Tag Archives: environmentalism

Eating Animals

oprah-kfc-swine-flu-factory-farm

The Situation:

The animal product industry is huge in the US and other developed countries, and there are so many problems with it that it’s difficult to know where to start. In the US alone, 9 billion land animals are put through the torturous life of a factory farm animal.1 Worldwide, this number may be as high as 70 billion.2 Over 99% of all animal products consumed in the US come from factory farms.3 The fact is that we depend heavily on a system that treats sentient individuals as profit-producing objects.

The life of an animal on a factory farm is horrible from beginning to end. In the interest of maximizing efficiency and profits, animals are kept in spaces so small they often cannot move, their bodies are mutilated (debeaking, tail clipping, etc.) without anesthetic to prevent animals from attacking each other or themselves out of frustration and anger. An animal is raised to its maximum utility and then killed, usually decades before the end of it’s natural lifespan. In egg and dairy industries, this means that male animals are often killed as soon as they are born. The slaughter process is rushed, so even if there are practices in place to make the slaughter better for the animals, they often cannot be adhered to. This means that many animals are fully conscious when they are skinned, boiled, or gassed to death.4

Although minimal legislation exists to regulate the slaughter of animals, the Humane Slaughter Act does not apply to chickens or turkeys, which make up a huge portion of factory farmed animals.5 Even animals covered by the act are often not slaughtered according to these minimal standards, because of poor regulation and cutting corners in the interest of efficiency.

In addition to being incredibly harmful to the animals, factory farms are notorious for abusing their workers. Undocumented immigrants are disproportionately employed by the industry, which means that they are unlikely to speak up about poor labor practices. The whole industry is set up to operate in secret, in the interest of profits. Workers are routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals and dangerous conditions, so on-the-job injuries are the norm. If that isn’t enough, the work is extremely psychologically damaging. Factory farm workers have extremely high rates of mental illness, domestic abuse, and other violent offenses.6 This is hardly surprising given the nature and conditions of the work they do. The plight of these people is not well known, and support for them is minimal.

As if all that is not enough, the environmental impact of the factory farm industry is huge. Factory farms use huge amounts of water and energy, and they produce incredible amounts of waste that pollute the air and water.4 A single pound of beef takes about 1,500 gallons of water to produce, the equivalent of about 100 showers. 7 The industry’s contribution to climate change is estimated to be greater than all emissions from cars and planes.8

I could keep going, and talk about the overuse of antibiotics, the effects on communities, the low nutrition of the food produced. The factory farm system is simply indefensible. It is staggeringly inefficient, cruel, exploitative, and environmentally destructive. The fact is that we do not need to be producing animal products on such a large scale, and if we don’t stop, there could be serious consequences. Reliance on meat and other animal products simply is not sustainable, and not ethical.

The Psychology:

Although the industry has done everything it could to keep its practices a secret, these facts are starting to become better known. Many people are fully aware of some of the problems with factory farms, yet continue to support them by buying their products.

Dr. Melanie Joy talks about a concept called carnism, a kind of prejudice against animals used for food. People will object more to harm inflicted on a dog than to the same treatment of a pig, even though the two animals have comparable intelligence. This carnism is widespread, and certainly contributes to people’s acceptance of the problem. It’s a way to combat the cognitive dissonance people feel when they learn that the hamburger they are enjoying was produced in such a problematic way.9

However, this is clearly not the whole problem. The system is perpetuated primarily by separating the product from the process. The way animal products are talked about, marketed, and consumed completely removes the animals and workers from the picture. The products at the grocery store often do not look like the animals they come from. Marketing stays away from showing pictures of the animals at all, especially not in the real conditions in which they were living (the dairy industry is an exception, but that’s a separate issue). Even words like ‘beef’, ‘pork’, and others separate the living animal from the edible flesh. All of these factors contribute very sneakily to the fact that you simply don’t think of a factory farm when you buy a block of cheese or order a hamburger. It takes a great deal of effort to stop thinking of the thing on your plate as a piece of meat and start thinking of it as a dead animal.

Discussion:

There really isn’t much to discuss, nor any ethical questions to ask. The factory farming practices we employ are clearly wrong, on so many levels. Anyone who defends them is putting profits above public health, environmental protection, worker safety, and endless animal suffering. Change is clearly necessary here, and there is no sustainable, cruelty-free way to keep consuming animal products at the rate we are today. It’s simply inevitable that people are going to have to give up at least a large portion of the meat, eggs, and dairy that they are used to. Even those who advocate humane farming practices acknowledge that these practices cannot produce anywhere close to the volume produced by factory farms.

We need to stop treating living, feeling animals as commodities. They are not machines for turning huge amounts of water and energy into meat (even so, they would be incredibly inefficient). This fundamental shift in how we think of animals is not an easy one to accomplish, but it’s necessary if we want to move forward.


1 A Well-Fed World on factory farming
2 Factory Farming Facts
3 ASPCA on factory farming
4 Wikipedia on intensive animal farming
5 Wikipedia on the Humane Slaughter Act
6 VegNews, Inside the Life of a Factory Farm worker
7 Farm Sanctuary on factory farming and the environment
8 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on factory farms
9 Dr. Melanie Joy on carnism

Preserving Animal Habitats

coralhome

The Situation:

It’s clear that human beings have had a devastating impact on the natural habitats of most other species on the planet. By some estimations, at least 10,000 species go extinct every year, largely due to habitat loss, overexploitation of resources, and other forms of environmental destruction. This is somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural (not caused by human activity) extinction rate.1 Obviously, the rate at which we are depleting resources and life on this planet is not sustainable, so things need to change for everyone’s sake. The question is how to go about doing that.

This post isn’t about environmental issues, that’s a whole other conversation that needs to be had. However, in the meantime, where and how should we put our resources in the effort to save endangered animal species. There is a trend toward focusing on species that are most interesting or appealing to people, which generally means cute or smart mammals. In some ways this makes sense, because conservation efforts rely on public support, and these are the animals that make people want to donate their money. On the other hand, there’s a prejudice here. Cute animals like the panda are getting huge amounts of attention, while thousands of other species are going extinct without notice all the time. Unfortunately, those human beings attempting to lessen the damage caused by their species are forced to choose which species get a chance to live and which don’t.

I mentioned that public appeal is a major factor in this choice. However, there are certainly other ones that can lead to some ethically questionable actions. Conservationists tend to favor biodiversity, which can mean essentially killing off an invasive species that is affecting the habitat around it. But is this an ethical preference or simply an aesthetic one? Efforts like the one in California’s channel islands can involve mass slaughter of animals introduced decades before by humans, with the intent of saving another species that is judged to be more important and more deserving of the habitat. In this particular example, it’s probably not a coincidence that the species being saved was a particularly cute kind of fox, and the success of the campaign depended on killing the much less marketable wild pigs and donkeys.2

The rate at which natural ecosystems are declining is much faster than all the efforts to restore them, however successful or ethically sound they may be. There needs to be a way to focus limited resources in this area to causes that will prevent the most future damage.

The Psychology:

I think most people who work on invasive species problems or other environmental issues that may have some ethical issues are coming from the right place. The usual justification for these is that because we caused huge changes to an ecosystem that we judge to be damaging, it is our responsibility to fix it. This would make sense if we could foresee the consequences of our decisions, but most of the environmental disasters happening now are happening because that is clearly not the case. But conveniently, this approach serves ourselves in a very significant way. It helps alleviate guilt. Many people (justifiably) feel extreme guilt for the negative affect that the human species has had on the other life on this planet. Putting time and effort into reversing those changes makes that feel a little less awful. I would guess that this is the reason that many people justify some pretty horrible actions for the cause.

Power is also a factor in this situation. It is undeniable that the human species has huge amounts of power over the environment. In almost all cases, exercising this power has lead to damage to natural ecosystems. Even so, I think that it is very difficult for people to accept or even consider that the best solution would be to relinquish that power. That’s a very hard thing to do for people, and this kind of thinking is often unstated.

The need to alleviate guilt and the desire to maintain a sense of power are both very strong psychological motivators. In this case, both seem to be at play in clouding people’s perceptions of right and wrong when it comes to how we should combat the destruction of our planet’s ecosystems.

The Ethical Questions:

How should we decide which species to try to save?

Should we have the power to remove invasive species at all costs?

Are biodiversity and preventing ecosystems from changing ethically relevant issues? Are we approaching them the right way?

How far should we go in preventing invasive species from taking over?

Where should conservation efforts focus their resources?

Discussion:

There does seem to be some value to keeping a level of biodiversity and preventing invasive species from destroying ecosystems. But there is also something to be said for not meddling more than we already have. Most invasive species are invasive because we brought them there (aren’t we the ultimate invasive species??), and trying to correct our own mistakes at sometimes great costs feels a bit like playing God. I would argue that we should focus our efforts on not affecting the natural habitats that remain any more than necessary. This may mean that ecosystems change, but ecosystems have been changing for billions of years. We seem to have an intense desire to control this process, but maybe things would be better if we just let them be.

From this standpoint, the conservation efforts that do make ethical sense are those like anti-poaching and anti-deforestation campaigns. The driving factor here is to reduce human impact on the environment, instead of trying to fix problems we’ve already caused. To me, this seems like a much better use of our considerable power.This is the approach that has the best chance of working, because we are minimizing unintended consequences. The ecosystems on this planet have gotten pretty good at taking care of themselves, much better than we are at maintaining them.


1 WWF stats
2 criticism of Channel Islands invasive species programs