• Paul D. Wilke

The Great Circle of Life

One of the occasional justifications I hear for eating meat goes something like this: "Hey man, it's just part of 'the great circle of life.' Animals eat plants and we eat animals and then we die and feed the plants and it's always been that way and always will."

Or something like that.

Reasoning like this has always bothered me as lending a wee bit of phony spiritualism to what really is just a lazy taste preference. My response, never more than an unspoken thought bubble, goes something like this.

"Really, if you're getting your meat from the grocery store, or ordering off a menu, you are in no way participating in any 'circle of life.' You're not Chief Running Bear leading a hunting party to feed your tribe for the winter. Your modern backyard grillmaster skills are a vestige of that time long ago when hardy folk really did participate in the great circle of life. You're utterly alienated from that circle today by virtue of being alienated from the process that got that little slab of flesh to your plate. You're little more than a consumer, a shopper, a gustatory machine that wants what it wants and wants it now with extra pepperoni. If it feels good, if it tastes good, it must be good. You're not part of any circle of life, you're part of the law of supply and demand. And yeah, I know, that just doesn't have the same ring to it, does it, Chief Running Bear?"

Or something like that.

This process of alienation actually de-individualizes both product and consumer. If your bacon double cheeseburger is the carefully packaged and marketed end product of what were originally sentient creatures, then you as consumer have been carefully conditioned to understand as little of that unsavory process as possible. Savvy marketing with happy cartoon cows frolicking in happy cartoon meadows promote not understanding, but willful ignorance. Even if at some level people understand the misery that went into that bacon double cheeseburger, it's important they do not think about it too much and for too long. And so they end up bombarded by variations of these conscience-saving themes: 'It's the circle of life! Life feeds on life! It's natural. It's normal. It's necessary. I need my protein! Everyone does it, lions and tigers too.'

The consumer's illusion is that there is any real choice or freedom in the matter. In reality, those choices are narrowed down for you well beforehand by clever fellows who understand that people are not really free-thinking individuals operating rationally than they are culturally conditioned herd animals who want to choose from a menu of pre-selected options that satisfy biologically conditioned appetites. The assumption these clever fellows make is really just a cynical generalization about human nature - a bet, if you will - that your choices can be nudged for you while maintaining the illusion of limitless choice, and that you can be convinced that it is otherwise.

To put it another way, the market, by engaging in a never-ending competitive cycle of stimulus and response, finds out what the vast majority wants and then works hard to give it to them, all as cheap and convenient as possible. While this can be an ethical means to achieve ethical ends, it tends to cater to lowest common denominators, which happen to be our wants and desires. It's amoral. If you doubt me, drive past the nearest shopping center in your town and tell me what you see. It will almost certain be a sensory barrage of food to eat and shit to buy.

To be fair, this market-driven process works very well at giving us what we've been told we want. We look around and marvel at the great abundance. In that way, we truly live in a Golden Age of material plenty. But affluent societies like ours also risk slipping into a lazy, hedonistic kind of morality. We're protected from seeing how the sausage is made and the moral contradictions that go into that process. The saturated comfort we enjoy discourages the kind of hard personal reflection required to begin changing the status quo. Could it be our Golden Age has a little rot on the edges? The fear, of course, is that we've become comfortably numb, consuming to consume in a delicious cycle that never ends until our bodies break down, our arteries clog, and we can't do it anymore. That is not any circle of life, but a downward spiral.

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