There’s something about eating animals that we raise for food—perhaps the intuitive sense that we know it’s wrong to raise them for food—that leads meat eaters to engage in some far-fetched and ill-advised stunts. The most recent example involves a municipal proposal in Omaha, Nebraska that will allow consumers to walk into a feedlot, choose the animal they will see die, and witness the beast’s slaughter before eating the tortured creature’s flesh. The program is called “open meat market.”
There are several possible ways to interpret this proposal, which now sits before Omaha’s city council. One: it’s barbaric, doing little more than indulging our basest tendency to get off on absolute dominance over another sentient animal’s body. Two: it’s honest, bringing the carnivorous consumer closer to the bone of violence endemic to all animal products. Three: it’s logical, merely an extension of choosing our fish from a Chinese restaurant tank. Four: it’s a cheap shot, yet another slow food exhibitionist gambit engineered to nurture a blood-stained sense of “community.” I could go on.
Whatever the reason, none of them could possibly justify this flagrant, municipally sponsored, act of stupidity. Oppose it here. And take perverse solace in these sort of events as they emerge. To me, it means advocates of raising and killing animals are running scared, struggling to make what we’re increasingly realizing is sick seem normal, worthy of being treated like a game.
Like all games, this will end. It must.
Beginning tomorrow, and lasting through August 20, the city of Denver will promote the gratuitous slaughter of animals who were raised with love. On Sunday you can get bison; Monday “sheep is the star”; Tuesday is pig night; Wednesday it’s cow. Every meal will be served at a restaurant that prides itself on morally commmodfying sentient animals who farmers respected while they lived, before selling their bodies for cash. The event is called “Hoofin It” and “farm to table” is the mantra. As The Denver Post reports, “a different hooved animal will be showcased every evening.” Cost of the showcase: $60.
Now, critics of animal agriculture, as well as animal advocates, have become all too familiar with these sort of Orwellian stunts. Essentially, what these events do is obscure systematic suffering under the false guise of humanity in order to serve a range of financial interests and a popular taste for animal flesh. It’s insulting, really. We’re especially accustomed to the oxymoronic–not to mention moronic—sponsorships of these moral carnivals: ethical butchers, humane animal farmers, compassionate carnivores, and the like. It thus may come as a surprise that the sponsor of “Hoofin It” is . . . . The Humane Society of the United States.
As you might imagine, there’s been outrage over this. Why would an organization that works so diligently to reduce the consumption of meat promote the consummation of meat? One letter I received from a Colorado critic of the event explained, “Needless to say, the vegan community in Colorado is quite upset with HSUS’ sponsorship of this event and has notified HSUS of their concern.” Here is what HSUS wrote by way of an explanation:
My thoughts on this response too are many to articulate, and none of them are in sympathy. But in a nutshell it’s safe to say that there’s a fundamental difference between encouraging more humane methods of animal agriculture and throwing a party to celebrate animal slaughter. There’s simply no hoofin it around HSUS’s craven capitulation to compromise on this event. Shame.
(HSUS’s response came from Sarah Barnett. You can reach her here: Sarah Barnett <email@example.com>)
I attended The Seed—”two days of vegan exploration”—in New York City last weekend (I was there not as a speaker but as a talking head in a documentary filmed on the premises). There was a lot a to celebrate.
The line for the event stretched far down Mercer St., in Soho; the crowd was nominally more diverse than most Veg Fests I’ve been to, at least in the conventional measure of diversity; inside, the event had doubled in size from when I’d gone two years earlier; and the structure had improved as well: no more speakers trying to talk in the same room with all the vendors, a distraction for everyone as I recall. Finally, the mood was upbeat and a sense in a better future pervaded the event. All good.
One critical remark I’d make was that (with a couple of exceptions) The Seed did not offer enough for the thinking vegan—that is, the kind of person interested in the philosophical and ethical implications of eating—to sink her teeth into. I make this remark having attended the event for only one day (huge caveat), but my overall impression was that the dominant themes (from the speakers) were about personal health and physical fitness. Cooking demos—which can be great (just witness JL Fields) and are critical for the vegan curious—were ubiquitous alongside talks about how vegans can have muscles. Really big muscles.
Again, I make this observation well-aware that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this choice, especially as the event is geared as an “exploration.” But it’s important to have balance, primarily because people explore for a variety of reasons, many of them headier than we know. If the curious are only exploring to discover new recipes and hopes for a better body and nicer skin, and all you give them are new recipes and a vegan prescription for a better body and nicer skin, then you have not established any sort of baseline for a life-long and permanent decision. At some point, you need to drive home the larger message with something deeper than salad recipes and rippled biceps in order for that to happen.
As I see it, our relationship with the animal world should come first—in fact, animals should come first, or at least ahead of our concerns over our LDL cholesterol levels—while all other factors should play necessary but supporting roles.
But what do I know? As I had a late-afternoon coffee (why is there so much great coffee in New York?!) with a friend who is a vegan academic and teaches classes on animals and activism, I learned that his veganism may not have happened without the help of all the meat replacements and junk food that I had complained about as weighing down the vendors’ tables at the event. (Although I did eat a delicious grilled kale salad and some seed bread with guacamole.) So, as usual, I make my comments well aware that there are many ways for this seed to sprout.
Thing is, speaking for myself, I just left The Seed with my stomach fuller than my head.
I’m not sure where I’ve heard it but I know I heard it because it won’t leave my head: vegans are saying things such as “I don’t care what you eat so long as it’s not an animal product” or “being vegan means not having to say I’m sorry to what’s on your plate.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s the gist of what seems to be all over the vegan social media. Probably has been for a while, but I’m often slow on the uptake.
I do know this, though: vegans should avoid these kind of slogans. It wrongly indicates that because you, virtuous vegan, have made one ethical choice about how to eat—avoiding animals— that all other ethical matters bearing on food are irrelevant. Needless to say, eating animals is just one of many ethical concerns that accompany the production and consumption of food. Many consumers who eat animals approach their diets with as much ethical deliberation as vegans do (maybe more), but they do so by focusing on other concerns–very real concerns such as labor treatment, ecological impact, and public health.
In general—as the aforementioned slogans indicate—ethical vegans do a mediocre job at best integrating their concerns about animal rights into these (equally?) critical moral issues (to be fair, those focused on other concerns aren’t so cooperative either when it comes to animal rights). One reason for this reticence may be that incorporating other ethical concerns into our choice-making matrix blurs the ethical clarity that so many vegans take for granted. As much as we might like to think that eating ethically is simply about not eating animals, that’s only the start of things. In fact, by making the noble decision to bother about animals at all, you open up many other cans of worms—and things can get sort of messy real quick. From this perspective, you can see why so many intelligent people put their hands over their ears and say, “I don’t want to know!”
Consider this scenario: you have a choice between eating roadkill and eating a plate of vegetables harvested by child slaves. If the slogan “I don’t care what you eat so long as it’s not an animal product” holds, then you are forced by an overly rigid conceptualization of veganism to exploit child slaves rather than eat an animal that in no way was intentionally harmed for your consumption. You are, in other words, forced by your belief system to make an arguably immoral choice. That’s an extreme case, but one could easily see how, as you leave the margins, the decisions become veritable toss-ups. For example, what if the choice was between eating oysters (questionably sentient critters) or a bowl of rice grown with water diverted from a subsistence village suffering a drought? Anyway, you get the idea.
I’ve often criticized carnivorously-inclined sustainable food people for putting “soil ahead of sentience.” But I’m coming to realize that there can also be ethical problems with placing sentience ahead of soil. More to the point, I’m coming the difficult realization that eating ethically is not about drawing a line in the sand (soil?) between plants and animals and mouthing a bunch of slogans about your superior choice. It is, for sure, about not eating animals raised to be food, but it’s also about merging that choice with so many others that deserve our ethical attention.
If you’ve made the choice to go vegan, well done. But now the real work begins.
The Pitchfork has long maintained that pastured cows are no answer at all to the environmental catastrophe of beef production. In fact, it may even be worse. Integral to this mission has been the effort to push back against the grass-fed guru Allan Savory, whose rotational grazing fantasies have been nicely packaged as reality and shot into the bullseye of public opinion through that glitzy marketing move known a as a TED talk.
I took on Savory over a year ago here at Slate. The piece made an impression in some quarters, but overall it seems to have done little to dampen the glee of Savory’s absurd thesis that we can save the planet by eating beef. But a piece in yesterday’s Guardian by the popular environmental writer George Monbiot may have the heft to push Savory’s crackpot thesis into the dustbin of bad ideas. The article covers the same ground I covered in Slate but incorporates new research and a phone interview with the Savory to hammer home the fact that the man is loony.
As advocates for animals it is essential that we work to highlight the inherent environmental flaws of beef production, flaws that persist irrespective of the method of domestication or farm size. Of course the Pitchfork is concerned with the end of all animal agriculture, but at the moment the grass-fed hypothesis is stunned and staggered. Apologies for the pugilistic metaphor, but as a fan of boxing I decalre it’s time to deliver this dangerous thesis a knockout punch.
What follows is a very thoughtful response from a reader who chose to remain anonymous. It’s a fine rebuttal to some of my recent posts suggesting that there’s merit in going to Wall Street, getting rich, and giving back. Enjoy. Also, please check out a piece I published in today’s The Paris Review.
This comment is as much a response to this post as it is to the original one.
First I will say, however, that I was disappointed to read your original post. What I appreciate about you and your writing, James, is that (at least it appears to me) while you are an idealist, you’re also a realist and a pragmatist. However, I feel that your post about young advocates focusing on wealth creation and donating their money might be simplistic and misguided.
As someone who works in investment banking (close enough to Wall St.), and has spent time working to earn money and not directly advocate for animals (or to work on other social causes), I can relate to this issue and have struggled in determining the importance of money. I especially appreciate your point about young advocates possibly (but not always) in effect placing their own identity over what’s best for the animals.
You’re correct in emphasizing the importance money can have. After all, what cash-strapped non-profit organization wouldn’t benefit from additional funds to continue undercover investigations, conduct grass-roots outreach (whatever form that may take), print educational materials, etc. At the very least, an influx of cash can relieve the constant financial stress I’m sure many organizations face. Yet, telling young advocates to focus on accumulating wealth is at least somewhat misguided for several reasons.
1. While I don’t have access to the finances of any nonprofits, I wonder how much money do they really need? You could argue that with more money they could hire more people to work undercover, conduct outreach, etc., but if more young advocates are willing to live (comparatively) selflessly, and to live simply, rather then go to work on Wall St., then organizations won’t need all of those millions of dollars. I don’t believe organizations need all that much money. What they really need are intelligent, dedicated, selfless people who are willing to work hard advocating for animals (or any other cause) – as hard as titans of Wall St. work to make money.
2. It takes time to make the big bucks. At least in high finance, when someone is starting out, while she does make an impressive sum of money relative to the majority of Americans (or humans in general), that still amounts to just ~$100,000 starting out and several hundred thousands of dollars of few years in. You start making millions of dollars per year perhaps only a decade in. While someone could certainly live simply during all that time, even if they donated a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars (which would be a SIGNIFICANT proportion of their gross income) every year, that would have nowhere as near an effect as the millions of dollars you speak of (even if dozens and dozens of activists took this path, it would take many animal advocates working on Wall St. to reach millions of dollars in donations, at least initially). Just think how much could possibly be done if these dozens and dozens of activists dedicated their energies and focus instead on directly advocating for animals smartly.
3. Charity and donations are given too much importance in U.S. society (and maybe in all modern society), perhaps because they allow people to enjoy the benefits of capitalism and wealth without having to the do the heavy lifting of advocating for change, all while getting to be affiliated with causes. It’s almost as if charity and donations allow people to buy their contribution to causes and social progress/improvement. I don’t mean to suggest that participants in the Giving Pledge, for instance, or celebrities who raise millions of dollars for various causes, don’t care about the causes they get involved in, but just that the importance given to donations and charity might more reflect capitalist society’s naive, misguided preferences and focus on money, rather than the actual value of donations and charity. Indeed, in a world where cash is king, wouldn’t it better if MORE young advocates decide to use their intelligence and abilities and time to advocate for the powerless rather than just write a check for them? John Robbins of Baskin-Robbins and Diet for a New America fame, is a great example. He gave up buckets of wealth and made a tangible impact.
In sum, I agree that organizations could probably use more money, but they probably don’t need as much money as you think. Money has a way of finding its way to the causes that need it. In my limited experience, I think making money a goal, even if it is to be used to good, is a futile exercise. Don’t go chasing money – money will find you. Even if it’s not millions, it will be enough to continue your advocacy (see: Gary Yourofsky).
If you want to urge advocates not only to think about working for nonprofits, I think instead of telling them to focus on pursuing careers that make the most money, you should urge them to find other ways to help animals. Perhaps they should pursue a career in biomedical or toxicology research, working furiously to find alternatives to animal testing. Or they should pursue a career in law and explore creative ways to advocate for animals through the courts. If they do want to go into business or finance, they should consider taking their talents to meat alternative companies, or to creating and managing endowments or investments for nonprofits (similar to how college endowments are managed).
Lastly, you make a point about advocates in effect choosing their own professional (and personal) identity over what’s best for the animals by choosing not to make as much money as possible and donate it. I take a couple of issues with this. First, it presupposes that advocacy needs a lot of money and that money is the most important thing, things I’ve explained my disagreement with above. Moreover, this point also is not fair, and it works the other way. Don’t hedge fund managers, musicians, actors, CEOs etc. also choose their own professional (and personal) identity – as well as their natural, understandable preference for money and power and fame and personal happiness – over what’s best for animals, or even humans? Let’s not even look at animals for moment. If you’re going to say animal advocates are choosing their identity over what’s best for animals, shouldn’t pretty much everyone else who has the means and capability also be called out for choosing their own identity over helping imprisoned North Koreans, displaced tribes people, and exploited sex workers? I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone choosing their own success over helping others, but I don’t think animal advocates should necessarily be said to be pursing their own identity over truly helping animals. And if they decide they want their identity to be associated with advocating for animals, that’s not necessarily bad. Most other people choose that their identity be associated with other, lucrative, self-focused, self-fulfilling (not selfish or self-centered) professions that don’t directly focus on helping others. Wouldn’t the world be better with more of the former (mind you, I’m not necessarily condemning anyone for choosing the latter)?
Let me wrap up by addressing the issue of money. Maybe I’m just the naive and too idealistic, but money shouldn’t be the focus. Creative methods of selfless advocacy coupled with tenacious, disciplined dedication should be.
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.