A Rebuttal to a Rebuttal: An Eating Plants Reader Responds to An Angry Butcher

Some context: what follows is a rather brilliant point-by-point rebuttal of Berlin Reed’s rebuttal of my recent piece in the Atlantic.com. All the drama can be followed by reading the past several postings here on eatingplants.org. It is an understatement for me to express my sincere appreciattion for the INTELLIGENT feedback that comes in on this blog. That is a rare quality these days.

Off we go:

From: Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten

I read the article original article this is responding to. The point was that small farm meat advocacy will just be co-opted by big meat. The language was sharp in some points, and perhaps could have been softened as to not slight the ethical butcher since that wasn’t the intent, but overall, I didn’t read it as an attack as such. Anyway, onwards to the reply:

EB- “the moral superiority complex that plagues so many herbivores”

HE HAS A BLOG CALLED THE ETHICAL BUTCHER! McWilliams has a blog called Eating Plants. No matter how Reed goes about defining what he means by ethical butcher, whether it’s a label, a blog, or a project, there is inherently some moralizing going on. He can’t really spin around and say, “Oh, those vegans, so many with moral superiority complexes!”

EB – “I will never assume to know what others should do; I find that to be a dangerous mindset.”

His book is titled The Ethical Butcher: Real Food Rules. Whether “rules” means “a prescribed guide for conduct or action” or “the exercise of authority or control” (Merriam –Webster), it sure seems he is suggesting what others should do. Also, his livelihood seems to depend on being a butcher. McWilliam’s doesn’t really depend on being vegan, he can write about whatever he wants to and may even be less marginalized if he wrote about something else.

EB – “worldwide vegan fascism”

I’m not sure that it’s worth even engaging with this individual with this sort of rhetoric. Which vegan organization is campaigning in impoverished countries pulling meat off of people’s dinner plates? I know that there’s plenty of leafleting on college campuses with affluent young people capable of making lifestyle changes. There is Heifer International though, whose mission is to give impoverished people livestock. Good? Bad? Well, there’s some criticism to content with (http://goo.gl/JMV61), but regardless, it’s certainly not a vegan organization.

EB – “Going vegan doesn’t answer..etc”

But neither does “ethical butchering” or “avoiding soy.” With the soy avoidance, it’s clear that we’re dealing with the usual WAPF kool-aid. Livestock, even the local “pastured” kind, still consume plenty of cereal crops akin to soy. Even Joel Salatin doesn’t escape this.

EB – “The outdated obsession with meat as the crux of the problem is unnecessarily narrow-minded”

If by outdated he means, “advocates who pointed out the problem decades ago,” (you can go back even a hundred years even) that’s not being outdated, that’s being right. Animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change, deforestation, and depleting fisheries. It’s unnecessary, certainly in the amount that is condoned, and it’s easier to reduce animal product consumption than to “free ourselves” from “the complex web” whatever that even means.

EB – “I have never, ever argued against being vegetarian or vegan.”

No, it’s just that vegans have a moral superiority complexed, destroy the world with soy and “precious veggies”, cause animals to suffer (deliberately I wonder?), are “dogmatic,” “elitist,” “outdated,” “obsessive,” “narrow-minded,” “unrealistic,” “short-sighted,” “fascist,” and wronger than wrong, but no, no arguments against being vegetarian or vegan. It all reads like a bullet points from the retarded Vegetarian Myth except he loses a few points for not mentioning that vegans need B12 so it’s unnatural and no society has ever been truly vegan, oh, and something about hunter-gatherers. For extra credit he could have at least mentioned the welfare of plants and microbes.

EB – “I abstain from soy at all costs and I don’t eat any seafood other than shellfish and a very, very short list of truly sustainable fish.”

He believes soy is the problem, so he abstains at all costs, which is unfortunate because the comparable costs of meat eating that soybean eating can displace is very high. Legumes also fix nitrogen. Soybeans that feed people really aren’t that big of a problem and of course soybeans can be organically sourced. Most of the tofu and soymilks on the market are organic, all are non-GMO, some brands are even regional/local depending where you live. If you live in New York (Brooklyn), Fresh Tofu Inc. produces tofu for the tri-state region from Pennsylvania and the organic soy beans are sourced nearby. Commercial animal products are a big problem, they make up 99% of the animal food supply, but when vegans abstain from them for very good reasons, it’s “fascism?”

EB – “Going vegan doesn’t preserve generations of time-honored traditions “

Who cares when we are reading articles on illuminated screens transmitted through a computer network. I thought we were supposed to be solving big problems, not having cultural day. Can’t cultures honor their languages, their stories, their dance, and dress, even their holidays, maybe that means modifying meals to a vegan menu, maybe they consume animal products on those special occasions. I can only refer to Jonathan Safran Foer who presents the idea that culture is more than what we put into our mouths. Also, since vegetarianism is ancient, it most certainly is a cultural item that can be integrated into most any other cultural milieu. Certainly any cultural people near a decent supermarket.

Here’s what I find most obnoxious with the notion of time honored traditions used in defending hunting or butchering animals. Long before humans could write they could kill animals and figure out how to consume them. It’s not rocket science. If civilization collapses tomorrow in typical Hollywood fashion, enough survivors will be able to figure out on their own how to hunt, fish, and butcher any animals they may find in order to survive. We don’t really need to practice. If buttery is a skill, it’s one that far less intelligent proto-humans mastered long ago. Chimpanzees hunt and manage meat eating just fine.

Somehow when vegans eat vegetables it’s, “your precious veggies,” that could only come from the worse circumstances, but then he eat vegetables it’s fine, because his menus “teem with fresh, seasonal vegetables.” Hey, that’s great, but any vegan can do the same if they want to. Also, I’m not going to suggest to everyone never to eat non-seasonal frozen or canned vegetables, because that isn’t really helping anyone to make eating less meat easier. It’s not possible nor desirable for everyone to exclusively eat fresh seasonal vegetables. People should each oranges and other nonseasonal fruits in the Northern winter. It’s healthier (plenty of studies show this) for people to consumer fruit year round and the environmental impact is relatively negligible (compared to any meat eating). Sure, conditions of many agricultural workers are poor, but that’s not inherent to growing vegetables and solutions have more to do with labor and immigration policies.

EB – “I can actually still count the number of animals I’ve served over the past two years,”

I can actually still count the number of animals I’ve eaten over the past two years. Zero. Whoop dee doo. A feat only possible because it’s not really a feat at all. It’s fairly straightforward and simple, I wish I had this feeling of moral superiority that people like Reed claim vegans exhibit, but I don’t self-congratulate myself as if I’m preforming some sort of notable or courageous deed. If I had a blog or a new book coming out I wouldn’t title it ethical anything, that’s for sure.

EB – “I don’t eat very much meat and one look at my latest menu will dispel your claims that I encourage wanton meat consumption.”

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they don’t eat very much meat… The point is that ethical butchers become symbols of meat consumption for everyone else whether you like it or not. The proof is Center for Consumer Freedom linking to your blog, but it’s also apparent in attitudes of a majority of indifferent meat eaters. Meat eating can be done right, they have an example in ethical butchers, so all meat eating is justified. These people will wait until the industry reforms itself while maintaining high supply and low prices.

EB – “In my opinion, the single most critical element in the perpetuation of factory farming is corporate greed.”

As McWilliams (and many others) have pointed out, that’s where the slow food movement (or locavores, or whatever we want to call it) gets is a bit off. Factory farming of animals is older than people think and it exists because lots of people want to eat lots of animal products and that is the only way to cheaply supply them. The accusation is that corporate greed leads to factory farming. A glib rebuttal could be that greed leads to eating animals when there are viable alternatives and that leads to factory farming.

EB – “The issue is the system through which most of the animals we eat are supplied.”

A system that is there to meet demand. It’s not there in a vacuum. So long as meat is promoted, either by small or large scale entities, the demand won’t decrease nearly enough as it should. Does consuming less animal products solve all our problems? No. But it is a very large problem and the solution is “easier” — it’s a social problem, “easier” in a relative sense — to implement than retrofitting our civilization into some sort of primitivism hybrid. That’s a massive social and infrastructure problem; one that is unfeasible.

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Reason to Go Vegan #6: Evolutionary Biology

Every enlightened person acknowledges the fact that there’s morphological continuity between humans and non-humans. This is basic evolutionary biology. My hand has it origins in the transition from fish to land lizards. My arm and the arm of a hawk have a common origin. The human body has its origins in3.5 billion years of evolution. This we can all agree upon.

But what about my cognition, consciousness, emotionalism. Admittedly, we know less about the evolution of these phenomena, but this is changing, and what we’re finding confirms that, just as there’s physical continuity between all animals, there’s mental continuity as well. Let’s listen to what some of the leading scientific minds have said about the nature of cognitive evolution and it implications for the human and non-human relationship:

Donald Griffin, the father of cognitive ethology–the science of animal thought–writes: “the central nervous system of multi-cellular animals all operate by means of the same basic processes regardless of the species or even the phylum in which they are found. Because we know that at least one species does indulge in conscious thinking, and take it for granted that conscious and unconscious thinking result from activities of the central nervous system, we have no solid basis for excluding a priori the possibility that conscious thinking takes place in any animal with a reasonably well-organized central nervous system.”

Bernard E. Rollin, a leading authority on veterinary ethics, echoes this theme of continuity in his book Animal Rights and Human Morality: “For Darwin himself, and for the nineteenth-century biologists (at least in England and America) who carried forth his ideas, thought and feeling in animals was an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.” Rollin deems this idea central to “the foundational theory of modern biology.”

What does all this mean? In essence, we are not emotionally or cognitively distinct, in any fundamental way, from non-human animals. This single fact may be the best objective intellectual justification we can come up with for veganism. When humans and non-human animals are part of a continuum, rather than thought of as qualitatively distinct forms of life, human meat-eaters confront a serious quandary. It becomes incumbent upon them to forge a contemporary justification for carnivorous behavior. Aristotle and Genesis will no longer do.

By undermining the long-held basis of inherent human superiority over non-human animals, the science of evolution obliterated the framework within which thoughtful carnivores long justified their behavior. As it now stands, human meat-eaters, unless they reject modern science, support the killing of non-human animals without the slightest intellectual or ethical grounding. Vegans, by contrast, base their diet in the soundest science.  We must promote Darwinian evolution as the intellectual basis of veganism.

A House Divided: Addenda

Two quick points that touch on the larger debate between abolitionists and welfarists:

a) Both abolitionists and welfarists sometimes take issue with the slavery analogy to animal rights. This objection can assume many forms, but it usually has something to do with the idea that slaveowners knew that slaves were human and thus did not have a species barrier to overcome, as animal rights advocates do today. If this is an opinion that you hold, I would urge you to read a book that I was recently reminded of by a friend. It’s called Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South, by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. In it, you will find powerful evidence that masters treated slave and cattle reproduction with remarkable similarity, thus suggesting that, in the southern mindset (and in many northern minds), the difference between a black slave and a white freeman was as fundamental as that between humans and non-humans today. It’s a point that I believe powerfully supports use of the slavery analogy.

[http://books.google.com/books/about/Birthing_a_slave.html?id=PErMWGzHpcAC]

 

b) Abolitionists routinely make the point that welfarists have been doing their work for decades but have seen scant progress. Today, however, Mark Bittman reported that meat consumption in the United States is on course to drop by 12 percent since 2007. Bittman does not attribute this drop to welfarist pressure per se, but there’s ample reason to link at least some of this decline to the growing mainstream awareness of animal welfare, an awareness for which the efforts of PETA and HSUS can certainly take some (but by no means all) credit. That said, it’s probably a waste of time to try and measure in any quantitative manner the impact of either welfare or abolitionist approaches. Not only is it impossible to link improvement to one or the other with any definitive evidence, but there’s no way to measure what may have happened to the consumption of animal products has efforts not been made at all to raise awareness about animal welfare and animal rights. As I see it, yet another reason to build a bridge between these approaches.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/10/were-eating-less-meat-why/?ref=opinion

The Slavery Analogy Part II: Gary Francione’s Jan 4 Blog Entry

After I posted yesterday’s piece on slavery and animal liberation, a subscriber alerted me to the fact that the Rutger’s philosopher Gary Francione had posted on the same topic the day before. So, here it is. A different, and quite fascinating, take on the issue:

Francione writes:

Many vegans become irritated with non-vegans who claim to care morally about animals but who continue to consume them. The former will often invoke an analogy to human slavery. It goes like this: we all agree that the use of humans exclusively as resources—the condition known as human slavery—is morally abhorrent. Similarly, if people think that animals are members of the moral community, then we ought not to be treating them exclusively as resources either and we ought to oppose animal slavery. And if one opposes animal slavery, one adopts and promotes veganism.

Does the analogy work?

Yes and no. The slavery analogy, which I have been using for two decades now, is not particularly compelling if one maintains that nonhumans, unlike human slaves, only have an interest in not suffering and do not have an interest in continued life or in autonomy. And that is a core belief of the welfarist position going back to Bentham—that animals can suffer and have interests in not suffering but are cognitively different from us in that they are not self-aware and do not have an interest in continued existence. To put the matter another way: welfarists maintain that animals do not have an interest in not being slaves per se; they just have an interest in being “happy” slaves. That is the position promoted by Peter Singer, whose neo- or new-welfarist views are derived directly from Bentham. Therefore, it does not matter morally that we use animals but onlyhow we use them. The moral issue is not use but treatment.

Add to this that most welfarists are utilitarians—they maintain that what is right or wrong is determined by what maximizes pleasure or happiness or interest satisfaction for all of those affected—and you end up with the view that as long as an animal does not suffer “too much,” and given that the animal does not have an interest in her life, her having lived a reasonably pleasant life and ended up on human plates is better than her not having lived at all. If we provide a reasonably pleasant life and relatively painless death for animals, we actually confer a benefit on them by bringing them into existence and using them as our resources.

Therefore, it is understandable that, if one is a welfarist, one does not accept the slavery analogy. “Happy” slavery is not only not a problem; it is a good thing. The problem with human slavery is that even “humane” forms of slavery violate fundamental human rights in continued existence, autonomy, etc. But if animals do not have those interests, then “humane” slavery may be just what is needed. And that is precisely the thinking that motivates the “happy” meat/animal products movement and the entire welfarist enterprise of trying to make animal use more “humane,” more “compassionate,” etc.

I have argued that this sort of thinking is problematic in at least two regards:

First, the notion that nonhuman animals do not have an interest in continued existence—that they do not have an interest in their lives—involves relying on a speciesist concept of what sort of self-awareness matters morally. I have argued that every sentient being necessarily has an interest in continued existence—every sentient being values her or his life—and that to say that only those animals (human animals) who have a particular sort of self-awareness have an interest in not being treated as commodities begs the fundamental moral question. Even if, as some maintain, nonhuman animals live in an “eternal present”—and I think that is empirically not the case at the very least for most of the nonhumans we routinely exploit who do have memories of the past and a sense of the future—they have, in each moment, an interest in continuing to exist. To say that this does not count morally is simply speciesist.

Second, even if animals do not have an interest in continuing to live and only have interests in not suffering, the notion that, as a practical matter, we will ever be able to accord those interests the morally required weight is simply fantasy. The notion that we property owners are ever going to accord any sort of significant weight to the interests of property in not suffering is simply unrealistic. Is it possible in theory? Yes. Is it possible as a matter of practicality in the real world. Absolutely not. Welfarists often talk about treating “farmed animals” in the way that we treat dogs and cats whom we love and regard as members of our family. Does anyone really think that is practically possible? The fact that we would not think of eating our dogs and cats is some indication that it is not.

Moreover, a central thesis of my work has been that because animals are chattel property—they are economic commodities—we will generally protect animal interests only when we get an economic benefit from doing so. This means that the standard of animal welfare will always be very low (as it presently and despite all of the “happy” and “compassionate” exploitation nonsense) and welfare reforms will generally increaseproduction efficiency; that is, we will protect animal interests in situations where treatment is economically inefficient and welfare reforms will, for the most part, do little more than correct those inefficiencies. For example, the use of gestation crates for sowsis economically inefficient; there are supposedly more “humane” alternatives that actually increase production efficiency. Similarly, “gassing” chickens is more economically efficient than electrical stunning.

So I understand why welfarists have a problem with the slavery analogy. I think that they are wrong in multiple respects but they never really engage the arguments. Instead, they claim that I am “divisive” and “do not care about animals suffering now” because I make these arguments. Some get even more dramatic.

The rights paradigm, which, as I interpret it, morally requires the abolition of animal exploitation and requires veganism as a matter of fundamental justice, is radically different from the welfarist paradigm, which, in theory focuses on reducing suffering, and, in reality, focuses on tidying up animal exploitation at its economically inefficient edges. In science, those who subscribe to one paradigm are often unable to understand and engage those who subscribe to another paradigm precisely because the theoretical language that they use is not compatible.

I think that the situation is similar in the context of the debate between animal rights and animal welfare. And that is why welfarists simply cannot understand or accept the slavery analogy.

******

If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. It’s a matter of nonviolence. Being vegan is your statement that you reject violence to other sentient beings, to yourself, and to the environment, on which all sentient beings depend.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

UNC and Me: My Recent Visit to the Famous Eats 101 Seminar

http://www.distinguishedscholarships.unc.edu/eats101/

The plan for my talk last week at UNC-Chapel Hill was, in a word, elegant. I would ask the class: “how many of you believe that we should avoid inflicting unnecessary harm to sentient animals”? Every hand, of course, would bolt skyward. Next, I would ask “how many of you eat animals or animal-based products”? Most, if not all, hands would go north. Then I would seize the opportunity to highlight–with airtight logic of course–the inherent contradiction in saying yes to both questions. In my head, this lesson couldn’t have been better conceived.

Then class started. When I asked the first question (about avoiding unnecessary suffering) everything went haywire.  Only a couple of kids raised their hands. Others declared their allegiance with half-raised hands and nervous looks around the seminar room. Many kept their hands defiantly down and started peppering me with pre-law-inspired questions, including: “what you mean by ‘unnecessary’”? It was then that I threw my talking points to the wind: this was going to be a two hour head-to-head with seventeen very bright undergraduates.

By the end, I can say with confidence that my arguments for not eating animals remained solidly intact. Rarely, though, have they been hit with such penetrating ammunition. The most important thing I’d say about the wide-ranging discussion was that it was civil–exceedingly so. These students weren’t taking a food studies class–the famous EATS 101–in order to have their biases confirmed. Oh no. They aimed to rock the boat. It’s fair to say that everyone got a bit jostled.

The primary justification for challenging the “unnecessary” tenet was that the culinary arts are “necessary” to human happiness. This view was implicitly shared by the class’s instructor who, in addition to being a friend, is a great gourmand, former confidante of the late Julia Child, and a man in possession of a kitchen designed by the gods of cookery. Nevertheless, no matter how impressive the kitchen, no matter how meaningful the culinary arts, and no matter how tight the connection with JC, the idea that culinary artistry is necessary for human happiness is, philosophically speaking, untenable.

To assert that the culinary arts are “necessary” for human culture and happiness is arbitrary. I could just as easily say that it’s “necessary” for me to alleviate my pent up anger–thereby heightening my happiness–by punching people named Melody. The fact that an act of violence (killing an animal, punching Melody) creates pleasure (the sensation of taste, defusing anger) fails to morally justify the violence. Thus, the appeal to culinary “necessity” so passionately held by many of these students requires that adherents either a) pretend animals don’t suffer, or b) deem random and arbitrary human-on-human violence morally acceptable. In essence, a dead end.

Things became more complicated when students brought up tradition. The culinary arts have a rich tradition rooted in the intricate preparation of animal products. But does historical longevity legitimate unnecessary suffering? Does the fact that a behavior has been just fine forever make it any less arbitrary? The answer is no. History is replete with cases of completely normalized but totally arbitrary examples of long-lasting abuse. The enslavement of Africans, the oppression of women, the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment–all these practices were once considered so common as to be beyond question. It’s to the credit of advanced civilization that today we deem these acts as tantamount to barbarism. Tradition never trumps unnecessary suffering.

Then, just as tensions were rising, up came the topic of religion. An anthropology major asked about the centrality of animal sacrifice to far-flung religious rituals. What if a religion’s belief structure was rooted in the warm blood of a fat goat? What if the liver of a freshly issued calf was required for the salvation of the elect?

The temptation–or at least my temptation–is to immediately dismiss such scenarios as hobgoblins of the opiated. Political decency, however, warrants tolerance for matters of the spirit.  So, affirming my dedication to decency, I noted how incredibly talented humans were at imbuing symbolic meaning in the most varied and remote objects (growing up Catholic helps with this realization). I thereby concluded: until it can be materially verified that a potential acolyte is more likely to find salvation in goat blood rather than eggplant flesh, I’ll opt for the eggplant as the capricious currency of salvation.

The most challenging question actually came after class, while walking to dinner, and it came from a kid who had worked on a ranch and, I’ll admit, was really onto something. The gist of his question was this: if humans really do have an obligation to treat animals with equal moral consideration, then don’t we also have an obligation to prevent undomesticated omnivorous animals from attacking other undomesticated animals?

My gut response was to claim that the wilderness is wilderness, domestication is domestication, and leave it at that. Then something occurred to me: such an idea of “wilderness”–one that implies an environment devoid of human involvement–is flawed. After all (as this student was also quick to point out), humans have so dramatically transformed nature that one could make a case that a robin attacking a worm is, in a way, a sort of rigged scenario–both predator and prey live where they live because humans have transformed the environment to determine their respective niches, not to mention orientation to each other. All of which places me face to face with this unlikely question: must I prevent the robin, an omnivore, from eating the worm?

To be true to my stated goal of reducing animal suffering, I would–or so it would seem–have to answer yes. And that, of course, would be a devastating answer. For starters, it would highlight the impossibility, if not complete absurdity, of my foundational premise that we should reduce unnecessary animal suffering. It’s not necessary that I eat a pig to live; but it’s equally not necessary that a robin eat a worm to live. So, on what moral basis do I determine that preventing pig-suffering (by ending animal agriculture) is inherently more worthy than preventing worm-suffering (by intervening in the predator-prey relationship)? Failure to offer a satisfying answer to this problem pretty much compromises the vegan’s consistency.

The answer–which took me bit of wheel spinning to come up with–hinges on what I’ll call the principle of ecological uncertainty.  Ecological connectivity is so intricate, so complex, and so poorly understood in its entirety that humans (even ecologists) lack the ability to accurately predict the consequences of our meddling in it. If the human relationship with the global ecosystem is marked by anything definitive, it’s the law of unintended consequences. Thus, when we try to right the robin-worm relationship, we meddle in an ecosystem that, due to our inevitable ignorance of its inner workings, could easily respond with more rather than less suffering in the animal world. In short, we aren’t obligated to extend our moral consideration to undomesticated animals because we can never be sure that, in so intervening, we wouldn’t increase overall suffering.  With domesticated animals, there is never any doubt on this question. Our guiding approach to life–veganism–directly reduces unnecessary animal suffering. We live unburdened by fears of unintended consequences.

And that is why–no matter how potent the opposition–we need to keep listening to how others challenge veganism, take their ideas seriously, and continue, with ruthlessness and optimism, to promote what we know in our hearts and our minds to be right.

The Natural Vegan?: An Historical Perspective

Perhaps the most common oppositional response I get when I explore the virtues of veganism is that “it’s not natural” for a human being to eat only plants. Evidence is culled from a human dietary past that’s always included at least some consumption of animal flesh. But while there’s little doubt that human evolution has hinged on at least the episodic consumption of meat, this “it’s not natural” argument against herbivory ultimately hinges on a lazy assumption:  if humans have always done it, then it’s the natural–and thus the right–thing to do.

When the concept of natural is placed in historical perspective, however, some troubling conclusions emerge. In eighteenth-century America– a time I happen to know well–it was considered perfectly natural to own black people. It was also natural to put a man to death for committing a homosexual act. It was natural to legally forbid married women from owning property. And it was natural for wealthy people to be closer to God then poorer people. These “natural” practices and beliefs were not only as “natural” as eating meat, but they were repeatedly justified as integral components of natural law.

The jarring idea that what was considered natural yesterday isn’t what’s considered natural today is especially true when it comes to food. Whether we’re talking about plants or animals, the bulk of the modern diet has been radically altered–mostly through selective breeding and hybridization–into a fundamentally different version of what it once was. Whether one eats a vegan or paleo-diet, the fact remains that the bulk of what we’re consuming–no matter how natural we think it might be– is the result of aggressive human manipulation of the food system.

From this perspective–the perspective of food history–today’s diets cannot be deemed “natural” or “unnatural,” but rather the result of a choice made among an unprecedented variety of largely human-determined alternatives. If you’re a locavore who eats locally slaughtered chicken and broccoli grown by your neighbor you’re eating no more naturally or unnaturally than the vegan who eats imported fruits and vegetables, quinoa, tofu, and almond-milk, followed by a vitamin B-12 supplement.  In the grand scheme of things, both are choices among equally fabricated options. The key point being, of course, that one choice happens to be healthier, better for the environment, and more humane than the other.

So, the choices that our global food system provides essentially negates the “it’s not natural argument.” It does so on the grounds that, compared to the “natural” diet consumed out of necessity by our distant ancestors throughout human history, nothing we eat today could even remotely reflect what was once choked down for the purposes of brute survival. Meat then is not meat now. Vegetables then aren’t vegetables now. Cow’s milk then is not . . .oh wait, nobody drank cow’s milk until very recently in human history (7000 years ago). But still, for whatever reason, we deem it natural to drink cow’s milk.  . . .

Civilization evolves, bodies evolve, food evolves. Never before have humans had the option of choosing a diet that best reflects our deepest respect for our bodies, our planet, and the multitude of species we share it with. Call it natural or unnatural, it really doesn’t matter: veganism is a diet that allows humans today to capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity. Veganism can now make history.

McWilliams to McKibben: “Go Vegan”!

 

 

 

There’s not a single person on the face of this rapidly warming earth who’s done more to fight anthropogenic climate change than Bill McKibben. Through thoughtful books, ubiquitous magazine contributions, and, most notably, the founding of 350.org (an international non-profit dedicated to fighting global warming), McKibben has committed his life to saving the planet. For all the passion fueling his efforts, though, there’s something weirdly amiss in his approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions: neither he nor 350.org will actively promote veganism.

Given the nature of our current discourse on climate change, this omission might not seem a problem. However, as a recent report from the World Preservation Foundation confirms, ignoring veganism in the fight against climate change is sort of like ignoring fast food in the fight against obesity. Forget dirty coal or natural gas pipelines. As the WPF report shows, veganism is the single most effective path to reducing global climate change. [http://www.worldpreservationfoundation.org/Downloads/ReducingShorterLivedClimateForcersThroughDietaryChange.pdf]

The evidence is especially convincing. Eating a vegan diet is seven times more effective at reducing emissions than eating a so-called sustainable, local, meat-based diet. A global vegan diet (of conventional crops) would reduce dietary emissions by 87 percent, compared to a token 8 percent for “sustainable meat and dairy.” In light of the fact that that the overall environmental impact of livestock is greater than that of burning coal, natural gas, and crude oil, this 87 percent cut (94 percent if the plants were grown organically) would come pretty close to putting 350.org out of business.

There’s much more to consider. Many consumers think they can substitute chicken for beef and make a meaningful difference in their dietary footprint. Not so. According to a 2010 study cited in the WPF report, such a substitution would achieve a “net reduction in environmental impact” of 5 to 13 percent. When it comes to lowering the costs of mitigating climate change, the study shows that a diet devoid of ruminants would reduce the costs of fighting climate change by 50 percent; a vegan diet would do so by over 80 percent. The point couldn’t be clearer: global veganism would do more than any other single action to reduce GHG emissions.

So why is it that 350.org tells me (in an e-mail) that, while it’s “pretty clear” that eating less meat is a good idea, “we don’t really take official stances on issues like veganism”? Well why the heck not?! Why would an organization that’s committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions not officially oppose the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions? It’s indeed baffling. And while I don’t have a definite answer, I do have a few thoughts on the matter.

Like most environmentalists, McKibbon is stubbornly agnostic about meat. A recent article he wrote for Orion Magazine, “The only Way to Have a Cow,” reveals an otherwise sharp-minded and principled environmentalist going a bit loopy in the face of the meat question. The tone is uncharacteristically cute, even folksy, and it’s entirely out of sync with the gravity of the environmental issues at stake. Moreover, the claim that “I Do Not Have a Cow in this Fight” is an astounding assessment coming from a person who is so dedicated to reducing global warming that he supposedly keeps his thermostat in the 50s all winter and eschews destination vacations for fear of running up his personal carbon debt.  [http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/5339/]

So why this selective agnosticism on meat? The fact that McKibben recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to oppose the construction of a natural gas pipeline (and get arrested in the process), rather than stay at home in the Adirondaks and preach veganism, provides some hint of an answer. Not to get overly cynical here, but I imagine that getting arrested in a protest over a massive pipeline is a lot better for 350.org’s fund-raising mission than staying at home, munching kale, and advising others to do the same. The “problem” with veganism as a source of activism is that it’s essentially hidden from view. It’s a quietly empowering decision that lends itself poorly to sensational publicity. Pipelines and other brute technological intrusions, by contrast, are not only visible, but they provide us (the media) with clear victims and perpetrators. And, as we all know, that stuff sells.

Another reason for the agnosticism has to do with the comparative aesthetics of pipelines and pastures. When meat-eating environmentalists are hit with the livestock conundrum, they almost always respond by arguing that we have to replace feedlot farming with rotational grazing.  Just put farm animals out to pasture, they say. And this is exactly what McKibben argues in the Orion piece, claiming that “shifting from feedlot farming to rotational grazing is one of the few changes we could make that’s on the same scale as the problem of global warming.”

This all sounds well and good. But recall that the statistics in the WPF report show that the environmental impacts of this alternative are minimal.  Veganism is far more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than meat raised on pasture. So why the near universal advocacy for rotational grazing among environmentalists? The underlying appeal in the pasture solution is that a pastured animal mimics, however imperfectly, symbiotic patterns that existed before the arrival of humans. In this sense, rotational grazing perpetuates one of the most insidious myths at the core of contemporary environmentalism: the notion that “nature” is more “pure” in the absence of human beings. Rotational grazing thereby evokes our inner Thoreau. A pipeline raping the earth from Canada to Mexico, not so much.

A final reason that McKibben, 350.org, and mainstream environmentalism remain agnostic about meat centers on personal agency. When you think about meat, what comes to mind? For most people (well, not readers of this blog, I guess) the answer will be “something I cook and eat.” Naturally, it’s much more than that. But for most consumers meat is first and foremost a personal decision–we make the choice whether or not to put it into our bodies. Nothing could be more intimate.By contrast, what do think about when you envision an old coal fired power plant? Many will contemplate ruined aquatic ecosystems, smog, and ruined air quality. And in this respect, the coal fired power plant symbolizes not a personal choice, but an oppressive intrusion into that choice, one sponsored by a sinister corporate-government alliance. We feel powerless.

Environmentalists, I would venture, thus go after coal rather than cows not because coal is necessarily more harmful to the environment (it appears not to be), but because it appeals to our instinctual, if misguided, sense of personal agency.

I don’t meat to downplay the impact of these factors. The visibility of pipelines, the romantic appeal of pastures, and the deep-seated belief that we can eat whatever we damn well choose are no mean hurdles to overcome. But given that the power of veganism to directly confront global warming, I’d suggest McKibben, 350.org, and the environmental movement as a whole trade in their carnivorous agnosticism for a hard dose of vegan fundamentalism.