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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!)
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.