Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Food Is Life

» December 16th, 2014

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Bob the philosopher the other day. When I talk to philosophers, I realize how much I love philosophical thought. But I also realize that, much as you might rather coo-coo over someone else’s adorable baby rather than have one of you own, I’m glad I’m not an actual philosopher. I suspect I’d fall into a cycle of premise questioning that would suck me into an abyss.

But anyways. We talked about the meaning of life. What gives life meaning? There’s nothing ironic or tongue-in-cheek about this question when you discuss it with a real philosopher. Bob raised an idea that has stuck with me. He explained that many philosophers posit that life is given meaning by the experience of pleasure. That is, our sense that life has worth is rooted in the soil of subjective experiences that make us happy.

This all seems rather simple–until you think about it in terms of food. Eating makes us happy and, in this sense, eating gives us reason to find meaning in life. Meat and dairy. moreover, gives most people added pleasure. These items, from what I recall, can taste very good. I realize that committed vegans often reach a point at which animal products lose their appeal. But it’s very likely that at one point in time, these goods puts a smile on their faces.

The implications of this connection strike me as important. In an environment that fails to question the ethics of eating animals—which is to say, in most environments—there’s nothing to interrupt the conclusion that, as the saying goes, food is life. And if you include animal products as food, well then animal products are life.  If eating meat becomes synonymous with a meaningful life, any attempt to disrupt the association will be met with wrath.

Two lessons to draw from this observation. First, understand the wrath. Rather than scoff at it, or get in yet another facebook fight, just be appreciative of why the call to stop eating animals sends so many people into fits of apoplexy. Second, do not stop delivering the message that we must stop eating animals raised for food. Too often we think it’s a matter of convincing individuals, one by one, to stop. Really, though, it’s about creating an atmosphere in which the assumption that eating animals is integral to the meaning of life is questioned.

It’s the larger culture that must be destabilized. The converts will then follow.

Please check out my latest Pacific Standard column here

Agricultural Fantasylands

» November 30th, 2014

In the field of sustainable agriculture, there’s enough magical thinking going around to cause vertigo. I hear it from purveyors of humane meat especially. They’re going to provide “cruelty-free” meat from livestock cuddled with love, pastured pork from pigs who were never harmed before their trip to the slaughterhouse for that “one bad day,” and—the perhaps the most common but least plausible of all—cattle whose manure and hoof action are going to restore global grasslands and reverse global warming.

The magical thinking continues with those who promise to end the use of fossil fuel. Solar (and, to a lesser extent, wind) will take over oil and gas. Animals will help us convert sun into flesh. Led by the organic lobby, farmers will replace synthetic fertilizer with composted manure. Biological control will replace chemical insecticides, especially in the organic sector. Fuel required to truck produce will diminish to virtually nothing as local farmers stock our larders. And so on.

As an advocate for the abolition of animal agriculture, I work hard to negotiate this fantasyland of hopeful thought. I certainly do envision a day when the domestication of animals is no longer a part of modern agriculture. When I indulge that vision, I feel fairly confident that it’s doable. That it’s grounded in reality. But when I contemplate the animal rights’ endgame—the abolition of all animal suffering in every arena of life—I agree with the sentiment while quietly wondering if I’m not engaging in the same sort of fantastic thought that Allan Savory engages in when he argues that cattle can reverse global warming. “Do I really think that’s possible?”, I ask myself. In my more honest moments, I’m unsure.

While maintaining our ideals, advocates for animals must also be ready to reluctantly compromise. Not doing so lands us in the same arena of unreality that allows agrarian tricksters to tell us agriculture can provide a cruelty-free free lunch. There are no free lunches. There is no perfection in agriculture. Nothing even close. As long as we eat, there will be some level of animal suffering. We should work to reduce it without losing touch with this reality. The past is littered with magic thoughts that lasted a long time and then faded into the past, brought up as evidence of a loony generation.

That’s no fate for animal advocacy, but if we lose touch it could be.


Cutting Through The Fat

» November 21st, 2014

Food writers behave like a school of fish. The arrange themselves into a tight pack and swerve in unison, seeking safety in numbers. The newest bait is the idea that our food problems are not really food problems. They are poverty problems. I include myself in this school—note a recent column—and I join a pool of writers including Bittman and Tracie McMillian in highlighting the pressure of poverty on food choices.

And why not? There’s no doubt there’s a good reason to pursue the connection between poverty and poor eating habits. The correlation is clear and the reasons for the correlation fairly obvious, involving as it does matters of access, affordability, education, and—perhaps less obviously—a factor noted by both me and McMillian (see links above): the psychological consequences of scarcity.

That said, something about this emphasis makes me a little uncomfortable. The reason for this discomfort was recently clarified for me when I encountered the above menu in a trendy new Austin eating establishment. Click it and you’ll see that these meals are fancy. But they’re also weighed down with loads of carefully sourced but, still, unhealthy ingredients. The portion sizes, moreover, judging from the dishes being hauled out of the kitchen, were huge.  Is there, I wondered, that much of a difference between a McDonald’s menu and this one? Every plate seemed to me to far outweigh (literally) my ideal meal as a teenager: Big Mac, shake, and fries.

By the looks of the place, the comparison might seem absurd. This is an upscale, architecturally-savvy lunch spot. Business casual dominated. Elegant women drank chardonnay. As I looked closer, though, I noticed that, while there were no morbidly obese people in the place, at least 2/3 of the people in the restaurant were carrying extra weight, in some cases a lot. Take away the sheen of sophistication, strip these well-heeled lunch goers bare, and you’d pretty much have a naked reflection of our national struggle to stay fit.

Heavy and unhealthy high-end food often gets a pass when the obesity-poverty card is played. I don’t think it should. The overweight people in this restaurant—it’s called St. Phillip for those who care (good veganized pie)—were overweight in the same way that the low-income consumers of fast food are overweight. Fat is fat and flesh is flesh. Should the fact that the St. Phillip’s crowd was better dressed, had top-notch health care, and can get thee to a fat farm if matters get out of hand exclude them from our meta-analysis of poor eating habits?

I don’t think it should.  I’m not saying anyone should ditch the correlation between obesity and poverty, but I am saying we need to remember that as much as poverty leads to obesity, wealth can cover it up pretty well. Both a Big Mac and a $20 plate of homemade gourmet mac-n-cheese have the same impact on your body, at the day’s end.

Bad Will Hunting

» November 9th, 2014

This post belongs in the “no, it’s not the Onion” section. I’m referring to a piece published in the Times about raising and releasing Chinese ring-necked pheasants into Utah for the purposes of ecological conservation through the fine art of hunting.

Yeah, I know, emphasis not necessary. But on reading the article, you’d think the writer, not to mention the entire state of Utah, not to mention the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thought it was perfectly rational to have families raise pheasants from scratch, come to adore them, release them into the wild, and allow 13-year olds, followed adults, to chase them down and blow them to smithereens.

“It’s a little bit hard,” a woman said, as the birds were set free. “You’ve watched them grow, and they’re like part of the family now.”

Which led me to consider an interesting heuristic device to place this policy, as well as the article about it, in some sort of sane perspective. Try this: read the article while replacing every reference to pheasant with dog. You’d encounter sentences such as this:

“The family of six had been raising the [dogs] since they were fuzzy, brown, palm-size [pups], as part of a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources program designed to create a greater interest in wildlife conservation and habitat preservation and to promote the sport of upland game hunting, particularly to young and first-time hunters.”

Or this:

“People are also no longer dependent on game hunting of any kind to feed their families,” a wildlife guy said. “When I grew up hunting [dogs] in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, there were no computer games, organized sports were not nearly as involved, and most people lived in two-parent households. My dad could take a Saturday off to go hunting. That’s become more difficult now.”

Weird, right? I wonder what would have happened if the author had tried this experiment before writing this horrid piece? Might she have appreciated how arbitrary it was to nurture one sentient creature for slaughter while never even considering doing so for another? And might not this inconsistency have alerted her to the ethical atrocity that she was inadvertently endorsing by not questioning it?

Try it again with another animal, one we don’t even domesticate:

“Like many states where pheasant hunting is a beloved pastime, Utah stocks its public lands with [squirrels] each fall. For 2014, the state purchased 11,000 adult [squirrels] from commercial growers and released them on public land to stoke hunters’ enthusiasm — and odds of success.”

Weird, right? And worse.


» November 1st, 2014

I just finished a challenging but deeply edifying book called Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, by Cal Tech biologist Kristof Koch.  The book is the finest example of making hard science accessible without dumbing it down that I’ve encountered in some of the modest reading I’m doing on the physical basis of consciousness. My underlying goal is to get a sense of what the most knowledgeable experts on the brain have to say about the connection between neurological sophistication and consciousness.

Koch, for one, certainly posits a correlation. He writes, “Consider simpler animals—simplicity measured by the number of neurons and their interconnections—such as mice, herrings, or flies. Their behavior is less differentiated and more stereotyped than that of dogs. It is thus not unreasonable to assume that conscious states of these animals are less rich, filled with far fewer associations and meanings, than canine consciousness.”

I know this line of thought makes some animal rights advocates, many of whom prefer to view all animal life as deserving the same moral consideration, nervous. But I like the proposition in part because neurological complexity is the same physical basis that biologists use to distinguish a category of life that we do not grant equal moral consideration:  plants. This distinction is one that animal rights advocates very much need to preserve at all costs. Consider this excellent overview of the plant/animal distinction on the basis of evolutionary cellular development by Oliver Sacks:

The calcium ion channels that plants rely on do not support rapid or repetitive signaling between cells; once a plant action potential is generated, it cannot be repeated at a fast enough rate to allow, for example, the speed with which a worm ‘dashes … into its burrow.’ Speed requires ions and ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions, here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells, and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms [i.e., animals] that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.

The proposition of a continuum of consciousness based on neurological complexity does not necessarily mean that humans will use that continuum as a justification to abuse animals with nervous systems that are nominally less complex. Curious about Koch’s stance on this issue, I poked around the Web. In an interview with Scientific American, he was asked if his research influenced his own behavior. I put a fist in the air when he explained, “I have stopped eating the flesh of mammals and birds, as they too share the wonders of experience with us.”

In this respect, I think the pursuit of a physical understanding of consciousness—even if we never uncover it—can be a benefit for animals. That is, as humans begin to understand that the nature of existence originates and is sustained exclusively by measurable physical forces, the less we will seek answers to our existence and its meaning in traditional spiritual frameworks that impose unfounded hierarchies that arbitrarily favor human exceptionalism over “brute creatures.”

That catch, of course, is that to pursue the quest for consciousness, scientists seem to think that the only way to do so is to experiment on the animals their findings suggest have qualities that demand our respect and moral consideration. Therein lies a conundrum I hope to address soon.

Carol Adams

» October 25th, 2014

The author—Carol Adams— of one of my favorite books written about animals and humans—The Sexual Politics of Meat—will be speaking this Monday at Texas State University in San Marcos. The event is at 11 am and it’s free. Details here. If you’re in the area, please come. Her evolving presentation is widely recognized as a signature statement at the intersection of feminism and animal rights.

The Life and Death of Insects

» October 23rd, 2014

At the risk of being a total bore, I have a few more thoughts to shake out on the proposition that vegans are morally obligated to eat insects. Some readers have suggested that insects might very well be sentient. The underlying fear, a legitimate (if unlikely) one, is that if we’re wrong in our assumption that insects don’t experience pain, we’d end up being complicit in the horrible infliction of mass suffering.

But would we be? Is that true? Consider this proposition: even if insects could suffer, they wouldn’t suffer while being raised. In fact, unlike farm animals, most insects thrive in densely packed conditions and tight spaces. They would eat a diet that was “all natural” by insect standards—agricultural and food waste—and they would in no way have to be manipulated to enhance breeding (they have that one covered). An insect farm could reliably replicate natural conditions. Whereas farm animals can never be themselves on even the most humane farms, this would not be true for insects. Insects could be insects.

As I imagine it, the only stage in the cycle of production when an insect would suffer would be during slaughter. But that’s not quite the right, either. Think about slaughter. Slaughter implies a process, one in which too many procedures could and do go awry. A multi-hundred pound beast never goes gently. By contrast, the death of an insect—a quick and massive and singular and decisive whack—would happen so quickly that the critter wouldn’t experience pain in any meaningful way. Little room to screw that up. The lights would go out, that would be that, and I’d have my non-supplemental B-12.

Relatedly, the lights would go out when the insect had lived almost the entirety of its life. Given the rate of insect predation in the wild, insects might actually even be better off on a farm being raised for human food than living “natural” conditions where they’d be prey to everything that so much as twitches (even plants!). Think about it: a life in an environment where even plants prey on you or a life of leisure where you are thwacked painlessly in your 11th hour? I know what I’d choose. I almost wish for it.

The Modern Savage (reviews)

» October 20th, 2014

What follows are some blurbs that have come in for The Modern Savage. I’m deeply grateful for them and hope you will pass them on to people you think would benefit from reading my forthcoming book. Once again, preorders are very helpful. You can do that here.

“I think James McWilliams is far and away the single best writer the vegans have so far produced…One of the most intelligent books I have ever read. His is a powerful voice that will resonate far beyond those interested in animal rights.”
—Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Ph.D., bestselling author of Dogs Never Lie About Love

“McWilliams has issued a powerful challenge to the ‘compassionate omnivore’ movement. The Modern Savage is a book that everyone concerned about food, animals and the environment should read.”
—Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

“James McWilliams ably demonstrates that we’ve often underestimated the mental lives of farm animals, and that we need to start taking their interests more seriously. He doesn’t skirt tough issues nor does he take positions based on what may be popular at the time. Such a moral accounting would lead to a revolution in both how we produce food and what food we eat.”
—Paul Shapiro, vice president, The Humane Society of the United States

“James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound. He explains in plain, accessible, and highly readable language what follows if we reject factory farming as morally reprehensible animal abuse, as most of us do. First, if animals matter morally, then killing them in any context is always wrong when we have a vegan alternative. Second, consumers of “humane” or “sustainable” animal-based foods will be surprised to learn that animal suffering routinely attends local and small-scale animal farming. McWilliams tells a riveting story while building an unassailable argument for veganism as the answer to our well-justified revulsion towards industrialized animal agriculture.”
—Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law, Cornell University, and author of Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger and Other Questions People Ask Vegans on The Modern Savage

Insects As Food: Hard Fact Versus Possible Fact

» October 18th, 2014

Unlike the farm animals that we slaughter by the millions, there’s no hard evidence that insects experience suffering. The most convincing scientific defenses of that possibility all concede this point. Of course, there’s also no hard evidence that insects don’t suffer. I appreciate the argument that we should, in light of this ambiguity, err on the side of caution and avoid intentionally harming them, and I equally appreciate readers reiterating that perspective. That said, I disagree. I’m still going to argue that we have an obligation to (possibly) harm insects.

By eating them.

I’m not going to lay out the physiological data at this point (I’m still gathering and interviewing), but there’s enough very strong evidence that insects do not suffer for me to consider the essential competing moral consideration: the untold number of rats, mice, bunnies, moles, voles, prairie dogs, wolves, deer, coyotes, snakes, and, yes, insects, that interfere with the crops grown for vegans to eat. Looking over my previous two posts, and the array of comments that followed, my sense is that this calculus was poorly explained.

So . . .

Let’s say insects do suffer. If we honored that suffering by not eating them we’d be lending the same moral consideration to their lives as we would to the obviously sentient animals we kill through pest control to protect plant crops. In other words, out of caution, we’d equate the possibility of suffering (insects) to the fact of suffering (bunnies, deer, etc). That’s a risky choice, riskier than readers have considered. But if, taking another risk, we assumed that insects do not suffer and ate them in an effort to offset the production of sentient-animal-destroying plant crops, we’d privilege the fact of suffering over the possibility of suffering. Granted this is not an ideal choice—prioritizing possibility and fact–but it happens to be the one that’s in front of us. In light of it, I conclude that we must, even if only in utilitarian terms, eat insects. Vegans too often act as if ethics is easy. It never is.

Let me make one more move here. Again, let’s assume insects do suffer. A number of scientists and ethicists who have examined this issue (such as Peter Singer) have conceded that, even if this is true, their suffering is not as consequential as that of higher order animals. Maybe suffering has gradations and maybe those gradations need to be considered. This proposition can be evaluated in concrete physical terms. To wit: do you think that a fly swatted with a magazine experiences/suffers the pain of death the same way a farm animal does? My sense is to say no.  So, even if insects do suffer the experience of pain, the fleeting nature of that pain might very well justify the choice to eat them and, in so doing, offset the suffering of animals who we know suffer when they are shot and churned to death by harvesters to make us feel so incredibly great about eating plants.



Are Vegans Obligated To Eat Insects?

» October 14th, 2014


My last post created quite a buzz among ethical vegans who categorically declare that it’s wrong to harm all animals unnecessarily—insects included. Trust me when I say that I understand how raising doubts about insect sentience makes vegans uncomfortable. Angry, even. Any line drawn through the animal world bearing on the extent of our moral consideration is a line that cuts right into vegan identity politics, complicating as it does the entire concept of veganism as an activist response to systemic injustice.

All that said, here we go.  I want to suggest here that insects do not warrant our moral consideration because they do not feel pain, or at least anything qualitatively comparable to what farm animals experience when they suffer. Of course, I cannot make this case with airtight certainty (nobody can)—do note, though, that the same can be said for the plants we eat—but my reading of the evidence (an ongoing process that leaves me open to change) currently compels me to argue that insects are legitimately (ethically speaking) edible. We can, in essence, put them to good use in ways that reduce the harm we cause to animals who we know without a shadow of a doubt suffer. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.

Begin with anatomy, which is essential to pain. Pain is a sensation that goes beyond the stimulation of neurons. The stimulation of neurons might elicit a response that appears to be a reaction against pain. But, considering insects’ primitive anatomical state (compared to animals that clearly suffer), we cannot necessarily trust the external appearance of such a response, much less impose upon it a narration of pain.

As the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains, pain is an emotional and subjective experience, one that requires a higher ordered, much more complex nervous system. Insects lack this. They have nothing remotely close to it. Specifically, they do not have the nociceptors that transmit pain signals through our spinal cords and to our brains where the thalamus sends those signals into the limbic system for interpretation. Because insects lack the structures that foster this process—one that’s essential to feeling pain—they lack the ability to experience pain subjectively and emotionally.

Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. This claim might hold true for an individual, survival-of-the-fittest view of life, which many animals require. But the collective survival of a species (such as insects) could conceivably benefit from the exact opposite: not feeling pain. Several insects propagate themselves through cannibalistic mating practices. Most famously, the female praying mantis will bite off the male’s head mid-coitus. Within the male’s head you do not find a brain, but rather a little enzyme package that protects the female if copulation is successful. From an evolutionary angle, pain would (to say the least!) inhibit this critical, if weird, symbiotic process.

Taking this logic even further, consider what pain accomplishes for the animals that experience it: it teaches them how to solve problems. This implies a life-span that accommodates a pain-driven learning process. Pain, after all, is integral to a trial-and-error process of negotiation with the external world. I would argue that one of the reasons that insects breed so effectively is to avoid trial-and-error—which can be resource wasteful—altogether. Problems, instead, are solved collectively through breeding efficiency, not through an individual insect drawing on pain to get it right the next time. In essence, insects have no evolutionary need for pain.

The default move here is to argue that we should err on the side of caution and assume they have a pain sensation. To do this, though would also require, given the research done on the behavioral responsiveness of plants, that we take the same precaution for plants. That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.