Humans have a hard time comprehending massive quantities. Our predominant evolutionary experience has left us good at small, easily graspable numbers, distances, amounts, volumes. We humans are just NOT good at scaling up.
Joseph Stalin was speaking a biological truism, then, when he said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” (Granted, he was a mass murderer and so could speak from experience…but still.)
It is even harder for us big-brained humans to handle both massive scales and species boundaries. However hard to really feel it sometimes, we can generally recognize the horror of a million human deaths. But ten billion annual deaths of chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, and other non-human land animals is, according to legal protocols, “standard industry practice.” (To account for sea animals, you have to multiply that number by about five to ten…)
Statistics, when it comes to animals raised and slaughtered for food in the United States, can never shake the trail of blood that extends behind them for hundreds, indeed thousands of years. While the Industrial Revolution has as one of its children modern industrial (“factory”) farming, the beginning of this tragic tale lies further back, at the dawn of agriculture—indeed in the first clumsy moments in which humans realized their ability to influence other creatures.
Much of the United States is still agricultural land. The number of farmers has plunged precipitously, but the amount of land and number of animals “under production” are still vast. Vast beyond human comprehension.
Despite the big numbers, the awfulness of statistics is a matter of flesh and blood—an inescapable onslaught of pain, suffering, and thoughtlessness. The statistics become terrible every single day, whether we are standing in the midst of a slaughterhouse, or walking down a grocery store aisle, or watching a fast-food commercial on television.
They become terrible by becoming individuated. By becoming personal.
The Terror Next Door
Take one example: The Shenandoah Valley, where I currently live, has a long agricultural tradition, most of which is borne on the backs of living beings. Nowadays, the Valley is riddled with massive poultry processing plants owned by companies called “integrators,” which also own the chickens who are “grown” by “growers” and slaughtered and “processed” in a long assembly line of terror.
Business as usual in the “Poultry Capital” entails the death of millions of chickens and turkeys every single week. One facility looms just outside of downtown, a mile or so from my house, close to the heart of this small city of nearly 50,000 humans. Another lurks in the next town over. The first kills upwards of 600,000 birds every week; the second kills about 400,000 weekly.
To feed this machine, poultry transport trucks drive through the streets of this town, each crammed full of chickens and turkeys…hundreds of them per truck. Any single one of these trucks would overwhelm a farm sanctuary or animal rescue group if, somehow, those individuals were saved.
These trucks are rolling statistics. The processing plants are menacing, concrete, mechanized storehouses of bloody statistics.
But they are, each and every one, a tragedy. The reason—and this is what Stalin was never able to grasp—is that those million deaths in a statistic are made up of individuals. There is no other way.
Those trucks and those plants are slaughtering individual beings, each with a personality, with individual thoughts, feelings, experiences, desires, instincts, and hardships. No matter how many living beings are packed into the cages, the trucks, or the machinery, their individuality is never eradicated. Not by humans’ mad, insatiable hunger for flesh, nor by humans’ transference of the act of slaughter to a small minority, nor by humans’ mechanization of the process of birth, growth, and death.
These one million deaths, ten billion deaths, or one death are all needless tragedies, for they are the forced deaths of individuals for our consumption. Whether on an assembly line or on the family farm next door, the deaths are needless and selfish.
Statistics can never change that fact.
End the Tragedy…Go Vegan
Facing down those statistics, which are comprised of billions upon billions of individual deaths at human hands, it is both unfathomable and unconscionable to respond in any other way than to stop eating and using and abusing non-human animals.
There is no other ethical or defensible response than to go vegan, and to advocate for the end of exploitation, consumption, and commodification of every single individual creature.
There is nowhere to hide from this fact, no matter how great the statistics.
Image credit: ben via Wikimedia Commons.
Thank you for this eloquent article. Yes, the human mind cannot really fathom large numbers, and in fact, research on the question of human empathy has found that the greater the numbers of adults, children, or animals being abused or killed, the less individuals can assimilate the magnitude of the horror. People may try to rally for the individual pig named Newman auction off at a 4H club recently in Indiana, but multiply that number by a 1,000 and apathy–a form of defense mechanism–sets in mighty fast.
Justin Van Kleeck
Thanks for your comment, Victoria. And you are right: apathy is a (perhaps the most) common response to awful things such as these.
I am not sure where or how to start a comment here…. Other that a sincere, thanks.
After being a protectionist of both people and our planet for over two decades, it is very hard for me to be critical of anyone trying to protect life here on earth. Human, animal or plant.
That being said. There is no easy choice. Everything we do has consequences… and there is no silver bullet to fix it.
We have 6 and soon will have 10 billion people that can never be sustained on a sole vegan or other single diet… Billions have and billions more will die of starvation, hunger, lack of clean air and water.
With less than 1% of the world controlling all our resources to survive… Should we eat them? Their pets? Our whole biosphere?
Where does it end?
I don’t know that answer, but what I do know is how it starts:
Love, care and compassion.
If we show the love to a dying child as much as a adorable puppy on a TV commercial, maybe we will give the 5,000 children dying per day a chance at life.
These are impossible choices no one should have to make and they will get harder as we out grow our planet.
We have all felt that gut wrenching feeling to protect life with a sick pet, dying loved one or exploited token human starvation or animal rights video. Which choice do we make?
It is pretty easy.
Do something for someone other than yourself in the short time you have here to make a difference. If we all just think about the life of another before we act, you will be amazed by how wonderful or lives will become – together.
All life deserves respect and I greatly respect people who honor that with personal actions and better choices that sustain us all.
Justin Van Kleeck
Hi Christopher. Yes, love, compassion, and respect are all crucial ways to react to suffering…and to help avoid creating it.
Just to speak to one aspect of your comment: For sure, there are certain cultures in which veganism is probably impossible–for example, native cultures in the arctic. That said, pretty much every developed or mostly developed country consumes a lot of meat and other animal products, while also diverting edible food crops (corn, soy, wheat, etc.) to feed those animals rather than feeding MORE people than could be fed with the animal products. Even if “westernized” countries alone went vegan, the amount of food and other dwindling resources that would become available would be more than sufficient to feed the current population (I have heard 10 billion people as the number).
Besides that, though, we have to ask the question about the ethics of using, killing, and eating another living being with his or her own desires and life experience. If the only thing we ask is what is best for humans, as we mostly have done for hundreds of years, then we will never get out of the ecological mess we are making, nor will we make use of our capabilities in any respectable way.
Robin M. Donald
“We have 6 and soon will have 10 billion people that can never be sustained on a sole vegan or other single diet… Billions have and billions more will die of starvation, hunger, lack of clean air and water.”
What do you mean by a “sole vegan or other single diet”? Besides not including animals and their products, a vegan diet is wonderfully inclusive of all the plants that are edible. Indeed, I would wager that vegans eat a more varied diet than those who eat the SAD (Standard American Diet). It is the modern day factory-farmed animal producers who are polluting the air and the water. Oh, yes, the factory-farmed mono crops also waste and pollute water. Organic farming, on the other hand, conserves water.
RE: “If the only thing we ask is what is best for humans, as we mostly have done for hundreds of years, then we will never get out of the ecological mess we are making,”
Well said. Justin I believe we are on the same page, but that page is a tragically skipped chapter in our current history of main stream self made crises of the week.
Have a good weekend.