Earthlings (2005) is a documentary film by Shaun Monson that asks us to think authentically about who we really are. It forcefully, sometimes disturbingly, reminds us of an essential character of our consciousness, something about ourselves that our culture often dismisses: compassion and empathy. Along the way it shows and tells some inconvenient truths that most of us (including Al Gore) would probably prefer to avoid. Though we sometimes feel compassion and empathy towards other human beings, we try to run away from the natural empathy we should feel towards other beings on the planet, other earthlings. This is essentially a mass hypocrisy that we mindlessly accept. Earthlings shows us what is right there to see, if we would only look directly and honestly.
As a production, Monson’s Earthlings is a meticulously crafted work, featuring narration by Joaquin Phoenix, a moodily effective musical score by Moby, and rare footage from inside the animal factory farming industry that must have been difficult to acquire. But due to some of the film’s unsettling images and the fact that the film is partially an exposé of barbarous practices across various sectors of society (particularly the meat and dairy industry), Monson has faced difficulties gaining mainstream distribution for the film. But movies should be more than just escapist entertainment. This film has a thought-provoking social significance, and I urge readers to seek it out (you can get it here) and watch it.
To a certain extent Earthlings can be considered to be a visual companion of Will Tuttle’s The World Peace Diet (2005). Although the two works make no reference to each other, they share the common vision that we must regain our feelings of empathy towards other earthlings if our human civilization is to survive. They both make the point that, generally, no matter how different people may seem to be, they all share some basic feelings:
other societies, other races, or the opposite gender, and we appropriately condemn them as racists or sexists. Such narrow-minded people view others towards whom they are prejudiced as mere objects, unworthy of consideration as bona fide human beings.
But there is another mode of prejudicial narrow-mindedness, called “speciesism” that is less commonly recognized. Speciesists are people who fail to extend empathy towards animals, even though animals, too, are clearly sentient, sensitive creatures who have the same basic desires for companionship, a chance to live a normal life, and freedom from pain. Although we typically condemn those who are racists and sexists, the overwhelming majority of us are guilty of speciesism.
Early on, Earthlings presents striking images of Nazi genocidal atrocities towards Jews, which elicit a curious cognitive dissonance in the viewer’s mind – certainly the Jews were cruelly “treated like animals”, but on this occasion we are moved to ask a different question: should even animals be treated this way? Or did the Nazi treatment of Jews stem in fact from the socially accepted reduction of animals to mere objects? The rest of Earthlings goes on to discuss the extent of modern society’s pervasive speciesism, successively covering five areas:
Certainly the subject of pets should be at least one category where animals are well-treated and given love and affection, no? Yet even in this most benign category, people often prove to be careless and unfeeling towards the animals they claim to love. Although people enjoy the companionship of dogs and cats, they often treat them as toys or playthings and fail to look after them. Every year there are about 25 million of them are left as strays on the streets, and 9 million eventually die there. Another 16 million are euthanized per year by civic authorities and animal shelters. Interestingly, the film claims that 50% of animals that are brought to shelters have been taken there by their caretakers.
The next topic is at the opposite end of the spectrum. These creatures who, like all animals, want to live and be free from pain are slaughtered and eaten by us on a massive scale. Although most of us eat animals for food, we studiously avoid thinking about what that means – that a sentient being has been slaughtered for our pleasure. The meat that we find on our plates has been abstracted away from the living being that it once embodied, and there seems to be a collective conspiracy to keep that thought out of mind: “don’t spoil my dinner by talking about it,” people typically say. But if you watch the images in this section of the film, you cannot ignore seeing the obvious fact that these fellow earthlings share a basic commonality with us: they do feel pain and they struggle to stay alive. Nevertheless, we have created a massive and mechanized food industry whose operations are generally shielded from the public eye. The mass slaughter of animals is relentless – 10 billion per year in the US (~19,000 per minute). Earthlings shows how the often terrorized animals are ruthlessly transported and then shows some of the operations of branding, dehorning, and slaughter, all of which is done without anesthetics. The slaughter may involve the hurried and often haphazard use of the “humane” bolt guns, but they all end up with live animals having their throats slit so that their still-beating hearts can pump out much of their blood to make their meat more palatable for human consumption .
The cruel excesses of the meat industry are gruesomely detailed; and although the viewer may already have a dim inkling of what generally goes on inside the slaughterhouses, the specifics shown here must be brought to the attention of everyone. There are some people, however, who will concede the excesses of the slaughterhouse, but who hold onto the belief that at least the dairy industry is less cruel to the animals. However, as Tuttle points out, in some ways dairy farming is even more cruel than meat farming, because the animals “are severely abused for longer periods and inevitably slaughtered when their productivity declines.” Consider the grim fate of newborn calf when a dairy cow gives birth. There are four horrific paths it could take:
- If female, it might be raised as another dairy cow. Then, like its mother, it will be dehorned and then impregnated within its first year (normal, natural calves would not be ready to mother until 3-5 years of age), fed hormones and milked by machines incessantly, producing 4-6 times as much milk as normal cows would. It will from then on be kept in the unnatural state of both lactating and newly pregnant for several years until it finally collapses from exhaustion at the age of about 4 (a cow’s natural life expectancy is about 20-25 years). Then it will be taken to the slaughterhouse.
- Or the calf might be killed immediately after birth. The rennet in its stomach will be used for cheese production. Its tender skin can be used for expensive leather, and its body will be ground up for animal feed.
- Or it might be used for veal. In this case it is forced to live in a tiny veal crate so that it cannot move and develop muscles. This makes the veal meat more tender. The calves are fed an iron-deficient diet (to give the meat a lighter, more appealing look) and denied bedding, water, and light during their miserable four-month existence prior to the slaughterhouse.
- Or, if male, the calf might be lucky enough to be raised for beef meat. Then it will be quickly castrated (without anesthetics), branded, and dehorned. After 1-1½ years of grazing, it will be sent to a feedlot to be unnaturally fattened with steroids and other chemicals for a few months prior to the trip to the slaughterhouse.
The situation is no different for the poultry industry, which has become an increasingly significant proportion of the Western diet – Americans consume as many chickens per day now as they did in one year back in 1930. In order to reduce the effects of cannibalism that inevitably arises from their dreadful living conditions, the chickens are routinely debeaked, a painful procedure that sometimes kills them.
Seafood is covered next, and again, the viewer is reminded that fish, like other earthlings, have sophisticated nervous systems that indicate they are sensitive creatures who feel pain and struggle to survive. Dolphins and whales are known to be particularly intelligent, social creatures, and the story of their harvesting and slaughter, which is the focus of the recent excellent feature The Cove (2009), is also covered.
The value of placing the subject of food relatively early in Monson’s account is that the disturbing images of the slaughterhouse cast a dark shadow over the rest of the tale. The coverage now turns to clothing, and the reminder that leather is “dead flesh” is all we need to remember some of the earlier sequences. Much of the world’s demand for leather comes from the US, the UK, and Germany; and much of the leather for these markets come from a different source than the cows we eat – India. In that country cows are venerated by Hindus and protected by law. But in sectors of the economy rife with corruption, the cows are apparently sold to leather merchants by poor Indian farmers who have been wrongly assured that their cattle will be able to live out their natural lives. Coverage in this section also includes the appalling conditions of fur farms, as well as the information that over 100 million wild animals are yearly murdered for their pelts (25 million in the US).
The next topic is revealing, because it reminds us that our culture has so accustomed us to animal mistreatment that we don’t see what animal entertainment is – just the grotesque manipulation of innocent animals as objects for our amusement. It was Mark Twain who said that man “ is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain.” The topics depicted move from rodeos, roping, racing (mostly dog and horse), state fairs, circuses, zoos, bull fighting, and, of course, fishing and hunting for “sport”. In the section on circuses, we are reminded that the animals forced to perform actions unnatural to their nature (but amusing to humans) do so only because dominance, fear, and pain are integral parts of the training process. When we visit zoos, it is to see a freak show; it is impossible to get any understanding of the nature of those other living beings as animals or of how they would live in surroundings in which they naturally evolved.
As for the pleasure of hunting, there could be much said, and the film offers a few telling images. But to add even more perspective, I ask you to consider just what happens in one relatively benign state of the US, Wisconsin: during that state’s brief gun-hunting season their hunters kill (“harvest”) over 200,000 deer per year. Even more despicable is the state’s “Youth Deer Hunt” for 10-15-year-olds. I hope you agree that we need to raise our youths to have an entirely different view of wildlife and the world we live in.
Finally, the discussion turns to vivisection, or “animal experimentation”, an attempt of reductionist science to learn more about potential health effects on humans by torturing and maiming animals. There are various estimates as to how many animals are subjected to these procedures, but the numbers could be as high as 100 million per year. There is no evidence that these procedures have led to significant scientific discoveries.
In the end it comes down to what I said at the beginning: it is a matter of who we really are, who we want to be. Are we authentically able to recognize our inborn feelings of empathy? We actually recognize pain in all other beings, but we pretend that we don’t see it. The word “speciesism” may sound somewhat artificial, but perhaps we should let Richard Ryder, who coined the term, expand upon it:
“[Speciesism is] like racism or sexism - a prejudice based upon morally irrelevant physical differences. Since Darwin we have known we are human animals related to all the other animals through evolution; how, then, can we justify our almost total oppression of all the other species? All animal species can suffer pain and distress. Animals scream and writhe like us; their nervous systems are similar and contain the same biochemicals that we know are associated with the experience of pain in ourselves.”In many ways the film Earthlings complements another film that counsels us to avoid the consumption of animal flesh, Mike Anderson’s excellent, Eating (2009). For its part, Eating speaks to our selfish concerns about our own welfare, including both our personal health and the sustainability of our environment. The argument makes sense from a purely utilitarian perspective, where empathy plays no part. Earthlings, on the other hand, speaks to our innate sense of compassion. Something that is there inside all of use, but needs a reawakening.
Early on in the film, there is quotation from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House:
“Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."We must make the connection.
- For an analysis of the flawed arguments and hypocrisy behind the Food Movement and its advocacy of ethical meat-eating (championed by writers Michael, Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jonathan Safran Foer), see James McWilliams, "Loving Animals to Death", The American Scholar, Spring 2014, http://theamericanscholar.org/loving-animals-to-death/#.UzY91lcVet9