Guest Blogger, Steven Peck is an associate professor and evolutionary ecologist at BYU who blogs on issues of science and faith at the Mormon Organon. He is currently doing a year sabbatical with the United Nations in Vienna, Austria working on African tsetse fly population ecology.
After class one day, I guiltily grabbed one of those over-packaged lunches so indispensable for those in a hurry to gulp down something quickly. This one was canned tuna salad and crackers. I felt guilty at the amount of unnecessary material piling up as I squirreled through the packaging to find my meal. I was taken back and shocked at what I found myself entangled in: a plastic outer covering with cardboard back, a can holding the tuna salad and its pop-top lid, a separate wrapper for the crackers, a little plastic spoon in yet another little plastic wrapper. I knew better than this—I’m an ecologist for heaven’s sake. I felt tricked and shamed, betrayed by my own hurry and hunger into buying something that produced a small heap of rubbish and clutter. I looked at the remnants of a small lunch multiplying around me and looked around guiltily, hoping none of my students walked by during this moment of indiscretion. I moved to extract the food from these layers of cardboard, plastic, and aluminum. Visions of overflowing landfills danced through my head and feeling a sneaky avarice I loaded the salad onto the cracker and took a bite. It was tasty. Yum. It was quite good but there was something hidden in that bite so disguised and camouflaged that I almost missed it.
I had been focused on the failures of western civilization in generating unprecedented waste. But I had forgotten something even more fundamental. Buried forgotten in all that packaging, was a life, hidden, unattended, unacknowledged and even unrecognizable—a being processed from all its rich biological complexity, to the simple categories of taste, color, and texture. During my hurried lunch, nothing of the lived life smashed into that processed can bubbled into my consciousness; nothing reminded me that an animated creature had died to make my meal. That life, a miracle, was masked and hidden. The unlucky tuna that (who?) had once cut through the ocean as a powerful living being—a breathing, free creature, a vital agent—had ended up packaged and unrecognizable in a convenient quickie lunch product. Even the word ‘tuna’ for me had not been associated with a life; it had become the particular flavor of a product, one among many that I might choose. The juicy mass in the can, which bore the stamp of patterns pressed from the lid, was merely a lump of whitish, firm textured food that went well mixed with pickles and mayonnaise. Just a choice of tastes I might enjoy to ease my hunger, but the significant detail that there was a life taken to provide that meal only made it into my mind by the most unlikeliest of routes, and on another occasion might not have even entered into my head at all. So it is with most of us. Our food is pleasantly presented and death forgotten.
How many of you remembered last time you had a steak, a burger, or finger-lickn’-good chicken that your meal had a life in it? I’m not a vegetarian and that’s not where I’m going with this, but I think there are broad implications for our society that we so often forget that something’s death is necessary to sustain our life. I almost always forget too. Does it mean anything important that we are so disconnected from the processes, like death, that sustain and structure life? How does this differ from our Great-grandparents who often raised and killed themselves the things they ate? Is there any reason we should remember that life goes into the food we eat? Should we show gratitude for the life taken (this, more broadly interpreted, can include both plants and animals)? Does it even matter?