Sunday, November 17, 2013

To Be, or Not to Be?

In his opening of Hamlet, William Shakespeare begs the question "To be, or not to be?" In essence, why go on, why live? 

There are different motivators for each of us, different reasons why we get up each morning to face another day. And though there seems to be so much suffering all around us, we can balance it out by creating joy. That being said, what is the most ideal way to generate more joy and love, as consumers (takers) or as citizens (protectors) of the earth?

Consumption is unfavorably defined as the act of consuming by use, decay or destruction. More than a century ago the word was synonymous with tuberculosis, an infection that primarily consumes the lungs with disease. 

Buying and consuming can often be destructive but, while unavoidable, it can also be constructive with forethought, insight, and restraint.

As a nation, we have become accustomed to buying and discarding with impunity, behaving less as citizens of the world and more as reckless consumers. We often take without any regard for resources, labor, or the environment. What's more, our purchasing and selling affects other beings as well, specifically those billions of animals exploited for food, clothing, domestication, experimentation, and entertainment. For many people, not a day goes by that doesn't involve some purchase of an animal's body part, whether it be in food, clothing, cosmetics, cleaning products, personal care products, or just about anything else.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution we have seen the proliferation of disposable goods produced cheaply on factory assembly lines. So-called "food" animals are treated much the same as other inanimate commodities even though we forget that they are not materials or products, but living, feeling beings.

Animals are the ultimate victims of the assembly line as they are terrifyingly led down abattoir chutes and systematically stunned, cut, bled, skinned, carved, mutilated, and packaged so no trace of a former being exists. When we eat them, we consume their bodies and their suffering and they, in turn, consume us.

Recently, I passed a homeless man while on my way to work. On his bike, in both the front and the back, hung plastic bags with what probably amounted to everything he owned. He looked thin, worn, and aged, and he had a long white beard that hadn't been trimmed in months. It looked as though life had not been kind to this man.

As he passed the long line of cars sitting in traffic, he turned his attention to the housing development on the other side of the road, and so did I. Million dollar mansions with brick verandas, circular driveways with cobblestone pavers, inground pools, and large, lush manicured lawns taking up huge swaths of space lined the road. I thought to myself, the people living in these mansions probably have every material thing they could ever want or need and then some, and this man has so little—literally what he can carry on his bike.

All this reminded me of how wasteful we are as a society and how we take more than we can ever use or need. We wait in long lines every few months to upgrade our phones so we can have the latest gadget; we buy the trendiest fashions that the media sells us on, and we scarf down whatever the advertisers and fast food behemoths tell us to eat. We buy—we hoard—to fill some deficit or ease a burden no matter what suffering accompanies such spending, no matter how it hurts others or ourselves or the planet. Moreover, we take what isn't ours to begin with—the lives of animals, who have as much a right "to be" as any one of us.

Everything we could ever want for sustenance is nurtured by the sun, sprouted in the soil or grown on trees. The earth continuously provides nourishment to all animals, human and nonhuman alike. And yet, despite all that is available, we gluttonously and thoughtlessly seize more lives. We do so not because we really want to hurt animals, but because we've bought into the cultural dogma that tells us it’s normal, natural and necessary to eat them, because animal flesh and animal secretions taste too damn good to give up, because animal suffering is not as important to us as satisfying our guts, and because we are afraid to do or learn anything different. 

Citizens work for the benefit of society by creating the most good and causing the least harm. Consumers, on the other hand, primarily deplete and dispose of with little concern for anyone else. Despite all the technological advances and proliferation of information at our fingertips, what we need now more than ever is self-discipline, self-reflection, and compassion. 

Consuming is something we must do at times, but it doesn't have to destroy others, define us, or be our reason for existence. Rather, it is in not consuming animals, above all, that we can bring about more joy. 

Kruger, Barbara. I Shop Therefore I Am. 1987. Art History Archive. Web. 9 November 2013

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