There was an intriguing and generally well-framed piece on backyard chickens in the Times yesterday. The story centers on a Queens family—the Sayes—who purchased hens so their 5-year old daughter Scarlet could eat hormone-free eggs. Nothing would seem especially notable about this situation except for the fact that the Queens family lives in the Forest Hills section of the borough, one of the wealthiest and most tightly covenanted neighborhoods in the city. The only farm animals allowed in Forest Hills are dead farm animals.
Wealth, in essence, complicates the story’s premise. The family built their beloved birds a $2500 coop to ensure they don’t succumb to predators, thereby upsetting Scarlet and subjecting her to common eggs. Although living in a neighborhood that physically embodies the cream of capitalism’s crop, the heritage breeds currently allow the family to rise above capitalism’s more mundane manifestations, such as the everyday grocery store. “You can’t buy these eggs in a supermarket,” the mother remarks with pride.
This kind of privilege generally does a poor job of preparing its beneficiaries for the experience of being told “no.” But that’s exactly what’s happening to the Sayes. The Times‘ Corey Kilgannon writes, “Ms. Saye has been ordered by the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, which manages the neighborhood, to get rid of the chickens. In a recent letter, corporation officials cited the nuisances section of a century-old homeowners’ covenant.”
Ms. Saye condemns the rules as antiquated. To her credit, the covenant is 101 years old. It forbids not only farm animals, but a number of other potentially noisome occupations, including breweries, insane asylums, tallow makers, malt houses, and, of course, slaughterhouses. In other words, Forest Hills is a neighborhood that can afford to write off the unpleasantries of production to the periphery so consumption at the center can happen with a minimum fuss and muss.
In so far as DIY farming of animals has become the purview of privileged urbanites, Saye’s protest prompts a critical question: how far are these urbanites willing to take their ideological quest to bring the periphery back to the center? On what basis, after all, should some activities be reincorporated while others are left out?
Not too long ago, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a rabid supporter of “humane” animal agriculture, called for localizing slaughterhouses. So, if urbanites are seriously keyed up to bring farm animals back to the hood, it only seems fair that that they democratize space to allow room for the other potentially unpleasant operations their ancestors legislated to the hinterlands.
My sense is that family’s like the Sayes have little interest in bringing full-scale chicken farming back to Forest Hills. There’s no evidence that the goal is to make hormone-free eggs from genetically rarified breeds accessible to all. The Sayes just do what the Says want to do. And, like many people who seek to selectively reincorporate nonindustrial methods of production into the urban landscape, the power of privilege backs them up.
Highlighting the inconsistency of wanting coops but not slaughterhouses reminds us of the slow historical process that led Forest Hills to establish the covenant it created in the first place. Undoing that process might have to be done one hen at a time, but those who advocate rearguard measures should be prepared for a slew of new and less desirable neighbors. Beginning, perhaps, with an insane asylum.
Cliven Bundy is either the smartest or dumbest gaucho on the range. Here’s his claim to fame: he mooched 20 years’ worth of grazing fees from the Bureau of Land Management and, when the BLM moved in to settle up, he tapped a populist-prone and hardware-wielding posse to protect his clean $1 million in unpaid dues.
The smart Bundy was brilliantly manipulating a uniquely American script dating back to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion: refuse to pay up, wait for the feds to pounce, muster a bunch of Big Guvmint rhetoric to whip the “don’t-tread-on-me” crowd into an anarchy-tinged froth. The dumb Bundy, by contrast, is just some Nevada nutbag who doesn’t know the difference between public and private property, insouciantly allowing taxpayers to subsidize his little cowboy fantasy.
As FOX News transforms Bundy into a latter-day Thomas Jefferson, a few points should be reiterated. First, the cattle that graze the 18,00o BLM leases destroy western ecosystems already made fragile by drought (Jefferson the farmer would have objected). Second, the animals most capable of restoring those grasslands to health—species arranged in a complex web of predator/prey relationships—have been wiped clean from the western slate so cattle can treat the West as a literal stomping ground. Third, the most threatening invasive species in this drama are two-legged Bundy-types who think their personal rights include treating the American West as their birthright.
But even more than the landscape, the species, and the cowboys, there are the millions upon millions of individual animals who suffer as Bundy, the BLM, and meat-loving Americans indulge in this tired protest. Don’t expect the news outlets to treat animals as interested parties. But they have the most to lose.
This is no American Revolution. There are no more Sons of Liberty. It’s an unchecked power grab that the BLM, should it concede, would place every American critter—no how many legged—on the wrong side of some lunatic’s ego, not to mention his firearm.
Pistol v. Poleax: a Handbook on Humane Slaughter was published in London in 1932. The book’s opening line explains, “If there is one quality in the British character which is so ingrained as to be almost universal, it is love of animals and hatred of unnecessary cruelty.” This sentiment underscores the book’s 500+ page effort to justify the transition from one form of stunning animals to another before killing them.
The poleax was primitive. Men swung it like crazed cavemen and, more often than not, missed their target, which was described as the size of a teacup. Or they hit it too hard, rendering the animal’s brain unsellable. Or they didn’t hit hard enough, which created a prolonged tragedy for the poor animal. As one slaughterhouse employee recounted in 1922:
I have seen three, four, five, and even ten blows levelled at an animal before it has been brought to the ground; and I have known cases, though these are exceptional, where all efforts have failed to bring the animal down through the repeated blows having caused the head to swell.
Hence the pistol: the supposed source of humane reform. Efforts to promote this new devise, avidly supported by the RSPCA, included having one Madame Douchez Menebode, President of the Council of Justice to Animals, dressed in heels and a coat fringed with fur delivering a mechanized death blow to a cow (see above). The gun was called the Temple-Cox Killer.
For those who currently follow efforts to reform animal agriculture in order to make it more humane—for example HSUS’s ongoing effort to eliminate battery cages without a corresponding effort to eliminate animal agriculture—you will quickly realize that history is as much about continuity as change. One form of death replaces another, sensible people feel better, and everyone has their meat and eats it, too. This axiom was as true in 1922 as it is today.
But there’s an interesting change that’s possibly obscured by this so-called humane transition form one form of killing to another. With the adoption of the pistol over the poleax, slaughter became much more efficient. One slaughterhouse owner, after adopting the pistol form of stunning, exhorted his colleagues (upon retiring):
Have you for your own business adopted a certain method of stunning?—In September, 1922, after a lifelong study, I was persuaded that something required to be done to get rid of the antiquated poleax. My firm agreed to my recommendation to adopt the use of the RSPCA gun, and from that day to this was have slaughtered approximately 12,000 cattle. . . . . It is a decided improvement.
Readers of the abolitionist activist Gary Francione will be nodding their heads knowingly. Francione has long argued that welfarist efforts to reform animal agriculture backfire by making animal agriculture more efficient and, in turn, more profitable. This claim certainly seems to be the case with the historical example of the poleax/pistol transition.
It is not, however, the case today—and this is an important point to keep in mind as we evaluate the viability of welfare reforms. In 1922, humane reforms came through new technologies that happened to blend increased welfare and efficiency. This is no longer the case. Today, humane reforms come at a cost, as readers of Jayson Lusk’s and F. Bailey Norwood’s Compassion by the Pound will fully understand. The upshot is that the economics of welfare reform are, unlike a century ago, in trouble.
Whereas seeking humane reforms in animal agriculture once led to cheaper meat, today the situation is exactly the opposite. As a result, there will never be a mainstream transition to humanely raised animal products. Ever. As long as there’s a cheaper option—and until we seek to stigmatize eating animals rather than only stigmatizing eating industrially raised animals, there always will be a cheaper option—all efforts to improve the experience of animals before they are killed for food we don’t need will merely benefit those who can afford to feel virtuous.
Language– in particular the ability to harness it’s power to tell stories—is arguably a phenomenon that makes us unique as humans. Whether or not this ability confers upon us special moral status is a topic of debate, but as as I see it, while the ability to forge narratives enriches life in an essential way, language also serves to undermine our humanity as much as deepen its worth.
Violence, for one, thrives on the distortion of language. When we harm others we account for it by twisting language to articulate a legitimate culture that excuses that harm. Consider the lexicon of hunting. Humans walk into “the wilderness,” sneak up on critters, and blow them away with high-powered machinery. The inequity of our actions, however, in no way prevents us from glorifying hunting as a noble endeavor—a culture— that meaningfully binds us to the natural world. Words allow us to create and celebrate that unreality.
To grasp how unreal reality can quickly become under the influence of language melded with a predilection for savagery, it helps to check in every now and then with the Texas Hunting Forum, where language renders violence the norm. Pour a stiff one, because here’s what’s happening:
Erich: “i’ve heard that you can castrate feral boars and then either raise them or turn them loose and that they will put on a lot more weight and will improve the quality of the meat. is this true? has anyone done it? any advice on how to do it? does it do any good to castrate one that is already an adult age animal? or does it have to be done when they are young. seems like it’d be a difficult task, but seems like there’s enough folks out there that do it. was just wondering if it was worth the hassle.”
Big Tuna: “yeah they call those barr hogs. When they are castrated they supposedly loose interest in mating and just eat so they get massive. Not sure about how it affects the meat. I guess you would have to use a tranquilizer to neuter them but not sure.”
Texaswolf: “It gets their mind of @ss and puts it on Grass…..I knew a guy on our old lease who would catch them and put a tight rubber band around their Nutz and they would eventualy fall off due to poor circulation…..????? Not sure because I never saw it done but at the time, it made sense…..”
elliscountyhog: “We cut 4 boars this weekend and yes it will cause them to grow faster and bigger with bigger tusk and most of all it shortens there home range up. Just make a small slice and pop em out and cut off then use cut and heal and they are good to go.”
dwayne2003: “This would turn the hog into a ‘barrow’ hog which is what pork producers do; it is best done at a young age if you are gonna feed them out for pork. Texas A&M is doing a study with boar hogs in the TDCJ hog farms to see if they can castrate mature boars and see if it will improve meat quality of those boars so they can then be slaughtered.”
ccbaseball: “haha sounds funny but then again point of getting rid of them is so they are destructive and dont compete with deer.cool info tho.”
CFR: “A common practice here in Florida is to trap them, cut them, and then let them loose. The result is a better quality meat, bigger hogs, and bigger teeth, as they do not fight as much and break them off.”
It goes on.. But if anything here is clear it’s that language is all too easily used to forge sick cultures of hatred under the guise of normal. People who speak this way about sentient beings who, for all their power, lack the ability to fight narratives with counter-narratives (and thus have no truck in our big verbal mud sling), should have their right to use their words severely curtailed. Their hatred and insensitivity is that blatant. It has no place in civilized society.
Like so much of our language, it’s hate speech. And I hate it.
The Food Movement—in its fervent quest to revive nonindustrial animal farming as a “humane” alternative to industrial agriculture—follows an increasingly tyrannical TED talk script to reach the mainstream. In instructing consumers to pay more to support animals who are killed after being loved, it accomplishes the very TED-like prerequisite of providing its audience an accessible way to have its virtue and eat it, too. Nobody walks away feeling that real risks must be taken, or that genuinely radical options should be entertained. Instead, they’re left with win-win expressions that have been nipped and tucked into the collective visage of mindless optimism.
Now, I’m no enemy of optimism. Keep hope alive; but keep it honest. The irony of TED is that its promotion of original thought is undercut by the format’s canned requirement that the message inspire without challenging. Rather than aiming to redefine the boundaries of contemporary thought, a successful TED moment life hacks the status quo to offer a “gee whiz” takeaway. It would violate the Tao of TED to piss and moan about the structural inequalities forged by conniving operatives who get off on abusing power. That would be a total bummer—especially for an audience who just paid thousands to hear that they can eat beef to save the planet.
The Food Movement, stuck in TED land, could do itself a big favor by bumming out a little bit. They’d certainly be more plausible. The situation with global food production is dire, animal agriculture is at the root of the world’s environmental crises, and these happy hipsters are off celebrating sustainable and humanely raised barbecue. Living well may be the best revenge, but if that revenge eliminates the ability for future generations to do the same, its time for someone to blow the whistle and deliver a less sanguine sermon.
Or at least significantly alter the boundaries of food discourse. This was the big idea I had in mind when I spoke this evening on a panel at NYU with Brighter Green’s Mia McDonald and Chris Schlottmann, an environmental studies professor at NYU. What if, instead of breaking down agricultural discussions into industrial and nonindustrial, big agriculture and local farms, we reframed the debate in terms of domesticated animals or no domesticated animals? What if we began to envision future agricultural systems that grew an unprecedented range of edible plants through a variety of methods (industrial, nonindustrial) without the use of animals as exploited resources?
What if, in other words, we left the world of TED and started to think truly radical agrarian thoughts?
An interesting piece in today’s Times’ business page, written by a Princeton economist, explores an idea that we rarely consider and may not want to: the fact that we routinely place monetary value on human life. The conventional default position is to get all righteous and say something like “all human life is sacred”; that all life is valuable in terms of intrinsic rather than monetary worth; that no dollar amount can represent it. But, as Uwe E. Reinhardt reminds us, commercial culture operates according to a less humane calculus.
Take insurance. He writes, “those who preside over private and public health insurance funds, Congress included, at some point have to ask themselves at what price they can afford to buy additional life years for people insured with those collectively financed funds, which are, after all, finite.”
And it’s not just in the realm of insurance that we seek to monetize human life. Every time we purchase a consumer good that has the potential to harm us we place ourselves on the right side of an equation calculated by strangers interested in hedging the cost of production at the expense of our welfare.
Tellingly, Reinhardt explains how the Ford Motor Company, in choosing to not move its Pinto’s gas tank to a safer spot at a cost of $11 per car, did so according to the economic rationale that every human life lost to the dangerously placed gas tank would be worth about $200,000. That’s not only a small fraction of what the CEO of Ford took in every year, but it places every Pinto driver who survived the experience in the infuriating position of having earned the company 200K for gambling with their lives (with pennies).
We might recoil at the fact that “some unknown person within Ford could blithely assume on behalf of all Pinto buyers that the value of avoiding a horrible death or injury from a burning Pinto was as low as the company had assumed,” but if you purchase or even use something as ubiquitous as a motor vehicle—or have a life insurance policy— you are participating in a system that decidedly does not see your life as sacred as your mother does.
It’s interesting to explore the implications of these unpleasant economic realities for animals. I’m perfectly comfortable arguing against the unnecessary consumption of animals on the grounds that it’s an easy way to avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering and, as a result, it’s a good idea not to eat them. To a very large extent, my gut reaction of disgust over what’s required to raise and kill and animals for food that could easily be replaced with plants undergirds my animal advocacy. That’s the simple part of it.
But when it comes to grappling with the more philosophical reasons for why this position is the epitome of truth and justice, matters become thornier. It would be lovely to say that all animals have intrinsic worth—worth that trumps any effort to place a monetary value on their lives—and leave it at that. It’s so lovely in fact that I have, on innumerable occasions, said it. But is it an idea that we can honestly live by where it all matters: in the ebb and flow of daily life?
Supporters of improved animal welfare believe we cannot. The Humane Society, the Slow Food Movement, the ASPCA, Joel Salatin and his zany acolytes—all of thee groups measure animal compassion by the dollar. Pressuring the producers of animal products to adopt more extensive and humane methods of production (and the two always go hand in hand), these influential organizations and individuals, consciously or not, reduce the lives of animals—as well as their treatment—to an economic calculus every bit as hard bitten as that used by the Ford Motor Company to keep the tank in explosive territory.
Now, I would love to consider myself above this kind of calculating logic. But, for one, I reluctantly support efforts to improve the lives of animals that will indeed become food. In doing so (as a means to make animal lives better as we push for an end to their consumption altogether), I also reluctantly support a reality that measures their happiness, and eventually their flesh, by the dollar and the pound. I’m not using a scale, but somebody is.
Even if I assumed a more extreme abolitionist position (which I once did), and fundamentally opposed any system of owning and commodifying animals, I’d still face a rash of challenges to my belief that animals cannot be reduced to an economic value. First, there would be the conundrum I’d confront of treating animals’ lives as having intrinsic, non-monetized worth while denying that same treatment to humans (as I have no inclination to drop out of commercial life).
Second, and more controversially, as the guardian/companion of several rescue animals I cannot say in good faith that I’d treat their medical problems with the same view of life’s worth as I would my children’s. At some point, I’d end up placing an economic value on my companion animal’s life. I would not, for example, liquidate all my assets to pay for medical treatment that would save the lives of Willie, George, Claus, Boy Cat, or Fluffy. I would, without a second thought, do that for the human members of my immediate family. By virtue of that admission, I do not believe that all animal life has intrinsic worth.
I feel a bit emotionally naked writing that last line, but there is, perhaps, no price to be placed on honesty.
The desire to eat meat often lands anti-industrial food crusaders in the sack with some strange bedfellows.
When a recent study—one that turned out to have severe problems—claimed that saturated fats didn’t correlate with heart disease, the foodie elite exalted the research as justification for eating “humane” animal products. Writing in the Times, Mark Bittman claimed “Butter is back, and when you’re looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew, you can resume searching for the best pieces — the ones with the most fat. Eventually, your friends will stop glaring at you as if you’re trying to kill them.” The general response by the sustainable food movement was very much in this celebratory vein.
That reaction was predictable. Less so was the way the saturated fat study became a cudgel to batter processed foods. Now, let me be perfectly clear: I’m not in favor of most processed foods. They’re the unhealthy result of an industrial food system that cranks out junk that makes us sick. Most of them, moreover, contain animal products. That said, I think it’s entirely misleading to use a study that makes specific claims about saturated fats (however imperfect) to make a sweeping condemnation of all processed foods. And so, in an article, I indicated as much.
The response to my piece, as I noted in yesterday’s post, was to label me a bona fide “defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.” That claim, from a defender of the humane meat industry and a Mother Jones writer, not only led me to choke on my chickpeas. It inspired me to investigate whom the conventional defenders of industrialized meat would side with on this recent saturated fat report. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe Big Agriculture really loved my Pacific Standard critique of the saturated fat study.
So I wondered: would Big Ag agree with an ethical vegan who wrote a column condemning the rush to embrace a flawed study that suggested it was alright to eat more cheeseburgers? Or would they side with the defenders of “humane” meat products who praised the study as a green light for refined carnivorous inclinations? My assumption was that the supports of Big Ag would side with those writers whose message best supported the interests of Big Ag.
Well, guess who Bittman and Mother Jones and the like went to bed with?
The study that Bittman praised in the Times was similarly promoted by none other than Beef Magazine, an industry rag that claimed, “Obviously the theme for today’s blog is beef health news, and there has been an overwhelming amount of positive news lately. It’s hard not to share it all. Keeping with the theme that animal fats and proteins are good for your health, researchers at Cambridge University have found that giving up fatty meat, cream and butter is unlikely to improve your health.”
Equally thrilled was The Dairy Spot—a go-to source for industrial dairy farmers in the Mid Atlantic. Readers of Bittman’s column would experienced a sense of deja-vu had they heard the dairy folks write, “This latest study is a challenge to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which call for consuming mostly low-fat dairy products. And not everyone is convinced by the new studies that question the link between saturated fat and heart disease.”
Not to be left out was the poultry industry. Big Chicken weighed in on the foodies’ favorite study, writing, “Now, the meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine gives further credence to the statement that current evidence suggests saturated fats have little to no effect on heart disease risk.”
So: our agri-intellectuals, those who swear that they are deeply anti-industrial food, happen to be in full agreement on the saturated fat study with the beef industry, the poultry industry, and the dairy industry. Oh, and Fox News and the Center for Consumer Freedom. As for my bedfellows, Big Ag left me alone, leaving me to go home with a bunch of tweeters and a few health websites.
So, you tell me: who is defending industrial agriculture here?
We all can’t stand industrial agriculture as we know it. So we try to make consumer choices to avoid its abuses. There are many ways to resist the machine, but—as I have repeatedly argued—the absolute most effective way to challenge agribusiness is to stop eating animal products and start eating an exclusive diet of whole plant-based foods. Although my crusade as a writer has been to improve the world for animals, I have always taken solace in the fact that we can eat in a way that helps animals while sticking it to industrial agriculture at the same time. I like that overlap.
The above remarks are exactly what I would have explained to Mother Jones‘ food/ag writer Tom Philpott had he contacted me before characterizing me as defender of the food industry in his most recent MJ piece. For those keeping score, when I wrote about Philpott for a Pacific Standard article, I took the time to correspond with him. But anyway, I’m sure readers of this blog will be surprised to learn that, according to TP, “McWilliams is playing his usual role: reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.”
The analysis certainly thrilled Mark Bittman, who tweeted it and thanked Philpott for his hard work. Interestingly, neither of these defenders of eating animal products—and thus defenders of eating the goods upon which industrial agriculture thrives—have taken the time to respond to my American Scholar essay, one that scares industrial food much more than all the support these writers offer to “humane” animal products from small farms that are doing little more than supporting the status quo at a higher price per pound.
In any case, consider me baffled.
Photo: Karl Thibodeaux and/or GreenSourceDFW.org
Rarely do I use the Pitchfork for promotional purposes, but this instance is different. My friend and unlikely vegan activist Big Bald Mike is writing one of the most honest and hard hitting vegan conversion narratives that I’ve ever read. The honestly and rawness of BBM’s story instills it with rare authenticity. Moved as I was by it, I offered to edit it. As Mike notes in his video below, he’s seeking time to write—he’s very short on cash—so that this book can find a publisher and reach an audience that very few of us could ever reach. Mike is a powerful, sincere, and rare voice for animals. He is the kindest of souls. Please, even if it’s only a $5 donation, consider helping fund his effort. Learn more here.
I have a friend and colleague—and a vegetarian— who is editing a book in which he invited philosophers to argue that it’s ethically justifiable, at least in some circumstances, to eat animals. My friend is not inclined to necessarily agree with these assessments, but he’s secure enough in his own beliefs to accept genuine challenges to his suppositions. I admire this willingness to expose his own flank to attack, if for no other reason than doing so has the potential to leave one even more secure in his position than when he started. Ethical vegans should take note. (I’ll review the book here when it lands.)
Many comments to my recent vegan pillars piece—offline and on—criticized it on the grounds that it somehow threatened the vegan cause. How dare you suggest there’s something shaky about veganism! The implication here was that any attempt to highlight conceptual weaknesses or even identify unique challenges that vegans faced was an insidious form of betrayal. That stance might work for the activist, but not the intellectual. Doubt inspired by honest reflection hardly provides anti-vegans with ammunition to use against us. Plus, if we continue to see this matter as an us v. them war, we’ll end up having great appeal to ourselves alone. What’s the point of that?
Veganism is not a cult. It’s an ideal to which we do our best to follow. Necessarily, by nature of existence, we’ll fail, but if we proceed in ignorance of our failures we’ll never appeal to masses of thoughtful and pragmatic people who have the means to live life without unnecessarily and intentionally harming animals. The fact that some people do not have that means is yet another hard reality of ethical veganism that, as activists, we’re too eager to obscure rather than directly confront. There are a lot of cheerleaders for veganism out there. I enjoy their cheers. But that’s not what this blog is about. The Pitchfork aims to make you uncomfortable, however momentarily.
And so I’ll be spending a good chunk of time, as well as dedicating some meatier Pitchfork columns, to thinking out loud about how I (and others) might be convinced to eat animals. I don’t want to eat animals. I seriously doubt I’m ever going to eat animals. But I very much do want to systematically consider the oyster, consider roadkill, consider insects, consider the Inuit, consider other topics that you suggest. And so on. I want to consider the remote possibility that I’m wrong. Because that just seems right.