Wednesday, August 10, 2016

"Animal empathy enlightenment" and how to attain it

A couple of months ago I wrote an entry about how when it comes to our treatment of the animals around us, it’s impossible to force someone to be more empathetic. As I stated back then, this doesn’t mean we should do nothing, but rather that we should find more effective ways to let someone know about the steps they could take to treat our animal friends more fairly.

When it comes to the right way to treat animals, there are different levels of realization. Some of us are further along in our realization, while others are lagging behind. I’ve always equated one’s awakening to the suffering of animals with the Buddhist concept of enlightenment, or other similar concepts such as "moksha" in Hinduism. I like to call this specific awakening to animal suffering "animal empathy enlightenment", the attainment of which usually leads us to adopt a meat-free diet, and to want to act to improve our relationship with the rest of the animal world.

The thing to remember here is that there is a big difference between a theoretical appreciation of the concept, and a true realization thereof. I can tell you that animals should be treated more fairly, and you can agree with this, in theory, but until you begin to truly understand the scope of the unfairness, and begin to empathize with the animals experiencing it, you might still make excuses. Like many others, you might continue to live in that disconnected reality where you claim to "love animals”, but still eat them and partake in activities that make them suffer and/or die.

A true realization goes deeper. Much like true enlightenment makes it impossible to "unrealize" certain things, so the "AEE" leads to a deep-seated resolve to treat animals more fairly, to not eat meat, to help animals whenever we can.

But how does someone go about attaining this state of mind? There are three things we can do to help make this happen. First, think about the suffering that animals have to endure every day. Really think about it. If you meditate, meditate on it. Think about the fear, confusion, and suffering that millions of animals all around the world are subjected to daily. Sometimes it helps to visualize this suffering by viewing videos that depict the suffering of animals. There is a lot of injustice out there – a lot of times animals are treated in ways that range from unfair to downright barbaric. If the videos that you watch make you feel sorry for the animals, or they cause a "this is just wrong" reaction in you, you're on your way to tapping into a higher state of consciousness.

Second, help animals any way you can. Whenever you take in a stray dog or cat, buy a bag of food for an animal rescue organization, or donate your time to an animal rights related charity, you are helping animals to survive. This is a very positive thing to do. Thinking about the good that you are doing will, in many cases, make you feel better. If you get involved directly, you will most likely begin to feel some empathy and compassion for the animals that you're helping. Afterwards, the fulfillment that comes with seeing how the suffering and sadness is minimized when someone cares enough to make a difference can help grow your bond with animals as well. Think about how the things that you are doing are making the animals happy, and how even though they can’t always communicate this to you, they are grateful.

Third, adopt a plant-based diet. Eating meat (as well as dairy and eggs) pulls us into a vicious cycle which requires more and more killing. Apart from the most important benefit -- not taking the lives of sentient beings -- breaking free from the meat-machine is positive on several levels: it’s good for your health, it’s good for the environment, and we no longer have to deal with the negative consequences of partaking in a very negative action. Even if you haven't attained "animal empathy enlightenment", a plant-based diet can really help you get there.

So there you have it, three simple steps you can take today to improve how you treat animals, and to create a better world both for them and yourself. Why not take the first one today?

Monday, June 13, 2016

The treatment of animals in the Balkans

I recently got back from a trip to the Balkans. The region is a diverse one, both visually (beautiful beaches, breathtaking mountains, rolling hills), and culturally. Most tourists are rightfully impressed by what is one of Europe’s most interesting areas. There is also a much more negative word associated with the region, - violence. The Balkans have seen major wars and genocides as recently as 20 years ago. Even now, there is still a lot of tension (and hatred) between ethnic groups, and one can’t help but fear that another conflict could happen at some point in the future. I’ve always believed that violence begets violence. Eliminating violence and showing compassion will help us to create a more harmonious society. Not showing compassion and engaging in violent behavior will lead to a more cruel, less harmonious society. The way we treat animals also falls under this rule. An uncaring/violent treatment of animals will result in a society that is uncaring/violent. There are two measuring sticks for this treatment. The first is how we treat our homeless animals (usually dogs and cats), and the second is how many people have progressed to vegetarianism or veganism in a given society. Not surprisingly, most countries in the Balkans would receive a low grade on both accounts.

In regards to the first measuring stick, many of the Balkan countries lag behind in the ethical treatment of stray animals. Countries such as Romania, Serbia, and Albania (among others) have a horrible reputation when it comes to the treatment of stray dogs, and in some cases cats as well. Abandonment rates are relatively high, and because the animals that roam the streets are often seen as a nuisance, they are either poisoned or killed in a variety of other barbaric ways. Catch and release spay and neuter programs do exist, but on a relatively small scale, and not everywhere. Animal protection laws are few and far between, as are laws penalizing animal abusers. Some countries in the region (Slovenia and Croatia come to mind) have taken steps in the right direction, but most others have not done enough. Many people will blame poverty for this phenomenon, but I beg to differ. It’s all about priorities. Many of the same city governments that complain about having no money for such programs end up building lavish new buildings, monuments and stadiums that serve no altruistic purpose whatsoever. Look at all the new buildings and monuments being constructed in Skopje, Macedonia, for example. The money from one of these buildings could have been used to rid Skopje of its stray dog problem in a modern, ethical way. All this stems from one fact: The lives of these animals are not as respected as they are in countries where a more ethical treatment is the norm. To change this, one would have to implement a wide-ranging education campaign to change the way people see these animals, programs encouraging adoption, as well as laws to make sure abusers get punished. Since the government isn’t doing anything, you’d think that private organizations would step up (like they do in other countries). Although there are more animal protection and animal rescue organizations these days in the region than there were before, many of these are rather ineffective. Unfortunately, from what my sources in these countries tell me, a good number of these organizations are corrupt themselves.

As for the second measuring stick of empathy, things aren’t much better. Vegetarianism and veganism are not very popular in the Balkans. Many countries can be described as having a “meat-centric” diet, but this is doubly true there. Look at any menu board outside pretty much any restaurant in the region and all you’ll see is meat, meat, and more meat. For someone with a strong sense of empathy, this is a very sad phenomenon. The typical unethical, carnivorous tourist will praise the hearty local food, but what are they really praising? Tolstoy once said that “while there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields”. The more meat-centric a society is, the more suffering there will be in that society. Like I mentioned above, violence begets violence, so there will be some kind of repayment required for the suffering we cause these sentient beings. By engaging in cruel, violent, or even simply uncaring behavior towards other sentient beings, we are planting a very negative seed, one which will inevitably grow into a negative effect. People in the Balkans, like everywhere else, are proud of their traditions. But any tradition that involves causing others to suffer and die should be left behind for us to progress as humans and to build a more peaceful society. Showing kindness to animals is as important as showing kindness to other humans. An easy way to show kindness is to stop killing them for food.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m saying that all the people in the Balkans hate and/or abuse animals. There are plenty of people I’ve personally met there who truly love animals, and many who love them so much that (like me) they no longer eat them. Still, there is a lot to be done in that region to minimize animal suffering, more so than in many other places I’ve visited. Ultimately, how we treat other animals is a good measuring stick of how advanced we are as a society. The first step to a more civilized, compassionate society is to take care of our homeless animals; to lower their numbers in a humane way, and to implement a strategy to prevent the problem from resurfacing in the future. The next step in the evolutionary process is to come to the realization that, ultimately, we don’t need meat to survive. This is harder for most people, but it is a step that we should consider taking, one that we should be strong enough to take, both for our own benefit, and for the benefit of the animals with whom we share the planet.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lab meat - how ethical is it?

In the past year or so, I've come across several articles about an incredible new discovery - the ability to cultivate meat in a laboratory. Instead of killing an animal to get meat, this new process "grows" the meat in a laboratory, so no killing is involved. Many have applauded this new breakthrough, and many of the same people have claimed that we have finally developed an ethical way of providing/eating meat. You no longer have to go vegetarian or vegan, people, you can now eat meat guilt-free. But is this really true?

First of all, there is something sinister about cloning. Whether it's a fruit, a live sheep (remember that one?), or a slab of meat, creating living things (or parts thereof) in the lab is generally disquieting. But let's say, for argument's sake, that we attribute this reaction to paranoia. Let's ignore the fact that this might be very hard to sustain (much harder than growing natural plant-based alternatives to meat). Let's ignore the fact that this is simply genetic modification (which itself is rightfully getting a lot of slack) taken to scary new levels. This still leaves us with my second (and more important) point: The fact that meat is created in a lab doesn't make it completely ethical. Sure, no killing is involved, but you are still eating the flesh of an animal, even though the animal never existed. Let me put it this way: would you eat the flesh of a dog if it were cultivated in the same way? Or a cat? A person like myself would never go back to eating meat for this exact reason. Why would I want to remind myself of the dead flesh of an animal, when I have so many natural plant-based products I can eat? Let's not forget the fact that this meat isn't created from scratch. The culture used to make it comes from the necks of living cows, and is then covered with the blood of dead calves... Yum. In my opinion, this simply reinforces bad habits, especially one of our worst habits - our addiction to meat. It reinforces (albeit semi-subversively) the idea that eating meat is OK or even necessary. This is contrary to what many people like myself believe - that transitioning to a plant-based diet represents progress for the individual and for the world in general. It'll be hard to progress if you still crave the flesh of animals. If you really want to change yourself and the world around you, focus instead on transitioning to a diet that is truly cruelty-free - a plant-based one.

So, no, I won't be trying the lab meat. Having said that, I do see some value in developing it. I believe that this could be effective as part of a greater strategy to get to all those hopeless cases that claim that they'll never even try a veggie burger as long as they live. While you can't force "ethical Neanderthals" to eat plant-based food, you can ban the killing of animals and then ONLY provide lab meat (at very high prices) to them. Sure, they'll complain a whole lot, but at least they'll have their "meat", and no animals will be killed in the process. This is something I would get behind.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Does vegetarianism/veganism cause psychological disorders?

There are many excuses that people give for eating meat, eggs, and dairy. Some of these focus on the supposed health risks to those who omit these items from their diet. One that I came across recently was that those of us who do not consume meat or animal products run a greater risk of becoming depressed, developing anxiety issues, etc. In other words: Veganism can lead to psychological disorders.

There have been several studies in the past little while done on this subject. Two that are often quoted are a German study from 2012 and an Australian one from 2014. There might be others; I'm not sure. The above-mentioned studies do show that there is a stronger incidence of some psychological problems, including depression and anxiety, among vegetarians and vegans.

Before you carnivores start doing a victory dance over the carcass of the poor murdered animal you're about to eat, consider the following points: Neither of the studies determined that a meat-free diet CAUSED the above-mentioned problems, only that there was a higher incidence of these problems in those who didn't eat meat. In fact, the German study concluded that "there was no evidence for a causal role of (a) vegetarian diet in the etiology of mental disorders." This study went on to state that many if not most of the participants had been diagnosed with said conditions BEFORE they switched to a meat-free diet. Does this conclusion mean that vegetarians are at least more prone to certain psychological issues? Possibly, but not because of our diet. Many people stop eating meat because they are sensitive, compassionate individuals. Is it really so strange that a sensitive person in a desensitized world would be more prone to anxiety, depression, etc.? Not really. Is it really so strange that a person who empathizes with the plight of animals could eventually break down when faced with the overwhelming lack of empathy from all around? Not really. It is easier to go through life with thick skin. I don't have scientific proof that people who don't let the evils of the world get to them too much are less prone to the above-mentioned ailments, but this would seem logical. But what about the folks who go vegetarian for health reasons? In relation to the study above, some of them might have done so because of an exaggerated concern about their health, something that could easily stem from a pre-existing psychological issue as well.

The truth of the matter is, there is no direct proof that not eating meat makes one more susceptible to developing psychological disorders. There is no proof because there is no direct causal relationship between the two. Some of my friends know that I had problems with anxiety a couple of years ago. Some might have even thought that this was because of my meat-free diet. Well, it wasn't. What most of my friends don't know is that I had the same problems in my mid-20s, back when I ate meat regularly.

To be fair, I'm not arguing that all vegetarians and vegans are perfectly healthy individuals. In fact, it is sometimes a challenge for some of us to obtain nutrients that are easily available in meat (things such as iron, B12, etc.), especially when we first make the switch. If someone is not careful, it is possible that a prolonged absence of certain nutrients might lead to physical and/or psychological problems. Thankfully, we live in times when a simple internet search will give you quick and easy ways to make sure you're getting all the nutrients you need. My B12 levels are through the roof, as are my iron levels (too high, in fact). I know a couple of people whose iron levels INCREASED when they went vegan. Whether you eat meat or not, a balanced diet is key, and a little bit of research goes a long way to making sure that your diet is balanced enough to ensure you're healthy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Enjoying life

Recently, a friend wrote me with some bad news. Someone she knew had died, somewhat unexpectedly. After describing what had happened, she concluded with a "Life is short, so let's enjoy it." I completely agree that life is, indeed, short, and that we can never know what's going to happen. I also agree that enjoying life, and being able to appreciate what we have, is important. Having said that, it's also important to remember that, while enjoying life, we should keep our egotism in check, and that we should not enjoy it at the expense of others.

It would be a bit short-sighted if all we learned from life's sadder moments was "let's just have fun". Instead of taking a step towards hedonism, these types of events should remind us of the pressing need to engage in charity. For people like me, the meaning of life is very much connected to the act of helping others - other people and/or animals. A tragedy should remind us that other human beings and animals suffer a great deal as well, and that we should not put off actively helping whenever we can, while we still can.

This, of course, does not mean that we should abstain from any kind of mindless fun. Mindless fun can be quite enjoyable. From an ethical point of view, however, there is a difference between (relatively) harmless mindless fun and harmful mindless fun. If I wake up one morning, and decide that I'm just not spontaneous enough, it would be wrong for me to go and walk the streets and just start punching people in the face. Sure, this is pretty spontaneous, but there are countless other ways of being unpredictable without inflicting violence on innocent passers-by. If I suddenly decide that I need some excitement in my life, it would be wrong to go and become a bullfighter, since this, although exciting, promotes the torture and killing of innocent animals. Again, there are countless other ways to get our heart pumping and our adrenaline flowing that don't involve making innocent beings suffer. If I want to try a new food, it shouldn't be meat, because killing a sentient being for the selfish pleasure of eating his/her flesh should simply no longer be acceptable in our day and age. The meat, dairy, and egg industries are responsible for an enormous amount of death and suffering that occurs in the world, so you would do well to avoid these products.

Life is, indeed, short. We can use this as a pretext to focus on our own needs, and to pursue selfish gratification. Historically, this has been the approach of most people, and look where it's gotten us. Alternatively, we can embrace a less selfish approach to life. After all, we only have a limited amount of time to learn to live ethically, to learn to be good human beings, to learn to not use and abuse the other creatures that we share the planet with. We only have a limited amount of time to see beyond our immediate needs and to reach out to help others. We only have a limited time to see beyond our conditioning and to break the bad habits that are destroying us and the world we live in. If this is what we remember and act on every time we're reminded that we won't be here forever, we will have achieved progress and instilled our lives with true meaning.