Consumerism has become synonymous with America. While making up only 5% of the global population, the United States is responsible for using more than a quarter of the world’s energy (Bark).
In a lifetime, the average American uses 3,796 diapers, drinks 13,056 pints of milk and 13,248 beers, and eats 5,067 bananas. 780 million people, more than two times the population of America, do not have access to running water, yet we use 700,000 gallons in a lifetime of showers—each (water.org) (Bark). Soon enough we’ll be called the United States of Consumers. But what Americans consume the most of, above the diapers, the water, and even the beer, is meat. In an average lifespan, Americans eat 1.7 tons of pork (Bark). We’re hooked on animal products. 185 pounds of chicken, beef, pork, and turkey is feeds the average omnivore in a year while 19,826 is the standard lifetime serving of eggs (Aubrey) (Bark). And we owe it all to the factory farming industry. Ninety-nine percent of the animals used for their meat, eggs, or milk are factory farmed (Foer 19). It’s about time we thank the factory farms for making all of this possible.
Or is it? Jonathon Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, describes factory farming as: “…a mind-set: reduce production costs to the absolute minimum and systematically ignore or “externalize” such costs as environmental degradation, human disease, and animal suffering” (19). Basically, disregard the implications it has for the welfare of animals, the employees, and our planet; we want the food now. Besides the widespread ignorance that still surrounds the issue, for those that do know the nasty truth about factory farming, it is often too deplorable to speak about. Ask anyone but the CEO of Tyson Foods or Foster Farms, and I can just about guarantee you that they will try to avoid discussion of the topic entirely. Throughout Eating Animals, Foer thoroughly unveils the process too many Americans refuse to admit exists. Yet, we are equally as guilty for the exploitation of livestock and workers, environmental degradation, and inefficient business system directly linked to factory farming. We fuel the companies we won’t verbally support by purchasing their product. Completely isolating the product from its production allows Americans and consumers of factory farmed food everywhere to eat guilt-free. What does this say about our culture? It’s cowardly. We demand an abundance of cheap food—just don’t tell us how the food industry makes it happen.
“The magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.” Body Ritual among the Nacirema, written in 1956 by Horace Miner, a former anthropology professor at the University of Chicago, demonstrates the tendency cultures have to judge cultures different than their own. The story of the Nacirema is in actuality an outsider’s account of the American culture. The way in which it was written, however, has Americans, the very Nacirema people, in awe of their own behaviors. But Americans have routines that are so second nature and so well established that to think of them as peculiar would be difficult. Everyone else is just living incorrectly. Though when taken out of context, customary practices change in their meaning (Gullette). Although foreign food rituals can be considered taboo to one culture, they are completely contingent on the culture to which they pertain.
How do taboos develop? Professor of anthropology at Santa Clara University, Gregory Gullette, responds by disclaiming that, “This is a very difficult question to answer. The best approach to addressing this question is to consider specific theories.” Gullette chooses to explain the formation of taboos through the perspective of cultural materialists. The process of cultural objects or practices becoming “off-limits” often develops in response to a material basis (Gullette). Consider the Indian taboo of cattle. Indians do not eat beef due to religious beliefs, while cultural materialists would argue that, “keeping cattle around actually serves more of a benefit than eliminating them” (Gullette). Cows provide fertilizer, fuel, and aid in agriculture—all material benefits. Material culture is an intricate concept that has to be understood from the inside out and outside in. Essentially, it is the relationship between people and their things. Though the intention of the factory farming institution makes sense for the American lifestyle: a fast-paced process that makes cheap food, and a lot of it, after learning the ins and outs of the business, from a cultural materialist perspective, factory farming is taboo. The implications are too destructive to the broader American culture. Okay, so we feed cows corn when they’re meant to eat grass. We’ll make sure to monitor for E. coli outbreaks. But what about keeping chickens in cages so small they don’t move or ever see daylight? They’re chickens, they won’t know the difference? How about cutting off pigs’ noses and rubbing them in salt just to hear them squeal? If Horace Miner were to describe the United States’ food industry from the outside looking in, it’s safe to say one would assume this was a system run by savages to feed savages. But we’re not savages, we’re Americans! We don’t eat our pets, right? Savages eat each other. Savages are the Hua people of Papua New Guinea.
In the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea resides a community of 3,100. Occupying the slopes of Mount Michael, the Hua people are slash-and-burn horticulturalists that have based their society off of ancient practice and ritual, most notably, cannibalism. However, cannibalism is not taboo in their culture as factory farming is in ours. It can be understood and justified when their material culture is considered. Cannibalism is rooted in the Hua cultural identity and possesses a deeper meaning than the act of eating people. They have nothing to hide from, nothing to be ashamed of. By taking a closer look, it is all interconnected; the issue is so much more complex than indigenous people acting like savages in the eyes of the Westerner.
An intricate cultural philosophy brings about the practices of the village that are so openly embraced. Cannibalism is one component to the entire Hua realm that operates as a single organism. Food in America is supposed to taste good and look good. It’s separate from us completely, and we manipulate it to our liking. The Hua, on the contrary, are one with their food, even if that food happens to be human meat.
“It’s the year 2022…the people are still the same. They’ll do anything to get what they need. And they need SOYLENT GREEN.” Directed by Richard Fleischer forty years ago, the sci-fi film Soylent Green accurately predicted the world we are creating for ourselves today. 2022 is polluted, overpopulated, out of resources, stricken with poverty, and facing an unusually warm climate. With our dependence on factory farming and its contributions to America’s human footprint, it’s not unreasonable to consider the country meeting the same fate in only six years from now. Industrialization doomed the people of 2022 whose only source of survival is processed food rations of Soylent Green. Advertised as “high-energy plankton”, Soylent Green is responsible for feeding a nation with forty million people occupying New York alone. What Soylent Green is actually made of is the most shocking aspect to these circumstances entirely. If it was 2022, and there was nothing left to eat in the world, what would you do to survive? The Hua people don’t need a crisis to eat each other, and it still makes more sense culturally than the practice of factory farming. If we keep it up, Soylent Green may be our only solution. What if I told you Soylent Green is people?
Aubrey, Allison. “The Average American Ate (Literally) A Ton This Year.” NPR. NPR, 31 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.
Bark, Ed. “Americans as Addicts of Consumerism.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Apr. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and, 2009. Print.
Gullette, Gregory. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2014.
Miner, Horace. Body Ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Jun., 1956), pp. 503-507.
“Soylent Green.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.