I made a video for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. It will be part of “The 6-Minute Speech Project“, a unique speech built by people from all over the world through the power of social media which will be delivered at Rio+20 later in June.
Here’s the text of my video:
Hello my name is Julie Comber. I’m a singer-songwriter, activist, dancer, capoeirista, writer, Dreamer, and PhD candidate in environmental education. But more than anything else, I’m just someone who cares deeply about the world, and I truly hope that I can contribute to making this world a better place. Our World is so beautiful. But there is so much suffering and injustice, and the destruction of our natural world seems relentless.
So I felt compelled to share my thoughts for the 6 minute Speech project for the UN’s Rio+20 about “The Future We Want”. I will just quickly situate myself so you know where I’m coming from. First of all, I wish to acknowledge that I have created this video in Ottawa, Canada which is on unceeded, unconquered and unsurrendered Algonquin Land. I have lived in Canada, Guyana, Australia, and Tanzania, and traveled through Europe and the Caribbean. My background is in zoology, genetics, bioethics, and animal welfare, and my current research is on Wildlife Clubs in Guyana with the Makushi, one of the indigenous tribes there.
There are so many issues we need to work on, but I will focus on an important issue I feel is still neglected: factory farming. Also called intensive livestock farming or intensive animal production. This is an issue that I first found out about when I was 15 years old, right at the time of the first Rio Summit. I was a kid who loved animals, and not just cats and dogs, I had a lot of experience caring for horses, rats, and cockatiels, too. So someone gave me a book about animal welfare and that’s how I found out about factory farming. I was shocked. I couldn’t understand how humans could treat nonhuman animals so horribly. And I knew immediately that there was no morally relevant difference between a horse and a cow, a dog and pig, or a cockatiel and a chicken. So why was our society allowing so many millions of these animals to suffer? And what does that say about us as human beings?
Over the past 20 years, I’ve come to understand this really is a crosscutting and essential issue for us to deal with as a species. Factory farms are not only horrible for the animals that are raised within them, they have a huge impact on our environment and a terrible impact on human health and well-being. The numbers are truly appalling, and I think many of us numb out or tune out. We humans don’t seem to be very good at responding appropriately and compassionately to large numbers of “others” that do not seem close to us, to our daily life and family. As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic. When we hear of one animal, one cow escaping from the slaughterhouse, for example, most people cheer. But the fact that 9 billion chickens are raised and killed for meat each year in the U.S. alone, is not discussed. 112 million pigs are killed in the US each year. And the list goes on and on. So worldwide, billions of animals are raised in horrendous conditions and then don’t even get a good death. And we don’t do enough about it. So I’ll move on to ideas about how to eliminate factory farms.
Ten years after the Rio Summit I was doing my Master’s in bioethics and my interest was in the HIV AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. It just so happened that Dr. Solomon Benatar, a doctor and AIDS activist from South Africa, came to McGill University, and he gave an incredible talk and was a guest at one of our classes. I’ll never forget one of the things he said, which was directed at those of us in the West, in Developed Countries: “We have to stop living our privileged existence based on the suffering of unseen others.” He was speaking about the social and economic inequality that fuels the HIV pandemic. But I could see how his comment applied to so many other problems in our world. Especially to factory farming.
But a positive way to look at this is that when we truly see and appreciate “Others”, then we can heal ourselves and the World. When I say “Others” I don’t just mean other humans. I mean other species, too. We are not fully human except in relation to other species. Animals, plants, bacteria, all forms of life have a distinct and unique way of being in this world. Through appreciating them, spending time with them, we expand the realm of possibility for ourselves.
There certainly is scarcity of some natural resources, but one human resource that seems scarce is actually completely renewable, and inexhaustible: empathy. Empathy and compassion for our fellow humans and for all other species. I had the privilege of meeting Jane Goodall in Tanzania 15 years after the Rio Summit. And what really struck me about her is that she has a warm heart and a sharp mind. She also has a very strong sense of purpose, of what she is trying to achieve with her life. She embodies the characteristics that we are trying to nurture within children through humane education. By humane education I mean the broad definition which emphasizes the interconnectedness of social justice, the environment, and animal welfare.
So I think if we really do want to have a future that is fair, and beautiful and joyful, and where everyone can flourish to his or her full potential, then we need to get very clear as individuals and collectively as communities and societies about what is our purpose. Why are you here? What is the Gift that you want to give the World? And when you know that, then every day it’s a matter of seeing if your actions are aligned with your purpose and your values.
But I also don’t want to get stuck thinking that it’s just an individual’s responsibility. Our societies, especially in the West, are currently structured so it’s very difficult for individuals to make the choices that are better for themselves, other species, and out Planet. For example here in Canada $1.4 billion of our tax payer’s money subsidizes the already rich oil and gas companies. Imagine what we could do with $1.4 billion! We could invest in children and youth, in green jobs, in honoring our Treaties with our indigenous peoples. There are so many possibilities that would better reflect our values as Canadians. That is just one small example, well, 1.4 Billion is pretty big! But one example of how our collective decision making is so off—base.
So in closing, one thing that those in Developed countries can do is to reduce our consumption of animal products in general, and to categorically refuse to buy factory farmed animal products. Of course we can use our reason to know this is the right thing to do by taking a hard look at the numbers. For example, we know climate change is a huge threat, and livestock account for nearly 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. But I’m also arguing we need to do this because that allows us to be aligned with our life’s purpose and values, to take our sharp, critical mind and link it to our warm heart. We might be able to fool our rational mind that it is Ok to buy factory farmed products, but do you really thing you fool your heart and soul when you consume those product? Do you really think your body doesn’t know, doesn’t feel the suffering and destruction contained within the meat, milk, or eggs that comes from animals that suffered? Would you raise an animal the way they do in a factory farm? If not, why are you willing to pay someone to do it for you?
Every dollar is a vote. When we buy a factory farmed meat, milk or eggs, we are saying with our actions “Yes. I like that. Do it again”. Tell me, do you really like the horrors within factory farms? The pollution and contamination of our drinking water? The terrible soul-crushing working conditions for workers? That our landscape is being turned into a soy and corn monoculture to feed miserable animals hidden away from our view?
Or would you rather more compassion? More kindness? Better health? Soul-enriching jobs? To spend time in intact ecosystems where you can appreciate other species in all their beauty and splendor?
I know the future I want: a future where each of us humans, and all other species, can thrive, shine, and flourish in our own unique, beautiful, and irreplaceable way. I think shifting away from factory farming helps us get to that future.
Thank you, Merci, Obrigada, Asante, Miigwetch for listening.