Homelessness: this social crisis is one many of us come face to face with everyday – a daily reminder of the kuleana, or responsibility, we have to our community and our land. But this blog isn’t really about houselessness as much as houselessness is a way to talk about deeper and more uncomfortable issues.
From a simple perspective, the houseless peoples in Hawaiʻi are in need of homes, or in other words, they need land. The houseless are also food insecure, needing to beg for food or for money to buy food. Additionally, 805 million people are chronically undernourished; yet as more than a tenth of the global population face this reality, obesity simultaneously plagues the human population, with a staggering 35% of adults overweight and 12% of adults obese in 2008.
What kinds of disconnects are present in our world today that allow for this dramatic disparity?
A discomforting truth
Though many argue that overpopulation is the leading cause of these crises, evidence is surmounting that there exists ample land today to house and feed every person in the world sufficiently while still resulting in a surplus of land and food. The real problem that is starting to get the attention it deserves is the overconsumption and overproduction of unsustainable food products that occupy our much-needed lands and that hoard the finite amount of water and energy resources available on our planet.
70 billion farm animals are killed every single year. You may think this is shocking but still ask, “How is this related to homelessness?” Well, if you estimate the global human population at 7 billion people, you can see that this means that 10 times the global human population of our animal brothers and sisters are slaughtered on an annual basis.
Each of these animals are given land, resources, and a lot of food to feed the demand for animal food products. Worldwide, cows drink 45 billion gallons of water and eat 135 billion pounds of food each day, while humans consume a small fraction of that (5.2 billion gallons of water and 21 billion pounds of food). Beyond just what the animals consume for sustenance, the USGS found that animal agriculture as a whole uses between 34-76 trillion gallons of water annually, and according to the USDA, agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of all water used in the United States.
So, we know now that hundreds of millions of people in our global community go hungry everyday, and we see dramatic numbers of houseless and food-insecure communities rise in cities around the world, especially on the Hawaiian islands. Yet, as a society, we find resources to dedicate nearly half of the land on the mainland and 30% of the Earth’s entire land surface for livestock production, on top of the billion pounds of food and water mentioned above that is dedicated to producing the meat and dairy products our society loves to eat.
There is a metaphorical alarm clock we have conveniently been pressing the snooze button on for too long. It’s never been more necessary to look beyond the surface of our problems and begin tackling solutions at the root of these issues. Furthermore, it is critical to admit that we inextricably play a part in perpetuating houselessness, social inequality and environmental destruction multiple times a day in what we choose to eat and buy at grocery stores and restaurants.
A culture of domination
Animal agriculture is a symptom of a culture of domination as much as it is a mechanism for desensitizing the people towards continued domination of humans, non-humans and our natural environment. We now know that we are in the most dramatic period of extinction in all of known history. Stewart Brand talks about the sixth extinction we are experiencing and says,
“Extinction is a different kind of death. It’s bigger. We didn’t realize that until 1914, when the last passenger pigeon died, the most abundant bird in the world that’d been in North America for six million years. It went from five billion birds to zero in just a couple decades (when) commercial hunting happened … These birds were hunted for meat that was sold by the ton, and it was easy to do because when those big flocks came down, they were so dense that hundreds of hunters and netters could show up and slaughter them by the tens of thousands. It was the cheapest source of protein in America. By the end of the century, there was nothing left but these beautiful skins in museum specimen drawers…theres a sense of deep tragedy that goes with these things.”
This TED Talk titled “The dawn of de-extinction,” gave stories and photos of just a handful of the myriad beautiful species of birds and animals that have been obliterated from our planet in the last couple of decades alone due to mindless animal exploitation by humans. A new report from the World Wildlife Fund affirms that human activities have killed more than half of the wildlife on the planet since 1970.
Hawaiʻi is the infamous hub of this crisis, as our islands are the extinction species capitol of the nation and the endangered species capitol of the world, blowing all other states and nations out of the water in being the hotspot for devastating losses of biodiversity in only a handful of decades. It is our kuleana to begin to see this complex thread that connects the dots between homelessness, animal agriculture and the sixth extinction.
The golden rule
In myriad cultures, the universal lesson taught to people is known as the golden rule, often told as, “treat others the way you want to be treated.” This is similarly taught by all major religions and spiritualities – eastern and western – as a high moral code which emphasizes the reciprocal nature between ourselves and others, and it encourages empathy within people.
Eastern religions call this karma, and the bible portrays this concept that “we reap what we sow” in Galatians 6:7, which proclaims, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” There seems to be dissonance between the social and environmental crises we face and the universal agreement that compassion and empathy are critical to foster a pono world.
Today, the immense allocation of resources to animals for the purpose of producing excessive amounts of meat and dairy products is the sowing of suffering, violence and exploitation within our animal kingdom as well as nature herself. And as we reap what we sow, we are now witnessing the reaping of that suffering, violence and exploitation to our own species. With unprecedented extremes in the spectrum of health from either extreme malnourishment or rising obesity rates, the reasons for this paradoxical gap in social equity are clearer than ever. Similar extremity is seen as we approach the climax of global warming and climate change that scientists have been warning us about for more than half a century.
Humans are undeniably the species that most dramatically discriminate against other species. The word speciesism sums up this attitude succinctly, and it is defined by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation (1975) as, “a prejudice or bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” Speciesism and classism go hand in hand.
People have conveniently devalued, used and abused animals in the name of habit and desire, and this culture continues as long as society chooses comfort within that unfortunate reality instead of choosing a move towards mindfulness and compassion. The mindset of speciesism is reflective of humans’ “social acceptance” and hierarchy of illusory groups, also known as classes, within its own species. This culture of domination and denial seems to become a consistent theme within the human reality of the past several generations in the way we treat humans, non-human species and our environment as a whole.
The comfort in discomfort
It’s difficult and uncomfortable to come to terms with the sobering realities of our generation. And the inequalities and suffering that exist today are often not as frightening as our own significance in causing these problems as well as our incredible power as rational beings to eliminate those contributions.
The beautiful irony about this discomfort is that one can only expand his or her perceptions of comfort, or ‘comfort zones’ through discomfort itself. The challenge here is allowing oneself to open the door of discomfort and dive in to overcome the fear we are conditioned to have towards it. For the explorer of discomfort, it becomes the catalyst to the inevitable heightening of consciousness and the perpetual questioning of why things are the way they are.
When ego is dissolved or removed from a situation, one begins to approach discomfort with a higher level of openness and love. As uncomfortable as some truths are, it has never been more necessary and urgent to practice the golden rule. We must embrace consistency in compassion to heal much of the suffering that has manifested as a result of an inconsistency and dissonance between our values and our everyday actions.
As Manulani Meyer states in Our Own Liberation: Reflections on Hawaiian Epistemology, “I know (we) will survive and indeed, walk the highways with relief for the new adventure ahead, knowing that every step back is one step closer to my homeland” (125). Herein lies the confidence that the source of comfort and spiritual liberation is discomfort itself – and all the healing, justice and equality that follows.
Facing inconvenience with compassion
For much of our brothers and sisters living in Hawaiʻi, the problem is not so much in recognizing the problem. In the land of aloha, there is a collective realization that the issues of homelessness and inequality in general exist and that we need to address them. The true problem, instead, lies in the fact that the most effective solutions are often discomforting and inconvenient for society.
With a pervasive fear of public backlash, only a few environmental organizations recognize that production of animal products is the highest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions which not only threaten myriad species, but threatens our own species as well. This failure of even the environmental movement to appropriately prioritize contributors of global warming shows the true pervasiveness of the fear of making each other uncomfortable.
In the most catalyzing documentary on the devastating impacts of global warming and climate change, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” has been criticized for ignoring the inconvenient truth that our society’s addiction to animal products is accelerating climate change and social crises at unprecedented rates. But, in 2013, seven years after the release of his film, Gore turned rhetoric to action and chose to switch to a plant-based diet.
From discomfort to action
As we see the sudden rise in the momentum of peoples’ movements around the world following the flux in murders of and violence towards unarmed black people by police officers, the potential for people power as well as the desire for a more just and equitable world is spreading like wildfire.
And though the animal industry that profits from the sale of meat and dairy products attempts to influence politics and control public opinion through marketing and lobbying, the truth is beginning to peak out, and it must prevail if we want to genuinely tackle social inequality and the environmental crisis. In 2010, the UN released Livestock’s Long Shadow, which states that “a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, poverty and the worst impacts of climate change.”
As we function within the holds of capitalism, the economic tipping point is our kuleana, and we can accomplish this through our personal actions at least three times a day with what food we choose to buy and eat. This economic tipping point occurs when an unethical practice is no longer profitable for industry because the consumers refuse to support those practices. This method proved successful when the people of England created an economic tipping point that caused food companies to eliminate genetically modified ingredients from their products.
With this purchasing power to influence practices of the food industry, each individual can be empowered to vote with his or her dollars by eliminating or minimizing purchases of animal products that sow suffering in the environment, in non-humans, and of course, within our own species. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.”
To truly survive and thrive together, there must arise a consciousness that transcends our fear of discomfort and our desire for convenience. As the most rational species on the earth, our kuleana is this: to choose consciously the foods we purchase and eat in order to deliberately sow new seeds of peace, justice and compassion, so that we may reap peace, justice and compassion within ourselves as well as the human and non-human earthlings we share this planet with. Since preschool and kindergarten, we have been told the golden rule: to treat others the way we would like to be treated – I think it’s time we start listening.