SEOUL -- From time to time, I find myself wondering how future generations might look upon our era.
Just as we find it hard to believe that nice, sophisticated people could own slaves, what do we do today that will make our great-grandchildren doubt our moral uprightness?
There are some obvious candidates for disapproval – warfare, poverty, pollution, loneliness, high taxation. But the main candidate that occurs to me is the farming of animals for meat.
I imagine people will look back on this as a definition of backwardness. They may understand that ancient peoples milked cows and herded sheep, but how people who flew their own jets and owned smartphones could eat burgers made from slaughtered animals will disgust them.
The prospect may seem unlikely now, but this type of change could happen very quickly. As soon as lab-grown meat is commercially viable, I expect that vegan protestors will go into action and that within a generation or two, livestock farms, slaughterhouses and butcher shops will be a thing of the past.
I was thinking about this recently because of the ruling People Power Party’s plan to ban the dog meat trade. The bill under consideration proposes a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment or a fine of 50 million won for individuals who continue to engage in it. The opposition Democratic Party of Korea is also on board, although its bill is a little gentler on the farmers, recommending three-year jail sentences and fines up to 30 million won.
Dog farmers oppose this threatened end to their livelihood. They are threatening to unleash two million dogs in the streets of Seoul in protest.
But they are fighting a battle they cannot win. Koreans see dogs as pets now, not food. According to a Gallup Korea poll last year, nearly two-thirds opposed eating dog meat. Only 8 percent said they had eaten it in the past year, which was way down from 27 percent in 2015.
The threatened protest itself seems farcical. It makes the dog farmers look like an early 21st-century version of the Luddites. They, you may remember from European history lessons, were English workers two hundred years ago, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, who destroyed the new machinery that they believed was threatening their jobs in cotton and woolen mills.
Somehow, the visual image of farmers uncaging dogs all over Seoul while citizens cower in their apartments and firemen run around with nets trying to catch them strikes me as defining the end of our era.
To be honest, in this case, I think the farmers are bluffing. They know that dog farming is going to end. The proposed ban is scheduled to come into effect in 2027. Unlike in other countries, where people in an industry that closes because of legislation or new technology are compelled to look for new jobs on their own, in Korea the government helps people out. It has promised to support farmers transitioning away from the dog meat trade. Given this, the protest is most likely intended to not only hold the government to this promise, but also to improve the conditions.
When it comes, the closing of the dog trade will be a victory for activists. For the most part, these animal rights people have been thoughtful and measured. Their strategy regarding dog meat has been to run programs to help farmers change their line of business and send the rescued dogs to America for adoption.
But the activists, who are international and not just Korean, are just beginning. They are part of a broader movement that opposes all meat-eating. They are dedicated to the liberation of cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and rabbits. This, we must say, is a good thing. You may think their cause is a waste of time, but science, in the form of lab-grown meat, is on their side.
Once it becomes widely available, I can imagine more aggressive activism. One day, they will lift the curtain on slaughterhouses. An educational tour through an abattoir will turn middle school students into vegans. That is because, in modern society, we are increasingly encouraged to go gently through life exuding empathy for others, for our pets, for the environment, and yet we remain ignorant about the plight of farm animals. We are out of touch with how the burgers and cold cuts end up on our plate. If made aware of the daily massacre, I suspect the change to lab-grown meat would be rapid.
And that leads to the question of what future generations will think of us – their ancestors – who ate real meat? Will meat-eating appear so cruel and unpleasant to our descendants that anything sensible someone from our era has to say might be discounted simply because the thinker was a meat-eater? Will it be hard to take the opinions of meat-eaters seriously?
I don’t want to overstate this. I think that, just as history accepts the contributions of political and military leaders like Julius Caesar and George Washington to their own eras even though they owned slaves, so the importance of leaders like Joe Biden and Yoon Suk-yeol will be given proper treatment despite the fact they tucked into beef sandwiches.
It will perhaps be the artists and intellectuals who risk being discounted. People may be shamed for appreciating them. Like, oh you’re reading “Hamlet”? Did you know that Shakespeare ate meat?
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