After the troubles and tragedies that last year brought, many of us are understandably eager to turn the page. But the world’s problems didn’t magically disappear when the clock struck midnight on December 31. And as much as 2020 may have made us feel like characters in a disaster movie, we have more power to change our circumstances than we realize.

As John Lennon and Yoko Ono sang decades ago, “War is over / If you want it / War is over / Now.” It’s a reminder that, as bad as things may be, each of us can choose, right now, to change the world—by changing our own attitudes and behavior. We should start with changing the way we think about animals.

Speciesism, the misguided, harmful belief that one species is more important than another, is at the root of many of the troubles we faced in 2020 and brings about immense suffering—not just for mice, cows, sheep and monkeys but also for our own species.

The pandemic that brought the world to its knees was likely sparked by the human penchant for eating the flesh of other animals. It’s believed that the novel coronavirus originated in a wet market in China. Wet markets are horrifically cruel places, where living beings—including fish, birds, badgers, bats, pangolins and turtles—are crammed together in filthy conditions until they’re selected to become someone’s dinner. It’s hard to imagine a better breeding ground for disease than these blood- and offal-spattered facilities.

Our taste for flesh came back to bite us again when workers packed together in slaughterhouses —where animals are shackled upside down by the legs and sometimes dismembered or scalded while still alive—were sickened with the coronavirus by the thousands and hundreds died. Vulnerable workers were declared “essential” and required to keep killing animals, even as it was killing them and their families.

COVID-19 is now the number one killer in the U.S., surpassing even the previous holder of that dubious distinction, heart disease. Assuming that we can get COVID-19 under control this year, heart disease will return to the top spot. But is that really something to celebrate? This ailment, too, is linked to our consumption of animals: Meat, cheese and eggs are loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat, which cause the arterial plaque buildup that can lead to heart disease.

Thinking that animals are ours to eat isn’t just harming human health; it’s also punishing the planet. The record-breaking wildfires that devastated Australia, the Amazon rainforest, and the U.S. West Coast in 2020 are also collateral damage from speciesism. Eating animals is a leading cause of greenhouse-gas emissions, deforestation and droughts, all of which contribute to catastrophic wildfires.

Speciesism has gotten our planet—and everyone on it—into a real mess. But it’s not too late to do something about it. We can make a fresh start this year by refusing to treat our fellow Earthlings as commodities to be eaten or exploited in any other way. If we do, we can help prevent future pandemics, reduce our risk of heart disease (as well as diabetes, cancer and obesity), cool off the planet, and ward off wildfires. We really can make 2021—and beyond—brighter for all.

Then maybe next year, when we hear “War is over,” it will really be true.

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