Whether something we desire - or already have - is considered "essential" has never crossed the collective consciousness of Australians quite so much as it has throughout 2020. Over the past eight months, fear - whether it be of catching COVID-19 or being confronted by police - has given each of us unprecedented pause to consider whether we really need to do many things, from leaving the house to packing the kids off to school to hosting the wedding of our dreams.
Our respect for others, our governments remind us (sometimes hourly), is best measured by how many non-essential errands we put off until "things improve". Under the strict lockdowns to which most of the nation was (and Victorians are again) subject, grey roots became a gallant symbol of our concern for others and entire workdays spent in our pyjamas became a testament to our community-mindedness.
But why are so many non-essential endeavours carrying on with full government support?
Why - given that dietitians and nutritionists agree that we don't need meat, dairy, or eggs in our diet to live long and healthful lives - does the intensive breeding and killing of millions of animals still have the green light?
Why - when we don't need to place bets on whether animals will win a race or cop a bullet - are dogs and horses still being cajoled (or whipped) to run in circles for our entertainment?
And why - even as scientists warn that the next (potentially worse) pandemic is most likely to arise from our intensive raising of chickens and pigs - are we propping up death industries, and diverting essential personal protective equipment from medical professionals to those who must make a living by hacking limbs off what were living, sentient beings for products we don't need?
The answer, of course, is that money talks. No matter how myopic, dangerous, cruel, or environmentally destructive a practice is, profitability will prevail over common sense - and even the common good.
In this country, we can't even do something as patently essential as vote without a "democracy sausage" being shoved in our faces, such is our warped view of meat's place on a pedestal in our lives. Yet the meat industry's true impact is obscured from us, hidden behind abattoir walls and protected by laws that stop activists from documenting the cruel, terrifying journey from living being to slab of meat.
But for those who want to see it - who think critically and seek the truth - the impact of animal agriculture is unmissable.
It can be seen in the countless koala homes felled so that livestock can graze across the 4 million square kilometres of Australia that is now committed to pasture for grazing animals. In the 48 Australians dying every day from heart disease, our nation's biggest killer and a largely preventable ailment strongly linked to the meat in our diets. In our parched, charred land, dying of thirst in an endless drought while the 1.6 million cows used in Australia's dairy industry guzzle up to 85 litres of water a day - each.
There's no doubt that Australians need jobs. But we also need our government to future-proof our livelihoods - and lives - by building and supporting industries centred around sustainability, health, and affording all animals (both human and non-human) basic rights.
This extremely tough year has brought us to a tipping point. For the sake of animals, our health, our economy, and our environment, each of us now must assess what is truly "essential" if we're to avoid further catastrophe.
Quite simply, a shift away from animal use is a necessity we can no longer ignore.
- Emily Rice is senior outreach and partnerships manager at PETA Australia.