Bad Karma is Not Sustainable

So, you wanna be a farmer, huh? You love nature, don’t mind hard work and consider yourself pretty “spiritual.” You even know a young couple, Jimmy and Jeanette, who invited you up to their New Hampshire farm where they’re making a living raising pigs for the expanding organic pork market in New York City.

You won’t be directly involved in the slaughter of the pigs, which they perform as humanely as possible. You’ll help feed the little oinkers, and eventually drive the refrigerated pork to market. You’ll also get some experience in their organic vegetable garden and help out with their expanding CSA. It services the needs of 64 families with a choice selection of organic poultry, eggs, homegrown pork cuts and the usual array of pesticide free veggies. Sounds doable, huh?

The pay isn’t much but it’s the experience that counts. You’ll commit for six months and walk away with some cash and enough working knowledge to strike out on your own homestead someday. Go for it!

Before jumping into your Subaru and zooming off, you might want to reconsider.  Could your decision come back to haunt you in the future?  What about the slaughter thing? It’s OK, so long as you’re not the one actually killing the animal…right?

You stand at the ethical crossroads. Your gut instinct is that killing is bad. Another voice in your head says, “Yah, but everyone’s gotta make a living…and besides, the way Jimmy and Jeanette raise and slaughter the pigs is way better than the brutality animals undergo at large scale confined animal feedlot operations.“

Where do you turn for guidance? At one end of the food revolution are the die-hard animal rights activists.  They come-off as kind of urban and really snooty. At the other end of the spectrum are salt-of-the-earth farmer/spokespersons like Joel Salatin.  You remember seeing Farmer Joel in the blockbuster documentary, Food Inc.

During his on-camera interview, Salatin was enunciating the glories of the local foods movement while stuffing live chickens down a metal funnel and casually severing their heads with a knife.  Joel was smooth and obviously emotionally removed from the act of decapitating live birds. He could have just as easily been shelling peanuts with the same poise and swagger.

Hey, there’s your role model: Farmer Joel Salatin! Or, is there more to the picture? One of the peculiarities of the modern sustainable food movement in the West is how little attention is paid to the law of consequence, especially when it involves the taking of life to feed or financially support ourselves. You might say there’s a major disconnect—a Grand Canyon gap—separating the rationale for slaughter from the liability for slaughter.

Is there a universal law that protects innocent animals from harm?
Is there an exemption clause for those who raise and slaughter animals under more humane conditions? Who knows? Who decides? By what authority do we claim innocence or assign blame?  Here’s the Vedic perspective:

If you live in a barren place where vegetation is scarce, e.g. an arctic or desert wasteland, taking animal life to maintain human life is permissible and non-reactive.  If, however, you’re surrounded by fertile fields capable of producing ample cereal grains, fruits, and vegetables, slaughter is strictly forbidden.

According to the ancient Indian ethical codes—codes that were operative in rural India before the British began building slaughterhouses and before the current Monsanto invasion—slaughter is never an option. Not only are cows off limits, but all life is to be respected and treated as sacred.

And there’s more. Vedic injunctions warn that even the slightest act of complicity with slaughter infers culpability. Included in the list of “co-conspirators” are those who give permission to slaughter, those who finance the slaughter, those who conduct the slaughter, those who transport the carrion, those who sell it, those who buy it, those who cook it, those who serve it to others—and finally, those who eat it. All the above participants stand nude and must line-up to taste the bitter fruit of culpability.

The choice you make—to kill or not to kill—is your free will. The reaction is not.  When you knock over a piece of fine china in an expensive boutique shop, you must pay for it. The rule is clear. You break it, you own it.  Whenever you create a demand for meat – either to satisfy a personal craving for flesh food or to treat your CSA shareholders to a succulent chunk of pasture-fed beef—you are held accountable for that broken life. You own the reaction.

Maybe we need two definitions of sustainability: one definition that applies to Joel Salatin and his customer base, and another definition for vegetarians and others hung-up on the ethics of slaughter.

The problem with this strategy is that it flies in the face of physics and morality. Gravity has one definition. What goes up must come down. Death has one definition also, the end of a sentient being’s life. You can’t paint a happy face on involuntary death. Death is final.  Death caused by kinder people, who raise and kill animals humanely and death administered mechanically by a corporate stun gun is death by another name.

Likewise, you can’t pretend that “the karma thing” is optional. Either we have to grant Farmer Joel Salatin a kind of “diplomatic immunity”  or admit that  nature protects its innocent from mankind’s greed with an axiomatic law called karma.  You can’t have it both ways. The notion that sustainability is an exclusive dialogue about the physical world of rain forests and compost piles and that the farmer is magically and morally separate from the fray is plain wrong.

Here’s the bottom line:  sustainability is genuinely sustainable, if, and only if, it protects the farmer from karmic vulnerability. An authentically sustainable model is holistic and all encompassing. It provides shelter to all the players on the chess board of life—moving, non-moving, animate and inanimate, human and non human.  The silly notion that somehow the farmer is not part of the mix is bad science, bad economics and leads to a worldview shaped by Monsanto’s corporate communications officers.

Universal codes of conduct—karmic laws—are universal because they function in all times, places and circumstances. You can’t vote on them. Karmic influence may be subtle and not immediately apparent but it looms timelessly over all relationships be they human to human, human to plant or human to animal.

In case your wondering how Judeo-Christian doctrine deals with this issue, it barely does. Western theologians send very mixed messages when it comes to precisely defining mankind’s purported “dominion” over God’s creation. What’s emphasized are biblical passages which exhort gratuitous, self-serving compliance with God’s edict to “prosper and multiply.” How convenient. What does it mean to “prosper and multiply?’ At whose expense? By what means? At what cost to the environment?

Meanwhile, lurking in the bushes, poised and ready to pounce upon the wary sinner, is an 800lb gorilla named Karma. Karma is clutching a stone tablet on which a biblical passage reads,” As you sow…so shall your reap.” Wow! What’s up with that? Is God throwing a temper tantrum, or what?  Don’t fret, that’s Old Testament stuff. Jesus spared us from all that hoopla about karmic justice. And besides we all know Jesus ate fish, right? If you ever wondered why sober Western minds seek shelter in Eastern traditions, wonder no more.

By contrast, the Sanskrit literatures of ancient India’s Vedic culture are explicit about what it means to be involved, but not bound by the world of action and reaction. They guide us past the perils of being needy—we do have to eat after all—without being greedy beyond keeping body and soul together.

The sobering results of choosing diets and occupations which unnecessarily encroach on the intrinsic rights of other beings—be they embodied as plants or animals—are not to be ignored. That’s why the patriarchs of our modern organic farming movement, Sir Alfred Howard, Rudolph Steiner etc, as well as early American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, all turned to Indian thought and practice before writing their treatises.

Humans are collectively and individually responsible for their environmental footprint.  Plants and animals do have souls.  Compassion for animals can’t be turned “on” and “off” like a water faucet because kindness gets-in-the-way of income. There is an ethical blueprint for sorting out these issues and finding refuge from the storm.

Jimmy and Jeanette are good people. Like thousands of other earth bound entrepreneurs across America, their struggle to make it on the land is meritorious. Consumer demand for organic meat is real but so are the consequences of choosing that path of economic development.  Their good intentions, you might say, are natural. The sand in the sweet rice, to use a Vedic analogy, is their assumption that good intentions override universal law.  They don’t.  Good intentions are the maidservants of universal law.

What Jimmy and Jeanette need—nay, what the whole sustainable agriculture crowd needs—is a crash course called Cosmology 101, with a minor in Ahimsa, non-violence to other life forms.  No matter how you twist the language of death to linguistically sanitize the act of taking life, someone must pay the piper his due. In the case off Jimmy and Jeanette’s pig operation, the winds of karma will huff and puff and blow their house down, regardless of how noble their intentions.

Yes, I know, it all sounds too judgmental and you’re probably all freaked-out because you just came back from a sustainable ag conference where 2,000 people cheered the farmer who raised, and the chefs who cooked, the succulent lamb you ate at the member’s banquette. Sorry, I can’t change the rules. But neither can you.

The involuntary killing of a defenseless terrified animal is not made any less reactive by adding the adverbs “humanely” and “organically” to the verb “to slaughter.” When you ignore the spiritual underpinning of true sustainability, you set yourself up for a stampede by the wild horses of destiny. Hi ho Silver, away! Who was that masked man? The grim reaper?

And then there’s Farmer Joel Salatin. Yes, he’s expert, articulate and entertaining. His charm and cavalier approach to sustainability sells books and shoots him out the farmhouse door, keynoting his way to fame and possibly fortune before hundreds of admirers. He’s spreading the gospel as he sees it…but, as predictably as the cock crows at dawn, he will come face-to-face with an 800lb gorilla named Karma. Get ready Joel…by the way, gorillas are vegetarians, ole’ buddy.