It’s that time of year when the cicadas scream, the fires crackle and Sam Kekovich awakes in his palace of meat. For months he has slumbered, his still flesh almost as pink as the enormous steak on which he lies. First one eye, then the other, open to survey the sausage chandeliers, the cutlet curtains and the rissole walls. He rises, straightens his tie and begins to consume his breakfast – a slab of beer, a live sheep and a mound of white powder as soft as a baby lamb’s belly. Once he is sated, he calls the ad people on an iPhone woven intricately from mince. His wolfish maw curves into a knowing smile. Sam Kekovich understands that the industrial production of meat is environmentally catastrophic, intensely cruel and predominantly unhealthy. But he is complicit in it anyway.
In that, we are not so different. I’m a vegetarian sympathiser and an abject hypocrite. I eat flesh shamelessly and regularly for it’s convenience and deliciousness. I tell myself that I’m no Kekovich, no obnoxious carnivore who despises the herbivorous as anemic moon-children, but when it comes to our actions there isn’t much difference. We both burn the world for burgers, love the taste of pain and are the face of multimillion dollar marketing campaign for the lamb industry. (You might not have seen my ads, they only air on Ten). I don’t think it’s realistic or reasonable to expect low-nutrition third world communities to jump aboard the Facon train but there’s no excuse for a person like me in a society as affluent as this to consume such a harmful product. So how do I justify it? The same way I justify all the other unethical behaviours that make up the meatloaf of my middle-class lifestyle. I don’t.
The money I spent on booze last month could have saved a human’s life. Even as a casually employed uni drop out hookworming off my parents in the burbs, I’m probably within the global 1%. I directly benefit from the perilous working conditions of Bangladeshi wage slaves. How many tiny hands in hungry looms were crushed to make my skinny jeans? That’s not to mention the fossil fuels burnt by me or in my name that contributed to the recent heatwave and the typhoon that decimated the Philippines. My entire existence is predicated on exploitation and privilege, acts of interlocking selfishness that ravage the planet and cause suffering in others.
But what would happen if I started buying organic beer or fair trade ice cream? Not much. At most, my urge to change the status quo would be somewhat alleviated. Unless I manage to fundamentally alter the system or my lifestyle, most attempts to clean up my act will be tokenistic tokes of smugness catered to sating my crowed and battered conscience. In short, just another indulgence.
I’m reminded of the Portrait of Dorian Gray, when, (1893 spoiler alert) the murderous, debaucherous Dorian decides to atone for his life of violence and exploitation by refraining from destroying the life of an innocent. Chuffed at this act of eleventh-hour altruism, (which is really just an omission) he goes to examine the cursed portrait that acts as the hideous mirror of his conscience, expecting it to be purified and at least partly redeemed.
“He felt as if the load had been lifted from him already. He went in quietly, locking the door behind him, as was his custom, and dragged the purple hanging from the portrait. A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome — more loathsome, if possible, than before — and the scarlet dew that spotted the hand seemed brighter, and more like blood newly spilt. Then he trembled. Had it been merely vanity that had made him do his one good deed? Or the desire for a new sensation… Or that passion to act a part that sometimes makes us do things finer than we are ourselves? Or, perhaps, all these? And why was the red stain larger than it had been?”
It’s very difficult for us in the comfort of Australia to live a genuinely ethical lifestyle. As long as we profit from a system of global exploitation, we can never be anything other than vaguely sympathetic slaveholders, gazing out into the cotton field with tears in our eyes as we sip our organic mint juleps. Like the hoggish Duchess who drops a penny in a beggar’s cup then chides her coterié for miserliness, deep down I know that my patronising liberalism is itself a product of privilege. That’s why if I’m going to make a token gesture, it might as well be as tokenistic as possible. I have built my pocket-sized cross out of balsa wood.
Though no vegetarian, ovarian, piscatarian or amammiovore, I have chosen not to eat the swine. Not because he doth not chew the cud and hence is unclean to me, but rather because of the whole sentient menagerie I shovel into my burgeoning jowls, the piggy is the most intelligent, with the sentience of a two or three year old child, and amongst the most badly treated. Sure, chickens are even worse off, but they’re pretty much reptilian brain stems with feathers and cold dead eyes. Sheep and cows are also capable of enormous suffering, but they spend most of their life chilling in paddocks, grazing and not giving a fuck. So I’ve elected not to spend a single cent of my money on ham, bacon or pork, and by doing so sit smugly in the knowledge that I’m better than the average savage omnivore, even if only by an infinitesimal degree. On top of that, if my calculations are correct, I’ve saved the life almost one fortieth of a pig.
Of course, this is all way too easy, a bitter cocktail of cynicism and sloth. But putting my own convoluted self-justifications aside, I think there are genuine reasons to be suspicious of boycotts and the principle of “ethical consumption”. Both take it for granted that we are fundamentally consumers, and that the most meaningful decisions we make are what we do and don’t buy. Political expression becomes nothing more than consumer choice, and the idea of questioning that system as a whole is rendered incomprehensible. As tweaky genius Slavoj Zizek says, the logic behind tofu tacos and organic coffee is that the altruism is “included in the price.”
No wonder, then, that people like me cringe when those lamb ads come on. Even while superficial gestures keeps my conscience fresh and bright, Kekovich, the cursed portrait of my soul, grows more grotesque each year. This Lord of Lamb, like the farmers and abattoir workers along the bloody line, face the grizzly reality of my lifestyle so that I don’t have to. For that, I revile him.
But what do we do about the beasties? No solution that aims to end all meat production and stop the causes of suffering to animals can ever compete with the economic imperatives of the meat industry. I propose we focus on the other side of the burger patty and end the capacity of livestock to feel suffering. With modern science it’s not particularly difficult. We can genetically engineer every commercially farmed chicken, pig, sheep, cow, turkey, croc and quail to no longer be capable of feeling fear, pain, distress or have any comprehension of their situation. None of this would happen overnight, but given the economic advantages of docile livestock and guilt-free meat and the quick turnover of factory-farmed animals, within a human generation, every beast we send frolicking to slaughter could be completely free of trauma. A vegan friend I suggested this to said it could reduce the dignity with which we regard animals in general and lead to them being treated worse, but industrially farmed critters have no “dignity” as it is. We carnivores are already intellectually and emotionally disconnected from the abattoirs, so it’s impractical to attempt win people over purely on the grounds of the empathy or reason. If anything, a system like this will raise awareness to the gradient of sentience and expanding circle of rights.
Yes, I know about the lab-grown hamburger, it’s expensive, tastes disgusting and has a Soylent Greens vibe that consumers won’t like. It doesn’t have the romance of a creature living a life of safe, uninterrupted happiness then being gently and obliviously lead to it’s death. And really, could we want anything more for ourselves?