Understanding the problem but managing to disassociate ourselves from even thinking about it, much less taking action to correct the situation, I believe factory farming is something future generations will accept as inhumane and wonder at our casual cruelty in tolerating it for so long. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that more than 99% of all animals used in food production each year in the U.S. are raised on factory farms under problematic conditions such as “cages and overcrowding; physical alterations (e.g.,teeth-clipping or tail-docking) performed without anesthetic; indoor confinement with poor air quality and unnatural light patterns; inability to engage in natural behaviors; breeding for fast growth or high yields of meat, milk and eggs that compromises animal welfare; neglect of sick and suffering animals, often due to high ratio of animals to workers; misuse of antibiotics to compensate for unsanitary conditions; and/or rough or abusive handling by workers.” Many cringed at the 2014 story about how then New Jersey governor and Presidential candidate Chris Christie vetoed legislation which would have required pigs being raised for slaughter to be enclosed in crates at least big enough for them to turn around. Despite few if any pig farms in New Jersey, Christie rejected the bill in order not to offend potential Iowa caucus Republican primary voters. It hardly seems too much to ask that a living creature be given enough room to turn around before its unnatural (not to mention brief) life is abruptly ended so that I can have sausage with my scrambled eggs.
It’s not my intent to go off on an anti-factory farm rant or to encourage you to join the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the extreme (some would argue) animal rights group, although factory farms are pretty terrible and you could probably do much worse with your charitable time or money than PETA. No, what strikes me as I think about this, after my cheap chicken dinner purchased already roasted from Costco, is our how paradoxical our species is in understanding what’s wrong with our behavior at the same time we take forever to change it, especially if it is inconvenient or different from what we’re used to.
There are those who claim critics don’t fully understand what factory farms are becoming and even places where the most humanely raised products can be found (although the aforementioned PETA would argue that no meat is produced humanely, and they would have lots of graphic company), but the truth is most of us won’t do much about factory farming, despite our revulsion at some of the conditions under which our food is created. One day, when the vast majority of Earth’s residents have done away with the consumption of any meat except wild animals which have died of natural causes—“Fire up the grill, Maw! I just saw a sickly-looking possum!”—we indifferent carnivores who acted as if hamburger were born in Jewel will justifiably be viewed as primitive and ignorant (at best, with more creative pejoratives regularly used in anonymous on-line comment sections). But what happens when we discover that plants have a rich, ancient culture and have seen our farms as concentration camps where their children are poisoned and butchered, their bodies hacked up and used for human structures, their remains ground into flour, their unborn fetuses boiled in water or baked in ovens for human consumption? Don’t get too smug, vegans!
Changing our ethical behavior requires an evolution of morality which seems to be just as important and vital to our humanity as that which helped us to develop our bodies and brains to the point where we dominate the planet so completely we seem destined to destroy it. Perhaps moral evolution is the only hope we have in preventing that destruction.
Any examination of the human age can’t help but find atrocity after genocide after brutality, ad nauseum—we are responsible for vast numbers of them: From ritualistic human sacrifice by the Incans to European/American buying, selling, and using Africans as farm machinery to Nazi experiments on and extermination of Jews to tribal slaughter in Rwanda to ethnic cleansing in old Yugoslavia to the Syrian military killing thousands of its own citizens (occasionally resorting to chemically induced murder)—oh, and don’t forget about the religious persecution of Myanmar. And that historical listing just scratches the surface of the dozens other newsworthy things we are confronted with every day, many of which present us with other moral questions: How do we guarantee children’s safety in schools if we do nothing about the prevalence of guns in the hands of anybody who wants one? How do we ferret out and punish males who use their dominant, powerful positions to subject woman to intimidation, sexual predation, and violence? How do we deal with equality of rights, particularly as they are applied to sexual orientation and gender identity which conflict with religious leaders who condemn these people and won’t bake them cakes? (And by the way, how do we still grant so much power to organizations which advocate discrimination against innocent people?) What can we do about minority rights again, but this time in reference to blacks and the predilection of white Americans to feel threatened by anyone who happens to be black, leading to dire consequences, especially when the police are involved? How do we allow the situation where any human’s ability to access medical care is contingent on whether or not that person has the money/insurance for it? That’s a sampling of the issues which tempt us to ignore our responsibility to do that which is right in the name of convenience or personal biases; we could add dozens more.
For example, something which is closer to the aforementioned animal cruelty issue in that it affects everyone is the environment. There is much each and every single person could take every day to make sure we are not wasting limited resources and are creating as little pollution as possible, but billions of us are still fooling ourselves that our small acts make no difference in the grand scale of things. Regardless of our rationalizations, there’s plenty to do: Ban single use plastics (or at least ban them from our own homes), always bring canvas bags when shopping, and limit both car trips and our Amazon orders for all the fuel consumed and garbage those entail. We could buy organic produce, use push/reel lawnmowers (ones without gas-powered motors), stop using fertilizers and pesticides on our gardens or lawns, and create compost heaps to recycle all our food waste (which we should striving to limit) back into the ground. And coming full circle on our opening point, we could cut animal food products out of our diets to conserve water and other natural resources, not to mention reducing pollution, as well as eliminating the problems of factory farming and the animal cruelty which ensues.
The path to progress often seems impossible, or at least absurdly slow, especially given the obvious benefits improving our behavior would lead to. Yet, despite our selfish reluctance and stupidity, we keep taking small steps which do advance the cause. We begin in ignorance and unintended harm—who the hell would have figured that a chemical in aerosol cans (deodorant, hairspray and the like) would lead to the destruction of the ozone layer? (And yeah, most of us have to be schooled on what the ozone layer is, much less on why its existence matters.) But we then move to rationalized evil for a time after we’ve learned of the damage we’re inflicting but don’t want the hassle of changing our behavior, thus denying anything’s wrong—and wind up with a hole in the ozone. Once we can’t pretend we’re not engaging in negative actions, however, is when things get interesting, in both horrible and ennobling ways. There are always a few outliers who understand what’s happening more clearly and quickly than others who sound the alarm. Ridicule and ruin often follow for these poor visionaries: The things they have proved to be harmful seem indispensable to our way of life, so we attack them: “Hair spray, gas-powered cars, hot dogs, and smart phones cannot be lived without—we need them! You must have it completely wrong—how dare you claim my precious convenience is hurting anything!” (Now, of course, we’ve evolved our denials even more effectively in the way we use political affiliation, religion, race, and even gender to discredit anyone calling attention to a moral wrong in our society. How much will this new “skill” delay necessary progress is anybody’s guess—the children being separated from their parents hope we can sort this out quickly. Enhanced moral evolution would help, especially when you consider how technologies and cleverness have increased the pace at which human actions impact our lives, which only exacerbates the need for our figuring out the right path fast.)
Eventually—but often not before those pioneers who tried to warn us have been attacked, black-balled, ignored, persecuted, bankrupted, and/or died—we do achieve forward movement, albeit in incremental, halting stages, with regular, significant backslides, until we reach a higher moral ground and clean up our acts. Despite how impossible it seemed thirty years ago, we’ve now had a black President. Nobody thought it could happen fifteen years ago, but gay marriage is currently the law of the land. Women being believed and powerful men being held to account for their crimes and indiscretions didn’t seem likely five years ago, but seemingly invincible males are now losing jobs, social standing, and even going to jail. Those minuscule advances do lead to eventual progression, taking us out of the darkness into the light—well, at least into a patch that is a little less murky. That we can’t recognize how much development actually occurs or what the key turning points are as we agonizingly inch forward is due to the depressing regressions we’re prone to; but if we can force ourselves to look backwards far enough on some issues, we can recognize that we’ve come a long way, that movement forward is a remarkably consistent human trait. Our history is littered with countless horrific mistakes as we’ve already referenced, but out of those low points, we seem able to recognize the evil we have perpetuated in order to make improvements.
It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, and it is damnably difficult to recognize that good is inexorably winning out; but take a look at any recent dark period in human history and you will see that we are doing better now, at least in relation to the specific circumstances of that particular conflagration. Treatment of and rights for minorities and women have improved in most places; pollution has decreased somewhat (or the harm we are doing has slowed down a tad); and the general quality of life has gotten better for hundreds of millions. Sadly, there is an eternal parade of evil things happening, and human corruption will apparently always be a significant part of the equation. Recognizing progress can never come at the expense of uncovering our rottenness, but the positive deserves our attention too.
Maybe I’m just trying to talk myself out a general sense of doom based on the awful, awful regression the United States has taken since the 2016 Presidential election and the subsequent significant back-tracking Trump has instituted in racial issues, environmental protection, corruption, women’s rights, civility, empathy, rule of law, immigration, income distribution, health care, civil rights, democracy, international alliances, and just about any progress we’ve experienced in the past fifty years. No matter what your political leanings, there can be no denying that any movement characterized by the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is based on trying to revert to the way things were in the past, the antithesis of America’s (admittedly, not completely linear) movements over the course of its history. You think differently? Then contemplate the America of one hundred years ago: Women were still fighting to gain the vote, to say nothing of being allowed to compete with men in the workforce. Blacks were regularly being lynched in parts of the country and were severely restricted in voter participation, employment opportunities, and housing options. Child labor laws were so permissive that 18% of American workers were under 16 years old. Still nostalgic? Then would you advocate refashioning present-day U.S. into what it was two hundred years ago in 1818? If you’re hankering for a time when half the country permitted slavery, then I’d recommend you stop reading this blog immediately and never click on my essays again! (I know—no big loss…) Through the prism of historical fact, we can see without a doubt that the wild liberals of their day—those advocating women’s rights, protection of minorities from oppression, reformation of labor laws (not to mention unionization), and abolitionists (one of the more radical groups you’ll find in America’s young life)—were 100% right in pushing this country towards what seemed like extreme positions at the time.
November will be a fascinating evaluation of Trump’s attempts to move the country in his direction (translated: backward many decades); but regardless of the outcome of this grotesque blip on humanity’s moral evolution, history suggests we will finally come to our senses, bit by bit, as we stumble our way to a brighter tomorrow. It will be embarrassing to confess to our grandchildren that we were a party to this idiotic, repressive phase in our development, but just like those humiliating pictures from our early teenage years, we can at least be confident that it will get better. We just don’t know how or when we’ll conquer this particular awkward stage, but if we keep slowly but surely acknowledging and fighting for that which is good, that which is just, and that which is right; even a country that was foolish enough to elect Trump will one day move forward again. We can do better and we will. It’s just that I—like billions and billions of factory farm animals every year—wish it wouldn’t take so long. Who’s hungry?