“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”
Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota
It is easy to murder a fly.
But that is not really murder. The term “murder” only applies to a human being. Sometimes the term is used for shock effect by vegans to describe what happens to livestock or wild animals. By that standard, PETA, the biggest vegan organization out there, murders around 2,000 dogs and cats every year at its shelter.
You’re not going to feel bad for killing a fly.
But if you shot a squirrel you might feel a bit queasy.
If you dropped a piano onto a cow, you would feel bad because that would be a bad thing to do.
And for a good reason — when we look into a cow’s eyes we can see ourselves staring back. Well, at least some of us can. How different are we, really, from any animal that lives on this planet? The physicist Riccardo Sabatini notes that, out of the 262,000 pages of our genetic code, only 500 pages are unique to us. In fact, we’re 61% genetically identical to a fruit fly.
But how closely we match a creature’s genetics doesn’t (or shouldn’t) correlate to their value. And we value sentience above all else, believing only a handful of mammals are truly sentient.
Sentience simply means “to be aware of one’s own existence”. I think all animals are sentient.
All beings eat and are eaten. Consuming and being consumed are simple an incontrovertible aspect of being a living creature on this planet. And for a couple hundred thousands years, humans were simply a part of that natural cycle.
See, our problems started when we decided, with our abnormally large brains, that we we stood apart from other animals. We invented science and started to split everything up into categories and groups. We got extremely good at naming things.
We’re a greedy species. We think that just because we named a billion parts of the planet that we somehow own them. We heard, “Go forth and name the animals and plants and have dominion over all of them,” from the sky. But, and I can’t stress this enough, we assign our own moral value system onto nature, but nature has no idea what we are talking about. Our categorizations evolved alongside our moral framework, so that we created hierarchies where there was none.
The problem with all of this busy work is that we assumed, based on our strange ideas about a universal singular God, that everything exists within a hierarchical system. That is the model that we know best. Therefore small bugs have no worth and large mammals are our best friends.
Now scientists are saying that maybe it is all really interconnected. Everything is linked to everything else. I can imagine Indigenous tribes across the planet lifting eyebrows and Zen priests snorting.
Even so, we attach more value to that which is most like us, and less value to that which is not. A worm has no soul, and all dogs go to heaven.
For a while I believed that the opposite was true — my contention was that the smallest of things, such as fungi, have the greatest of value while the largest, such as dinosaurs, are replaceable. But even this reversal of paradigms is flawed if we simply dismiss the concept of a hierarchy as outdated, which we should. It just does not reflect the reality of ecology.
The real revolutionary idea here, the concept that we need to hold onto and cultivate, is that we are all on the same level. That we all exist within a circular matrix of interaction where every node is as important as every other node. A whale is as important as a mushroom spore. When hierarchies are dismissed we find ourselves back where we started from, and that is where we need to be. Perhaps that is why the circle has been a sacred symbol in human cultures for tens of thousands of years.
But we broke that circle. We broke that circle when we began to create pyramids so that we could stand on top of them. Recently we have done some good things as humans, but only after hundreds of years of doing bad things. Saving the whales (from ourselves), recycling (our own endless trash), investing in renewable energy (made from fossil fuels) and so on.
A colonizer is a person who takes without giving. We colonizers are the breakers of the sacred circle and it is up to us to begin once again to respect it, cherish it, and maintain it.“Sacred” means something that we believe to be more important than our selves, and there is nothing I can think of more sacred then the circular matrix of life.
Monocropping is the colonizer way to produce food and profit. It is the agricultural act of taking without giving.
Once upon a time a couple of smart humans stuck a few seeds into the moist earth.
Maybe they were thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have these plants grow closer to our village?” And behold, the next year they had some of those plants growing closer to the village, and it was good.
They were able to travel less in search of food and stay closer to the safety of home. They selected seeds from the best plants and planted them in the soil they cultivated with bone and stick. Soon they had an abundance of food stored close at hand.
Then the population began to boom and everybody needed new living quarters. Forests were razed, and livestock were grazed on newly created pastureland. The development and storage of grains allowed people to create complex hierarchical cultures with monotheistic religions, politics, and art, as well as to propagate the divisions of castes, slavery, and war.
Monocultures always begin with violence.
First we put blade to tree and cut down the forests. Hundreds of thousands of animals are displaced and killed, or starve to death later. On the prairie we put blade to soil and hundred of thousands of animals are displaced and killed, or starve to death later. The ecological web of the land is broken, the circle has been breached.
This drama plays out on a small scale everywhere, every time blade is touched to plant or soil.
Then we plant hundreds of thousands of one plant species in one area, replacing the complex diversity of the plants and animals of the local landscape with a single cash crop. Now, instead of a circular ecology, we have a linear model, one which is designed to funnel money into our pockets. The ecology of a place is ignored, and we create a new system based on profit.
On the vast prairies of the North American continent we colonized the landscape for awhile until drought came and the winds blew the barren soil away in huge dust storms. Farmer families were dropped into the dark hole of poverty without even the ability to grow food.
So we learned a bit about soil conservation and land management. We practiced techniques that allowed us to mitigate the damage done by monocropping.
Then the United States went to war. After the war we discovered that leftover bomb chemicals made good fertilizer. All the farmers started to use these cheap chemicals because it seemed like a miracle. Chemical companies grew rich off of farmers, and soils grew poor. Ecology suffered while the economy boomed for some and busted for others. Farmers became reliant on the chemical system of agriculture.
The government decided that they needed to set up a safety net so that the American Farmer would always be able to survive a bad season and produce plenty of crops. Food security bolstered the economy. Farmers become more reliant on the government system.
Multi-conglomerate corporations invested millions of dollars into genetically engineered seeds that flourished in the chemicals that they also produced, and farmers become more reliant on the genetically engineered seed.
Modern mono-cropping is simply mining the soil. Some macro-nutrients are replaced with either organic or synthetic fertilizers to keep the crops healthy and growing, but there is no life there underneath that sea of grain. In order to keep any other organisms from partaking in our profits, we spray pesticides onto the soil that poison the groundwater, air, and the very cells of farmworkers.
Genetically engineered plants, fertilizers, and pesticides wreak havoc in the soil and in our own intestines.
All together, monocropping is in no way peaceful or “doing the least harm”. A box of Honey Nut Cheerios might have trace levels of the common herbicide glyphosate at 833 parts per billion. A new study indicates that exposure to glyphosate can raise the risk of cancer by 41%.
We must stop tipping our hats politely to this barrage of poison that is dumped daily upon our landscapes, and end the harmful practice of monocropping in order to honor the circle. Instead, we should graze more animals on perennial pastures, and raise annual crops with perennial crops in a polyculture, a family of two or more plants that partition resources.
But that can’t happen unless we completely change the way that we eat.
The food pyramid is yet another example of our cleverest assholes coming up with an unnecessary hierarchy that has no resemblance to what we should actually be eating on a daily basis.
I’ve tried out many diets (Woody Harrelson convinced me to try out the wonders of veganism, and I was vegetarian for the majority of my twenties), and I know that dieting doesn’t work. Having a WOE (way of eating) works. A lifestyle change is necessary before folks stop the SAD (Standard American Diet) way of living. And that is really difficult to do after decades of programming and advertising as well as addiction to carbohydrates and sugars.
The SAD way of life is based on monocropping.
Monocropping kills hundreds of thousands of creature when it clears a piece of land for the first time. I don’t think there has ever been a study of the loss of life and habitat in the initial process of clearing a field for agriculture. If we were to do an ethical bookkeeping of a farm field, it has to include that initial slaughter and devastation, and the subsequent killing of soil and land creatures after every pass of the plow or spray of the pesticide.
The complexity of such an endeavor would make this type of accounting impossible. The intricate workings of an ecologically healthy prairie or forest makes an accounting of all species difficult, especially when we are talking about animals.
And what exactly is an animal?
Historically scientists classified living things as either plant or animal. Then they realized mushrooms weren’t plants. Then they invented microscopes and realized that all the super small living things were sometimes hard to classify. Now on one side you have the microorganisms which aren’t considered to be plants or animals, then the plants, then the mushrooms, which are kind of in between plants and animals, and then us animals.
So worms, bees, spiders, starfish, frogs, tigers, snails, and monkeys are all animals.
For some reason, vegans don’t like to classify the insects and small wiggly creatures as animals.
The primary focus of some vegans is to honor sentience and to be honest I can empathize. Most obviously cows and turkeys are sentient. Of course these larger animals with bigger brains have more complex lives then the smaller animals. And so we identify with them — they are like us so they are better than other animals.
Sentience is an important issue for many of us because to be a moral person is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
There are plenty of animals that wouldn’t eat me, like cows, but there are plenty that would, like bears, and ultimately I will be eaten by small animals and finally microorganisms and that is the circle of life.
Excluding the bacteria, fungi, and algae, there are over a million animals in a cubic meter of temperate climate topsoil, according to the Soil Atlas 2015. An acre is about 4,000 square meters. That means that there are around 4 billion animals in an acre of soil. That doesn’t account for the hundreds to thousands of rodents, ground-nesting birds, and other small animals that take up residence in a field.
The violence it takes to keep a piece of land relatively free and open for even a small garden is well known to any gardener. The amount of animal deaths per pound of plant food produced is vast.
But only if you consider all those smaller animals sentient and worthy of compassion, of course.
One cow can keep me fed for six to twelve months. That is one creature, one life, that had one bad day.
If you just look at the amount of animal lives saved, eating a cow is perhaps the most vegan thing that you can do. If you look at the quantity of violence needed to keep the flora and fauna at bay in order to grow that crop of carrots or popcorn, eating a cow is a far more ethical choice than growing a garden.
I can already see the argument. “You wouldn’t eat your dog, would you? You care more for a human life more than you care for a bumblebee, right? So you have some sort of hierarchy out of which you create your morality.”
That is true — I care more for my pets and my friends and family then I do for the bees and the spiders. That is my own personal value system, but I do not kid myself that the planet cares more about me then it cares about the butterflies or the frogs or the gophers. To the planet, we are all on the same level. Although we humans are very good at trashing it.
I don’t begrudge anyone their own value system, but to claim to love animals and care more about animals than others to such a degree that you label yourself “vegan”, and then to shrug off the majority of animal deaths that occur in the soil of any annual agriculture as “not important” is disingenuous — what you truly love is cute & cuddly animals. That is your preference, so just own it.
Regardless of whether a farm plows, tills, or discs an annual field is beside the point. The soil underneath a monocrop is a relative desert, with little organic matter and no soil life. The ecology is dead, and the circle of life is broken.
Perennial plants like grass, clover, trees and shrubs build up organic matter and create food and habitat for many small animals and microorganisms. A diversity of perennial plants and a healthy soil biota go hand in hand. Perennials also sequester carbon. The claim that cow farts were significant contributors to climate change were unsurprisingly inaccurate (1). Cows do more for the environment then any monocropping system could ever do.
On the contrary, many farmers and ranchers have had success increasing biodiversity and soil health through the application of prescribed grazing in its many forms. Ruminants move through the landscape at a pace that allows the grasses to thrive. Grasses shed roots in response to grazing and this new organic matter boosts the soil organism population and activities. Droppings add nutrients and supports soil organism reproduction as well. The circular loop of this ecological system creates food for all in a sustainable manner. A life-cycle study conducted by a third-party sustainability science firm confirmed that White Oak Pastures, a regenerative cattle farm, is storing more carbon in its soil than its pasture-raised cows emit during their lifetime.
If we take a thorough accounting of all the harm that a single monocropped field does, then we cannot dismiss it as “just the price we pay for cheap food”, even if we are a vegan.
The small creatures are no less incredible than the large creatures.
When we assign them no value and no sentience we do a great disservice to these animals that keep our ecosystems healthy. We are taught to hate very small animals, to crush them, and destroy them in whatever way that we can. Yes, there are good reasons to keep ants out of my house. But I should not wipe them off the face of the earth.
Perhaps it is time to appreciate the little brush strokes that makes up the bigger picture.
In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop
of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people
flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop,
and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace
and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain and the north
with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This
knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion.
Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.
The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball
and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.
Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.
The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon
does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great
circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.
The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is
in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the
nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop,
a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.
Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota
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