Connection Breeds Caring, Alienation Breeds Disrespect - The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint - Marc Bekoff

The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint - Marc Bekoff (2010)

REASON 4. Connection Breeds Caring, Alienation Breeds Disrespect

“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

IF ANIMALS WROTE A MANIFESTO, they would surely insist that they are not in competition with humans to dominate and control the world. Ecosystems thrive when they are in balance, and species that throw ecosystems out of balance usually suffer. No one is exempt from the wanton destruction that humans wreak on the planet and beyond. In fact, animals would, I believe, scoff at the still-prevalent idea among humans that “evolution” is essentially a “survival of the fittest” competitive game. The strongest and biggest species do not always prevail, nor could top-of-the-food-chain predators live long if every other link in that chain isn’t nurtured and respected. The reverse is also true, incidentally; we have discovered that when ecosystems lose their top predators, other species are thrown just as firmly out of balance and into jeopardy.

Instead, survival requires both competition and cooperation, selfishness and reciprocity. Compassion and empathy are also essential. We are apparently hardwired to understand that caring for others spills over to caring for ourselves. In the big picture, when all nonhuman beings thrive, we thrive too. It’s not really a dog-eat-dog world because dogs don’t eat other dogs.

What this means is that if we nurture our connection with animals and care for them better, we humans will benefit directly. The “animal manifesto” this book represents would, if adopted, improve the lives of all animals, including humans. For instance, I feel very close to most animals, but this doesn’t distance or alienate me from other humans. In fact, over the years I feel that I have become more aware of the human condition as a result of my devotion to the plight of animals. Compassion begets compassion. As we develop compassion, we expand our moral circle to include all animals and people; this is the ultimate goal of expanding our compassion footprint.

This concept of interdependence is not new. Thomas Berry stresses that no living being nourishes itself; each is dependent on every other member of the community for nourishment and the assistance it needs for its own survival. This is likely the evolutionary seed of compassion, which as Dacher Keltner notes in Born to Be Good, is the central ethic of all world religions and spiritual philosophies — compassion generates more compassion and brings diverse peoples together. Keltner also reports that empirical research shows that exercising compassion makes people feel more connected to vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, the ill, and the elderly. This surely extends to nonhuman animals. Whenever we expand our compassion footprint, we only gain more compassion, and we increase the likelihood that we ourselves will be met with kindness. We receive what we give.

Naturally, even tragically, the reverse is also true. When we foster alienation and disconnection, we increase these in all our relationships. This is vividly demonstrated in this and the next chapter, as we look more closely at the current state of our interrelationships with animals. To heal the environment and improve our lives, we need to break through the cycle of alienation that exists between humans and our fellow animals in our modern world. As we take steps to do this, expanding our compassion footprint along the way, our natural inclination to respect and care for all living beings will grow and flourish.

Embrace Your Inner Animal

Humans are animals and we should embrace our membership in this kingdom. However, modern culture typically portrays “being an animal” as not just bad but exemplifying the worst aspects of humanity: it usually means we’ve been ruthlessly competitive, angry, and violent. The result? We tend to distance ourselves from other animals and emphasize our differences. We need to change this.

First of all, helping other animals recover from trauma or simply treating them with kindness, respect, dignity, and love, all based in deep empathy, is a two-way street. We feel better when we help other beings, no matter what their species. In Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert reported on a study that found that when people feel that wild animals trust them, it enhances their self-esteem. Animals open the door to understanding, trust, cooperation, community, and hope.

It feels good to interact with animals because it’s in our evolutionary heritage. Our old, reptilian brains get a bad rap, but having them means we are tightly tied to other animals and to nature. However, modern culture pulls us away from having close relationships with our animal kin. Our lifestyles and jobs and cities disconnect us from the natural world, forcing us to deny the innate pull we feel toward animals and nature. But we have to learn to live — to coexist — this way. Children experience a natural and immediate connection with animals. Their senses haven’t been dulled, and they aren’t made to feel guilty for their love and empathy for animals. However, our current lifestyles can easily alienate children from animals and the natural world.

We suffer when we are alienated from animals because it’s fundamentally unnatural. We benefit from their presence. We know that when we pet a dog, for example, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, as do the heart rate and blood pressure of the dog. As we saw in the last chapter, dogs and other animals are often used to calm patients in various healthcare facilities — their mere presence makes the patients feel good. If mimicking animals brings out the worst in us, how could this be?

In order to distance ourselves from animals, we’ve illdefined our own “human nature” — but we’re not the only rational, conscious, sentient, tool-using, moral beings. Animals, as we ‘ve seen, share these qualities to varying degrees. Our effort to define ourselves as separate merely isolates us. We foster our own alienation from nature by insisting, falsely, that we’re unique and superior. As a result, we suffer from what author, and chairman of the Children and Nature Network, Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder.”

Australian environmental ethicist Rod Bennison has developed the notion of “ecological inclusion.” He writes, “Implicit within an ecologically inclusive worldview is the recognition that, no matter what perceptions of nature may be held by any human individual, there is an overarching oneness or unity within nature and that all life forms have an inherent worth or intrinsic value.” Bennison focuses on identifying those destructive practices that exclude animals from the moral arena and allow us to exploit them for our own selfish purposes.

This deliberate, self-created alienation from our fellow animals fosters disrespect and gives us permission to mistreat them. It allows us to think of animals as property, mere objects, or products with which we can do anything we choose. It allows us to legally keep chimpanzees in five-foot-square cages. It allows us to poach wild animals and to destroy their habitat to the point that they are imperiled. It allows us to torture animals for unneeded food and to trap animals for unneeded clothing.

Overcoming our objectification of animals often requires just simple proximity. Australian wildlife biologist Clive Marks writes about a poignant experience he had in which a student’s seeming brutality was transformed by a few minutes with the wild animals he had previously regarded as objects:

Not long ago I lectured a group of keen university students and offered as a reward for their endurance an introduction to the menagerie of animals we kept for our research. We crossed the lawns and the acrid smell of foxes wafted towards us. As we ambled, one student enthusiastically told me of how foxes could be caught with shark fishing hooks baited with meat, with the bait suspended a metre from the ground. The fox would be found hanging, hook in mouth, the next day. Shortly afterwards, he spent a few minutes with some tame foxes who examined his shoes, looked him in the eyes and indulged in the usual cacophony of fox sounds. I recall the perplexed look on this earnest young man’s face as we walked back to the lecture theatre. He uttered some simple, if not facile words, that seemed to belie his obvious intelligence: “I didn’t realise that they were real animals.”

It’s All in a Name

“That’s the way hunting works. The thing you’re hunting for is the thing you don’t see.”

— Idaho hunter on the first day of
wolf hunting season (emphasis added)

When I visited the Qiming Animal Rescue Centre outside of Chengdu, China, in October 2008 with people from the Moon Bear Rescue Centre, we brought five dogs back to the Moon Bear facility for medical treatment. I was given the honor of naming them: Henry (whose front right leg had been chopped off by a butcher after Henry stole some meat), Matilde (who was then emaciated but now is thriving), Lady Lobster (whose untreated broken front right leg healed like a lobster claw), Stevie (whose blinded eyes were seriously infected), and Butch (who was blind in one eye after a fight with another dog). Heather Bacon, the talented and tireless veterinarian at the Moon Bear Rescue Centre, amputated the rest of Henry’s leg, and I was told that he’s now morphed into a kangaroo, happily hopping about here and there.

Already living at the Moon Bear Centre were two dogs who had been rescued in the wake of a devastating earthquake that shook the region and killed tens of thousands of people in May 2008. The dogs were aptly named Tremor — whom I nicknamed Rambo because of his confident manner, which belied his pint-sized stature — and Richter. Naming these dogs was important. The names allowed people to immediately identify with the animals and their maladies, and some were adopted by workers at the Moon Bear Centre itself, even though they were already seriously overworked because of their dedication to rehabilitating rescued bears.

In parts of Africa they say when you give someone a name they become your responsibility. Naming animals immediately creates an identity and a connection; a name indicates that we are meeting an individual being with feelings and an autobiography. A name can open neurological floodgates of emotion. In the 1960s, Jane Goodall rocked the world of animal behavior when she named the chimpanzees she studied. She refused to give them numbers for the purpose of publishing her results in professional journals. In the process, she changed the way people, including researchers, viewed animals. No longer were animals merely interchangeable numbered things, but rather they were individuals with distinct personalities and unique capabilities.

There’s a reason that researchers number animals rather than name them, especially laboratory animals. Referring to a dog as “subject 4886” helps the scientist deny the subjectivity of the animal; it alienates the researcher, creating an emotional disconnection. In this way, the scientist can justify experiments that in another context and with another animal would be considered cruel and abusive. I know many researchers who mistreat dogs and cats in the laboratory, and yet they name their companion dogs and cats and shower them with love and affection. During the past few years I’ve noted a trend that younger researchers are naming research animals, and some professional journals are allowing researchers to use the names in print. About thirty years ago I was initially told I could not use the names I’d given to the coyotes I studied in Grand Teton National Park, but soon after the editor relented. Biologist Anne Innis Dagg mentions in her book The Social Behavior of Older Animals that one biologist who was involved in the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park noted that wolves were numbered and not named because “the survival of one is not as important as the survival of the group.” So says the biologist, not the wolf.

Naming can dramatically change how we feel about eating animals. Recently, my friend Carolyn Hornung told me about her family’s latest addition, a crayfish: at her child’s school, the students had studied the behavior of these fascinating crustaceans (who, like lobsters, feel pain), and some students were allowed to bring one home. Once Carolyn’s family decided to name the crayfish Bubbles, she found it impossible to think of doing the creature any harm, including eating her. In January 2009, a New York restaurant purchased a just-caught 140-yearold lobster, named him George, and used him as a mascot; George generated so much affectionate publicity, it led to calls to release him back to the ocean, which the restaurant agreed to do. Occasionally, I remind people that a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich is really a Babe, lettuce, and tomato sandwich; this was enough for one friend to vow she wouldn’t eat pigs again. Indeed, how might our diets change if we knew who we were eating by name?

A name immediately, and almost by definition, confers subjectivity and sentience. Names don’t lead us to mistake animals for people, but they lead us to take their sentience seriously, whether or not it resembles ours. In his book Animals as Persons, activist and lawyer Gary Francione argues, in fact, that since many animals share the very traits we use to confer “personhood” on humans, we should grant animals “personhood” as well. Generally, the following criteria are used to designate a being as a “person”: being conscious of one’s surroundings, being able to reason, experiencing various emotions, having a sense of self, being able to communicate with others, adjusting to changing situations, and performing various cognitive and intellectual tasks. Of course, not every human fulfills all of these criteria all of the time — consider babies or infants, those suffering emotional disorders like Alzheimer’s, and seriously mentally challenged adults. Nevertheless, we rightfully consider these humans to be “persons.”

Now, what about other animals? For instance, my late companion dog Jethro was very active, could feed and groom himself, could communicate, was aware of his surroundings, and was very emotional. He was a fully autonomous dog. He might not have wanted to be called a “person,” but he met the criteria — except, that is, for not being a member of the human species. The point, ultimately, isn’t to debate the definition of the word “person,” but to show that animals meet most if not all of the standards of the term “personhood.” As such, why shouldn’t they be granted the same attendant moral and legal standing that “personhood” confers on humans? Granting this doesn’t lessen or take away from the moral and legal standing of humans, just as my love for Jethro and all animals doesn’t lessen or take away from my love for my family or any other human. But names and titles matter; they make a difference in how we allow ourselves to treat another being. If we humans use the term “personhood” to indicate a being who deserves to be treated with respect, compassion, and love, and who should be protected from undue suffering, then animals qualify as “persons” and should be given equal consideration.

In the Kitchen and on the Farm:
The Morality of Eating

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

— Albert Einstein

Without a doubt the one area where our alienation from animals leads us to make morally questionable decisions is with the food we choose to eat. Who — not what — we eat presents us with major dilemmas. A number of excellent books have appeared recently that tackle these concerns, such as author Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food and Gene Baur’s Farm Sanctuary, a superb review of the horrors of factory farming. Today, when we eat animals and animal products, we’re usually consuming misery.

Who we put in our mouths is a moral act. George Washington University professor David DeGrazia notes, “When it comes to the consumption of meat and other animal products, there is a remarkable disconnect between what people do and what makes moral sense.” This disconnection touches every aspect of eating meat, from the animals we choose to eat and how we treat those animals to the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on human health and our environment. Too often, what should inspire gratitude — that animals literally feed us — is replaced with unthinking gluttony, as exemplified by events like the nationally televised Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Bowl,” in which contestants race to eat a twenty-pound bird the fastest. George Shea, the organizer, was quoted in 2007 as saying, “Seeing those guys go at a 2olb turkey is like poetry.” But what if, every Thanksgiving, the abuse and suffering that routinely define the existence of these sentient animals was also broadcast on national TV? Would that also be considered “poetry”?

In fact, before we begin, we have to honestly acknowledge what “eating meat” means in the first place. For instance, in our urban and suburban twenty-first-century world, children often don’t know that a hamburger was once a living, sentient cow, or that eating bacon, pork, and sausage means they’re eating Babe the pig. The animal himor herself, much less their suffering and death, is absent from their worldview; indeed, many adults have no idea what happens to animals in order to turn them into the food on their plate. Children don’t even know what the word “meat” refers to, and when they find out, they can get upset and sometimes want to become vegetarians. In a 2009 article, psychologist William Crain wrote: “In a study of urban, middle class children, Alina Pavlakos found that most five-year-olds didn’t know where meat comes from. They knew they ate meat, but when asked, ‘Do you eat animals?’ most said, ‘Nooo!’ — as if the idea were outrageous.”

Even children in 4-H programs, who are learning about humane animal husbandry, don’t always appreciate that the “good life” their animals have with them still ends brutally at the slaughterhouse door. The former mayor of Ojai, California, Suza Francina, has written that 4-H programs should include a trip to the slaughterhouse, so that students understand that, from an animal’s point of view, being sold at the annual county auction is not a happy ending.

Simply put, humans have developed a strong conceptual disconnect because of the distance — physical and emotional — from the slaughterhouse to their house. Sarah Bexell, a conservation and humane educator who has done wonderful work in China to help make children more empathetic, calls it “emotional dissonance.” The individual animal’s torturous journey of indignity is kept hidden and remains unacknowledged by everyone. While we can surely sanitize the animal’s trip for young children, there is no reason they shouldn’t be aware of what “meat” is. For adults, there is no reason they shouldn’t be completely aware of the entire process.

Awareness begins with language, as Crain points out: “We eat pork, not pigs; veal, not calves; meat, not flesh.” When humans rely on euphemisms to describe something, it often indicates moral discomfort, if not outright shame. If we can’t use honest language to describe our food, then we should change who we eat and/or how we care for food animals until we can.

The moral dilemma concerning who we eat is about making humane choices based on what we know about animals, not denying what we know so that we humans can feel less shame about how we treat them: Lobsters feel pain, and don’t like being dropped in boiling water. Fish feel pain, and don’t like hooks in their mouths. Cows and pigs are sentient, emotional animals; they know what happens to them and their loved ones in the slaughterhouse. If we would ask certain animals to give their lives for us, we should treat them with the respect such a request deserves.

Old MacDonald Did Not Run a Factory Farm

It’s been estimated that about 95 percent of all animal use is in agriculture. Thus, the amount of cruelty, pain, suffering, and death that takes place in factory farms far surpasses the total amount of cruelty, pain, suffering, and death in all other venues combined. This is another reason why changing how we treat animals in agriculture is so urgent: it’s the single fastest way to improve the lives of the most animals.

How many animals are we talking about? Every five minutes more than 250,000 animals are slaughtered for food in the United States alone; annually, that amounts to millions of mammals and billions of birds, for an estimated total of approximately 27 billion cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and other animals killed each year in the United States “in the name of food.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the total number of chickens reared for meat worldwide was nearly 47 billion in 2004, of which approximately 19 percent were produced in the United States, 15 percent in China, 13 percent in the European Union, and 11 percent in Brazil. In Australia 470 million chickens were slaughtered from 2006 to 2007 to feed a demand that has grown a staggering 600 percent in the past fifty years. Heather Moore, who works for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has calculated that an average American eats about 2,500 chickens if they live to age seventy-seven.

It almost goes without saying that the way humans raise these animals is done solely for economic gain and our convenience. The animals are nonconsenting victims of reprehensible torture. Indeed, so much has been published recently about the horrific conditions at factory farms that I won’t dwell on it here. Once in the slaughterhouse, it takes about thirty minutes to turn a cow into a steak, during which time these sentient beings suffer immensely; in addition, as they wait to be killed, they also see, hear, and smell other cows on their way to becoming a burger. One slaughterhouse worker notes of food animals, “They die piece by piece.” Imagine what it would be like to be a cow hanging upside down in a slaughterhouse waiting to have your throat slashed or a bolt driven into your head. Or a turkey being stomped to death, as was documented in 2008 at the Aviagen Turkeys plant in Lewisburg, West Virginia.

The amount of cruelty that pervades slaughterhouses worldwide is incalculable, and it’s made worse because animals have awareness and feelings. Cows display strong emotions; they feel pain, fear, and anxiety, and studies have shown they worry about the future. They and other agricultural animals make and miss their friends. Veterinarian John Webster and his colleagues have shown how cows within a herd form smaller friendship groups of between two and four animals with whom they spend most of their time, often grooming and licking each other. They also dislike other cows and can bear grudges for months or years. There’s no doubt that cows and other farm animals are sentient beings who care very much about what happens to them. While some have suggested that one solution would be to genetically engineer “pain-free” animals — who wouldn’t suffer physical pain as they went through the grueling process of becoming a meal — the fact that these are still living beings with emotions, and feelings for others, warrants against using them in ways that result in their death.

This is also true for the billions of birds, fish, and invertebrates humans eat. We know fish feel pain and recent research at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, shows that lobsters also feel pain; both show a response to painful stimuli that resembles that of humans. Intensively farmed fish suffer from a range of welfare problems, including physical injuries such as fin erosion, eye cataracts, skeletal deformities, soft tissue anomalies, increased susceptibility to disease, sea lice infestation, high mortality rates, and, in some countries, often inhumane slaughter methods.

Indeed, a natural result of the abusive living conditions on factory farms is that many agricultural animals suffer from disease and illness. Called “downers,” cows sometimes become too sick or weak to stand on their own, and until recently, these animals were still processed as food. The shocking abuse of “downer” cows occurs not just at slaughter plants but may be an everyday happening at livestock auctions and stockyards in the United States, according to an undercover investigation by the U.S. Humane Society. However, there has been some good news recently — in July 2008, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger strengthened the legal protections for downer cows in California, and in March 2009 the United States government banned the use of downer cows for food.

These protections, though laudable, are still less concerned for the animals than for the humans eating them. Raising animals in conditions that foster disease has led, not surprisingly, to a high prevalence of infectious disease in factory-farmed meat. This includes streptococcus, nipah virus, multidrugresistant bacteria, SARS, avian flu, and other diseases. There is also concern that the incredibly contagious H1N1 virus (or what used to be called “swine flu”) came from factory farms. There’s even evidence that workers who kill pigs suffer nerve damage. Physicians at the Austin Medical Center in Minnesota were mystified by three patients who had the same highly unusual symptoms, including fatigue, pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling in the legs and feet. But the patients had something else in common — all worked at a local meatpacking plant.

Yet another concern is the rampant use of antibiotics with farm animals, which are considered necessary to fight the diseases factory farms make rampant. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof notes: “We continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics.” In a recent study, five of ninety samples of retail pork tested positive for MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, in a store in Louisiana, and a new strain called ST398 is on the rise and appears to be prevalent in hog farms.

It is a biological imperative that we must eat to live, but is there a healthy link in this chain? The connection between alienation and illness couldn’t be clearer: our alienation from animals has led to an abusive agricultural industry that fosters disease, and humans are being made sick by what that industry produces.

Unsustainable: How Agriculture Is Poisoning Our World

“We don’t let hog or dairy farms spread their waste unregulated, and we wouldn’t let a town of 25,000 people dump human manure untreated on open lands. So why should we allow a farm with 150,000 chickens do it?”

— Gerald Winegrad, former Maryland state senator,
voicing concerns about chicken-farm pollution in Maryland

Industrial agriculture doesn’t work well for animals, and we have many reasons to believe it’s not very good for humans either. Raising animals for food involves a host of extremely important ethical questions, in addition to our health concerns about the way the industry currently works. Last but not least, there are serious environmental concerns. For the moment, let’s put aside the welfare of our fellow animals. Instead, let’s consider to what degree industrial meat production is harming the planet, helping spur climate change, and degrading life for all species.

For example, it’s estimated that by 2025 about 64 percent of humanity will be living in areas of water shortage. The livestock sector is responsible for over 8 percent of global human water use, with 7 percent of global water being used for irrigating crops grown for animal feed. Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gases. In New Zealand, 34.2 million sheep, 9.7 million cattle, 1.4 million deer, and 155,000 goats emit almost 50 percent of that country’s greenhouse gases in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. People are now talking about a “carbon hoofprint” and calling livestock “living smokestacks,” as ways to characterize the large amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. For example, one Swedish study found that “producing a pound of beef creates 11 times as much greenhouse gas emission as a pound of chicken and 100 times more than a pound of carrots.”

According to a 2008 essay in the New York Times, titled “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler”:

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests… . The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050.

These are daunting and haunting figures that spell doom for much fertile habitat. Indeed, the article noted that over a five-month span in 2007, 1,250 square miles of Brazilian rain forest were cut down for agriculture and ranching, leading Brazil’s president to announce emergency measures to halt the destruction. In addition to all the resources factory farms consume, we have to cope with how their byproducts damage the environment: how to handle the enormous amounts of manure they generate is perhaps the most obvious concern. Another is that pharmaceutical medicines, pesticides, and chemicals used to treat and protect agricultural animals from sickness can run off directly into waterways and wetlands, harming water quality and other species.

If you’re an environmentalist, it’s impossible to justify eating factory-farmed meat. The facts don’t lie about the incredible and irreversible environmental destruction wrought by factory farms. Indeed, this was made “official” in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the United Nation’s Nobel Prize —winning scientific panel. As one article summarized the report, “Don’t eat meat, ride a bike, and be a frugal shopper — that’s how you can help brake global warming.” The panel’s head, Rajendra Pachauri, even pleaded directly, saying, “Please eat less meat — meat is a very carbon intensive commodity.”

In fact, when comparing the relative environmental impact of being a vegetarian versus being a “locavore,” a 2008 study at Carnegie Mellon University found that “foregoing red meat and dairy just one day a week achieves more greenhouse gas reductions than eating an entire week’s worth of locally sourced foods. That’s because the carbon footprint of food miles is dwarfed by that of food production. In fact, 83 percent of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food consumption comes from production; transportation represents only 11 percent; wholesaling and retailing account for 5 percent.” It’s been calculated that the carbon footprint of meateaters is almost twice that of vegetarians.

To help emphasize the urgency of this, it’s been calculated that, on average, the world’s 6.7 billion humans are now consuming all resources 30 percent faster than the sustainable rate of replenishment. In the United States, people are consuming resources nearly 90 percent faster than the Earth can replenish them.

By most definitions of “sustainable” — doing something in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs — today’s commercial meat production clearly is not sustainable. If we expand our definition of sustainable to include animals — doing something that meets human needs without compromising the needs of other species — then there is no question: factory farms fail every moral and practical test.

A Full Menu of Compassionate Choices

I travel a lot and meet wonderful people and wonderful animals. I’ve noticed two trends: One is that most people don’t spend much time thinking about what they eat or wear or the many ways the lives of animals are intertwined with our everyday choices. The other is that, whenever people become aware of how certain choices lead to harm for animals, their compassion and concern naturally spring forth and can lead them to change.

In July 2008 I was sitting in a hotel restaurant in Budapest, Hungary, when four women on holiday from the United Kingdom sat down next to me. One asked another what she was going to eat, and her friend responded, “Oh, some bacon.” Then they started a lively conversation about their previous late night out on the town. A few minutes later, a friend joined me at my table, and we began to talk with the British women. We told them we were attending an international meeting on the behavior of dogs, and they laughed that a meeting about dogs would be important enough to attract people from all over the world. They asked what sort of research my friend and I did, and when I mentioned that I was interested in animal emotions, they seemed to get more interested. Eventually, the conversation shifted to how we use animals, how factory farming works, and how factory-farmed animals are treated in the process of becoming a meal. Led by their questions, and without being preachy or prescriptive, I talked about sentience and suffering and pointed out that the pig who became the bacon on their plates had suffered greatly along the way. One woman, Diana, was openly moved and agreed to cut back on her consumption of meat, even though she wasn’t ready to “go veggie.”

Her friends agreed, and while I don’t know what they did after we parted, I do believe that our brief conversation made a difference. They’d never really put it together, they said. But we all agreed that each of us is responsible for the decisions we make and that we could all do more to expand our compassion footprint.

It’s really easy to make a positive and noble difference in the lives of animals, and we can all begin right now. We don’t have to go out and protest or found a movement. We just have to eat compassionately. We can make an immediate difference with every meal. We don’t necessarily need to go “cold turkey” and stop eating meat entirely this second, but it’s extremely easy to cut back, and to do it slowly and steadily so it’s a progressive and lasting change. Many people with whom I speak tell me that they know that the animals they eat suffer immensely, but then they dismissively say, “Oh, but I love my steak.” I acknowledge their tastes, but then explain to them how easy it would be for them to expand their compassion footprint by making more humane choices; many say they’ll try.

It’s getting easier to avoid meat from factory farms, and to avoid wearing fur and leather. Eliminating meat entirely from our diet is one of the healthiest and most compassionate choices we can make — for animals, for the environment, and for ourselves — but even dedicated carnivores can make a huge positive difference simply by cutting back. We increase our compassion footprint and decrease our carbon footprint whenever we choose not to eat or wear animals. In a talk I attended by Thich Nhat Hanh in August 2007, this awe-inspiring man suggested that, as a start, humans should cut back on meat consumption by 50 percent. This obviously would add more compassion to the world.

A new term that links these issues is “environmental vegetarianism.” Environmental vegetarians seek to reduce firstworld consumption of meat, especially in the United States. According to the United Nations Population Fund, “Each U.S. citizen consumes an average of 260 lbs. of meat per year, the world’s highest rate. That is about 1.5 times the industrial world average, three times the East Asian average, and 40 times the average in Bangladesh.” Furthermore, “the ecological footprint of an average person in a high-income country is about six times bigger than that of someone in a low-income country, and many more times bigger than in the least-developed countries.” A 2008 essay in New Scientist magazine noted, “Switching from the average American diet to a vegetarian one could cut emissions by 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per person.”

Thus, when it comes to agricultural animals, we accrue compassion credits as we accrue carbon credits, and vice versa. Increased compassion for animals can readily lead to less carbon because there’s an inverse relationship between these markers, especially in our consumption of factory-farmed meat from highly abused animals. Every individual can make positive changes for all living beings and our planet by weaving more compassion, empathy, respect, dignity, peace, and love into their lives. Simply take compassion into account when deciding what to eat and wear, and what animal “entertainment” to patronize.

What does this look like in everyday terms? When in a restaurant, ask about the source of the animals on the menu, and if the restaurant doesn’t know or the only choices are from factory farms, choose a vegetarian alternative. Even asking has an effect, as it shows the restaurant there is a public desire for more humane food products; every individual decision ripples out into larger community effects. When shopping, avoid buying factory-farmed meat and wean away from organically farmed animals as well. We can also teach children that our hamburger was a cow and our bacon and sausage were a pig; that these animals had families and friends and that factory farms create for them a horrific life. We can let them know who, not what, they’re eating — that they’re eating a chicken, not just chicken.

As a society, we might also consider difficult questions that most people avoid, such as, “Might it be more sustainable to eat what are called ‘surplus’ dogs rather than raise cows, pigs, and sheep for food?” We need to question our assumptions: why, for instance, does eating dogs make us uncomfortable, but eating pigs does not? What are some alternatives to the unsustainable, compassionless food industry that now exists? Suffice it to say, we can all make more ethical and humane choices right now that will make the world a more compassionate place without sacrificing our quality of life.

Our alienation from other beings ends when we approach every being with respect and dignity. Entire nations of animals are treated as second-class citizens, or worse, as beings whose sole purpose is to serve human ends. While we may not all agree on what constitutes dignity, we all know when we lose it, and so do our fellow animals. We must embrace animals with our senses and our heart. We must allow animals to bring joy into our lives. We increase dignity for all and for ourselves whenever we look out for one another.