Saturday, June 7, 2014

Just one clam

When I was in my late teens and early 20s I went every summer for about five consecutive years for a holiday with friends to an island off the Sunshine Coast of B.C. – one of the most beautiful places I know of. My friend's dad has a cabin there, in a small bay, where we'd spend the four or five days on the island acting like kids again, playing hide-and-go-seek, hiking up to the lake to jump off the rope swing into the water, sitting around the fire on the beach, looking up at the mess of stars and telling jokes, and playing board games at the kitchen table by lamplight. Those holidays were some of the best of my life because I was young and among friends and in nature and eating really, really great food. 

We ate prawns pulled from the water just hours before we grilled them and dipped them in butter, and fried bacon to put on our BLTs to take with us in the speed boat over to another bay where we sat in the sun and enjoyed our picnic. There was always good food, and I never gave much thought to it except in terms of how good it tasted.

I remember, though, one day we dug clams at low tide on the beach in front of the cabin, and I remember looking at the bucket of gray shells we'd collected and were going to have for dinner that night, and for some reason deciding suddenly that I wanted to save one. 

I felt a crazy sense of benevolent power realizing that I could select one to throw back into the water, to let it live. I knew it was pretty silly. Why bother saving one little thing that didn't even have a brain or feelings, especially when I would be chewing on a plateful of them within a few hours and have no qualms about it? I felt like a god towering over these helpless captives, and I felt like I could use my power for good. So I did it – I put one back, because it was fun, and it felt good, because it was symbolic. Who knows how much longer that clam lived, and if it had kids, and if it joyfully told its story of miraculous release as it sifted sand next to its neighbours that very night?

Okay, but seriously, can one person's eating habits really have any significant effect in the world? I mean, if I never eat meat or fish again for the rest of my life, will it make any difference at all to the way livestock are treated before they are slaughtered, or how many farmed fish will be raised for the food industry?

I honestly don't know. 

On the one hand, it's seems like it would only be that – symbolic, like saving just one clam. If I don't buy chicken for dinner tonight but my housemate does, and I eat some of the chicken if it's offered to me, well, then can I say I didn't actively participate in its potential suffering and/or death because I didn't purchase it, and therefore whether or not I consume any of it has no bearing on the life of that particular chicken or the entire poultry industry at all? And even if one person votes with his or her dollars and doesn't support the meat industry, what difference does it make in terms of animal welfare? Does it even matter?

On the other hand, might it be possible that, like the butterfly effect, one person's simple action of ordering a meatless meal or choosing to abide by "Meatless Mondays" might have some real bearing on the existence, the suffering, of animals that we eat? Is it possible that by not eating meat for even just six months I'm making a difference in the world, in actuality, in terms of animal welfare? 

I'm currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent book, Eating Animals.

It's a non-fiction account of his collected research on the subject and personal experiences with vegetarianism, all of which was inspired by the birth of his son. What do we tell kids about what they eat, if they eat animals? Why is it not strange to anthropomorphize the animals we eat, in stories like Charlotte's Web, and then serve barbecued ribs for dinner? Why do we eat pigs and cows but not cats and horses? It seems like a stupid question until you really give yourself a few minutes to consider it seriously. 

There is still so much to figure out about food – what to eat and how much to eat and why – not just for our own health as a collective, but on an individual level. The whole issue of animal welfare aside, there's a millennia's worth of research to be done about nutrition. But looking specifically at the issue of eating animals, it's hard to separate the feelings we have about things having to die for us to live and how far we're willing to go to act on those feelings. Some people – vegans – have decided it's not okay at all, ever, to support an industry that causes suffering and death, (namely factory farming, which produces about 99 per cent of the meat we consume in North America), and so take themselves out of the equation entirely, never eating or buying anything made from animal flesh or animal product. And then there's the majority of us, myself included, who'd rather just put our heads in the sand and carry on as we've always done because it's just easier not to think too much about it.
"So how much suffering is acceptable? That's what's at the bottom of all of this, and what each person has to ask himself. How much suffering will you tolerate for your food?" – Frank Reese, American turkey farmer, from Eating Animals, p. 115
I remember another time when I was in my mid-20s, visiting a friend on Vancouver Island, and deciding on a strange whim while at Save-On-Foods to buy a live Dungeness crab from the seafood department and drive down to the ocean to release it. The woman who sold it to me gave me a strange look when I said to not wrap the brown paper around it too tightly. My friend thought the idea was bizarre but fun, so she humoured me and we drove by the beach on the way home. The funny thing is, I think we had a barbecue that night and I probably ate beef. I certainly wasn't a vegetarian at the time. 

Clearly I have been very ambiguous for a very long time about what I eat and how I feel about all kinds of animals and sentient beings. I wept for days after my dog was put down, but I only felt mildly unnerved at seeing hundreds of lambs slaughtered at an abattoir in New Zealand when I was working on a sheep farm there. I have a lot more to consider, at least when it comes to what I'm willing to do or not do about my individual actions as they affect the lives of other living things. I have a lot more reading to do, and at least a few more months of avoiding meat in my diet, to give myself some perspective. I can't remember what beef tastes like and I think that's a good thing.

Because as Homer Simpson put it, "If God didn't want us to eat animals, why did He make them taste so good?"

It really is a conundrum.

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