Excerpts: The Sustainability Secret

Excerpt 1

I arranged to meet Bill Phillips, a backyard farmer. He had sandy brown hair and wore camouflage pants and a red T-shirt with a large American flag printed on it. He had a sheepish, self-effacing air and a shy smile. His yard was filled with a jumble of things—a large motor boat covered by a tarp, a wheelbarrow, white plastic lawn furniture, and small stacks of cardboard boxes. He was going to show me a “culling” that day.

“I have forty-two ducks,” Phillips told me. “I started off with three ducks three years ago, and then those burgeoned into a population. I buy a 75-pound bag of seed for duck feed. That seed bag will last me right now… about two weeks. The ducks now that we’re going to be culling are about two years old.”

Phillips started walking towards the flock of ducks. “When you’re living with them, they get used to you,” he said. I don’t know anything about ducks, but I thought these ones did seem alarmed as Phillips approached them. They scrambled out of the way, flapping their wings and kicking up dust, quacking rapidly and herding together against a wall, moving quickly away from Phillips. He finally cornered three of them behind a garbage can.

“Easy, easy, easy, easy,” Phillips said to the ducks. He inspected the belly of the duck in his right hand. “Okay. We’re going to keep you.” He tossed that duck into the air. It fluttered away. “Run,” he said to the other ducks on the ground. He held two ducks by the neck in his left hand. Their wings flapped. “These two go first.”

He took the ducks to a makeshift chopping block, a large square piece of rough plywood on top of a lawn table. A big plastic green bowl stood on the table.

Phillips held up one duck for me to see, gripping it tightly so its wings couldn’t move. The duck’s head, which was free, looked down at the ground, motionless. I held the second duck.  It, too, was not moving. Its feathers were very soft.

I asked Phillips how smart ducks are.

“Compared to a chicken, they’re probably the same,” he said.

The University of Bristol in England has shown that in multiple tests of cognitive and behavioral intelligence, chickens outperform dogs, cats, and four-year old humans.

Phillips carefully pressed the duck, belly down, against the plywood, and used one hand to secure its body, pinning the wings down. He stretched the duck’s neck out with his other hand. “All righty. Okay. Right there.” He picked up a small hatchet, and the duck raised its head. He pressed its head down again.

Phillips struck the hatchet down three times where the duck’s neck met its body. The duck’s foot, the one I could see, splayed out as the hatchet came down. Phillips dragged the blade hard the third time, pulling it over the duck’s neck, trying to cut through the tissue, and then quickly ripped the head off, tearing the last piece of connective skin. The duck’s foot flapped and paddled after the decapitation. I could also see the wings trying to expand underneath Phillips’ hand.

Phillips quickly took the convulsing headless body and turned it upside down in the plastic green bowl to catch the blood. There wasn’t as much as I would have expected. The severed head lay in the bottom of the bowl, the beak slowly opening and closing.  

A little girl was watching. “How could that still be alive?” she asked, as the duck’s legs jerked violently.  


“How could that still be alive?”

“They’re not. That’s nerves. A nerve reaction.”

Phillips held the carcass over the bowl a while longer. “Five years old or something like that, I think [I] was,” he said, “the first time my dad came out and made us watch as we [butchered] rabbits. We had raised probably a couple dozen rabbits each year, then we would take those rabbits and skin them and clean them up, and keep them for food.”

He took a pair of orange-handled shears and cut off the duck’s wings and feet as he talked. He de-feathered and washed the small body with a trickle of water from a garden hose. It was hardly a handful of meat – it could have fit inside a football. It now looked like it was ready to be packed on a Styrofoam tray for the supermarket, with its purplish red flesh and white, goose-bumpy skin.  

Phillips seemed completely unmoved by the slaughter process, but I wondered if it had always been that easy.

“Was it hard the first time you butchered an animal?” I asked hesitantly.

“As a young kid, I was kind of… I don’t want to say it was hard, but it was kind of . . .” He paused. “Some of the rabbits I had named,” he nervously laughed, “so I was kind of like, going . . .” Phillips made a sound and a troubled expression. He looked down.  

“But . . .” he shrugged, with resignation, and something like sadness in his voice, “after doing it a couple times, you just learn it’s something that has to be done.”

Phillips took the second duck and arranged him belly down on the plywood, in the blood of the other duck. He took careful aim with the hatchet. “Not the fingers,” he joked. The hatchet came down.

I sat in my apartment afterwards. I looked at the Tibetan prayer flags I had strung up across the hall entrance a long time ago, and the purple lotus sculpture on my coffee table. “Dar Cho” is the Tibetan word for prayer flag. “Dar” means to increase life and all good things. “Cho” means all living, sentient beings.

I’d been so caught up in the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture, I had never truly understood the obvious reality—that every single one of these animals was killed. That a life is taken every time. Nor did I truly comprehend that fact while I was overwhelmed and nauseated by the horrors of the factory farm—it took the “humane” death of two healthy, lively ducks on a sunny afternoon to make me understand. It was always a disconnected, abstract fact of eating meat, but when it became personal, face-to-face, the story changed.  

“I just can’t do it,” I kept thinking as I sat there. I couldn’t have taken the hatchet and brought it down on the neck of those ducks. If I can’t do it, I don’t want someone else doing it for me.  

And then when you bring sustainability into the equation—well, Phillips said he uses 75 pounds of feed every two weeks for forty-two ducks. Although I suppose it’s now forty ducks.  So it’s about a pound of feed per week, per duck. There’s fifty-two weeks in a year, he kills them when they’re about two years old, so that’s 104 weeks of feed, let’s say 110 weeks. You get about a pound, a pound and a half of meat per duck. So it’s 110 pounds of food to produce one to one-and-a-half pounds of meat. On a sustainability issue, it’s 100 to 1. One hundred pounds of edible plant food to create one pound of meat!

But when it gets to this point, it’s not even about sustainability, it was just . . . I didn’t feel good inside. It was the first time I’d ever seen that…

Will Tuttle, in his book The World Peace Diet, writes, “Because cruelty is inescapable in confining, mutilating, and slaughtering animals for food, we have been forced from childhood to be distracted and inattentive perpetrators of cruelty… As infants, we have no idea what ‘veal,’ ‘turkey,’ ‘egg,’ or ‘beef’ actually are, or where they come from… We find out slowly, and by the time we do, the cruelty and perversity involved seem natural and normal to us.”

“Because we are adept at disconnecting from the suffering we impose on animals,” Tuttle continues, “we naturally and inevitably become adept at disconnecting from the suffering we impose on hungry people, living biosystems, war-ravaged communities, and future generations.”


Sister Dorothy Mae Stang’s life’s work was the protection and preservation of the Amazon rainforest. She was frequently photographed wearing a white T-shirt with green block letters reading, “A MORTE DA FLORESTA É O FIM DA NOSSA VIDA” – Portuguese for “THE DEATH OF THE FOREST IS THE END OF OUR LIFE.” With her cap of white hair, glasses, sloping shoulders, and small round face, she looked more like a sweet grandmother than a radical activist.  

Stang spoke out openly against the destruction of the rainforest from cattle ranching, loggers, speculators, and agribusinesses for three decades. She received death threats and hate mail. In the late 1990’s, when she was in her 60’s, her name appeared on a “death list” targeted by the region’s powerful ranchers, loggers, and agribusinesses.

“I don’t want to flee,” she said, “nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live without any protection in the forest. They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.”

The state of Pará in northern Brazil, where Stang lived, was infamous for violence and murders over land, as well as labor conditions resembling slavery. One third of the annual deaths in the area are the contract killings of environmentalists, farmers, and human rights advocates for opposing the razing and burning of the rainforest for cattle grazing, logging, and crop production used mainly to feed livestock. The nun had asked the Brazilian government repeatedly at every level—city, state, and nationally—to provide protection for the local peasants. She was turned down every time.  

Early on February 12, 2005, Dorothy Stang was walking on a rural dirt road on her way to meet local farmers. Another farmer was late, walking a short distance behind her. He was able to see everything that happened in the next few minutes. Two men appeared and blocked Stang’s way.  

“Do you have a weapon?” they asked her.

“Yes,” she replied. She pulled out her old Bible. Stang read to the men out loud. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…”

“God bless you, my sons,” she said.

One of the men shot Dorothy Stang in the abdomen. Stang, 73, fell face down. The same man shot her again in the back, and four times in the head.  

Her body lay on the dirt path all day, her arms curled beneath her. Witnesses were afraid they would be shot if they retrieved it. The white cap from her head lay next to her. It rained until the clothes on her body were soaked.

“In the midst of all this violence,” Sister Dorothy Stang wrote to her family and friends on her 60th birthday, “there are many small communities that have learned the secret of life: sharing, solidarity, confidence, equality, pardon, working together… Thus life is productive and transforming in the midst of all this.”

In the last twenty years, over 1,200 people—including human rights activists, environmentalists, small farmers, priests, and judges—have been murdered for trying to protect the rainforest, according to the Catholic Land Pastoral, which tracks rural violence in Brazil. These murders are ordered primarily by ranchers, loggers, and powerful farmers.

A Brazilian rancher, Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, was charged with ordering Dorothy Stang’s murder. He was sentenced in 2013 to 30 years in jail.  Another rancher, Regivaldo Galvao, was also convicted for ordering the murder, and was sentenced to 30 years in jail in 2010. He was released in 2012 by the supreme court, “saying he had the right to remain free pending the outcome of his appeal”…

A 2013 report by the investigative nonprofit Global Witness, Deadly Environment, shows a distinct and dramatic escalation in the number of known killings worldwide of environmentalists between 2002 and 2013. At least 908 people were murdered during this time for defending the environment. Of these killings, less than 10 percent were taken to court and 1 percent resulted in convictions…

“The number one domestic terrorism threat [in the United States] is the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement.” That was a statement from John Lewis, the top Federal Bureau of Investigations official in charge of domestic terrorism and an FBI deputy assistant director, in 2004. And it’s not just the FBI that sees the environmental and animal rights movement as a dire threat. The Department of Homeland Security also lists the the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front as leading hazards to national security, all while overlooking violence from the right-wing.

Guess what the total number of fatalities and injuries from the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement—the number one domestic terrorism threat in the United States—is? Exactly zero. Violent attacks from right-wing extremists, such as Christian fundamentalists, racists/white supremacists, anti-abortion activists, and anti-LGBTQ groups, which result in both injuries and deaths, have increased 400 percent between 1990 and 2011, according to a report by the Combating Terrorism Center of West Point. The report includes information on 4,420 violent incidents in the United States that are classified as right-wing violence and hate crimes. There were 670 deaths and 3,053 injuries…

“[Animal] and environmental rights extremists,” however, from January 1990 to June 2004, said John Lewis of the FBI, “have claimed credit for more than 1,200 [attacks], resulting in millions of dollars of damages and monetary loss.”  

Those millions of dollars of damages and monetary loss are, perhaps, the real issue at stake.  

Excerpted from “The Sustainability Secret: Rethinking our Diet to Transform the World,” by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, text by Eunice Wong. Text copyright © 2015 Earth Aware Editions. All rights reserved.