Are we killing ourselves?
There has been a lot of talk in recent days about how factory farmed animals are the cause of the deadly hybrid virus that is eerily mutating, and some are calling it cosmic retribution, a sort of "chickens coming home to roost" scenario. I don't know about that, but an animal virus like swine flu is a completely predictable (and was a widely predicted) response to our modern horribly cruel and appallingly filthy factory farming systems.
Undoubtedly, some animal welfare people are hoping that swine flu will serve as a wake-up call for humanity, that the "groupthink" in support of intensive farming might move toward thoughtfulness about the health hazards and cruelty of intensively confining animals, and that governments will pass laws to make these "confined animal feeding operations" (CAFOs, the industry term for "factory farm") smaller, cleaner, less cruel, and less dependent on drugs--which are used to keep the animals alive through the filthy and stressful conditions that would otherwise kill them in much greater numbers.
I must admit that this does feel like a wake-up call: Are we really so addicted to eating meat (even as we demand that meat be inexpensive, meat processors want to make more money, which means faster, meaner ways of raising and slaughtering animals for food) that we're willing to risk the millions who could die from such mutating viruses? Has our desire for gustatory pleasure at any cost pushed us into terrible consequences as we creep toward an ugly future? The "big one" may not be this particular version of the flu, but scientists say we have not seen the last of H1N1; not by a long shot.
When the swine flu hit, I was already wondering and talking with friends about whether the economic crisis might inspire a paradigm shift in how we live our lives, especially after reading a remarkable column by generally sober and hyper-realistic Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. Writes Friedman, "What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it's telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically...?"
Friedman concludes that "Often in the middle of something momentous, we can't see its significance. But for me there is no doubt: 2008 will be the marker--the year when 'The Great Disruption' began."
Of course, the economic meltdown is already forcing us to rethink our priorities and what we value, so there is a process of letting go of a lot of things we considered important. People have cut back on buying non-essential items; we're eating out less, using the library more, and generally becoming more reasonable in our consumption and more civic-minded in our overall way of being--the economic crunch is, as Friedman predicted, causing a reevaluation of our priorities.
But will the changes be as massive as Friedman predicts? President Obama certainly hopes so. I recently saw a quote by the president: "History reminds us that, at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas." Yes, we have; and we can again, of course.
In the past, America has faced and overcome enormous difficulties again and again, from the Revolutionary War to World War II to the obstacles of racism and sexism. These challenges, and our ability as a people to address them--with both individual and societal change--should inspire us to optimism in the face of current challenges.
What can we do, as individuals, to create a sea change, to halt the mutation of deadly viruses, to say no to out-of-control business practices, to stop creating environmental havoc, and to bring our health up to a better level? All of this can be covered, incredibly, by thinking very seriously about the foods we choose to eat, and then changing our habits if we find that our choices are generating problems. And as we change as individuals, society and governments will change with us.
Here's a home run solution that I can't help coming back to: eat less (and eventually no) animal protein. A diet high in animal protein bloats us physically by clogging our bodies with saturated fat, growth hormones, and antibiotics; it has been proven conclusively to cause cancer, heart disease, and obesity.
And the meat industry poisons and depletes our clean air, potable water, and fertile topsoil almost more than any other sector of business. As just one example, the meat industry is responsible for about 18 percent of all global warming--that's almost half again as much as all cars, planes, and trucks combined.
And now it's become all too clear that factory farms are breeding grounds for viruses to mutate and become deadly.
Basically, our current food choices (the average American eats about 200 pounds of meat annually) are killing us on a host of different levels. Perhaps now more than ever, it's time to clear out old, tired, uninformed ways of eating and opt instead for food that nourishes us, is easy on the planet, and gives the animals some breathing room.
Oh, and especially useful in these exceedingly difficult economic times: Eating a plant-based diet is cheap relative to eating meat. Compare the price of grains and beans with that of chicken and cheese. And growing grains and vegetables is by no means the filthy business that animal agriculture has become.
I realize it's not painless to give up what we are used to, what we like the taste and tradition of, in favor of a diet that we know is better for us and the planet. But if we lean into the shift of eating consciously by giving up one animal at a time (give up chickens first, as I discuss here), or eating only vegetarian for two out of three meals, we will find our way and get used to new tastes. We will grow to love different foods that are kinder to our bodies, the environment, and the animals.
As I ponder Obama's call for change and Friedman's vision of a paradigm shift, and I think about recent predictions that unless we turn back now, ecological disaster is inevitable, I wonder if economic collapse and swine flu might be our only hope.
Perhaps in these trying days, the law of unintended consequences may represent our salvation. No one is glad for the swine flu or the economic meltdown, but maybe these great calamities are the push we needed to re-boot and start afresh.
We are a world out of balance, to be sure. But we can begin to eat (so simply!) in a way that brings us back to equilibrium, personally and globally. I just hope enough of us answer the call.