Challenging sacred cows

ice-cream cone

Humane is a confusingly versatile word. Lately, it’s featured in the Oz media, and beyond, with public outcries for humane treatment of refugees and our livestock exports. Re the former, just for starters, ‘humane’ would mean not incarcerating those who’ve chosen to throw themselves on our mercy, as if they were criminals (rather than victims) until proven innocent. But in the case of innocent creatures that are at our mercy to begin with, ‘humane’ means a bolt shot into the brain, a slit throat, and bleeding out, heart still pumping, so consumers can eat unspoiled meat.

How can we use one word for such different circumstances? The Macquarie Dictionary (2009) offers two definitions: 1. characterised by tenderness and compassion for the suffering or distressed: humane feelings. 2. (of branches of learning or literature): humane studies.

The first definition involves subjectivity; the second, objectivity – so #1 would apply to widespread sentiment re our government’s harsh stance towards refugees (both prior to and after arrival, if they survive their trial by sea). But what does ‘tenderness’ have to do with killing – unless it refers to the flesh consumed by carnivores harbouring qualms (whether of ethics or personal health or due to flashes of true compassion)?

In his profoundly provocative book about what we eat, The World Peace Diet (2004), Will Tuttle sets the bar for definition #1 far higher. And though I’d been warned before reading, I still find the title misleading. Tuttle offers scant guidance to anyone needing advice on balanced meat-freedom. Did he hope for a slice of the vast diet books market?

Tuttle firmly believes we can achieve world peace by going vegan; our animal-based diet is unnatural, a hangover from 8–10 millennia ago when a wrong turn in human culture gave rise to capitalism. But you don’t need to credit his uneven research, let alone agree world peace is possible, to see from the stats, now way out of date, that to eat meat, dairy products and eggs on a regular basis isn’t just cruel but self-defeating.

A heretic on a heroic mission, Tuttle exhorts us all to adopt a plant-based diet for ethical reasons. Yet he tells us that to do so first requires a ‘genuine spiritual breakthrough’. It did for him, as he recounts in the engaging penultimate chapter, but elsewhere, I found the loose language of his mysticism problematic. The word ‘sacred’ recurs in the text so often, it lost meaning for me, variously referring to life, feasts, the feminine, the masculine and work. The World Peace Diet doubles as religious treatise and scholarly thesis, mixing new-age rhetoric and hardcore vegan dogma with notable quotes, statistics, ethics, history, anthropology etc. I’m not saying Tuttle should have narrowed his focus. Readers quick to grasp his thesis may find some points repeated ad nauseam. Yet other points could have been explored in greater depth. The more simplistic his logic gets, the less Tuttle convinces. For instance, ‘to stop viewing animals as commodities,’ he says, ‘means we would have to stop viewing them as food.’ Then why, some readers may wonder, when some animals eat others, shouldn’t we, if we’re animals too? Because, Tuttle argues, we’re herbivores:

Could anyone, or would anyone chase down, say, a deer, cow, pig, sheep, goat, or rabbit in the wild and then, somehow catching her (highly unlikely) fall on her neck with our small, flat human mouth, tear through the fur and skin into the living flesh with our small human teeth, and fill our mouth with the fresh, hot blood of the unfortunate creature? This scenario shows the complete absurdity of what we humans are doing when we eat animal flesh (p. 68).

Does Tuttle likewise see the absurdity of driving (with his wife Madeleine, like a modern-day Jesus spreading the gospel) around the US in a solar-powered mobile home? Besides lacking long, sharp canines, we weren’t born on wheels. And how many herbivores work in auto plants (or Apple factories)? Presumably Tuttle doesn’t eat lentils or soybeans raw either. He makes a stronger case re the insane unsustainability of our uniquely human sense of entitlement:

A conservative estimate is that the amount of land, grain, water, petroleum, and pollution required to feed one of us the Standard American Diet could feed fifteen of us eating a plant-based diet (p. 185).

That alone should give any leftist pause if they aren’t yet vegan. And if it doesn’t: ‘[…] we have become agents of ugliness and death, serving the interests of enormous industrial conglomerates and corporations that exist primarily to maximize their own self-centered profits and power (p. 146).’ Or, for those who need it spelled out:

[…] to work for social justice and environmental protection while continuing to purchase the flesh, milk, and eggs of horribly abused animals exposes a disconnect that is so fundamental that it renders our efforts absurd, hypocritical, and doomed to certain failure (p. 133).

Tuttle also gently points out the hypocrisy of would-be Buddhists who regularly eat sentient beings, exercising especial tact with regard to the Dalai Lama (who’d cited his doctors’ advice as an excuse). And did I mention Tuttle’s feminist?

‘Like science, the religious establishment has tended to reinforce the domination of animals, women, and nature, and to further the interests of the ruling elite. Like science, it tends toward being hierarchical, patriarchal, and exclusivist…(p. 160)’.

Spiritual breakthrough or not, maybe what’s needed is some research and to stop distracting oneself long enough to let in some sobering facts. For instance, more than 70 billion land animals are killed for food each year: more than nine animals for each human on the planet? (Even if some folk are eating more than their share, there must be some gross waste somewhere. Oh yeah – more than a third of all food produced each year for human consumption?)

And ever wonder why politicians (and the media) fixate on the issue of CO2 emissions, forgetting the far more potent methane cattle emit? Tuttle’s metaphor, ‘eating animal foods is the elephant in our living room’, is apt. But even if so much crazy injustice remains ‘taboo to confront or discuss’, at the rate our species is breeding, soon we may all be forced towards veganism. To instead approach it voluntarily may be one of the few consequential choices left to most humans as corporate-ruled, increasingly dispensable consumers.

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