Archive for the ‘Impressions’ Category
In her recent op-ed salvo, this one in the Wall Street Journal, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian rancher (which, really, strikes me as kind of like an “Amish carpet bomber”) tells us that, in fact, a global consensus of environmental science has it all backwards and that she, again, a rancher, wants us to know that raising beef—and not just on grass (but especially so)—has environmental consequences that have not only been overstated by this global cabal of science people, but, hold up your steak knives in solidarity, “is an environmental gain for the planet.”
Read all about it here.
Let’s all catch our breath before proceeding to the main point I’d like to make about this op-ed. We know things, right? Like, empirically. We’ve known since the 1960s, empirically speaking, that beef production wreaks substantial ecological havoc on our limited natural resources and we know that, since then, since the population of humans has doubled, that, viz empirically, it’s not only factory farms that cause the trouble, but even small grass-fed operations run by good-looking environmentally conscious “stewards of the land,” and we know this because very serious research has shown that not only is grass-fed beef ecologically damaging but it can be worse so. To repeat, we know things. Even if not a rancher or a scientist or lawyer, we know them.
Ms. Niman sort of—it’s there, read the tone—mocks those who know things. She draws our attention to critics who worry about “ bovine burps, flatulence and even breath for climate change.” That, folks, is pure-grade, first-order-Fox News industry-strategizing for spinning the science to make its followers seem like ditto-head nitwits who believe anything you tell them to confirm a bias.
But what’s really real here? Those farts and burps and deep bovine exhalations might sound silly—but, unless I’ve been led by the nose into a hall of mirrors by four decades of good science—they matter. Live animals are resource intensive beings. They breath and burp and pass gas. Methane, anyone? Niman eventually gets there, assuring us that there are ways to mitigate methane’s impact and that, rest assured, how to do so is “now under vigorous study by agricultural colleges around the world.” Well.
One thing that I’ve learned over a decade of writing about this stuff is that it’s important to be charitable. Of course, deep down I want to be as right as anyone. I want the evidence to fit my bias as much as the next op-ed scribbler. But I now work more than ever before to be charitable, fair minded. That said, I simply cannot find a way to reconcile Hahn’s—again and again, a rancher’s— opening plea for us to thumb our nose at deep conventional scientific wisdom and then spend the rest of the article asking us to trust the science she has spelunked from netherworld caves of research, science that serves her financial bottom line.
Which takes me to my big point. If you study the way Hahn arranges her evidence, and examine the way she dresses it up rhetorically, it may ring a bell. You may discern a familiar pattern at work and, especially if you are a liberal-enviro-type who knows stuff but would love to have an excuse/justification/WSJ verification for eating beef, you may eventually find yourself slightly queasy by the creeping (and, actually, creepy) realization that the pattern at work is one that has been brilliantly honed by none other than: global warming deniers.
Yeah, those people. And this is my big problem with Hahn’s op-ed. It is, in its rejection of science such as that summarized here and reified by thousands of other studies, it engages in the populist politics of distrust, a weird and very American sort of suspicion-mongering that has caused immense damage to public discourse and the enlightened policies it can, in moments of clarity, engender.
My forthcoming book, The Modern Savage, comes out January 6. The book attempts to expose the cruelty that prevails on small, non-industrial, “humane” farms much in the way that Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation exposed the cruelty that prevails on factory farms.
Advance reviews have been optimistic. Peter Singer writes, “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.” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson writes, “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.” Sherry Colb, of Cornell Law School, says, “James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound.” Paul Shapiro, of HSUS, writes, “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.”
Many of the ideas I develop in the book originated here, on this blog, in conversation with you. If you intend to buy the book, or buy extras for friends, please do so here. My publisher tells me the more pre-orders the better. Please also take the time to spread the message via social media.
Friends, I poured it all into this book. For you, I am deeply grateful.
PS: all those who pre-order more than one book will get a free subscription to The Pitchfork.
The more I learn about contemporary agriculture of all forms the more I’m convinced that the decision to avoid eating animals is a limited response to the myriad problems of modern farming. I’m in no way suggesting that eating exclusively plants should be abandoned as a strategy of reform. But I am saying that, in and of itself, its promises are modest at best. We need a new perspective on the issue, one that thinks bigger about agriculture’s future.
Begin with the common vegan claim that a vegan diet does not harm animals. This claim, which typically means to say that vegans do not intentionally harm domesticated or hunted animals, overlooks the fact that untold numbers of sentient little creatures—I’m excluding insects here (more on them soon)—are sliced and diced and crushed to harvest our plant-based diet. It also overlooks the fact that vegetable farmers rarely suffer larger animals—say, deer—from cutting into their profits. Lead injections are par for the course on the happy veggie farm, as are insecticides (even organic) that harm more than insects.
As much as we would like to sidestep this issue, vegans cannot declare themselves free from harm and tuck into their tofu. In fact, there may be cases in which raising and killing and eating one large farm animal, instead of clearing the land to raise kale and kill vermin, is—at least in utilitarian terms—less harmful to the animal world. I’m not at all saying eating domesticated animals is a choice we should make, but I am noting that there are arguments to be made that it could reduce animal suffering. That’s tough medicine to take, but we need to at least swallow it.
Many of you have no doubt heard some version or other of this objection. I think it needs to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken it, if for no other reason than the fact that it nudges us towards a radically new way to conceptualize food and the human-animal relationship. Again—I’m not going to any way suggest eating domesticated of hunted creatures. Instead, I’m going to ask you to think in a more radical way about animals, food, and agriculture; more radical than just saying no to eating critters.
It’s comforting and relatively easy to give up animal products and declare our hands clean. But they’re only clean in the way that the person who fails to pull the switch to kill one person instead of five in the famous trolley experiment has clean hands. As it now stands, anyone who eats has animal blood on her hands. So if deciding to give up animal products is not enough, or only a symbolic gesture in light of the problem’s severity, what are we supposed to do? What are our options.
We must be advocates, of course. But we have to maximize our advocacy. I would argue that advocating a plant-based diet is meaningless if it’s not complemented by an equal, if not stronger, advocacy for climate controlled agriculture. That is, vegans who think they are helping animals by not eating them would be much more effective if they enjoined veganism with advocacy for a farming future that could realistically eliminate all animal harm. Growing food indoors, where condition are carefully monitored, is quite possible if we’re willing to give up row crops and eat a diversity of whole plants.
As agriculture now stands, we cannot assume that not eating animals alone would necessarily reduce animal suffering. Expanding acreage in kale would expand the acreage where squirrels and bunnies and mice and birds and deer are also killed. Move agriculture inside—that is, radically rethink and advocate and invest in a new form of agriculture—and the game really changes in a way that improves the lives of animals, not to mention that of humans who, having decided not to channel our resources into domesticated animals can start cultivating the thousands of nutrient dense crops we now neglect
I would even suggest—tentatively—that this agricultural future could include room for eating animals at the margins, where the ethics of killing sentient animals intentionally don’t apply. I’ve written extensively about roadkill as a viable dietary supplement and I’m as eager as ever to support that option. I’ve also written about eating insects and, although not as convinced, I feel fairly sure that this could be an acceptable dietary choice in a future agricultural system that did minimal harm to animals, humans, and the environment. We should, in essence, eat like bonobos.
These ideas are at the core of a book proposal I’m now writing on rethinking the meaning and form of agriculture for a sustainable future. Be assured: raising and hunting animals for the purposes of consumption are not part of that future. Eating animals might be. Vegan activism has a role, but not nearly as essential a role as a new way of advocating for farming, one that would be best for the animal world and the environment.
Humans have been practicing agriculture for less than a 10th of our contemporary existence. Who’s to say we got it right the first time? It’s time to start over. Not eating animals raised or killed for food should be a starting point. But it’s not the be all and end all of a future that’s based on just food. To advocate for veganism as a singular path to justice for animals in agriculture is misguided. There so much more involved.
“Just be compassionate.” So goes the practically mantra-like phrase popular among those who advocate for animal justice. It seems to be an unassailable advice, a perfect lead rope to the land of reform. “Expand the circle of compassion”!
It becomes complicated, though, when considered in light of another fundamental quality of social life: justice. Thing is, it’s possible to be compassionate and, at the same time, unjust.
A dear friend applies for a job. You are head of hiring. A better-qualified applicant sends a resume across the transom but, because you know your friend is in financial straits and would be greatly relieved by this job offer, you give the job to your friend. That’s compassionate. But it’s also unjust.
Matters get complicated here because compassion is a felt emotion while justice is an understood concept. That’s overstating the distinction a bit, but still, emotions sometimes lead us to just decisions but they are as likely to lead us away from them. I know that my emotions have caused trouble on more than one occasion.
It happens. I recall my former neighbor, the owner of Max, a massive Weimaraner dog, defending Max—“oh you’re still a good boy Maxie”—after he was appropriately deemed an “out of control beast” by a neighborhood kid who Max had yanked off his bike. My neighbor’s canine compassion—however biased—outweighed the justice of a due apology.
Compassion, in other words, is never enough. There must be moral justice, too, and that requires thinking critically—often disinterestedly so—about justifying moral choice. On many occasions, readers will suggest that The Pitchfork not get overly tangled in the intricacy of ideas, lest we lose sight of the bedrock message of compassion. But those ideas, however abstract or entangled, keep compassion on target, maximizing its potential while protecting it against itself.
So I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads “Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them.” You could say that’s a sign of compassion, and it is. But it’s also a statement that everyone who advocates for animal interests needs to be able to justify without emotion and, yes, without compassion. Do that, and then your heart flow with love for the creatures who, by virtue of justice, we choose to respect as a moral imperative.
Loyal readers: I’m on the verge of launching The Daily Pitchfork, a website dedicated to promoting accuracy and context in the field of animal journalism. What follows are some tentative standards that we’re asking journalists to consider when they write about animals in the mainstream media. Please provide feedback, suggestions, and critiques. Also, if you are interested in doing volunteer work for The Daily Pitchfork please send me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Daily Pitchfork’s Basic Standards For Animal Journalism (DRAFT):
1) Many animals are the sentient subjects of a life. They experience pleasure and pain. Journalists writing about these animals must—if only implicitly—acknowledge the reality of their consciousness. When they do so through the perspective of animal advocates, they must use the proper terminology to describe the advocate (not everyone is an “animal rights activist”).
2) Many animals—particularly farm animals—are the products of extensive genetic manipulation. Failure to recognize animals’ genetic situation fosters basic misunderstandings about their behavior. Journalists writing about these animals are obligated to frame their lives in the relevant genetic histories, noting when appropriate how that history shapes an animal’s behavior.
3) The animals we eat and wear have to be slaughtered for these purposes. The nature of this process varies from backyard butchery to industrialized slaughter. Journalists writing about the life cycle of farm animals have an obligation to note the reality of slaughter, provide some insight into what it entails, and, when appropriate, illuminate the discomfort consumers and animals might have with the slaughtering process.
4) The industrialization of animal agriculture has been, and continues to be, exposed for its unacceptable environmental and ethical practices. At the same time, journalists have increasingly turned their attention to non-industrial (small, local, humane) alternatives. Writers must evaluate the environmental and ethical nature of these alternatives on their own terms rather than in comparison to the industrial models. They must do so, moreover, with the support of peer reviewed research rather than farmers’ claims to “sustainability” or “humaneness.”
5) Animals have perspectives on their own lives. They cannot, however, articulate them for us the way other oppressed groups can. Journalists nonetheless have a duty to consider those perspectives. Doing so does not require anyone to adopt “an animal rights” position, but only to make a charitable effort—drawing on the work of animal ethology when possible—to give a voice to the voiceless.
In the past week—in personal discussions and in the Twittersphere— I’ve heard three claims about killing animals that I’d like to address and, I hope, challenge. There’s nothing unusual in these objections—in fact they’re all pretty trite—but that’s all the better reason to deal with them forthrightly.
The first came on a run with friend who conveyed a story about her cousin thinking it was justifiable, and even required, for humans to cull invasive species. The specific animal in question, as is often the case in Texas, is the feral hog. These aggressive creatures wreak havoc on agricultural acreage and eastern woodlands across the Lone Star state. Those who hunt hogs often do so under the guise of conservation. They are, they insist, serving the public good by keeping the ecosystem in check. My first reaction to this justification is that humans have historically proven incapable of replicating the largely hidden complexity of nature and, as a result, any attempt to restore the “natural” balance is a fool’s errand marked by hubris. But my real objection comes down to something quite different: the proper relationship between resource consumption and punishment.
Here’s how I see it: it’s commonplace for certain sentient creatures to consume a disproportionate share of available resources. When I say sentient creatures I am of course including humans. It is often noted that the elderly and infirm consume an overwhelming majority of medical care resources. They are, in this respect, a sort of invasive species in the health care system. Their intention is hardly to be this way, but circumstances usually beyond their control have placed them in a resource-hogging position. Anyone who assumes that sentience is a baseline for moral consideration would, if I’m right here, have to accept the justifiable and intentionally administered death of the elderly and infirm (in hospitals) if they were also going to accept the intentional death of invasive animals as a just move. I’m not saying invasive species aren’t a pain in the ass. I’m just saying that certain groups of humans, usually by no choice of their own, are also a pain in the ass. Sometimes we need to call on compassion, if not respect for basic rights (and I realize this can get complicated vis-à-vis land rights), to help us back off and deal.
The second claim came from a tweet sent by Andrew Gunther. After he posted a celebratory pic of himself with colleagues who had devised a bunch of animal welfare standards, I asked: ”How do you justify caring for animal welfare and then killing the animal?” The back and forth went on for a bit and then Gunther dropped this little rhetorical gem: “Death is not a welfare issue. Quality of life is a welfare issue.” Wha??!! After I picked my jaw off the floor, I wondered: are we this delusional in our logic? Or, as agribusiness does so well, have we started to sway to the rhythm of our own slogans?
Let’s clarify. Gunther is saying—and I do wish he was alone, but he’s not—that while sentience obligates moral consideration, that moral consideration does not have to be be consistent. In other words, if you treat an animal well you are dutifully fulfilling a moral obligation but, when you want to eat the animal, you can toss duty and moral consideration out the barn door and send the poor beast to an untimely and callous death. Needless to say, this inconsistency renders the moral obligation meaningless and, in turn, Gunter’s supposed welfare concerns arbitrary. Gunther says death is “not a welfare issue.” He could not be more wrong. Death is THE ultimate welfare issue. If you kill a creature intentionally and unnecessarily, after all, you are denying his ability to enjoy the very welfare scheme that Gunther otherwise advocates as essential to an animal’s life. Point being, if sentience is a baseline for moral obligation (and Gunther’s interest in welfare per se proves his adherence to this premise), then it would be okay to treat any dependent creature well—your kids, your pets, your elderly parents—but then kill them when it struck your perverted fancy. Because, you know, death is not a welfare issue.
The final bee in my bonnet came in an essay by the English fox-hunting philosopher Roger Scruton. We read it in my “Eating Animals in America” class at Texas State (which I teach with the philosopher Bob Fischer). Scruton, who works with a fairly loose usage of virtue ethics, argues that if we did not eat farm animals they would not be here to enjoy the lives that they deserve to enjoy (assuming, as he does, they are raised on pasture). Scruton is no Gunther. He’s a deeply thoughtful philosopher. This claim, as such, is thus trickier than it sounds to refute. I boil the issue down to this question: when humans control the genetic fate of “a being that is the subject of a life” (Regan) does that control confer on humans permission to use that being as a means to an unnecessary (and violent) end? If yes, then wouldn’t a dog breeder be justified in killing dogs when it served a perceived interest to do so? Or a parent kill his kids when they pissed him off? Neither beings would have come into existence without the human choice to bring them into existence.
So why is it any different with farm animals?
As I continue the often uncomfortable process of subjecting my beliefs about eating animals to systematic scrutiny, I find myself seeing aspects of animal activism in a new, and not always flattering, light. Lately, for example, I have found myself getting frustrated with the overly simplistic claims that serve to justify the vegan way of life. Please note that I have zero moral tolerance for raising animals to consume them when other options are available. That said, I’m realizing that many vegan justifications are just as thoughtlessly reductive as are the carnivorous claims that vegans find so dimwitted: “we were meant to eat meat,” “we’re at the top of the food chain,” “it is the animals purpose to be food,” and so on. And we don’t want that.
So when I read something like (and I’m choosing a random example of late), “Our relationship with other animals should be one of awe and reverence, not one of use,” I think, well that’s nice. But then when I really think about it on a deeper level, I realize that this is an aphorism that obscures a far more complicated reality. First, on what grounds do I have an obligation to look at other creatures with awe and reverence? What if the animal does not behave in a way deserving of these reactions? Should I revere my awe-inspiring dog for rifling though my trash? To do so would actually be to objectify them by denying them any form of free will, to release them from any consequence of their actions, with automatic awe and reverence freezing these creatures into a romanticized category not unlike a classic painting or novel. Awe and respect too easily becomes mindless glorification.
Likewise, the question of use is far more complicated than the aphorism suggests. Of course, the intended meaning is to not use animals by yoking them to a plow or churning them into a burger—but that’s exploitation, a form of use. But use per se is unavoidable. We use each other—humans and humans, animals and animals, animals and humans—all the time. To remove ourselves from the matrix of use, for the evident purpose of experiencing disengaged awe and reverence, is to exonerate ourselves from the very hard work of developing genuine relationships with animals, ones that demand us to deal with a range of differences and similarities—a matrix of uses— to find common ground on a set of relationship “rules.” If you live with a companion animal, you know how hard this could be. I use my pets; they use me. To sever that bond is, once again, to objectify animals.
I’ll stop, but maybe you get my point. If you think it’s wrong to exploit animals, you have an obligation to make those thoughts known and appreciated. But when we do so through sloganeering rather than on the basis of common sense, moral clarity, and logical consistence, our chances of having an impact on broad cultural change is significantly reduced. We’re just firing very loud blanks in a war of words.
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>)
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.
I’ve been doing some historical research lately. One of the rewards that comes from investigating the details of 18th-century agriculture is that an unexpected discovery can cast doubt on common assumptions about the way agriculture works today (or is supposed to work). One of the more tenacious beliefs common in contemporary agriculture is the idea that the best way to keep soil healthy is to graze animals on it. Defenders of rotational grazing insist they’re farming the way nature intended us to farm, and the way farmers have been doing it for centuries. It was thus more than a little gratifying to stumble upon the following account, published in Maryland in March of 1789, by a sheep farmer, who was not so convinced of this received wisdom:
So far as dung improves soil, it ought to be allowed for; and this is for all dung applied from winter littering or summer folding; but how far, if at all, it is to be prized, when slowly dropt about in pasturing, is a question. Beasts constantly ramming the soil of a pasture into a close compact state, until it more than is commonly apprehended. That the foot of the beast does more damage to soil than his dung so dispersed and exposed to exaltation does good, is probable from several instances related by serious good people of clover fields having been divided, and the one half pastured on, all the summer, the other mown twice and both sown at the same time with wheat on one plowing, when the mown gave considerably the best crops of wheat. Let us suppose a lay of grass has been left unpastured, and even uncut, for three years; another like field at the same time is pastured close as is usual during the same three years; now let the farmer walk into these and observe how mellow, light, and lively the one is,–how firm the other. Whish of these will he prefer for a crop of grain? . . .It them may be suspected that pasturing doth not improve the soil; that on the whole it even injures it.
It really makes you wonder in what other ways we’ve twisted the agrarian past to fulfill today’s utopian visions, or at least on what sources what we’ve based our contemporary ideas.