I read a ton of books last year. It was my New Year’s resolution to devour as many as I could. Read one and done. Move on, keep going.
That was the plan and it went smoothly, until I slammed into the wall called The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. At first glance it seemed like an easy read; it was fiction, in the local library, and evinced all the elements of a dystopian sci-fi.
But it messed me up.
When I began the book I was already in the throes of reviewing my long-time commitment to compassion and nonviolence. At some point within the previous year I had wondered aloud if the way of Jesus might mean compassion for the entirety of our planet — and from the time I was a child I loved animals. So all the elements which would eventually sway me toward vegetarianism were there.
Margaret Atwood harvested them.
In The Year of the Flood a progressive, enviro-Christian cult engages in quintessential non-conformity; they live in communes, wear different clothes, and eat their own home-grown food grown in rooftop gardens (they are “God’s Gardeners”). The leaders call themselves Adams and Eves and espouse an approaching apocalypse in the form of a waterless flood set to wreak havoc upon a society already wrecked by greed and consumption writ large.
The setting might be fanciful, but it struck me as frighteningly familiar. Even with elements like bioengineered “pigoons” (a cross between human stem cells and pigs used for organ harvesting) Atwood has publicly resisted the Sci-fi label for The Year of the Flood, claiming all the elements in the novel are present in our world; she merely extrapolates.
Case in point: the SecretBurger. Corporations control health and wealth and the public good throughout the novel, but the poster child for rampant consumerism comes in the form of a burger composed of mystery meat cobbled together for titillated clientele. Nobody knows what’s in these burgers or where the meat comes from, but that’s part of the appeal: “Because everyone loves a Secret.”
By this point in the book, I am disgusted and grateful that it’s only fiction.
Except it isn’t.
The fast food which makes up so much of the American diet, my diet, might as well be SecretBurgers. I know nothing about the animals who become my meat, nor the multinational corporations that cobble the animals together and hide them away in colorful, disposable packaging. I knew nothing about the breakfast sandwich I had eaten the very morning of my jaunt through Atwood’s novel, so I decided to investigate.
Everything went downhill from there. In one meal I had consumed eggs from several chickens, cheese from multiple cows’ milk, and portions of two different pigs. All packaged neatly in the palm of my hand.
Who were these animals? What kind of lives did they live? What kind of deaths did they face? Where did they come from? Who raised and sold them? And, perhaps most importantly, should I trust this largely invisible, for-profit entity to do right by the animals that became my breakfast?
These questions led me down the all-too-familiar path toward an encounter with the uglier side of Big Meat agri-business (which just so happens to account for things like more greenhouse gas pollution than the entire transportation industry, the burning of fossil fuels, polluted water tables, an unconscionable level of clean water usage, and roadblocks to the future of global sustainability, but I digress).
The sad lives of dairy cows and battery-caged chickens, the all-too brief existence of male chicks who are routinely killed by industrial meat grinders within moments of hatching, the slightly older male bovines who face a horrific existence before being converted to veal… I had no idea. More accurately, I didn’t want to have an idea.
But the jig was up and Atwood was there, crafting enviro-theological treatises and hymns to put in the mouths of God’s Gardeners. So I sang along, read the garden of Genesis as a prophetic telling of the way the world should be, listened to the Psalmist say things like “God saves humans and animals,” and considered the fact that Jesus told us we would go on to do “greater things” as his followers. I researched the health factors of a vegetarian diet (which are incredibly positive for someone with a family history of heart problems like me), supplemented my morning routine with B12 and Omega 3-laden flaxseed oil capsules, and stopped eating meat.
Then everyone told me how naive I’m being. The end.