May 7, 2012 9 Comments
I think one of the most horrific things about industrial animal agriculture is that, by any measure of decency, it’s so horrific. What I mean here is that it exists on such a deep level of hell that virtually any other approach to raising animals for food–such as so-called sustainable animal agriculture–looks comparatively angelic. Making matters even more troublesome is that industrial animal agriculture is so firmly entrenched as the dominant mode of production that any alternative–again, so called sustainable animal agriculture–comes off looking like a savior, a knight in shining armor, or at least a prodigal son. In reality, though, it’s more like a Trojan Horse.
The human mind responds well to dichotomies. Industrial agriculture is super bad. Non-industrial agriculture is thus super good. This is an easy distinction that, for most critics of agriculture, is beyond dispute. The problem, though, is that the dichotomy is false. Terribly false. It exists not because of an objective difference between industrial and “sustainable” agriculture. Instead it thrives because of what consumers choose to see. And what consumers choose to see depends deeply on a question people in the sustainable food movement simply won’t talk about: what rights do farm animals have?
Ethical vegans build their worldview on the back of this question. We believe animals deserve some level of moral consideration. The extent of that moral consideration will always be an open question, but at the least ethical vegans believe that animals are worthy enough not to be intentionally killed so we can eat their bodies. Omnivores routinely call this idea radical. I call it common decency. I call it humane. It is through this humane lens, moreover, that I view the non-industrial farm raising animal products. And what that lens invariably highlights is how similar that good farm is to the bad farm. “Humane” and “arbitrary death” don’t go so well together.
Take another look at the short film “Free Range” (above) and you’ll get the point. The film’s perspective is tilted in such a way that the small farm looks eerily like an industrial one: on this bucolic farm chickens are still grabbed by the legs, jammed into stacked crates, stuffed into a neat row of cones, and, as if on an assembly line, summarily killed. They’re tossed in scalding water, thrown into a centrifuge to be plucked, and hung up like articles of clothing. They’re cleaned and sold. It all happens on a smaller scale, but the ultimate goal is exactly the same. This is what the humane perspective reveals. This is what you see when you think animals matter.
Advocates of small-scale sustainable animal agriculture do not believe that animals have a right to their own lives. They believe animals are here for our use and exploitation. They thus see something altogether different. When they look at a small animal farm, they see happiness. They avert their gaze from the murderous similarities and, instead, relish sunny skies and happy animals frolicking in green pastures. They support these farms because “the animals are treated with dignity.” Sure. Because when you believe animals can justifiably be killed whenever a human craves their flesh you don’t stop to ask: can arbitrary death ever be dignified?
Interestingly, these people also call their perspective humane. When I hear this term used for small scale animal agriculture I’m reminded of the comedian Louis CK, who likes to joke that he often imagines himself doing something virtuous and, even though he never actually does the virtuous act, feels smug satisfaction for even having the thought. This is what supporters of small scale animal agriculture do. They see what they want to see, ignore the underlying and ultimate reality of what they witness, and feel good about themselves for even caring about animals at all. They do this as they “give thanks” over their happy meat.
The paradox here is almost worth smiling over. Small scale animal farms can only be considered “humane” when the consumer adopts an inhumane perspective. In other words, it is only when the consumer reduces a sentient animal to an object worthy of commodifying that he can call the system–a violent system–that does the objectifying “humane.” To call this trick of the mind “better” than industrial farming is not only far-fetched, it’s a distortion of the values advocates of sustainable agriculture so earnestly claim to seek. One reader recently noted that I allow the “perfect to be the enemy of the better.” In light of what I argue here, I’d put it differently: I allow compassion to be the enemy of self-deception. As do all ethical vegans.