.  Dolphins may body-surf.    Examples multiply.

I disagree with Descartes who argued that animals were mere machines, and we were not.   On the other hand, pace – peace be upon – Richard Dawkins, I don’t think that we are “lumbering robots” any more than animals are.    We are living beings, not sophisticated machines, and I choose to emphasise our similarities with animals rather than our differences.

There are huge cultural differences around these issues.   I am more or less WEIRD, shaped by the dominant values in Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies, societies which are actually unusual.  The concept of WEIRDness was developed in about 2006 by Joe Henrich (now Prof of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University), together with two cultural psychologists, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan.  In an interview in New Scientist[5]   Henrich says that “the picture of ‘human psychology’ portrayed in the textbooks … doesn’t represent the psychology of Homo sapiens at all”.    There’s a lot to the concept of WEIRDness, and I won’t go into it, except to put us on notice that views that are common in our society are atypical of human societies in general.

People from WEIRD societies are often deeply ambivalent about being animal, which is why those wonderful little Anglo-Saxon words like “shit” and “fuck” may still shock us (think, Anglo-Saxons – a conquered people, lower-class), whereas the Latin-derived words such as “excretion” and “copulation” (think, Norman conquerors, “better educated”, higher class) don’t carry the same revulsion, or power either.

And, as Dalrymple and Hilliard say, (p89) “Killing … is no small thing”.  In their chapter “Looking the animal in the eye”, they don’t balk at talking about “the grim and glorious realities of life and death”.  The book has a photo of a pig heading for a juicy red apple.  In that moment of delighted distraction he will be stunned and then killed and butchered.

If we think of animals as radically different to us, we may be morally blind to the fate of the ones we use as meat.  Of course big business stands to make a lot of money out of our ignorance.   On the other hand, if we recognise our kinship with animals, we may feel revolted at the idea of eating them.   I think this is linked to an existential fear of death.

And there is the third way, the way of ethically raising animals, killing them in a way that minimises their suffering, using as much of them as possible, and eating them mindfully. I hope that Quakers see this as more than a personal choice.  It is our community responsibility.  The information that we need to evaluate the environmental consequences of our food choices is rarely available – could we corporately work towards greater transparency while sensitively welcoming to our Meetings people who eat different foods to us?

I felt in my gut the rightness of this third way, when I accepted that I, like the animals, was meat, and that that meant that I could be prey.   And we are all so much more than meat and prey.  I have lived where the apex predators are those relict dinosaurs, species name Crocodilus porosus.   I love the work of the eco-feminist philosopher Val Plumwood[6], a great bushwoman who, in 1985, was taken by a crocodile and survived.  Her reflections on her experiences led her to understand that we are “part of the feast in a great chain of reciprocity.”  She was then, and remained till her death, a vegetarian.  She wrote, “This is not because I think predation itself is demonic and impure, but because I object to the reduction of animal lives in factory farming systems that treat them as living meat.”

In particular we WEIRD ones may avoid the idea of dying.  I have been fortunate.  I have known since my father died of polio, before I turned two, that death can come at any moment, and that one day it will come, ready or not.  I have come to relish the preciousness and precariousness of life.  It spices my life with gratitude.

When I die I would like my corpse to be pyrolysed into charcoal.  Pyrolysis converts biomass into charcoal and gases by applying high temperatures (c.450°C) in the absence of oxygen.  Like natural gas, the gases can be used as an energy source.  It’s much more environmentally sound than cremation.   So pyrolyse my corpse, but only if my family feel OK about this.  Since there will no longer be an “I”, their feelings take precedence over my preference.  When wood is pyrolysed, it changes into a shiny black (carbonised) shrunken recognisable version of itself, good e.g. for xylophone levers.  I wonder, will my pyrolysed body resemble a shrunken, shiny black version of myself?  Once pyrolysis is complete and the chamber has cooled down, I would like my daughter or my son to break the charcoal into chunks and for those who have come together for mourning and celebration, to take some to put in their garden.  All this would be done, of course, with an awareness of the sacredness of these transformations.

We are temporary dynamic living systems arising from other living systems and providing raw materials for yet other living systems.  I will have some form of being in people’s memories however variable and subjective they may be; in people’s responses to what I have written, in every molecule that was once part of me and is now part of something else, blessed be.  Whatever else I may be, if anything, is not mine to know.  I trust in the ultimate goodness of it all.

[1] Rolls, Eric. 1969 They all ran wild: the animals and plants that plague Australia.  Angus & Robertson.

[2] Schmidt, Hans-Peter et al. 2019 The use of biochar in animal feeding .  PeerJ 7:e7373

[3] Dalrymple, L. and Hilliard,G.  2020 The Ethical Omnivore. Murdoch Books

[4] Dalrymple & Hilliard p115-6.

[5]Jones, D. 2020 Joe Henrich interview: Psychology must look beyond Western cultures. New Scientist  Issue 3298 5 September 2020

[6] Plumwood, Val. 2000 “Being Prey” in: O’Reilly, J; O’Reilly, S and Sterling,R. The Ultimate Journey: Inspiring Stories of Living and Dying Travellers’ Tales 2000.

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