Compassion is a fickle notion at best. Not unlike democracy or metaphysics, we know it when we see it, but please don’t ask us to define it. The concept finds its roots in the ecclesiastic Latin term, compati, meaning “to suffer with.” Indeed, almost every religious tradition touts empathy and charity as major tenets of faith. Buddhism, in particular, teaches that compassion is the key to attaining Enlightenment, the transcendence of personal suffering.
Each society–each epoch in history–asks itself when crafting laws, norms, and schemas, with whom are we suffering? Whose humanity do we see as our own, and whose do we cast aside?
In the past century, human society has undertaken great strides. Though the remnants of slavery, colonization, and nativism continue to pervade the majority of Western nations, a multitude of people are faring better than ever before. A cadre of academics led by psychologist Steven Pinker go so far as to assert a Panglossian view of our society. All is for the best in this best of all worlds!
According to Pinker, aggregate levels of violence are at their lowest levels in our species’ history. Peace is prevalent throughout both the industrialized and developing worlds. The brutish nature Thomas Hobbes warned of now seems a farce.
While physical violence and war might be on the decline, the savagery once intrinsic to our ancestors’ everyday survival remains alive and has merely undergone transference. A large portion of Americans, who are aware of the most pressing issues on our planet, have the resources and ability to make a significant impact, and yet do nothing.
Our elevated status in global society has left us bereft of the responsibilities of compassion. Taking reasonable steps to mitigate the effects of climate change, diminish the suffering of other beings, and better our own health appears the last of our priorities. Pinker’s roseate view is not without its blemishes.
On a daily basis, each of us makes a conscious choice to either deny the humanity of billions of others or embrace their suffering as our own. The simple decision of what to put on your plate, chew, and swallow is at once the impetus for momentous change and the source of great suffering.
If you eat meat, you unequivocally cannot consider yourself compassionate. That seemingly innocuous choice carries ramifications not only for billions of animals slaughtered worldwide, but also for the billions of human beings impacted by climate change.
Frequent visitors to Exley will recall the solemn message posted by members of Wes, Divest! last semester. “CLIMATE CHANGE IS RACIST. CLIMATE CHANGE IS CLASSIST.” Indeed, those who contribute most to the celerity of our changing climate are cushioned from experiencing its full impact. Rising sea levels and consistent famines are unknown phenomena to the average American.
Many believe that if we recycle and compost when possible, use less water, and advocate for alternative fuel sources, then we’ve done our part. Nothing further required. Plates can remain piled high with steak, bacon, and chicken wings.
Or can they?
The United Nations reports that livestock production accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions and more than a third of Earth’s entire land surface.
Whereas in 2007 the average American consumed 270 pounds of meat, a Bangladeshi consumed fewer than eight. Guess who was more insulated from climate change?
The resultant effects of the West’s overconsumption are presented as a fait accompli to those living in developing nations. Though their dietary practices have done little to contribute to climate change, they are nonetheless the most impacted by it.
Rest assured, a panacea exists. Beyond lobbying for smarter, more sustainable policies, no individual act will make more of an impact on our environment than the cessation of eating meat. What you put on your plate isn’t simply a personal health choice; it’s a social justice issue with global implications. It’s a decision to be compassionate, or to cast aside the responsibilities that accompany your privileged status.
According to the UN, some 50 billions animals are slaughtered for the consumption of meat every year. The process by which they are reared, readied, and slaughtered is veiled to the average consumer. The monikers given to our foods—nuggets, fingers, poppers—are meant to distract us away from the source of these meals, militating any sense of empathy we might otherwise feel.
Should we happen upon a documentary of a factory farm, or read about the deplorable conditions in which animals live and die, we now have “humane,” “free range,” and “organic” products to rely upon and further stifle our conscience. Such idyllic scenes of happy farm animals are utter bullshit.
We look to Polyface Farms, as featured in Food Inc., as the exemplar of sustainable, merciful production of meat. Owner Joel Salatin states in no uncertain terms that he cares about his animals and ensures their slaughter involves the least pain possible. Just his smile produces glimmers of compassion.
Don’t so much as sip on the Kool-Aid. The designation of “humane” meat is nothing more than dressing a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Nothing inherent about the equation has changed at all. At its core, animal husbandry lacks compassion: a sentient life form is brought into being only to die an early death once the appropriate weight or size is garnered. Do humans need to consume meat? No. Do alternatives exist for those of almost all socioeconomic backgrounds? Yes.
Among the many demands faced by college students, finding time for stress relief is perhaps the most elusive. Inundated by self-care messages that recommend meditation, exercise, and deep breathing, we are sometimes stressed by the need to de-stress.
Perhaps the most important self-care practice, consciously choosing what we put in our bodies, is often forgotten in these communiqués.
We often eat with shortsightedness, knowing full well that consistently eating animal products places us at a higher risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer. We prefer to revel in the palatable delights of the present rather than imagine the health risks of the far-off future.
Surely the task of being compassionate to billions of unknown and indistinguishable faces–both those of animals and our fellow human beings–is overwhelming. Being compassionate to the face you see in the mirror every day shouldn’t be.
While one need not immediately stop eating meat altogether, drastically diminishing one’s consumption is an inescapable responsibility of being a compassionate global citizen. If not to prevent the needless slaughter of animals or to limit the spread of climate change, at least make this decision for yourself.
Fred Ayres is a member of the Class of 2017.