Thriving in the Age of Factory Farming

Waikato pig farm, photo from Farm Watch used under a CC BY 2.0 license

“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it.” — Albert Schweitzer

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” — Hillel the Elder

There is a certain idea that is deeply embedded in the way many of us think about life, an idea that also finds an echo in much of ethical philosophy: that happiness and suffering are both inherent parts of life, but that we can improve outcomes — make the world a better place — by either increasing the first or decreasing the second. This perspective seems entirely reasonable, fitting well with the universal narrative of good struggling against evil, the duality of light and dark, yin and yang, war and peace. And yet it becomes problematic when it is understood to imply a mathematical symmetry between two apparent opposites, as if enough happiness can always justify any degree of suffering.

When faced with real, intense suffering of living creatures, we more easily grasp the fallacy of believing in such a symmetry. We see that suffering here is never balanced out by creating more happiness there, and that the one thing that matters most is to alleviate intense suffering whenever and wherever possible. Once we become aware of the reality of suffering, our efforts are naturally drawn towards the urgency of relieving it.

A lot of the suffering in the world is not easily preventable. It may break our hearts to read about natural disasters and about people being swept away in floods or buried alive by landslides. But we know that such events have always occurred, and there is a certain fatality in accepting them. Global warming has, of course, begun to seriously exacerbate the intensity of such disasters, and it is critical that we tackle this issue as aggressively as possible in order to limit the amount of future suffering. But the causes are systemic and linked to humanity’s steady economic development, and so even though corporations and politicians bear huge responsibility for preventing the passing of effective legislation, our response to the immediate suffering caused by climate change tends to be sadness more than anger.

Similarly, the terrible suffering inflicted on people by cruel dictatorial regimes often appears out of our sphere of influence, requiring direct and risky interventions by the international community. And the suffering that occurs to animals in nature, widespread though largely ignored, is still for the large part out of our immediate control, even though it is a valid subject of ethical concern.

Factory farming is different. It is a decreasingly well kept secret that so-called farm animals spend miserable lives being abused and tortured, their freedom of movement tightly constricted, subjected to pain and emotional deprivation until their lives end in terror and often an agonizing death at the slaughterhouse. It’s a reality that the industry has attempted to keep carefully shrouded from the scrutiny of ordinary citizens, so that we can live our urbane lives and dine in fancy restaurants without seeing the horrors being committed, and the industry can continue to satisfy the cravings of consumers and their unabated demand. But numerous undercover investigations have brought these atrocities to light, and countless videos and films are now available on the websites of groups such as Mercy for Animals and Animal Equality that document this reality.

Given the extent of animal product consumption, it should be no surprise that the number of non-human animals being abused is staggeringly high — tens of billions of land animals a year treated as objects for our pleasure. And this cruelty occurs not just within the borders of armed dictatorships overseas, but within and under the legal protection of our own enlightened democracies. This massive suffering is entirely unnecessary, because we can meet our nutritional needs with varied and delicious food grown in the soil. It also happens to be a wasteful use of land and a major contributor to global warming.

The parallels between factory farming and the Nazi concentration camps are inescapable. We do not have to equate the value of an animal life with that of a human to see, in both cases, massive, systematic cruelty and wilful blindness to the intense suffering of sentient beings. It requires no exaggeration to argue that, for its sheer scale, the practice of factory farming is humanity’s greatest moral failure ever.

I used to wonder how, during the Nazi Holocaust, ordinary citizens could turn a blind eye to the hell being inflicted on other people nearby. There are various explanations for this apparent apathy, including some degree of ignorance about the full reality of what was happening, fear of standing up to a ruthless dictatorship, culturally rooted hatred and prejudice, and complacency. But today, in Internet-era democracies, neither fear nor even ignorance are convincing explanations for our tolerance of the cruelty to animals. The biggest culprits are complacency and an unwillingness to question the status quo we have grown up with.

The outrage many of us feel once becoming fully aware of the massive torture of sentient beings, through exposure to excruciating videos, has prompted people to devote much of their lives to trying to stop it from happening. These efforts include risky undercover investigations, public communication campaigns and demonstrations, vegan advocacy, popular referenda, political lobbying, legal challenges as well as damage control through agreements reached with corporations. There have been many successes. But the abuse and cruelty continue at the breathtaking pace of an industrial assembly line, and a long road remains ahead until, as one advocacy group puts it, “every animal is free” — or, more accurately, until animals are no longer bred to be tortured. Perhaps in a few decades, plant-based and suffering-free “lab” meat will win out, but in the meantime, callous carnivorism remains a tenacious opponent.

There are, of course, many other sources of potentially preventable intense suffering that are caused by uncompassionate policies and economic and political structures that do not adequately prioritise meeting everyone’s basic needs. People suffer from preventable diseases, or are denied adequate treatment for pain, or suffer from severe depression because of a lack of emotional support structures. There are also potentially massive amounts of suffering that may occur in the future if we do not maintain control over new technologies and ensure they are used for the benefit of all.

I focus here on factory farming in particular because it is so widespread, affects so many animals, is so terribly cruel and unnecessary, and is directly sustained by our own habits. Within our own society, there are still many more people contributing to it than trying to bring it to a halt, even though in principle it is a solvable problem.

In the face of all this unbearable suffering, the conventional, more hedonistic lifestyle many of us have grown up valuing can seem misguided, and engaging in more trivial pursuits than activism can seem like a shirking of ethical responsibility. Indeed, given the enormity and urgency of the challenges, many activists have radically modified their lifestyles and priorities in order to devote as much of the time, money and energy that they can to preventing this suffering from happening. They tend to group together with others who hold similar views in order to provide mutual support and increase their effectiveness. When there is a protracted battle being waged to defend those who are unable to defend themselves, nothing else really seems to matter very much.

Is there then still any space left for thriving? Is there still room for love — not just for others, but for life itself? This is the paradox faced by anyone who is aware of what is happening in our world and still strives to derive pleasure from existence.

My own awareness of the reality of the suffering humans inflict on animals grew over time. I mentioned it relatively briefly in my first book about ethics, The Battle for Compassion, then changed my own dietary habits, gave much greater prominence to the issue in a short film I produced, and made it one of the key focus areas of a think tank I set up dedicated to preventing intense suffering. I have experienced a deep sense of urgency and an obligation to do what I can, in my own way, to try to help slow down this awful industrial machine of suffering and death and eventually bring it to a halt. And I have deep respect for those who have made this passion their career and have spent years dedicated to the cause, with what sometimes seems like boundless optimism and persistence. I share with them the deep sense of meaning that comes from making the alleviation of suffering one’s life’s purpose.

But recently, I realised that the sense of urgency and fixation with suffering was taking a toll on my own wellbeing. I had lost some of the joy of life I used to experience — in part because of an awareness of the extent of suffering hidden from view, but also because I had stopped giving myself sufficient time and space to simply thrive. After all, how can I fully allow myself to enjoy life — to travel, to create art, to read fiction, to indulge in simply being… — when other sentient beings are being held in cages where they cannot turn around, and where only the efforts of passionate activists can rescue them? How can I live blissful moments appreciating life, knowing about all the cruelty and suffering that is occurring elsewhere? How can I focus on my own happiness when tortured animals need more than the sending out of positive vibrations?

As I suggested at the beginning, my own happiness — even if multiplied by some large number — can never cancel out or justify the intense suffering of a pig or a chicken. But I have also come to better recognise something essential: that my activism starts with me as a thriving human being who takes care of his own needs. And that by being compassionate towards myself, I will be better able to be a compassionate force for change. By finding the right balance within my own life between thriving and activism, I will be able to bring more creative energy to my activism, sustain it without enduring burnout, and also be a more powerful source of inspiration to others than if I become incapacitated by an awareness of all that is happening.

I also have the growing conviction that by engaging those whose actions we oppose in a spirit of positivity and showing them other options, we will have greater potential to create the world we want. I believe that bliss and moments of ecstasy are an important part of being human, and that they give us a vision to live for and also inspire others with that complements our focus on the harm we wish to bring to an end. By granting ourselves the space to experience these moments, we can also create new energy to be harnessed for the purpose of compassionate activism, and expand our capacity to show understanding and even love to those whose behaviours we wish to change.

I often see group photos of people working or volunteering for animal rights organisations, and I have sometimes wondered how they could look so radiant and cheerful given the scale of suffering of which they are all so keenly aware. But therein lies an irony of activism: we will be more effective if we channel our empathy into pragmatic action rather than plunge into existential angst. Yes, there is room for the latter too. Those who despair at the amount of extreme suffering taking place in our world may be the most honest among us, realists in a world of optimists. But it is the optimistic perspective — the belief in our power to change things — that will have the greatest impact in alleviating it. The animals need us to be effective, not depressed.

The battle against suffering is an eternal one, and we need to remain resilient in order to succeed to the best of our abilities. Even if we manage to radically reduce cruelty to non-human animals, there will still be many persistent sources of suffering that require our attention.

I would therefore like to see not only animal rights activists, but indeed all activists for a gentler world, serve as role models for how we can live and eat compassionately and still lead blissful, fulfilling existences. I would like to see proponents of new, compassionate structures for society inspire others with a compelling vision for the future that we can all buy into.

I believe that we should all aim to experience moments of joy, even if it means briefly suspending our awareness of the suffering out there, without letting the reality of that suffering stray too far from our thoughts. I believe that we should aim to make activism fun and conducted with others in a spirit of group solidarity. That we should aim to avoid negativity in ourselves and influence others through connection rather than confrontation whenever possible. And that we should inspire ourselves to undertake more ambitious projects that really have the potential to change things for the better.

Thriving does not diminish the scale of the challenges we face, does not lessen the agony of those suffering or the urgency of alleviating it, and does not mean reducing the degree of one’s commitment. But it allows us to renew our own resources and engage in the tasks ahead with the energy and creativity we so desperately need. It means carrying out activism from a place of groundedness and self-acceptance, free from guilt for what has happened in the past, with a desire to inspire and attract others to the cause with a spirit of compassion.

No, there is no acceptable balance between happiness and intense suffering. Every video we see of animals treated cruelly should strengthen our resolve to end the injustice.

But there is a balance we need to maintain within ourselves. A guided meditation I made for activists summarises this philosophy of sustainable compassion with one simple phrase: live blissfully, make a difference, and inspire others to do the same.


Thanks to Tobias Leenaert for useful comments on the draft.

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