Archive for the ‘A Thousand Words’ Category
My daughter Cecile, who is nine, has been working on some drafts for a fantasy billboard that we’d like to rent in Austin. One of them is a bit too busy for that venue, but the other might not be. In any case, I think they’re insightful drawings and wanted to share them with you. Cecile is also open to any ideas you might have regarding how art can convey the message that we should love animals and not eat them. Thanks.
Readers of The Pitchfork know very well that I’ve closely followed, and occasionally written on, the issue of horse slaughter in the United States. My primary go-to source for these stories has been the journalist Vickery Eckhoff. She’s a contributor at Forbes and has published in Newsweek and HuffPo as well. Today, she posted a couple of pieces that strike me as seminal in terms of understanding the politics of horse slaughter and, just as importantly, the media’s coverage of it. I urge you to check both pieces out. Find a relatively tame one here and a more outspoken one here.
You have to hand it to the apologists of animal slaughter. They can, when pressed, churn up some pretty righteous indignation. Indeed, when some upstart speaks truth to power, they quake with outrage. In the past week, I’ve taken on eggs, milk, and pork in my role as a Forbes contributor and, I’m happy to say, outrage overfloweth. The responses themselves are worthy paying attention to, if only because there’s an inverse relationship between the anger and the substance. To those of you who have joined the conversation at Forbes, thank you.
The dairy piece elicited considerable anger. One commenter writes, “This article has a lot of misinformation. I would encourage readers to actually visit a real dairy farm and learn more about modern, safe dairy practices as well as visit dairyfarmingtoday.org.” Sure, go and see what the industry has to say for itself. Visit one. Get a tour. Meet an executive. What you learn should be really accurate.
Then there’s this one: ”This is the most incorrect and pathetic excuse for a factual article that I have ever read. As for the ‘marketing geniuses in the milk industry,’ I would love for McWilliams to expand on exactly what [sic] these are. The fact that the dairy industry correctly conveys the numerous health benefits that consuming dairy products has on people?” She actually lost me when she wrote, “the dairy industry correctly conveys . . ” Okay, one more: “I am disgusted by your article. Where is your credibility? Why was a professor of LAW the only person you consulted? How about an industry professional?” Yeah, you know, those Cornell Law Professors who graduated from Harvard Law and clerked for a Supreme Court Justice and wrote a book on veganism. Clearly a lame source.
Does it sound like the milk industry is getting nervous? Well they should be.They’ve become a target, and they’re a mighty fat one. All I’m doing in these articles is stating the facts, ones established by credible sources without a financial stake in killing animals. It intrigues me that these critics condemn me for bias and then insist that I quote industry sources. Message to these people: I’m skeptical of industry sources for the simple reason that industry sources lie. The suggestion that to quote them is required for objectivity reflects a serious misunderstanding of objectivity.
The pork piece also raised some hackles. One response was especially detailed. Here is what was said about “abuse” on pig farms: “Nothing makes me angrier than seeing someone mistreat an animal. When we domesticated them, we made a pact with them that we would provide them with everything they need and they would provide us with nourishment. Neither I nor my supervisors tolerated mistreatment of animals. Doing anything to purposefully harm an animal would result in IMMEDIATE termination. Not only is it morally wrong, but financially it is unbeneficial because if they animal is not comfortable and happy they are not producing as well.” A pact? Can I see a copy of the contract?
Some comments lead me to question basic reasoning ability. Like this one: “I am writing to inform and give a different perspective for some of you regarding a few of the concerns in this article and comments posted. Whenever someone talks about the concentration of hog production and elaborates on how unfriendly this practice is for the environment, I find the need to point out that the entire human population lives in a similar fashion. People live in large cities and we have constructed massive sewage treatment plants to handle the dense population’s waste. Similar concept with pork production!”
My favorite comment of all was this: “I have to say, your war on animal agriculture does know no boundaries.”
With the kind of logic that’s coming my way, don’t expect the war to end anytime soon.
The following post comes from a young, French-speaking Canadian farmer named Dominic Lamontagne. I met him recently at a talk I gave in Montreal and found him to be unusually open-minded and inquisitive about agriculture and ethics. The title to this piece he wrote for The Pitchfork–”Fair Fare” is his. Below you will find his ideas. I ask that all responses be respectful and made in the spirit of dialogue.
“The figure who really grabs my attention and makes me think, question, ponder, and investigate is the intrepid self-slaughterer, the very person who aims to eat the animal she raises…” – James McWilliams
“Vegan farmers will have to be brave, because they are setting out on uncharted waters that will require great innovations to help them arrive at their destination.” – Robert Monie
Rather naturally, as autonomous beings, we thrive on the exploitation of one another. Whether vegetal or animal, our time is spent impacting other’s lives. Making an impression onto the world is a dirty business. Since no clear purpose seems bestowed upon us, it would seem the duration of our earthly passage is completely irrelevant. The only seemingly relevant aspect of our passage would be the sense of pleasure (or displeasure) we took out of it. This does not contradict the fact that most of us, vegetal or animal, young and old, seek our pleasures and enjoy our lives without really knowing when they will end.
The quality of our earthly pleasures seems independent from the duration of our experience.
It could be argued that the pleasures we value most are the ones which keep us alive: shelter, clothes and food. Survival instincts appear to favour the fulfilment of these basic individual needs which in turn allow the multiplication of our more superficial wants which, on the whole, define our particular lifestyles. Consequently, whatever your definition of “basic”, wherever you live, whatever you wear, or whatever you eat, you MUST ask yourself: how can I protect the continuity of this lifestyle which I find pleasurable? How resilient is it?
In these crowded and volatile times, I would propose that some form of resilience assessment is needed. How independent is your homestead? How safe from disruptions must you be to feel comfortable? How quickly could you bounce back into your comfort zone after a serious disruption of your favourite supply chains?
Consider what you eat as a primary need and then identify which proportion of it you could start making on your own, if need be. In my opinion, a copious omnivorous fare (ex.: some garden produce, many eggs, lots of milk and some meat) could quickly be extracted from a budding homestead on most types of terrains, in most kinds of climates. In contrast, a modest vegan fare would require a mature homestead growing food on great soil in a favourable climate.
Both are possible but not equally accessible. How exclusionary is it to believe everyone has the luxury to buy whatever they want to eat wherever they live?
This brings me to my main question, justice-as-fairness style: How fair is it to pretend that a vegan lifestyle is simply a matter of choice?
How fair is it to pretend that nobody needs to exploit animals to survive? Considering the global median salary, it seems to me animals can’t be taken out of the loop just yet.
Some people, including me, are confronted with poor growing conditions where only rough vegetation and forest grows. Some areas can be reclaimed for garden production, but only through serious soil and greenhouse building. In the meantime, animals will eat what we won’t: bark, saplings, brush, grass, insects, mice, toads, etc…These foods they will transform “instantly” into fertilizer, energy, milk, eggs, and some meat, of course.
On a precarious landscape, animals help lay a foundation for the human settlers… and their lush gardens. It takes time and skill to build rich soils where enough fruits and vegetables can be produced with some regularity and in sufficient quantities to feed the whole family year round.
This may sound indeed like a poor man’s scenario, but from where I stand, at this point in my life, it would seem like the only scenario involving freedom for me and my family.
And a fair deal of pleasure too…
Thanks to those who spread around my last Forbes article. Again, this is the kind of educated audience that has no idea, in many cases, about what so many vegans take for granted. Here is my second piece, which I appreciate you spreading on whatever social media you prefer.
Later this week I’ll be posting my first article at Forbes.com, where I’ll be writing a regular column called “Pitchfork Politics.” The space provides a rare opportunity to explore the intersection of animals and agriculture in a way that the mainstream media rarely does. What follows below began as what I thought would be my opening post but instead slowly turned into more of an intellectual self-examination about the tenets that drive how I think about the issues I’ll explore. In any case, I’ll post links to these columns as they appear and I thank you in advance for your support in terms of spreading the word.
Food writing—real food writing, not the celebratory puff that so often passes for it—is a distinct form of cultural warfare. Honing and expressing opinions about food, farming, and animals means accepting that you’re preparing to do battle with someone over something. It’s not an endeavor for the thin-skinned.
But the pay-offs are well worth it. They usually come in the form of engaging debates that inspire genuine insights. Food-driven dilemmas can, in their earthy complexity, fundamentally alter how we see the world. As an historian, I’ve personally found the experience of writing about contemporary food issues to be much more intellectually challenging than any historical question I’ve explored.
For all the angst generated by food and agriculture, we can all agree that, for perhaps the first time in history, we’re taking these matters seriously. Thanks to writers such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, we’re asking hard questions about matters agrarian. This is for the good. Too many critical issues—human health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, labor practices—are at stake for us to ignore food or treat it as mere entertainment.
Not that food discourse lacks entertainment value. When a discussion about a Chipotle burrito becomes a proxy for personal integrity, or when an informed opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) becomes a litmus test for political ideology, or when one’s beef supplier (Whole Foods? A&P? local farmer?) becomes a marker of individual virtue, it’s hard not to find yourself at least a little bit entertained.
But genuinely thoughtful analysis—the kind that tries to place an honest frame around a sprawling and messy topic—is what I’m ultimately seeking to achieve in this space. So, in the first of what I hope will be a steady flow of columns on the politics and ethics of food production and consumption, I want to highlight the tenets that guide me through this bramble-laden terrain. Look at the following tenets as my natural biases:
1) The agricultural landscape is entrenched with true believers. The more an interest group insists that its ideas are right, the less inclined I am to believe them. Whether it’s organic v. conventional, genetically modified v. “all natural,” “humanely raised” v. factory farmed, or local v. global, the fact is that The Truth is almost always located on the vast continuum between the extremes, if not beyond the continuum altogether. Further destabilizing our agricultural categories is the fact that The Truth as it now exists will almost certainly prove to be ephemeral. With few exceptions—most of them having to do with how we treat animals— agriculture eschews axioms and undergoes change faster than we generally appreciate.
2) Scale matters, but not in the way we typically think it does. The size of agricultural systems necessarily varies. While there’s a common tendency to condemn large industrial operations as wasteful and, in turn, support small ones as sustainable, the deeper reality is that global food production can and should accommodate food systems of multiple dimensions. Not only that, it should explore the most innovative and mutually supportive ways to integrate diverse, plant-based agricultural models in order to achieve the inseparable goals of economic and ecological sustainability. Small coffee growers in Costa Rica have little hope for survival without large distribution networks based in the United States or Europe. Scale, in other words, matters not so much as an objective indicator of agricultural quality, but in the way that farms and food processors of all sizes manage to discover innovative ways to work together.
3) Technology might be a double-edged sword but agriculture has no choice but to judiciously embrace it. The future of ethical farming stands to benefit immeasurably from technologies that foster more efficient use of agricultural resources. Conventional critiques of modern agriculture routinely suggest a return to preindustrial methods of farming. The romantic appeal of using oxen to pull a plow in order to save fossil fuel might be seductive. But it’s ridiculous. The the real advances will come not through symbolic gestures honoring a lost age, but through digital technologies that allow farmers to minimize environmentally negative inputs (synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, water, etc.) while maximizing output in order to feed the world an increasingly plant-based diet.
4) Agriculture is an inherently brutal intrusion for any landscape to endure. But the darkest atrocity in modern agriculture comes from the way humans treat animals. With 10 billion animals killed every year to feed the developed world food that’s generally detrimental to our health, we must include and go beyond questions of animal rights into broader concerns about the global biota as a whole. The wasteful exploitation of plant-based resources required to fatten animals is, as I see it, impossible to justify on both ecological and ethical grounds. This view is not to suggest that there aren’t relatively more humane ways to bring meat to our plates. It is, though, to suggest that objectifying sentient beings for unnecessary purposes will always come with moral implications that we have an obligation to address
5) As we pursue agricultural change, we must do so fully aware of the politics of inclusion. Too often the sustainable food movement advocates policies that would make certain options—say, organic and locally grown food—both more expensive and more accessible to consumers who have the financial means and social education to capitalize on these seemingly more virtuous alternatives to conventional production. Let it be said that I have no problem per se with organic and locally grown food. But I think our approaches to creating a more just food system requires us to think more categorically about how the changes we propose will shape access to an improved food system.
On October 17, the Austin City Council will consider amendments to expand the city’s urban farm ordinance. Proposed changes seek to allow 1-5 acre urban farms in single-family neighborhoods, allow on-site slaughtering of up to 200 chickens, rabbits, and fish, allow on-site sales of said products (and outside products as well), and eliminate the requirement that residents live on-site to run the farm.
These are all terrible ideas. They are terrible ideas, moreover, that Americans spent much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resolving by locating animal agriculture in rural areas.Consolidating animals in urban centers means cultivating zoonotic disease, making cruelty visible, and undermining the quality of life for those families who aren’t interested in playing farmer.
I’ve explained my reasons for opposing backyard slaughtering in numerous articles (here and here are examples). My plan is to put together a series of documents to send to the City Council by Friday and I’d very much like to include your responses as part of my package. If you have a moment, I’d be eager to hear why you think urban slaughter is a bad idea. I want the city to know that, if these measures pass, we will spend a great deal of time exposing the dreadful fallout.
A theme that I frequently explore is that of thoughtful observation as a mediator between humans and animals. The image above comes from a piece of eighteenth-century china designed in England. A human and a cow stand face to face, almost at eye level, and take quiet measure of each other. What strikes me about the juxtaposition is the fact that it’s marked by a sense of trust and relaxation. The gentleman is civilized and the cow is domesticated and, as a result, there is a pervading sense that nobody will get hurt anytime soon.
In a way there’s something iconic about this kind of positioning. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and you still find the arrangement still being staged for the purposes of posterity:
It’s sort of sweet. I suppose there’s a fancy academic term for what’s happening here—something involving the word “other” and “gaze”—but what I see is essentially a dual act of thoughtful observation being played out between members of two different species. These moments are hard to describe with any real accuracy but I think they are critical ones that we fail to recognize and mine for meaning at our own peril, as well as peril to the animal world that we dominate.
In any case, these are the thoughts I entertain as I prepare to discuss this issue with my “Eating Meat In America Class” in a few hours. I’m also contemplating the nature of this interface because, last week in Montreal, I declared that domesticated animals would eventually be better off fizzling away into extinction—if, of course, we ever reach a point where that was an option. I think I still believe that this approach would be better than keeping these animals alive so we can enjoy their company.
That said, to challenge my own ideas, what would be lost without domesticated cows and pigs and chickens? Would the opportunity for thoughtful observation and emotional contact be cut off? If that happened, what would we lose vis-a-vis our treatment of animals and of each other? We’ll see what comes out of the discussion.
Montreal is a bilingual, vegan-friendly, friendly-friendly, big-time city seemingly full of young people with a predilection for talking incessantly and brilliantly about animals. I spoke last night in a beautiful room at McGill University about the hidden problems with small-scale, non-industrial farms. I’m the worst critic of my own talks (being far more at ease and in control behind the computer) but last night I can say that when our time was up I was eager to keep going. So I take that as a sign that something went well enough, or at least that I was properly caffeinated for the experience.
The essence of whatever popular interest there is in my topic seems to stem from a vague sense that the sustainable food movement’s happy farm/happy meat rhetoric is actively obscuring the darker realities that inflict suffering on animals raised in what appear to be more humane conditions. (That was a badly written sentence, but go easy, as I’m at the airport, blurry, and nursing my first cup of coffee). Giving some specificity to that vagueness, my presentation reminds viewers (and, when my book comes out, readers) that, while a pastured system might have welfare advantages over a factory farm, it’s not by any means a viable or ethically sound replacement for industrial animal agriculture. Several people told me they desperately need more grist for this mill. Of course they do: nobody in the popular media is writing about this topic.
Here’s a thought I had in the very middle of my talk: For better or worse, none of what I talk about when it comes to this topic is rocket science. There’s rarely a need—given that my intention is to encourage people to consider leaving animals out of their diet—to ascend into high-intellectual ether. Understanding that sentient animals suffer when they are raised primarily to be slaughtered and commodified does not require a grounding in Bentham or Kant or Singer or Regan. It just requires empathy and compassion, qualities we seem to have, at times, on our better days, in abundance. When an astute member of the audience noted that, even if farm animals were pampered while on the happy farm, they’re still killed about a tenth of the way through their lives, thus being denied 90 percent of their potential happiness, I think people (lots of omnivores in the crowd) intuitively get why that’s wrong. Whether it’s wrong enough to inspire behavioral change is another story. But at least the ball gets rolling.
I greatly enjoyed post-talk discussions about the ethics of domestication without slaughter, the strengths and weaknesses of the land ethic, the inherent flaws in conventional activism, and the appropriateness of the slavery analogy to the prospect of animal liberation. These discussions played out at a vegan restaurant called “Invitation” [in-vee-tah-see-on], where I ate a perfectly spiced curry dish and drank a glass of white wine before going down for a few hours of sleep and getting back to the airport, where everyone seems to be exceedingly polite given the obscenely early hour of the day (or any hour, for that matter).
Leaving my taxi this morning, my exceedingly polite taxi driver, who spoke French as his first language, told me to “have a good success” as I climbed out of the car. I told him, “thank you, I already have. And you have a good success, too”
Contemplating the human-animal relationship in both historical and ethical terms can be alternatively liberating and daunting. It’s liberating because we get to enjoy the intellectually indulgent experience of seeing a single matter through different lenses, sort of as if you were standing in front of a mysterious painting and looking at it with the help of an art historian and a chemist. At the same time it’s daunting because, well, when we apply today’s ethics to yesterday’s historical moments we cannot presume that the twain shall meet. Like dropping an i-phone into a Neanderthal cave, what use, we should ask, would such people have for this trinket of modernity. Are our principles ethical trinkets to another era?
In my “Eating Meat in America” class, we’re reading Virginia Anderson’s brilliant history of colonial Virginia called Creatures of Empire. In it, she argues quite convincingly that the dominant English ideology of the day considered humans superior to animals by virtue of their divinely chosen status as humans. Godly justification so deeply infused their worldview that any notion that humans might not be inherently superior to non-humans never entered their collective mind. Snippets of animal rights ideas might have dropped like shiny pearls from the utterances of Euclid and Pythagorus, but these ideas were immaterial in a settlement society that couldn’t count on its next meal. Equally irrelevant to the colonists was the manitou that shaped the Native American view of animals. Cultural sensitivity wasn’t a big value in the context of colonization.
So: context matters. But when you adhere to principles as if they were timeless, context isn’t supposed to matter, right? Truths are supposed to be timeless. But what if they fit like a square peg in the round hole of the past? Did the fact that the English who settled seventeenth-century Virginia completely lacked any reference point for treating animals with basic rights exonerate them from treating animals as if they lacked those rights? Can we cast judgment on people for not following an ideology they did not know existed? Or, can we subject our current beliefs about the human-animal relationship to the vagaries of the best and concede that, while they make sense now, they did not make sense then?
How, in other words, do we think ethically and historically at once?