Food of the Underworld 02/04/2007

"The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them."
~Isaiah 11:6~

The pain of this planet hurts me deeply on all levels. I feel it weigh down on me every day. Sometimes I don't understand how the world can even contain so much pain, how we can go about our daily lives oblivious and numb to the suffering all around us... how does reality not simply implode under the sheer mass of despair?

While I sit typing this, there is a pig out there who will never know the light of day, who will never run in a field, who will never see her children grow up, and who will spend most of her days crammed in a cage with other pigs where there is barely room to turn around. Any contact she has with the outside world would be with humans who treat her as a piece of economic property, with no regard for her feelings or individuality. Pigs, arguably the most intelligent animals outside of primates and dolphins if measured by human standards. They have highly complex mental, emotional, and social lives that instinctively yearn to play and explore. Imagine yourself thrown into solitary confinement in a dark dungeon and forgotten. No amount of intelligence, creativity, or charisma would be able to save you from your fate. No one would be there to appreciate your draining sanity. Yet this is happening on a mass scale every day to billions of pigs, cows, chickens, fish, the list goes on... and their roar of collective suffering is deafening for me.

Where is there justice in a world where humans have the nerve to complain about encroaching wildlife after moving into their habitat, where they blame deer for hitting their cars, where they worry about hunger before overpopulation, where they ridicule human sacrifice and then send soldiers to die for their gods? Humans have convinced themselves that they are special, separate from nature, not even animals themselves! They find value only in their own species, which is scary enough considering what they do to each other. Yes, there are consequences for these actions as reality comes crashing down through famine, disease, dwindling resources, climate change, and natural "disasters," but "only when the last tree is cut, only when the last river is polluted, only when the last fish is caught, will they realize that you can't eat money."

I have asked the universe how I am expected to live in a world overrun with self-deluded apes where the only reason I haven't been eaten, dissected, experimented upon, or turned into a coat is because my physical body can pass for one of them. This is the reply I received: "They are using their free will to shape their world. Even though it seems terrible, without their right to make that choice, the choice for harmony and compassion can not exist. Do not worry about what others do with their free will. Instead, use your own to become what you want to be. Take yourself out of the system and it will lessen the pain. Change yourself and you change the world. Live as an example and you will become a flame that lights many others."

What did this mean? I could not be part of the institution of suffering anymore. But what did this mean? Only one thing popped inside my head: "VEGAN." I have contemplated that dreaded word for a long time, but never could I imagine truly attempting it. I consider myself a struggling vegetarian. I don't allow myself to eat meat besides fish except under these conditions: (1) it's a "special occasion" - holidays, birthdays, rare meetings, first times, Wii parties; (2) I'm on vacation, meaning no access to normal food; (3) if meat is going to waste, I'm morally obligated to eat it out of respect for the animal; (4) it's 100% free range and organic, not from an intensive factory farm where animals are confined and abused; and lately (5) I really, really, really want to.

I am not against eating meat in principle. I love meat! Humans have evolved to be omnivores and I lean heavily to the carnivorous side of the spectrum. For years I could not eat anything green - I don't eat grass! I am also not against killing for survival, for there is no difference between myself or a lion killing a gazelle. I believe in a sacred balance between life and death, creation and destruction, hunter and hunted. I believe these bonds of blood teach us about our own mortality, make us appreciate the interdependence of all life and instill respect for all living beings. In this way we better understand our place in the universe's cycles. I believe in the ancient ways of using every part of all things - be they animal, plant, or mineral - and honoring their spirit. For me to give up meat is like asking a lion to deny its nature.

It feels ridiculous, but give it up I must, because what humans are doing to their cousins now is not natural or sacred anymore. It is not the killing that's the problem, it is quality of life. I know life in the wild isn't always happy, but just as happiness in a free society isn't guaranteed (indeed, by virtue of its freedom), you still have the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. This is something an animal confined to a factory farm sorely lacks. I would rather everyone go out and hunt/fish their own wild food. There is much lost when a person does not see the mortal sacrifice somebody else has to make for them to survive. I like to think that this is the reason behind the twisted conditions on factory farms today. Just apathy, just ignorance... surely if reasonable people knew, felt, or understood, they would rise up against it as much as they stood against human sweatshops and slavery? 

I sometimes ask people what their favorite food is. Much of the responses I get are very ordinary, most memorable of which have been "mashed potatoes" and "rice." This makes me want to strangle them. You see, my favorite food is caviar. And not just any caviar - Caspian black caviar. This isn't because I have expensive tastes, but because I grew up on the shores of the Caspian sea in Azerbaijan where black caviar practically grew on seaweed. That's about all the resources we have in Azerbaijan: caviar, oil, and sand. Fast forward a few years and I'm now living in the USA, where black caviar is suddenly an exotic import and I can't afford it anymore. So I learned to settle for the much cheaper red salmon caviar instead.

In my naiveté, I had assumed that fish eggs are much like bird eggs: the fish lays the eggs, and humans collect them. Not so. "Commercial caviar production normally requires stunning the fish (usually by clubbing at the head) and extracting the ovaries." *cue Psycho music* Fish have always been something I considered safe to eat. So long as I avoided fish from overcrowded, polluting fish farms, it fit into my ideal of a fish living a natural life in the oceans before playing its part in the food chain. But much like everything else in the modern world, commercial fishing has refined environmental devastation to an art form. Nets are dragged across the ocean floor, sweeping up all in their path, and once the edible fish species have been plucked from the draw, the rest are killed and discarded. According to one statistic, if these fishing trends continue, there will be no life left in the ocean by 2050.

THE OCEAN! The frikkin OCEAN!! The source of all life! The source of all water upon which life depends! Billions of years of evolution down the drain! ...Plankton!... Does this bother anybody else?? Do humans really think that extinguishing 71% of the planet's surface won't affect them??

Nothing is safe anymore... not fish, not chickens, not cows, not humans. We're all in this together. The one thing I, somebody who does not think it is wrong to eat meat, had to come to terms with if my goal is to end animal suffering and environmental exploitation... is that simply boycotting meat doesn't do shit. Not even a little. By continuing to eat eggs, cheese, milk, mayonnaise, sour cream, butter, and all their derivatives (especially in the massive quantities that I do), I am wholeheartedly supporting institutionalized torture. It is a sad fact of life that one person's joy often comes at the price of another's pain, and one person's pain often allows for another's joy. The pleasure I get from consuming meat and cheese is not worth somebody's lifetime of suffering, and if the pain I feel from denying myself these things can help even one other creature, it will be worthwhile.

This is where a vegan diet comes in. Plants are the rawest form of energy available past water and sunlight. They are the primary source from which all other nutrients are later derived. Herbivores process the plants, and carnivores get those same nutrients indirectly through the herbivores. By then, however, the pure energy contained in plants is watered down. I'm talking out of my ass here, but the point is plants are good for you, damnit! Although I feel more kinship with carnivores, eating plants will help me feel my link to deer, and bison, and rabbits.

Here's where you ask "plants are alive too, don't you care about their pain?" Yes, I do. I have profound respect for plants and their capacity for emotion. But what kind of pain do they feel? They do not have a central nervous system like animals which translates sensations of physical pain. They have evolutionary adaptations to avoid death and find sunlight, to search for water and express hunger, but they have not developed a way to avoid physical pain like the mobile animals have. Plants do not die if you pick their fruit or eat their leaves. It is advantageous for them to spread their seeds through ingestion by animals. Furthermore, when talking about quality of life, it is a lot easier to keep a plant happy than an animal. That is why I think it is safer to eat organic plants.

It is hard to live in a world where the spawn of factory farming is ingrained in the vast majority of food, and tempting aromas taunt you from every corner. Yet when I smell a rose, I can enjoy it without becoming hungry. Perhaps it is a case of Pavlovian conditioning, where I have simply associated the smell of steak with food. Maybe next time I smell steak I should eat chocolate (I hate chocolate) until hopefully I stop associating beef with tasty things (or I start liking chocolate *shudder*). I can't think of beef, chicken, or fish as food anymore. They are poison for this planet... poison of the land, poison of the sky, poison of the sea.

There are legends in many cultures of heroes journeying to Underworlds and Otherworlds. Be it the Celtic Faeryland or the Greek Hades, those heroes are warned never to partake of the food or drink they find there. They will be tempted with succulent feasts, they will grow hungry, they might think it's not that big a deal, but if they cave in and eat that world's food, they will forget who they are and become trapped there. If I indiscriminately eat the food of the Earth, I would be ingesting the suffering of this world. I can't have that kind of poison inside me. Would it change who I am? What kind of karma does it create? Would it bind me to this planet for future lifetimes? No thanks.

I became vegan because I am opposed to intensive factory farming, not because I am against eating animal products. Where does that leave so-called "free range" meat, eggs, and milk? Free range is a term for farms that ideally allow the animals to roam freely and partake in natural activities before being butchered. Instead of withdrawing my consumer power from the system altogether, would it not be wiser to financially support methods that I agree with? But in practice the "free range" definition is vague at best, and many times simply means that the animals have a few extra inches of space or a window by their cage. I guess the answer is that unless I can verify whether conditions are acceptable, I can't eat it.

What of meat leftovers that are being discarded, am I still morally obligated to eat them out of respect for the animal? That's a tough one. I'm going to go with "yes," but only for meat, not milk or cheese. Eggs and caviar are a gray area since they potentially could be actual animals. O.o What of products somebody else already bought, so eating them will not be lending financial support to factory farming? I'm going to go with "no," because it would still result in me internalizing suffering. [Update: I have not eaten "leftovers" since becoming vegan, I just insist that the other person finish what they started. :P]

I have vowed to "never knowingly contributing to the suffering of animals again" this past Imbolc (February 2nd). Ironic, as Imbolc in part celebrates milk, but fitting, since Imbolc also serves as a time of dedication and initiation. I have also eaten the first overtly green things (lettuce, broccoli) in over 15 years, so I think I'm on the right track. There is a parable presented in the movie "Little Buddha" about a priest who sacrificed goats. One time a goat started laughing, so the priest asked, "why are you laughing?" and the goat replied, "I am laughing because in my next life I will be a human." Then the goat started crying, so the priest asked, "why are you crying?" and the goat replied, "I am crying for you, because in your next life you will be a goat." Perhaps there is justice in the world after all. 

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DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor or a nutritionist and am not authorized to give medical advice. All I can do is offer suggestions based on my own experiences. Please consult a professional before making drastic changes to your lifestyle.