While an abundance of research tells us stress in cities is so severe that it’s making many of us quite ill, I’ve been encouraged to see how some countries have decreased some of these stresses. They’re using such methods as adding more of the green space we all desperately need, limiting the increasing toxic chemicals showing up in much of the world’s food and other products, and limiting industrial noise and fumes known to contribute to mental and physical illness.1 Here in the US we need to adopt some of these solutions more widely if we’re to climb up from our low rating on lists of happiest countries. We’re now a paltry #14 on one list, and on another we’ve fallen to 19th.2 While some of these stress solutions and those for other stresses I write about can be challenging, most are manageable with some public education and shared effort between private citizens and business and government leaders.
I’ve been thinking for some time however that it isn’t just this kind of stress that’s affecting us. People are telling me they’re dismayed by what seems increasingly ruder, inconsiderate, or just mean behavior in their daily lives. They encounter it while driving, or around town, or from reading and hearing hateful rhetoric in the news and online. When you add this to the usual city chaos from noise, traffic, construction, and so on, it feels almost like living in a war zone, but without the comforting closeness that wartime sometimes causes as people come together to support each other against an enemy. The enemy is right here, and it seems as if it will remain as long as we do or say inconsiderate, cruel, or hateful things.There seems to be a growing lack of regard for one another at a time when feelings of shared and supportive community where we live–something researchers say we must have for good mental health–are in short supply. Whether or not we’re all aware of all these stresses, it looks like they’re affecting us seriously, raising our blood pressures, causing other stress-related illnesses, making us feel anxious or depressed, or all these and more. In fact chronic stress from multiple sources is thought by many researchers to be shortening our lives, especially in cities which tend to be even more chaotic than rural areas.
THREE HARMFUL PRACTICES
I study solutions for many different stresses affecting our health in and out of cities, but for now I want to consider just three specific practices you might not think of as major contributors to our stressful environment. I believe they do affect us deeply, and that we must examine them carefully if we want to become a happier healthier country. Though they often lie under our radar and we’d mostly rather not look at them, we need to now because they contribute to unnecessary violence, cruelty, and suffering that go on here daily. I’m convinced they make us feel too comfortable with that suffering, and that continuing them belies our notion that we’re a civilized people.
I think it’s good to accept that we humans are fallible so we can keep it in mind in making all our decisions (more on this in another post). Our imperfectness is one reason that even when we know stopping a harmful practice would help us, we often find ways not to stop it if it’s inconvenient enough or takes us far enough out of our comfort zones. Most of us don’t mean to be cruel, but if we fail to try to stop suffering that we cause, we are cruel. As a result we make our culture less kind, and our country a darker place. To change this we’ll need to slow our current desperate rush through life long enough to look deeply into ourselves and ask whether we really need what these practices give us. (The practices also exist in other countries, and I hope they will ask the same question.) The practices and the misery they cause reach into our culture like ripples from stones thrown in a pond. They settle into our lives until it seems normal and okay that they’re there. But it isn’t okay.
The practices are:
1) Widespread gun ownership
3) Animal agriculture (raising and killing animals for food and products)
Millions of people already live life happily without them, which shows that the suffering they cause isn’t necessary and serves no purpose that benefits humanity. Before I get to the practices let’s first take a short detour:
AN ANTHROPOLOGIST’S VIEW OF KIND & UNKIND SOCIETIES
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict observed two kinds of cultures–she called them “synergistic” and “surly and nasty.” I like to call them “kind” and “unkind.” In synergistic cultures, behaviors that benefit the whole society are rewarded, and those that harm it are forbidden. The people respect compassion and generosity, and wealth is circulated throughout the community. If your vegetable patch is overflowing, you just naturally give a lot of food away, and you don’t get (or need) social brownie points for being well off. Kids are taught early to share. These societies tend to be peaceful, healthy, and respectful of women, children, and the elderly. Individuals are happy, secure, and trusting.
Surly and nasty societies hold wealth in high esteem and reward behavior that benefits individuals at the expense of the group. The people tend to be paranoid, mean-spirited, warlike, and abusive to women, children, and the elderly. Individuals see others as threats or competitors, think only of their own interests, and often are self-aggrandizing, insecure, suspicious, and hostile, Wealth is in the hands of only a few.3 Now let’s get to the first of the three practices.
GUN OWNERSHIP, THE NRA, & DESTROYING LIVES
How would Ruth Benedict label us? For years we’ve seen repeated mass killings aided by a constant proliferation of guns whose increasing sales line the pockets of gun sellers who then enrich the NRA, a group of what seem to be rather tyrannical, self-interested people. One political commentator recently went so far as to say the Republican party is actually controlled by the NRA. There’s seems something very wrong about that if it’s indeed true. In any case the NRA appears to use its gun sale money to maintain and promote even more gun sales through encouraging more gun use. It fights ferociously to discourage gun limits, and supports political candidates who will support…the NRA. Members are devoted to the idea of millions of us carrying the guns that take massive numbers of human lives and traumatize forever massive numbers of families of those who lost their lives. The group and its supporters are also widely devoted to the loathsome “sport” of hunting, which, no matter what else you say about it, takes life away from millions of beautiful wild animals. How many animals? I’ve seen numbers from 100 million to 200 million a year in the US, not including the millions more for which kill figures are not maintained by state wildlife agencies. Even non-hunters are forced to be exposed to all this slaughter when they go to wildlife refuges and national forests. PETA reports that 40% of hunters slaughter and maim millions of animals on public land every year.
The NRA could not exist in a “synergistic” (kind) society. It’s made itself a poster group for surly and nasty behavior and rhetoric. How else can you describe the ignoring of desperate pleas of friends and families of Florida massacre victims to reduce guns in this country? Or Georgia’s lieutenant governor’s crippling Delta airlines which like a number of companies practiced kindness by distancing itself from the NRA after the massacre? While many factors were at work in the Florida killings, the NRA and its supporters do seem quite comfortable with their own contribution to regular killings by gunfire via the easy gun availability they rabidly promote. They seem proud of their self-perceived patriotism and goodness, professing that the right to own guns is “granted by God.” Their CEO’s shouted speech after the shootings can only be described as astonishingly cruel. Besides keeping guns available and killing astounding numbers of animals, some NRA leaders increasingly display an almost swashbuckling cruel manner. It may be contributing more than we realize to the atmosphere that’s making many people feel the country has become a meaner, more hate-filled place.
If the NRA does control the Republican party, how much might it (and the party) have to do with other cruel and hostile public statements coming from some members of the party, such as from the President, and from a recent candidate in Pennsylvania concerning things he proclaimed that Democrats hate, including God? This is surely the rhetoric of surliness, and if it continues to be considered acceptable will only get deeper under the skin of our culture. Such rhetoric pulls us apart, providing fewer chances to form those health-giving social bonds with one another we all need. Wouldn’t it be better to be kinder in our attitudes and public statements, so we can come together as a country? Any group–and there are many now–that does or says cruel or nasty things on the public stage makes this nearly impossible. I sense from the NRA that it wants things to remain as they are now: violent, scary, and terribly sad for much of the country. This is certainly an anti-kindness, anti-community, and selfish attitude. Of course leaders of some countries seem drawn to the same ends, but that’s another reason I hope our country will become a model for kindness.
Keeping in mind that surly and nasty societies support individuals at the expense of the group, the NRA, an individual, smaller (but powerful) group, wants widespread guns at the expense of a much bigger group (all Americans who don’t want to live surrounded by guns). It doesn’t matter to the NRA that keeping guns available reduces the chances of a long life for all those future massacre victims, and chances for today’s suffering families to recover from their loss and probable lifelong trauma. Imagine how it feels to think their loved ones died in vain as guns continue to proliferate, when what they desperately need for recovery is to see is major gun-reducing legislation. NRA’s lack of empathy is stunning, and the cowardly hesitation to act on such legislation in most of Congress is even more stunning. Even worse, many other hateful groups can get guns easily thanks to the NRA, and use them to bully, spread more hate, and kill and maim even more people. This simply cannot work in a kind society. We must choose whether we want to be that society, and act on that choice, or choose the status quo by doing nothing.
GUNS AID SUICIDE
As people become more upset, many become more anxious and depressed. If they’re upset enough at any one moment and have a gun, they’re likely to use it on themselves. According to a 2017 Medpage report, suicides in the US are increasing, and now occur at a rate 125% higher than several decades ago at which time they’d begun to decline. There are also 90 attempted suicides for every completed one, and it’s notable that many of these suicides occur in adolescents.4 Here and now I’m begging members of groups sowing hate and violence or pushing gun availability to help the current generation and ones that follow. Help them have long, happy lives, and have better chances to avoid depression, suicide, and being murdered, by reconsidering your thinking and your messages. Help us become the kindest country on earth. It doesn’t hurt to try thinking a different way, and to remember kindness rarely harms and almost always helps. I believe it can transform us.
Hunting is one of the best ways to keep guns widespread in America. It adds to the suffering of living beings by terrorizing and traumatizing animals, often separating forever animal mothers and babies or entire animal families. It’s hardly ever needed anymore to feed people in this country, and as you’ll see, animal food of any kind including seafood is now pretty unhealthy for us for several reasons including that much of it is contaminated with toxins such as dioxin, DDT, and other chemicals. Our industries have added these toxins to our air, water, and soil, they’re then stored in animal tissues, and end up in our own.
Besides acknowledging the physical suffering of animals, let’s no longer kid ourselves about their emotional pain. Research shows increasing evidence of animal consciousness, emotion, and intelligence. I’ll get into this more deeply in another post, but it’s clear animals can suffer great physical pain, mourn loss of loved ones, and in some cases go nearly insane with grief. We’re just beginning to learn how intelligent and sensitive they are.
Let’s stop excusing hunting as a good ol’ American sport. Yes it’s a long-practiced, age-old tradition. So are human trafficking and torture. Yes some families love annual hunting holidays, but you can vacation in nature, camp, hike, see beautiful woods, lakes, and animals (breathing ones), all without causing anguish and death. Yes some animal populations grow too large and annoy some people, but rather than hunt them let’s give them back some territory to live in, and they won’t encroach near as much. The extra green space will help to cool the planet. Yes heritage breeds should be preserved, but they don’t have to be killed and eaten. Yes hunting is practiced in other cultures, but most modern ones no longer need to do it in order to eat or dress, and no matter where it’s done, it’s cruel. So let’s lead in stopping it because it adds more guns and more acceptance of unnecessary suffering of both humans and animals. The more guns out there for hunting, the more often people can and do easily grab one to kill other people or themselves.
I heard a news commentator say NRA members often show people photos on their phones of their “latest kill.” I don’t know how widespread this is, but clearly they must not believe animals feel either mental or physical pain, or worse, they do believe it but just don’t care. You have to teach that kind of attitude toward killing and causing suffering, and if you teach it to kids, as hunters apparently often do, then you raise yet more people who don’t mind causing death and suffering. How can such an approach to life not affect our culture? Another way it adds to suffering is that people who think killing animals isn’t cruel don’t care if their killing upsets people who think it is, and many who think it is suffer chronic mental anguish due to seeing evidence of so much of it. Just walking by the grocery store meat department upsets many animal lovers, who can become so depressed that entire web sites have been established to help them deal with these constant reminders of animal suffering.
When we accept that millions of animals are slaughtered each year in our country not just by hunters but also by industries using animal products, and see that hunters are proud of killing animals, it takes us far from making our culture kinder. I believe this is true of all cultures in love with hunting, and all who raise and slaughter animals for food, clothing, or other products..
The misery caused by the animal farming industry is something most people would rather not think about, but it clearly adds the weight of more cruelty to our consciousness and to the cultural atmosphere. Mostly brutal and these days truly unnecessary, animal agriculture systems cause the suffering and killing of millions of animals around the clock, with many of them condemned to utterly tragic lives from birth to death. Many are separated from their mothers at birth despite desperate protests of both mother and baby. Many of those babies are slaughtered not long afterwards, or suffer first in terrible confinement and are then slaughtered. Slaughter is terrifying and painful despite so-called humane techniques, partly because it’s often rushed and done badly (producing more meat faster yields more profit) but also because there doesn’t seem to be any method that reliably prevents suffering.5
Animals are killed for food, clothing, and furnishings that all can be provided in other ways. Numbers I’ve found so far for animals killed every year for their fur alone are over 1 billion rabbits and 50 million other animals. We of course are not the only country participating in this suffering.
EAT PLANTS, FEED THE HUNGRY, & LIVE LONG
There are multiple reasons to convert animal farming operations to plant farms. Plant farming can feed the world much more efficiently and in a way that promotes much better health than animal farming. Stopping animal farming would dramatically decrease both pollution and global warming. We would live longer, healthier lives because plants are naturally high in critical health-promoting, disease-fighting micronutrients, while animal foods have many fewer micronutrients. It’s now known that most animal foods are causing early onset of many serious illnesses due to industrial toxins and to connections between animal fat and heart disease, and between animal foods and cancer (the cancer connection is especially strong with dairy foods). Eating animal foods also keeps most of us from eating enough of the plants that are the major contributors to good health.
There are legions of books and articles full of healthy plant-based recipes that taste as good or better than any animal food, and many high quality substitutes for animal hides, furs, and other animal ingredients used for products. Toyota, Lexus, and Tesla offer leather substitutes in their car interiors, and PETA and many other sites list retailers that sell vegan leather clothing and cruelty-free (no animal testing), animal-free cosmetics and household products. For more on plant food being the healthiest for humans read The China Study or just read summaries of the study, and any book by Joel Fuhrman, MD (Eat to Live is a great one to start with), or articles on his website such as a recent one on flame-retardant chemicals in almost all foods made from animals (including organic and pasture-raised), and in human breast milk as a result of eating those foods.6 For those who feel they can’t live without animal food, there are wonderful plant-based animal-like foods being created every year. An easy sub for cream for example is cashew nuts blended with a liquid. (Pets too can eat well without eating other animals, though some may need a supplement or two added. For an introduction to feeding such a diet go to https://www.peta.org/
You can see why increasing numbers of people now believe farming and eating plants rather than animals is a no-brainer. People are switching fast, with plant-based diets in the US increasing by 600% over three years.7 It might take a week or two to begin adapting to an all-plant diet, and most people love how they look and feel–thinner and healthier quickly–especially if they avoid most oil and stick to healthy fats like nuts and avocados (more on this in another post). Cookbooks that help include Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s The Thirty-Day Vegan Challenge, Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet, Angela Liddon’s Oh She Glows Cookbook, and Kathy Patalski’s Healthy, Happy Vegan Kitchen, all of which are good for beginners, and many more I’ll post later. For those whose business is creating food or other products made from animals and who fear loss of profits or of their business, it may be that profits will be higher due to more people now looking for vegan products and attracted to vegan retail stores, restaurants, bakeries, shoe stores, and grocery items.
KILLING ISN’T HEALTHY FOR THE KILLER EITHER
A final reason to stop animal farming is that no one should have to work in a slaughterhouse. How could the bloody and violent work of executing animals–even fish–not damage the human psyche? My father worked in a slaughterhouse briefly when he was a young man desperate for a job, and never got over it. I know many people who find fishing cruel. Research shows that slaughterhouse workers often become violent, abusive, or suffer from post-traumatic stress in their personal lives.8 My father did not become violent, but was traumatized and depressed by the cruelty and the horrific things he saw.
Because many of those workers do become abusive it confirms that if you can (or are forced to) get past the suffering and violence of killing, it’s easier to accept more suffering and violence later, even if part of you is rebelling against it. In some cases you may be so horrified that you react violently later, as sometimes happens to traumatized soldiers. I realize most slaughterhouse workers must only take those jobs because they’re desperate for work like my dad was, but I think it’s wrong to employ humans in mass murder of any kind. It would be a great kindness to train them in another field and liberate them, along with the animals, from such a terrible life.
These common reactions to killing make it hard for me to understand what would make most hunters continue to hunt. Why aren’t they affected by what seems a natural human revulsion for bloodshed and cruelty? Why doesn’t it affect owners of animal food and product businesses? How do you conclude you have the right (from God again?) to cause so much suffering and death? Why are there still so many people willing to participate in massive cruelty? Despite a brief respite a few years ago, and with so many substitutes available, it’s heartbreaking to see so much fur, down, and leather in use now. We must be messing up the minds and lives of lots of the poor workers who must labor in these businesses. Who wouldn’t be traumatized after even one day of slaughtering hundreds of bunnies? Do we realize what we’re supporting when we buy calf-skin shoes, kid gloves, or purses or make-up brushes made out of ponies?
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
I believe our letting animal agriculture continue, along with hunting and easy availability of guns, are among the main reasons we remain far from being what I know we could be: a kinder, less violent, happier, and mentally healthier society. If we don’t change, I see us heading further down our current path of increasing rudeness, self-centeredness (which makes empathy less likely), and acceptance of causing suffering. We also have much work to do in stopping other forms of misery such as that of refugees, people in our crueler prisons, our hungry and homeless, and others. We’re a largely-rich country, we see the suffering, and yet and we continue to drag our feet. I believe once we increase our attempts to help, it will become easier to do it more often. We have the brain-power, innovators, visionaries, and plenty of money that could address major issues causing suffering. It just doesn’t seem convenient now (or any time) to start changing, or those who have the money needed might not care enough about helping the downtrodden (even though helping would likely make them feel pretty good). Rather than living in a place of tragedy of our own making, wouldn’t it be better to help create a place where all people and animals are cared for and respected as part of the community of living beings on earth? Life anywhere can be difficult at times, but I believe we traumatize ourselves further by living in an atmosphere in which unnecessary misery is widespread.
Some people may think kind and peaceful means being weak. I hope they see it takes courage and fortitude to pay attention to, study, and work to solve these problems that cause suffering. Besides the other good such changes can do, they can help slow the rising tide of depression and suicide. We can save lives by helping to prevent the tailspin people go into when they feel trapped in a cruel, uncaring world. How is that not strength? And for those who think removing guns is weak, I say life without guns would do wonders to calm some of the chaos, helping us to feel safer as people now do in Japan, where it’s hard to get a gun and where in one year (2014) the death rate from gunshot was 6. In the U.S. that year it was 33, 599.9
I ask gun users worried about self-defense to consider using alarms and other methods to protect their homes and families. These methods are quite sophisticated now. Of course we need to make schools more secure, focus hard on mental health, catch problems early, and have counselors widely available at schools, prisons, hospitals, and maybe even many businesses. We need to assure that police, doctors, and others learn how to handle mental health emergencies. One way to do that and to learn yourself is to study MHFA–Mental Health First Aid–a relatively new method and teaching organization already training people all over the country (just google Mental Health First Aid.) Our mental health would of course be better in general if we didn’t have to witness repeated massacres and so many other cruelties in our culture.
But these changes aren’t enough to decrease the current epidemic of death by gunfire as dramatically as would banning all guns. I’m amazed there’s so much talk of banning only guns that kill more people faster, and allowing all others. It seems to me a lot of Americans have an unhealthy obsession with guns. I no longer think it has that much to do with the second amendment. I don’t know where it comes from, but can only say again many people around the world have lived and do live happily without guns.
It’s time for one country to lead the world in peaceful, caring behavior. Why shouldn’t it be us? We can do this, but it will take guts–do we have enough? Why not evolve, become deliberately kinder, let go of guns, stop bullying, hunting, torturing, maiming, and slaughtering. See how it feels to live more gently. It’s got to feel good to show traumatized families we respect their lives and terrible losses, and to deliver all animals from anguished suffering caused by hunters and animal farming. If we can get on this road to living with kindness we can demonstrate to others around the world what a kind society looks like, how strong it can be, and how it can help give us, them, and all our children something they desperately need–hope for a peaceful future in which we all care for all living things and for each other.
1 Drew, MacFarlane, Oiamo, Mullaly, Stefanova, & Campbell, How Lloud is too Loud?, Toronto Public Health, April 2017, https://www.toronto.ca/
2 Rankin, Jennifer, “Happiness is on the wane in the US, UN Global Report finds,” https://www.theguardian.com/
3 This information on Ruth Benedict’s observations comes from the book A Language Older than Words, by Derrick Jensen, which I learned about in another book, Healthy at 100, by John Robbins.
5. See this page for many articles on animal slaughter, most of which offer little hope of a reliably non-scary, non-painful death:
6. Fuhrman, Joel, MD, Drfuhrman.com, “The Health Inspector,” Living Nutritarian E-Magazine, https://www.
7. Chiorando, Maria, “Veganism Skyrockets by 600% in America to 6% of Population,” https://www.plantbasednews.org/post/veganism-skyrockets-by-600-in-america-over-3-years-to-6-of-population
8. Go to this link for an entire pageful of articles and studies on links between working in slaughterhouses and becoming violent or depressed:
9. Low, Harry, BBC World Service, News Magazine, “How Japan has Almost Eradicated Gun Crime,” 1/06/2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/