Every Death Is a Tragedy

Humans have a hard time comprehending massive quantities. Our predominant evolutionary experience has left us good at small, easily graspable numbers, distances, amounts, volumes. We humans are just NOT good at scaling up.

Joseph Stalin was speaking a biological truism, then, when he said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” (Granted, he was a mass murderer and so could speak from experience…but still.)

It is even harder for us big-brained humans to handle both massive scales and species boundaries. However hard to really feel it sometimes, we can generally recognize the horror of a million human deaths. But ten billion annual deaths of chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, and other non-human land animals is, according to legal protocols, “standard industry practice.” (To account for sea animals, you have to multiply that number by about five to ten…)

Statistics, when it comes to animals raised and slaughtered for food in the United States, can never shake the trail of blood that extends behind them for hundreds, indeed thousands of years. While the Industrial Revolution has as one of its children modern industrial (“factory”) farming, the beginning of this tragic tale lies further back, at the dawn of agriculture—indeed in the first clumsy moments in which humans realized their ability to influence other creatures.

Much of the United States is still agricultural land. The number of farmers has plunged precipitously, but the amount of land and number of animals “under production” are still vast. Vast beyond human comprehension.

Despite the big numbers, the awfulness of statistics is a matter of flesh and blood—an inescapable onslaught of pain, suffering, and thoughtlessness. The statistics become terrible every single day, whether we are standing in the midst of a slaughterhouse, or walking down a grocery store aisle, or watching a fast-food commercial on television.

They become terrible by becoming individuated. By becoming personal.

Business as usual relies on hatcheries, farms, feedlots, battery cages, calf hutches, gestation crates, transport trucks, processing plants, and distribution networks, all before the stolen, hacked up, and packaged parts and pieces of living beings are placed on the grocery store shelves or set out on a farmers market table. Each stage on the assembly line involves statistics, be they pounds of flesh or dollars and cents.

But each and every one of these points of production and consumption is also a tragedy.

The reason—and this is what Stalin was never able to grasp—is that those million deaths in a statistic are made up of individuals. There is no other way.

Those individual beings each had a personality, with individual thoughts, feelings, experiences, desires, instincts, and hardships. No matter how many living beings are packed into the cages, the trucks, or the machinery, their individuality is never eradicated. Not by humans’ mad, insatiable hunger for flesh, nor by humans’ transference of the act of slaughter to a small minority, nor by humans’ mechanization of the process of birth, growth, and death.

These one million deaths, ten billion deaths, or one death are all needless tragedies, for they are the forced deaths of individuals for our consumption. Whether on an assembly line or on the family farm next door, the deaths are needless and selfish.

Statistics can never change that fact.

When we face down those statistics, it is both unfathomable and unconscionable to respond in any other way than to stop eating and using and abusing non-human animals.

There is no other ethical or defensible response than to go vegan, and to advocate for the end of exploitation, consumption, and commodification of every single individual creature.

There is nowhere to hide from this fact, no matter how great the statistics.

– Justin Van Kleeck


(Top image credit: ben via Wikimedia Commons.)


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