Imagine you were born on an island. As you grow up, you find all of your needs provided for, all of your biological necessities met by some benevolent presence. You don’t have to work. You don’t have to find shelter or food. You’re surrounded by family and peers who, like you, have no concerns other than how to spend these waking moments. Should I lay in the sun? Or maybe have another meal? Socialize with friends? Sleep? Hump? Presumably time would become hard to track. With no real structure to your days and no struggles to strive against, time would stretch into one long sleepy now.
Now, at some point in this now-ness, on this island of no concerns, a strange figure arrives one day. Unbeknownst to you, his presence signals the end of yours. Within moments of seeing him, there is a bang and your lights go out. You experience no pain. You did not know this was coming. You simply went about your day as usual, one more minute in your state of perpetual now, and then, the next minute you’re gone.
Would you trade away all your concerns — the bills and the rent payments and the job you hate — for a spot on this leisurely island where one day, unexpectedly, you just up and die?
When I began raising livestock for meat, this is how I tried to figure my ethics around the thing. Because for a pig, chicken or cow raised on an ecologically sound, ethically minded farm and then butchered on that farm, this scenario is not far from their reality. A good animal husband strives to provide such a state of blissful wellbeing for his animals. We make their existence as stress free as possible, provide for their every need and then one day we arrange their death, again striving for an absence of stress, for a quick, painless kill.
Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Or at least palatable. Probably some version of this imagining is used to justify meat consumption by those seeking out ‘ethical’ meat at farmer’s markets and Whole Foods. If we’re going to eat meat, we reason, we want it from an animal that lived a good life, that did not suffer.
But isn’t there something strange about this? We provide a good life just so we can steal it away. We prematurely end a good thing. In other words, when we eat meat from a happy animal, we have helped put an end to that happiness.
Seen from this light, eating meat from the industrial model of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) where animals live in nightmarish conditions, could be seen as a sort of mercy killing. In dying they were freed from suffering. And they’re dead now. We might as well eat the meat.
There are other complications with this Island of No Concerns scenario. The absence of stress and suffering is really only achievable for animals killed on farm — on the island — and regulations from the USDA all but forbid this type of meat from reaching your dinner plate. In order for meat to be sold at markets or in restaurants, animals must be processed in a USDA regulated facility, which at the least mandates that you trailer your animals some distance on a highway. This must be like being strapped to a roller coaster against your will. These animals have never moved at highway speeds. Think of the fear, the motion sickness.
So this adds a new ripple to the thought experiment. Instead of living peacefully on your island and one day without warning, bang, the lights go out — now, one day you’re taken from your island, locked in a cage, rocketed through space, then held in a dim warehouse for a few hours, maybe a day. The warehouse stinks like death and guts. Dead-eyed, abusive men move methodically through the screams of terror, ushering you through the chute, finally to your end.
Oh, another complication, if you’re a guy on this island, you have to be a eunuch. No balls allowed. We don’t want to taint the meat with your funky testosterone, so in exchange for residency on the island, we’ll be cutting off your testes at a young age. That’s just part of the deal.
Suddenly, this ethical meat from ‘happy’ animals doesn’t seem so ethical. I have to consider these things every time I take a pig to be slaughtered.
To be clear, I still raise and eat meat. In my eyes it is essential to offer an alternative to the industrial model of meat production, but I worry that as consumers we are not being honest with ourselves. At this point in humanity all meat, whether from a bucolic pasture or a concrete slab, is the result of death. PETA might call it murder. AWA might call it ‘humanely slaughtered.’ But whatever we call it we must acknowledge it as such, as death. Your burger and bacon once had a face and feelings, there is still no way around that, and if you’re going to eat meat you at least should be able to imagine that face while stuffing yours.