Work • Consumption & Need
On Eating a Friend
There are in aggregate far more of them than there are of us. We’re a mere 7.5 billion – while there are 19 billion chickens, 1 billion sheep, 1 billion pigs and 1.5 billion cows.
They certainly cannot be happy, yet they can never complain. They are structurally among the most melancholic living things on the planet. To understand the essence of sadness, we don’t need to read poetry by a tubercular 19th century poet or the analyses of a mid-20th century existential philosopher. We need only spend a few minutes gazing into the eyes of a Black Angus cow, who has had two summers on the earth and is now a few days away from slaughter.
It would be stretching credulity to say that they could understand exactly what was coming for them but we can hazard that they might feel that something was awry; that the system in which they were born into was too systematised and structured to be wholly honest, that there was something suspicious in those calorie-rich meals they were constantly being fed with scarcely time to pause and ruminate, that there was a worrying brutality in the manner of the men herding them from steel enclosure to steel enclosure or jabbing them with vitamins and hormones, that those repeated disappearances and the bellowing near the trucks might one day catch up with them.
It is often said that we wouldn’t eat meat if we could see inside an abattoir. But our consciences might be stirred far earlier and less dramatically, simply if we spent two minutes forcing ourselves to look into the eyes of a condemned cow at the edge of a field. What is most humbling is their passivity and readiness to be kind. One might fear that they would come to their senses and attack. We would deserve that they would kick us to death. Instead, if we place a little grass on our palm, they will pull what passes for a smile and let their large fleshy tongue whip the snack up into their mouths. They let us stroke their noses and caress their flanks – which will soon be hanging from a fast moving hook in a refrigerated chamber covered in discarded hooves, tails, faeces expelled in a panic and splatterings of brown-red blood.
It’s as though they know, as they stare back at us. They know our cheap desires, our cover-ups, our paltry excuses, our absurd claims to enlightenment and goodness, how we have done nothing but hoodwink them since it all began in central Anatolia 10,000 yeas ago. At least at the start, their lives were expensive and precious enough to be revered; some self-righteous human might write a poem or organise a festival the day they were slaughtered. It was ridiculous but better than being hung upside down and shot coldly in the head along with another fifty of the herd you grew up with – and then wind up with bits of your rib half eaten on a ketchup smeared plate in a diner somewhere off the motorway and your skin used to cover the sofa.
They aren’t making us feel guilty; we feel very guilty anyway. We know they are far more like us than would be comfortable; they are – in a cosmos mostly filled with inert gases and rock – fellow complex cellular lifeforms; they’re almost our siblings. We can only go through with it by constantly telling ourselves the many ways in which they are not like us: they can’t speak in finished sentences, they can’t think, they can’t do maths, they haven’t read Plutarch… therefore what we are doing is fine, they probably don’t much like life to begin with. They’re almost willing to turn themselves into supper, as a way of saying thank you for all that feed. This must have been the kind of reasoning of the Spanish missionaries as they killed their way around South America.
Perhaps it is too easy, as a vegan or vegetarian, to believe in one’s purity. The anguished, reflexive meat eater is maybe more properly on the horns of the human dilemma: that our lives are always at a fundamental level bought at the expense of something else, that we exist because lots of other living things died for us, that we are an incurably rapacious species; that we have no right but to be sickened by ourselves on every occasion we contemplate who we really are.
The only compensation for the cattle on their way to be shot lies in the laws of biology; the life cycle will catch up with every murderer (us) soon enough. There is no point pretending to be heartbroken. We will in turn be nibbled through by starving unguilty maggots and worms; bits of us will soon be someone else’s lunch and no one will cry.