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Are We So Addicted to Meat That We Can't See Where the Swine Flu Came From?

A virus like swine flu is a completely predictable outcome of our cruel and appallingly filthy factory farming systems.

Are we killing ourselves?

There has been a lot of talk in recent days about how factory farmed animals are the cause of the deadly hybrid virus that is eerily mutating, and some are calling it cosmic retribution, a sort of "chickens coming home to roost" scenario. I don't know about that, but an animal virus like swine flu is a completely predictable (and was a widely predicted) response to our modern horribly cruel and appallingly filthy factory farming systems.

Undoubtedly, some animal welfare people are hoping that swine flu will serve as a wake-up call for humanity, that the "groupthink" in support of intensive farming might move toward thoughtfulness about the health hazards and cruelty of intensively confining animals, and that governments will pass laws to make these "confined animal feeding operations" (CAFOs, the industry term for "factory farm") smaller, cleaner, less cruel, and less dependent on drugs--which are used to keep the animals alive through the filthy and stressful conditions that would otherwise kill them in much greater numbers.

I must admit that this does feel like a wake-up call: Are we really so addicted to eating meat (even as we demand that meat be inexpensive, meat processors want to make more money, which means faster, meaner ways of raising and slaughtering animals for food) that we're willing to risk the millions who could die from such mutating viruses? Has our desire for gustatory pleasure at any cost pushed us into terrible consequences as we creep toward an ugly future? The "big one" may not be this particular version of the flu, but scientists say we have not seen the last of H1N1; not by a long shot.

When the swine flu hit, I was already wondering and talking with friends about whether the economic crisis might inspire a paradigm shift in how we live our lives, especially after reading a remarkable column by generally sober and hyper-realistic Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. Writes Friedman, "What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it's telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically...?"

Friedman concludes that "Often in the middle of something momentous, we can't see its significance. But for me there is no doubt: 2008 will be the marker--the year when 'The Great Disruption' began."

Of course, the economic meltdown is already forcing us to rethink our priorities and what we value, so there is a process of letting go of a lot of things we considered important. People have cut back on buying non-essential items; we're eating out less, using the library more, and generally becoming more reasonable in our consumption and more civic-minded in our overall way of being--the economic crunch is, as Friedman predicted, causing a reevaluation of our priorities.

But will the changes be as massive as Friedman predicts? President Obama certainly hopes so. I recently saw a quote by the president: "History reminds us that, at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas." Yes, we have; and we can again, of course.

In the past, America has faced and overcome enormous difficulties again and again, from the Revolutionary War to World War II to the obstacles of racism and sexism. These challenges, and our ability as a people to address them--with both individual and societal change--should inspire us to optimism in the face of current challenges.

What can we do, as individuals, to create a sea change, to halt the mutation of deadly viruses, to say no to out-of-control business practices, to stop creating environmental havoc, and to bring our health up to a better level? All of this can be covered, incredibly, by thinking very seriously about the foods we choose to eat, and then changing our habits if we find that our choices are generating problems. And as we change as individuals, society and governments will change with us.

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