Saturday, April 07, 2012

Why I should be a vegetarian (but I'm not)

I've been thinking a lot lately about eating my dog. Like, a lot a lot. Except, it's not that I really want to coat him in a layer of barbecue sauce and give him a good spin in a rotisserie oven, it's that I don't want to do that. And I can't think of any principled rationalization why.

Oh sure, I can point to the things I like about my dog that give me pause when I think about devouring him. Most days they even exceed the things I dislike about him, typically depending on the number of Nicaraguan children (“Nica Nuggets”) he himself has tried to devour that day. But besides his better-than-average cuddling ability, there's really not a whole lot that separates him from something I'd eat for dinner. Like a pig.

Living in Nicaragua really drives that point home. Visiting the island of Ometepe, for instance, you'll see giant 300-pound pigs in people's front yards just hanging out. Ya know, livin' the pig life. Sometimes they'll even be playing or cuddled up with the family dog. In El Gigante, a beach town in the southwest of the country, I recall seeing a litter of playful little piglets that I first mistook for puppies – you know, the equally intelligent and sociable little fellas we're supposed to go “awww, oh my god look at them, look at them!” over. But they weren't puppies, of course. They were future bacon.

I didn't eat pork for a week.

On the one rationalizing hand, you could argue that the living conditions of these piggies is much better here in Central America, so no sweat. Yeah, they're still slaughtered for food, but at least they get to live a portion of their lives outside of the confines of a cage. It sure as hell isn't like the massive corporate-agriculture facilities you'd find in the United States. So go ahead and eat that pork chop without guilt.

Except, not really. Yeah, the living conditions are better, but the result is the same: breakfast sausage. Up until the moment they die before their time, they can frolic and play, to a degree, but they still end up in people's stomachs. Their life before that is better, but the end result is the same.

And for what? We know we as human beings can live without eating meat. We know we don't need to eat one of the most clever creatures in nature to survive. But we do anyway. Because it tastes good.

Part of me says that's okay, that I'm just being over-sentimental. Look at the animal kingdom, the meat-loving part of my brain says: animals eat other animals all the time. Like, it's what they do. So that pulled-pork sandwich? It's no big deal, bro. Things die, we eat them. Hell, while visiting the otherwise cosmopolitan-ish city of León in northwest Nicaragua, I witnessed a dog gnawing on a horse's severed leg -- all three feet of it -- a site so revolting I couldn't help but laugh. So quit getting all weepy about the cycle of life, buddy, 'cause dude? You're weirding out the other customers.

At the same time, though, I feel bad about it. And when I read folks referring to sentient beings as little more than property – things that may be killed based on the whims of some dead crazy woman whose will stipulated that her cats die with her – I can't help but be horrified. If we're really the superior species we claim to be, and we know we can get by without slaughtering less sophisticated species, what the hell does that say about us that we keep on doing it?

And yet, ultimately my decisions are no different than the guy ordering the meat lovers' pizza from Domino's Pizza Hut. I have twinges of guilt, yeah, but I continue eating animals that, in different circumstances, I might put a leash on and dress up in cute little outfits. Why? Because they taste good. Because that's what I grew up doing. Because I'm too lazy to explore the alternatives. What does that make me? I'm not sure, but I know I'm not any better than the person doing the dirty work of leading these animals to slaughter. And when I look at my dog I know that, under different circumstances in a different culture, it could be him being being served alongside my mashed potatoes.


  1. SeanLM5:23 AM

    It gets even worse when you pile on the environmental and energy-conservation rationales for vegetarianism. Necessary oxygen-producing forests are torched for grazing land. Livestock hog land that could more economically be used to grow grains to feed people. Cows contribute to greenhouse gases. Etc, etc.

    None of this keeps me from a carnitas burrito.

  2. I mean, if you've come to this rationalization about eating meat then there's probably no reason to not go vegetarian in my opinion. I did it for similar reasons you laid out + the environmental reasons the previous commenter mentioned + health reasons when you consider the unsanitary conditions of industrial meat production in the US.

    I do, however, believe that there are ways to eat meat that are ethical and environmentally conscious, but it takes much more time than most of us are willing to put in - which is why I just gave up meat altogether.

    If you want to know more about the ethical ways to eat meat I'd recommend Michael Pollan's _Omnivore's Dilemma_, Tovar Cerulli's _The Mindful Carnivore_, and also Joel Salatin's livestock raising at Polyface Farm.

    But like I said, if you're not going to pay attention to where the meat comes from, I think the only ethical choice is to go veg. Of course, some people will argue that it's *never* ethical to eat meat - and it sounds like you might be heading in that direction. I think that's a valid position, but debatable.

    p.s. There are lots of non-meat dishes that taste good. Promise!

  3. I wish more people would look at their dogs and think thoughts like these.

    As someone else said, the ethical problems with meat go way beyond just the misery it imposes on other creatures, which, by itself, are good reasons to give it up.

    it's rather a pity that animal rights, veganism etc reside mostly outside of radical politics, because this is the one area where people really can make positive change by simply not doing something. Perhaps that's why it sits outside of radical politics, where people like to talk endlessly about what everyone else is doing. Meat-eating environmentalism is particularly hypocritical.

    I don't see the routinized torture of sentient creatures as morally distinct from the killing of civilians to project power. I think if you give up the quasi-religions dichotomy between humans and animals and just focus on the experience of the creatures involved, you can't but conclude that it's actually worse.

  4. We eat meat because we need animal fats in order to be human. Of course we eat way too much of it; that's where the politics and ethics should come in, that and against factory farms, etc, not whether to eat it at all.

    I used to think vegetarianism, and more, veganism, was an admirable endpoint I just was not yet willing to commit to, making the same sorts of rationalizations you're making here. Lately, I've come around to recognizing that, though those positions are usually well-meaning, for all kinds of excellent political reasons, and well-intentioned ethical & moral reasons, it's not actually a valid position. Not just because we need animal fats, but also because of the huge numbers of creatures that are necessarily destroyed in the course of industrial grain-production (and the artificial lines drawn between certain kinds of creatures and between animals and plants; it's all life).

    Along with the books Jay mentions, I recommend The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith, a former vegan. The vegans hated it; I thought it was damn good.

  5. 9111v8:35 AM

    i don't think it's that strange that we don't want to eat what's important to us…why don't you want to eat your spouse or parent? because, besides being unjustifiable, they represent to us some element of friendship and companionship and love. the same applies to your dog - you have reservations about conflating "food product i'm going to shit out" with "the animal that greets me at the door that i love and care about" because it's natural. i don't think it's irrational to submit to feelings or moral sentiments or what have you. we're oriented to not think to eat the cat or dog because to do otherwise would be sort of degrading to those cultural views and conceptions about friendship, and maybe diminishing the importance they hold to us.

    also, about the cat thing…a worry of a few people that i've met is that one day they will be old, they will die, and there's no longer anyone to care for their cat, who is similarly old, and who will be put in a shelter and euthanized anyway, since no one takes in old animals, if they do at all. so it's a way of avoiding prolonging suffering for the animal, that they cared for during their life.

  6. It brings me back. I grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota and we had a revolving cast of pigs throughout my childhood. Cripes, I can still remember individual names. They were defacto pets, taught social skills by a gang of semi feral children armed with rifles, and attending pack of pet dogs (split into two classes "inside dogs" that were allowed into the house, and "outside dogs" that lounged in the massive front yard, waiting for something to bark at) When the schoolbus would pull up, 3 miles away, where the dirt road met the tar road to drop off the kids, we'd usually have a pig or two and a half dozen dogs there to greet us. You haven't partied until you've had a 300 pound pig frolic nimbly about, thrilled at your return from the indoctrination facility.

    The winter would approach. Time to break out the chainsaws and start to cutting the cords and cords of wood that would be required to make it through the wicked Minnesota winter. We only heated with wood. We started out cooking with wood too, but eventually ascended to liquid propane. The gardening, the canning. I won't even get started on the chicken massacre. Eventually, a truck from the local meat shop would pull up to the barn. I still remember the first time I saw that. Dude shot my friend the pig right between the eyes, hoisted it up, cut its throat and caught the blood in two buckets. Hung it in the back of the truck and drove off. I didn't think that was the drill. I was pretty sure they were just going to drive off with the pig...and kill it later, elsewhere. A week or so later, we'd drive into town and load up on a bunch of pork, working some sort of split with the butcher shop to pay for slaughtering and cutting up.

    Know what happened? We made it through the winters, repeatedly, on a stunningly low po' white trash shoestring monetary budget. As they say in the movies, "thank the pig" (Babe, Pig in the City).

  7. Anonymous8:13 PM

    To begin - Domino's has the MeatZZa Feast®, not the Meat Lovers® pizza which is a Pizza Hut offering - get your meaty topping facts straight!

    Secondly, stopping to eat meat is very difficult. It's something you've done at least 3 times a day for 20+ years. It's not surprising that it's so ingrained in one's behavior. Add to that the constant advertising/marketing for meat products, societal expectation or "norm" of meat eating, sheer availability, and lack of veggie cooking ideas's difficult to switch. Plus if you live with someone who cooks meat...there's another complication.

    Maybe get a pet pig to have a oinking reminder running around to eat veg?

  8. Charlie,

    Just to be clear here:

    I intentionally tried to leave questions of "animal rights" and whether or not euthanizing a cat is the right thing to do completely out of the article you link to.

    My point was not that it would have been fine to kill the cat. My point was that the crazy dead lady's executors shouldn't have signed on to be her executors if they didn't want to ... EXECUTE ... her instructions.

    I'd have considered it fine and dandy for the officials of the Fifth Third Bank to tell that lady, while she was still alive, "you're barmy and we're not going to do this stuff for you. Find someone else."

  9. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Wont someone please think of the plants!

  10. Anonymous beat me to it: is it really better to kill (or at the least consume) plants just because they live in a different way and at a different pace than we do? You can make an argument that vegetarianism is a kind of biological kingdom-chauvinism. What makes a mammal's death feel more tragic to us than the death of any other living organism? Mainly the sense of familiarity and identification that comes from relative proximity in the evolutionary tree.

    Just sayin'.

  11. John Caruso is right. Discrimination in your diet at all is a bit hypocritical. That's why I eat my newborn offspring.

  12. Robb of Warren8:17 AM

    Look at your teeth-they belong to an omnivore. Same thing for your stomach--one or five?

    Secondly, if it weren't for the demand, billions of chickens and cows would never live at all. Is it better to have lived a little rather than never? Maybe not on a corporate 'farm', but there are better alternatives to that. There aren't for bacon.

  13. I just discovered your blog by way of Mr. Glenn Greenwald, and am looking forward to reading more.

    I was moved to comment on this post because my girlfriend has been facing a similar dilemma - for several years she's been a committed vegetarian (she still eats dairy and eggs) but has recently decided that she'll resume eating animal meat. It's been an incredibly difficult decision for her, but she's done some serious research and come to the conclusion that for health reasons, it makes sense to consume a moderate amount of animal protein.

    In addition to some of the other books listed in the comments, I would recommend Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions, and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, which outline several of the health and environmental benefits of eating and raising animals - provided, of course, that it is done ethically and sustainably (which is difficult but being accomplished more and more often.)

  14. Portmanteaur missed the point entirely but brings up another one, summed up best by some questions:

    - You have to choose that one of two people will die: your best friend or a complete stranger. Which will it be?

    - You have to choose one dog to eat: your own or one you've never seen. Which will it be?

    The questions are abhorrent but nonetheless the answers are obvious, and by the same token discrimination in the diet is natural for human beings--part of our evolutionary heritage. It may not offer the principled rationalization you've been looking for, but it's who we are.

    On the original point, regarding your "We know we as human beings can live without eating meat. We know we don't need to eat one of the most clever creatures in nature to survive": why is it worse to eat a clever animal than one that's slow-witted?

    I'm dead serious about respecting the lives of plants, BTW. I got a bunch of pea tendrils the other day at a farmer's market but couldn't eat them right away, so I put them in water--and they sprang to life. Remarkably so, like they're reblooming now and look like they might start sprouting actual peas before long. That's a mundane miracle, man, and I respect that plant's remarkable tenacity and will to live. And I've thought: can I really eat that life? But ultimately, yeah, it's going to be delicious greens.

  15. I only posted to make a joke, not to make any point. Apologies that it came off as more snide than snark.

  16. somewhat surprised by this post dude. It seems to me that you care very much for the world and abhor violence and even left the USA because violence is its chief export. Why then would you struggle with such an obvious, simple choice such as vegetarianism. Most of us are hypocrites in one way or another (I certainly am) but I've long admired your activism because of its linearity and its discipline. But this post seems oddly flippant and dismissive for someone who writes against hierarchy/power/violence.

  17. In many vegetarians, I see a dietary fetish that is tainted/fused with authoritarianism. Many Americans would be far far better off if they devoted as much thought/angst to what comes out of their mouths as they do to what goes into them. Converting oneself into a judgmental and holier than thou vegetarian is far far easier than addressing the way our nation and its people behave.

  18. Anonymous8:16 AM

    I think many meat eaters would think differently about how they eat (though maybe not change their habits) if there was a running film of the slaughter next to the meat aisle at grocery stores. Being exposed to the means of production can throw a sharp turn into a persons thought pattern. It's not only meat, its anything that is mass produced today. Vegetables, clothing, technology. There are gross ethic abuses inherent in these practices that are glossed over in their final presentation. Marketers for these producers count on us to be non-inquisitive into why it is we do the things we do, and if they align with our values whatever those are. It takes a shit load of time and energy to be curious.

  19. Gleaned from the author's twitter feed: "the pro-meat arguments in this thread are so dumb they may make me one yet"


    I'll just, uh, move along then...

    Good luck!

  20. Sorry, I'm just not finding the arguments very persuasive, though I'm still agnostic myself. Nothing personal. Feel free to stick around and try harder. Or just call me stupid too -- it's all fair in love and Internet war.

  21. Gleaned from the author's twitter feed: "the pro-meat arguments in this thread are so dumb they may make me one yet"

    Really, Charles? No response other than a snotty dismissal on Twitter? I'm surprised and sorry to see that, but if that's how you treat commenters I won't be wasting my time (or yours) commenting here anymore.

  22. John,

    Yes, really. I have better things to do than debate those who equate people concerned about needlessly inflicting suffering on the animal world with authoritarians, or sophists who equate peas with pigs, sentient beings capable of feelings such as pain and happiness. I won't go any further because, really, your arguments read as desperate rationalizations that, as I mentioned on Twitter (horror!), make me more inclined to believe vegetarians must be onto something if that's the best meat-eaters can come up with.

  23. SeanLM6:02 AM

    Yeah, I think that for anyone with "leftist" politics and at least some concern for the environment, the compelling arguments for vegetarianism/veganism are overwhelming. Speaking for myself and the few people I've talked to about it, the main reason we remain meat-eaters is just lack of discipline.

    The truth about proteins is that for most of human history, most humans ate very little animal meat in comparison to the bulk of their diet of grains and greens. And for most people today, it is possible to receive your necessary protein from whey and soy.

    At minimum, I think we can all agree that first-worlders eat way too much meat and even radically scaling back this consumption, let alone going cold turkey, would do a lot to end animal suffering.

  24. Robb of Warren6:12 AM

    Lest I say anything dumb, I'll find something else to read.

  25. Gosh, but if we didn't kill animals they'd never live, Sean.

  26. SeanLM7:13 AM

    Won't somebody think of the livestock (who live only to be summarily executed)?!?!??!?!?

  27. SeanLM7:17 AM

    PS I can't believe people are actually getting huffy over being called dumb on the Internet.

  28. Free Radical2:26 PM

    "The truth about proteins is that for most of human history, most humans ate very little animal meat in comparison to the bulk of their diet of grains and greens."

    Yes. But there is overwhelming evidence that populations that subsisted on grains and greens were worse off (at least as far as health is concerned) than those who subsisted on livestock, fish, or even hunter-gatherers.

    In fact, bone evidence suggests post-agricultural revolution settled peoples were shorter, and had higher rates of morbidity and mortality than hunter-gatherer neighbours (not only because of diet, of course. But it was a big contributing factor).

    Furthermore, eating or not eating meat isn't such a clear-cut black and white ethical choice. Agricultural production in the modern world isn't that much more ethically responsible than meat production. There's big exploitation of workers by the agribusiness, large-scale corporate agriculture pushes poorer farmers out of their lands, there's extensive use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, that can contaminate large areas of the environment, it consumes huge amounts of water, it may directly or indirectly lead to the destruction of fragile ecosystems (for example, the growth of large-scale soy production for the consumption of European vegans is indirectly responsible for the destruction of the Amazon), etc.


    Sorry for the rant. I'm not trying to convince anyone to eat meat. I think vegans, at the very least, mean well, and probably put up with a lot of personal discomfort for the good of other beings, which is more than can be said about most people. But I personally think that eating in particular, and consumption in general, is not such an easy ethical question. Practically, every line of production is entangled into a web of exploitation, violence and destruction.

    Then again, I might be just rationalizing my love for beef.

  29. Christopher1:40 AM

    This is exactly why I don't eat pork.

    Fuck Chickens and Cows though, those jerks are going straight to my stomach.

    The reasons I eat meat are twofold:

    1. It tastes so good! I am constantly torn between my love for live sheep and my love for cooked sheep.

    2. I am incredibly depressed/lazy. On days when I can't even bring myself to get out of bed, days when turning on a light seems like too much, I'm sure as fuck not going to try to make a delicious vegan curry.

    Neither of these are even close to being ethical arguments, but that's the way it is.

    One question I have is, does watching the preparation of animals make you hungry? When I see somebody killing and cleaning a fish or a chicken it kind of makes me hungry, because that's where food comes from.

  30. It's not so much being called dumb. I revel in my nominal stupidity (as perceived by blowhards). It's just that the author hadn't deigned to engage here at all, and instead dropped shallow dismissive cross platform rejoinders on the twitter. I found that rude, so I threw out a tactical bitchy bomb.

    It must be nice to be secure enough on Maslow's hierarchy of needs to be entertaining veganism as so true and righteous that non-vegans only entertaining the notion actually disappointment your acquired tender sensibilities. Some of us live closer to the quick than that.

    Maybe I shouldn't have read that Wilhelm Reich. I see "The Mass Psychology of Fascism" way too often.

  31. Anonymous9:22 PM

    Hi Charles, thanks for the blog. I was strict veg for 10 years with vegan tendecies/sympathies, recently slipping back to eating fish and seafood. Although I think I'm pushing towards cutting the fish out again.

    I do feel a strong kinship towards fellow vertebrates, and I do think it's important to know what meat production actually entails. Earlier today I came across a link to this video completely at random, documenting response to a foot-and-mouth outbreak just last year in Korea:

    The term "holocaust" is incredibly incendiary but it was the only way to describe such a repellent scene. The fact is this is what happens when animals are an industrial commodity, and that is what meat is. It's as simple as that, and I just can't be a part of that. I can eat well enough without that, and if I'm going to so much as eat a clam, I'll have to dig it myself and know what I'm doing.

  32. "I have better things to do..."

    Evidently not. You took the time to insult your readers not once, but twice - in different venues. What a jerk. Why do you need to be a jackass to your readers?

  33. I linked to a particularly dumb comment on Twitter -- one that, rather than make any sort of argument pertained to the moral issues raised in the post or by my other readers, attacked those who care about the needless pain they inflict on animals as but "authoritarians" -- and called it dumb. Which it was. If that shocks your senses, you should probably read someone else. Or, frankly, stay off the Internet.

  34. Love the bruised egos projecting the hell out of their own sensitivity/offensibility.

    That's Internet & politics, people. Not tea & crumpets.

  35. I've met a few doofus vegetarians and vegans in my time, but the ratio of doofus to doll isn't any different than that I've found among meat eaters.

    I eat meat, but I also love vegetarian cooking. This is thanks in part to people who spent time explaining their diets as something that's more about adding to one's sense of pleasure than about taking away from it.

    So I doubt that I'll ever be a full-blown vegetarian or vegan. (Though I've found it easy to live that way when surrounded by other people who do-- when in Rome and all that.) Charles, if you want --for whatever reason-- to move away from consuming so much animal protein, my advice is to hang around with vegetarians and vegans who love to cook and eat. It's helped me quite a bit, over the last couple of decades or so.

  36. Depending on where you are, you can get candied or dried grasshoppers and other safe-to-eat insects. And you can also consider reducing your meat intake based on how the animal is killed (if you can find out which sources are better than others) and how much gas the animal releases.

    But I'm still just a more controlled consumer of murdered flesh, I grant. I have a lot of cognitive dissonance over the subject.