Review: Richard Flanagan, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Penguin Random House, 2020)
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, Richard Flanagan’s eighth novel, is one of a slew of novels one expects to emerge from the shadow of the 2019–2020 bushfire season that darkened the skies of eastern Australia for weeks on end, scorching forests from Byron Bay to Kangaroo Island.
A rolling incineration of large swathes of the continent, the sky itself seemed to have been on fire, from the uncanny pink-disk sun of smoke-choked Sydney in November and December to the apocalyptic scenes at Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve.
In Flanagan’s novel the collapse of the planet’s ecosystems happens in the background. The story itself is mainly occupied with something which must be trivial by comparison: the dying of 87-year-old Francie in a Hobart hospital.
Francie’s three children have come together to deal with the demands of the situation. While Anna and Terzo have long left Tasmania behind them (or so they thought) for high-flying careers on the mainland, Tommy has remained. Tommy is a failed artist and speaks with a stutter that appeared when a fourth child, Ronnie, died by suicide following abuse suffered at a Marist boys’ school.
The novel mainly follows Anna. A successful architect living in Sydney, she reluctantly answers Tommy’s call to return to Tasmania when their mother’s health turns for the worse. The novel traces the breaking down of all the things Anna has put up to convince herself she was no longer in that place.
What place? Not Tasmania, but the invisible, traumatic centre of family life — all the failures, evasions, dirty compromises swept under the carpet only to reappear with surprising exactitude each Christmas.
While Succession, with its ageing mogul patriarch Logan Roy, is loosely based on the Murdoch dynasty, it does not really depend on a media empire at stake. Its heart is the tawdry machinations of the infantilised children as they jockey for advantage, trying to win the game of imaginary approval driving sibling rivalry.
In The Living Sea of Waking Dreams it is a matriarch rather than a patriarch slowly, messily and unevenly passing out of the world. Yet, while Logan Roy is a monster and Francie a saint, the effect in the adult children is exactly the same.
The brilliance of Flanagan’s story and the deep power of this novel is in our witnessing of the end of the world. The death of Francie opens up a black hole in the family drawing Anna, Terzo and Tommy into its implacable singularity.
At the same time as this family’s little world is collapsing, the world itself is in its own end times. Ash rains down from the sky and one ecological catastrophe after another interrupts Anna’s social media feed. This conjunction presents a new form of what is called the pathetic fallacy, in which we project the world of our inner emotions and moods onto the natural world.
A sullen sky, a bright morning, a funereal forest — some basic animism in us takes the world to be the sounding board of our affects. It is a symptom of the Anthropocene these affinities have become planetary.
Is Flanagan’s novel an ecological novel? The luxury of choosing has now all but gone.
We no longer have to turn our minds to an ecology forcing itself into our lungs and washing up on our every shore. The novel has a dimension of allegory, but it is no longer clear which direction it is flowing.
Our missing parts
The pathetic fallacy was thought to serve the psychic needs of people by offering them a consoling mirror in the natural world, but what if its true point was to turn our subjective misery into ethical environmental action?
Certainly, the moribund Francie seems an emblem of a dying maternal nature. The ever greater efforts her children expend on keeping her alive evoke the desperate rear-guard actions to prevent this or that catastrophe.
But the novel’s most persuasive ploy is not based on the redeployment of sympathy. At regular intervals, Anna realises she is missing a body part. It begins with a missing finger. Later her knee, then a breast, an eye. Others, too, start to lose body parts.
These “vanishings”, as they come to be known, are entirely painless and seem to go almost unnoticed. It is as if, we are told, they have simply been photoshopped away.
The uncanny part is not the loss of the limb, but the fact the phenomenon is going unremarked. This is what extinction feels like. Something is gone that was once there. We are briefly confused, but then we reassemble the picture and push on.
As high-rise cities grow upwards and outwards, increasing numbers of birds die by crashing into glass buildings each year. And of course many others break beaks, wings and legs or suffer other physical harm. But we can help eradicate the danger by good design.
Most research into building-related bird deaths has been done in the United States and Canada, where cities such as Toronto and New York City are located on bird migration paths. In New York City alone, the death toll from flying into buildings is about 200,000 birds a year.
Across the US and Canada, bird populations have shrunk by about 3 billion since 1970. The causes include loss of habitat and urbanisation, pesticides and the effects of global warming, which reduces food sources.
And that’s where the problems start with high-rise buildings. Most of them are much taller than the height at which birds fly. In Melbourne, for example, Australia 108 is 316 metres, Eureka 300 metres, Aurora 270 metres and Rialto 251 metres. The list is growing as the city expands vertically.
The paradigm of high-rise gothams, New York City, has hundreds of skyscrapers, most with fully glass, reflective walls. One World Trade is 541 metres high, the 1931 Empire State is 381 metres (although not all glass) and even the city’s 100th-highest building, 712 Fifth Avenue, is 198 metres.
To add to the problems of this forest of glass the city requires buildings to provide rooftop green places. These attract roosting birds, which then launch off inside the canyons of reflective glass walls – often mistaking these for open sky or trees reflected from behind.
A problem of lighting and reflections
Most cities today contain predominantly glass buildings – about 60% of the external wall surface. These buildings do not rely on visible frames, as in the past, and have very limited or no openable windows (for human safety reasons). They are fully air-conditioned, of course.
Birds cannot recognise daylight reflections and glass does not appear to them to be solid. If it is clear they see it as the image beyond the glass. They can also be caught in building cul-de-sac courtyards – open spaces with closed ends are traps.
At night, the problem is light from buildings, which may disorientate birds. Birds are drawn to lights at night. Glass walls then simply act as targets.
Architectural elements like awnings, screens, grilles, shutters and verandas deter birds from hitting buildings. Opaque glass also provides a warning.
Birds see ultraviolet light, which humans cannot. Some manufacturers are now developing glass with patterns using a mixed UV wavelength range that alerts birds but has no effect on human sight.
New York City recently passed a bird-friendly law requiring all new buildings and building alterations (at least under 23 metres tall, where most fly) be designed so birds can recognise glass. Windows must be “fritted” using applied labels, dots, stripes and so on.
Combinations of methods are being used to scare or warn away birds from flying into glass walls. These range from dummy hawks (a natural enemy) and actual falcons and hawks, which scare birds, to balloons (like those used during the London Blitz in the second world war), scary noises and gas cannons … even other dead birds.
Researchers are using lasers to produce light ray disturbance in cities especially at night and on dark days.
Noise can be effective, although birds do acclimatise if the noises are produced full-time. However, noise used as a “sonic net” can effectively drown out bird chatter and that interference forces them to move on looking for quietness. The technology has been used at airports, for example.
A zen curtain developed in Brisbane has worked at the University of Queensland. This approach uses an open curtain of ropes strung on the side of buildings. These flutter in the breeze, making patterns and shadows on glass, which birds don’t like.
These zen curtains can also be used to make windows on a house safer for birds. However, such a device would take some doing for the huge structures of a metropolis.
More common, and best adopted at the design phase of a building, is to mark window glass so birds can see it. Just as we etch images on glass doors to alert people, we can apply a label or decal to a window as a warning to birds. Even using interior blinds semi-open will deter birds.
Birds make cities friendlier as part of the shared environment. We have a responsibility to provide safe flying and security from the effects of human habitation and construction, and we know how to achieve that.
This article has been updated to correct the figure for the estimated number of birds killed by the cats in the US to “up to 4 billion”, not 4 million.
Thousands of employees internationally are already working from home in COVID-19 self-isolation because of their recent travel, related symptoms or immune system vulnerability.
But to do so while habitually checking the news on devices – and allowing 24/7 news channels to play non-stop in the background – might erode your productivity and increase stress and anxiety.
A foundational element of media literacy in the digital era is striking an appropriate balance between news consumption and other activities. Even before the current crises, Australian research demonstrated news avoidance had risen among news consumers from 57% in 2017 to 62% in 2019, driven by a sense of news fatigue.
Self-help expert Rolf Dobelli implores us to stop reading the news. While he advocates going cold turkey and abandoning all packaged news consumption, Dobelli makes exceptions for long-form journalism and documentaries.
So too does philosopher Alain de Botton in The News – A User’s Manual, while proposing more positive news and journalism’s examination of life’s deeper issues, emotions and aesthetics.
Of course, it would be a mistake to abstain from all news during the COVID-19 pandemic and its unpredictable economic and social consequences.
Often it is best to navigate a middle path, so here are five suggestions on how you can stay in the loop at home while you get your work done – and help maintain your mental health.
1. Switch off
Avoid the 24/7 news channels and feeds unless it is your business to do so, or unless the information is likely to impact you directly.
Try to develop a routine of checking in on the main headlines once, twice or three times a day so you stay informed about the most important events without being sucked into the vortex of click bait and news of incremental changes in the number of coronavirus cases or the ups and downs of the stock markets.
2. Dive deep
Look for long-form journalism and in-depth commentary on the topics that most interest you. Articles by experts (Editor’s note: like those in The Conversation!) include the most important facts you need to know, and are likely to have a constructive angle presenting incisive analysis and a pathway to a solution or best practice.
On radio and television, look for big picture current affairs programs like the ABC’s AM and 7.30 – or on a lighter and more positive note Ten’s The Project – so you don’t have to be assaulted by a disturbing litany of petrol station hold-ups, motorway chases and celebrity gossip in the packaged morning and evening news.
Use social media wisely – for communicating with family and friends when you might be physically isolated and by following authoritative sources if something in the news is affecting your life directly, such as emergency services during cyclones, fires and floods.
But avoid the suggested and sponsored news feeds with dubious and unfiltered information (often shared as spam by social media illiterates).
Keep your social media commentary civil, empathetic and supportive – mindful of everyone’s mental health during a crisis.
Ask the key question: “What is the best source of the information I absolutely need to know?”
Go to primary sources where possible. Subscribe to official and authoritative information feeds – for example, daily summaries from the World Health Organisation) and the Commonwealth Department of Health on COVID-19 and your preferred bank’s summary reports on the sharemarket and economic indicators.
5. Be mindful
Bear in mind the well being of any children in your household with the timing and selection of your hard/live news consumption. International research has shown more constructive news stories have fewer negative mental health impacts on children, particularly when combined with the opportunity to discuss the contents with their peers.
Finally, you might also use these crises to build your own media literacy – by pausing to reflect carefully upon what news you really need in your family’s life. This might vary markedly according to your work, interests and passions.
For many of us it will mean a much more critical diet of what we call “traditional hard news” – allowing us the time to read and view material that better contributes to the quality of our own lives and to our varied roles as informed citizens.
Love them or loathe them, mobile phones have become an indispensible part of our lives. With potentially all who we are online and on a handheld device, how do we get some privacy or turn down our addiction? I put these questions to some very thoughtful people.
Johnson paints portraits of dogs, but she began as a human portrait artist. One day, she added a cocker spaniel to a painting, and that started a new direction in her art. Friends asked her to paint their dogs, and she’s been painting portraits of them eversince. She hasn’t looked back.
“Suddenly I realised that dogs and their owners were so much easier and more enjoyable to paint because they [the dogs] don’t have any attitude as to what they look like,”she said.
Below is a gallery of her sensitive, masterful and beautiful renderings of dogs, and their prfound conection to us.
Dogs are considered now to be members of our families, and for some of us that’s a welcome change. But why do we connect with them so deeply? And does the dog benefit at all? Some Sydneysiders reflect on why.
If you’re older than 30, then you probably remember a time when our obsession with dogs didn’t exist. People adopted dogs, but the relationships we had with them weren’t as intense.
And so it was back then, in the decade of greed–the 80s–that I was taken by surprise when a friend told me her dog had saved her life. It was a force I didn’t understand at all, and not because I didn’t have dogs. As an adult, canines have always been in my life and I was in awe of them. But the intensity my friend talked about was an emotional threshold I’d neither considered nor crossed.
I’ve had my dog Claude now for fifteen years, and he fills a space in my life no one else can. He kept me sane through the bewildering grief of losing my mother over a decade ago. He was my constant companion, and the antidote to the darkness I was falling into. When it got too much and the weeping wouldn’t stop, I would be comforted by this beautiful creature who offered no judgment–just patience, trust and comfort.
All he asked was to be walked, fed, and treated with respect. And he wanted to play, distracting me from myself–from the constant urge to shut the world out, to hide, and sink into the enticing deep depression I was succumbing to.
It took me a long time to see him. The grief was blinding, and it was many months before I could fully appreciate the privilege of having a dog.
Claude saved my life. And so I want to know what it is about dogs that make us bond so closely.
There are many reasons, but one is empathy–both human and canine. And as Daisy Yuhas writes in Scientific American, the possibility of an inborn attraction.
“Researchers led by Kristof Koch at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle,” writes Yuhas , “…have found neurons in the amygdala, an area [in the brain] involved in emotions, are involved in human [feelings] that respond preferentially to animal images.”
So on one level, you could argue that we’re bound together almost naturally. Witness the way many children delight in dogs, and run toward them to pat and interact with them. I remember a little girl – perhaps just six or seven years old– running over to Claude, wanting to pat him. She spent a few minutes doing that, before telling me that she was “obsessed” with dogs, but her mum wouldn’t let her have one just yet.
Adults too. This would not be news to any dog owner as the world is indeed different with our furry friend. People stop and talk to the dog, smile and say kind words before going on their way. The dog changes that moment for both humans. The owner gets to meet people, and the people get comfort and joy from interacting with the dog.
But why and how we connect with dogs isn’t a straight answer for Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the university of Colorado, Marc Bekoff. He says not all humans bond with. or even like dogs, And those who do, need to be aware of the demands we place on them.
“A lot of homed dogs are very highly stressed because we ask them to adapt to our life,” he says. “You know, when they play, when they can eat, when they can sleep [and] when they can hang out with their friends.”
However, he observes that “when people realise their dogs need more than they’re getting, they make those changes.”
“I think the people who do like dogs, bond with them because of shared emotions. They can empathise with the dog, they can feel for the dog, and they also want the dog to have the best life possible.”
Inner Sydney based visual artist Judith Johnson credits her grandmother with her love of dogs. Ms Johnson who grew up on a farm, says both she and her father in particular, inherited her grandmother’s love for the dog.
Sitting in her studio, with her cocker spaniel Minnie by her side, Ms Johnson tells me that her father taught her much about “caring for animals, and [how to] treat them with dignity.”
Johnson paints portraits of dogs, but she began as a human portrait artist. One day, she added a cocker spaniel to a painting, and “that started the whole thing,” she said. Friends asked her to paint their dogs, and so began a new direction in her art.
“Suddenly I realised that dogs and their owners were so much easier and more enjoyable to paint because they [the dogs] don’t have any attitude as to what they look like.”
“Dog owners, dog lovers, animal people, are very laid back, relaxed, happy normal people and it’s just nice to the story of the dog.”
Ms Johnson has developed a technique for her paintings – she interviews each dog before she starts a portrait. And while it might amuse some owners, Johnson says it’s crucial to developing empathy and to producing something that is more than a photograph.
“ I have to meet the dog, understand the dog, connect to the dog and also I want to hear the stories of the dog in your life. That’s really my intention.”
The Sydneysider has spent time learning about the story of the dog and says because they are pack animals, those we take into our homes “see humans as the pack or the tribe”. And that connection is what comes through her work.
“That’s what I find when I’m doing a painting… through the eyes, through the expression, the dog has a love for us which is unconditional and I try to put that in. I mean it’s hard, but it’s a lovely thing to put that into the painting.”
Just have to have a dog
Australians are dog lovers no doubt about it. Animal Medicines Australia estimates in its 2016 Pet Ownership Report, that 38 percent of households have at least one dog with an average of 1.3 dogs each household. Together, Australians share approximately 4.5 million companion dogs with gen Y and women being the biggest groups with non human animal companions.
While it’s not always clear why we have dogs, some experts say it’s about qualities in us such as being extroverted and seeing the dog as part of the family.
At a busy inner west café, I meet with Julie Mathers, her dog Tilly and her friend, my neighbour, Isabella for a morning coffee. For Ms Mathers, who recently got Tilly, having a dog was about purpose.
She says the caboodle has “changed her life”. The high school teacher had led a busy life as an adult and hasn’t had a dog since she was about 17. She’s now in her fifties.
Julie’s priorities changed when she got Tilly.
“Well I was too selfish to have a dog in my life and I was doing too many things,” she says. “[I] was living overseas, and then I ended up being on my own for quite a long time, living on my own. “
Ms Mathers is attentive to Tilly, has packed some kibble for her and has a water bowl ready. It’s a hot day, and Tilly sits on her lap for part of the time.
“Before it was only me and I didn’t worry about anyone else too much, Now I make sure that I’m there for her,” she said. “My life now has become [centred around] what’s good for her and not really what’s good for me. It’s like , I stay home or I say I can’t really go there because it’s going to be too long, and I want to be home to look after her.”
Over skype from Colorado, Professor Marc Bekoff says the best bonds form when humans respect dogs as sentient, feeling beings and understand “they’re going to have to make trade offs in their lives.
“I write a lot for Psychology Today and I recently wrote an essay that apparently a lot of people liked: Are you really sure you want to share your life with a dog? “That’s getting back to first base if you will, in the sense that before you get a dog, you better be sure that you want to share your house and your heart with a dog.
“I am a fan of asking pointed questions and to make people think about the decision they’re making when they decide to bring a dog into their house.”
Times are a changing
Both Johnson and Mathers grew up at a time when the dog had a different life and lived in the backyard. We understood little of their inner world, or their emotional complexity, and it shaped our relationship with them. Today, professor Bekoff says “we know enough now to put the word out about best explanations for what dogs want and need.”
Johnson is in her late seventies, and says the biggest change over the last 50 years has been that the dog has gone from being the “outsider to the insider.”
“They slept outside, in a kennel and they were very very subjugated, but they had role, a position as a watch dog, as a companion– but not as a bed companion. And so now over time the dog has become like a baby, allowed to sleep on the bed with the owners which I don’t agree with at all.”
“It was more of a disconnected connection,” says Mathers who grew up with labradors and Germen shepherds. “When I felt like patting the dog, I would pat the dog or I’d take the dog for a walk. The dog was there, but it was never an emotional attachment.”
Our ideas have changed she says. “The dog was not allowed in the bedroom, was not allowed on the carpet… not allowed to be sitting at the table like I’m doing now.
“Tilly comes with me everywhere I go. She’s in the car, sits in cafes with me. But we didn’t seem to do that so much 20 years ago…you kinda went out and left your dog at home.”
Other, perhaps noteworthy changes include strata laws in NSW which allow a more pet friendly approach to living in units. Before these laws came into effect in 2016, Sydney based Jamison Strata Management noted on their website that “many pet owners were being forced to choose between keeping their pet and living in a strata building.” With 20.7 percent of the population in NSW living in units, these changes could not have come soon enough for many. In its Pet Ownership report, Animal Medicines Australia reported there was “a strong desire for pets among those living in apartments or units.”
It’s something that Ms Mathers who lives in a unit, credits with her ability to have Tilly, and notes how that has allowed single people living in units to have the companionship of non-human animals.
Back in Johnson’s inner city studio, I ask if in her years of painting portraits of dogs and their people, a story had stood out for her? After a little pause, she says the most poignant moment was painting a portrait of her husband Arthur, and their previous cocker spaniel, Trubby.
“He was holding her and looking outwardly from the painting,” she said. “There’s a lot of love [and] I called it true love …because he was absolutely besotted with that dog.”
Trubby was “dignified and elegant” said Johnson, but she laughs at her description saying it sounds like she was talking about a person. So, I ask her about that– about the anthropomorphising of animals that we do, and how as some have argued, we’ve infantilised dogs, and blunted their nature because they live so much on our terms.
“I like the dog to be a dog and a cow to be a cow,” she said after telling me that as a child she rejected circuses because of the way they treated animals. “ I still think of my dog as someone who’s given respect, not someone who’s dressed up, their dog-ness being reduced to something that’s shallow.”
So I’m curious, what advantage is there for dogs in this dance with humanity? Is the bargain equal?
Predictably, the scales are lopsided, and according to Bekoff, the relationship we have with dogs doesn’t always benefit them. Although it can enrich their lives with challenges and different experiences. But more importantly, it has a global significance: it can teach us compassion and empathy toward other animals.
“We can learn that each and every life matters,” says Professor Bekoff.
“I like to call it bridging the empathy gap. We [become aware of] how we interact with non-dog animals if you will, from the way people are interacting with dogs. That’s why I’ll often ask people “would you do that to your dog? What if that animal were a dog?” It gets a conversation going you know; it brings it home.”
Kerry Mcmyler lives in Lancashire in the UK. She’s had her dog Kenzo, a Labrador Collie cross for 15 years–ever since he was a puppy. She says he chose her from a litter of nine, barging past all of them to go to her.
When she moved away some six years ago, her parents took responsibility for Kenzo who was then about 10. Then a couple of years ago, he started barking in the evening, and showed other signs of anxiety and restlessness. The family also noticed a pattern where these behaviours would start in the late afternoon and continue until midnight.
While researching Kenzo’s symptoms online, Kerry came across information about Sundowner’s syndrome in dogs, where dementia-like symptoms worsen at night. She says it all came together for her then, especially when the vet later confirmed it.
Sadly, Kerry’s father passed away last year, and it’s been an emotional time for her and her family. Kenzo was dependent on her dad for routine and connection, and she feels one of the triggers for his behaviour could be pining for her father.
Kerry is 44 and a healthcare Science Associate Practitioner in Microbiology (Infectious Diseases) with the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.
She and her partner moved back to take take care of her mum and Kenzo, and I caught up with her during a very busy time. We spoke via email.
What was your reaction to the diagnosis? What went through your mind?
How myself, my mum and my partner Sarah were going to cope with just losing dad. Was he just missing him? Was he grieving? I gave him an old jumper of dad’s but he wasn’t interested. He shows all the tick boxes of Canine Cognitive Decline (CCD) except the incontinence.
What treatment –that you know about–is available in the UK for dementia in dogs?
Unsure at present. We have him on a calming pill called Xanax and he also has arthritis so he has 1/2 paracetamol twice daily. We have tried CBD (Cannibas oil) too which did help for a while but he has run out of this at present. It does calm the barking down but not the restlessness.
You say that at the beginning of Kenzo’s dementia, he was living with your parents who had a routine for him. But now this has changed because of your dad’s sad passing. Can I ask, how bonded was Kenzo to your father?
Very much so, he was the person that took him for walks. So his routine
has had to change. I now take him when I arrive home from work. The shocking
factor for me was mum was quite socially phobic having arthritis herself and
relied on dad to help her get about.
However, whilst I was at work a few months ago, she decided to walk him
on her own. It was a huge turning point for her [in] regaining her
confidence. Kenzo walked with her slowly
and did not pull which was so lovely.
You’re the primary carer for your mum, and I wonder if you could describe what that means to you—being a carer.
It is a responsibility of selfless love. After dad passed away, my partner Sarah and I gave up our jobs 320 miles away. I withdrew from my [university education]. I was one year off finishing my biomedical degree. However, sadly this hospital cannot fund or allow me time off to complete it. And now I have had a change of heart about where my life is heading to after much reflection.
I left my job of nine years in microbiology, and Sarah [left hers] in
helping the elderly in rehabilitation. We moved in with mum so she did not have
to sell the house, and to help her with daily tasks, bills and to give her
company. I know we have done the right thing and it has set us all in a new
direction. As an only child, I love my mum dearly and I want to make her time
on this earth as special as it can be and make as many memories as I can with
the time she has left.
What’s the hardest thing about watching dementia in Kenzo?
His confusion, his age, his restlessness; falling off the sofa when he does not judge it correctly. We have said if he becomes incontinent we would put him to sleep. It is too much for mum to go through at 78 years old, having just lost dad too. I don’t want to lose her too. It would be the kindest thing to do however, for now, we are coping the best we can.
How are you coping wth the demands of Kenzo’s care ?
It is tiring [to] after a 9-hour day…walk him [and] be up till midnight with his constant barking, crying and restlessness. We try to reassure him but it is simply draining when you still have a daily life to live and chores to do. During the day he is fine, however, I work so I don’t really see the quiet side of him. He is great with mum during the day. It is when I come home after 5 pm this starts. There has been quite a lot of tears and a huge relief when he is finally asleep.
How would you describe your relationship with him now?
I love him to bits. He still greets me dutifully when I walk through the door of an evening but not of a morning. His eyesight is failing so I have to bend down to have eye contact with him but if I ask for a kiss sometimes I still get one off him. For that split-second, everything is back to normal. He recognises me, how can I possibly put him to sleep. Just another month…let’s see how we go…and the cycle continues.
You say that you will “know when it’s time”. It must be the hardest moment. What will tell you that, and how do you imagine that moment in the future when you will have to say goodbye to Kenzo?
Heartbreakingly when he stops being responsive. Stops eating, drinking,
or [becomes] incontinent. I would not want him to be in constant pain with his
arthritis so if his back legs keep failing him there has to be a point where we
end his suffering and do the kindest last thing a human can do. But we don’t
say goodbye it is always “until we meet again”
The image is unforgettable, seared into my memory: pigs in utter anguish being gassed to death. You can turn away, but you can’t unsee the suffering on their faces. A suffering that punches you in the heart. A suffering you can’t deal with and imagine for just a second that it can’t be true. It just can’t be.
It’s a tiny snippet of a video on the website of the advocacy group, Animals Australia. There are others of course across the Internet—baby male calves being taken away (to the slaughterhouse) from mother cows, ducks and geese being violently fed in appalling conditions to produce foie gras, and shocking abuse of animals in some Australian abattoirs.
The cruelty of factory farming say animal advocates is on a colossal and indefensible scale; and it begs the question: Where did humanity get the idea that it could do what it liked to fellow creatures?
For some, the answer may be found in chapter one of the Biblical story of Genesis where God gives Adam and Eve a mandate to: “Subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish of the sea …the fowl of the air and every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
This has been a long-held and traditional Christian view, but leading Christian thinkers are now challenging it, and urging a new re-reading of Biblical teaching on animals. They’re also uncovering a forgotten history of passionate campaigns for animal rights by many Christians.
A legacy of Christian animal activism
Rewind to the beginning of the 19th century, and to what surprised Professor David Clough about Christianity and anti-vivisection campaigning.
Professor Clough teaches theological ethics at the University of Chester in the UK and says what’s been most striking about Christian activism for animals is how they engaged with the issue almost 200 years ago.
“ It was a real surprise to me when I started researching this area [to find] that it was Christians at the beginning of the 19th century who had become really concerned at the amount of animal cruelty going on, “ he told ABC Radio National’s The Religion and Ethics Report. “ They were among leading campaigners for changing the law to make animal cruelty illegal in Britain for the first time.”
It was leading evangelists such as William Wilberforce who campaigned for those laws, later joining with others to form the RSPCA. Together with a group of Christians and a prominent Jew, Wilberforce, who had been a high profile campaigner for the abolition of slavery, founded the RSPCA in 1824, writes professor Clough in The Ark the newsletter of UK based Catholic Concern for Animals.
However , he says that by the beginning of the last century with the rise of secularism in Western Europe and falling church attendance, groups such as the RSPCA wanted a broader reach and downplayed the Christian aspect of the organisation. There was also, WW1 and the devastating human tragedy of the Great War to which Christians turned their attention.
The winds of change
There’s a scene in the 2016 Italian TV mini-series–Call Me Francis –where in the 60s, a young Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) intervenes to save a pig from the torments of a group of male students. This may have been a portend for the future where as Pope Francis, he releases his second encyclical Ludato Si, Praise be to you, in 2015. It’s one of the most far-reaching statements to come out of the Vatican on the place of animals in Christian teaching. Significantly, it tackles traditional thinking about humanity being at the centre of creation with unchecked power over it.
“This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church, “ says the encyclical.
“ Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (LS 67).
Ludato Si was not the only important statement on animals to come out of Christianity that year. In September, American evangelicals released their own statement on animal protection–Every Living Thing. It calls on Christians to avoid treating animals cruelly and was the result of a unique four-year collaboration between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the evangelical community. Over 1000 evangelical leaders and scholars signed the document.
Yet the statement is prefaced by a declaration that it’s not doctrinal in nature, it doesn’t address particular issues, and says that humans have greater worth than animals. So how significant is it in getting Christians to focus on animal rights?
Professor Clough’s research indicates that Christians don’t see the link between their faith and the treatment of non-human animals. But he told Radio National that the US statement is of considerable importance.
“Often, evangelicals in the US have been thought as most resistant to issues like concern for animals or wider environmental concerns,” he told the ABC. “But, avoiding treating animals cruelly in the current context of what we’re doing to animals in intensive farming systems is a really radical statement.
If we were to seriously investigate the implications of not visiting unnecessary cruelty on animals through our farming practices, perhaps 98 percent of the current products available would be off the table for Christians.”
How much does the public know?
“ One of the things I talk about is that commercial egg production ( including free range and organic egg ) relies on the killing of male chics because they are of no economic value,” he told The Religion and Ethics Report. “And so what happens to them, is that they are dropped live into a grinding machine called a macerator which thought to be the most humane way of dispatching them.”
How little the public know about factory farms is a widespread concern. In talking to many groups in the UK, Professor David Clough notes audience reaction when he explains what happens in the egg industry.
These chics are usually a day old, and billions are killed in this manner each year across the world. In Australia, about 12 million perish this way.
“That’s a shock to the audiences that I speak to. You can almost hear an audible gasp in the room when I mention that kind of example.”
Cracks in the veneer
There ’s good news among all this in Australia. While the most recent statistics on worldwide meat eating trends, put Australia at the top in 2015; a year later , Roy Morgan Research found that just over two million of us (11.2 percent) are either vegetarian or vegan—up from 1.7 million in 2012. Many are switching for health reasons, but some are making the change for ethical reasons, and for the animals. And Roy Morgan Research predicts the trend is set to continue.
Thousands of Australians sign up for Veganuary, 31 days of vegan eating in January and the Daily Telegraph reports that according to data from Google Trends, Aussies are more interested in learning about vegan principles than they are about the much-hyped keto and Paleo diets.
“ What really strikes me in relation to farmed animals is that this is an issue which is a big problem, but one which we can have an immediate impact on,” professor Clough told RN’s Religion and Ethics Report. “ If we stop consuming the products of factory farming, the animals will not be enlisted into these systems. And so through a daily practice of what we choose to eat, we can make a difference to the numbers of animals that are being forced into these cruel systems.”
As the Sydney Invictus Games come to a close, perhaps unsurprisingly, media coverage didn’t address an important question. And it’s this: why are arms manufacturers sponsoring an event for people disabled by injuries of war?
In a provocative and thought-provoking piece, anti-war activist Nick Deane asks this very question. And he also asks about the victims of those wars. Those “who it must be said were never even capable of threatening Australia.”