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?
I collaborated on this piece with Kip Anderson, co-director (with Keegan Kuhn) of Cowspiracy.
At this very moment, thousands of environmentalists are marching through the streets of New York. They do so to undertake what environmentalist Bill McKibben calls “the biggest demonstration in the history of the climate movement.” The driving motivation for the first People’s Climate March is a fiercely grassroots message as inspiring as it is true: “movements can shift political power—in fact, little else ever does.”
History demonstrates that McKibben is correct—but with one critical caveat: the movement must be focused on the right targets. It is on this point that today’s march, for all its passion, could lead the environmental movement down a jagged path.
Modern environmentalism assumes that our ecological fall from grace began a century ago with the transition to fossil fuels. This assumption explains the movement’s focus on gas pipelines and university divestment from fossil fuel multinationals. While it’s certainly true that our reliance coal, oil, and gas remains endemic to our current ecological predicament, our original environmental sin is rooted in an older and more fundamental transition: the domestication of animals.
You often hear environmentalists claim that there are too many people on planet Earth–about 7 billion. Well, the industrialization of agriculture has culminated in a global agricultural system that annually domesticates and slaughters an astounding 70 billion land animals. Producing over 300 million tons of meat a year arguably represents the most destructive misallocation of natural resources in all human history, one that contributes disproportionately to the core issues that The People’s Climate March will address: global warming, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.
The most recent research on these issues pretty much ruins your steak dinner. We now know that at least 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to the production of land-based animals. Livestock are the leading cause of methane and nitrous oxide emissions—gasses phenomenally more potent than carbon dioxide. Scientists predict that the livestock sector alone might account for 70 percent of the future greenhouse gas emissions expected to raise the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees. If we allow business as usual to proceed, emissions from agriculture will rise another 80 percent by 2050.
When it comes to biodiversity loss, domesticated critters are equally culpable. No less than 75 percent of the planet’s agricultural land (30 percent of the world’s ice free surface) is used to raise animals for food. To really understand how this allocation endangers natural ecosystems, one need look no further than the Brazilian rainforest, where cattle are the direct cause of 70 percent of deforestation. When the global population hits 9 billion, as it’s predicted to do by 2050, if we all ate a western diet, 70-100% more cropland will be needed for agricultural production.
Then there’s the issue that’s on every environmentalist’s mind these days: water. From the perspective of fresh water, animal agriculture is inherently irresponsible. After all, the water footprint of any domesticated animal-based product is larger than that of any plant with the same nutritional worth. Plant-based food requires 8 times less water to produce than the caloric equivalent of an animal-based food. Our ongoing failure to acknowledge this inefficiency has resulted in feed production that uses 27 percent of irrigation water in the United States. If we do nothing, the water used globally to produce animal feed will double by 2050. This would make today’s water situation look like a period of abundance.
Environmentalists hate this news. To the limited extent that eco-leaders have addressed these concerns, they’ve suggested we eat animals raised under non-industrial conditions. Free range, humane, antibiotic free—that kind of stuff. But for all the positive attention lavished on these so-called “regenerative” or “holistic” systems—systems that liberate animals from confinement and place them on pasture—there’s no evidence that they would work on global scale. Animals being animals, their impact on land, water, and air quality would remain greater than that of plants. After interviewing Allan Savory, the world’s leading proponent of pasture-based animal agriculture, The Guardian’s George Monbiot concluded: ”He makes claims about his techniques which are not only implausible but appear to be scientifically impossible.”
Here’s something that not at all implausible: transitioning to a plant-based diet would have a profoundly positive ecological impact. Eliminating domesticated animals for food would allow us to re-wild hundreds of millions of acres of land currently in production. Research shows that, in the UK, consuming just 50 percent less meat and replacing it with plant-based food would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent. On the level of the individual, the average meat eater would more than halve the carbon footprint of his diet by eliminating meat altogether. This option requires no leap of faith—just a dietary shift. It’s the most accessible option we have. And it happens to be the best.
Despite the preponderance of evidence that a plant-based diet would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve substantial amounts of water, and stem habitat destruction, leading environmental organizations have proven reluctant to advocate such a transition. But if we truly care about the environment, this convenient “we don’t tell people what to do” attitude must change. If the modern environmental movement neglects to recognize the connection between climate change and the billions of animals we raise each year for food, it will wake up to find it has missed the swiftest and most elegant solution at hand while devouring our way into a climate crisis. Today, as we implore global leaders to take action on climate change, let us not forget that the answer to today’s environmental crisis is directly in front us, right on our plates.
Typically, vegans don’t care much for locavores. The gist of their discontent is a largely correct sense that locavores—who, you gotta agree, have invested themselves in what’s become little more than a marketing slogan—use food miles to obscure animal and environmental ethics. It’s as if “the local” launders taste onto selfish palates to spite the ecosystem, much less basic ethics.
I was reminded of this relationship after a reporter called (well, technically, I called him so he could record me) to discuss the pros and, more so, cons of making a fetish of the local. As I spoke, it occurred to me that, nine years after writing a book challenging the “go local” food ethic, I was never more vehement in my opposition to the local food movement. For a while, I’ll admit, I thought maybe I’d overreached with my initial argument. Now I wish I’d hit harder.
What fuels my fire is all the “I’m eating the head of a local pig so all is cool and awesome” attitude that pervades this remarkably thoughtless movement. Ink yourself into oblivion, grow your beard to a caveman chic density, rent in a gentrifying area, spout some Pollanesque anti-industrial bromide, move to Austin, and you, carnivore, are exonerated from taking the time to consider the severe ethical implications of killing an animal who, in Tom Regan’s terms, “is a subject of a life.” Probably more so than you are aware of your own subjectivity, you jerk.
So, yeah. I got fired up after the interview, recognizing as I did how casually we dismiss the interests of sentient creatures under the guise of our own self-declared noble choice. What needs to be acknowledged in this moral delusion is this: it does not matter where your animal’s ethically unjustified death happened. Your ethically unjustified animal death remains ethically unjustified if it happened half a world away or in your own backyard. It’s still unjustified. An animal does not care where it’s slaughtered. It cares about not being slaughtered.
So, to demand what I’ve been demanding of meat eaters for almost a decade: justify it.
As conscientious carnivores go about the noble business of supporting local, small, nonindustrial, and humane animal farms, the international exchange of animal products proceeds with nary a pause. Exploring the underworld of global meat exchange tends to quash any hope for responsible alternatives to industrial animal production. At the intersection of Neoliberalism and meatonomics is a vivid reminder that our trendy support of boutique animal farms has no bearing on the problem at large. The problem at large, really, could care less about your locally raised pork cheeks.
More often than not, Chinese demand drives the quest for flesh and all that its production requires. To wit, representatives from the English livestock industry are currently invading China to assess market potential for English sheep. The Chinese have more sheep than any nation in the world. Still, they can’t come close to meeting growing consumer demand. The English are happy to halt the reforestation of British uplands to help the Chinese meet their meat. In China, meat consumption has spiked from 4 kg per person in 1961 to 57 kg per person in 2011. You can count on it: the English will do anything, including degrading their own landscape, to ensure that the Chinese don’t want for righteous lamb chops.
Another global commodity has brought together the Irish and the Vietnamese: pork. The precipitating event came when Vietnamese veterinary authorities opened the door for frozen pork from Ireland. Vietnam has long been identified by Irish officials as a “priority target”—I love how industry uses such verbiage– and the announcement of this deal led to the immediate opening of five Irish pig processing plants dedicated exclusively to supplying Vietnam. Jobs! Currently 80-90 percent of Vietnamese pork comes from backyard herds. That’s about to change. You’ll see it happen as Ireland gets greener.
Yet another example that killing sentient animals and destroying the environment fosters international bonds involves Denmark and Russia. The unifying ingredient here is salmon. Russia, which has banned salmon imports from much of the west, has turned to the Faroe Islands for its salmon stash. The Faroese, who were formerly banned from importing to Russia, are as happy as a fish in water: “We’re in the opposite situation from before Christmas,” said a Faroe Island official. “Before, everyone could sell to Russia except us [due to Russian bans on certain Faroese trawlers]. Now, only we can.” The Russians have also asked the Faroese to exploit their waters for mackerel and herring while they’re at it.
Meanwhile, the Amazon is getting more excited about this international group hug. Driven in particular by European and Chinese demand for cheap soy feed for their livestock, Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso is dedicating more and more forest land–and thus carbon, water, and nutrients–to animals confined in Europe and China. Such “resource flows”—yet another one of those whacked industry terms—come with costs. Said one team of researchers: ”Our estimated environmental footprints suggest potential regional impacts on climate, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and a possible incremental soil phosphorous saturation that could increase the risk of eutrophication in the long term.” Translation: bad.
And there’s nothing that your happy meat can do about it. All meat must be stigmatized. Not just industrial.
Imagine living in the 18th century. Almost everything about your physical existence would make immediate and intuitive sense. Your food, your shoes, your clothes, your transportation, your garden, the mill that churned your flour, your house—these would hold few mysteries in terms of how they came to be and how they operated. Spiritual conundrums might haunt you. But not the logistics of the physical world. It was all levers and pulleys and other manifestations of forces visible.
Now imagine the physicality of your existence today. Can you really explain how your iphone works? Email? Do I have any idea how this post will appear in hundreds of inboxes of people I don’t know? How does an elevator operate? A car engine? The cloud? The bomb? My toilet? The gun that killed Mike Brown?
It’s safe to say that at some point in the twentieth century modern humans went from engaging with the physical world from a position of understanding to a position of trust. Blind trust. The first books I ever read were called Tell Me Why, but I remain essentially clueless about the inner mechanisms of the objects that surround me. Every day I ask “why,” shrug my shoulders, send my emails, grab the wheel, and view the details of my physical life as comprehensible as Chinese algebra. I just stand back and marvel at it. Or I just hit send.
I wonder if this habit of blind acceptance of technological miracle-making results in a way of thinking that blunts our ability to appreciate the significance of animal cognition? We routinely hear stories about the amazing feats accomplished by sentient animals—feats that clearly involve substantial cognition and emotional awareness—but we fail to reflect on the deeper implications of those findings, much less alter our behavior accordingly. If you learned that a pig could play a video game and kept eating bacon, you’d be typical in your response to new information about the hidden lives of animals. Wrong, but typical.
To situate this moral failure to act in the context of our alienation from the material world’s more complex but utilitarian objects might seem arbitrary. But my thought is that it’s not. After all, it does not seem altogether unreasonable to hypothesize that a gradual acceptance of magic as the basis of our material existence—and that’s what my iphone is to me: magic—would predispose one to conclude that any feat of cognition or emotional expression by an animal would be similarly magical. And thus not worth trying to understand, much less act upon.
As you may have heard, Whole Foods is establishing a pilot program to sell rabbit meat. Take a moment and read the company’s welfare standards here and you’ll quickly realize that the rabbits can be produced under conditions very close to industrial circumstances. For example, “Although outdoor access is not required . . . .” And so on.
Interestingly, the welfare regulations outlined in the link above abruptly end when it comes to slaughter methods. Transport is covered: “Transport must not exceed 8 hours.” But nothing about the killing itself. This omission should raise a red flag. Surely, the “harvesting” is regulated, right?
Nope. Rabbit meat falls under state inspection. In Texas you can apply for an inspection exemption. For example, here’s this from the Texas Department of Health Services: “Anyone that raises poultry or rabbits, and slaughters 10,000 birds or rabbits (or combination thereof) per year or less may opt to apply for a Grant of Poultry Exemption instead of a Grant of Inspection. These products may be sold on the farm or through locations other than the farm.” Other states allow the same (how many I’ve not yet researched).
Whole Foods in general relies on Temple Grandin’s regulations to ensure the following:
- Healthy condition of animals upon arrival
- Calm, efficient unloading procedures
- Animals handled with patience, skill and respect
- Clean, well-designed facility ensuring quiet movement of the animals
- Appropriate flooring to ensure the animals’ stability
- Stringent stunning efficacy requirements
Again, though, note that there’s nothing on process of slaughter itself. To discover if there were any regulations regarding how rabbits were dispatched, I searched around the extension agency literature. Here’s advice from an undated Texas A&M report:
“The preferred method of slaughtering a rabbit is by dislocating its neck. With the left hand hold the animal by its hind legs. Place the thumb of the right hand on the neck just behind the ears, with the fingers extended under the chin. Push down on the neck with the right hand, stretching the animal. Press down with the thumb. Then with a quick movement, raise the animal’s head and dislocate the neck.”
A recent Mississippi extension agent recommends this:
“The rabbit is held firmly by the rear legs and head; it is stretched full length. Then with a hard, sharp pull, the head is bent backward to dislo- cate the neck. The rabbit can also be struck a hard, quick blow to the skull behind the ears. A blunt stick or side of the hand is commonly used to incapacitate the rabbit. Both methods quickly render the rabbit unconscious.”
To be sure, there are rabbit slaughterers out there who really want the slaughter to be done properly, because if you screw up, you know, the meat won’t taste very good. Raising-rabbits.com warns:
“Any stress during the butchering process can result in the release of adrenaline and other endocrine hormones associated with the animal’s flight response. These hormones negatively affect the flavor of the rabbit meat, and will toughen the meat.”
It then instructs you how to kill a rabbit with a broomstick.
Last month I was fortunate be on Our Hen House’s TV program in Brooklyn (that’s not me above, but I appear about 21 minutes in). Mariann and Jasmin asked terrific questions, gave me ample time to answer, and allowed me to present many of the ideas that I develop in The Modern Savage. I think you will be impressed both by the content and quality of production.
My forthcoming book, The Modern Savage, is now available for pre-order (links are below). The book provides a sustained and deeply critical examination of small-scale nonindustrial animal agriculture, exposing this generally celebrated alternative to factory farming as riddled with inherent ethical, environmental, and economic problems. If you plan to buy the book, doing so now rather than after publication would be very helpful. I’m deeply appreciative.
Ironies abound in our treatment of animals. Melissa Cronin at The Dodo reported today that “The CEO of a catering giant will be stepping down after video footage revealed him kicking a doberman puppy in a Vancouver, Canada elevator. Des Hague was the CEO of Centerplate, a $6 million company with over 350 clients, many of them major sports stadiums.”
The public outrage dictating the resignation of a corporate giant–the guy’s full name is Desmond Hague– is a noteworthy display of justice for sentient creatures. One is inevitably put in the mind of Michael Vick and the remarkable public censure that enveloped him after he was busted for running a dog fighting ring in 2007. Although one should never underestimate the motivating power of simple self-righteous condemnation, I think it’s safe to say that the hammer of public opinion came down on this CEO-dog abuser for the basic reason that we know causing gratuitous suffering to an animal is whacked.
Recall, though, that this man was the CEO of a catering firm, one whose menu includes every kind of animal-based product you could ever want for your event. Here’s one of its menus. So, it seems only fair to ask: why wasn’t this man taken to the woodshed much earlier? He was, after all, profiting from the sale of animals who were not only abused, but slaughtered so his firm could rake in millions. What some nameless and faceless low-wage worker did to those animals in an abattoir doesn’t compare to this CEO’s crazed outburst against his poor dog.
The fact that the vast majority of people calling for the CEO’s head would have happily eaten from one of his catering menus confirms something disturbing. Not only is our moral consideration of animals arrestingly situational, but we lack the ability to disentangle context from principle. Place some salt and pepper besides a cloth napkin and fine silver, arrange the plates in a circle at a convention, bond with friends over the steak on your plate, and all is fine. Kick a dog in a lift and your a pile of shit.
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.