Why It Cannot Be All About Me: My Consumer Choices Are Not Enough to Create a Sustainable World

cows at dusk

Living Sustainably: We all need to fight for our governments to deliver the broad-scale changes needed for us to live in a reasonable yet sustainable way.

By Christina De La Rocha

Isn’t it great that living sustainably is all about me and the choices that I make as a consumer. I can bike to work, eat fake meat, drink organic oat milk, tote around a reusable straw, and forgo fast fashion and the world will become a shiny, happy place, free from famine, war, hunger, poverty, injustice, pollution, ecological devastation, and climate change.

Right?

Absolutely.

Although every once in a while, reality intrudes into my sunny, fluffy cloud castle, interrupting the chorus of whatever lush showtune the songbirds and I have been chirping together in soaring seven part harmony.

Exhibit A: Last night, just before I went to bed, I caught ten minutes of a film Spouse was watching on Arte, the culturally enlightening German-French tv channel . Saigneurs, it was titled, which is French for bleeders (as in one who drains the blood out of something, like sap out of a rubber plant), although in English the film is called Slaughtered. It quietly, devastatingly documented what it is like to work inside a highly efficient, ultra-modern, thoroughly hygienic industrial slaughterhouse/butchery in northwestern France. On the offhand chance you’ve never heard of it, France is a country that takes great pride in splendid meals masterfully prepared from foodstuffs of exceptional quality. And yet even there there’s an abundance of abattoirs like the one in this film, where death and dismemberment occur with fast-paced efficiency so people can purchase vast quantities of meat at rock bottom prices. This ultra-efficiency happens, not at the expense of workplace safety (physically, at least) or at price of extra suffering per food animal, but at the cost of all living creatures that enter the facility being reduced by the plant owners and managers to nothing more than slabs of muscle, the pigs, cows, and chickens as meat and the workers as robots guiding flesh through the mechanized disassembly lines.

Never mind the still quivering corpses, the briefly boiled bodies, the heads, or the legs in constant motion, conveyed on hooks or belts from one side of the factory to another, the grim, repetitive work the people have to do at fast pace without break while wearing elbow length metal mesh gloves to stop their benumbed brains from chopping off their own hands is enough to push you over the edge into strict veganism. Stunning, hoisting, and cutting the throats of cows to bleed them out; sawing hanging disemboweled bodies in half and moving them along the assembly line; manhandling massive grass-filled pillows that turned out to be the stomachs of cows, washing them out; shoving what must have been 100 gutted chicken carcasses a minute individually onto the jutting prongs of a moving belt, lifting 75 to 100 chicken legs off an assembly line per minute packing them in orderly rows in flats; and so on and so on and so on so relentlessly the workers work the whole day without talking, not even under their breath to themselves, except during legally mandated coffee and lunch breaks. At night, instead of dreaming of their own future, they have screaming nightmares about all the killing and the blood and the endless slicing and dicing of what was just recently breathing into easily purchasable packets of flesh. The moment the poorly-paid workers, who aren’t protected by contracts, take time off for weariness or injury brought on by their job, they’re let go, no matter how many decades they’ve put in to the profits of that factory. Spouse was telling me that at least one of them, an old man, nearly crippled by the arthritis of decades in the abattoir, became an oyster fisherman and is happy now. But last I read (as in, yesterday) the oyster fishery and shellfish farms in northern France are closed at the moment, because the coastal municipalities have more toilet flushers than sewage treatment capacity and the local filter feeders all are filled with the norovirus.

And you think to yourself, how has it come to this when I have been a vegetarian for 32 years. My lifestyle choice didn’t so much as dent the trend towards overconsumption of super cheap meat that led to the race to the bottom that these utterly unfeeling, hyper-efficient slaughterhouses represent (or is it vice versa?). And I could take that last step and go totally vegan and flexitarian Spouse could eat only our own chickens and their eggs, buy all his beef from the part-time farmer neighbors of ours who raise a handful of cows in a sweet, grassy field at the end of our street, and obtain all his pork from the local organic farmer whose pigs live in stalls right there in the open air where you can see what sort of conditions they live in and it still wouldn’t change anything. The farmers who raise cows, chickens, and pigs in ammonia-choked conditions literally away from the light of day and ship them by the truckloads to super-efficient slaughter houses won’t even notice we’re not buying in to their paradigm. Because supporting a niche does not stop the wrong stuff from happening. Only legal standards do that. And so long as it is legally possible to run slaughtering and butchering facilities that are so efficient, the humans working in them don’t even have a spare moment to smile or talk to each other, this breakdown in our contract with domesticated animals and the people who live with us in our own societies will continue. But what politician has the courage to stand up to the voting public (not to mention the agricultural lobby) and say, “I’m here to make your meat more expensive! Because, shame on you. You shouldn’t be eating it every single day of the week.”

living sustainably, tree hugging

Exhibit B: This morning, I woke up and read an article in the Guardian about booking passage on a cargo ship across the Atlantic to keep your personal carbon emission record, if not pristine, at least not so superlatively egregious. Because we can all spend three times the price (apparently, it’s at least 100 euros a night) and 45 times the time (it takes about 15 days one way) crossing the Atlantic on freighters instead of taking a flight (each leg of  round trip costing about 400 euros and taking about 8 hours). And even if we all could, does the shipping industry have berths for the thousands of people making this flight every day?

Sorry, but this is not a real solution to overseas travel’s very real greenhouse gas emissions problem. Figuring out how to make carbon neutral fuels is.

So, go on, live your green lifestyle by all means. I keep plugging away at mine because we should all be doing the best that we can. But that alone is not enough. We also need to keep pressing for system change. We all need to keep clamoring for our governments to serve us by delivering the broad-scale, top down changes that are needed so that we can all live reasonably modern lives in a way that makes as much room for all the other inhabitants of Earth as possible.

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