The Economy of Suffering

Today, this video broke my heart and stomped around on the pieces.

Please, please be warned.  It is horrifying.  It’s about food production, and it is chilling.  Terrified chickens crowded into a windowless building are swept up by the bristles of a machine that looks like a street sweeper and shot up a conveyor belt to be butchered by shrouded workers crowded into a windowless building.  Drugged-looking cows in a bizarre panopticon are spun slowly around their grassless, skyless world as they’re perpetually fed and milked by machines.  Piglets are nursed by their mothers, separated from them by metal bars that allow the babies only close enough to eat and grow fat for slaughter.

And that’s just the beginning.  The whole thing is a carnival of horrors that reduced me to a sobbing mess.  

Oh, God, what have we wrought?

Food was sacred, until it became easy.  We broke bread with friends and strangers, offered them salt, killed our fatted calves.  We stood in awe of the cycle of the seasons, the mystery that transmutes life into death and back again.  We understood that life leads to death, and that only through death do we live.  Food was not trivial.  It was not fast or convenient.  It took its place in festival and ritual, but it was not entertainment, and it was not religion.

We are so proud, so smug in our penetration of the mystery of sustenance.  Once upon a time, we believed that Demeter’s precious daughter had been stolen from us, tempted by the treasure of a handful of seeds (there is no treasure greater than a handful of seeds).  We mourned her absence and celebrated her return.  We felt the terror of famine and drought.  How superstitious we were.

Once, we believed that animals were our brothers and sisters.  We took their lives when hunger gnawed our bellies.  We killed in reverence, giving thanks to the ones who died that we might live.  We used every piece of flesh, every scrap of sinew, every hair and horn and tooth and fragment of bone.  We felt the tug of life and death, that thin line that we walked every day, knowing that tomorrow it might be the mysteries of our own flesh and bone laid bare beneath the sky.  How ignorant we were.

Once, we lived with the lives we took.  We planted and harvested, raised and slaughtered.  We knew the sweet exhaustion of a long day’s toiling in field and pasture.  We ate our fill without fear of fat or poison, and it was seasoned with the salt of our sweat and the knowledge that tomorrow the locusts might come or the fires rage or the rains refuse to fall.  How inefficient we were.

How far we have come.  How very civilized we are.  Instead of working for food, we simply drive for it, the engines of our cars fueled by the final essence of animals who died millions of years before we lived.  We turn away as Persephone descends into the bowels of the factory to slaughter the terrified creatures that a corporation will sell to another corporation that will sell them to us on a bun or in a plastic tray made from dinosaur bones.  Because we’re civilized, we’d rather not look (anyway, she’s taking our jobs).

We’re so efficient.  Instead of working to grow our own food, we’ve created a system, gorgeous in its complexity, in which we work to get money so that we can pay money to stores for food they bought from processors who bought it from producers who churn out lives on conveyor belts.  Our way is so much easier.

And we are wise, too.  We know how to turn the heart and mind away from suffering.  Our theories and beliefs assure us that we are the pinnacle of evolution, the apex of creation.  Our gods have proclaimed that we are their chosen ones, and our science has given us as a failsafe the tools to ensure our supremacy, on the off chance that we misunderstood what the gods were saying before we relegated them to the packing plants of myth and history.

It’s elegant, this economy of suffering that we have created.  Suffering was once senseless, useless.  It didn’t serve a practical purpose, until we worked our alchemy.  Animals are abused, plants are spliced with toxins, and the soil is ravaged beyond repair so that we might live.  We consume the fruits of their anguish, our consciences clear because we have carefully distanced ourselves from the unfortunate messiness of all this life-taking.  We have perfected the arts of mechanization, sanitation, and distance so that we can consume suffering.

We are what we eat.