Monday, March 26, 2012

Say a prayer for the Chicken McNugget

'Throw Away Society' by Sue Coe,
I have just finished reading the latest issue of Resurgence. I always look forward to receiving Resurgence - it is the one magazine that has never compromised its ethics as far as I am concerned, and it is always full of thoughtful articles and beautiful artwork. Each issue focuses on a particular theme and the latest one is all about the ethics of how we treat animals. As I read article after article of man's inhumanity to animal it occurred to me that much of the suffering we inflict on our fellow creatures is in part because our access to cheap energy has allowed the proliferation of systems that tend towards efficiency. Efficiency, of course, is all about minimising the unit production cost and 'externalising' (i.e. sweeping under the carpet) whatever cost that you can get away with. When it comes to efficiency there is no room for sentimentality or squeamishness, and the global meat production system is one of the most barbaric examples.

Dirt cheap energy has in effect compelled us to build vast slaughterhouses staffed with low paid workers who are practically forced to act in brutal manner in order to 'process' the animals into meat. Live animals are driven massive distances in cramped and cold (or hot) conditions because it is efficient to do so. There is no room for compassion in a system that is both profit driven and, at the same time, must deliver the cheapest possible meat to the supermarket shelf.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that we live in a Faustian society. Fossil fuels have allowed us to push whatever we find distasteful or uncomfortable away, allowing us to live with the illusion of everlasting power and prosperity ... but at what price? How many people would eat meat if slaughterhouses had glass walls? How many would buy products from transnational companies if the slave wage workers they employed in far away sweatshops were our friends and neighbours? Indeed, who would fill up their cars with petrol if it ran red with the blood of the endless victims of corruption and war that its acquisition entailed?

The answer, in each case, is probably - some, but not many. But otherwise good people are able to ignore all of these uncomfortable thoughts because the era of cheap energy enables us to make the ugliness disappear in a puff of lavender scented pixie dust. At the back of our minds, of course, uncomfortable thoughts lurk in the way that slugs lurk under rotting trees at the back of gardens. We know, deep down, that Bad Things are happening in our name, but we don't bother ourselves too much about it because hopefully it will be some future generation that will have to deal with the consequences and, in any case, everyone else is doing the same thing so it can't be that bad.

But peak oil could herald the age when that debt has to be repaid. When it is no longer simple or affordable to manufacture and ship goods such long distances, and the economies of scale that worked so well when energy was cheap become the Achilles heel of the industrial system, that's when we will get to learn about the true cost of the externalities we hadn't bothered to think too deeply about. It'll be as if all the debt collectors in the universe converge on our doorstep - with battering rams.

It is impossible to imagine that fear and anger will not get out of control when this happens. Nobody likes having things taken away from them - especially when they've been brought up to believe that these things are theirs by some kind of divine right. Recently somebody said to me that they looked forward to oil supplies being suddenly cut off because it would mean less traffic on the roads for when they wanted to go shopping. I'm afraid this kind of thinking is missing the point by several hundred miles.

My own vision is that we will, in relatively short order, find ourselves in the storm of an almighty crisis that will take many years, if not decades, to pass and will take down a good many people with it.  It's not a pleasant thought, but I consider it to be quite realistic. Just because we won the lottery once and got used to living off the winnings doesn't mean we can win it again.

It won't be the end of the world, however. After a few years of holding on to our hats we'll reach a certain equilibrium - probably a much lower energy intensive one. Demand destruction will have kicked in, as will good old-fashioned actual destruction, meaning there will be quite lot fewer of us. Note that we always assume it will be other people who don't make it through this stage - a cosy thought that can only be held if we don't look too closely at the facts of food production and distribution. All bets are off as to what happens in the political realm during this time but it's probably a safe bet to assume that if you don't fit in where you live now you're probably going to fit in a lot less when the chips are down and angry mobs are looking for someone to blame.

It will be during this time that we'll begin to pay the debt for all the things we've turned a blind eye to over the past few decades. The list is pretty long, and includes environmental destruction, resource over-extraction, arms proliferation, antibiotic abuse. The list goes on. So it will go.

The choices we make now, while the music is still playing, will likely dictate how well we will do in the future. Now is the time to make yourself an indispensable part of the community, learn about natural medicine, work on building mental strength and numerous other survival strategies. We'll soon be amazed at how little we know - and how useless the skills we spent so much money to learn are. Forget filling your cupboards with baked beans and torch batteries, what's going to be important is inner and outer strength - and where you live will probably play a big factor as well. Suburban America or inner city London, for example, are probably not where you want to be when supply chains collapse.

So how does this all relate to our treatment of animals, the point on which I started off? I'm probably not alone in thinking that the wholesale abuse of our fellow organisms can have had a brutalising effect on ourselves as well. If you treat life so cheaply that it is considered normal, as it is here where I live in Denmark, to have sprawling factory-like pig production centres (I can't quite write the word 'farm') in which the animals live in barred pens on concrete floors and die so frequently that metal container skips fill up with their dead bodies, it is not such a stretch of the imagination to assume that life itself is of little or no value?

I'm hoping that one thing we'll regain on our energy descent is a sense of proportion and a re-attuning to the real value of life. If you have to kill a chicken or a fish for your dinner there is a certain unavoidable bond that is created between the two of you. In those parts of the world where people now considered primitive live, it is usually unthinkable to kill an animal without giving thanks for the sustenance it provides, and kills are often accompanied by prayers for the spirit of the dead animal, wishing it a hasty journey to the afterlife.

I don't ever recall hearing anyone muttering a prayer of thanks in the cooked meat aisle of Tesco, or outside the local doner kebab shop at 2am on a Saturday morning. But, one day in the far future, when the historians - whose outlook on life will be so different to what we believe today that it will be incomprehensible - teach our descendants about our Faustian ways, perhaps someone, somewhere, will say a prayer for all those billions of chicken McNuggets we so mindlessly scoffed as we sat so cockily atop Hubbert's Peak with tomato ketchup and mayonnaise all over our sticky fingers.

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