February 22, 2007
To any thinking person, it must be obvious there is something terribly wrong with relations between human beings and the animals they rely on for food. It must also be obvious that in the past 100 or 150 years, whatever is wrong has become wrong on a huge scale, as traditional animal husbandry has been turned into an industry using industrial methods of production.
There are many other ways in which our relationship with animals is wrong (to name two: the fur trade and experimentation on animals in laboratories), but the food industry, which turns living animals into what it euphemistically calls animal products and by-products, dwarfs all others in the number of individual animal lives it affects.
The vast majority of the public has an equivocal attitude to the industrial use of animals: they make use of the products of that industry, but are nevertheless a little sickened, a little queasy, when they think of what happens on factory farms and abattoirs. Therefore they arrange their lives in such a way that they need be reminded of farms and abattoirs as little as possible, and they do their best to ensure their children are kept in the dark too, because children have tender hearts and are easily moved.
The transformation of animals into production units dates back to the late 19th century, and since that time we have already had one warning on the grandest scale that there is something deeply, cosmically wrong with regarding and treating fellow beings as mere units of any kind.
This warning came so loud and clear that one would have thought it impossible to ignore. It came when, in the 20th century, a group of powerful and bloody-minded men in Germany hit on the idea of adapting the methods of the industrial stockyard, as pioneered and perfected in Chicago, to the slaughter – or what they preferred to call the processing – of human beings.
Of course we cried out in horror when we found out what they had been up to. What a terrible crime to treat human beings like cattle – if we had only known beforehand. But our cry should more accurately have been: what a terrible crime to treat human beings like units in an industrial process. And that cry should have had a postscript: what a terrible crime – come to think of it, a crime against nature – to treat any living being like a unit in an industrial process.
It would be a mistake to idealise traditional animal husbandry as the standard by which the animal products industry falls short. Traditional animal husbandry is brutal enough, just on a smaller scale. A better standard by which to judge both practices would be the simple standard of humanity: is this truly the best that humans are capable of?
The efforts of the animal rights movement – the broad movement that situates itself on the spectrum somewhere between the meliorism of the animal welfare bodies and the radicalism of animal liberation – are rightly directed at decent people who both know and don’t know that there is something going on that stinks to high heaven.
These are people who will say: "Yes, it’s terrible what lives brood sows live; it’s terrible what lives veal calves live," but who will add, with a helpless shrug of the shoulders – "what can I do about it?"
The task of the movement is to offer such people imaginative but practical options for what to do next after they have been revolted by a glimpse of the lives factory animals live and the deaths they die. People need to see that there are alternatives to supporting the animal products industry.
These alternatives need not involve any sacrifice in health or nutrition, and there is no reason why these alternatives need be costly. Furthermore, what are commonly called sacrifices are not sacrifices at all. The only sacrifices in the whole picture, in fact, are being made by non-human animals.
In this respect, children provide the brightest hope. Children have tender hearts – that is to say children have hearts that have not yet been hardened by years of cruel and unnatural battering. Given half a chance, children see through the lies with which advertisers bombard them (the happy chooks that are transformed painlessly into succulent nuggets, the smiling moo-cow that donates to us the bounty of her milk). It takes but one glance into a slaughterhouse to turn a child into a lifelong vegetarian.
Factory farming is a new phenomenon – very new indeed in the history of animal husbandry. The good news is that after a couple of decades of what the businessmen behind it must have regarded as free and unlimited expansion, the industry has been forced onto the defensive.
The activities of animals-rights organisations have shifted the onus onto the industry to justify its practices, and because they are indefensible and unjustifiable except on the most narrow economic grounds ("Do you want to pay $1.50 more for a dozen eggs?"), the industry is battening down hatches and hoping the storm will blow itself out. Insofar as there was a public relations war, the industry has already lost that war.
A final note. The campaign of human beings for animal rights is curious in one respect: the creatures on whose behalf human beings are acting are unaware of what their benefactors are up to and, if they succeed, are unlikely to thank them. There is even a sense in which animals do not know what is wrong – they do certainly not know what is wrong in the same way that humans do.
Thus, however close the well-meaning benefactor may feel to animals, the animal rights campaign remains a human project from beginning to end.
J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. This is an edited version of a speech to be given this evening to open the exhibition Voiceless: I feel therefore I am. It will be at the Sherman Galleries until March 10.