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What is Suffering Footprint?

Suffering footprint is the trace of physical harm caused to life and liberty of other creatures in our pursuit of food, clothing and shelter. When you buy a kilo of rice from your local grocer, for example, to begin with it carries the history of pain in soil organisms — from rats to earthworms — when the earth was tilled to sow the paddy. Then there is the transportation of water and exploited, under-paid labour, which involved the mining and burning of fossil fuels. At each further stage, harvesting, transportation and storage, until the grain arrived at the grocery, there has been physical pain, no matter how minuscule, caused to some or the other life form. It is heart-wrenching to imagine all the bits and chunks of suffering that add up to bring a single chapati onto your plate.

There is apparent suffering, like the slaughter of animals for meat, and there is hidden, implicit suffering, like in a kilo of rice. Every act of survival, even the most benign, causes some physical pain or loss of liberty in another creature. Whether you see it or not, our hands are always covered in blood. This is the inevitable truth of existence on earth. For someone to live, someone has to die. As a conscious and choice-empowered species, what are we to do about this? What are the choices we have?

If we must exist despite this bitter fact, we could begin by reducing our individual suffering footprint. One direct and verifiable way to do it is to simply reduce our consumption. Limiting the consumption to needs and avoiding indulgence. A first step towards reducing consumption would be figuring out our bare necessities — the bare minimum food, clothing and shelter needed for our survival. But living by calculating the suffering footprint implied by each and every one of our actions can become a complex and paralysing task. As a beginning, along with reducing consumption, it is simpler to eliminate actions that cause direct harm to others.

Even if we cease to exist, the machinery of suffering will continue. The ultimate aim would be to ensure that our life, our time, which comes at a cost to others, is used to counter suffering — whether it is the suffering added by humans or the suffering woven into the fabric of life. After all, if we are living at the cost of other lives, our time is not really ours, we are just its custodians.