There’s one piece of literature from middle school (or high school, I don’t remember) that stays with me. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a 1973 short story by Ursula Le Guin, a descriptive tale with no timeline. A joyous festival takes place in a Utopian paradise: horses with braided manes being readied for a race by children with mud-stained feet, dancing in the street, music, grand parks and moss-grown gardens, a child playing a wooden flute. There exists no king, no swords, no slaves, no clergy.
The perfection of Omelas and the indulgences enjoyed by its residents is contingent upon a horrendous situation in the basement of one of its magnificent buildings. The situation is not a secret. Everyone is aware, and it is explained to children when they are about 8 or 12. Though all are shocked and sickened and wonder what they can do to help, they turn around and retreat to Omelas’ magnificent architecture and abundant harvests.
But some react differently.
"At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates."
We’ve all seen the hidden camera clips of chicks being stomped to death by the dozens at factory farms, or dogs suffering horrendous effects while subject to medical experiments. It’s suffering that most of us turn away from because it’s hard to think about, justifying our complicit support by reasoning that the ends justify the means.
My friend Susan and I recently did a volunteer day at the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in High Falls. The sanctuary regularly rescues farmed animals from horrific circumstances and its residents represent a tiny sliver of the most exploited animals in the world. The 150-acre site houses over 340 animals including chickens, cows, goats, sheep, and others. Volunteers can sign up in advance to help muck pens and clean enclosures, while visitors are welcome to tour the sanctuary as well. We spend our time shoveling the turkey barns, and then doing the same for the goats area. The center’s website has great resources about their history, animal exploitation, volunteer and visitor resources, and an online store.
The sanctuary advocates veganism as a path we can take to reduce suffering. It’s important to remember who suffers for our first world luxuries and making sure our choices align with our values is key to becoming a conscious consumer.
Woodstock Farm Sanctuary: www.woodstocksanctuary.orgThe Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf