I stopped eating flesh when I was fourteen. I had seen a chicken truck driving on I-95 with feathers flying everywhere and the birds suffocating, jammed into the mass. I wanted to have nothing to do with that. The question of purpose is one that damn near plagues vegetarians and ends up being a reason some of us hide the choice. Is it because of health reasons? Or moral reasons? Taste or cost? Environmental reasons? For the most part, the answer is yes to all of those.
But to abandon something so strongly, morality played the strongest role. I am no cow hugging hippie though. I do believe humans are more superior to the other beings on planet earth. I think our struggles can show that adequately enough. We don’t accept that things fall towards the earth or even that things exist in the first place. We aren’t content with living out all eternity without ever having explored what is beyond our atmosphere. We look up at the stars and wonder and for most of us, our lives are not simply regulated by daily simple struggles like food and sex. While there are some animals that may have this same sort of an elaborate consciousness, they have not discovered what we have. No other animal knows what we know.
But I am a vegetarian for the exact reason that we are superior. My dog Paulo is a simple minded animal. He’ll kill a rodent or a cat for the simple pleasure. He has no comprehension of life or the world around him. He is like a child. Yesterday on my run I came across an inch worm crossing the sidewalk. My foot was going to come down directly on top of him. But I altered my stride slightly and he lived for at least another moment. While Paulo will kill things senselessly, I will purposefully avoid killing something. True, there are humans that will senselessly step out of their way to step on an ant crossing the sidewalk. But to me, those people are no more mindful than Paulo and in that regard, are no more human than him.
But where does my frustration with consuming flesh occur? We are innately omnivorous. Even in our sparkling white smiles, our omnivorous nature is very evident in our incisors and canines. I have nothing wrong with killing and consuming. I never have had an issue with that. That is not the moral issue at hand here. To take a life to sustain one’s own is something I believe to be universally consistent.
Rather, the problem lies in how we do it. Annie Dillard wrote in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.” The problem is with the way we raise livestock. We are superior to these animals. Some people treat this superiority in intellect as a right to cage animals, to treat them as inferior. But in doing so, we accept inferiority. If we are to step over the ant, we establish our superiority to the cat who will toy with the ant. But if we are to toy with the ant as well, we accept inferiority. To cage an animal and treat it as meat before its death is disgusting. Living out here in Southwest Virginia, I can attest to this mindless appearance of many fields of cattle. You can see it in them, crowded pastures, soulless hunks of meat wandering around aimlessly. They need a certain amount of land to survive and they are given just that. They are a McDonald’s burger before they are even slaughtered. That is how we see them, and that is how we treat them.
But what do I propose we do? I have immense respect for hunting and fishing for sustenance. I value those activities as much as I despise the fast food drive through. But if everyone hunted, the deer and fish population would all but disappear within a couple years. The problem could be simplified to be an issue of population. There are a lot of people, so there needs to be a lot of food. Yes, that is an issue. I do believe we have far extended beyond this world’s carrying capacity. I don’t believe seven billion is sustainable.
But another problem, one that we can fix immediately, is our obsession with meat. People find it mind-boggling that I am able to manage all my training and the stress to my muscles on a vegetarian diet. But that is ridiculous. I, even with only consuming plant and dairy proteins, eat drastically way more protein than I need. Americans consume an absurd amount of protein and it is completely unnecessary. If we can get it across to people the unhealthy and unnecessary side effects of a meat centered diet, then maybe, along with the quantity of livestock, my frustration would diminish.
Another issue I have with our culture is our detachment from the food. A vegetable is one thing, with no consciousness or awareness. It is still a life, one that we should appreciate. But an animal is a much more elaborate being that we should respect accordingly. When you pick up a steak from the grocery store, I challenge you to think about what that is and what that was. Those are dead cells, billions of them, all once playing a key role in the support of a living, conscious being. Instead of this attempt to appreciate the lives that went into our daily meals, we often choose to complain about the price. It’s disgusting the price that is put on a life and the detachment that the meat has from that life. Barely anyone I know has ever actually killed an animal that they have eaten. Most of them claim they could not even do it and yet their plate always has that slab of flesh. As far as most people know, the hamburgers they have been eating could have in fact been from a pig and the bacon from a cow. This detachment from our food, I believe is also one of the major causes of obesity in the world. Food is less seen for what it actually is: borrowed energy. And by borrowed, I don’t mean we give it back to the cow. Instead, one life was taken so ours could remain. That is an extremely spiritual process. That is the reason all my friends are waiting for me to finish my meal after they have scarfed theirs down. Every bite is an amazing, elaborate transfer of energy, something to value and appreciate.
I don’t see us completely abandoning livestock and that is not something I would necessarily want to see. Instead, I would like to see a greater appreciation for our food, whether animal, plant, or fungus. I could see myself respecting that. I could see myself return to eating meat if I saw that. But currently even the people who do the killing of the animal are unable to value the life that came before it. We have lost touch with something that is more important to us than anything else in the entire history of life on earth. I do not expect us to set up a lounging paradise and spoon feed for the livestock. But I think, as a superior and typically morally sound race, we can at least have the dignity to give livestock a natural environment to thrive instead of the factories they currently lives out their lives in.