Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The market and the inhumane economy

Years ago, when I was teaching at Bakersfield, the university invited the philosopher Peter Singer to give a public talk.  The community, of whom a significant percentage is uber-conservative, made it clear that there would be protests because of Singer's controversial stands.  Anticipating a huge turnout, the event was not held in the small auditorium but was instead moved to the basketball court.  And, the police were there in numbers.

Since then, every once in a while I have come across Singer's essays and have always found them to be thought-provoking, even if I didn't always agree with him.  In the New York Review of Books, Singer has reviewed The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals.  Well, it is not really a review essay because he spends way more time talking about his own ideas and works more than the book that is under review; nonetheless, it is an essay that is full of interesting and challenging ideas and facts about rights of animals, especially the ones who are farmed for human consumption.

Singer's concern is about the animal-derived foods that we humans consume in greater and greater amounts:
consumers buy factory-farmed animal products, either despite knowing what factory farming is like for the animals they eat, or without even asking what it is like.
Don't jump up to blame capitalism, he writes:
Speciesism, which leaves so many of us indifferent to the interests of animals, predates capitalism. It survives revolutions that lead to alternative economic systems, whether they be the state communism of the former Soviet Union or the more idealistic socialism of the Israeli kibbutzim.
As long as we consider other life forms inferior to humans, well, we kill them and eat, or confine them in cages before we will them.  In short, we don't treat them as life forms.  One of the many issues Singer discusses there is this:
The problems of chicken production are not simply due to the fact that the birds are raised in vast crowded sheds, in air reeking of ammonia from their accumulated droppings. The more fundamental problem is that today’s chickens have been bred to grow three times as fast as chickens raised in the 1950s. Now they are ready for market when they are just six weeks old and their immature legs cannot handle the weight they gain. As a result, according to Webster, about one third of them are in chronic pain for the last third of their lives.
Given there are eight billion chickens raised for meat in the US every year, that means 2.6 billion birds are experiencing chronic pain for the last two weeks of their lives. Industry reports and scientific journals provide evidence that each year 139 million chickens don’t even make it to slaughter. Their legs collapse under them and, unable to move or reach food and water, they die of thirst or they starve. Or they simply cannot cope with the conditions they are living in, and their hearts give out. Or they die from the stress of being rounded up, thrown into cages, and transported to the slaughterhouses. In one way or another, they suffer to death.6 The humane economy has yet to have an impact on this huge industry and the unimaginable quantity of suffering it creates.
If one thinks, believes, that animals like chicken do not have any rights, and that humans can (ab)use them in any form, then there is no place for discussions.  I would think that such a group will be in the minority.  A good chunk of the population will feel uncomfortable when faced with the tortures that chicken are put through.
Do Americans care less about animals? The Californian experience suggests they do not. When Californian voters were given the opportunity to express their views on whether it should be permissible to prevent farm animals from turning around or stretching their limbs, they overwhelmingly said no. (This was the year in which Barack Obama was first elected president, and California was one of his strongest states, yet more Californians voted to give freedom of movement to farm animals [63 percent] than voted for Obama [61 percent]).
Will science and technology, along with philanthropists and citizens, deliver a humane economy?


Ramesh said...

One of the fundamental tenets of capitalism is full and complete information. Markets work best in as close to perfect information as possible. Publicity on the way factory bred animals are treated will make people take the right choices according to their values. As you say people who are completely OK with the way chicken are treated are a very small minority. Campaigns informing people on the way their food is raised is the best way to address the problem, I suggest.

Posts like this are a contribution to the "cause" !

Sriram Khé said...

Yes ... but such campaigns are usually the proverbial preaching to the choir. We humans are also very good at closing ourselves from stuff that we know can be troubling!

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