The March for a Livable World: Animal Death, Meaning, and Time

Photo: CC0 Public Domain

By: Marion Achoulias

Could this be you? You are holding a sick street kitten all night, trying to comfort her until her frail little body gives up. You are watching helplessly as that abused dog in front of you collapses, struggling to waggle his tail, trying to be your friend even in the very last moment of his life. Your heart is breaking for that one rescue chicken you were able to pull out the of truck to slaughter; she so wanted to live. She made it out of hell just to die on your knees and there is not a thing in the world you can do for her. Her genetic code is modified to work against her; her body programmed to fail when she reaches slaughter age.

We have seen the terror of death in so many animal eyes; their anguish so intense, it punctures our skin and pierces into our very marrow. BILLIONs of animal lives broken, crushed, annihilated. A magnitude of madness beyond comprehension ‒ just like death itself.

In the fight for a livable world for animals, there is an acute awareness in activists of the constant proximity of death. We had our extreme dose of truth. Some of us cannot even remember what our life was like before we opened that door to reality. That door can never be closed again as we are changed forever. Gradually we begin to accept that there is a test inherent in the fight for animals: We stand face to face with our own mortality.

We wonder whether we will live to see the change we are working for. We may feel guilty that it has taken us so many years to develop the courage to say to our friends or parents, “No thanks, I don’t want that cheese burger”. Or maybe we find it hard to squeeze energy and time out of our crazy school/work day to stay active. We may realize it’s about making time when it comes to activism. Maybe we decide to not sweat the small stuff quite as much anymore.

AR ethicist Peter Singer is about making our lives meaningful beyond the human drama of competing with the neighbors, overcoming boredom, and reproducing the ‘same-old’ in its many forms. It’s about living our daily lives in the understanding that every little thing we do affects the big picture. And ultimately, this picture is an immensely intricate net of connections with all individuals of all species including those that have not been born yet.

When AR activist Henry Spira was close to death, Singer observed that the most remarkable thing about his friend was the total absence of any sign of depression. Life had been good, he said, he had done what he wanted to do and enjoyed it a lot. Singer also notes that Spira had lived life with intense love for the victims of the vivisection industry and factory farms. He chose to practice freedom and not just dream about it: fight injustice with love, thought, and the willingness to learn and change. But he also succeeded in resisting the human tendency to get stuck in unimportant clutter, inconsequential details, or negativity. We can call this freedom as practice.

Henry’s life has lacked many of the things that most of us take for granted as essential to a good life. He never married, or had a long-term, live-in relationship. He had no children. His father and one of his sisters committed suicide, and his mother was mentally ill for much of her life. He never went to concerts, to the theatre, or to fine restaurants. Yet he was able to contemplate his own imminent death with no major regrets about the way he had lived. What made up for the absence of so much that, for most people, are the essentials of a good life? [i]

Vegan macrohistorian Yuval Noah Harari asks in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods (aka humans) who don’t know what they want?” [i] I’d respond not for other animals there isn’t, because it seems it is precisely the human sense of confusion and restlessness coupled with technology that makes us the tyrant over other animals that we are. No matter what levels of comfort and luxury humans achieve on the backs of animals, we remain dissatisfied, forever grasping for more. The power to reverse this cannibalistic trajectory lies in the animal liberation movement: by interacting with other animals in ethical ways, to learn from them and to fight for them in solidarity. But what seems equally important is the courage to look into those patterns of the sapient mind that have led us to evolve into dissatisfied ecocidal tyrant-gods. We may have stopped consuming other animals directly but if we want to bring about deep change, humans will need to understand where our species has gone wrong. One aspect of the human way of thinking that hinders our activism, for example, is our negativity bias and other problematic patterns that fuel our sense of hopelessness, complacency, and ego-defensiveness. So, it is my actions and my thoughts and the way I respond to my own emotions that determine who I become for myself, and all other animals. The way I think, speak and act will determine what my life will mean at the end. [ii]

The pig in the sow crate is denied the chance to spend her time on this planet in a way that is rich and fulfilling and free. She is denied the right to fight for the lives of those she loves. She is the mother of the next generation of victims she was forced to bring into this world and she would give everything to protect her babies if she only had the slightest chance.

Unlike her, I have that chance. I can use my time, energy, and resources (as limited as this is) to fight for her alongside the humans I learn to care about and respect. I don’t want to let her down, so as an activist, I aim at practicing true freedom.

When I feel overwhelmed or stuck, I try to draw on the strength of gratitude for everything and everyone that enable me to lead a life with little regret.[iii] Number 1 on the list? This is you, all members of the AR community!  I know that I could not live my life to the fullest if our movement didn’t exist. We are living proof that our evolutionary heritage of fear and cruelty can be overcome as we are facing a future of total techno-enslavement driven by ultra-consumerism. Zen teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says that the next decisive step in human evolution is the shift from homo sapiens (“know-how” at the expense of “know-why”) to homo conscious. Let’s make that shift and wake up to our interconnectedness with all life or else… As Harari says in Homo Deus: A Brief History of the Future, You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their differently intelligent (but not less conscious) animal cousins.[iv] It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine”.

The day of the International March to Close all Slaughterhouse is coming soon. June 16th, 2018 will be a good day. We don’t know what the future will bring and how many times we will have to adapt and change our strategies. But on that day as we come together in action, hope, and love for all animals we will be going in the right direction

[i] Peter Singer. Ethics Into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[ii] Rick Hanson, neuro-psychologist on neuroplasticity. This may well be one of the most important insights for AR activists to apply to their own lives and their advocacy work.
a) Buddhist Upajjhatthana Sutta (Subjects for Contemplation). The 5 Remembrances.
b) Carol J. Adams, P. Breitman, V. Messina. Even Vegans Die: A Practical Guide to Caregiving, Acceptance, and Protecting your Legacy of Compassion. Lantern Books, 2017.

[iii] Eco-philosopher and general systems theorist Joanna Macy understands “gratitude” in our historical situation of late capitalism a radical act of self-empowerment, resilience, and mobilization in the fight against ecocide

[iv] Preceding sentence paraphrased