Thursday, October 15, 2009

How to Save the World: Seven Pillars of Vegetarianism

So the title of this post is a bit grandiose, but we're talking about climate change here today, because it's Blog Action Day 2009. Think thousands of bloggers sitting in front of their computers can't change the world? Well.... you're probably right — but! That won't stop us from trying. My goal here today is not to convince you climate change is real and caused by human activity (it is), or to lecture you about the evils of modern consumer-based society and why a market system based on consumption will never, truly actively support a reduce-reuse-recycle model (it won't). My goal here today, friends, is to give you an excuse.

Actually, seven. Seven excuses, seven reasons to give up meat, to go vegetarian; seven excuses to save the world. You see, according to current studies on global warming and its major contributors, one of the most effective and easiest ways for ordinary individuals to fight global warming and help the environment is to reduce their consumption of animal products. Steve Pavlina notes in an article earlier this year:

A 2006 United Nations report found that the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world combined. [...] In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, eating one pound of meat is equivalent to driving an SUV 40 miles.

Reducing our reliance on and support of the environmentally-devastating meat industry by cutting meat and dairy out of our diets has more impact than switching to that hybrid car or buying those energy-efficient light bulbs. Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, especially one of mostly locally-grown organic foods, might just be the single best thing you can do to help restore the natural ecosystems of this planet, ecosystems human life evolved within and on which we depend for our future survival. And you can make the change immediately, starting today, at your very next meal. That's your first excuse.

But if that's not enough, I have six more. Vegetarianism isn't just about the environment, though that is an essential pillar in support of this lifestyle. At every level of our personal and social existence, we find compelling reasons why a vegetarian diet is not only a good idea, but a deeply meaningful choice to live with respect and gratitude as part of the natural world. The seven pillars that support this view are: biological, historical, environmental, political, ethical, psychological and spiritual. And each pillar has tied to it a strawman argument against the vegetarian diet, set up like a scarecrow to frighten people away from examining their choices too carefully. Well, consider this post a kind of Bad Wolf essay, panting and prowling through the temple, ready to blow those strawmen down.

Biological

The first pillar of vegetarianism is biological: as a species, we have evolved biologically to eat plants, not other animals. Recent discoveries in anthropology and paleontology provide evidence that our closest ancestors are not aggressive, omnivorous chimpanzees but "peaceful vegetarian" apes such as the gorilla and the bonobo. Our teeth are shaped primarily for ripping and grinding plant matter, rather than gripping and tearing flesh, and recently uncovered fossils of our earliest ancestor, Ardipithecus ramidus, has teeth much smaller, flatter and less protruding than predicted by earlier "killer ape" theories put forth by scientists. Our immune system is built to handle a vegetarian diet, as well — if we fail to cook our broccoli long enough, all we risk is slightly crunchy broccoli, and not potential deadly infections such as E. coli or tapeworms that can come from eating contaminated meat or foods cross-contaminated through animal feces. Our senses have developed to aid us in determining which fruit is ripe or rotten, whereas such discernment of meat is usually much more difficult. Furthermore, our digestive system is not physically capable of digesting most animal flesh, which must usually be cooked first to render it even remotely palatable; the sight and smell of raw meat sickens us, while fresh fruits and vegetables are inherently appealing to our visual and olfactory senses as well as our culinary tastes. Consuming even cooked meat puts unnatural strain on our bodies that can lead to digestive problems and heart disease, while eating fruits and vegetables provide us with the appropriate balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals as well as the sugars and carbohydrates we crave and the fiber and water necessary to keep our bodies running smoothly.

The argument constructed against all this biological evidence is that we are not meant to be vegetarians, but omnivores, and thus eating three meals a day based primarily around a meat main-course is not only perfectly healthy but necessary to meet our nutritional needs. Besides taking for granted that the farm-raised, hormone-injected animals we eat today are in any way comparable to animals in the wild (to be dealt with later), this argument ignores the fact that most omnivores in the animal kingdom with similar teeth and digestive systems to our own (as opposed to, say, bears and other mainly-carnivorous animals) use meat only as an occasional supplement to a plant-based diet, rather than a staple food in itself. This meat is usually in the form of insects or scavenged carrion. It is true that we have certain minimal requirements for protein and fats that must be met, but studies have shown that eating a diverse diet of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes more than adequately satisfies these needs (almost all cases of protein deficiency are, in fact, cases of starvation, not an imbalanced diet). Indeed, most Americans eat far too much protein, and health problems from heart disease to cancer can result. Stop for a moment and ask yourself where herbivorous animals such as cows, sheep, gorillas, and elephants get their protein to begin with. Their bodies, like ours, naturally manufacture protein out of the amino acids found in abundance in plant matter. When we eat animal proteins, in fact, our digestive system must first break these down before it can obtain the amino acids it needs, putting it under unnecessary strain.

Of course, as a species we are capable of eating an omnivorous diet, and this is one (of several) reasons why we have survived and managed to populate vastly different environments the world over. However, this does not mean that a meat-based diet is ultimately the healthiest or the best choice, especially for those living in circumstances which offer many ready alternatives. We should seriously question the practice of taking emergency survival techniques (such as eating whatever is available in harsh environments with few alternatives) as a foundation for ordinary healthy living. We should also remind ourselves that we are not defined merely by our biology; we can make lifestyle choices informed by other aspects of our social and personal lives as well, while still respecting our biology and physical needs. For instance, although the female human is capable of reproduction at as early an age as 12 or 13, few people today would argue that teen pregnancy is a good idea, let alone take it as an imperative to impregnate young girls as soon as possible.

Historical

This leads us to a consideration of our history as a human species, and how we have traditionally dealt with the question of diet. Long ago, our species evolved in the tropics of south-west Africa (this is why, incidentally, the colors, textures and tastes of tropical fruits are so particularly appealing to us); from there, we eventually migrated and spread to Eurasia and other climates where such foods were not as readily available. In response to changing environments, we found new alternatives provided by the indigenous flora and fauna, eventually establishing traditions of agriculture to supplement and then eventually replace a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Studies in archeology and anthropology show us that in ancient as well as modern day hunter-gatherer tribal societies, hunting and fishing rituals centered on showing respect and gratitude for the sacrificed animal and a promise or prayer for the continuation of its species. These rituals were sometimes so elaborate and lengthy (Joseph Campbell reports a three-day ceremony for the killing of a single stag) that they rendered frequent or mass-scale hunting simply impractical, which in itself insured a limited diet of meat and a restriction on just how quickly a species of animal could be depleted. With the introduction of agriculture and the domestication of livestock, the balance of plant- and animal-based food in the diet varied depending on a person's individual wealth and social class. Animal domestication on a large scale in Europe tended to have certain unhealthy consequences for the surrounding population, giving rise to epidemics and a general increase in disease and unsanitary living conditions for both humans and animals (Europeans brought these diseases with them to the New World, and the result was devastating to the native population). Meanwhile, agriculture and domestication alike contributed to the quickening process of deforestation and the homogenizing of ecosystems through controlled cultivation.

The historical support for vegetarianism is not so cut-and-dry as the previous biological arguments, precisely because for the most part humanity has survived by eating a combination of plant- and animal-based foods. What is clear is that our species has a history of adapting to local environments and finding or creating alternatives to support our lifestyle choices. History also provides us with evidence that the kind of large-scale animal consumption that our culture relies on today has traditionally had negative consequences for both human beings and the environment, while the hunting and eating of wild game in hunter-gatherer cultures has been healthier for both and tends to include natural limits that help to mitigate negative consequences. This evidence does not make the claim that eating meat is physically or ethically worse (see above, and below), but challenges us to question our ability to do so without putting strain on our relationship with the natural world on which we rely.

The historical objection is simply that "we have always eaten meat" and if our ancestors did so, then it certainly couldn't be wrong for us to continue the practice. There is no real need to bring up the myriad examples of horrific, unethical and generally unhealthy practices once embraced by human beings in the past that we have thankfully left behind us (or in some cases are still working to overcome). It is sufficient to point out that our ancestors themselves set a precedent of adaptation and change, rather than strict adherence to past lifestyles; if such were not the case, our species would still be nibbling fruits and crunching on ants in the African tropics. Furthermore, most objections of this nature focus on the generally healthier and more respectful relationship of the tribal hunter with his prey, and skips over the several thousand years of less idyllic agricultural practices that are our more immediate heritage. Certainly invoking the rituals and restrictions faced by hunter-gatherers to justify today's meat-based diet is not enough to overrule the reality of modern factory-farming and animal abuse.

Environmental

And so we return to the contemporary concerns of environmentalists today, and the role that the modern meat industry plays in contributing to the global warming and environmental damage more generally. We have already touched on a few of these concerns in the introduction to this post, but just for fun, I'm going to quote two more statistics from Pavlina's essay:

To produce one pound of meat requires, on average, about 5000 gallons of water. Compare that to 25 gallons for a pound of wheat. To produce their daily food, a vegetarian needs 300 gallons of water per day, while a typical meat-eater needs 4000 gallons. It takes energy to transport all that water too, and this means more greenhouse gas emissions.

and this one:

The EPA reports that the run-off from factory farms pollutes our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Food animals in the USA produce 45 tons of animal excrement per second. That’s 130 times as much excrement as our human population produces. Some farms have so much excrement to deal with that they actually liquefy it and spray it into the air, so it gets carried away by the wind.

What these two tidbits effectively illustrate (and his article is full-to-bursting with similar facts) is precisely that those problems which were negligible on a small scale at the beginning of the agricultural revolution fester and grow into hugely wasteful, damaging practices when allowed to proceed unchecked and unquestioned. The modern approach to factory-farming, reliant on hormone injections, genetic modification, and the assembly-line rearing, slaughtering and processing of animals, consumes more energy and produces more waste than most people can even conceive of when they chow down on that mass-produced burger from the local fastfood joint. Once again, this pillar of vegetarianism does not insist that eating meat is inherently wrong, but points to the pervasive systems of meat production and processing today and asks us whether we can really turn a blind eye to their consequences every time we crave a porkchop.

It took me a long time to come up with any possible objection that could be propped up against this pillar and used to argue that, despite all evidence to the contrary, "eating meat is actually better for the environment." Only one has come to mind, and its approach is twofold and somewhat self-contradictory. On the one hand, I have often heard modern-day hunters argue that hunting and killing animals is necessary for their population control and more humane than allowing them to starve during the winter or risk being hit on the highway (this argument is more about killing than eating, of course, and in any case does not directly address the question of domesticated animals). On the other hand, apparently some individuals argue that the domestication of certain animals protects them from extinction and preserves their species (albeit in subservience to human need) into the future. So bizarre are both these claims — and so limited their understanding of "environmental benefit" — that I can hardly bother to deconstruct and reject them. Needless to say, both aspects of this argument rely on a kind of anthropocentric arrogance that assumes our right as well as our ability to control who gets to live and die, while ignoring our own role in eliminating the natural predators and destroying the habitats that would have kept the populations of these animals in ecological balance.

Political

As we move from pillar to pillar in support of vegetarianism, we find ourselves moving from the more objective realm of fact and evidence, to the increasingly subjective realm of personal and social choice and relationship. Politics is the first pillar in which we find the consequences of meat-eating echoing beyond the biological and environmental effects, to the nature of manipulation, misinformation and monopoly.

Current models of factory farming, together with corporate pressures from international giants such as McDonald's, render the meat industry especially prone to monopolization. Currently, the majority of U.S. meat production comes from only a handful of key corporations, who can quite effectively exert huge political influence on government legislation and regulation through lobbying and financial support. They utilize this influence to secure government subsidies which artificially lower the prices consumers pay for products to well below their actual monetary (not to mention environmental and social) costs; meanwhile, regulatory agencies run by former CEOs of the industry are effectively impotent to enforce what few regulations manage to pass into law. Lobbyists of the meat industry continue to fight against informative labeling regarding nutritional value, and the use of hormones, genetic modifications and dangerous chemicals in the production and processing of their animals. The general lack of regulation and information makes possible gross violations of basic human rights and worker safety, as well as jeopardizing general consumer health.

Perhaps none of this bothers you; perhaps you are content to be misled and manipulated by callous corporate giants, as long as you can get that steak dinner for cheap. But personally, as someone fundamentally against manipulation and abuse on principle, I find it impossible to ignore the role that my dietary choices play in the existence and continuation of this industry. When considering the wide-spread social implications of such a choice, reducing or eliminating my consumption of meat and other animal products becomes not just a personal matter of health and environmental awareness, but a political statement against the tyranny of greed and the inhumane, almost sociopathic priorities of corporate interests. Refusing to eat the byproducts of such a corrupt industry is surely not the only way to fight back, but it's one that I can enact, publicly or privately, on a daily basis regardless of other circumstances.

Objections to this pillar of vegetarianism include the rebuttal that factory-farming practices for produce and grains are just as bad, environmentally and politically, as those of the meat industry, as well as the insistence that the meat industry is a thriving business that is necessary to employ and support certain sectors of the domestic and global economies. It is true that factory farming is damaging in general, and that this includes the produce industry's use of petrochemical fertilizers and insecticides, as well as the genetically-modified monoculture crops that sprawl across much of the midwest. On the other hand, a huge portion of these farms' harvests go not to feed human beings, but to support the meat industry itself. Furthermore, when it comes to resisting the potential monopolies of the industry, it becomes much easier to seek out local, organic farms to provide yearly produce, or even to grow your own vegetables and fruits in a personal or community garden. I know of few people, however, willing to take on the task of raising and slaughtering their own cattle. As far as the argument that meat-eating is "good for business," I can only point out that industries founded on abusive and unhealthy practices deserve to flounder and fail, so that new, better alternatives can be found. Would anyone seriously argue, for instance, that the reliance on slave labor to shore up the cotton industry in post-revolutionary America could possibly justify slavery as a necessary and valuable practice?

Ethical

We are now approaching the final three pillars of vegetarianism: ethics, psychology and spirituality. Each of these topics is so complex and interwoven that it really deserves its own full-length essay, but for now I want to summarize some of the main points, and the various objections they tend to raise.

As we turn to the question of ethics, we are forced to confront the very notion of a "meat industry" as an industry like any other capitalist industry in the modern world. Whereas certain objects and items can (perhaps) be produced, exchanged and consumed without any inherent diminishment to their existential meaning or value, the fact that we feel comfortable as a society approaching other living, clearly sentient beings with this attitude raises serious ethical implications. What lines do we draw that separate some living creatures from others, and are these lines justified or even upheld in actual practice? The very notion of "animal rights abuses" may be controversial in some circles (though certainly not here in this blog), but human rights abuses seem much more widely acknowledged as worthy of condemnation and resistance; and yet, the very industry that provides you with sliced, plastic-wrapped deli meat in the supermarket aisle also treats its workers, as well as its consumer base, in abusive and manipulative ways. When we subject one part of the community of life to a model of lifeless consumerism, it seems an inevitable consequence that the rest of that community soon follows, and human beings as well as animals are reduced to mere numbers to be crunched, or gears to be turned.

There is also the ethical question of integrity, and the extent to which we can justifiably pay off others to do the "dirty work" we would rather not confront ourselves. When asked to explain my vegetarianism, this is the first point I make, as it seems the one to conjure up the fewest objections. Certainly, there are myriad unpleasant jobs in the world, but few are as dangerous, humiliating and psychologically traumatizing as the work of a slaughterhouse employee. Although perhaps this is not an inherent aspect of meat processing and packing, it is certainly an undeniable reality of our current system and must be acknowledged and dealt with as such.

Objections that animals just aren't as valuable or important, ethically, as human beings often rest on flimsy or arbitrary quibbling over definition. Not only because any consistent definition of personhood must either include some animals, or exclude some human beings who suffer from physical or mental handicaps, but also because of the diversity of social definitions which attempt to draw lines between animals themselves, designating some as food and others as pets. The argument that plants have been shown to experience a form of pain or survival instinct when threatened (besides deserving careful scrutiny itself) certainly cannot justify an ethical nihilism which declares that, if we can't help causing harm, we might as well not bother to mitigate what harm we do cause. Instead, it challenges us to think more deeply about our relationship to all living beings, sentient and non-sentient alike, and to consider the spiritual implications of relationship with both living and non-living things.

Psychological

The ethical pillar of vegetarianism rubs up against the psychological in many ways as we come to questions of personhood, harm and respectful reverence for fellow beings. Our psychological relationship with the plant world has traditionally been one of quiet cultivation and mutual nourishment, often involving community cooperation to ensure the planting, growing and harvesting proceed smoothly through the seasonal changes. Plants — both wild and human-cultivated — seem to us to more readily accept a symbiotic relationship with humans (as well as other animals) and offer up fruits, seeds and other parts of themselves in their own time. A ripe apple that falls to the ground in autumn can hardly be a traumatic loss for the tree, and on some emotional and psychological level we appreciate this aspect of our reliance on plant stuffs for food.

In contrast, hunting is roundly understood to be an act of potential harm, bringing about a death that the animal may not willingly accept, and one that many traditional tribal societies dealt with through rituals of petition and penitence, seeking forgiveness and cleansing of the "blood guilt" individual hunters themselves inevitably took on for the sake of the community. Rites of a son's "first kill" as an initiation into manhood were once understood as the willful taking-on of a burden or unpleasant task; modern back-patting for such an accomplishment are much more likely to be celebrations of intentional violence as symbolic of a macho-patriarchical conception of desensitized, power-oriented masculinity.

These broad portraits of our relationship to the plant and animal worlds are, of course, not nearly as subtle and complex as any given individual's experience are likely to be, but that does not diminish their importance in shaping the social patterns that influence how and what we share together at meals. Despite all of the above arguments of the previous pillars, it's still possible — in theory — to acknowledge the eating of animal flesh as potentially ethical and healthy, posing no inherent threat to social or personal well-being and being done with respect and reverence for the animals sacrificed. But we must not forget that we are ourselves psychological beings. We may strive for this ideal, but in our strivings we can also willfully ignore the harsh reality of our current meat industry, which rejects and undermines health, ethics and reverence at almost every turn, precisely because our psyches jar and balk at the disjoint.

I know full well that not all of the fruits and vegetables I eat are grown, harvested and processed in environmentally-friendly and respectful ways, yet the strain of this disjoint is not so great because I also know that seeking out organic, local produce is a very real possibility, as is someday growing it myself. On the other hand, commitments to only eat organic, abuse-free animal flesh put a much greater strain on the personal psyche, not only because such commitments are much more difficult to keep (and more likely to be bent or broken in the face of social pressures, for instance, at community meal-events), but because few people can conceive of the real possibility of raising and slaughtering their own food in a way that still feels respectful and emotionally-satisfying. I know myself well enough to know I am not a person who could kill an animal, especially one for whom I had developed respect and reverence through attentive care. Perhaps, under different circumstances, I could become such a person, but I see little point in supposing a reality that posits such a drastic change to my psychological being.

There may be some objection that eschewing the violence and pain on which our existence is inevitably founded is somehow weak-minded or even an unhealthy form of denial. I have addressed in the past my response to this conflation of violence and destruction, so I won't spend much time now responding to such an objection. But I will point out that, psychologically speaking, it becomes much more difficult to argue that vegetarianism is a symptom of weak-mindedness when we stop to consider the enormous social and personal pressures in place that must be overcome in order to make and maintain such a choice. (Anyone who can write an almost 5,000-word manifesto on the matter surely can't be too horribly weak-minded, in any case, if I do say so myself!)

Spiritual

At last we come to what, for me, is the crux of the matter. Scientists, nutritionists and historians may eventually chip away at the first three pillars with new discoveries and more reliable data; society may someday become more just and people more decent to one another and to those with whom they share the world, as the last three pillars wear away to dust. But even if this might one day be the case, even then — this final pillar will remain, not so much a support structure, as an altar. And upon that altar I rest my hands, my lips, and sometimes my weary head, in love and gratitude and praise.

For, to me, abstinence from animal flesh is not just about the ethical and social implications, not just about respecting ecological balance and upholding human and animal rights. It's an act of ritual and worship, an act of communion, surrender and grace as well as intent and creativity. In a consumer culture that has trained us to shovel food down our throats as carelessly as we pump gas into our cars (next time you're driving down the highway, notice the proliferation of gas stations and fastfood joints at all the same exits), my commitment to vegetarianism is a spiritual commitment to approach my daily meals with mindfulness and reverence, as a thrice-daily meditative rite. It's an act of acknowledgement that I am not, in fact, at the top of the food chain, that my body is fragile and, like my spirit, dependent on the mud and the rain and the sunlight, intimately tied to those things and reliant on the simple, quiet subtlety of the lush flora that thrive in every square inch that earth and sea and sky allow them.

In the end, it is a personal choice to shape my spiritual life through my own creative self-will, to become the person I want to be. And I can think of few relevant objections to that.

25 comments:

  1. Apparently you are my go-to person for writing prompts this week - I just wrote something that was too big for your comment box. I had no idea that there was even a character limit... Anyway, here's the trimmed-down version:

    I'm not interested in debating your points (except to point out that you can get E. coli from raw vegetables - that's important) because it seems like this is mostly an explanation of your personal reasons for choosing to eat the way you do, and my thoughts or opinions about your reasons are irrelevant. However it seems to me that you're setting up a straw man of your own, implying that the only two choices are "vegetarianism" and "eating massive amounts of factory-raised meats with every meal." Arguing against the industrial consumer culture is not the same as arguing against eating meat; the two are not synonymous.

    This: "We may strive for this ideal, but in our strivings we can also willfully ignore the harsh reality of our current meat industry, which rejects and undermines health, ethics and reverence at almost every turn, precisely because our psyches jar and balk at the disjoint" made me do the doggy-head-tilt thing. It simply makes no sense to me and I'm trying to sort it out. Are you saying that, even if I have an ethical perspective that says it's OK to kill and eat an animal as long as it's done humanely and responsibly, I will still suffer psychologically because other animals are still being treated badly? I'm not seeing the point here - just because something is usually done poorly, we should never do it well?

    I have a "commitments to only eat organic, abuse-free animal flesh" and it isn't much of a strain for me. There's some meat in my freezer that I knew by name back when it was an animal, and I don't have a psychological problem with that - he was a perfectly nice steer, he had a comfortable life, a big pasture, and a humane death. That's a comfort to me, not a strain, and it is difficult for me to relate to the idea that it is somehow better for me psychologically if his life and death were a blank to me. The connection with the animal and the land he lived on is a good thing that I cherish.

    I agree that our food production system is evil, but not because of any particular foodstuff. It's problematic because of the lack of connection. People eat meat without thinking of the animal that died to provide it, what he ate and how he lived and died; people eat plants without thinking of the soil they grew in, the people that worked to help it grow, the forest that was cut down to grow it, the fuel that was expended to ship it - when all your food comes from a package, there's no connection with the ground. Existence itself becomes surreal. That's the real problem. There is a huge list of abuses that industrial food production inflicts on the world and on each one of us. The root problem is in the attitude that we don't have to care about this stuff. As far as I'm concerned, eating grapes shipped from Chile when you live in the northeastern US is every bit as psychologically disturbing as eating a McDonald's hamburger. Both are a product of an insane system. I still eat the grapes sometimes (but not the McD's because, yuck) because I live in this system and I'm a normal flawed human being, not some mighty ethical food crusader. But I try.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I note that my original ginormous post had a much friendlier tone and what got posted sounds sort of hostile, now that I look at it - I edited out all the nice. It's not actually meant to be a hostile critique of your post. I'm just not following you in some places and radically disagreeing in others.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nettle, Thanks for your response, and no worries about it coming across as a bit curt. ;) I didn't know the comment box had a character limit either! The first point I want to make in response to your comment is that, while these are definitely reasons why I'm vegetarian, most of them are not at all limited to the personal. The first three pillars (biological, historical and environmental) are all more universally applicable, indeed to almost everyone except those who have absolutely no other options to meet their nutritional needs (i.e. almost no one, for instance, in the United States except the extremely impoverished). It's true that these pillars don't make any comment about eating meat as being inherently wrong, though the argument for it being fundamentally less healthy on several levels is pretty strong, I feel.

    However, the pillar of ethics becomes relevant when we consider the question of inherent wrongness, and though I only quickly summarized what are very complex, existential issues, there are many other sources that handle it much more thoroughly and challenge our assumptions about personhood and the inherent existential value of individual life (Emma Restall Orr's book, Living With Honour has a pretty solid chapter on the matter, and Peter Singer is probably the most well-known contemporary writer on the topic). The ethical question of eating animal flesh must, I believe, come down to the question of personhood and why we condemn the killing and eating of humans as almost universally immoral (to the extent that almost every person would rather starve than cannibalize another human). Most people would reject this as being a relevant comparison, but their objection is based, as I point out, on very fuzzy definitional lines that set human beings outside of and usually above the animal world. If we accept that we are animals ourselves, the definitions that justify ethical killing of animals begins to unravel, and on top of this, we find ourselves confronted with the biological arguments of the first pillar once again (and the historical evidence that our closest non-human ancestors in the animal kingdom were not meat-eaters).

    [It seems I need another box, too...]

    ReplyDelete
  4. [...]

    The psychological pillar is more difficult to sum up, so I understand why it left some confusion in its wake. You say that you have meat in your freezer that you knew when it was alive--and if this does not give you any trouble at all, then that is truly something unique (and, well... a little disturbing, honestly), for I know of few people who would be able to eat, say, the family pet without any qualms. Of course, you might argue that farm animals raised to be eaten do not hold as important a place, socially or personally, as pets do; but this seems to me an argument in favor of desensitization rather than increased reverence and respect. It also supports my point that social customs (like distinguishing pets from animals raised for food) allows us to smooth over what would otherwise be painful psychological disjoints, as does avoiding the task of actually slaughtering the animal ourselves (as most of us do). Even if this is not true of you personally (and I don't want to assume it is), I think that most people who do not make a formal, clear-cut commitment to avoid all animal products are likely to make exceptions more often than strict vegetarians when confronted by social pressures. Bill the cow may be in your freezer, but do you honestly challenge every single person who offers you a meat-based meal when you are, for instance, out at a restaurant or at a friend's house for dinner? Most social etiquette discourages such behavior as at best "picky" and troublesome to others. Meanwhile, vegetarianism is an established and socially recognized tradition so that, even when it causes a bit of trouble for others, it is much easier to explain and thus easier to maintain despite pressures to "bend the rules." I know from personal experience how easy it is to excuse such rule-bending, for there are certainly times when I eat produce that is not organic. But I have never eaten meat since becoming vegetarian, partly because such an obvious, broad line is much easier to avoid crossing, and partly because vegetarianism is socially recognized and the pressure to abandon it not as great. My side point about the difference in ideals was, basically, that the ideal of organic produce is much easier to realize in actuality, even for individuals growing their own food, whereas organic meat products are both rarer and more difficult to create for ourselves (even assuming we have the resources to raise our own cattle, it's unlikely we could raise enough to feed ourselves as much meat as this "bending" is usually used to excuse). Therefore the psychological "bend" of eating non-organic meat tends to be greater than that of eating non-organic produce, and so requires much stronger social smoothing and mental doublespeak to get away with.

    [Or three....]

    ReplyDelete
  5. [...]

    This issue of ideals is really only a side point to the main argument, though, that social customs play a huge role in our psychological approach to our meals. Claiming to hold the same respect and reverence for the animal flesh we consume--even those grown on organic free-range farms--that the hunter-gatherers had for their prey seems as ridiculous to me as claiming that a person can have the same experience in a New Age shamanic sweat lodge devoid of cultural context as a Native American has when they participate in a ritual that has been slowly cultivated and developed over centuries of unique cultural growth. Not impossible, mind you; just incredibly unlikely. I am not setting up a "straw man" claim that our only choices are between vegetarianism and the mass-produced animal flesh of the meat industry. Rather, I'm calling our attention to the personal and cultural assumptions embedded deeply in our current society and asking people to seek a deeper and more honest integrity than simply knowing the name of their dinner or that it came in a plastic-wrapped package slapped with a "USDA Organic" label.

    If you can honestly continue to eat meat in the face of the ethical and environmental implications, the biological information we have about the unhealthy nature of meat-eating and the historical knowledge that we human animals are certainly capable of finding alternatives if only we set our minds to it.... then that is something only you can know for sure. I certainly don't see any way I can excuse eating animal flesh when I know full well that there are alternatives available that are not only healthier but more ethically and spiritually fulfilling.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think (she said to herself ;) maybe I should have stuck with my best friend's advice... "The argument for vegetarianism doesn't need to go beyond this: Animals are my friends. I don't eat my friends."

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nettle, I feel like I'm still circling this idea and not articulating it very well for you. :-/ I hope you don't feel I'm bombarding you with responses...

    I guess what really leaves me wondering is why we feel this incredibly strong need to justify eating meat when we have so many good reasons to find alternatives. Why is eating meat so important to people? Perhaps I'm wrong, but I simply can't believe it's because they hold so much reverence for their relationship with the animals that this consumption is a kind of holy communion for them. I feel it's much more likely that the culture encourages an irreverent, callous attitude and instead of confronting this directly, people fall back on personal justifications built up in their psyche to alleviate that strain (and that they do this even when they're trying to explain their choice to eat only organic, free-range animals). It's like saying you can eat a small amount of dirt without it hurting you, and it's not ethically questionable if you respect the dirt.... but I still ask, why would you want to eat dirt anyway, knowing that there are so many alternatives?

    Why eat meat at all, when you can live a perfectly healthy life without it while still having as much, if not more, respect and reverence for the animals? What's so great about eating meat? Never mind my reasons for being vegetarian--why not be vegetarian, that's my question.

    Am I making any more sense? ::bashful smile::

    ReplyDelete
  8. There's nothing particularly unusual about me having known the animal by name before it became dinner. It's obvious that you and I come from very different backgrounds. I'm from a very rural area with a continuous tradition of farming and hunting. I don't have to look back to earlier ways of living for that - the steer in question was actually raised by a neighbor of my parents'. He grazes some of his cattle on their land and the meat was given in payment for the use of the land. This is not a very unusual arrangement among neighbors. It's an easy way to get some good protein out of land that can't be farmed while improving the pasture at the same time. It's normal to have a couple of chickens in the yard and to take a deer every year. The high school has a farm club - kids raise meat animals to show at the fair. They have names. They end up in the freezer. I don't know if the ability to do this and not be bothered by it is evidence of disrespect for life or desensitization - there are assholes everywhere, after all - but there is plenty of social pressure to take good care of your animals and look after them well, and to respect their deaths. I think someone who has raised an animal all of its life, looked after well, slaughtered it, and eaten it has a perspective on life and death that isn't available to someone who has never done that. I don't know if it's necessarily a superior perspective, but I think you can't possibly know what kind of respect could be present in that relationship if you have never experienced it.

    One of the things that I had to edit out of my original post as being mostly irrelevant(and this one is growing rapidly, so maybe I'll have to do a second one...) is that I was a vegetarian for ten years. I have actually given a whole lot of thought to this issue, and even though I never felt at any time that it was inherently unethical to eat meat, I felt, for many of the reasons you raise, that it was unethical for me to eat meat while I lived in the city. I had to give it up and go back to meat after a decade because I developed some health problems - not as a result of the vegetarianism, I would have gotten sick anyway as far as I know, but exacerbated by it. But I clung to it anyway against medical advice because I had come to believe that meat wasn't necessary for my health. It was only when I began to crave raw beef with carnal intensity that I realized that I ought to listen to my body rather than my head in this case, and immediately improved after adding meat back into my diet. I also can't eat wheat at all any more and most grains are only occasional friends. Soy is also an issue. I am at my healthiest and most functional on a diet that consists mostly of fruits and vegetables and meat. So the whole "picky eating" thing isn't a huge problem for me because anyone who feeds me dinner already knows I have a freaky diet. I think this is partially why I'm feeling compelled to write these huge replies - I have a defensive reaction to the "everyone ought to be vegetarian!" thing because I hear at the same time "I think you'd be a better person if you would accept being sick all the time as the price of ethical correctness!" Of course I know that you really do believe that a meatless diet is better for everyone and you are probably quietly questioning my insistence that meat is good for me, but the fact that you are ignorant of what you are asking of me makes it no less a harmful proposition.

    I think the question of why I would eat a steer when I wouldn't eat my cat is the most interesting one that you raise, and I don't have a clear answer for that. It seems to be instinctive - you don't eat family members, and kitty is family. It seems to be about creating relational boundaries - I will eat this animal and so I will relate to it in this way, I will not eat this animal so I will relate it in that way. Which goes right to the quote from your friend - "I don't eat my friends." And if you've never been in relationship with any animal that wasn't a pet, I guess they all look like that.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I take no credit for that quote by the way, it's all on Bernard Shaw there. But there are a few things that bother me here (surprisingly not with Alison or her incredibly sound arguments for being a veg-head). For example, I may not have direct experience of killing or maiming another life, like an animal, but does that make me ignorant? Well, it's hard to say, in a way, yes, because I don't know how that process goes from a first hand experience and I don't know the emotional involvement with that process either. But then again, in that application of the word ignorance, I'm also ignorant of many things just because I choose not to do them. My choice, however, to not participate in those acts does not mean that I do not have the right nor the firm ground to argue against those acts even if I have never participated in factory farming OR a much nicer, more well kept rural farm that names the animals before they give them the chop. Let me ask this, why not raise human beings (this a very serious question too) in the same way that animals are being raised on the farms you are talking about? That way, when the humans are at the "right" age, we wish them well in their version of the after life, slice them up, and serve 'em round. A main problem for me is that, why if you had these intense cravings for raw meet or beef did you not just take down the nearest human being? What about eating a cow or a pig or a deer had you thinking, "MMmmm....food." Now, obviously you could definitely give me the "well animals don't eat their own kind" treatment, but then again, if you did use that argument, I'd have to wonder what the use of our supposedly sophisticated brain power was actually meant for. I mean, what's the point of having all this power to change and be and do what I want if I can't even learn, with practice, patience, and research, how to eat and provide my body with its necessary energy while not ending another beings life? Now I know Alison and her vegetarian route is much different than my own, and hers is also much older, but I think she brings up just about every major point you could want in regards to being a vegetarian in this one post. Ethically speaking, their is no defensible position that allows a person, a human being, to justify why eating meat is allowed without also allowing for eating human beings. And if similarity is an issue, then we can just separate eating diets by "race," that way people who look much differently than ourselves will be consumed giving us the impression that we are not killing our "own." Their is an incredibly impressive song by the band Propagandhi called "Human(e) Meat: The Flensing of Sandor Katz" describing in fairly good detail the consequences of what you are asking for. Basically the song starts off with somebody carving into a human leg, with a little bit of screaming from the meal. The first half of the song then discusses the subject from your point of view. We should respect the meal, and "understand that while his screams may well have seemed like conscious objections they were in reality a request to honor his strength and speed." After describing how he cooked the man's head in a stock pot, he utters a phrase that has stuck with me ever since hearing it: "Cause I believe that one can only relate with another living creature by completely destroying it....I'm sure that Sandy's friends and family would appreciate this." And to end this lovely ballad, they basically warn that "Post-vegetarian I must submit to you respectfully, be careful what kind of world you wish for....because someday it may come back and haunt your door," indicating that using the same logic and thought trend I could easily show up one day on your doorstep with a carving knife, spread, and dinner plates with nothing more to say than, "I'm hungry," as I eye up my next meal (hint: that's you).

    ReplyDelete
  10. Food for thought! :-)

    I consciously eat small amounts of meat, purchased directly from free-range organic growers, who care for their animals and use the most humane methods possible at slaughter, in small-scale slaughterhouses. I am not here to quibble about vegetarianism, however.

    I would like to whole-heartedly agree with you about the unnaturally large influence Big Ag has over our political process! For instance, there is a bill making its way through Congress right that will create mandatory electronic tracking of animals (called the NAIS--National Animal Identification System), to prevent outbreaks of mad cow disease. Animals will be tracked by bar-code tags. Sounds reasonable, right? Yeah, except that factory farms can have a single tag for all of the thousands of animals they raise, and small farms need to tag each individual animal. The price tag would put my local, small-fry farmer out of business! Or significantly raise the price of my meats--either one. Whereas the price of the horrible meat will not be affected. And quite frankly, I don't think it would protect anyone from mad cow disease, either! This is just one example of many that I could choose to confirm that our current food system entrenches itself using political means.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have a comment for Nettle:

    I read an awesome book called The Great American Detox Diet. I followed its instructions, and lost the weight I had been carrying around for a decade. The author is vegan, but was uniquely unhostile in asserting her position. After the 2-month program, I added back in the things that I found I just could not live without, which included meat, in much smaller proportions (and much higher quality) than I had been consuming before.

    At the end of the book, she has an ethnic appendix. She quoted a bunch of research that showed that we humans have been co-evolving with our food, and if you are from one single ethnic background, there is a diet out there that will make your body healthy, and many diets that will make you ill. The Inuit of Alaska have horrible health problems when they eat fruit and vegetables and grains; only those individuals who could survive on seal meat and blubber lived to procreate the next generation. Polynesians need a substantial amount of fish in their diets, or they fall to pieces. Scandinavians need nuts and berries and mushrooms, with little or no meat at all (usually in the form of fish and game).

    In other words, human evolution did not stop 10,000 years ago, when we became homo sapiens. Americans have a tough time with diet, because we are all mutts--there is no one single diet that any person can predict for themselves, unless they have a clear lineage. (Obviously, the consumer culture makes this inherent problem about a hundred times worse!)

    My background is English, Scottish, Dutch, German and a few (small) question marks, all communities that have engaged in animal husbandry for thousands of years. After being vegetarian for two months (and vegan for two weeks), I was craving milk and cheese and meat. Maybe my ancestors 10,000 years ago did not _need_ meat, but my ancestors from 1,000 years ago _did_, because only the ones who could derive what they needed from an animal-products-based diet could survive to adulthood to create the next generation.

    I'd like to add that while I was on the 2-month detox-phase of the diet, I disgorged (mostly through my pores) many of the toxins that had built up in me because I had been eating like an American--better than some, but still unconsciously. I started losing the weight--without any effort whatsoever--after I went to eating more of my normal items. I now look like I did in college, and am hovering within 10 pounds of my ideal weight.

    I recommend this book to anyone who wants the encouragement needed to eat in a more conscious manner.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Emily, hear hear for bringing up the NAIS crap – the worst part about what industrial ag does to us is that it does everything possible to take away the fundamental freedom to produce our own food. You are always a slave to whoever produces your food, and they know this.

    I'll look into that book, too - lately I've been thinking of doing something of the sort, but the vegan detox things I've done in the past have always been terrible for me. All that was before I figured out that all that "whole grains are good for you!" stuff didn't actually apply to me, so maybe I can adjust it this time into something that is actually helpful. (and sorry for going OT, Ali, but I have a great big response to Anon sitting in the works, being slowly pared down, that is more to the point.)

    ReplyDelete
  13. According to Anon, all animal life is morally equivalent, and killing and eating a grasshopper or a pigeon or a squirrel or a cow or Uncle Joe is equally wrong. Or equally right? So you’re saying that since there is no rational way to exclude Uncle Joe from that list, we either need to accept it all is right or all as wrong, and since you believe it is wrong to have Uncle Joe for dinner, it’s just as wrong as eating the grasshopper. Please let me know if that’s not a correct summary, Anon. Your central point is something I’d like to think through.

    It’s still all about relationship – there is a relationship between two beings, and one of those beings kills and eats the other one. That’s the heart of the question. Is there some form of relationship where it is correct for one party to kill and eat the other? Well, we’ve already established that there is – when one of those parties is a plant and the other is an animal, it’s correct for the animal to kill and eat the plant. It seems like a leap of logic but I’ll let it go for the sake of the conversation. If one is a cat and the other is a mouse, is it right for the cat to eat the mouse? If I’m getting this right, it’s not really a fair question because cats do not have moral agency – humans and cats may be morally equivalent in terms of personhood, but not in our responsibilities within relationships. Humans are set apart from animals in that we have the ability to think about ethical questions, which allows us to see that we are not actually set apart from animals and we are all the same… it’s a paradox but not one I find troubling. At first I thought “well, that’s just weird” but I can go along with it, from a spiritual if not an entirely logical perspective.

    So, moving on, since we’re talking about humans here and we’ve established that there is a form of human exceptionalism, the question becomes “when is it OK for a human to be in a relationship with another animal where she kills the other party?” Since we’re specifically talking about food here and we live in a culture where most people do not produce their own food, we can move that out a step to eating food where the animal was killed by someone else. Let’s say we’re eating a plant. Animals are regularly killed by farmers to protect their crops. Beyond that, all land put into agriculture becomes habitat that is unavailable. Maybe that’s getting too far removed from the original question, but it seems like something that needs to be faced honestly. Something died to produce every single bite of food you put in your mouth – animals are killed for agriculture whether there is meat production involved or not.

    [giving up on the trimming and snipping now…]

    ReplyDelete
  14. I seem to lack the gift of smug moral certitude, so generally I just try to do my best – but “when is it OK to kill another animal?” seems like a really complicated question and simple answers like “never” or “always” don’t work. They just raise more questions. The personhood of nonhumans is a big issue and also not a simple question at all, and all the Swiftian hyperbole doesn’t change that. If all animals all share equally in personhood with all humans, then we are all monstrous sociopaths every time we swat a mosquito. And maybe we are, maybe that’s the real answer, that the introduction of moral agency into a species makes that species fundamentally evil. I don’t think we live in that kind of a world and I think that death is a lot more complicated than that, but it is one possible conclusion. Maybe we should all ethically starve to death.

    Everybody dies. Everybody gets eaten. Everybody has to eat. These are fundamental truths about life. There is no getting around this and while various concepts of right and wrong can be mapped onto them, we can’t consider our moral universe without considering that those facts come pre-installed, as it were, into the world. It’s either disingenuous or naïve to say that you’ve figured out a way to eat that doesn’t involve killing anything. You’ve moved the killing a few steps out and think that you’re not involved because you don’t see it. You’ve made the relationship into something you can comfortably put out of your head, just like the person who doesn’t want to know that their steak once liked to be scratched behind the ears.

    I think that in the face of the moral complexity of life and the bizarre insanity of our present food production system, vegetarianism is a rational and ethical choice for some people. I’m not interested in arguing anyone out of their food choices and I hope I’m not coming across that way. But I also think the question of personhood and of the relationship between humans, animals and plants and all of our conflicting needs is an interesting and complicated question and I’m hoping to see something that moves past “animals are people too!”

    ReplyDelete
  15. Wow! Look what happens when I actually have to work during the day! ;) Thanks, everyone, for such thoughtful responses. As my own comments have probably demonstrated, you never need to apologize on this blog for being long-winded. ;) On the other hand, it gives me a whole lot to respond to, and I'm going to try my best to do so briefly, if only to spare everyone the eye-strain. (Note after the fact: as you'll soon find out, I failed miserably!)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Nettle,

    I appreciate where you're coming from, I really do. We actually share more in common than you probably realize. I too have health problems that require a special diet, for instance. I was diagnosed with anemia years before becoming vegetarian, and had been suffering from its symptoms since childhood. Doctors at the time never suggested a lack of meat as the cause, since I came from a traditional meat-and-potatos kind of family. After a long while of simply taking supplements, I stumbled upon information about how vegetarians are sometimes actually better able to absorb iron because they get a better balance of other necessary nutrients that increase absorption (more vitamin C, for instance). When I began to take my diet seriously as a way of mitigating my anemia, I soon discovered that eating a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet actually decreased my need for supplements, so that now I'm down to one multivitamin each day (and, when I'm having a good week, not even that). Just recently, however, I was in the hospital for a completely unrelated reason, and when the doctor saw on the chart that I was anemic, he immediately asked if I was vegetarian. When I replied, "Yes, but I was diagnosed years before I became vegetarian," he replied glibly, "I'm just going to write on here that it's because you're a vegetarian." (I thought he was joking, until he actually took out his pen and made the note.) This infuriated me at the time (and I was further angered to discover that the antibiotics he'd prescribed were specifically ones I could not take along with an iron supplement). But it also goes to show that the medical community is not exempt from social bias. Perhaps before this experience, I would have simply nodded in sympathy with your story of health problems... but now I can't help but be a bit more skeptical, wondering if perhaps it's easier for the medical community to herd people back into the social norm (like putting them in the "control group" so that at least the variables are easier to deal with) than to seek out viable alternatives to meet individual needs.

    Another thing we have in common is experience of the rural lifestyle living closely with animals. I grew up in Lancaster County right in the heart of "Amish Country," where neighborly behavior like the kind you mention was not at all uncommon. We raised chicks in school, some of whom went home with friends of mine, who already owned goats and got milk and eggs from these; my parents often shopped at the local market from folks they knew, buying meat and produce alike (as well as some of the best homemade pies you'll ever taste). Despite this, however, I am just not as convinced as you are that such living really does privilege some people with more reverence and respect, spiritually, ethically or even practically.

    There is another factor to consider as well. It would be naive to insist that neighborly exchange is the only kind of exchange going on in such communities. For instance, the Amish rely a great deal on their tobacco crops to support them financially and so, indirectly, on the tobacco industry that panders to adolescents and profits off addiction. Would it be possible for the Amish to get by without tobacco? Certainly. But that doesn't mean we can ignore their present involvement. Similarly, though I can't know for sure, somehow I doubt that your parents' neighbors sell or trade cattle only to folks nearby who know them personally. Likely, they're in some way involved with selling meat to non-rural folks who, if we are to take your word for it, "can't possibly know what kind of respect could be present in that relationship if [they] have never experienced it. " If this is true, then it is actually a very good reason to object to meat-eating as a cultural norm for the majority of people who, in fact, don't live in such rural situations.

    [...]

    ReplyDelete
  17. [...]

    Indeed, all your reasons for eating meat are exactly the things that place you as an individual well outside the parameters of "mainstream culture." And this, I think, speaks directly to some fundamental assumptions about how each of us reasons about ethics that have so far gone unmentioned. As I noted before, all of my positions in the above essay are fairly universal in application. I do not bring up my personal health benefits, or my own experiences with farmers and livestock. Of course, these experiences have shaped my view of the matter, but they are not the sole foundation for my ethical stance about what is just or healthy. By contrast, you seem to want to argue that, because you live in a fairly exceptional way quite different from most others in this country at least, these personal reasons should form the basis of a cultural norm (eating meat) for those who do not live in such a way. And this is what we're really talking about here, a social norm, a general approach to the issue in terms that can shape our goals, regardless of what specific circumstances we find ourselves in. 'Anon' touches on this point a bit when he talks about eating other humans just because we have a craving for raw flesh, but I think I have another hypothetical that illustrates it better: I have a friend with terrible, chronic back pain. To function on a day-to-day basis, he must take a combination of drugs, including vicodin. Yet it is very easy for me to say, without much controversy or argument from others, that while I would not condemn him for taking such medication, I would seriously question the idea that, because he needs vicodin, the rest of the population should feel free to take it daily as well. Obviously not. A person who doesn't need to take such medicine, but does so anyway, is most likely an addict or misusing it in some other way. Why is it so easy to say this about vicodin, but not about meat-eating? Because taking unnecessary medication is, in general, well acknowledged as an unhealthy social norm, something that should be avoided if at all possible. Well then--why shouldn't we understand meat-eating in the same way? Certainly populations that have lived on heavily vegetarian diets are, in general, healthier and longer-living than those who don't. As I stated in my original post, "We should seriously question the practice of taking emergency survival techniques as a foundation for ordinary healthy living. " I appreciate that you might feel hurt or personally affronted by the suggestion that eating meat isn't good in general just because it happens to be necessary for you, but I feel that you are misunderstanding me if you think that I am attempting to enforce some unbreakable dogma on everyone and asking you to live in pain because of it. I am not ignorant of what such a request means of you, but perhaps you are ignorant of what it is I'm asking. I am not asking you to give up eating meat, I'm asking you, and everyone, to accept that we cannot live a perfect and perfectly just life, but that this does not mean these values and aspirations have no meaning or can be dismissed or explained away; I'm asking you, and all of us, to refrain from redefining broad ethical concepts in order to alleviate the sense of discomfort we all feel at times when we truly and honestly confront our imperfections and failings in light of our values. It's one thing to say we accept pain, suffering and injustice in the world and in ourselves; it's another thing to justify these things rather than striving as best we can to overcome them.

    [...]

    ReplyDelete
  18. [...]

    That sounds harsh, and I guess it is. But listening to Jeff read the kids their bedtime story (Ozma of Oz) tonight, I was reminded of the absolute necessity for establishing ethical priorities. Take, for instance, the value of being true to your word and keeping your promises. In the book, the King of Ev sells his children to the Gnome King as slaves in exchange for a longer life. When Ozma and Dorothy and the rest show up to liberate these enslaved children, one of the characters objects that the Gnome King did no wrong, because he was merely keeping his end of a bargain. Such an argument could have been made among slave-traders in America at one time, too. Now, saying that slavery is wrong and should not be supported under any circumstances does not somehow mean keeping promises is not also important, or that honorable dealings in trade is irrelevant. In the same way, saying that eating animals is unethical or based on dubious definitions of personhood or inherent value does not mean that respecting the needs of others is irrelevant. I can make both claims, and in fact, the latter is supported and fulfilled in the former--respect for the unique individuality of other-ness is extended to include not only other people, but other living things of all kinds, and striving for as just and loving a relationship with all others includes not only refraining from eating meat, but also respecting your unique health problems. Of course, if we acknowledge that sometimes this puts us in a position of "choosing the lesser of two evils" (instead of trying to say that because one is wrong the other must be okay, e.g. because asking you to live in pain is wrong, it must be okay to eat animals), we are far more likely to seek or create alternatives that improve everyone's ability to live justly and lovingly. If modern medicine had been founded on the principle that we should find ways to avoid eating meat whenever possible, there may already be some supplement or alternative diet that could have eased your suffering without taking the life of an animal.

    I was going to also talk a bit about the notion of "listening to our bodies" and how, while this is important, sometimes we also need to learn how to listen respectfully and then tell our bodies a firm and loving "no" (such was the case when, as a symptom of my undiagnosed anemia, I developed compulsive cravings to eat inedible things like fingernails, hair and even dirt or glass; this is called "pica" and is due to the body craving iron, but it certainly doesn't mean the proper response is to eat dirt or fingernails, but rather to treat the underlying cause of the craving by learning how to help the body absorb iron more efficiently). But this point is pretty well made in broad terms in the above paragraph--respecting our bodies and listening to their needs is part of respecting our own unique individuality as well as the individuality and uniqueness of others, and yet we cannot assume that this excuses us from all other concerns. That is why "biology" is only one of seven pillars I discuss. It sounds like, though you thought a lot about vegetarianism, for you it was only ever an intellectual proposition, and not something you integrated into your life on every level. It makes sense, then, that you would see the decision to give it up as a "body versus head" decision, instead of one that involved your whole being in an integrated way. As I think I've talked about a lot in this blog, integrity is one of the most basic virtues that I understand the authentic spiritual life to include. History has plenty to teach us about how easy it is to "think our way" into bad ideas as well as out of them. More than just thought is required to make, understand and uphold a commitment to justice, love and ethical living.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Emily,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting! I definitely agree with you that, while politics is only one pillar of seven in an integrated philosophy of vegetarianism, it is definitely a biggie, and one of the most obvious illustrations of some of the problems of manipulation of others and disrespect for life (in whatever form). Your response to Nettle about the detox diet book is really interesting, although some of what you cite about the author's ethnicity-based ideas give me a bit of pause... For obvious reasons, it's becoming increasingly difficult, I think, to talk about ethnic groups as though they were biologically distinct things, since even science has supported some pretty dreadful behavior in the name of "inherent ethnical differences." That said, I can well believe that a culture that has developed over many generations to include some diet choices and not others would produce individuals prone to those choices and perhaps even depending upon them. The claim that there is only one "right diet" out there for any given individual or ethnic group sounds a bit more specific than really necessary, but the general gist of the data I can believe.

    On the other hand (everyone's probably getting sick of reading that!), as you point out: "human evolution did not stop 10,000 years ago, when we became homo sapiens." Well said! It didn't stop, either, 1,000 years ago, or 500, when the agricultural and industrial revolutions began to shape our diets. In fact, we are continuing to evolve, right now! So why not take on the role of active, creative, engaged participants in our own evolution? If we say, "well, 1,000 years ago we were eating meat, so we might as well keep going," then in another 1,000 years the only thing that will have changed is that by then two-thousand years will have passed. But if we begin, today, to embrace a ethical mythos of vegetarianism as a good social ideal to work towards, in another thousand years it could just be a reality. I'm not saying it will happen overnight, but what I am saying is that the individuals who can make the change have very few excuses left not to do it.

    I also believe very strongly that individuals can adapt and evolve within their own lifespan, if they are patient and gentle with the process. That is what's so amazing about the human species--we don't just evolve biologically, we evolve culturally over a few short generations, and we can also evolve and adapt as individuals in amazingly short spans of time. Perhaps biology is the slowest evolution, but then, I'm not so sure. For the first three years after I made the change to become vegetarian, I would frequently get cravings for meat (the first several months were the worst of all!). When I said earlier that I hadn't eaten any meat since making the change, that was not precisely accurate: once a year, on Thanksgiving, i would share a small bit of turkey for the family meal (I used to joke that, since they're killing one bird regardless, not to have some would be like discriminating against skinny turkeys). By the third year, not only had my craving for turkey--what once had been my favorite food--disappeared completely, but I found the taste and even the smell of it a bit stomach-turning and did not even have the faintest desire to try it. I haven't had any since. It took a lot of patience and self-discipline to wait out those three years, of course, but my point is that cravings that come on strong for three months don't automatically indicate an essential bodily need for certain foods. Something to think about, anyway....

    ReplyDelete
  20. I'm not completely ready for giving up meats yet, but I believe in Harm Reduction, so I've reduced my consumption considerably. I believe in balance, so it is difficult for me to give it up completely and feel good about my decision. However, I dream with having a little farm where I can tend my own animals--and treat them humanly before their sacrifice. Also, growing my own things, until then I'll consume as little as possible and continue doing my yearly cleansing (tell you about this later).

    I like your blogs; all your posts--even the most personal ones--are full of Honest Scrap. I've nominated you for an award because of it, so go to Pagan Culture and collect!

    P.S. I'll link to this post when I write about my yearly cleansing. Also, I will read the articles you pointed out and use some the stats. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I'm also not quite ready to give up eating animal flesh. Taking life is not really that bad is it? Cutting someone's throat isn't cruel if you do it fast, right-? I mean I fed them organic grains before I did it. Sheesh! It isn't as if they wanted to survive and it isn't like caring for them created an expectation of trust. Also, I only keep one or two slaves and I'm real nice about it. I wish you vegetarians and people like you would leave the rest of us alone until we feel ready for change. You have your "compassion,ethics, and morality" and we have our ham sandwiches.

    By the way, the Wizard of Oz was inspired by Theosophical teachings and by the author's mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, a very famous suffragist, historian, and freethinking feminist theorist. She was a vegetarian.

    ReplyDelete
  22. This post is predominantly directed towards the response of Nettle: I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "morally equivalent" only because I, personally, live without what one calls "morality." My philosophy (philosophy = way of life in my little world of thought) is what I refer to as a choice-based philosophy. So I'm not much into "right" and "wrong" and "moral" and "immoral." To say that all life is morally equivalent, then, does nothing much for me because I simply choose to try and avoid ending lives with my meals, not to make some "moral" choice. I don't consider it immoral to kill anything or even necessarily "bad" to kill other beings (just because I don't give weight to those words/concepts), but I see no positive from performing such acts. Everything that I know, personally, along with everything that I want leads me to a choice, and in this case, that choice is to reduce as much as possible my involvement in other creature's deaths. One cannot even make the argument that an individual "kills" a plant by eating vegetables because there is certainly evidence that plants do not die from having their parts eaten NOR do they suffer from having parts taken from them. So, getting to your idea of relationships, this would seem to be most in line with forming positive relationships in the world, or at least the world as related to an individual's meal. Both you and the plant can help each other to grow. You provide the plant or the plants a space to be much of the time and they provide you with food to keep on doing so, and so on and so forth. In no way do we need to kill animals for this purpose, and the act of killing animals to protect food is certainly not necessary nor do most farmers, particularly vegetarian farmers, participate in such acts. Thus, nothing is really forced to die for a meal and to make the argument that something died to provide every bit of food I chew is basically equivalent to saying that somebody suffered for every breath I take into my lungs. On top of being a very British interpretation of things (just teasing....sort of), the argument itself is one of perspective and so you could definitely say that and have it be true, but that does not mean I directly (or even indirectly) participated in the suffering or slaughter of those creatures just by mere fact of being alive. Instead, I try to reduce, as much as possible, the direct impact (as well as the indirect) I have on other creatures, and while my efforts may not mean that I am completely free from causing harm to someone or something somewhere in the world, I am doing what I can to ensure that my actions are in line with my beliefs or choices...

    ReplyDelete
  23. ...Now the point you bring up about using words like "never" and "always," well, I am much in agreement because I see very few opportunities for using those two extremes well and without complication. I am not saying that it is "never" "wrong" to kill another creature, but I am saying that I choose not to and have dedicated myself to that choice (without the use of limiting words like "never" or "always" simply because I believe that each person is continuously in flux, so that at any given time I may need to adjust). So I certainly do not confuse construction and destruction with creation and murder (to pull from Mr. Shaw again), and I definitely think that a little bit of destruction (more than a little) is necessary in the world. Murder, however, is not my cup of tea and therefore I do what I can to avoid drinking it. And so what I have done, then, is not moved the killing a few steps away out of my view, making it more acceptable, but instead made sure not to participate in actions or thoughts that perpetuate such acts as much as possible to the extent that I can with the power of choice that I have developed over time. Will this stop all the killing or all the unnecessary deaths involved with my way of life? No, of course not. But it will make a serious dent and perhaps if other people also involve themselves in such practices than unnecessary deaths and murders can be reduced down to the limit of our ability to do so. I personally don't see myself as being involved in the killing, though, just as much as I cannot be held responsible for the killing of citizens in other countries by the USA simply because I live in the USA. It is an unfortunate, and sometimes fortunate, fact that I was born here, but I have worked very hard to build a life, in both cases, that sheds myself of the ties (as much as possible) of the authorities and actions in question, and if other people choose to do those things in the name of "whatever" then I am certainly not responsible for their conscious choice to be that way. In that sense, my arguments are much more complex and much more grounded than a reactionary cry of "animals are people too!" simply because I avoid creating a hierarchy where "people" are placed above "animals." I have no special place in my hearts for human beings as a species, and instead see animals as being unique creatures that deserve respect because they are individuals, not because I consider them to be nearly equivalent to the sacrosanct title of "person." So overall, I have not supplied by one path to follow (vegetarianism as a restricted, singular path), or an "answer" or "solution" to a complex issue, but I do think that there are certainly paths that, when dragged into the arena of discussion and reason, fall beneath the weight and pressure of investigation, argument, and thoughtful consideration. The idea that killing animals for food is necessary or even non-harmful is one of those paths or ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I am nominating you for the Honest Scrap award, which you can read about on my blog. Feel free to accept it or ignore this comment completely.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Body detoxification is important in order to maximize our energy and to avoid frequent illness, fatigues, pains, depression and loss of concentration.
    -----
    The Right Place. The Right Time

    ReplyDelete