At the Graves of Craving, by Martin Rowe

posted August 22, 2023

Editor’s note: We are grateful for this extraordinary guest post from Martin Rowe, whom we are honored to have as member of the Main Street Vegan Academy faculty, focusing on environmental and climate studies. This essay was first presented as part of the panel, “Human Rights, Creation Rights: A Christian Perspective on Eco-Redemption,” at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago, August 16, 2023.

Union Stockyards, Chicago, 1865-1971

Fewer than four miles from where we sit in the McCormick Center lies the square mile that used to be the Union Stockyards. When the first Parliament of the World’s Religions convened in Chicago in 1893, the Stockyards was slaughtering more than nine million animals a year, and Chicago was known as “hog butcher for the world.” Between 1865 and 1900 some 400 million livestock were slaughtered.

These days, it’s hard to imagine that number of animals being shipped to, arriving at, and being turned into meat within such a confined area—and in a major city, too. The Meatpacking district of the West Side of Manhattan, and the “shambles” that was Wall Street now make their money from real estate and speculation in a different sort of “stock market.” The factory farms, feedlots, and slaughterhouses that were contained in just one location have moved to more rural areas or less economically advantaged locations, kept out of sight of prying eyes and, increasingly, illegal for anyone to enter or photograph. The number of mammals and birds killed for human food in the United States has increased from more than nine million per year to more than nine billion.

What remains since the heyday of the Union Stockyards—beyond the sheer number of animals slaughtered—is the legacy of consolidated animal agriculture, the disassembly lines perfected by this form of industry, and the consequences of a centralized, industrialized, commodified, and depersonalized food supply. What also is constant are the disposability, invisibility, and exploitability of its labor supply—so memorably depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). And, of course, there’s the wealth that meatpacking made the barons who ran the railroads, developed the slaughter mechanisms and refrigeration, and lived off the profits: the filthy lucre, over generations, cleaned of blood, viscera, ordure, and the endless suffering of humans and nonhumans alike.

The 1893 Parliament was part of the so-called “Columbian Exhibition”—set up to celebrate 400 years since the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. As we know, Columbus and the waves of conquistadors, pilgrims, and adventurers that followed brought with them diseases, guns, Christianity, and cattle—each of which drastically reshaped the North American continent over the next four centuries. Cattle spread along with European settlers throughout what became the United States, displacing and annihilating First Nations, buffalo, and indigenous foodways and livelihoods. Over that time, European empires encompassed the planet—shipping humans and animals, chattel and cattle, around the globe. The losses were incalculable then; as desertification spreads, topsoil thins, and the planet heats, we’re beginning to see how incalculable those losses are now.

I’ve no idea whether anyone in 1893 thought about, let alone mentioned, the connections between the vast numbers of animals slaughtered in Chicago each day; the wholesale destruction of Native populations; the heinous exploitation of workers, many of them immigrants (a situation that continues to this day) at the first Parliament 130 years ago. Did anyone stop to wonder at whether religions founded on love, or nonviolence, or right livelihood, or the Good Shepherd might be obligated to object to the exploitation and destruction of living beings—whether human or nonhuman? Would it have been considered impolite then—as perhaps it is today—to observe how quickly and easily we bury the bones we have created so that our particular civilization will have its brief flowering? Might another generation of seekers who come across where we are now 130 years hence wonder how we, too, could have been so comfortable with the mass destruction we are now presiding over—not just of farmed animals, but entire ecosystems?

An artist’s interpretation of the gathering of manna

When I think about the follies of our age, or any other age, I’m reminded of a passage in chapter eleven of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Scriptures. Deep in the wilderness and far from Egypt, some hungry and dispirited Israelites protest to Moses about the manna God has given them to eat. “If only we had meat to eat!” they lament in the lively New International Version’s translation. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”

Moses takes the issue to God: “Where can I get meat for all these people?” he asks. “They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’” Don’t worry, God replies to Moses, the people will have meat—and not just for a day, but for a whole month, until it comes out of their nostrils and they hate it. This is, says God, because they have rejected Him and complain about leaving Egypt. God drives flocks of quails in from the sea, and the Israelites spend 36 hours gathering them in and piling them deep throughout the camp. Their joy, however, is short-lived: “While the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague.” The Israelites bury the dead and, before they leave the cursed spot, they give it a name: Kibroth Hattaavah, or “the graves of craving.”

It’s a marvelous, if terrifying, name: a literal tombstone for the Israelites’ gluttony and disobedience, of forgetting God and not valuing the sustenance God has given them. The “graves of craving” also feels very contemporary. The SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 pandemics, all started from an animal virus; the regular outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria from unclean meat; the dangers posed by anti-microbial resistance through the overuse of antibiotics in animal  agriculture; the possibility of Ebola, Green Monkey, Lassa Fever, and other diseases—including a new variant of HIV—caused by interaction with wild animals and the bushmeat trade, exposing humans to wild animal diseases. These, and the ongoing destruction of precious biodiversity and forested ecosystems to graze cattle or provide feed crops for livestock, suggest to me that we still flout our possibility of survival due to our mad wish to consume meat.

The graves of craving show us what happens if we fail to recognize that our own freedom, our own exodus from bondage, depends on moderating our most venal impulses in favor of respect for God’s bounty. The graves are a memento mori—a warning for us to recognize that everything that has the breath of life should be treated with respect.

The Bible offers other visions of our relationship with food and animals. In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus reflects tenderly and exasperatedly on Jerusalem, using a metaphor that would have been common in first-century Palestine but now impossible in today’s factory farms: “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matt. 23.37). If God remembers the lives of every single sparrow (Luke 12.6), whose worth is virtually nothing compared to humans, then what, we might ask, is the accumulated “memory” of the millions of birds, and other creatures, whose lives we end each hour?

In the wilderness, God’s food, naturally, is vegetarian—given in love to his people in their need, and, like the original creation, good. Is it too much to imagine that Isaiah’s eschatological vision of a peaceable kingdom on a holy mountain, where there is no violence between species, might be drawn nearer in this world by the actions of one species—the one to whom God has given dominion? Is it too much to hope that people of conscience might look at what is happening in the slaughterhouses and factory farms—and in those communities who have to live next to their stench and pollution—and say that they, for a day, a week, a month, a year, and maybe for the rest of their lives, will make a decision to add not one more body to the graves of craving?

About the contributor:

Martin Rowe is the executive director of the Culture & Animals Foundation(CAF), which funds scholars and artists who promote animal rights, and a senior fellow at Brighter Green, an “action” tank that investigates the role of industrial animal agriculture on food systems, biodiversity, environmental pollution, the climate crisis, public health, and workers rights. He was the co-founder of Lantern Books and Lantern Publishing & Media, where he published more than 250 books on veganism, environmentalism, animal advocacy, religion, natural healing, and social justice. He has written and published several books of his own and has been professionally involved in the creation of more than a dozen by other authors. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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