Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Live and let die

The world is a horrible, vicious place, and life itself is cruel. There are times when I wish I could believe in a heaven again, although that generally comes with a hell, and what's the point of that? I wish that there was a way that life could be lived without intruding on the lives of others, but there isn't. My very existence is predicated on the daily death of millions of other life forms, both animals and plants.

Since I can't simply "live and let live," I have to do the best I can. I am a vegetarian for the explicit purpose of abstaining from eating other animals. I am very happy about this because, as I have mentioned before, I cannot even see meat without thinking of it as animal flesh. A plate of chicken wings represents six dead chickens to me. A strip of bacon makes me sad that a pig had to suffer and die so that someone could have a tasty sandwich.

I saw a problem and I solved it: no more eating meat. Easy enough. And yet the problem persists. I still use butter. I still eat eggs. True, no animals were killed in the production of these items, but what are the circumstances of their lives? I make it a point to buy eggs that say things like "Cruelty Free" and "Cage Free," but when I eat eggs (or cake, or pasta) at a restaurant, I have no idea where they came from - in fact, I think it would be a pretty good guess that food service eggs are not cruelty free and come from chickens who live their entire lives smashed in between two other chickens and whose beaks are chopped off so that they can't peck each other to death because of the close proximity. So do I go vegan? I'm afraid that I am on that slippery slope.

I also have put a near-complete halt to purchases of leather goods. Since I already have a leather belt and wallet and watchband I will continue to use those things. This pretty much relegates me to buying Converse sneakers, which is certainly not a problem for me, but I am worried about what to do when I have to replace my work shoes (which are really comfortable!). I am sad to say that I will probably opt for leather shoes.

This has been on my mind for the past few weeks - I've been reading a lot of Peter Singer - and the disturbing conclusion is that I am contributing to misery at just about every turn. So I don't buy shoes that require leather (presumably reducing the aggregate demand for leather) but who knows the conditions under which Converse produces their sneakers? If I follow my coffee back to the farmers, or the tee-shirts back to the textile manufacturers, or the food that I feed my dogs back to their multiple sources, I am sure that misery and unfairness and cruelty would spring up almost immediately.

So what can I do? Should I jump to every cause? Should I research every item of clothing and only patronize entirely green and fair manufacturers? Should I raise my own chickens so that I can be assured that they are being treated fairly? Should I ride a bicycle made from bamboo so that I don't support the oil industry, the auto industry and, in turn, the textile and rubber and mining industries? I care about the world, and I want to reduce misery, but all of these things simply revolve around my own life. And then there are the problems that I am not responsible for but exist anyway that I can help with. Starving children in Africa, for example, or victims of disasters or war.

I feel like we are all piled in a giant bowl - some of us are on the top, some are not so fortunate. I am one of the fortunate ones, so every time I move to look around or try to get comfortable, I have an elbow in someone's stomach or a shoe in someone's eye. It is clear that I cannot reduce the suffering in the world by any reasonable measure so why do anything at all? If I continue to abstain from eating meat, am I a hypocrite if I eat eggs or if I wear leather or if I wear tee-shirts from Vietnam or don't go to Indonesia to help with tsunami relief?

I'm not trying to be clever or witty here. These are real questions. I'm sure I'll find a balance, but until then, I have to stop thinking about it. Maybe I need a hobby.

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