Will this utopia be possible?
Is it possible to live in harmony with non-human animals?
A simple question, which by the very name of our project, seems impossible, of an unreachable utopia. Now and then, observing the world in its most traditional, rural corners, looking at the rural family, I realize the limitations of a vegan utopia that permeates the whole of society, or at least a normative part of it, as today it is the norm the consumption of animal products. It is not a simple debate.
I watched the beautiful documentary “Honeyland” (2019) about a traditional Albanian beekeeper and the conflicts that the arrival of other opportunistic beekeepers and ranchers cause in her life. The faithful portrait, documented over a certain period of time inserted in the regional culture, is impressive: their joys and difficulties, their life goals, their life conditions… there, ancient practices of cultivation of bees for the extraction of honey and of honey beans, partly for their own consumption and partly for sale in the city market. The limit between sustainable and destructive exploration is part of the film’s proposal, and it is up to each viewer to interpret it, I recommend watching it. For me, however, it was clear that the exploration of another species, although well intentioned and based on a basic subsistence, can never be sustainable in the long term, nor respectful in the short term.
Removing half of the food produced by the hive, granting the other half to its survival is perceived as a benevolent act towards these incredible beings, which it is in truth another way of animal exploitation. Bees don´t produce honey for another species, their production is solely for their own sustenance. Any justification that does not acknowledge this natural fact is conscience washing.
However, when such an act is described as a true act of survival and social subsistence, it generates empathy and asks for understanding. How would it be possible to change the reality of peasants who remove their livelihood from such practices? A transition to vegetable cultivation in such dry lands is certainly more difficult, but will it be impossible? Would peasants from such places be forced to migrate? And who, with what authority, with what communication means could implement such a drastic change from animal exploitation to vegetable cultivation? Would demand follow the new offer at an equal pace? Would those who would delay this transition be respected, so as not to be excluded or stigmatized? These questions have no easy answer, but they sure can have a solution, if society perceives this scenario as a problem.
©Vitor Schietti & Mihai Cetean
On another occasion, while visiting a dear Portuguese uncle in northern Portugal, I thought about the sheep cheese producers in Serra da Estrela. It is a tradition that resists mechanization processes and has shaped the region’s social rules and ecosystem for centuries. Sheep raised in wide pastures are cared for, milked and finally killed, as will the destiny of their young. Its owners, mostly of families that maintain the tradition for generations, buy their food, pay for their clothes and home expenses and arrange for the present and future of their children from the profit derived from milking, wool extraction and slaughter for the meat of animals (one of the largest markets being that of lambs, that is, male calves that are slaughtered with less than 30 days old).
Imagining a Serra da Estrela without the traditional production of its cheese and lamb is unthinkable for the Portuguese, it even sounds like an offense. The familiar character of the business developed there is better accepted among consumers precisely because it offers conditions to animals that are, without a doubt, better than those practiced by the large cattle industry. The ordinary Portuguese citizen will defend the tradition and also say that the animals that are part of it are resigned to their social function, that they offer us their milk (and their meat) willingly in exchange for food, protection from natural predators and from the weather. Not only Portuguese citizens, but any cheese consumer will believe that there is no harm caused to animals in such system. It will cost them to see, and even if it is clearly shown, it will cost them to admit that the consumption of cheese, even when originated in a more respectful milking than that practiced on a large scale, necessarily implies the premature inflicted death of half of the animals born in this system (the males), and also the inflicted death, albeit late, of the other half.
No animal born within that system will know what freedom is, just like their parents, their grandparents, and hundreds of generations past.
But before defending the animals, the Portuguese citizen or that of any other country, will fraternally defend the local producers who keep few animals, who do everything manually, producing little impact on the environment and that they could not (nor would they wish) to live otherwise. They will say that this lifestyle is harmless, and that as a cultural heritage it has an internationally acclaimed gastronomic value, and an essential social value as well.
It is not a simple question, but neither is it insoluble. As Corine Pelluchon rightly points out in her book “Animalistic Manifesto”, “It is clear that people who work in these sectors and have invested years of study, their reputation, their money and their energies, will feel very damaged by the suppression of these practices. They will not want to attend to the reasons, at least in the beginning. For this reason, it is essential that each proposal to ban these activities be accompanied by a plan that includes the recycling of the people involved. They must receive financial benefits and help to make such recycling possible “(p.92 Pelluchon, Corine. 2018).
In 2016 I was hired by a bank foundation to photograph local milk producers in the municipality of Batalha, in the interior of the state of Alagoas, Brazil. I was curious to see up close how animals that were part of the “ideal” scenario that so many defend as an argument against veganism were treated: the cow raised on free grazing, hand-milked, the backyard chicken…
The low sophistication of the breeding and milking processes corresponds, in the common imagination, to a synonym of better living conditions and respect for the animal, which is not the case. Although well treated within the paradigm of what it means to treat a dairy cow or beef cattle well, the animals are also in pain and their lives don’t belong to themselves. The cow is being kept separate from the calf, which is brought to suck from her teats for a few seconds, enough to relax the cow and allow for a more efficient milking while the calf is tied to her front legs, which does not allow it to breastfeed but leaves it close enough for the cow to intuit that her calf, and not human hands, are drawing milk from her breasts, a common practice portrayed in this video. The low incidence of rain in the semi-arid region prevents the growth of grasses and pasture. The cattle in the region, therefore, depend on rations to grow and remain healthy, both for slaughter and for milk production. The rations were prepared from a species of cactus, the forage palm, of origin in Mexico, which is widely grown in the region. Other elements are added to it to meet the animal’s nutritional needs, which requires high water consumption, a scarce resource in the region. Just as humans have adapted to environments not conducive to their prosperity, domestic animals rely on human action on such ecosystems and thus lead them to unnatural lives.
Whenever human choices determine the living conditions of other species, relations of responsibility and co-existence must be observed. In none of the relationships between humans and non-human animals created for slaughter or milking, this responsibility and coexistence seem to bring benefits to the animal in equal measure than to its human usurper. This human is not of a bad nature, they are not cruel and insensitive men and women, as we discussed in the article Happy Swiss Cows, but who do not know any other way of subsisting and who have been accustomed, since their birth, to animal exploitation as something absolutely natural.
And just like that traditions are perpetuated, they gain the status of untouchables, and for millennia, animals are systematically exploited.
In conversations about veganism I am often told that the real problem is the big industry. That mass consumption, and therefore mass production, are the true villains of history, in a capitalist scenario that optimizes profits while minimizing living conditions for exploited non-human animals (and often, also humans, hostages in this production chain). I disagree with that argument. The root problem is the understanding that tradition translates as permission to continue making mistakes from the past. Animal exploitation is unjustifiable as long as it is possible, with equal or even less effort, to gain access to a healthy vegan diet. The social, economic and political implications that support the maintenance of these animal exploitation traditions are wide and complex to be debated, but the problem has always remained the same: animals should not exist to be exploited. We have an individual choice not to participate in this exploitation. Discussing veganism as a public policy is urgent, but even more urgent is the individual change we can make, and from it, naturally extend the invitation to change our family, friends and co-workers. This change in posture and habits does not depend on foreign policies, nor on traditions, nor on factors other than self will and information.
Returning to the initial question, the answer seems to be that it is possible to live in harmony with non-human animals, the bigger question is whether we’ll understand in time the need for this as it still seems to be a remote possibility. Upon a closer look it is not difficult to see that bees in Albania would be thriving if they were left in peace in their natural environments and not deprived of half of their honey production, that the sheep of the Serra da Estrela could experience a really free life grazing by hills, some dying of old age, others hunted by the Iberian wolf, which was already common in the region but whose population was reduced by hunting and loss of habitat, and that cows do not belong to the Brazilian semiarid, while the palm inserted in the region to feed them can also be used as human food, and thus provide nutrients directly instead of reaching these humans after being transformed by the body of another animal only for the sake of taste and tradition. In the end, freeing bees, sheep, cows and all other animals subject to human exploitation, will allow us to perceive how we too would benefit from no longer carrying the heavy burden of subjugation and the death of billions of animals each year. Billions of lives that cease unnecessarily in our hands.
A vegan utopia is as possible as we want it to be. The choice is ours, and it is renewed with each meal.