Big Numbers - Finitude

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Big Numbers - Finitude

By Ken Shapiro on Animals and Society Institute

Big numbers are hard to work with, so let's round them off. The US debt is 10 trillion dollars (10,000,000,000,000; 1 followed by 13 zeros). The annual US consumption of nonhuman land animals is 10 billion (10,000,000,000; 1 followed by 10 zeros).

Nobody, not even the likes of Greenspan and Geithner can imagine owing that much money; and nobody, not even Ronald McDonald, can fathom killing that many animals every year.

These numbers are beyond human comprehension. When I was a kid I remember being told that the guy down the street was a millionaire. This was a hard number for me to get my head around, but when I thought of it as a thousand thousands -- I was into math in those days -- it was comprehensible: One thousand dollars bought you a pretty nice car and there were a thousand cars in the sales lots on automobile row near my house. But today's economics talk about billions and now trillions is as unimaginable as Carl Sagan talking about stars - how far away they are, how many there are, how long it takes the light from one of them to get to us.

The incomprehensibility of these numbers is a problem for the animal rights movement for one of the ways we appeal to people about our cause is by asking them to empathize with the animals - understand by imagining yourself in an animal's place. But the sheer numbers militate against making the empathic move. We lose the sense of an individual animal's life when he or she is placed in, really lost in, an unfathomably large aggregate. This reminds me of the story (told in Beston's The Outermost House, I think) of the person who walks the beach and throws back into the water one of the countless little creatures left behind by the tide. When asked what difference that effort could make, the person replies, "all the difference in the world to that starfish." This story and the Farm Sanctuary idea of saving a handful of the billions of animals killed in slaughter houses are at least attempts at antidotes to the blinding poison of big numbers.

A second proposition about large numbers: A small percentage of these numbers is also a large number. The 1-2% interest we must pay to service the national debt is a staggering one to two hundred billion dollars (1 or 2 followed by 11 zeros). Regarding the 10 billion animals killed every year for our consumption, let's say, conservatively, that .1% of those (1 out of every thousand) do not lose consciousness (via stunning or electric water bath). This means that one million animals are skinned alive each year - a large number, but one that, in that it is comprehensible, we can empathize with and at least begin to imagine the horror of that experience.

That small percentages of large numbers are large numbers comes into play in many contexts when the human population of the earth is six billion. When only one percent of that number does something unacceptable to the remaining 99 percent, their actions can have dramatic, really cataclysmic results - when a relative few speculate wildly with our savings, hack into our information systems, terrorize our cities, pollute our oceans, or kill individual animals in the many endangered and threatened species. Ironically, big numbers and size generally reduce a system's ability to meet challenges and to tolerate aberrations. Far from safety in numbers, therein is fragility.

Entranced by our need for eternity and other forms of the infinite - the inexorable march of progress, the endless ocean, the numberless animals -- we are blind-sided by finitude.