In one sense, it’s hard to disagree with Ruth Reichl’s recent Times piece opposing antibiotics given prophylactically to livestock. All the bigwig food guys in the Twittersphere are acting as if the wheel has been reinvented by the article.
In reality, all Reichl says is what critics have been saying for decades: feeding antibiotics to animals creates resistant strains of bacteria. These bacteria can infect humans and make us very, very sick. So, yeah, that’s bad news, but, as the Smiths once put it, “stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.”*
Things start to get strange, though, when Reichle advises consumers to channel their inner antibiotic outrage by supporting outlets that choose not to purchase meat raised with antibiotics. Yes, vote with your fork! But such outlets, as she notes, includes Chik-fil-A, a fast food chain that’s as wedded to factory farming as any corporation on the planet.
So while it is true that supporting Chick-fil-A because it’s taking the lead on the antibiotic issue might help end the use of prophylactic antibiotics, such a vote also further entrenches the power of factory farms, thus backfiring on the very cause it intended to promote: a healthier system of agriculture.
Opposing antibiotics is almost always done on the grounds of the dangers they pose to humans. But what about our domesticated non-human friends? What about those creatures that will become, as Reichl—the former Times restaurant critic whom I’m guessing has never spent more than three minutes thinking about animal rights—”a morsel of meat in our mouths”? I think it’s safe to say that consumer opposition to antibiotics means that more animals will get sick on factory farms, and that farmers will thereby have a disincentive to treat them with drugs that consumers don’t want, thus leading to more animal suffering.
Do you recognize the pattern? Consumers want to improve animal agriculture to make it better for humans by making the system appear to be more pure. In so doing, they establish the conditions for further animal suffering. Just like environmental organizations who lack the guts to promote the vegan option as a form of environmental activism, our leading food critics are equally bereft of integrity when they call for reforming animal agriculture without noting that the best option is to end it.
All over a bunch of morsels.
*The Pitchfork is well aware that it has been known to wax redundant every now and then.
My last piece generated some interesting comments. My intention was to float an idea while testing my hypothesis that most advocates, no matter how they see their interests as morally equivalent to sentient animals, place their arbitrary choices ahead of animals’ essential ones. I think it was successfully fulfilled.
Many readers said, more or less, “but I wouldn’t be happy doing that.” Fine. I get that. I agree. I do what I do—write about animal interests because it’s something I’m passionate about and something that I enjoy (most of the time, mind you). I’d hate being on Wall Street, or in a law firm, or running an oil company—but I’d likely be better able to help animals with the kind of wealth generated from such pursuits, all of which I’m theoretically able to do.
This exercise isn’t intended to condemn anyone or suggest activist ineffectiveness. It’s merely to note the humbling reality that we could all be more effective if we were altruistic millionaires rather than altruistic keepers of blogs, sanctuaries, and deeply help opinions about justice for animals. And to emphasize that the fact that we don’t has ethical implications. Sometimes, in other words, it’s important to be reminded that, for all our awareness of ourselves and animals, we’re hampered by an inherited cultural reality that renders us howlers in the wind.
Sometimes it’s also important to be reminded that your idea resonated and hit nerves. A couple of comments:
For those wondering whether what James and 80,000 hours are suggesting here is in fact possible and does in fact happen (in animal protection), the answer is *yes*. I highly encourage anyone who has the potential for high earning power (e.g., medicine, law, banking/high finance, consulting) to pursue the “earn to give” strategy.The longer version…I started pursuing the “earn to give” route after finishing school nearly a decade ago based on arguments of a fellow activist that I couldn’t logically rebut.At the time, many other activists I knew dismissed the idea, predicting I would either get corrupted / greedy and not donate the vast majority of money I earned, or get burnt out because the career I was pursuing wasn’t something I then had an inherent passion for. As I already knew before I started, the naysayers were wrong and I’m still at it today nearly $1M in donations later. I didn’t expect going this route to be fun, and for the most part it wasn’t. But fun wasn’t the point. There are other careers that I would have found more personally fulfilling (including working for an animal non-profit) but I couldn’t justify making a choice that would have yielded lower impact for animals. My only regret is not coming to the realization that this was the most effective (=obligatory) path sooner so that I could have engineered my education to pursue an even more lucrative career path.Thanks to James for bringing attention to this argument — provocative and perhaps counterintuitive — but more importantly: correct.
As a young animal rights activist who went through the unpaid internship and now works full-time at one of those underfunded organizations, I give this question a lot of thought. I’m fairly certain that I don’t have what it takes to succeed on Wall Street–if I did I would certainly go that route. To be honest, I don’t know how many young compassionate people there are in this movement–at its current state–who could actually become multi-millionaires or billionaires. Then again, it’d really only take one to make a difference! But even if we choose a career path that would put our earnings in the realm of 6 figures (not 7) instead of (a low) 5, we could pay the salaries of at least a few direct activists, essentially replacing ourselves and multiplying our impact. Of course, that’s assuming we wouldn’t increase our standard of living by much. To be honest, I’m afraid that if I had the money I’d be tempted to spend it on things like travel. The few people I know who “earn to give” are truly exceptional human beings who have a rare ability to live far, far below their means and make sacrifices that only the most driven people could. And there’s always the question of whether the skills and dedication we have are unique and valuable enough within this (still relatively small) movement to warrant staying in direct activism. Someone has to do that work — and do it really well. Another thought is that those of us in direct activism should perhaps consider dedicating more effort to earning the attention of the existing super-rich.
Want to really help make the world a better place for animals? Go to Wall Street. Get rich. Give back. What the real animal rights movement needs, and what it lacks, is real wealth. Donated wealth. Super-rich wealth.
Everyday I’m hit up to contribute to one great organization or another. I give when I can—and it’s always the Wall Street equivalent of pocket change—but when I do give I always think that it’s really too bad there’s not a person with five million bucks lying around to endow this organization, free it from fundraising, and allow it to fight the fight it wants to fight, rather than spending enormous resources or exploiting interns to hit me up for chump change. And don’t fool yourselves: there are plenty of people with an extra five million bucks lying around. And the change I can give really is chump-ish.
One obvious objection to this idea is that you’d have to invest in various forms of animal exploitation–directly or indirectly–to make your fortune. I imagine collusion with the animal-industrial complex would indeed be unavoidable. But, if your intention is to make millions and give back, I say do it anyway—make your fortune fast, keep your lifestyle simple, live your values as best you can, and rob Peter to pay Paul. What’s that phrase about being effective or being right? Plus, if enough people do it, the investment profile might change over time.
For now, though, it might be more consistent ethically speaking for a young person concerned with animals to do an unpaid internship at an underfunded animal rights group, or to start a sanctuary and rescue a few birds and rabbits, but it’d be much more effective if that young person put off the internship, set aside the idea of a little sanctuary, started a hedge fund, became a billionaire, and founded the world’s largest animal sanctuary. Activism is not divorced from economics. Scale matters.
There are so many amazing activists doing amazing work to make the world a safer place for sentient animals. But we are all hampered financially. So, young and compassionate person: go to Wall Street, get rich, and give back. (Oh, and when you make your fortune, remember that The Pitchfork is happy to accept your pledge.)
The British psychotherapist Adam Phillips writes movingly about the relationship between frustration and satisfaction. Frustrations are inevitable and they instinctively seek satisfaction. But not all our sought for satisfactions are equally healthy or effective.
In fact, the source of most human angst is that the vast majority of our chosen satisfactions are off the rails. Way off the rails. Most of them may in fact be preconditions for addiction. We become frustrated, we overshoot the satisfaction bullseye, seeking a solution in behaviors that feel good in the moment but leave us damaged in the long run.
We all have addictions, whether we are aware of them or not. Some addictions are low grade—such as watching too much TV, running too many miles, drinking too much coffee, playing too many video games, worrying too much, not worrying enough, Facebook. Others are debilitating–everyone with an uncle knows about those. Somewhere on this continuum of addictive behaviors lies the craving to eat animals.
This idea came to me this afternoon, while swimming. I was in a city pool, a fairly run down one, and I was swimming laps and feeling residual anxiety about having to change in the tiny “locker room” where a lot of underprivileged people shower, do drugs, and even have sex. As I was contemplating the admittedly minor frustration of my clothing change in a grungy changing area a huge waft of meat smoke from a nearby grill came over the pool.
And suddenly . . . . I felt better.
The smell overwhelmed me, evoking the safety of childhood and, I suppose, the satisfaction of a deeply comfortable flavor. On another level it may also have satisfied a less obvious desire to dominate another being, to manipulate the genetics of a critter to make my life more focused on satisfaction. As the “locker room” anxiety receded under the influence of a grilled animal flesh, the thought came to me that eating meat was an addiction—a culturally approved addiction. It seems perfectly safe to hypothesize that killing sentient beings when we don’t have to might very well be a pathology.
As I say, it’s only a thought. But it seems reasonable to interpret eating animals—which we once did for survival but (for most of us) no longer have to—as a particular kind of all-too-easy response to our very real sufferings and struggles. And, as indicated, there’s virtually no psychoanalytic check on this behavior, no cultural message that indicates how our response is out of whack with the anxiety it seeks to alleviate. As with so many of our pathologies, the impulse to pursue them may have once helped us survive. But we mature and outgrow them, once we recognize them for what they are. Addictions.
Reality can be a bitch. Especially when you’re committed to propaganda. There’s no more common form of agrarian propagandizing than the insistence that pastured cows can save the earth. If that assessment sounds hyperbolic, check in with Allan Savory, who says that pastured cows can save the earth.
While the media, which knows precious little about the dark side of grassfed cattle, is generally happy to reiterate the self-serving and unverified claims of the “grass farmers,” every now and then a conflict of interest emerges to force the adoring media to cough up some truth about the ecological realities on the happy farm.
In this case, the inconvenient conflict came when pastured Vermont dairy cows pooping in pristine Lake Champlain pitted native grass farmers against clean water lovers. Suddenly, with enraged enviros at each other’s throats, the truth emerged from all the shouting: all those cows supposedly primed to save the earth were turning the lake into a cesspool. Find the story here.
The fact that Grist put this story out makes the news even more interesting. Grist’s vision of a happy planet seems to be one with farm animals frolicking across endlessly verdant pastures. It has been one of the loudest cheerleaders for the pastured-based revolution. One would more likely expect blood from a stone than an anti-grassfed story from Grist‘s mill. But there it is.
But what encourages me the most about this kind of story making the rounds—and maybe I’m engaging in my own form of fantasy here—is that the inescapably messy logistics of raising animals on pasture, and the pregnant consequences therein, will inevitably present themselves so blatantly that the media, and the general public, will no longer be able to ignore a reality that we have spent so long convincing ourselves to be otherwise.
At some point reality has no choice but to bite back, right?
Chipotle’s recent marketing stunt is so bold—so weirdly bold—I almost want to respect the depth of their gall. Although the company has been under fire for claiming that it serves “food with integrity” when in fact it serves loads of factory farmed meat, it has reacted to the negative publicity by promoting Niman Ranch’s pig guy and Chipotle supplier, Paul Willis, as a man whose understanding of porcine welfare comes from “communicating with them telepathically.”
No joke here.
Or is it a joke? I honestly don’t know. Wayne Hsiung, of Direct Action Everywhere—the organization that has led a brilliant series of protests against Chipotle—wrote the following earlier in the week: “You know a company has gone off the rails when it starts talking about telepathy with its victims. But I suppose when your entire business model is founded on a fraud, there’s not much else you can do.” Or could it be that the company is owning its fraudulence, internalizing its own lies, throwing residual caution to the wind, and saying “what the f***”? Let’s have some fun!” Lord knows their CEOs, who earned $25 million a piece last year, are laughing to the bank.
Joke or no joke, there’s something deeply insulting in the telepathy comment. It’s in the worst possible taste to claim empathy for animals that you purposely kill in order to make burritos. Does Paul Willis commune with the pigs when they are being shunted into the slaughter chute? I doubt it. Hell, even home slaughterers have the decency to do their handiwork under the guise of ersatz gravitas.
I’ve spoken to Willis in the past and he does not strike me as the kind of person to say such a thing. Did Chipotle put these words in his mouth? Who knows? Anyway, if there’s any good news in this stunt it’s that its absurdity suggests desperation. Chipotle is high on its own fumes. But the party will come to an end.
After years of this kind of writing, the kind of writing I do here, I’m starting to see my name preceded by “vegan author.” Naturally. I identify as a vegan and thus am happy to embrace the qualification. That said, I don’t really put it out there myself. When people ask for a bio, I send them a description that fails to note that I’m a vegan. I’m wondering what’s up with this hesitancy.
I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that, technically speaking, I’m not a vegan. I ride in vehicles with leather seats when I could opt out. I drive a car and have run over squirrels and birds and snakes and not really cared too much about it. I’m certain I’d have no qualms eating insects and am even more certain that I already have, although inadvertently, eaten insects—just this morning, in fact, on a gorgeous ten-mile run down some winding streets in Maine (several gnats in my craw). Insofar as veganism is living in a way “that does not exploit animals,” according to the Vegan Society, I fail on more accounts than I care to mention. Moreover—key point to note—I could change my actions to reduce that exploitation: but I don’t. Too damn inconvenient.
Another reason that I’m ambivalent about shouting my vegan status from the moutaintops is that I’ve noticed over the years how, for those who aggressively identify as vegan, their veganism is primarily about the depth of their personal loyalty (and the inadequacy of others’) rather than on reducing animal suffering. By giving the habit we hope to prevail a Name, by tattooing it on our arms and celebrating as the numbers joining the club grow, and touting that Name above all else, we forget that social change does not happen when everyone joins in and gets stamped with a V. There’s something possibly cultish-smelling here that, however right it might be, grates against my sense of radical individualism, not to mention that this “us and them” way to see the world seems misguided and alienating to a lot of people.
Here’s something I think about a lot: before I became vegan—or, stopped eating animal products (I recall being impressed with a person) a really charismatic person—asking that his pizza come without cheese or meat. He did this without hesitation in front of a dozen hipster meat eaters. When I asked him why, he said animals were treated terribly to bring food to the plate and he wanted to minimize his role in that suffering. He never said he was a vegan and he never proselytized. At that point in my life, if he had done either, I would have thought “extreme” and ordered the jambon. Instead, he quietly and unknowingly pushed me in the direction of where I am now—a vegan in name, albeit a hesitant one rather comfortable with ambiguity and uncomfortable with a label.
My apologies for the long absence. The site experienced ongoing technical problems while my web man was on vacation. But the good news is that we all got a rest. That said, matters are in order and I’m back to work.
Over the break I became intrigued by the current outrage against ivory. Just the other day, Ricky Gervais, the English comedic actor, called on the public to “turn in” their ivory products as an act of public absolution. It’s curious, but all of sudden the media is all about elephants. Will ivory trinkets become targets of public attack such as fur coats once were? Why are we currently confronting the elephants in the room?
As usual, I’ve no idea. But in and of itself, the public/media outcry against ivory is a praiseworthy response to the gross atrocities committed against elephants. Interestingly, though, nothing of the sort is happening with respect to, say, the tens of millions of cattle we slaughter every year. This kind of inconsistency is common when it comes to the way humans treat animals. And it cuts both ways. I recall commenters on this site advocating the death of elephant poachers. But would they advocate the death of slaughterhouse workers? Either way, this paradox bears some consideration.
One obvious reason for the disparity—aside from the fact that we eat one product and not the other—is that elephants are going extinct whereas cattle, whose genetics are controlled by humans, proliferate at whatever rate we want them to proliferate. In essence, elephants are wild creatures who matter collectively whereas cattle are factory products who do not. The terms of their reproduction have illogically determined the terms of their extermination. How that happened is a historical/cultural question that somebody should explore.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a collective focus on a species, of course. But the current “save the elephant” gambit rests on a false—or at least conflicted—sense of what’s considered “natural.” That is to say, what bothers environmentalists isn’t the death of individual elephants for their tusks. It’s the fact that their death is denuding the landscape of the elephant’s presence, a diminution that’s perceived to be out of sync with what nature intended—whatever that may be. But who ever said scarcity, even anthropogenic-determined scarcity, was unnatural?
It’s more that scarcity can be unjust. But even if this kind of human-driven ecological change is unjust, the same kind of ecological logic would have to be applied to cattle. Cattle may not be going extinct, but the resources used to ensure their proliferation most certainly are in grave danger of depletion: arable land and water most notably. If conservationists and environmentalists are truly committed to the ecological logic of scarcity, then consistency would require them to wring their hands just as earnestly about the consumption of beef as the consumption of ivory. But don’t hold your breath on that one.
What’s lost in the failure to do so, however, is an opportunity to incorporate animal sentience into an increasingly cynical environmental lexicon.
PS: Speaking of which, if you’d like to send me your critical thoughts about the documentary Cowspiracy, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m hoping to do a post that incorporates readers’ thoughts on the film.
The following excerpt is from a much longer NYRB exchange with John Searle, a UC-Berkeley professor of philosophy and one of the smartest thinkers alive. Emphasis is added. -jm
Coming back to the question of rights, since every right requires a corresponding obligation, does it follow from your view that animals don’t have rights, since they have no obligations?
Searle: Most rights have to do with specific institutions. As a professor in Berkeley I have certain rights, and certain obligations. But the idea of universal rights—that you have certain rights just in virtue of being a human being—is a fantastic idea. And I think, Why not extend the idea of universal rights to conscious animals? Just in virtue of being a conscious animal, you have certain rights. The fact that animals cannot undertake obligations does not imply that they cannot have rights against us who do have obligations. Babies have rights even before they are able to undertake obligations.
Now I have to make a confession. I try not to think about animal rights because I fear I’d have to become a vegetarian if I worked it out consistently. But I think there is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights. I think there are animal rights.
Why does that mean they have rights?
Searle: For every right there’s an obligation. We’re under an obligation to treat animals as we arrogantly say, “humanely.” And I think that’s right. I think we are under an obligation to treat animals humanely. The sort of obligation is the sort that typically goes with rights. Animals have a right against us to be treated humanely. Now whether or not this gives us a right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them, well, I’ve been eating them for so long that I’ve come to take it for granted. But I’m not sure that I could justify it if I was forced to. I once argued this with Bernard Williams. Bernard thought that it was absolutely preposterous for me to think that a consideration of animal rights would forbid carnivorous eating habits. I’m not so sure if Bernard was right about it.
NB: Thanks to Dave Wasser for the tip. For my attempt to work out the slaughter question consistently, see this.
The more I read the rhetoric of grassfed beef peddlers the more I’m convinced that these guys are worse than global warming denialists. They go on and on about the theoretical ecological benefits of fattening cows on grass but fail to offer concrete examples of this endeavor’s systematic success.
They fail to discuss in any depth the impact of methane output, water consumption, overgrazing, land usage, and the ecological costs of slaughter and processing. They avoid the question of demand—how do you feed hundreds of millions of consumers this way? They never talk about what must be done to keep the grass growing (fertilizer) or the land/cattle ration in balance (calves shunted to the veal industry). They fail to discuss what kind of grasses they use (often fescue, which is non-native and harmful for cows) or how much alfalfa they import from drought-stricken California to get their beasts to slaughter weight when the grass dries up.
They simply show us pretty pictures of happy cows on green pastures, say a few words about welfare and sustainability, bash the factory farms, and charge a premium. Too often, ever hopeful that we can have our beef and eat it too, we pay it.
Look at what’s happening in north Florida right now, though, and you’ll begin to see that the dangers linked to the grassfed beef revival are real. The Gainesville Sun reports that billionaire Frank Stronach is planning to spend $60 million to clear-cut pine forests, convert them to pasture, stock them with cattle, and pump in 13 million gallons of water a day to bring the system to life. This move is supported by the American Grassfed Association, which, because it is a trade organization no different than the American Beef Council, is perfectly happy to mouth the conventional wisdom that grassfed beef restores ecosystems and improves soil health. Well, last I checked, native pine forests do that pretty well, too.
What you are seeing in Stronach’s bid to turn the Florida forest into a pasture of profit is merely a taste of what’s to come if the foodie frenzy for grassfed beef continues to rise. Sure, there will always be some friendly hippy farmer at the local market telling you that he does it right. And he might. But as demand spikes for this supposedly virtuous alternative to industrial beef, your local good guy is going to be swamped by the models established by fat cats who have no problem dropping 60 million to have a hobby farm, steal our water, and send animals to slaughter for food that clogs our arteries.
Like climate change deniers, grassfed beef advocates have started to believe their own bullshit. If north Floridians don’t deliver Stronach a dose of scientific reality, there’ll be a lot more of that to spread around soon enough.