One person’s entertainment is another’s disaster

Years ago, I almost lost my Toyota Corolla to rising floodwaters in California. Someone came along with a chain in the nick of time and pulled me out. So I can empathize with the owners of the car-sicles caught in the Kennebec River last week, flooded and then frozen. It’s like seeing your boat driven onto the shore by a hurricane.

Still, there’s a part of me that enjoys a good natural disaster. It’s why I watch films like Twister and Titanic and The Perfect Storm. There’s a vicarious thrill to seeing nature wreak havoc with human infrastructure.

Cars are expensive and many people depend on them. This I understand. But in the winter, I’m especially happy not to own one. I like to go cross-country skiing in the streets of Bangor when there’s a big snowstorm, because I’m the most mobile thing out there amongst the slipping and sliding vehicles.

It’s a failure of empathy, I know, to take pleasure from another’s pain. Yet we slow down to gawk at car crashes, we cheer at football games and boxing matches, and we consume crime novels and dramas by the fistful.

Which brings me to the subject of lobsters. Switzerland has banned the preferred method of cooking them: boiling them alive. Switzerland is a landlocked country in the Alps, with a vanishingly small lobster population. But the few lobsters that go to the pot will now be stunned first, like cattle.

What do lobsters have to do with cars? Bear with me.

I’ve thought a lot about the ways we use and abuse animals. We eat them and enslave them and make sport of them, and a lucky few, mostly dogs and cats, but also horses and hamsters and parrots, become our friends. Most people feel some sort of empathy for animals, especially our “neighbor species,” as fellow creatures. But we don’t make them citizens, or until recently, assign them “rights.”

I eat meat. I love boiled lobster. I like bacon. But consider: a pig is just as intelligent as your dog, whom you wouldn’t dream of eating outside of an Antarctic expedition, and probably not even then. The difference between loving a dog and eating a pig is mostly a matter of cultural preference.

A reader once told me that I would reduce my carbon footprint more if I bought a car but became a vegetarian. I conceded his point. But environmentalism was not the primary reason that I stopped owning cars. My concern for the planet comes with a large helping of enlightened self-interest.

I’ve read Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s scathing overview of the meat industry, and watched Super Size Me, Morgan’s Spurlock’s experiment in eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month. The lesson seems to be that billions of burgers are bad for us, on both a societal and individual level.

So I was happy to read that recent hikes in the minimum wage have led to higher prices at fast food restaurants. Maybe if Whoppers and Big Macs cost more, fewer people will buy them, and the health of the American population will take a couple of ticks upward.

The principle is the same as charging for parking, or for driving during peak hours, as some cities in Europe do. It makes long-term sense to channel a portion of car traffic into public transportation and other alternatives. It also makes sense to use less farmland for meat than for crops that provide much more nutrition per acre.

Maine has a culture of hunting, and I’m not here to criticize anyone who hunts for food. But I had the experience as a child to come face to face with a young deer in a blueberry field. We locked eyes for several long seconds before we both bolted. I knew I had looked into another consciousness. I don’t sense that when I look at a lobster.

But is that, too, just a matter of degree? I’ve dunked hundreds of lobsters without a thought to their suffering. I’ll dunk many more. It doesn’t hurt that they look like large, tasty cockroaches. If they were adorable it might be more difficult.

And there’s that question of empathy again. How far does it go? Does it extend to a squirrel on your porch, or a mouse in your cupboard? If you can empathize with a lobster, why can’t you care for the feelings of a clam or an oyster?

I was musing about this when I boarded the bus to go to my annual physical checkup earlier this week. I opened the laptop and started noodling with the first few paragraphs of this post. My doctor gave me a clean bill of health, with one caveat: I should avoid red meat and pork.

My fellow mammals can rest a little easier tonight.





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