My four-legged roommates Buba-ji and Deacon are not happy with me today. They were intent on munching on a mouse when I swooped in to stop the slaughter. As they meow and run frantically around my feet, I explain, “The Dalai Lama says, ‘Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.’” I swear Bub is rolling his big round cat eyes at me, wishing he could speak human to explain the mice are his dharma.
This divide between my cats and me is due to differences in ideology. Because as well as being an aspiring Jedi, I’m also an aspiring Jain. Growing up with Star Wars fueled my belief in a Force that connects everything, and that all life within it is inherently worthy. Studying Jain Dharma supports my desire to live in right relationship with everything in the universe through ahimsā (the avoidance of harm) and syādvāda (the belief that on any topic there will always be many viewpoints).
Often referred to as many-sidededness, syādvāda can promote tolerance, as well as remove the need to prove that any one side is right for everyone. Which brings me back to Buba-ji and Deacon. Cats are obligate carnivores. Without the taurine, arachidonic acid, and arginine present in meat, they are likely to get very sick and die prematurely. It turns out Bub is right, chasing small animals is indeed part of his dharma. (We’ve compromised: I still save the mice, he gets a special cat food I hope lives up to the humane standards the company proclaims.)
I, on the other hand, have freedom in the choices about what I consume. Most of us humans do (although admittedly some may have special dietary health needs and different levels of access to food). But we often make our decisions without complete information or in denial of the knowledge we do have. Busy with our day-to-day lives, we are disconnected from the consequences that our seemingly harmless choices have.
Although I was raised with lessons on sustainability and humaneness, the instructions were often in conflict with each other and confusing. As I dug in to resolve the paradoxes, I was surprised at what had been hidden from me. Just a few examples:
- We currently use 1.7 Earths a year: The Global Footprint Network tabulates an “Earth Overshoot Day” each year to bring awareness to the day each year when all of humanity will have used more from nature than can be replenished in a year, through overfishing, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than ecosystems can absorb. In 2019, that date fell on May 22.
- We eat a lot of meat: The average American eats almost 200 pounds of animal protein each year per person (more than almost any other people on the planet and nearly twice as much as our ancestors ate 75 years ago). That’s 2,000 land animals for each person over a life lifetime (and 9 billion animals each year in the U.S. alone.)
- And it doesn’t come from idyllic farms: The pictures we see on packaging skews our idea of where products come from. Currently, industrial-scale factory farming accounts for 99.9 percent of chickens for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle. These are not the farms from our childhood storybooks.
- It’s messing up our environment: Globally, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all transportation systems combined, is an inefficient use of land and water, and creates an incredible amount of pollution.
- Switching to fish and seafood doesn’t solve all the problems: Because of commercial fishing operations, a lot of fishing now happens by huge nets being pulled through the ocean. Much of what gets in the net is “unintentional bycatch” and gets discarded. For example, for every pound of commercial shrimp, it’s estimated that up to 15 pounds of other ocean life are tossed back into the sea either already dead or dying, including seahorses, fish, and even large cetaceans like dolphins.
- Fruits and vegetables aren’t off the hook: Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted. Although some of that happens before the food arrives in our homes, it is estimated the average person in the U.S. throws away over 200 pounds of food a year.
These facts aren’t intended to shame or blame us, but to make a point: Our choices matter. Altering our actions can bring hope to the places now overrun with suffering. By far, the biggest act of compassion we can give ourselves, others, our planet, and its many living things is to look at our habits. Granted, it’s not an easy task, because everything has a cost, and no single answer is easy or perfect. But we can each make a difference. May the fork be with you!
Based on a chapter from Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Deeper Perspective and Higher Purpose published by Monkfish Book Publishing Company. © 2019, Sarah Bowen.