“The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.” A few years ago I read this on Wikipedia while researching the Inuit worldview for a school paper, and, for some reason, it’s always stuck with me. Maybe because it’s true. Scaldingly true. Our diet consists entirely of souls.
I take soul, in this case, to mean life. Anything that’s alive harbors some sort of energy. It’s this energy that allows us to distinguish what’s alive from what isn’t– the fierce green fire to which Leopold referred in A Sand County Almanac:
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.”
That fire, that essence that drains from the dead and hums through the living, is the soul, or the spirit– or the life-force, if you want to get new-agey about it. Whatever you call it, it’s there, undeniably there. And it is, simply, life.
Like the philosopher Schweitzer, I feel a reverence for life. All living beings– from coral to trailing yellow violets to the warm, steady wingbeat of a turkey vulture. Everything alive has a will-to-live. Each being should be respected, not for its usefulness, but because it is valuable in its own right, just for existing, for being our distant relative, for coexisting with us, for contributing to the unending constellations of the ecosystem.
So, in order to be respectful, and to feel comfortable in my ethics, it makes sense to harm other beings as little as possible. Obviously, there are limits to this. There will always be dead bacteria, and trails of stepped-on insects. Crushed mosquitos. A fallen dandelion. If these occurrences are involuntary, what more can I do? But — and this is where the tragedy lies — I still need to fulfill my own needs. And, honestly, all ethics exist outside of that. First I need to be comfortable. I need to support my own will-to-live. Like most creatures, this means I need to eat.
At the very least I need to eat plants. They, too, are alive, but there are some plants that you can harvest without killing. Some plants are even designed to be eaten, adapted to symbiotic relationships with mammals like ourselves. Not only would it be difficult to eat only such plants (fruits, berries, the tips of leafy greens, squash?), it would be, I believe, less healthy. There are nutrients in animal foods that can’t be found anywhere else, such as Vitamin B12. Our ancestors have always eaten omnivorously. Our bodies have evolved to thrive on diets of animal and plant foods (just look at our teeth!). Is it immoral for the bear to kill his food? He, too, is omnivorous, and could survive while eating only berries, perhaps. But his health would suffer.
So this is the great tragedy that burdened the Inuit, and continues to burden us all. It’s the tragedy of all life. Sometimes it’s easy to look at the natural world and see only the light parts; the sea turtles, the fields of wildflowers, the family of deer bounding through a dusk forest. But there will always be seals eaten by killer whales, terns snatched by arctic foxes, blood and wrestling and the painful leaking of life from the eyes. We need plants for food and clothing and shelter. We need animals for food. We can’t exist without using, without taking. So the best we can do is take our place alongside the other omnivores. I choose the most ethically raised food sources I can afford. I try my best to show respect. This is my existence. This is the way the Earth is. This is life. And it is horrible, but it is also beautiful.