The notion of ‘waste’ as it pertains to substances derived from nonhumans is frequently a subject of heated debate. I see the topic mentioned most often in relation to eggs, but the practice of ‘waste prevention’ is also defended in connection with the wool sheared from the bodies of sheep as well as other substances derived from the lives and bodies of nonhuman animals. The general premise is that since these ‘products’ are being produced anyway, and since the beings who produce them don’t ‘seem’ to have any use for them, then it’s ‘wasteful’ for us not to use them. I’ve seen the same justification used about consuming dead flesh and using leather and other body parts; ‘the animals are dead anyway, it would be wasteful not to use them’. There’s even a tenuously related notion of it being somehow ‘respectful’ to use up every part of a nonhuman corpse and I find that particular fantasy to be breathtakingly self-serving but I’m not going to go into it here.
I’ve wondered where this deeply ingrained notion of ‘preventing waste’ comes from. Obviously as responsible adults in a world of finite resources, every one of us should, logically and morally, be aware of the impact of our living. I wonder however if there’s perhaps a bit more to it than that. I’ve come to the conclusion that as with many other concepts relating to animals that our adult mind struggles to rationalise, there’s possibly an aspect that comes from our early childhood.
My generation was born in the mid 20th century, in a social climate still struggling to recover from the privations of war-time rationing. Although I never experienced it, my parents had known the severe restrictions this brought and I suspect their almost obsessive focus on waste prevention can be traced back to that. Every mealtime at their table was a battle to ensure that everything, no matter how I resisted the substances that disgusted me even then, everything on my plate was eaten. ‘You can’t waste that’, ‘don’t you dare waste that’, ‘some children don’t have enough to eat, get on with it and don’t waste it’ etc. It’s actually quite surprising how clearly I hear the words and voices echoing down the years. I doubt if my experience is unique.
Suffice to say that waste and the avoidance of it featured prominently in the household and as a small child I accepted it as part of life. I rebelled in small ways like refusing to eat some particularly nauseating offerings – or at least I tried – but in the end I was powerless in the face of authoritarian parenting and invariably gave in, in order to be permitted to leave the table.
It was not until much later in life that my rebellion truly took place against the ingrained, inconsistent and illogical notions of my upbringing. By that time these notions had been reinforced and legitimised over decades by a speciesist society; over the years, the roots of ideas never questioned had morphed into ‘knowledge’ that we all seemed to know but couldn’t recall learning. And as parents do, I passed it on. I’ve heard it said that we become our parents and to some extent this is true. I regret that I repeated their dogma for years. Until one day, I got lucky. My eyes were opened, I finally saw through the veils of fantasy and then I became vegan, because it was the only course of action that allowed me to truly be the person I had thought I always was. But returning to the subject in hand …
Here, our victim of choice is generally the hen although several other species are used to meet consumer demand for more ‘exotic’ products. When we say we consider it ‘wasteful’ not to consume eggs, we are implicitly asserting two things. The first of these is because eggs exist – and the debate generally, although not always, centres around infertile eggs – we consider that we have the right to take them if we wish. We are also asserting – and reinforcing the concept to others – that we consider eggs to be appropriate human ‘food’. This latter concept of eggs as ‘food’ is examined in painstaking detail in this link, however regardless of the health concerns, my focus is and always will be on the moral implications of our use of other sentient individuals as our resources
Nevertheless, by articulating our disapproval of ‘waste’, we elicit peer approval for our actions by suggesting that our actions are admirable and praiseworthy efforts in support of conserving resources. The implication is along the lines of ‘naturally, as an ethical consumer, if hens had any use for eggs I might act differently. However as they don’t appear to, I’m simply conserving resources by using up what would otherwise be wasted.’ And then we stand back, waiting for the plaudits, responding defensively to any who challenge either of the two main justifications.
If we claim to hold concern for members of other species – and almost every one of us does – this proposal as justification for our continued use of eggs betrays a flawed understanding of the fundamental principles of supply and demand. For as long as we perpetuate the practice ourselves, or legitimise it with our approval, tacit or otherwise, there will be those who will demand eggs for consumption. The power of that consumer demand will ensure that a supply of eggs is provided to meet it, and that supply will be provided in the most economically advantageous manner, regardless of the catastrophic cost to the unconsenting individuals whose eggs these truly are. There is no such thing as a harmless way to use the lives and bodies of others for any purpose, and as far as eggs are concerned, please see the following link where the subject is discussed at length.
Not unsurprisingly, our values and views on the subject of eggs in general, are again inconsistent, a sign that I am coming to realise is a good indicator that the ‘knowledge’ about it stems from a time when we were too young to rationalise or debate it. For instance, many birds abandon their nests in springtime for a variety of reasons. And yet we take a very dim view of anyone removing eggs for any reason at all from the nest of any bird that is not held captive for the specific purpose of being used as a commodity by our species – in fact in many cases it’s even highly illegal. ‘Waste’ never seems to be considered as a factor in that case.
So what about wool?
The use of wool and the justifying of the shearing of those animals that produce it is, once more, an illustration of our lack of consideration or understanding about supply and demand. I am unable to improve on the explanation here by the excellent Gentle World whose article states:
…..just as the dairy industry implicitly supports the meat industry by supplying it with veal calves and female cows whose milk production levels have dropped, wool funnels sheep who are no longer producing profitable levels of wool into the meat industry, often through live export which entails its own unique set of abhorrent practices. Ultimately, every shorn sheep will be brought to slaughter.
One might also mistakenly believe that a sheep needs to be shorn, but the reality is more complicated. Undomesticated sheep produce only the amount of wool that they need to survive in their climate. Again, as we have bred chickens and pigs to grow so large that their legs can no longer support them, we have used genetic engineering to manipulate the sheep’s wool production to meet our designs.
In other words we have meddled with nature to create breeds that require human intervention and then we sanctimoniously go on to justify ourselves and our merciless use of their lives and bodies. We do this by re-framing our role in this unnatural and self-serving process as one of concerned and kindly husbandry providing essential care for comfort and wellbeing. And of course it’s no surprise that there’s a huge amount of money to be made in using these helpless and unconsenting innocents as our resources and commodities.
It is impossible to argue in favour of wool – or in fact any body hair from other individuals – being necessary in our lives. Plant materials like cotton, linen, bamboo and hemp, coupled with readily available synthetic fibres and fabrics can be substituted for almost any purpose we can think of.
Sadly, the country roads around my home are killing fields for a variety of individuals all year round. Hardly a day passes without my seeing the pitiful remains of pheasants, ducks, hedgehogs, rabbits and occasionally even deer, badgers and squirrels. When it’s nesting season, many birds are swooping low over roads and all too often misjudging the distances. Their little corpses plastered to the tarmac break my heart.
Hardly anyone would think it was acceptable to go around scooping up all these remains to use as ‘meat’, declaring that it would be a shame to ‘waste’ it all. Okay, some people undoubtedly do but the vast majority would be far more likely to phone the local council to ask them to dispose of a deceased deer or a badger, than would scoop it up with a menu choice in mind. Perhaps for some, their reluctance to do this is influenced by being all too well aware that a corpse on the road has already begun to putrefy and decay.
And the signs of inconsistency? Yes, they’re there, the tell-tale hallmark of our irrational childhood ‘knowledge’ is there once we know what to look for. If the body on the roadway happens to be a dog or a cat, what do we do? Many of us would try to assist by taking an injured individual to a vet, or if death had occurred, we may move the body to the side of the road to prevent further damage. We might even share information on social media and with local vets so that any human desperately concerned for their missing companion will at least find closure, and perhaps a body to mourn and bury.
And yet the fact that we are willing to consume corpses presented in shops and supermarkets seems to totally bypass the instinctive awareness we have of the fact that death of an animal marks the beginning of a process of decay. Like so many other substances presented to us as ‘food’ we assume that someone will have taken care of the technical details for us.
Waste or want?
Honey, feathers, leather, the list of substances we hate to ‘waste’ just keeps on going. Yet we feel no such compulsion about human lives, human corpses and human body parts (unless in the extremely rare case of organ donation where the supreme consideration in every case is informed consent); it’s completely forbidden territory. Anyone who demonstrated any such compulsion would be considered to require urgent psychiatric help.
As always, we are keen to think well of ourselves and to re-frame our exploitative behaviour as responsible, worthy and noble. By pretending that we are ‘preventing waste’ of substances derived from the bodies of animals at the cost of disregarding their every right as sentient individuals, many wilfully disregard the consumer-demand-led process by which these substances exist. We completely disregard the fact that it is completely unnecessary for us to even have victims in the first place. We ignore the fact that the end product that we are heroically refusing to ‘waste’ is the culmination of a systematic and merciless cycle that begins with manipulating the reproductive processes of vulnerable individuals, and ends in the mortuary aisle, as an ingredient in a domestic toiletry or chemical, cut in slivers for some microscope slide, on a hanger in a clothing store or on a sofa in a furniture shop.
The problem is that we cannot separate the demand from the ‘product’. When we delude ourselves that we’re ‘preventing waste’ we are in fact creating demand, or at least perpetuating the mistaken view that other sentient individuals and their secretions should be viewed as food, as clothing, as test subjects. They are not. We have no need and no right to do this. The conversation is not about waste. It’s about humans once again attempting to appease an uneasy conscience by seeking to find a right way to do something utterly wrong. It takes a lot less effort to just admit that and face the consequences of admitting to our indulgence. It takes a lot less effort to stop the mental gymnastics and take the readily accessible doorway that leads out of our own participation in the outrage being perpetrated on billions of helpless innocents by our species
That doorway leads to veganism. Why not take it today? Be vegan.