Monday, July 28, 2008

Eating Involves Killing -- No Matter What

In discussing a recent press statement by PETA about fur Wesley Smith here brought up the rarely discussed deaths of animals during harvesting. As he points out:

Plant agriculture results each year in the mass slaughter of countless animals, including rabbits, gophers, mice, birds, snakes, and other field creatures. These animals are killed during harvesting, and in the various mechanized farming processes that produce wheat, corn, rice, soybeans, and other staples of vegan diets. And that doesn’t include the countless rats and mice poisoned in grain elevators, or the animals that die from loss of habitat cleared for agricultural use. . . . Field animals may flee in panic as the great rumbling harvest combines approach, only to be shredded to bits within their merciless blades; they may be burned to death when field leavings are burned; they may be poisoned by pesticides; they may die from predation when their plant cover has been removed.

One might think this is just some conservative tu quoque argument, or else an artifact of awful, inhuman, industrialized factory farming. But actually the idea of grain agriculture as an animal holocaust is a fixed part of Buddhist belief, at least. In a recent study of Tibetan nomads, who lived off of slaughtering animals, the author Rinzin Thargyal notes:

Most of [his nomad informants] thought that farmers were bigger sinners than themselves as nomads, because the farmers killed countless worms and other living beings in the process of ploughing and sowing their fields. Nomads did not take too many lives and the preference for killing bovines was that one single animal could provide enough meat for many people over a longer period, thus involving much less total life-taking overall (p. 182).

And don't think the slaughtering the nomads did was all that humane:

Suffocating the animal was the standard form of killing. The animal was first hobbled and then felled down on the ground, then a rope was tied around the mouth very tightly. The whole process took about half an hour, after which the eyes of the animal became bluish, indicating a lack of oxygen (p. 87).

And the offspring of ox-yak crossbreeds were starved to death:

All tole or zomo calves were starved when very young [i.e. the people took all the milk and let the calves starve]. My informants hesitated to impart this piece of information to me initially, but they gradually admitted that they sometimes had to resort to what was a sinful act in Buddhist terms in order to survive as they did. Since only a few households kept zomo, most of them could avoid committing this form of killing (p. 83).

Even so, the killings involved in agriculture play a major role in the Buddhist view of the world. Here is a great analysis (from this book) based on field-work in Ladakh:

. . . Monks were discouraged from agricultural labor, and particularly the production of staple crops such as barley and peas. Both monks and laity agreed that such work was digpa (a term often glossed as 'sinful,' but more accurately implying an action which causes negative karma), since it killed many insects and worms, as did any digging or plowing. Normatively, involvement in agricultural activity was expected to decrease as a monk entered more senior ranks . . . Most agreed that it would be out of the question for the head monk to involve himself in any act of agricultural production, with some laity feeling that he should not even enter the fields of the village during the later summer months (p. 70).

Of course the other side of monastic renunciation is social reproduction (i.e. marriage and heterosexual relations). As Mills shows, plowing and sex are both seen as creating wealth (plowing by creating seeds, and sex by creating laborers for the farm). The householder is the wealth creator, producing both the grain to feed the monks, but also the future monks themselves. The practice of farming and sex are necessary to the survival of the monastic community, but the two are separated strictly by rules that separate the two in separate but complementary roles.

Not to speak of the viewpoint of the Manicheans whose founder Mani had a vision of plants suffering from the knife . . .

Like all world-changers, vegetarians are convinced that with a few simple adjustments, a life without inflicting harm on anyone are within our grasp. I have my doubts. Maybe it is because I sometimes feel uneasy swatting mosquitoes or crushing ants in my house. (And then I do it anyway and feel uncomfortable.) And when I have planted a plant, I have a deep-seated reluctance to kill it; especially if it seems to have a strong desire to live, despite frequent blows.

Maybe I'm just nuts, but I also have a feeling that the permission granted men and animals to eat plants worldwide in Genesis 1:29-30, and for Adam to eat Eden's plants in 2:16, and the extension to animals (including creeping things like worms and insects) of Gen. 9:2-3 was not just pro forma, that without God's specific permission it really would be wrong to eat plants. After all He made them and they are also our fellow creation. Do they actually belong to us?

(It's also worth noting that Genesis 1:29-30 and 2:16 are not saying the same thing. One gives all the plants of all the world to all men and animals. The other gives the plants of Eden to Adam alone. If you don't just assume, well, eating plants is always OK anywhere anyway, then that's a pretty big difference. Only by Genesis 3:23 does Adam come into a relation with the plants outside Eden; in Gen. 2:15 he only cared for the plants in Eden. Assuming that caring for is connected to eating, this places the universal permission to eat after the expulsion from Eden. This is grist for my mill that the blessings of Genesis 1:28-30, and the description of the world as "very good" in v. 31 are properly read as describing the situation after the expulsion from Eden, not before.)

One final thought in an incoherent post: as people out to change the world, vegetarians share the key characteristic of moral reformers and activists of all causes: that with a few changes, we can all lead sinless lives -- if we really want to. I appreciate the simplicity and purity of the reformers' zeal, I really do. But somehow I just can't share it. Somehow to me the idea that we are stuck in a world in which we cannot help but sin -- ethical fatalism, the idea that we are not in charge of whether we are good people or not -- seems a lot truer. (Of course moral reformers might say that's because I'm complicit in all sorts of evil I don't want to end, because I benefit from it. Or maybe I'm just passive. I suppose that might be true too.)

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