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Monday, January 11, 2010


Note: This is one of those purgatorial posts which has been lurking in my "drafts" box for a few months now. I am aware that I am probably talking too much about veganism nowadays, so feel free to skip the post. But if you want to read about it, here it is. Also, it's almost 3 months old, and as I consider myself a different person, I hereby disavow any responsibility for what's written below.


If you want an explanation of the possible rationales for vegetarianism and veganism, there are probably much better things to read than this post. Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation" outlines the basic philosophical argument and exposes the conditions on factory farms (in the 1970's) and Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" gives a few statistics about the costs and logistics of factory-farmed livestock and also some examples of more humane and environmentally sound methods. There are also the hundreds or thousands or millions of books I haven't read, and of course there's wikipedia. I've also noticed or been linked to a number of good articles on the New York Times site, which has a vegetarian section.

The reason that Stepper had some trouble isolating my motives is because there are indeed several of them, most of which he touched on. One is the argument regarding suffering. We generally agree that it's wrong to cause another person to suffer, particularly if it's only to satisfy one of our non-essential desires. In theory, this is true regardless of sex, race, nationality, etc, though in practice we don't do to well at extending our sympathies to people we perceive as different or distant. We also agree that it's wrong to cause certain animals (dogs, cats, horses) to suffer, and have even given them some types of rights within our legal system. But, out of sheer selfishness and prejudice (generally speaking , anyway - there are also some philosophical arguments that can be raised, and I hope Chris will deign to do so) [EDIT: Chris, don't do it now, there's a more relevant post coming], we don't extend the same courtesy to animals that are delicious. I believe this distinction is arbitrary and self-serving and is perpetuated only because we're (happily, even intentionally) unaware of the amount of suffering our habits cause.

It's true that this argument doesn't concern animals raised in the wild. But, I'm willing to bet that, out of all the meat we've consumed in our life, less than a tenth of a percent was caught wild. I'm also willing to bet that most of the meat and animal products advertised as having been raised organically, naturally, conscientiously, etc, are not half of what they're cracked up to be. So, to be safe, I'd avoid most of it anyway.

I'm not sure how willing I would be to eat meat that I know for sure has been caught wild or raised sustainably and kindly, but it's mostly a moot point anyway, since that kind of meat is so incredibly rare and expensive. Even killing the animal quickly may cause some sort of suffering to the animal's "family," and the process of tracking it down may be destructive or inefficient in other ways. This is all, of course, dependent on which type of animal we're talking about, with the "lower order" ones which are less likely to have developed emotions or pleasure and pain systems similar to ours meriting less attention.

There are also some health risks to consider, due to meat going bad or being contaminated or being pumped full of steroids and antibiotics and what not. To be honest, I don't think much about that stuff. [EDIT: The more I look into this sort of stuff, the more I hear about the problems with a meat-and-dairy based diet, but that's also a topic for another time and place.]

I agree with both you (Stepper) and your beloved Nietzsche when you say that eating animals isn't intrinsically wrong. It would be ridiculous to criticize a bird of prey for eating a mouse. The bird doesn't have the physical capacity to survive on anything else, nor does it have the ingenuity to find a different way of living, and it may not even have the ability to sympathize with another creature. That's just the way nature works. So I'm not passing any judgments on Neanderthals who speared mammoths or Eskimos who hunt seals or others who eat animals out of necessity. It may be unfortunate, but when it comes down to it, humans are like all the other animals in that they'd rather kill than starve.

But not one single instance of eating meat in our entire life has had any relation at all to starving or biological necessity. We (this is as true in India as in the West) can easily (and deliciously) feed ourselves without killing animals. We torture and then consume just to satisfy our taste buds, which we could satisfy equally well in any number of other ways. We have the physical capacity to survive and thrive without eating meat, and we have the mental capacity to choose to do so. We just don't, because we think that they taste good and that we need them. The former may be trivially true, but the latter isn't true at all.

Plus the environmental costs of contemporary meat production are insane. Most of the water consumed in the US is consumed by animals. It takes 100 times more water to produce a pound of beef than a pound of grain, and 750 gallons of water go into a gallon of milk. It also takes something like 22 pounds of grain to get a pound of beef. To get animals to fatten up quickly, they need to be fed corn. To make enough corn, we need to use fertilizer. To make fertilizer, we need to use oil, which could otherwise be used for much better and important things. Even with massive amounts of fertilizer, corn yield is still too low to feed all our cows and pigs, which means that we need to pay South Americans to clear the Amazon forest to make space for crops, which means there are fewer trees to sequester the carbon released by whatever else we do. Not to mention the thousands of tons of poo that nobody knows what to do with, and which most likely will somehow get into our rivers, lakes, oceans, or drinking water. The focus on fertilized corn also leads to problems with pests and pesticides and pesticide-resistant pests and the disappearance of our topsoil.

There are other ideas there too, about living in harmony with the earth and changing our attitudes toward our environment and removing all traces of violence from our lives and working on Karma and who knows what else. I'm down with some of these things, skeptical about some others, and outright reject the rest. But there are enough other reasons that those aren't terribly important for me.

There's also the fact that, having been slowly stopping eating meat for nearly the last 3 years, and having been just about completely meat free for the past 5 months, and almost vegan for the past 3 weeks, I just don't miss it that much. There's no temptation left, just like most people don't feel particularly tempted to eat snails or horses or rabbits or whatever. Better than that - free of thoughts of factory farms and waste and selfishness and destruction, eating is actually more pleasant for me nowadays than it has been in a long time.


still a meat eater said...

Well stated. I'm glad you finally got this post up!

Michael said...

Anything in particular that's not convincing?