Many people think that the
only ones who should be deeply concerned about animals are animal rights
advocates. Actually, how we treat our nonhuman brethren also significantly
impacts our own human welfare. The widespread abuse of animals harms humans
directly in many ways, and tolerating animal mistreatment indirectly undermines
efforts to assist vulnerable people.
Egg-laying hens suffer greatly, crammed into tiny battery cages.
(Image by Compassion in World Farming) Permission Details DMCA
Many of the harmful effects related to modern animal agribusiness are well documented and well known. For example, diets heavily laden with flesh and other animal products contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, certain cancers, and other conditions. Animal-based eating is a major factor in global warming, other kinds of pollution, world poverty and hunger, and antibiotic resistance among bacteria. Indeed, many of the world's leading problems are related to eating animals and animal products.
I want to focus on some more insidious and pernicious ways that harming animals in turn harms humans. The spirit of truth is among the first casualties. Those who mistreat nonhumans do their best to hide the facts. For example, seven states have passed "ag-gag" laws that make it a crime for people to photograph or videotape animal treatment in factory farms. That's because, in addition to documenting widespread criminal cruelty to animals, undercover investigations have shown that "standard animal husbandry practices" (which are exempt from animal cruelty laws throughout the United States) involve systematic, institutionalized abuse of billions of farmed animals each year.
Factory farmed animals
experience unrelenting pain and misery from birth to death. (See, for example, www.mercyforanimals.org or "Meet Your Meat".
Even the small fraction of animals raised "humanely" still routinely suffer
mutilations without pain relief, deprivation of many natural needs and desires,
and violence and terror associated with transportation to and death in
Sows can barely move, confined in gestation crates for months.
(Image by Compassion in World Farming) Permission Details DMCA
As best I can tell, the main reason people don't know more about animal abuse is that they prefer a blissful state of ignorance. Whenever I leaflet with literature about factory farms, dozens of people say they don't want to know. Perhaps they fear that this knowledge will conflict with their desire to consume flesh and other animal products.
Does this not parallel one of the main impediments to confronting global warming? People seem to resist inconvenient facts. This will always be a challenge to effective action, but intellectual, spiritual, and political leaders can make a difference if they speak the truth frequently and forcefully. Of course, many "leaders" pander to the desires of the public. That's why every culture needs brave, selfless people who provide the prophetic voice of speaking "truth to power." Their voice is invaluable in times of crisis. Often, theirs is the only voice that victims of our society have.
Most prophets emerge from the ranks of disenfranchised people. However, when it comes to animal issues, nearly all humans are in positions of power. Just as powerful humans are tempted to mistreat weaker humans, weaker humans find it tempting to mistreat or ignore the suffering of even weaker nonhumans, for several possible reasons. First, and perhaps foremost, many people like the taste of flesh and other animal products.
Also, many who want to defend animals remain silent out of fear of offending meat-eaters and those whose livelihoods are derived from animal exploitation. The recent documentary Cowspiracy shows how environmental groups have ignored the massive environmental impacts of raising animals for food rather than risk alienating their donors and dues-paying members. Finally, among activists, it might be more satisfying to advocate on behalf of grateful humans than voiceless animal victims who could never revere them.
Political, spiritual, and cultural leaders who ignore or sometimes even deny what factory farms do to animals, humans, and the environment lose intellectual and moral authority. Obviously, those who care about animals are disgusted. However, even among people who want to believe that factory farmed animals are treated well, there is an awareness at some level of consciousness (thanks to animal advocates) that all is not well down on the factory farm. Consequently, people know that reassurances from authorities aren't really truthful. Those leaders who aim to inspire the changes needed to preserve human civilization can't lie by omission or commission about institutionalized abuse of animals yet hope to be widely regarded as beacons of truth about other institutions, such as the extraction industries.
A final consequence of ignoring animal issues might be best described as spiritual. In attempting to address global challenges, it would be very helpful -- perhaps even essential -- for people to have a common set of values. Common values can inspire cooperation and a willingness to make whatever sacrifices are necessary.
The problem is that, as long as people abuse animals for relatively trivial benefits, this dream of human cooperation and salvation appears impossible. Any value we might propose to unite humanity -- such as the Golden Rule (do to others as we would like done to us), opposition to oppression and cruelty, and defense of the weak -- is fundamentally contradicted by the unjust, massive mistreatment of nonhuman beings. First, tolerating (or even financially supporting) animal abuse contradicts those principles. Second, it undermines the idea of compassion itself, a cornerstone of any such proposed cooperation. Third, it is easy to shift the arbitrary boundary between human and animal to human and "lower" human, and then deny justice to those "lower" humans.
I don't believe in the notion of karma that asserts that individual sinners will someday get their comeuppance, either in this or a future life. However, there is a kind of karma in what I think the future holds for humanity. Factory farming (as well as the vast majority of mislabeled "humane" farms) directly harms humans in terms of health, hunger, and environmental damage. Further, when we countenance massive, institutionalized abuse of sentient, often remarkably intelligent, beings, we profoundly undermine all efforts to reverse humanity's current self-destructive course.
(Article changed on January 20, 2015 at 05:52)