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Sustainability: Moderation, or Abstinence?

September 22, 2014

Sustainability. It’s a nice little word. It had a perfectly good synonym that wasn’t so bound up in sciency environmental stuff, once upon a time: moderation. “Moderation” is now mainly used to refer to personal sacrifices for the sake of one’s health. Consequently, it has the rather dull conceptualisation of plain spinach and Brussels sprouts on a patternless white china plate. Sustainability, on the other hand, makes us feel like superheroes for picking up the packaged food with the lowest carbon footprint.

People who don’t bother with this small supermarket detour reproduce the old self-fulfilling prophecy: they think, “Why should I bother? No one else will, so it won’t make a difference, I’m just one person, it’s just drops in the ocean,” not realising that a good few billion people are doing the exact same thing, for the exact same reason, in response to that very attitude, thus making a gigantic splash. Also, for the record, the ocean is in fact made entirely of drops.

“No one can do everything!” they add, then swiftly proceed to do absolutely nothing. Because, once you have decided that one thing is too much, you start to wonder which grain of rice tipped the scale – maybe all the other choices were too much, too. Maybe everything’s too much. Maybe we’re all just wasting our lives, fighting a losing battle.

We get to the point where even inaction seems like this gigantic mountain to climb; not buying clothes from shops known to be underpaying employees, for example. This is because we reason that some other form of action is required instead – say, looking for another place to buy the clothes. For obvious reasons, it is hard to find out for certain if the second shop is guilty of the same as the first, and the idea of making a detour only to get duped again understandably puts people off. We don’t live in the society that considers that simply not buying that new pair of unnecessary shoes is the correct, and easiest, option.

In our deepest natures, we are takers, collectors of provision. Capitalism has exacerbated this tendency. We have to work hard to keep that instinct at bay. Many people do not see the point, believing their life and their pleasure is their primary concern. There is not much to be said to convince them otherwise; you can’t force someone to care about the world at large.

These individuals wave aside our increasingly problematic consumption of meat, because they can’t keep up with it all: buy British, buy free range, buy humane slaughter, buy grass-fed… I can’t help but imagine that it’s vastly easier to live vegan. That assertion is, however, considered a sort of madness; “too much” on top of every other ethical consideration of the modern age. Veganism is a type of abstinence after all. Abstinence, I argue, is the better substitute for moderation, when facing global problems.

In the personal sense, moderation is the right idea. For me at least, it carries the positive connotation of knowing when enough is enough. Too much cake is a stomach ache; too much drink, you wake up in the sink. Moderation is the thing that allows you to avoid unpleasantness in your own life by not being silly. However, globally speaking, I can’t help but feel like the pessimistic shop mopers are being more realistic about careful product selection. The concept of sustainability assumes that humans can measure their vices and monitor their own behaviour. Our past actions suggest otherwise.

Throughout history, our inability to wreck the planet has been more due to luck than judgement. Even with all the evidence in favour of it, recycling is a long way from being the worldwide status quo. We’re a species that prefers inaction to action; choosing meat carefully and self-rationing, like recycling, involves effort – if we are to choose inaction, the inaction of not buying certain products, such as meat, is the best solution for a society that has gone too far and cannot hope to undo the damage by simply trying, with limited and varying success, to cut down on destructive vices.

For some people, abstinence (interestingly, aka “cold turkey”) is the best option when reducing intake of potentially harmful vices. It can be for personal reasons such as health, or social reasons such as behavioural problems due to alcohol, causing tensions with family and friends. The wider the circle of effect from the vice, the more crucial it is to keep it in check. An accumulated worldwide effect is as wide a circle as you could have; so, I would argue that for everyone, abstinence from meat is the safest option to cancel the effect of excessive meat consumption.

We are not strong-willed creatures. Our wishes are driven by the possessions, desires and approval of our nearest. If there is even one meat-enamoured person who refuses to cut down on their favourite flavour – which there always will be, just as there will always be cannibals – there will be a thousand people who eat too much, reasoning that, because the other takes more, the effect of their own excess is nullified. That is, unless, like human flesh in our culture, meat in general is established in our world consciousness as something inedible. We are a long way off that.

Our ability to take personal responsibility for an accumulative effect is limited. That is why absolutest stances, considered “extreme” regardless of their aim and result, nonetheless work; they are a fixed, thus easy, framework. They reduce the accumulative effect far more than any alternative, as every one person who follows an abstinence stance can be sure that they are not contributing in any small way to that particular problem. They do not have to compare their actions against other peoples’ to create vague justifications, or else be twisted up with guilt and uncertainty.

The more people choose this stance, the more people will feel comfortable following. This will be important, especially as the world population increases.

Currently, not everyone in the world can afford to eat meat every day. They eat what meat they can, which transpires to be little. Yet, the fact that they eat whatever meat they can tells us something about the culture of meat, that we can never get enough and always desire more. In this case, the environmental impact is only as small as people are poor. When they get richer, the protection against permanent harm to the environment that they provided, by merely not having the luxury to damage the world as much as people in richer societies, will be gone.

The meat-centric America, one of the richest, and arguably the current most culturally influential country in the world, determines what classifies as wealth, health and entitlement in every developed country. Thus, as countries get richer, more and more people will expect meat every day, in response to America’s carnivorous lead.

The current view is that to mass-produce meat in tight spaces is the best response to this expected rise in demand, but this will not work, because it still relies on a moderation that we don’t have; supply makes demand as much as demand makes supply; more meat in less time means cheaper meat and more on the shelves. So, people buy more of it and expect more of it.

Moreover, part of the culture that America and Europe impart on developing countries is a refusal to try and instigate a mass code of moderation. The American dream is one of abundance, and where there is abundance, there is greed, and resultant poverty somewhere else. The fact that meat is unsustainable is unlikely to deter a multitude of developing countries from seeking a slice of American pie.

In Europe and America, we seem infernally determined that we should continue in the manner to which we have become accustomed, and be damned with all those other countries on their way up (or down, depending on how you look at it). It’s almost as if we figure that, if we made the monster, we should be the ones to reap the scant benefits, and no one else. The Chinese should stop growing, because their growing threatens our way of life, our ability to do as we please and nothing more. How selfish of them. It’s their job to lean from our mistakes, while we keep on making them.

Vast amounts of land are used to feed the world’s richest. Even using crammed cattle lots, space is not saved, because cattle lots help foster the illusion that there is enough space to create meat for all eventual demand, when in reality it cannot. The world is finite and our population is growing. More people will mean more need for food and if we eat meat, that food will be in the form of other living creatures manufactured by us, taking up the space needed by humans for our own tendency to over-breed.

I foresee a world, in the next hundred years, where cities are so overcrowded that cows have more living space than people do. When this time comes, it will be obvious to those in overcrowded conditions that meat is a poor trade-off for living space… But they will not be the ones with the power to change the system. Those people will be, as they have always been, the people who can purchase as much space as they like at the expense of other people, and thus are able to turn a blind eye to the problem, as they have always done. These are not people of moderation, but they are quite normal, and will exist forever.

Until meat literally grows on trees (and fruits every few days), we simply cannot afford to be tertiary consumers. Unlike most animals, we have the choice not to be. We do not make it, and that is inexcusable. A choice to eat meat, after all, isn’t really a choice; a choice, as distinct from a whim, involves examining the evidence and making a reasoned decision. Simply doing as you have always done, or as society has always done, does not qualify as a choice.

All individuals who made the choice, in any real sense of the word, would know exactly which choice is the best, and would all make the same one. It is attachment to the old way and attachment to tastes that keep us from making the choice that is aching to be made by everyone in our society.


From → Animal Rights

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