Thursday, March 17, 2011

Some slightly good news for pigs, amidst lots of really terrible news.

I believe that we all have our "veg buttons." Soft spots that, when poked, make us cringe a little more than we expected, that activate our introspection, our guilt, our sense of right and wrong. If the right veg buttons get pushed, and often enough, and at the right times, one begins to feel differently about vegetarianism. One doesn't immediately begin to think it's absolutely right, or that it's the only way, but automatic reactions and unquestioned assumptions - "they're not human," "out of sight, out of mind," "I need it," "I have a right to it," open up, get exposed, become vulnerable. A little prodding feeling - maybe there's something to this? Those who try it aren't crazy. It becomes something to consider seriously, and even try.

For me, there were three such buttons. First came a plain piece of paper taped to the wall at my parents' church, saying that it takes tens of thousands of gallons of water to get a kilogram of industrially-raised beef. It didn't change my behavior at all, but it has stayed in my head for years and years. What's the point of taking short showers, and wishing that others would too, when my occasional trip to Outback uses up more water than a month's worth of hygiene habits?

Second was a truckbed full of pigs that I saw here in Korea. I wasn't even out in the countryside - actually, I was on my way to Costco. There were four or five pigs in the back of a decent-sized truck. They weren't squished in or anything. But one pig - and there's no pretty way to say this - had what I can only describe as a couple giant malignant ass polpys. (Ok, to be honest, I could also describe them as giant rectal warts.) I should probably describe them in detail for multiple impact, but I couldn't do it justice and the mere thought of trying makes me want to vomit. I didn't go veg for another year or more after seeing them, but from that day on, each time I sat down to grill some pork, the image floated up in my mind. Could this very bite be from that pig, or one just like it?

Third was something Michael Pollan said about poop. Before agriculture depended on chemical fertilizers, it depended on natural ones; feces were a resource. Animals evacuate, bacteria break down, plants absorb, animals eat, and evacuate again, and humans step in every now and then to skim a little surplus off the top of the process. Now, though, the bacteria don't break down poop, because it goes to giant lagoons where nothing can grow, not to fields where other lifeforms can make use of it. Thus, whatever nutrients are in the poo are unrecoverable, wasted; we have to turn to chemical fertilizers, and the oil that it takes to make them. The fertilizer runs into rivers and oceans and disrupts natural patterns; the oil burns off into the air and does the same. Things may have not been easy or perfect or ideal before before, but somehow, for some reason, we took a closed-loop solution and made two, if not three or more, problems out of it. Now we have a waste problem (what to do with all that shit?), and a fertility problem (how can we grow enough to feed all these animals). The answer is right in front of us. We spent millennia living with the answer. How can I keep eating meat when I know it contributes to this kind of ridiculousness?*

So, those were my veg buttons, or at least the big ones, the ones I remember, the ones I still think about. It seems that, recently, many Koreans have had their veg buttons pushed - not by churches or polyps or Pollan, but buy the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Reports of millions of pigs and hundreds of thousands of cows being killed, often buried alive; speed bumps that shoot up geysers of chemical baths, and highway tollgates that get you from both sides; quarantines and canceled trips; chemical-soaked carpets in train station; increased food prices. According to this article,, "Disgust over FMD gives boost to vegetarianism" from the Jungang Daily , interest in vegetarian (and even vegan!) eating practices is on the rise**. The vegetarian buffet at Seoul National University's music school is filling up, and visits to the Korean Vegetarian Union website have quadrupled. The outbreak has shaken some people from ignorance into awareness, and some from awareness into action. If there's one good thing that can come out of the various crises we face - whether they're related to the environment, to energy, or to livestock - it's this: they make us face up to what we're doing, or what we're allowing other to do instead. They force us to confront our actions, our systems, and ourselves, and the necessity of changing them all.

What a good time to be trying to find a role as a vegetarian/environmental activist in South Korea!***


*I know that the solution is not easy, and that there's no way now to just capture all the shit and take it Idaho.
** I owe the link to Mipa at Alien's Day Out
***At first I wanted to make a joke, starting that sentence off with "It's a bad time to be a pig, but..." Then I reconsidered. Too lewd?

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