I think we would agree that the word violent could legitimately be used to describe the events of factory farms, but it feels like a strong word to use when referring to tofu, but please read on. This is a post to bring to light some honest truths of society as we understand it- it is depressing but frank and read right it has the potential to benefit us all as compassionate individuals and to set in motion the required actions to stop degrading and disrespecting our planet.
Firstly, I would like to put forth a point about our planet. In recent years our connection to nature has slipped further and further into decline, we have separated ourselves from it slowly and surely and reached a point where we either aim to control or destroy it. How can we separate ourselves from nature? We are nature, we are this planet, it is not our commodity nor our enemy, it is our home, our food, our oxygen and our medicine; it is our life, it feeds us and keeps us breathing, therefore whenever I refer to the planet/earth/nature, I am also referring to us. It is an insane state when we consider ourselves separate from it.
I would guess that the average person who might read this is pretty aware of the issues facing our environment today- the fact that we are pillaging the planet, monetising that which should be invaluable and preserved at all costs, externalising the real costs for someone else to deal with somewhere down the line, probably in a far away place. We do not only do this to the environment, we also do it to other people; those children working in mines for the metals in our smart phones, those working in sweat shops so we can buy cheap jeans. Economic growth is the dominating measure of success and we are all being pushed to the limit to ensure these financial profits. We are aware of these facts to an extent, but not of the insidious truth of its level of saturation.
We believe that, if we work harder and keep striving, we will get what we want (what exactly is that, by the way?) This means that we continuously buy into the very system that is destroying the planet (therefore us), leaving the vast majority of humanity unsatisfied by working toward a goal that we know is no ultimate state at all- it is simply the appearance of success- rich and successful are now synonymous, regardless of whether that rich person is lonely, sad, tired, stressed, used, depressed or overworked. This is an odd way to measure achievement.
As we all know, the way consumer capitalism functions is that someone spots a gap in the market and steps in to take advantage of it with a new product; if people want it the business should succeed, if not the business will likely fail, the promise being that a growing economy is better for everyone (in actuality it continues to benefit less and less people). The massive movement in ‘ethical consumerism’ or ‘green consumerism’ is one of these swoops. Fantastic! (?) Yes. We spend our money on products that do not destroy the planet or ruin anyone’s life, we vote for businesses to pay their staff fairly, that avoid environmental damage, that are ‘sustainable’. Unfortunately, it is far more complex than this and I believe that we must pull the veil from our eyes to allow an awareness of the honest truth so we can create a genuinely sustainable system from an informed position.
Let me be clear- I am not saying don’t buy ethical. To buy ethically and support good business practices is an absolute imperative- we should only buy ethical! As we put our money into these businesses we are participating in consumer politics and this is a fantastic power we hold. What I am asking is that we go a step further and look at what we buy and own as a whole, consider what we truly need and what we do not, withhold from buying single use items, objects of perceived or planned obsolescence and products advertised as ethical that are wrapped in a mountain of plastic and flown over from the other side of the world. The violence behind our decisions is often consciously hidden from us to the benefit of the rich who want to get richer. What we require and should demand are businesses that actually do care and who are willing to make a little less profit to run in an ethical manner. Only then can consumer capitalism function long-term, because the state it is currently in will lead to its own violent demise within a few short decades.
So what kind of violence am I referring to? A breakdown of a typical products manufacturing chain can be revealing.
Take a simple cup of English breakfast tea:
Tea Leaves- land cleared for the plantation – that is; trees removed, animals displaced, soil ploughed releasing carbon and losing topsoil to erosion, tea plants sprayed with pesticides that kill both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ insects (butterflies, bees and all) and leach into water systems, fertilisers that leach and cause algae issues in the oceans, fungicides that kill vitally important micro-organisms.
Tea Bags- often contain polypropylene (made from plastic, i.e. oil) taken from the ground in an environmentally damaging manner. Requires more fossil fuels, both in production and transport to the tea factory.
Transport to the shop (normally from Asia), then to your home, burning fossil fuels along the way- plus the requirement of the manufacture of those vehicles (boats, planes or trucks) that bring it over.
Milk- Requires the cows to be kept pregnant, then fed with food that requires mostly the same inputs as the tea-leaves (above), transport of the milk, waste disposal, methane emissions.
Hot Water- Most tap water has been processed- ‘cleaned’ with chemicals to make it drinkable. The kettle has all its own production inputs, boiling water requires energy (often oil or coal).
Packaging- The cardboard box that trees has been felled for, the outer plastic- single use that will end up in landfill (…or possibly part of the 10 million tonnes that end up in the Ocean every year) and the foil wrapper along with it.
You get the picture. I know I sound like the world’s most bleak human being and apologise- but I am simply trying to reveal how much input is required, even in seemingly simple production systems. On a brighter note, this can also reveal the beauty of the ethical markets that are popping up and the importance in supporting them and forcing positive change. For example, we could decide to buy organic tea from an ethical, Fairtrade company, with biodegradable bags and (recycled) packaging, drink it black and be sure not to put more water than necessary into the kettle, which is powered by your homes sustainable energy provider. That would be ethical, conscious consumerism!
The way I see it, there are three vitals on our planet that are quite simply beyond financial interpretations. They cannot be bought and should not be something to be factored into reports as damages. Their protection should be far above any considerations of profit and no business should be able to harm them without very severe penalties that will ensure sustainability is genuine and long term, and by long term I mean possible for tens of thousands of years, not fifty. These vitals are; air, water and soil. Unfortunately, they are often ignored; air pollution levels are disgusting, causing 7 million premature deaths every year; soils are disappearing, around 75 billion tons of soil every year, whilst water is becoming more poisonous by the day with OCEANA forecasting the mass extinction of corals in both tropical and cold waters this century, if carbon emissions growth continues unrestricted. Who is responsible? Calling out these companies and putting them out of business should not give us the title of ethical consumer, since long-term sustainability should be the baseline of all businesses. As individuals we must all question our own levels of consumption. With this as our starting point, ethical consumption becomes a complex minefield that itself consumes our time in research to know what product we are buying- unless we stop assuming that we are innately consumers and instead simply consume far less. From here, our decreased levels of consumption can be performed at a rate that allows for careful consideration of the products that we do buy. If organic, regeneratively farmed meat is twice the price, we can buy half as much and replace the calorie deficit with an alternate source of ethically-produced, low carbon food. We must buy quality ethical items and take care of them, make things last and think twice or more before we buy a product.
Ethical food is not unaffordable for the vast majority of us if we curb a couple of unnecessary desires each week- ethical food is simply what food must cost, our reference point has been skewed by prices that are only possible whilst we destroy the planet, treat animals horrifically and feed our bodies with pseudo foods that are packed with antibiotics and chemicals. We consider food to be expensive when it is of good quality but this is entirely due to externalised costs and our warped perception of its value. In America, per capita income spent on food fell from 17.5% in 1960 to 9.6% in 2007, while In Guatemala they spend 40% of their income on food. We as rich countries have become unwilling to pay for one of the only necessary products we buy and prices have been forced lower and lower, decreasing food quality and externalising true costs into environmental damages and speedy-through-the-till plastic wrapped goods. By decreasing the number of things we consume we can afford the extra for ethical products, ones that cost what they should and must, once cruelty, environmental degradation, slave labour and irresponsible production are removed.
The true difficulty lays in the fact that we only have control of the violence we see and understand fully- unexpected, unseen violence can take place in all walks of life- it is underhanded, secret, hidden from view and often appears innocent, masked as day-to-day functioning and a little treat for yourself (you deserve it…) by genius marketing schemes. We can never know whether our decision is the most ethical and therefore should never get overly confident in our view point. I believe we should always be prepared to listen, learn and change when change makes sense as it is only through this compassionate understanding of each other’s viewpoints that we can come together to progress positively.
Let us consider an example of two products to display why it is a mistake to create blanket rules as to which has the highest level is violence; I believe it to be foolish to assume that eggs are indisputably violent, as the vegan rule would state. If I buy a box of eggs from my neighbour who has a flock of chickens in their garden, they themselves eating scraps and foraging, giving benefits to the soil and helping my neighbour to grow vegetables, am I acting violently? Am I eating unethically? Many would consider this use of animals an innately violent act but not consider the truth of the alternative they may elect. For example, is this box of eggs more violent than buying some tofu from China that has been grown using pesticides and herbicides (which can cause death to untold creatures), that has been packaged in plastic that involved destruction of habitat and energy to create, shipped to Europe using fossil fuels that damage eco systems and aid global warming and bought from a chain supermarket so I can make tofu-scramble and not cause the ‘suffering’ of that chicken? In this example I really believe that the more violent, less ethical act here is a tofu-scramble. The point is not this one example, it is to be careful before judging, to remember what is involved in the processes that feed us and to be sure to act ethically in all decisions whilst also remembering that life contains suffering, that is an inevitability for all creatures. Our job is to ensure that the suffering we do (inexorably) cause is limited wherever possible and always consciously respectful.
So is tofu violent? I hope you now see that the answer is never so black and white. The violence of the products we buy is hidden but can be revealed by some mindfulness when we shop. We must ask; Where does it come from? What materials does it contain? What processes are involved in making it? What company am I supporting? Where will the packaging end up? The questions can go on. I believe a good place to begin is by asking the question: do I actually need this product and, if I do, is there a more ethical alternative?
Let’s dedicate to living compassionately, in harmony with nature, with each other and with obtainable personal goals like joy, love, community and sharing that bring genuine fulfilment to our lives. Lets ditch the stuff that causes so much harm and so little pleasure and stop the blind striving for this fictional thing called money so we can start to truly live.
For some interesting videos on the truth behind some of the products we use, I really recommend watching ‘The Story of Stuff’ (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL77CE8943362CB9B0), an amazing project shining light on the realities of some of our dirtiest industries.