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Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Plants

Here's something I wrote about 2 weeks ago. I postponed posting in order to get some of the travel stuff up. It's somewhat in response to a NYT article, which several friends informed me of, directly and indirectly.

I'd promise not to post any entries related to veganism for a while, but this meta-post is sort of incomplete and needs a partner-post looking at the article itself. So just one more. For now. Bear with me.

There's a question that people often ask me and, I'm sure, others who profess to be vegetarians or vegans or lacto-ovo-pescetarians for ethical reasons. The question is: what about plants? Don't they feel pain and have a right to live, too? Though it's easy to brush the question aside - indeed, I usually feel like the people who ask it to me take it far less seriously than I do - I believe it does merit some attention, and that the way we answer the question ought to bear heavily on our daily food choices.

Before we get to the evidence, a word first about the question-asker, or better, the question-act. In my experience, the question is rarely asked honestly. What I mean by this is that the question is asked as a quick way to justify one's current meat-eating habits, and the asker rarely acknowledges that other conclusions that might have ramifications taking them away from their current habits are actually more logical.

The underlying argument is as follows (I'll call this argument "A" for future reference):

Premise 1) Animals feel pain and have an interest in living.
Premise 2) Plants also feel pain and also have an interest in living.
Premise 3) Humans have to eat.

Sub-conclusion: The process of eating necessarily causes pain to some kind of being and disrespects its interest in living.

Conclusion: There's no point worrying about what we eat. We're just assholes and there's nothing we can do about it. Eating meat is as OK as anything can be.

In practical terms: there's no need to change my habit of eating (industrialized) meat.

There are a couple problems with this argument. The first is

*Hidden premise 1) Everything we eat or can eat is either a living plant or an animal, capable of feeling pain and having interests.

While this is mostly true - aside from salt and water and maybe one or two other things, all of our sustenance comes from other life forms or products of those life forms - it would be possible live off fruit and nuts (which drop off plants naturally) and fungi (of course, whether or not fungi feel pain and have interests is also a question worth asking.) One could also eat dead animals (as our ancestors almost certainly did). These are admittidely difficult and unrealistic options, but it's possible to live by them, and so they ought not go forgotten in any discussion of right and wrong as regards eating.

The second, more significant issue is

*Hidden Premise 2) Animal pain and interests and plant pain and interests are identical.

Whether or not this is so can only be determined by honest, disinterested observation, but I'll go ahead and say that, prima facie, I'm not sure why we'd make that assumption, given how differently plants and animals react to stimuli. (Later, I'll refer to an NYT article about scientists who have investigated this in detail.) This is significant because, unless one can prove that all pain and interesets are identical, one is/may be justified in worrying about the pain of one species more than the pain of another, even if it's impossible to reduce that suffering to zero. The solution in this case would be to subsist on plants rather than animals - though of course, one could also discriminate among plants, eating primarily algae and other low-level life forms that most likely feel little pain.

The question-asker, in my experience, is rarely willing to accept that his/her premises, when all made explicit, lead more naturally to fruitarianism or consumption from the bottom of the food chain than they do to the indiscriminant consumption of any form of life. The reason, it seems to me, that people don't acknowledge this is because the argument is not about what, at the surface level, it purports to be about. It's not about whether or not plants feel pain or whether that matters. It's about whether or not the self-professed ethical vegetarian (hereafter, "SPEV") is a hypocrite and/or an asshole. First the implicit argument, from the POV of the non-SPEV, then some discussion:

Fact: This SPEV claims to be living according to the following Central Principles of SPEVism.

CP 1) It's wrong to cause other beings to suffer needlessly.
CP 2) It's wrong to ignore the interests of other beings in favor of our own interests.

Premise 1) (Acknowledged) Consuming meat is wrong according to CP1 and CP2.

Sub-conclusion 1) The SPEV thinks I am a (bad) person who does things that are wrong.

Premise 2) (Assuming that "A" is sound and valid) Consuming plant matter is also wrong according to CP1 and CP2.

Sub-conclusion 2) The SPEV, according to his own logic, is also a person who does things that are wrong.

Super-conclusion) the SPEV is a judgmental hypocrite and can't even follow the precepts of his own ethical system, which he won't stop talking about and pushing onto others. If he can't follow them, why should I? And what right does he have to criticize or look down on my preferences?

I understand completely why it may be nice to consider even benevolent and mild-mannered SPEVs like myself hypocrites and/or arses. The fact is, choosing to live as a SPEV requires condemnation, implicit if not explicit, of the act of eating meat, just as choosing to live as a teetotaler generally requires condemnation, implicit if not explicit, of the consumption of alcohol. Of course, implicit in almost every refusal, banal or not, is a condemnation of the act being refused; refusing to kill another human implicitly condemns those who do, as does refusing to pick your nose in public. Few get upset over the nose-picking issue, but nobody is surprised when soldiers don't appreciate pacifists. When the condemnation hits close to home - and what's closer to home than what you put on your plate and in your mouth at brekkie, lunch, and dinner? - it's easy to take it personally.

This is something that, as a newbie SPEEVegan (No typo! 5 points to whoever figures out what that means!), I take seriously. I feel deeply that CP1 and CP2 are right and want to live in a world where others do too, which means that I want to proselytize and convert. But I also want to maintain relationships with all my non-SPEV and non-SPEEV peeps, who have all sorts of other great qualities and who do other great things and who remember the days before I was a SPEEVegan. If we go way back, you may even remember when I was a non-SPEEV. Wow.

So, though none of my pals have ever really clashed with me about this stuff and I am preaching to people who don't need to be preached at, please consider this a plea to:

1) Refrain from asking the "what about plants?" question unless you
a) would consider becoming a fruitarian; or,
b) want to disagree with SPEV CP1 and/or CP2 (I haven't forgotten about you, Chris, formidable foe that you are); or,
c) think I'm wrong in my analysis of Argument A
2) Consider the plight of the SPEVs.
3) Let me know how I'm doing at being a non-threatening, friendly, non-arsey SPEEVegan. Give me tips from the non-SPEV perspective, which I abandoned nearly 8 months ago and may have somewhat forgotten. Really, it's important. To me and to SPEVs and SPEVegans and and SPEEVs and SPEEVegans and other permutations all over the world.

Alright, now that that joke is sufficiently played out, I'll sign off, leaving the original question (and article) unscathed. I intend to take it/them on later. Maybe on the 24 hour train ride to Mumbai tonight. For now, I'm going to try to beat the lunch rush at that restaurant I couldn't get into yesterday. Cheap pure veg food, here I come.

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.