I just came across this video via GOOD magazine. It’s a Mercy for Animals tape of pigs inside a factory farm, and though it’s incredibly hard to watch, it’s also really important.
I’m cynical and jaded. It’s hard for me to get truly angry or upset about the abuses of industry and the destruction of the natural world, because it’s so ubiquitous. But this video had me in tears. Climate change is distant and species extinction is abstract, but pigs screaming in terror and pain is awfully, disturbingly real.
I went to the Mercy for Animals website and clicked on their “Get Active” page, which made me even angrier. Here are their suggestions for getting involved in this issue, in the order they’re listed on the site.
1) Go vegetarian, or better yet, vegan.
2) Educate others about the horrors of factory farming and the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism.
3/4/5)Join Mercy for Animals by sending them money, volunteer for them and attend their events.
6) Spread the word about vegetarianism via Facebook, Twitter and your email signature.
7) Hand out leaflets about vegetarianism.
8) Organize a video screening.
9) Veganize local restaurants and cafeterias.
10) Write people in power about these issues.
Look, I get that individual actions are important. Feeling personally invested in an issue is an important thing, and many people get into broader forms of activism because they started out being vegetarians and then choose to look into food production more (oh hey there). So by all means, go veggie or vegan if you want to and spread the word to interested parties. But we all know that individual vegans are never going to end factory farming, and as a movement, we do a disservice to ourselves by pretending otherwise.
Most people will never be vegan. Selling people on reducing meat consumption is feasible—it’s probably healthier for them anyway. Selling people on vegetarianism is challenging, but doable. Selling people on veganism is really hard. Veganism, as far as I’ve seen, has a popular perception as a movement of ascetics who are interested in self-deprivation and having moral high ground. This isn’t completely accurate, obviously (I have vegans friends, I swear), but like most stereotypes, it contains grains of truth. Being vegan isn’t easy, and it isn’t practical or realistic for many people, especially people who are low-income.
I don’t believe we can sell the world on veganism, but I think we can sell them on not torturing animals. Pretty much any decent human would be saddened, angered or shocked by watching that video, or one of the many others documenting similar practices in the industry. I believe we do a disservice to those who will never be vegan when we list that as the first action step a concerned person can take. Individual choices can be powerful and empowering, but they won’t change the status quo. Framing the solution to factory farming as veganism disempowers people who aren’t willing or in a position to make that choice. It frames people unwilling to give up animal products as part of the problem. It emphasizes personal choice over political action, even though the latter can produce results on a much larger scale.
Existing power structures will not change or give up power without a fight. No one has ever stopped clear cutting because a bunch of people from the Sierra Club asked nicely. They stopped because radical Earth First and ELF people were busy chaining themselves to trees and monkeywrenching machinery, and suddenly a compromise with the Sierra Club seemed like a perfectly reasonable middle ground. And existing power structures have made factory farming a necessity for feeding the world, especially poor Americans.
Ending factory farming requires radicals and compromisers. It requires activists willing to break into slaughterhouses and film conditions inside of them. It requires people to build and support alternative meat suppliers, and policies which allow equality of access to those alternatives. It requires people who want to lobby Congress to pass more stringent regulations on factory farms, and it requires vegan anarchists who want to liberate pigs from their prisons. There’s no reason you should have to be a vegan to care about animal suffering or to be an anti-factory farm activist. We need as many committed people as we can get to fight back, and pretending that our individual choices are the most important tool we have won’t get us very far.
Note: This is a column I wrote for the Pioneer last fall while I was on Whitman’s Semester in the West program. The column can also be found on the Pioneer website. I’m planning to post in the next few days about some common reasons people argue against local food and why they’re missing the point, but I thought it would be relevant to post my own critique of the local idea, as well some thoughts on the shortcomings of food package labels.
I’m five feet, five and a half inches tall, and I weigh 150.7 pounds. This gives me a body mass index (BMI) of 24.7, just a hair below the cutoff for overweight (25).
I used to be skinny. I had no breasts to speak of until well into seventh grade. I had bony knees tiny legs and ribs you could count, if only just. By freshman year of high school, I had developed a bit. I ran cross country that fall, stopped running once the season was over, kept eating four meals a day and gained ten pounds that winter. In my first two years of college, I’ve put on another fifteen pounds.
By American standards, I’m an average weight, probably even below average. I’ve always loved my body–especially during the two or three years when I had a respectable chest and still held on to my flat stomach. I’ve never felt “fat”, or had any particular desire to lose weight. But over the past two years, as I’ve gained more weight, I’ve found it harder to look in the mirror and feel proud. Initially, I thought this was because of the way I looked–the rolls of fat on my side that appeared when I bent over, or the way my cheekbones didn’t stick out quite as much as they used to. I told myself I wouldn’t always look like this, that it would get better when I didn’t have school and three jobs to keep me busy and stressed.
After a year of feeling this way, during which I stayed about the same weight, I realized I wasn’t mad at myself for the way I looked. I was mad because I wasn’t taking care of my body. With an all-you-can-eat meal plan, I’d been eating more than I was used to, and I felt worse for it. I wasn’t exercising regularly. I made some choices to change this. I signed up for aerobics classes, got off Whitman’s meal plan so I could cook healthy food for myself and tried to limit my binging on chips and cookies a bit.
Guess what happened? I stayed exactly the same weight. I might have even gotten bigger. And I do not care anymore.
My parents, like many well-meaning people, have fallen into the skinny = healthy trap. When I told Mom I hated cross country and was quitting junior year of high school, she was concerned about my health without a regular source of exercise. The way she chose to phrase this concern was, “Aren’t you worried you’ll get fat if you don’t exercise?” This summer, I proudly declared that I didn’t care about my stomach fat anymore, because I had more important things to worry about and I wasn’t “overweight” anyway. My dad’s response: “Don’t you think you are, a little bit?” I responded with a vehement, “No!” Later, I had another thought. What if I was? Would it even matter?
Since then, I’ve thought about fat a lot. Here’s my non-radical reasoning about why fat is the wrong question:
Americans (and other people, to be fair) eat terrible food and don’t exercise. Many people could stand to be more healthy. But healthier doesn’t mean skinnier. People can be healthy at tons of different weights. Some obese people eat very little and exercise regularly. Some skinny people can eat whatever they want without gaining any weight. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. So sure, encourage people to be healthy, eat well, lay off the junk food and exercise regularly. Maybe they’ll lose weight in the process. Maybe they won’t. But either way, they’ll certainly be healthier, and better off. There is absolutely no need to shame people for their weight or teach them that they are disgusting or unworthy of love or some other awful shit like that.
And here’s my more radical reasoning (thanks to the amazing Lindy West at The Stranger for giving me some of these ideas in her awesome essay Hello, I Am Fat, which you should go read right now.)
Being healthy is an admirable trait, but it’s not the be all and end all of human existence. What if someone wants to eat fried food all the time? That’s their right as a person. What if someone has absolutely no desire to lose weight? That’s absolutely their prerogative, because it’s their body. Not yours. Not society’s. Not everybody has to be healthy, just like not everyone has to be well-read or fluent in three languages or able to cook five course meals or pilot fighter jets. These are all traits that make for pleasant, well-rounded people, but they’re not essential to live a happy, fulfilling life. If someone wants to be unhealthy, that’s completely their choice. If someone happens to be fat, there’s no guarantee that they are unhealthy at all, and either way, you don’t have a right to tell them how to live their life.
People berate and ridicule fat people, tell them that they’re imperfect, half-formed people who just need to lose a little weight before they can find love and happiness. People who do this claim to be concerned about health and people’s well being, which is bullshit. As Lindy points out, health includes mental health, and there are literally millions of fat people who’re tried to lose weight to no avail.
For people who are concerned about public health, I would like to point something else out. I’ve previously quoted Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, who argues that obesity is a symptom not of “an impoverished faculty of choice” but “an impoverished range of choices”. Obesity correlates with poverty, because poor people are more likely to live in food deserts and to not be able to afford fresh produce, gym memberships and a host of other things that keep the rich looking like covergirls. So if you’re really, really concerned about health and people’s well being, you’d be much better off pushing for food system reform (an end to corn subsidies, better social welfare programs, subsidized produce, etc.) than you would shaming fat people.
Obviously, that’s what I want to do. But I’m making a promise to myself. Starting today, I promise to take good care of myself–regular exercise, not too much junk food. I promise to love myself no matter how much I weigh. I promise to never try to lose weight, because that’s so not the point. I promise to remember all the amazing things my body can do, like hiking up ridiculous hills. I promise to never encourage anyone else to lose weight or shame them for their body size or appearance. I promise to be aware of thin privilege. I promise to fight with everything I have to build a better food system, and if I happen to have stomach fat rolls while I’m doing it, I promise to not care at all.
I’ve had a bit more than a week at home, so I figure it’s time for an update on my No-Car Challenge. Thus far, I have mostly followed all the rules I originally set forth. I got a ride home from the airport and drove to get dinner with my cousin because I was going with my brother, who would have driven anyway. I went to Walla Walla earlier, which is obviously outside the Seattle city limits. I did cheat a bit yesterday and get a ride home from my aunt after walking 3.5 miles to her house because I had a cold and needed to start cooking dinner for friends who were coming over. And I got a ride home from the Harry Potter premier last night because buses don’t run at 3am.
Strangely, it doesn’t feel like that big of a deal to not drive anywhere. I’ve been taking the bus more than I thought I would, and while busing usually takes about twice as long as driving somewhere, I’ve been able to get a ton of reading done that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I’ve done a few long walks to get places too, but mostly, I’ve just been chilling at home reading books.
So far, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything especially profound or out of the ordinary by not driving. Maybe this will change if I get more ambitious–I’m thinking of trying to bus out to Issaquah to see my aunt and cousins, and also of doing an entirely public transit trip to Mason Lake to see my grandma. Even if I don’t achieve a Zen-like trancendence of car culture, though, I’m accomplishing my main goal quite nicely. In the (almost) two weeks I’ve been home, I’ve spent a total of $18 on busses and $60 on gas to drive to Walla Walla. There’s no way that I could have driven around this whole time without spending at least $30 on gas and another $15 on parking. And while I’m definitely not saving the world, saving money feels almost as good.
The weirdest things about the US after a month in Ghana:
1) Driving home from the airport on a road that’s completely paved with no potholes, no tro-tros, no signs proclaiming the benefits of a relationship with Jesus Christ and nobody trying to sell me phone cards, water sachets or plantain chips.
2) Saying “Good morning” to someone and getting a curt nod in reply as opposed to a smile and reply of “Good morning, how are you?”
3) White people. Everywhere. In very excessive numbers.
4) Going outside and having the air smell vaguely like spring or car exhaust, as opposed to the pungent combination of street food, sewage, warm rain, diesel fumes and humidity (which I love, by the way).
5) Being able to pay for things with a credit card.
6) The lack of color, on people’s clothes, storefronts, signs and vehicles.
7) Brushing teeth with tap water. Also drinking tap water.
8) Paying 2-3 times as much for non-local produce that barely tastes like whatever it’s supposed to.
9) The quantity (less) and type (non-tropical) of vegetation.
10) The realization that I didn’t clean my room at all before I left, since I had less than 24 hours between getting home from school and leaving for 7 weeks of international travel.