Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Ethics of Eating Meat and other tales from the gypped (6/8/08)

I'm eating steak tonight, a good-looking bone-in sirloin from my buddy Farmer Rick, plus it's about fourteen hundred degrees here on this fine, uh, early-June Sunday, so I figured now was as good a time as ever to write something like this. I've never done this, so I'm bound to stumble; it's never been imperative to me to write down, let alone publicly share, my reasons for eating animals. I have over the years simply cultivated certain eating habits based on what I believe is good sense, what is obvious to me. Well, as I get older and see more and more, looking around at folks I know, some of whom I've known closely and dearly a long time, I've gotten more and more confused.

And now there's a movement, or twenty. I remember when being straight-edged, or vegan, or both, was a rare miracle of radicalism. These folks were marginalized (or marginalized themselves, depending on your point of view) and easily recognizable. Since then there's been any number of food and lifestyle movements: there's abstinence, the willpower to be anorexic in pro-starvation websites, and of course the more common recent trends, with "going green" or becoming a "locavore" or the "New American seasonal" movement among top chefs in restaurants. It's getting confusing to me, and everywhere I see lines between groups of people getting drawn into more and more minute spaces; the cubbyholes are shrinking and the number of names on each are getting more isolated from each other. There has been, arguably, as a result less marginalization, but I wonder if there isn't an equal paucity of communication and understanding across groups.

So what I have to say I should make clear is going to be rambling and awkward, in that way that only the confused and the hesitant first-timer can be. It has always been my policy to mind my own business and let others mind theirs when it comes to eating. I've shifted a little the more I read and learn and try to understand, and while I am far from being activistic about anything, let alone food, I at least feel comfortable enough, feel like I've done enough homework to share some small testimony and analysis of why and how I eat the way I do and place myself among others who eat differently in order to understand where they are coming from. But that's just it: I write all this to start a discussion, however awkward and stupid and lopsided my viewpoint may be. I am convinced of nothing--my perspective has shifted markedly in the past ten years when it comes to food--and I don't view this as a right or wrong issue. I want to have a sane, even-voice conversation so I can learn about and understand those about me. Dogmas, ideologues, in other words, need not apply.

Ok, on with it. Here's what I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about the reasons, the basic general reasons, most people list for eating or not eating meat. I've heard a few basic categories, and when I ask vegetarians of all stripes why they chose to give up eating animals, I pose the question as being one of two options: did you stop eating meat for ethical reasons or because you didn't like the taste of it? On the other side, carnivores wrestle with their own inquiries from others, but mostly from within--at least in my own case, I've asked myself countless times the logical endgame question that comes from intelligently thinking about why you eat an animal--namely, are you willing to kill that animal, skin it, gut it, etc. BEFORE you eat it?

Now these are some loaded god-damned questions, if you ask me. And since I asked myself, I'm gonna keep talking on it. On the one hand, posing vegetarianism as an "ethical" choice stuns me, the more I think about it, in that it brings to bear an enormously simplified idea: that is, if you don't eat meat you are doing something "good" and if you are not eating meat you are doing something "bad." Whoa nelly is it a bad idea to think this way, for reasons I'll get into. The carnivore question is loaded in the sense that killing something, and moreover killing something seconhand, is innately BAD, because killing is innately wrong. This depends on your religion to a certain degree--if you're a Hindu or a Buddhist, then, yes, this is the ethical position you take. I am neither of those things, however, and so take a different one, as I assume most of you do in this Christian/Atheist nation.

For me, yes, at this point in time I would be willing to kill an animal and prepare it for consumption. My only example to back this up is fishing, which admittedly is the most chickenshit easy backdoor way to answer this inquiry, as a fish is much smaller and less mammalian than, say, a pig. But nonetheless, I've caught a fish, killed a fish, and gutted a fish. I've whacked a live fish's head off and chummed the waters with it, so I could catch a bigger, more edible fish. In short, I've hunted, and it felt fine. It tasted better. It is enormously satisfying to sit by a river or on the deck of a boat in the late afternoon heading into sunsent, smelling a trout or a catfish cook over a fire in tinfoil--nothing smells like that smell of opening the tastepackage up and smelling the steam vapors laden with flavor. You are smelling, and then you are tasting, the fruits of your labor. You are tasting your sweat, the energy you put into it. And I could understand this when I was eight years old--it is very possible, in fact, that it is BECAUSE I understood this, felt this way, was placed in a hunting environment where it was deemed acceptable and right to kill something yourself and eat it, that I have fewer qualms about eating animals now. I dunno. Let me move on.

For me it, and by "it" I mean the rationale beyond the feelgood scenario I just outlined, has to do with energy and evolution. Let me explain. We've domesticated animals, and we've domesticated plants. Gardens and farms and chicken pens and shepherded flocks and fenced pastures are nothing more than humans expressing their abilities as apex predator to shape their surrounding environment and its creatures to suit their own ends. You can clear land to plant swiss chard and strawberries by the acre, making neat rows in dirt (anyone who's seen a small farm, say ten acres, surrounded by woods, knows there's very little "natural," in the sense of doesn't look manmade, about a farm), or you can keep a herd of animals to munch on grass or grain or bugs, depending on the diet they prefer, so they can get old enough to kill and dress and eat. Or you can hunt and gather--those are two other options, and as far as I can tell the ONLY two options for eating animals, that don't involve domesticating the surrounding environment so that it will nourish us.

There are now two directions I can go from this premise of domestication. The vegetarian in me will go down one of them, and ask, Well, ok. Given that you can either domesticate plants or domesticate animals, and it feels less morally wrong, it feels "better" (in the sense of more guilt-free), it is less complicated feelings-wise, to kill and eat plants than animals, why not simply keep to farms and eliminate animal husbandry from the eating equation? The carnivore in me, who, strangely, also occupies the same brain and soul space as the economist in me, or the Mark Twain view of humanity in me, the skeptic realist (just as the vegetarian in me occupies the same space as the poet in me, the tree-hugger in me, the part of me that wants to raise my own child to love)--I'm offtrack: my carnivore side argues for the natural progression model, and states, quite simply, that things like slaughterhouses and chicken factories or whatever you wanna call them--the industrialization of animal killing for consumption--is just a "natural extension" of a human impulse, the happy matrimony of science, technology, and I'm hungry. Isn't "agriculture," the carnivore economist positivist historian asks, simply the continual advancements of methods to feed more people with less money and resource usage? Is it any less like humanity to line up cattle on an assembly line a la Henry Ford's model than it is to herd goats on a mountaintop, and if one can be done more cheaply in a way that feeds more people than the other, shouldn't we do THAT one?

Not so fast, you two. And here's where context comes into play, and the need for conversation between the two parts of my brain, between and among the different cubbyholes of those who attach themselves to movements, arises. First, to the vegetarian side, I would say this: if we could get in a time machine before years of domestication of animals, then, yes, we could just wipe out all the animal eating and go on our merry way. But we can't, and the fact is, some creatures, like chickens and most breeds of cows and even turkeys, can't do much but BE dependent on us after years and years of human beings selecting for traits that will render them needful of human care (cows have to be milked, chickens have so many predators if introduced into the wild in their current state that it takes about an ounce of reason and imagination to see their imminent extinction). Many animals, like goats, benefit from us herding them--we protect them from predators, we lead them to good food sources. Do I think we should treat all animals this way? Do I even think we should CONTINUE to select for a narrow range of characteristics so that breeds of certain animals become as restricted in their gene pool as to resemble the Amish? No. Absolutely not. In fact, I support efforts to raise heritage or heirloom breeds of pigs; I eat cows that aren't Holsteins and turkeys that aren't the humongous white variety that look oddly more like donald duck than a gobbler. I eat eggs from ALL kinds of chickens; I know this for a fact, as I've asked the egg farmer, Nestor, himself, in order to support animal diversity. But in doing so I cannot ignore that many, many animals now benefit from our interaction with them, and that a symbiotic, humane relationship can exist which results in the human eating the animal.

This is not without complications, or considerations, for me. Pigs, which I have mentioned above, trouble me. They are the animals I am most on the fence about, who I would consider first on my spectrum of not eating (a.k.a. animals I feel bad about killing, with fish being last on that spectrum, poultry like chickens, turkeys, and rabbits and other game being next, and cows being closer to pigs). This is not because pigs can feel pain and other animals can't; I understand all animals can feel pain. It is because pigs, from some accounts I have heard, can sense they are going to die before they are killed. They are aware enough to sense danger, threat, etc. and this suggests that they are more like me than less. Chickens, on the other hand, you can put in a metal cone-sling thingie to calm them down, where they will lay there placidly, waiting for their throats to be cut (I'm taking this from Michael Pollan's experience on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm, which he recounts in The Omnivore's Dilemma. He explains how, standing there with the knife that will slit the chicken's artery in its neck, he notices the chicken's eye is blank, flat, unknowing, and that, if done well, done expertly, without hesitation or missing, the chicken will die without so much as a squawk. Like much death, it is undramatic, absurdly uneventful--the body lies there with a few ruffles while the blood leaks into a metal pail. Now, emptying the guts out....that can get a little intense, but leave that for now.)

In any event, I want to be clear that I'm not set in my opinions, not at all, but that I've worked out some preliminary premises for why I do what I do. Admittedly, I have not killed a chicken, that I have only vicariously experienced it. Admittedly, I eat pigs and cows, while wondering whether it is right. Admittedly, the first bites of rabbit were strange because I couldn't NOT know where my food was coming from, in the sense that I thought I might be eating someone's pet, or Bugs Bunny. But this is good, I think; this is healthy. John Milton claimed in one of his essays that there is no virtue in living without temptation, that virtue untested is anything but, and I agree with him. If I don't continue to know where my animals come from, and don't ignore the blood and death and bones involved in feeding me, then I forget there's a sacrifice, there's a transfer of life-force and energy from them to me, and that forgetting leads to some ugly stuff.

And that brings up the last two things I want to discuss. First, let's get back to my carnivorous rationalizing side, and a response to its question about stockyards and slaughterhouses and meatpacking and even more generally the industrial model for ALL agribusiness, the thing that creates high fructose corn syrup plants and McDonald's burgers with feces in the meat (check out Fast Food nation for investigation that reveals the validity of that claim), and why all this isn't necessarily an inevitable, "natural progression," with positive results. One argument against this is context. There are all sorts of problems with applying the metaphor and mechanism of industry to animals and plants and eating in general. The main one is that this metaphor assumes not only that food is a machine, but that the thing being fed, us, human beings, are machines as well. It works from a model of chemistry, of nutrients, of the belief that oat bran is good and saturated fat is bad, that soil consists of the three elements of fertilizer (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium), when in fact the earth has a number of important living microbes essential for plants' root systems; the fruits and stalks and leaves and seeds of those plants that are edible to us are not as nutritious if those microbes aren't present because the overabundance of fertilizer's three elements has killed them. This explains, incidentally, why organic food is better for you, and may even taste better, arguable, than non-organic food (Again, see Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, or more conclusively his newest book, In Defense of Food, for more on this).

The biggest problem with claiming that nature's flora and fauna, including homo sapiens, are machines is that it ignores two things. First, a metaphor claims something is LIKE something else, not that it IS something else. All metaphors break down somewhere--that's what makes them metaphors. And in this case the metaphor breaks down when you take into account the fact that humans, pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, beets, carrots, arugula, and all of the natural world is LIVING matter--these are all carbon-based life-forms. They are products of life processes, not the product of applications or craft or the conversion of inorganic natural resources into machines and systems that make more efficient human society. And thus there are all kinds of deficiencies, inefficiencies, and wasteful acts affiliated with an industrial mode of agricultural production, or so-called agribusiness, as one takes into account the amount of energy in resource terms that one puts into making a industrial hamburger from a feedlot cow vs. the amount of energy and nourishment in food terms you get OUT of the process, the system is horrible--the entropy involved is incredible. One easy comparison is calories put in against calories put out, which, again, you can find in Pollan's In Defense of Food. The ratios are ridiculous; any business working from this model and using calories as currency rather than dollars would tank within a year.

But that's just one way the metaphor breaks down. Because cows and chickens and all that are alive, they produce living waste, they work in concert with the land around them, and if you stack them up like widgets in a small space, they will not only get diseased and/or die (and thus require piles of antibiotics, themselves expensive and deleterious to the health of the human consumer), they will destroy that earth they live on, and/or pollute it in such a way that they will pollute themselves. Living things are more complicated than machines, they exist in concert, in an interconnected manner, and thus the industrial model of agribusiness doesn't work. Planting acre after acre of corn and making corn the basis for everything from steak and perdue chicken (both feedlot cows and chickens are fed mostly corn in their 'grain' diet) to potato chips (the oil) to ding-dongs and coca-cola to breakfast cereal makes the food supply incredibly vulnerable to disease, a trait that ONLY belongs to living creatures (machines require maintenance, but they don't get sick).

So I can outfox the reasonability of the industrial model of agriculture with my own rationale. And I'm pretty sure I can out feel-good myself on the feasibility and ethicality of eating animals (where, for example, would we /put/ all the chickens we're not eating? What is the natural habitat for a holstein cow in a country into which we have imported it? These are just some of the questions I have for the more militant among the vegetarian impulses I have). I can more or less, in short, play Hamlet in terms of my eating habit, and argue for both sides. But what remains is this interconnection argument, this belief and recognition through observation that life happens in a cyclical, incredibly complex but equally delicate, harmony and symphony. At root I don't feel like I can understand it fully, and that means not understanding human beings' impulses to control or alter that symphony indelibly. I simply can't politely excuse myself from the party just because I'm uncomfortable with the fact that the party reveals human activity and impact on the world, or the most startling, glaring fact of all: that we have impacted the natural world in a way that has changed the nature and manner and habits of some of its creatures. We could perhaps work to resolve that issue, to reverse that trend, but I don't believe instantly forsaking the consumption of animals is the way to do it. And so I cannot equally believe that becoming vegetarian, choosing not to eat animals would change me as a human being, or even help me understand the way my humanity impacts the world on a personal level.

Nor do I think it always makes sense from an energy standpoint to do so. And this is my final point, for now, of an already too long post. Energy is a funny thing, depending on how you look at it, and these days it seems like in one way or another we're all looking at it. Particularly, we are concerned about the SOURCES of energy, the origin and sustainability of those sources. For me the same goes for food. The sun is where it all starts: whether you eat plants or animals, the food chain starts with the sun. When we eat we are eating converted solar energy, whether it's in the form of the spinach that photosynthesizes its energy to grow and convert that energy into an iron and fiber and calcium packed package for us to eat and convert into OUR energy (and waste in both cases: the spinach's waste nourishes us and our waste, both CO2 and poopie, can enrich the next crop of spinach), or whether it's second-hand in the form of the grass the cows (should) munch (instead of the corn they now are if you buy your beef from supermarkets). The question is, how best to use that solar energy? What's the shortest, least wasteful chain from the sun to our bellies?

That answer, for me, is simple in some ways and complex in others. The simple answer says: the shortest chain is best. In this point of view, if you isolate it, we should all have a garden or small farm from which we feed ourselves, with no animals. Ok, fair enough, for the time being let's say I agree, and this seems to be the answer behind the local food movement--the farther the food travels, the longer the energy chain, and thus the more wasteful and hurtful to life on the planet it is. Again, fair enough, I agree. But there are some complications. What if you live, as I do, in the northeast, where everything is dead, for all practical purposes, from about Thanksgiving to about the middle of April, when the first shoots of ramps and asparagus stalks come up?

Now, there is such thing as storage, and canning. I know all that. You can put up green beans, tomatoes, pickled cucumbers (some folks like to call them "pickles") in little mason jars (never mind that I live in an apartment with a tiny kitchen--that's my own damn fault for being an asshole city-dweller), and you can put some potatoes and turnips and cabbage and squash/pumpkins in the cellar. If you also freeze some zucchini you'll be in alright shape, right? Maybe. But it's close. And other store foods, like flour, for example, are fairly energy intensive, and lengthen the energy chain, arguably, more than the roast chicken pecking at the seed grains out of which something like flour and bread can be made does. Again, it's close--too close, by my standards, And the risks are too great in this model in terms of malnutrition, bugs and rodents getting into your cellar, doing the canning wrong and spoiling it all, for me to build a log cabin or get all Into the Wild about it. I want a safety net, and I bet my ancestors (and, hell, the American Indians, too, for that matter) at least felt somewhat the same way, if they lived in a place with winter, when they started killing animals and eating them. For me, eating meat in the winter makes a whole crapload of sense, because frost doesn't kill cows, or buffalo. As a result, I eat as much or more meat and eggs in winter and early spring as I do root vegetables and the few leafy greens I can muster from the farmer's market. And I don't feel a lick of guilt for it, because I know where the animals came from, I know who killed them and how, and I know how they lived before they died.

The more I think about it, the more I think I'm just living in the way that is most connected, most harmonized with my particular climate. This may be the next wave of the local food movement! Get a leg up on your holier than thou friends, show up your neighbors--let the whole world know you are the most conscience-laden person in a fifteen mile radius (to consider people outside of this area would be un-local): start the NATIVE-locavore movement! Start a buffalo ranch! Set fire to fields that grow apples, or peaches, or pears and turnips and cabbage and broccoli and carrots, all in the name of new world eating reclamation acts! Wear only loincloths and paint your face and learn how to fancydance!

Ok, so there are limits. I can't become an Indian, much as I want to. And while fanaticism is fun for a little while, I get lonely quickly. Fact is, I'm a white boy on stolen land, surrounded by ways and means and plants and animals that don't, strictly speaking, belong here. But then there's Darwin, and the fact that adaptation is the way to go. Fair enough, so let's work from a flexible adaptive model, and say this: if you live in Los Angeles, eat like a Mexican. If you live in Washington sate, you should probably eat plenty of salmon and not so much in the way of rhubarb. I'm not saying "go local"; I'm saying learn about your surrounding area, what grows there, what is already growing there, and GET some of it, and EAT all living hell out of it. If you live in Texas eat beef--it makes sense to. But baking bread in El Paso? Doesn't make much sense--stick to tortillas.

I dunno, I realize there are limits here. All I'm saying is that my standpoint doesn't work from an abstract sense of "right" or "good" one one side and "wrong" or "bad" on the other. It works from a belief that the best way is the way most in concert with what is immediately available and can be endlessly sustained one side of the equation and what is most healthy and least risky of starvation and spoilage, as well as devoid of denial and weird puritanical purgation on the other. I am finding the most adaptively native way of living in my environment that is also ethically sound. In this way if you're a vegetarian in New Jersey eating strawberries from Mexico because you have a hankering for them, and some tomatoes, too, from California, in the middle of January, you really aren't any more "Good" or "Right" in my book than a Texas rancher eating beans, tortillas, and carne asada on his way to round-up at the stockyards. I worry sometimes that vegetarians make the choice so that they don't have to think about food choices in nuanced, sometimes conflicting and difficultly ambiguous ways, that they make the choice to disavow animals as a way of not having to worry or think about being wrong anymore, a sort of eater's get out of jail free card, that sometimes leads to some weird food choices based on a cycle of denial and indulgence (I've earned those Mexican strawberries/Argentine asparagus!). Another tendency I sometimes witness is the hypercensuring of eating ANYthing because there is a stain, a mark of sin in the form of the business practices of the farm's owner's uncle, or, to use but one example I heard recently, overfishing. I have a friend who will remain nameless who felt bad, like he wasn't supposed to eat the mahi-mahi I had cooked which came from Trader Joe's.

Why, friend? I asked.

Because so-and-so told me mahi-mahi is an overfished species, Friend replied.

Now, everyone's /right/ here, but they're on the wrong tack, I think, because the perspective is limited. Is the lesson here not to eat mahi-mahi? It would seem that way, and yet I can get mahi-mahi from my farmer's market from a boat off of Long Island that fishes in a way and in a place that doesn't clean out the species. it respects the eco-system whence the mahi-mahi comes, and as a result I can only get Mahi-Mahi for a limited season (when they're migrating north for the summer) and in limited quantity (it often runs out of its limited supply by the time my lazy late-rising ass gets to the market). So it's somewhat more complicated than simply laying down a commandment of denial that reads, in essence: don't ever eat mahi-mahi because it's overfished. Don't eat mahi-mahi from Trader Joe's that comes from Ecuador, yeah, sure--that was a bad choice on our part, for a number of reasons only one of which is overfishing.

But shouldn't that lead to some further questions, rather than simply a new commandment to be followed? Questions like, how much fish should I be eating in the landlocked town in Western Massachusetts where this took place? The coast is fairly close, however, so maybe a better question is, why doesn't fish from the nearby atlantic coast (only a little bit north of long island, where i get my mahi-mahi from) show up to be sold here, at a stand at the saturday farmer's market? Maybe it is! I should go to the local farmer's market this Saturday. And then you would go to the farmer's market in this quaint massachusetts college town and find....rhubarb. And a shitload of plants in plastic pots to buy. And some goat cheese and milk. Hm. What is going on here, you may ask? Why are no farmers selling food in their stands at the end of may? And why is the Trader Joe's and the Whole Foods (which seems to have asparagus, by the way, from a local farmer in a nearby town) packed with customers? Why is the place that shouldn't have the mahi-mahi but does loaded with people expecting exactly what they want any time of day or night, let alone season, and the place that should have the mahi-mahi but only for a limited time and from a local waters devoid not only of fish, but of almost /all food/? Does this say something about our eating priorities and assumption?

This would seem to be better solved, these questions better answered, than with simple, or oversimplified, decisions or discussion of ethics regarding whether an animal should be eaten or not. The problem is systemic, deeply rooted into our culture, and often packaged, I would argue, in ways that pose as the solution to the problem, when really a place like Whole Foods, contains elements of the problem as well (don't get my wrong, I'm not picking on Whole Foods or TJ's--they are both FAR better options than almost any other major supermarket chain. I prefer TJ's for reasons I won't bore you with here, but the point is, I shope there). My beef is with a mindset that thinks food comes from stores, from cellophane wrapped packages, NOT from, holy hell, the nearby ocean or the acres of farms that, at least in this example, the town was surrounded by!

this mindset is a problem to me because it ignores reality in favor of an abstraction, a perceived good. And that perceived good is seen as being uniform, as being wholly good (If I shop at Trader Joe's then I am doing the right thing, and am not a bad person like those shithead republicans). This takes me back to the beginning, as its what is behind my issue with eating or not eating animals (If i don't eat animals, I am doing the right thing, and am not a bad person like those shithead republicans). I'm not saying vegetarians don't make decisions on their own terms, nor am I, not by a long shot, saying that some carnivores are not shitheads, or republicans, or both. Many carnivores, perhaps most, are guilty of being willfully ignorant of where their food comes from, and refuse to engage in any sort of truth-seeking about their eating habits and their impact or influence on the real live world around them. They will not educate themselves because to remain ignorant is to remain safe. And this is abhorrent to me. But, frankly, I see it on both sides of what I call the bloodline, even though there is more evidence that it's the carnivores who are baldly turning a blind eye (by analogy, many southerners are easy targets for racist sentiment, whereas northern racism is very difficult to discern, and in that way perhaps more damaging, in that it is so hidden. so south carolinians become uniformly rednecks to outside observers, and new york a tolerant place of refuge. yet new york city, at the outbreak of the civil war, wanted to secede from the union as well....where does it leave the moral compass of racism if bigotry is seen in terms of geographical location??).

What I'm saying here is shitz is complicated, and deep. What I'm also saying is that not ALL carnivores suck, and not all vegetarians are necessarily getting off the hook by my measure of what is "right" or "good" ethically. Equally, not all carnivores are enlightened, and many, many vegetarians have educated themselves fully in their positions. I try to count myself among the former, though it needs work, and would love to hear from fellow folks like me, or from the latter group I described, as there are many veggies in the midst of my readership who no doubt have strong, well laid-out positions for their eating behavior. I'd love to hear them. It's time we opened this nut up and started looking at it for what it really is, rather than huddle into our respective groups and plant a flag labeled "I'm right" in the ground. I am not staking out a claim; I am exploring a series of ideas. I change all the time, and am tentative in more than one of my positions. Moreover, I screw up, and don't always follow my own advice. I am fallible, and stupid, but I'm trying to be less of a moronic, destructive cock about the way I eat. It hasn't been easy, I've swallowed more than one bitter pill as a result, but hearing others' opinions has not been one of them.

Next I'm going to lay out, based on my philosophy of eating, my literal habits. I'm going to show the practical methods, the concrete actions that this abstract notions lead to, with regard to how I eat every day. Hope I don't lose all my readers or piss everyone off/bore them to tears along the way.

No comments: