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Stop, for the Love of the Earth!

Isa, I cannot respond to all your arguments at once, due to space restrictions. But before I tell my own food story, I would, since you asked so pointedly, like to assure you that I would never kill a child … Read More

By / May 17, 2007

Isa,

I cannot respond to all your arguments at once, due to space restrictions. But before I tell my own food story, I would, since you asked so pointedly, like to assure you that I would never kill a child under any circumstances. If presented with a choice of killing a child or a redwood, I would choose neither. Put a gun to my head and I would say “shoot.”

I suppose you could concoct a situation where someone has the gun to a child’s head and says, “Cut down that redwood or I’ll shoot her.” In that case I don’t know what I would choose. It would depend on my judgment at the moment of whether the threat was credible, and just how I felt, and my sense of what the child wanted and what the tree wanted. (But I’d say the killer was the gunman, not me.) Anyway, I don’t think questions like this can be torn out of context and decided on principle. How would such a situation arise? What choices would I have to have made in my life to bring it about?

If, as you say, only animals have the capacity to suffer, then what is wrong with cutting down trees? If your ethics are based on minimizing suffering, and since you think the tree is just insensate matter, without sentience or the capacity to suffer, then why treat it any differently from a rock? You say, “It’s an amazing tree!” That’s your heart speaking, not your ethics. We feel amazement, awe, and reverence in the presence of the sacred. We are moved.

“We don’t need shamans to detect [animal suffering].” We don’t need shamans to detect plant suffering either, or the sentience and spirited quality of all nature. We can feel it. When the bulldozers tear up the land to build a new highway, we can feel the suffering of the land. We can feel it. It is real. But often we ignore these feelings, or dismiss them as anthropomorphism, or discount them as an invalid source of knowledge compared to what can be measured and counted. Ignored, this capacity to feel atrophies over time. Hence we resort to cost-benefit analyses to determine whether a given construction project is justified. And environmentalists, impotently, cite the economic costs of global warming or rainforest destruction as reasons why we should stop. Better to say, “Stop, for the love of the earth!”

As a matter of fact, I am advocating “Do what feels right,” and I have dedicated years of my life to understanding what this means. Typically people respond with something like your Neil Diamond and heroin quip, revealing a distrust of self. The thesis of The Yoga of Eating is that we have become so cut off from our true selves, and so afraid of our natural desires, that we no longer are aware of what feels right. The book is about how to regain sensitivity and trust.

We think that if we just did “whatever we wanted” our lives would dissolve into a downward spiral of indolence and hedonism. Soon we’d be the addict in the gutter, listening to Neil Diamond. But actually, the objects of addiction are not our true desires, they are substitutes for what we really want. What we really want is often hidden behind barriers of habit and fear, but when we access it, the addictions lose their allure. For example, Dungeons & Dragons substitutes for the basic human need for adventure and expression of one’s magnificence.

In my early 20s I went through a vegetarian phase. I’d done all the reading and was very careful to complement my proteins, eat whole grains, and so on. I convinced myself that human beings were never meant to eat meat and didn’t need it. I congratulated myself on my superior ethics, and marveled that meat eaters “just don’t get it.” A sanctimonious attitude accompanied a whole identity based on diet. So of course, I was greatly ashamed when I developed cravings for meat that intensified over time. I castigated myself for my indulgent, selfish desire. I also developed health problems, which at first I explained away as “detoxification” or “cleansing.” Eventually it became obvious something was wrong. My libido almost vanished, I was tired all the time, I caught colds that wouldn’t go away. I was eating “healthier” than all my friends, but I was less healthy! It wasn’t fair!

Well, one day I just gave up. I said, “I’m going to eat whatever I want.” Much to my shame, what I wanted most was a local dish (I was living in Taiwan) of sautéed pork bellies, cooked with scallions, garlic, and ginger, accompanied by rice and swimming in lard. As I ate, I was suffused by a profound feeling of well-being, and I thought, “This cannot be wrong. It cannot be wrong to feel this good.” Well, I didn’t listen to that voice right away, but eventually, more and more, I ate whatever felt right (i.e. pleasurable). And my health rapidly improved.

I had one more flirtation with vegetarianism eight years ago, when I underwent an extended yoga teacher training and imagined I was too pure to eat meat. After a couple months I developed acute prostatitis (let’s tell the world!) and then a double kidney infection, ten days of unimaginable pain. As for purity, I didn’t realize then that many spiritual people I admire, such as the Dalai Lama, are meat eaters. I believe meat is necessary for my body, and in my work I have heard countless stories similar to mine. I don’t believe it is universally true, however.

You know, Isa, I actually don’t live based on ethics at all, a system of principles superimposed over real desire. I follow desire, and learn more deeply every day what my true desires are.
It is a constant unfolding. Interestingly, desire and pleasure lead me to the same behaviors that people consider ethical. I recycle and compost because it feels good, not because I should. I am kind and gentle in my relationships because it feels good. I do not participate in any livelihood that perpetuates the earth-devouring machine, because that feels bad. Lying, cheating, hurting, judging, punishing…these all hurt. To take an apple core and throw it in the garbage instead of composting it actually hurts. Because I am connected to it, and I know where it wants to go. Its pain is my pain. This is not a theory, it is a felt experience that everyone has access to. Not just shamans.

It is almost impossible to speak of ethics without using words like should and shouldn’t, right and wrong, good and bad. There is another way to think, though, and another way to live. In trying hard to be good and rise above desire, we enact a war against the self—an internalization of our civilization’s war on nature. Our technologies of self-control mirror the material technologies we use to control nature. On both sides, the result is ruination.

I apologize for not having responded to some of your other points about the pounds of dead plants embodied in an herbivore, about killing pet dogs, and so on. As for more details of my diet, let me say that the food I eat and the farms that produce it are improving but not yet perfect. Occasionally I will, usually for social reasons, eat a factory-farmed burger or a genetically engineered corn chip or an orange picked by an underpaid migrant labor and shipped cross-continent using fossil fuels. And when I eat, I offer the following prayer:

“Thank you for this food. Thanks to all the beings who created this food. I dedicate this meal to a child who is truly hungry.”

Warmly,

Charles (a tree-hugging, hippie-loving, Adbusters-reading, radical anarchist peacenik wingnut)

NEXT: Like, what is space, anyway?

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