Bio-Empathy

empathy

Finishing the second beehive this weekend, I had visions of buzzing creatures in my head. Bees are livestock, so I’m told. I have worked with livestock in the past and one of the rules of working with livestock is to never allow your self to think of them as anything but livestock. This is, of course, a diplomatic way of say “product”, and livestock are in the long run a product. But it dawned on me that perhaps this rule of thumb is the foundation of so much problematic action and consequences that we are seeing today.  Must show empathy to the world around us.

The lack of empathy towards creatures, whether they are bees, cattle, pigs, chickens, humans or the life that makes up our soils seems to be the cornerstone of much of agribusiness including CAFO’s and economic justification for the wholesale torture of animals for food. The exciting growth of agrarian movements including permaculture is, on the other hand, based upon empathy towards those same creatures. I was once told that greatest weapon against racism is friendship. I am beginning to think that this simple yet effective weapon is a useful tool in agriculture as well.

Permaculture, from what I understand of it, is a process of getting to know the soil, the creatures, the climate, the weather, and the micro and macro environments of your area. This seems to be breaking the rule of applying human emotion to non-human creatures (anthropomorphism); the single moral rule of thumb that most farmers claim that they must live by. We are, after all, raising animals as food or at least using them to raise the products we eat and we must do so on land that we understand; that we empathize with.

I must respectively disagree with this agricultural moral rule of thumb. I have looked animals that I have slaughtered for meat in the eye and watched death come over them. I have also done so with the knowledge that these animals have lived life as they should. I have felt the sorrow of my actions, but have understood the moral justification for those actions. The reasons that I have had these experiences is that I have felt empathy with the animals that I have raised and helped to slaughter. I am only now learning to empathize with the soil, the plants, and the creatures that live in those things in the same way.

To empathize, we must understand. To argue that we cannot apply human emotion to non-human entities and environments is a failed argument because we do not understand these entities and environments. If we did, I believe we could not help but do so. I would argue that if we do not feel empathy towards those things that we cannot feel empathy towards each other. I would further claim that the exciting agrarian movements that are currently under way are only possible because we have realized that our worst enemy is the lack of empathy that we feel for the world around us including each other.

Stephen Hawing was quoted as saying that the biggest threat to human life is our aggression. I agree with this, but something about the quote bothered me. Why were important threats to life always put into the context of human beings alone? Perhaps I would reword Hawking’s answer: the greatest threat to life is the lack of empathy we seem to have for it. To be good stewards this planet, we must be good friends with it. To be good friends, we must empathize. And to empathize, we must understand. The permaculture movement seems to be more than an environmental movement. It seems that it is a movement from anthropocentric viewpoints to biocentric realities; from fear to friendship.

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