Close Reading By Heart of W.S. Merwin’s Thanks (Line 2: with the night falling we are saying thank you)

Second post charting some thoughts as I learn W.S. Merwin’s Thanks by heart. All the posts for this poem can be found here.

We live in night-falling times. Forget Brexit, forget Trump, forget all the ongoing geopolitical mayhem of business as usual, for we have now passed the point of no-return with our climate crisis. And even if 50  million Greta Thunbergs unite –Hands Across America style- a thousand times around the planet to protest and publicize the darkness descending, even with all the manifestly right-noises being made everyday in tweets, Instagram pics, newspaper articles, and Facebook posts, nothing’s going to change. 

Not because we don’t all have the best of intentions. It’s just that when it comes to making the kinds of day-to-day sacrifices that would be required in order to reverse and repair the damage already done, the kinds of renunciations required from every member of our human tribe (all 7.7 billion of us) is never going to happen on a scale necessary to make much of a difference.

What kind of renunciation, you might ask? Tell me the sort of sacrifice you need, and by God, if it means saving the planet, I’ll make it! 

Well, according to Project Drawdown – a collection of nearly 200 environmental scientists and thought leaders dedicated to identifying solutions to climate change – “the most important contribution every individual can make to reversing global warming” is [drumroll]… 

Take a guess. Allow yourself to imagine for a moment, as the the night falls, the inconvenient truth we all would rather not look at because it hits all of us in ways that we are fundamentally unwilling to take on board. Not for all the polar bears, penguins, and Orange-spotted filefish in the world would 99% of us be willing to make this sacrifice.  Not for all the “water stress” and “food insecurity” in continents like Africa (don’t you just love those refined, academic terms for starvation and genocidal drought) not even for them, for us, for anyone. None of this really matters because we are unwilling as individual human beings and as a species  to do the following:

drastically reduce or  eliminate our consumption of (non-human) animals and animal products. 

Are you putting  your hands to your ears now, making la la la la la noises? Yes, me too. For here’s the inconvenient data, summarised by Jonathan Safran Foer in an article in the Guardian recently:

“Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector (all planes, cars and trains), and is the primary source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions (which are 86 and 310 times more powerful than CO2, respectively). Our meat habit is the leading cause of deforestation, which releases carbon when trees are burned (forests contain more carbon than do all exploitable fossil-fuel reserves), and also diminishes the planet’s ability to absorb carbon. According to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even if we were to do everything else that is necessary to save the planet, it will be impossible to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord if we do not dramatically reduce our consumption of animal products.”

And here is why us dramatically reducing our consumption of animal products is never going to happen. Never. Because we are pleasure seeking creatures first and foremost, and our pleasures turn all of us into hypocrites. All of us. 

Take me for example. I am, broadly speaking, for ethical reasons,  a vegetarian. A few years ago, alerted to just how much daily suffering even the most humanely cared for cow goes through in order to produce milk for our teas, cheese for our cheeseboard, and cream for our chocolate, I attempted to transition to veganism. The remnants of that transition continue in my diet today in that I only have soya milk in the fridge, and try not to drink cow’s. But that only happened because Alpro tastes almost-as- good as milk in my estimation, and so I haven’t really had to sacrifice that much to sustain this substitution. Similarly, I actually prefer the tasty and easy-to-digest soya yoghurts and other soya desserts which I churn into ice-cream for a treat. 

But what about cheese? What about butter? What about honey? 

Breakfast is the one meal of the day that makes me truly happy. And what I like eating for breakfast generally is toast, with butter, some honey, blueberry jam, and Philadelphia cheese. A slice of good sourdough or seeded rye slathered in various quantities of those four toppings delights me to no end. When I was attempting to be 100% vegan, I swapped out the butter for soya spread, the honey for maple syrup, and the Philly for something made of coconut oil and potato peelings. And yes, it all tasted exactly as you would imagine from this description: foul. But I soldiered on, hoping I would get used to it. 

While I was soldiering on,  I was also resenting the other human apes, the majority of our human ape brethren, who not only were shoving whatever their eyes took a fancy to willy-nilly into  tooth-lined gobs and damned be the consequences, but were/are constantly being celebrated and encouraged for doing so. Every cookbook, every 2nd product in the supermarket aisle, every plate of food snapped for an Instagram food-porn account, every time Jay Rayner opens his delightful fat gob to say or write something witty and clever about eating other animals, jarred with my minority concerns and sacrifices. 

So this morning this hypocrite had for breakfast a cup of tea with soya in it (yay! 2 vegan brownie points happily accepted), a slice of sourdough which traveled from Paris to get to me (-50 brownie points), French butter (-1000 brownie points), honey (-300 BPs), and Philadelphia cheese (-1,000,000 BPs). Philadelphia cheese is a Kraft-Heinz product, a company rated at the lowest possible tier for animal welfare. Why greater subtractions overall for the dairy products you ask? Maybe because I have heard the desperate sad wailing of cows in stalls when separated from their recently birthed children just so that we can drink the milk flowing freely from their breasts. 

Sorry Mama, I know that you would prefer this go to your offspring, but we need it you see, for our human teas, and the trillion different ways in which we now like to consume our roasted coffee beans. Sorry little 2-day old calf locked inside a tiny cage not much bigger than your own body where you will now spend the rest of your 4-month life, never being allowed to play with other calves or walk, just in case your muscles toughen up a little in doing so, robbing us human animals of some nice, soft, juicy steak. Sorry little one, we need Mama’s milk so that we can use it as whey protein to give that all-important umami depth of flavour to just about everything savoury item on the supermarket shelf, all our tasty, snacky-snack products, pretty much every flavour of crisp, other than Ready Salted which has whey power in it. And let’s not even start on cakes, biscuits, and ice-cream. All those things that make our lives just a little bit more pleasant and joyful on a daily basis. But hey little calf, you’ll get to walk, and stretch your muscles and briefly touch some other calves when we let you out of your cage to lead you off to the slaughterhouse. Please stop whining!

And this is why the night is falling and will continue to fall until it swallows us all, all of us, all our weird, word-wielding monkey-kind. 

Take the most ardent, planet-saving good human being you know and say to them: “You can save your precious human-dominated planet, but you must pay for this by cutting out 90% of all the nice stuff you like to put into your human-animal gob”, and watch as only a tiny, tiny minority do that, whilst the rest of us respond by saying: “I feel awful about the planet, and other species, but nothing that a nice cup of tea and a biscuit won’t set  to rights!”

**

If you’re bored with the science, let’s take a look at what the Bible says. When I say The Bible, I am of course referring here to the updated, secular Bible which tries, as the original Good Book did, to explain in the idiom of our day where we came from, and where we might be heading (the apocalypse!). My bible, or at least one of them, Noah Harari’s Sapiens has sold 1.2 million copies since its publication in 2014, so there’s a good chance you’ve read it?  Here is what “the little Jew who wrote [that] Bible” has to say about our eating habits: 

“Around the time that Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines. Today these animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs. They pass their entire lives as cogs in a giant production line, and the length and quality of their existence is determined by the profits and losses of business corporations. Even when the industry takes care to keep them alive, reasonably healthy and well fed, it has no intrinsic interest in the animals’ social and psychological needs (except when these have a direct impact on production).”

(Yuval Harari, Sapiens)

But do have compassion for us H. Sapiens Hypokrites! Harari does: 

“Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fuelled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating. Those who do think often argue that such animals are really little different from machines, devoid of sensations and emotions, incapable of suffering. Ironically, the same scientific disciplines which shape our milk machines and egg machines have lately demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that mammals and birds have a complex sensory and emotional make-up. They not only feel physical pain, but can also suffer from emotional distress.”

The word hypocrite in its Greek etymology simply means “an actor”. More specifically, as a compound noun it translates as “an interpreter from underneath”. The ancient Greeks wore masks on stage, so actors were paid to give voice (much like our Priests) to the culturally formulated “masks” of  cardinal virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Courage, Justice. 

But temperance, prudence, courage and justice don’t taste of anything much. Underneath our virtuous masks, the human all too human actor is scrolling through his phone in search of “stuff” to distract him from alienation and distress, all the while shoving another brownie and a Pumpkin Spice Latte into his human-animal gob.

So thank you butter; thank you condensed milk; thank you curd, custard, and eggnog. Thank you frozen yoghurt; thank you ghee; thank you infant formula, lassi, and paneer. Thank you mozzarella, thank you cheddar, thank you gorgonzola, and brie. Thank you quark; thank you soft serve, thank you whey, thank you yakult and yoghurt, thank you, dark though it is. 

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