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MAD COWBOYS AND AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

June 5/2006 4:28 AM

It was serendipitous that I met Howard Lyman at the Vancouver planetarium last night. Howard is a hulking bear of a man and a former Montana cattle rancher who is now—hold onto your begging bowl—a vegan and author of the anti-factory farming memoir Mad Cowboy.

While on stage, Howard told a story about being asked to speak at the famed and praise-worthy Sierra Club, an environmental organization dedicated to saving the resources of this magnificent planet (including humans, who pay their fees).  

At the gala event, steak was served for dinner.

This did not bode well with Howard, who upon reaching the podium called the Club, in his 'down home' way, "...a bunch of hypocrites," and so on.

Evidently, the Sierra Club president was not amused.

Yet how can an environmental organization as fantastic as the Sierra Club not see the irony of serving meat provided by an industry whose practices can be systematically cruel, monetarily unsustainable, devastating to the environment and without significant regard for future generations?

I've actually been noticing for some time now how often environmental groups fail to include factory farming in their objections.

One reason may be it is intensely difficult—some would say impossible—for even highly compassionate individuals and organizations to not get trapped within the systemic abuse of the societal system funding their activities.

We all know that problem. Try not driving to work.

As fate would have it, about the exact hour I met Howard and heard his story, UNICEF—admirably committed for over fifty years to diminishing the suffering of humans worldwide—was holding its Annual General Meeting in Vancouver.

You know where this is going.

At the evening banquet, steak was the main course (an undercover, carnivorous, humanitarian spy tipped me off).

While speakers at the banquet, I am sure, necessarily cried out against the unnecessary suffering of human beings and what must be done—it would be interesting to know who there heard the cries of systemically tortured animals—the evidence neatly hidden, spiced and garnished on the plate before them, and then swallowed into their bodies.

Now I must say, the meat served at the banquet may well have been locally and compassionately produced, which would make me a very happy and humbled knob. For I am as we speak also writing a documentary for UNICEF on AIDS in Africa—which makes this essay possibly the most politically stupid thing I've ever done. But all I'm actually doing is pointing out an oversight—a discordance. The record of UNICEF speaks for itself.

In an interview I did with deeply respected humanitarian Stephen Lewis, he describes UNICEF, "...when it summons the energy...as the single most effective multilateral organization on the face of the planet. I mean it is being challenged now by the remarkable work of the World Food Program and some remarkable work of the World Health Organization, but when UNICEF is unleashed, there is nothing like it. And the excitement that attaches to the [AIDS] initiative in 2005, is that it will be real, it will be rolled out and millions of children will benefit who haven't otherwise benefited."

That's exciting. I wish it changed the many well-documented miseries that hint at the link between the suffering of animals through factory farming and the suffering of humans on the fringe of survival (be it through war, famine or epidemic).

Under the colossus of factory farming, food (crops) once grown for human consumption is more and more converted into feed for animals and then fed back as meat to the wealthiest peoples of the world.

Meat as a cash crop is unsustainable for the world's poor, and often environmentally degrading. It's not even necessarily monetarily pragmatic for factory farmers.

Stephen Lewis points this out in his book Race Against Time, where cattle per head is often subsidized by tax-payer money at rates far higher than what is ever given by Western countries to the desperate children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Regardless of what it serves up to guests at a banquet, UNICEF should speak out against the abomination of unsustainable factory farming, and its effect on world hunger and access to food.

It's a mistake when humanitarian and environmental organizations choose a menu that puts their addictions more in line with the food spread at a banquet of Texas Oil men in Amarillo than those fighting for peace, justice and the poor of the world.

HIGH STEAKS

It is a given that upper echelon humanitarian and environmental agencies are highly dependent on donations from the wealthy for their survival. Likewise, meat has for centuries been a symbol of that status and wealth—and standard fare at banquets and fundraisers.

The dilemma is obvious. It's pervasive in universities, centres of research, schools and wherever else the need for food and funds are entwined.   We all feel the crunch. Who will pay and why?

Bart Simpson summed it up in conversation with his environmentally conscious sister Lisa: "All normal people love meat.  If I went to a barbeque and there was no meat, I would say, 'Yo Goober! Where's the meat?' I'm trying to impress people here, Lisa.  You don't win friends with salad."

For all Bart's brilliance—and god knows I love him—should he be the integrity monitor for international organizations and NGOs looking after the welfare of the world?

Food is at the core of human existence and well-being. Without good food, what else matters? As far as we know, not even love matters without food.

Environmental and humanitarian groups need to make the complete jump (so simple in the West) to supporting and practicing what they plead for—sustainable, humane living.

Imagine the insanity of a banquet for the abolition of slavery where all the waiters were slaves. Imagine a "Cure for Cancer" banquet that included the handing out of expensive after dinner Cuban cigars. Imagine women being barred from a banquet in support of the Suffragette Movement.(i)

Imagine people at a banquet to raise money to diminish human suffering, yet being served food produced through the systemic abuse of animals—and liking it.

Imagine people at a banquet hell-bent on raising money for the environment while eating food full of unnecessary chemicals and produced in a way that causes great damage to the earth.

It would be tragic if the likes of the Sierra Club, UNICEF and hundreds of other remarkable humanitarian and environmental organizations were to one day look back in shame and regret at their complicity with and silence at the massive moral and practical side-effects of factory farming.

***

Speaking of silence, I hope Al Gore's upcoming film—An Inconvenient Truth—on global warming turns the tide on my generalized opinions and addresses the environmental disaster of unsustainable factory farming.

After everything the former Vice President didn't say during the 2000 presidential campaign, and what's happened to America since, it would be amazing if he were to speak against this unconscionable suffering.

After all, the term An Inconvenient Truth speaks directly to that ironic and futile moment when we humans sit down at our meal of foie gras, prime rib, bacon and eggs or chicken cordon bleu, and begin both stuffing our face and blurting our hypocritical diatribe (as I have just done) against all the ills that have befallen the world as we know it.

For those of us who know we are so fortunate, we are so fortunate.

Which brings us back to our old ex-cattle rancher friend Howard Lyman. Howard said changing peoples' perception is like putting on coats of paint—you never know which one is going to finish the job.

In the Philosophy of Civilization, Albert Schweitzer wrote: "We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals.  Animals suffer as much as we do.  True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them.  It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it.  Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace."

Keep painting, Howard.

 

Photo: Chris Wayatt

Notes:

(i) As absurd as "...women being barred from a banquet in support of the Suffragette Movement..." sounds, at an 1840 Anti-Slavery Conference in London, men controlling the convention refused to offer seating for speaker Lucretia Mott and other women delegates. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was there—and outraged.

It has been said that at this moment Ms. Mott vowed to fight for the rights of women—modeled on the methods of the Anti-Slavery Movement. Eight years later, Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were at the forefront of the first ever Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. From here came better educational and employment opportunities, and the Women's Suffrage movement leading to the eventual right to vote.

To this day men are unsure (depending on their political leanings and/or stupidity), whether it is wise or unwise to give up a seat to a woman.

I'm sure there are a few people in the States who still wish no one had said a word about the seat Rosa Parks chose to stay seated in at the front end of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Dec 1, 1955.

Sometimes little actions have big consequences.

Speaking of the Anti-Slavery Movement, Howard Lyman also told a story that night about John Newton (1725-1807), the writer of the more than famous hymn Amazing Grace .

This version of the story goes: John Newton, captain of a Trans-Atlantic slave ship, was carrying a full cargo of shackled slaves back to America when a dangerous swell put the ship in peril. Surrounded by the possibility of death, Newton vowed on board to never again transport slaves; he became a Christian, wrote Amazing Grace and spent the rest of his days fighting for the abolition of slavery.

Historian and writer Adam Hochschild, who wrote Bury the Chains and the painful King Leopold's Ghost, uncovered a different story.

For starters, Newton wrote Amazing Grace while still a slave ship captain.

And to continue the theme of absurd, even woeful, contradictions, the devout Newton supposedly would give Christian sermons on deck to his crew while the "African cargo" languished just below the prayers, chained and packed in the ship's throbbing bowels (no light, no movement, no rights, no hope, nobody to hear their human anguish—notice the similarities to factory farming (slaughterhouses), which supposedly also inspired Henry Ford's assembly lines).

Newton eventually left the slave industry for not moral but health reasons. He became rector of a church in London. For thirty years or so, he said barely a word about slavery, until a radical, relentlessly rabble-rousing, largely forgotten hero by the name of Thomas Clarkson came to see him.

Clarkson aroused some latent remorse in Newton, who at least wrote a pamphlet and gave a few anti-slavery sermons—contributing in its way to that great moral train valiantly chugging and coughing towards universal freedom.

That freedom train has stopped (even broken down) at so many awe-inspiring stations, picking up stories of courage, goodness, fear and hope, picking up people of every age, colour, gender, ability, language, religion and thought. She's even peeked over the mountain top a time or two—but is yet a long way from home.

I just imagined a grazing, happy old cow, lazily looking up and mooing in gratitude for a long life as the freedom train zoomed by.

Mooing back, my eyes got a little teary.

 

 

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack