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April 19, 2020

A Plea Not To Return to Normal 


Our world has changed dramatically in the last couple months. It has spoken to us in a way most of us didn’t know it was capable. Our lives have been turned upside down by nature herself. Most people are suffering hardships from which many will never overcome. As of this writing, the U.S. approaches 40,000 deaths, and approximately 164,000 have been killed by the disease worldwide. Social distancing has clearly helped mitigate the reach of the virus itself, but the ramifications of social distancing and the economic shutdown have left millions of people without work, and for the millions of people living paycheck to paycheck this means without a way to pay rent or mortgage or to put food on the table for their families. We’re all separated from family and friends, and missing many of the normal routines of our lives. I want to go to the beach, to go see my mom, who lives a plane ride away, to travel to NY to see my elderly uncle and baby cousin Lola. I worry about my mom, and what would happen to the 35 animals I care for at my sanctuary if I got sick. We all want the pandemic to go away and the hardships of quarantine to end. And yet my biggest fear through all of this is that quarantine will end, and we will in fact go back to normal. 


There is so much wrong with normal it’s hard to know where to begin. Our normal involves the systematic mass exploitation and mistreatment of humans, non-human animals, and the planet to such an alarming degree we are literally killing the planet, torturing billions of sentient beings for food and other unnecessary products, and are living in a society where widespread inequality and injustice are largely unaddressed, denied, and accepted. Normal involves tremendous suffering of all life forms on this planet. Normal is at the root of this pandemic. Normal has led to the unequal impact of this pandemic on communities of color and the poor around the world. Normal will lead us to the next pandemic, which could be much much worse. It will lead us to uncontrollable, irreversible climate change. Normal means continued injustice, inequality, disease, disconnection from ourselves, from each other, and from the natural world.  Fuck normal. We need to create a new world. And now is the time to do it. 


This pandemic has revealed the biggest deficits in our societies. It has shown us we need universal healthcare, a living wage. We need to address the racial and economic inequities of our health care system. We now know that Covid-19 is affecting communities of color  and the poor in grossly disproportionate ways, and it’s not because of a genetic predisposition. Rather, Covid-19 has simply highlighted the pre-existing and multi-faceted inequities in our society, including the fact that these communities have higher rates of the sort of underlying conditions that make Covid-19 more deadly. Again, this is not due to genetic predisposition but because of lifestyle factors including limited access to healthy foods. 


There is so much wrong with normal that fixing it can be overwhelming, so overwhelming that most of us say fuck it and go on with things we know are not right. Our whole system of consumership is based on cost and convenience at the expense of quality and ethics and sustainability. We don’t question where the goods we buy come from, or what went into making them, who made them, how they were treated, or the impact of those goods on the  environment. 


We shop at Walmart because it’s cheap despite knowing that the employees don’t earn a living wage. And really what’s the alternative? We get lunch from restaurants like Chick-Fil-A and Hardees knowing, in the back of our minds, that the animals we are eating were sentient beings who lived miserable lives of deprivation, darkness, pain, cruelty, and fear. But it’s cheap. And it’s convenient. And too, if we cared about those chickens, about the billions of chickens and pigs and turkeys and cows suffering in dark sheds right now, how could we even bear it? Especially if we can’t change it. So we put our blinders on and don’t question a normal that not only sanctions animal cruelty on a massive scale but also the pollution of our air and water, abuse of workers, diet-related diseases that affect us all but that affect POC disproportionaltly. Good God you just can’t think about these things. We need bars and restaurants and movie theaters to re-open. We need Alabama football. We need parties and big loud concerts to drown out the nagging voice that says something is wrong, that says normal is fucking upside down.


Where do we begin? Where do we, as a society, as individuals, begin? Henry David Thoreau said “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” So what is the root evil of our world? The answer that most resonates with me is what the Eastern traditions point to. The root of all suffering, personal suffering and the suffering and damage our way of life is inflicting on other living beings and our planet is our sense of separation from each other and the natural world, the sense of supremacy that arises out of this false sense of separation, and the exploitation that naturally follows. 


It’s hard enough to get people to question the way we treat other human beings, to get people to honestly look at racial and other social inequities within human society, but the assumption that nature and the animals are ours to dominate and exploit runs even deeper. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our whole society is built on the premise that nature, and the animals, are here for our use. But we don’t realize the harm we do to ourselves by harming the non-human world. We bulldoze ancient forests and exterminate wildlife so we can graze, slaughter, and consume cattle who contribute to climate change and give us heart disease and colon cancer. This is our normal. 


Scientists tell us pandemics, including Covid-19, are caused by our encroachment into nature and our consumption of animals. Viruses like Covid 19, SARS, H1-N1 and others start in wild animal populations; they jump species and thrive in places where animals are confined in small spaces, and then sometimes they spread to humans. Americans throw around a lot of racist judgements about Chinese wet markets being “barbaric” and uncivilized”, but the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009 originated in a pig farm in North Carolina, and a bird flu in 2015  claimed the lives of more than 32 million birds in 16 American states. The next pandemic could be much much worse than Covid-19, which has a very low mortality rate at about 1%. U.S. Factory farms, with their own barbaric conditions, are perfect breeding grounds for viruses like these to spread.   


If we want to know where to start to make the sorts of changes that are necessary to heal ourselves and our communities and our world, we would be wise to start with the food system, which in many ways can be seen as Thoureau’s root. Animal agriculture is not only responsible for the unimaginable suffering of billions of sentient non-human animals but is also a driving force behind all of our most serious environmental problems including air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and climate change. In fact, animal agriculture is a larger contributor to climate change than the entire transportation sector combined. Animal agriculture exploits workers, and disproportionately pollutes in marginalized communities. Consuming animal products is also a major factor in our nation’s health care crisis. Diets high in animal products and processed foods are largely responsible for those underlying conditions that make Covid-19 so deadly, but which are deadly are their own, including heart disease, Diabetes 2, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. 


As we look at creating a new normal, there are many societal, institutional changes that need to be made. But we as individuals have tremendous power to affect our world and be a part of the transformation the world is now demanding of us. We can all start by asking ourselves how can I be a better caretaker? Of this planet, of my neighbor, of the animals, of the earth?  What can I do to help be a part of creating a new normal based on respect and equality? It may sound naively Utopian or Pollyannaish but the truth is it’s the only way we will survive. Human hubris and a culture of materialism and distraction has brought us to the verge of our own destruction. A lot of what normal has been is living on auto-pilot, consuming what our consumer driven corporate society has been feeding us. We need to start paying attention, and living with intention. 


Within weeks following quarantines around the globe, the natural world began to heal. Stories appear every day about dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice now that the gondolas and the people have gone inside and the pollution subsided. It’s being reported people in northern India can see the Himalayan mountain peaks for the first time in decades. Air pollution across the globe has subsided.  The earth can heal if we can let her. And humans don’t have to disappear for this to happen. We just have to learn to live in a new way. We need to create a new normal, one that is based on a respect for nature, a realization that we are not nature’s master. We are a part of nature. We are part of one big eco-system. As we “get back to normal,” we need to figure out how to live in harmony with the environment and all other animals, maybe change the whole pace of life, choosing quality over convenience and cost. 


Please let us not celebrate the easing of social distancing and the return to normalcy by eating the dead bodies of sentient beings who lived and died in filthy and heartbreaking places just as uncivilized as the wet markets of China and just as likely to be the breeding ground of the next, maybe even more deadly pandemic, and certainly the cause of so many of the diseases that killed us before anyone ever heard of Covid-19 and will likely continue killing us long after we have all forgotten its lessons. 


We hear people talking all the time about this virus being the enemy. But the true enemy, at the root of this virus, and just about all other societal ills, is a mentality of separation and supremacy, of domination and exploitation. Please let’s create a new world where all beings and the whole of nature are cared for, a world where we don’t have to distract ourselves with big loud shiny things but can feel good about our choices, about what we put in our own bodies, how we treat ourselves, each other, the animals, and this one precious earth which we all call home. 


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