Yesterday, I was inspired to discuss the concept of suffering and why it exists. It’s a difficult topic to write or even think about because I’m well aware that my experience with suffering is so small compared to others. It’s very easy for a caucasian woman of the middle class to analyze from her comfortable perch. Today, I started thinking more about suffering, and my relationship with it, in regards to the environment.
In my last post, I talked about how there are wicked people who do horrible things to each other. Evil becomes harder to pinpoint when you are talking about how people interact with nature. As an environmentalist, I feel very comfortable saying that people do terrible things to the natural world – much of it bordering on evil because it is fueled by terrible greed. I think most sane humans will agree than anyone who tortures an animal is psychotic bordering on what many would call “evil.” (And by evil, I don’t mean some supernatural entity – I mean the human deciding to do horrible things on his or her own.) But where do we draw the line on what animals are ok to torture? I ask this because I found this post on Treehugger about how some organic farms abuse their animals as well (beware the graphic photos and video). As stated in the article:
It is, of course, hard to verify the exact circumstances in which these images were taken. Are pigs confined to such conditions 24/7, or is this night time accommodation? Were the sick animals eventually tended to? What does “just as prevalent” actually mean—literally that there were a similar number of documented cases of cruelty, or is this a subjective judgement by those doing the filming? A quick run through on Google Translate failed to turn up answers to the above questions…
This footage was also taken by members of PETA and I feel I should say that, while I support PETA in many ways, I don’t always condone what they do. So let’s leave the politics about that out of the comments.
Back to my original ponderings… what about humans who cause suffering in the natural world? Is it evil? Misguided? Someone whose heart would ache if they heard about a kitten mutilation may be perfectly happy eating a hamburger from an unknown factory farm. Can you find it in your heart to feel for the suffering of livestock when you read about people in china eating dogs? It’s funny how different cultures place taboos on eating some animals while not others… Where do we draw the line between which animals are okay to abuse and which ones aren’t? And if you decide that certain methods of meat farming are more human than others, how do you know if your organic source of meat is really the human, ethical choice you thought I was? (If I ate meat, I would rather obtain it from local farmers who I could talk to, visit, and trust.) As a vegetarian, I choose to feed my naturally carnivorous pets meat because they were made for it. Am I causing suffering by taking the scraps otherwise shunned by western meat eaters? Would I cause just as much suffering if I forced my cats and ferrets to be vegans since many vets argue doing so is abuse? Veg*ans, even those who try really hard like my husband and I, occasionally have a veggie burger or eat vegetables obtained through monocultures. Those arguably cause suffering too in that such farming practices devastate ecosystems and biodiversity. When you drive a car, buy an electronic, take medication, have a child – when you do just about anything you will always cause suffering.
As a person who tries her best to reduce suffering, it’s a fact I’ve had to come to terms with. You do the best you can without becoming suicidal. You are here for a reason and all of nature has a self-preservation instinct for a reason. We find ways to deal with it. I’ve chosen the path of the deer but it is not for everyone.
The ancient Celts seemed to know that there was a balance. Offerings to bogs of torcs, swords, and even human bodies attests to the fact that they must have believed in a sort of reciprocation. You cannot get something without sacrifice. I’m not advocating that we return to an age of human sacrifice, but perhaps we should keep that in mind whenever we eat a meal, purchase a garment, or the latest smartphone. Something had to die (or is in the process of death) because of what you want or need. Are you giving back to the Earth for this? Are you even saying thanks?
Prayer and sacrifice weren’t concepts I thought of until I came to Druidism. Prayer used to be a dreary part of Catholicism while sacrifice was taboo. As I studied my new path, I realized that prayer was a fancy way of saying “please” or “thank you” to someone – the Gods, your ancestors, or even the spirits of nature who went into a plate of food. When I sit down to eat, I say a modified prayer originally by Isaac Bonewits:
I thank the Earth Mother for the food before me/us.
I thank the people who toiled in field, farm, and kitchen to bring this food before me/us.
I thank the plants and animals who had to die so that I could live.
It was Isaac and Starhawk who opened my eyes to the fact that, even when eating a vegetarian diet, some animals have to die for a farm to be cultured. You cannot get something for nothing and there is always blood sacrifice – even if you didn’t have to dirty your own hands. But what are you going to do? Kill yourself? That is foolishness and disrespectful of the lives within you now.
Sacrifice can become gifts to the spirits given out of thanks for their blessings. It can also be, on a more practical level, a little extra money spent for food that, while it may be more expensive, comes from a source you trust. It could be giving up the designer shoes for a (hopefully) more environmentally responsible brand. If you cannot afford to do these things, sacrifice the latest and greatest for the gently used. Or, at the very least, clean up the environment around you. Sacrifice the convenience of the disposable for the easily reused (if harder to transport).
So are humans who cause suffering in the natural world wicked? I would say many are misguided and most others are just doing the best they can with what they have. Most people don’t mean any harm but society has made it difficult to live in balance with nature without making huge sacrifices – sacrifices even I am slow to make.
I wrote this post with a couple of points in mind. First, I really wanted to explore the idea of suffering with regards to our relationship to nature. I touched on it a little in the last post by agreeing with Diana Rajchel in that suffering equally impacts humans and nature. We are part of nature, after all, and should not consider ourselves above it. The second point I wanted to make, which I failed to make yesterday, is that even though suffering is a part of life and, as I said, is the price you pay for life – it is no excuse to cause it. Even though, logically, we have to destroy something in order to create, it doesn’t mean we should take that as an invitation to continue living as we have. As we realize the suffering our environmental impact is having on the natural world – as well as the impact it is having on fellow human beings through climate change – we must stop and ask ourselves how we can reciprocate and give back. What sacrifices can we make to try, in some small way, to make up for the suffering we have caused?
Sacrifice? Respect for nature? What could be more Druidic?