I do not yearn for a virgin nature, a nature without the peasant’s ennobling footprint and without the palace crowning the hill. But rather a nature safe from plebeian industrialism and irreverent manipulation.
– Nicolás Gómez Dávila
In his 1877 anthology of literary nonsense, Laughable Lyrics: A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botany, Music, &c., Edward Lear informed his youthful readers of how
P was a little Pig,
Went out to take a walk;
Papa he said, “If Piggy dead,
He’d all turn into Pork!”
The transmutation of living Sus scrofa domesticus into dead, comestible meat is not quite as instantaneous as Lear jokingly suggested. In the poet’s day, it was an undertaking begun with the noosing and hoisting of the beast over a rough bench, followed by a thrust of the pig-sticker’s blade, a “dismal, sordid, ugly spectacle,” as Thomas Hardy described it in Jude the Obscure, particularly given that “the meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow . . . He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least.” Nowadays we prefer first to administer a whiff of CO2 before the inevitable blast from a captive bolt pistol, a procedure considered more humane than the straightforward jugular slice of abattoirs past or ritual (halal and shochet) butchers present. That said, the inhalation of concentrated carbon dioxide does leave the doomed pig gasping and panicking for a minute or so, and the resulting flood of adrenaline (not to mention the prolonged stress of living in fearful conditions before slaughter) depletes muscle glycogen, rendering the meat “pale soft exudative” (PSE) and thus unsavory, if not unsellable. How this is preferable to the far more compassionate approach adopted by the traditional Spanish matanza butchers — who gently massage and verbally calm their precious Iberian pigs throughout the slaughtering process so as to avoid the dreaded onrush of stress hormones — is unclear. Jamón ibérico is famous for a reason, but for those who languish under what René Guénon called the “reign of quantity,” efficiency is all that ever matters, even if it spoils the meat.
Regardless of the chosen means of slaughter, it remains the case that merely killing Piggy dead does not produce the skinless, boneless, bloodless, and all too often tasteless cuts of swine’s flesh one finds in your local butcher’s display case. The carcass must still be hoisted upon a rail, thoroughly exsanguinated, dunked in a scalder, torched, eviscerated, bisected, washed, dismembered, and deboned, all before being packaged, shipped, and sold to be consumed or, as is almost equally likely in our profligate times, ultimately discarded as food waste. To accomplish all of this on the industrial scale necessary to feed the gaping maws of our teeming masses requires a great deal of pigs, of course, estimated at some 700 million heads worldwide, but also a commensurate number of abattoir workers. It is a thankless occupation — grisly, physically demanding, and necessitating a certain amount of cognitive dissociation from the macabre task at hand. In Hardy’s aforementioned novel, Jude Fawley initially balks at the prospect of slaughtering his pig: “‘Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!’ said Jude. ‘A creature I have fed with my own hands.’” With the “hateful business” concluded upon the pig’s final convulsion, Jude breathes a sigh of relief:
“Thank God!” Jude said. “He’s dead.”
“What’s God got to do with such a messy job as a pig-killing, I should like to know!” [Arabella] said scornfully. “Poor folks must live.”
“I know, I know,” said he. “I don’t scold you.”
The French philosopher Georges Bataille, referencing Marcel Mauss’ anthropological theory of sacrifice, archly commented on the modern abattoir’s spiritual dimension: “The slaughterhouse relates to religion in the sense that temples of times past . . . had two purposes, serving simultaneously for prayers and for slaughter . . . Nowadays the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a boat with cholera aboard . . . The victims of this curse are neither the butchers nor the animals, but those fine folk who have reached the point of not being able to stand their own unseemliness, an unseemliness corresponding in fact to a pathological need for cleanliness.” This “pathological need for cleanliness” has only been augmented in recent months, for obvious reasons, impacting most every facet of our existence.
With the imposition of pandemic-related immigration restrictions, alongside various Brexit disruptions, we are told that the shortage of butchers and abattoir workers in the United Kingdom is such that there now exists a slaughtering backlog of at least 120,000 pigs, a number increasing by 12,000 more every day that passes. These pigs naturally continue to gorge themselves, in some cases expanding to 55 pounds or more over prime, meaning that their pens are now bursting at the joints. “Pens and sheds are not designed for animals of this size,” Rob Mutimer, the chair of the National Pig Association (NPA), has warned: “We are heading for an acute welfare disaster quickly.” What is more, once a pig reaches 330 pounds in weight, standard slaughterhouse equipment is no longer effective, and even if the animals could be butchered, the resulting cuts would no longer fit into pre-prepared cardboard or styrofoam boxes. So to address this (quite literally) growing crisis, authorities in Britain are now preparing for a mass cull, though a looming shortage of carbon dioxide, used in the stunning stage of the slaughtering process, is only making matters worse.
Emergency pig culling of the kind under consideration in the United Kingdom is hardly unprecedented. In the early days of the SARS–CoV–2 pandemic, hundreds of thousands of pigs in the United States were culled due to similar backlogs; at one point CoBank estimated that some seven million animals would have to be destroyed in the first quarter of 2020 alone. The shock to the livestock market was such that on a daily basis, just in Nobles County, Minnesota, some 2,000 pigs were being killed, laid out in windrows, and allowed to compost in the open air. Meanwhile in Australia, the totalitarian premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, ordered a 33 percent reduction in meat plant processing so as to reduce staff numbers for the sake of “greater hygiene and social distancing practices,” which, when combined with interstate border closures and other containment measures, necessitated the culling of millions of chickens, pigs, and other “excess” livestock.
Beginning in the 1970s, European Union interventionism and generous subsidies famously resulted in so-called milk lakes, wine lakes, butter mountains, beef mountains, and grain mountains, but these Brobdingnagian accumulations of foodstuffs were the result of surpluses of agricultural goods, which could be rendered less perishable (e.g. in the form of powdered milk) and stockpiled or exported. Indeed from time immemorial the very idea of producing butter, cheese, bacon, etc. is to render the fruits of high productivity/low demand periods less susceptible to spoilage, and able to hoarded and enjoyed at a later date. Those “milk lakes” seemed faintly ridiculous at the time, but in hindsight they were signifiers of plenty, not unlike the prodigious qullqa storage facilities of the Inca Empire. Now we have a new abiding symbol of modern industrial just-in-time agriculture: row upon row of euthanized pigs dumped into hastily-dug, wood-chip-lined shallow graves, beasts rotting in the sun, destined never even to “turn into pork,” at best serving as a very expensive compost additive. Surely this is the reductio ad absurdum of an entire way of life — our own — and yet more support for Leopold Kohr’s incontrovertible dictum that “whenever something is wrong, something is too big.”
The meat industry as we know it is part and parcel of industrial modernity in all its inhuman scale. In William Cronon’s magisterial Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1992), we learn how the meat-packing industry could fairly be said to have revolutionized life on earth itself by
creating immense, vertically integrated corporations capable of exercising managerial control over the food of many nations on a scale never before seen in the history of the world. Nothing in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century better symbolized the city’s profoundly transformed relationship to the natural world than its gigantic meat-packing corporations. Although they joined the Board of Trade and the lumberyards in guidebooks that sought to impress visitors with the ways in which Chicago stood first among cities, the packers in fact represented the city’s greatest break with nature and the past. . . . By managing supply and demand, they effectively rearranged the meat trade of the entire world. Ranchers on the plains, feedlot farmers on the prairies, butchers in the cities, and meat eaters the world over increasingly inhabited a system in which the packers called most of the shots.
“An industry,” Cronon continued, “that had formerly done its work in thousands of small butcher shops around the country must be rationalized to bring it under the control of a few expert managers using the most modern and scientific techniques. The world must become Chicago’s hinterland.” This was an epochal rupture with the past, and an absolute nightmare for those of distributist inclinations. “Formerly, a person could not easily have forgotten that pork and beef were the creation of an intricate, symbiotic partnership between animals and human beings . . . In a world of farms and small towns, the ties between field, pasture, butcher shop, and dinner table were everywhere apparent, constant reminders of the relationships that sustained one’s own life. In a world of ranches, packing plants, and refrigerator cars, most such connections vanished from easy view,” just as Bataille noted in his clever essay on abattoirs. Cronon’s rather poignant conclusion was that as a result of these developments the slaughtered animal thereby in a sense “died a second death,” “severed from the act that killed it,” and “vanished from human memory as one of nature’s creatures,” as it wended its way through the ever-lengthening supply chain.
“Whoever and fails to visit the Great Union Stock Yards,” declared one guidebook, “loses and opportunity to be found in no other city on the habitable globe,” which was probably true. Rudyard Kipling, during his 1889 visit to Chicago, complained of the “huge wilderness” of the city with its “scores of miles of these terrible streets” and “hundred thousand of these terrible people,” but worst of all were the stock yards, where he would be shocked at how “they were so excessively alive, these pigs,” and “then they were so excessively dead, and the man in the dripping, clammy, hot passage did not seem to care, and ere the blood of such an one had ceased to foam on the floor, such another, and four friends with him, had shrieked and died.” Others were even less impressed by the sheer efficiency on display. Ludwig Klages, in his 1913 jeremiad “Man and Earth,” bemoaned how
Everywhere, the rural fields are “combined” into rectangular plots, ancient grave-sites are disturbed, thriving nurseries are obliterated, the reed-bordered fishponds dry up, and the flourishing forested wilderness of yesteryear has had to surrender its pristine state, because all trees must now line up like soldiers, and every woodland must be purged of the old thickets of “poisonous” undergrowth; the winding rivers which once suspended themselves in glittering, labyrinthine curves, must now become perfectly straight canals; the swift streams and waterfalls — and this is true even for Niagara — must now feed electric power-plants; ever-expanding forests of smoke-stacks reach all the way to the oceans’ shores; and the water-pollution caused by industry transforms nature’s pristine waters into raw sewage. Very soon, the face of the earth will be transformed into a gigantic Chicago, pocked with a few patches of agriculture!
Whether or not your views on the subject are as strident as those of Kipling and Klages, it seems hard to dispute William Cronon’s contention that the industrialization of the meat-packing industry was a crucial juncture at which the modern and the natural world officially and definitively parted ways.
There are profound implications to this breach, not the least of which are nutritional. Deracinated, disassociated, and decerebrated as modern life is in so many respects, it is the almost total disconnection between people and their sources of sustenance that stands out the most. People are, as a rule, woefully ignorant of where their food actually comes from, what it contains, or whether or not it even provides a fraction of the nutritional value it used to. We find ourselves running on empty calories and fistfuls of statins, swimming in an ocean of seed oils, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and xenoestrogens, our adipose tissue saturated with endotoxins, and, not coincidentally, our public health reduced to a parlous state. There are those brave souls who seek out preferable options, like raw (real) milk, as opposed to pasteurized milk permeated with dead bacteria, or antibiotic and hormone-free meat responsibly produced via holistic regenerative grazing practices, but they are the exception, and such methods would in any event struggle to come anywhere near feeding the 10 billion slavering mouths that will baying for food by the year 2050.
There are political and even spiritual implications to all of this as well. As Klages warned,
Make no mistake: “progress” is the lust for power and nothing besides, and we must unmask its method as a sick, destructive joke. Utilizing such pretexts as “necessity,” “economic development,” and “culture,” the final goal of “progress” is nothing less than the destruction of life. This destructive urge takes many forms: progress is devastating forests, exterminating animal species, extinguishing native cultures, masking and distorting the pristine landscape with the varnish of industrialism, and debasing the organic life that still survives. It is the same for livestock as for the mere commodity, and the boundless lust for plunder will not rest until the last bird falls. To achieve this end, the whole weight of technology has been pressed into service, and at last we realize that technology has become by far the largest domain of the sciences.
Many have declared that they will not “live in the pod and eat the bugs,” that they will not ungrudgingly partake in the sick, destructive joke of post-modernity, but, as the anonymous Twitter account marquis de posade (@acczibit) wryly observed with regards to the coming enforcement of California’s Farm Animal Confinement Proposition, “If ‘the pigs need to have enough space to be able to turn around’ is enough of a burden to crater the entire market then you gotta wonder if you haven’t been eating the bugs in spirit all along.”
Our treatment of livestock, and nature writ large, certainly does not presage anything good for our treatment of each other. “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity,” St. Francis of Assisi wisely suggested, “you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” The link between animal cruelty and serial killing has long been established, but the association may perhaps be detected at a civilizational level as well. In a recent article in the German conservative environmental magazine Die Kehre, “Wider die Dauerhafte Übernutzung,” or “Against Permanent Overuse,” Jonas Schick argues that “industrial and consumer societies were born to a life beyond their means,” and “will never be able to enter into a sustainable exchange relationship with nature, no matter how hard they strive to achieve it through technological, ‘green’ innovation,” meaning that in the end we are faced with the destructive “supremacy of the industrial-capitalist complex and its monoculturalization of nature and man [Monokulturalisierung von Natur und Mensch].” A civilization that engages in monocultural agriculture is, according to Schick, one that will likewise produce an undifferentiated, insensate socio-intellectual monoculture. I fear he is correct in this assessment, which is altogether in keeping with another incontrovertible dictum, this time courtesy of Chesterton: “The modern world seems to have no notion of preserving different things side by side, of allowing its proper and proportionate place to each, of saving the whole varied heritage of culture. It has no notion except that of simplifying something by destroying nearly everything.” That is the essence of monoculture, be it agricultural or social.
It was in two recent Substack pieces, “We Are All Cattle Now” and “Bovine Coronavirus and Us,” that a German researcher writing under the nom de plume Eugyppius made the astute observation that “coronavirus vaccines have been used in animals for years, with extremely unimpressive results,” adding that
Our own SARS-2 vaccines, despite their fancy mRNA and virus vector technology, are entirely of a piece with veterinary standards. They have a poor side effect profile, they provide only temporary and partial protection against infection, and they are deployed on a vast scale with no regard for the evolutionary pressure they place on the virus or their broader consequences for infection dynamics. These are normal standards in the context of industrial livestock, where most animals are not raised to live very long in any event, and the risk of occasional accidents — inadvertently favouring or even causing lethal superstrains, or inflicting widespread vaccine injuries — can be weighed against the economic loss associated with mortality from infections.
Thus are we increasingly being treated as livestock by the political and pharmaceutical establishment, and subjected to various social control measures, herded into urban pens, told that we will “own nothing and be happy” after the Great Reset, all the while being fattened up by “immense, vertically integrated corporations capable of exercising managerial control” over our ever more nutritionally impoverished diets. So we are all cattle now. It seems something of a pity that we didn’t establish a better precedent regarding the humane treatment of livestock before we ourselves were hoisted over the rough bench.
Klages’ essay “Man and Earth” was inspired in large part by the Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff’s meditation on “Foreboding and the Present,” which described a modern world barely lit by an “ever-expanding, uncertain twilight,” where “the wider world below remains abandoned to its hollow expectations,” where “justice and injustice will seem to have merged their natures in a blind access of rage,” but where, it was to be hoped, “miracles will at last take place, and the just will receive their just rewards; and a new, yet somehow very ancient, sun will radiate its light through the scenes of horror. The thunder will still roll, but only upon the peaks of distant mountains; and then the white dove will soar aloft in the clear blue skies; and the earth itself will shine with a brighter light from the heavens above.” In Eichendorff’s era Romantic writers and philosophers were propounding theories of organicist nationalism, and working to strengthen the sacral identification of a people with its place in the world, and with the dead generations that preceded them — Maurice Barrès’ “la terre et les morts,” in other words. As late as 1913, Klages could put his faith in Eichendorff’s vision, but then, one year later, his civilization made a suicide attempt from which it has arguably yet to recover.
Plebeian industrialism, once ascendant, now goes unchallenged, and the irreverent manipulation of nature continues apace, even to the point of creating genetically-enhanced chimeric viruses on an absurd whim. Eichendorff, Klages, Chesterton, Gómez Dávila, and other skeptics of modernity would doubtless be horrified by what we have wrought, and our own labors will be all the more difficult given the ground that has been lost in the meantime. We can begin, though, by taking Klages’ advice, and writing off the “the convinced disciple of this faith in technology (which will die with him).” Instead it is on behalf of “the members of a younger generation, which still asks questions, that we desire to lift at least a corner of the veil in order to reveal the perilous self-deception that lurks behind” this world of soul-crushing modern monoculture, typified not by all its technological gewgaws, but by windrows stuffed with euthanized pigs rotting in the mid-day sun, those sacrificial victims of modernity who have, in their own way, served to lay bare a world abandoned to its hollow expectations.