As regular readers know I’m a fan of Steve Pavlina’s blog. I disagree with him on many points, but he’s an ethical, purpose-driven human being with a clear writing style, and I find many of his posts to be thought-provoking.
His most recent series of posts was inspired by the nationwide discussion of misogyny triggered by the Isla Vista shootings and the shooter’s insane manifesto. Steve wrote about how this triggered feelings for him in regards to what he calls “meat culture” (not just eating meat, but the cruelty to animals involved in factory farming processes). To Steve, misogynistic attitudes towards women are little different than the attitudes that enable us to mistreat animals. To Steve, it’s all objectification. He loves and respects women, but he also loves and respects animals, and he can’t reconcile how some people can so fiercely advocate for women’s rights yet ignore animal rights. His tweets sums it up:
My first reaction was to disagree. Because of our bigger brains and highly developed neocortex, human beings have a different degree of conscious awareness than animals; we have a wider emotional spectrum and a greater capacity for suffering. Killing (or raping or enslaving) a person is not the same as killing a sardine.
But then I immediately thought of exceptions to my own argument. Having worked with Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, I don’t believe humans are significantly more conscious-aware than cetaceans. Yes, we have a greater capacity for abstract reasoning, but I doubt we have a wider emotional range or greater emotional sensitivity (perhaps less; dolphins are highly empathetic and altruistic). I don’t think dolphins or whales should be eaten, hunted, or kept in captivity for the purpose of entertaining us. Cetaceans are “people with fins” and should have legal rights within human societies.
Cows and pigs are also sensitive mammals who are capable of suffering, and should be not be mistreated. Fish — I’m not really sure how much they think or feel — but the fact remains that we should treat all ocean life and marine habitats with respect if we want to survive as a species.
With this is mind, I decided to reexamine my own ethical stance toward meat-eating. It’s something I’ve considered before, but maybe it was time to revisit the topic. I watched the video in Steve’s “meat culture” post (linked above) and found the images disturbing (even though it’s not the first time I’ve seen videos like that). Maybe it was time for my own thinking and behavior to evolve?
Like most thoughtful meat-eaters, I justify/rationalize meat-eating in the following ways:
- Meat-eating is traditional; there are no completely vegan traditional cultural cuisines.
- We are evolutionarily adapted to be omnivorous.
- Raising animals for food is not necessarily more environmentally destructive than mass-produced crops like corn, soy, and wheat (especially in cases where integrated polyculture is used).
These reasons still make sense to me. At the same time, reducing cruelty towards animals also makes sense. I don’t want to be part of the cruelty inflicted on animals by factory farming. I also don’t want to be part of the cruelty inflicted by animals by mass farming (millions of animals lose their natural habitats because of corn, soy, and wheat farming).
On the other hand, I’m a human being who needs to eat. I take up space in this world. Even if I eat only fruit and nuts, some animal is going to die (orchards destroy natural habitats too). There is no way to be ethically pure. Everything is on a spectrum.
So how should I relate to vegans? Especially to vegans who are critical of meat-eaters for ethical reasons?
From a place of shared compassion.
Vegans are right to be concerned with animal welfare. We should all be concerned with treating our fellow creatures humanely. If human progress exists at all, it takes the form of expanding the circle of empathy.
Even if you think vegans are misguided (in terms of their ethical stance and/or the supposed health benefits of veganism), you should still support and embrace their impulse to be kind and respectful towards other animals, and do the same yourself. Why wouldn’t you want to do this?
Meat-eaters can look to traditional cultures for an alternative to the callous disconnection that factory farming encourages. Tread lightly. Respect the animal. Eat the entire animal and don’t waste anything. Don’t eat more than you need to to thrive. Respect and protect the animal’s natural habitat and ecosystem.
At the moment, I buy cage-free eggs, pastured/grass-fed meats, and organic dairy products. Some of these foods come from small farms, others no doubt come from large factory farms. You can’t always trust the label on the package either; some terms mean nothing (like “natural”) and in other cases there is outright false labeling and fraud. Unless you visit the farm or raise the animal in your own backyard, you can’t be sure how it was treated.
Ideally I’d like to raise my own chickens (it’s legal to raise chickens in Oakland, and many of my friends and neighbors do so). I even briefly considered acquiring a goat, milking it, and trying to make cheese. Then I read an article along the lines of “The 49 Things You Need To Do To Keep Your Goats Healthy” and thought better of it. There’s something to be said for division of labor and efficiency — I’ll be buying my goat cheese at the store and leaving the goat care to the goat care experts.
Here are the concrete, non-labor intensive things that meat-eaters can do to reduce cruelty towards animals, conserve natural habitats, and ultimately protect the human food supply:
- buy organic (pesticides are killing bees by the millions)
buy cage-free eggs and poultry, even though it’s only an incremental improvement in terms of animal welfare buy pastured eggs instead
- if you can, raise your own chickens
- buy meat from farms that have a good record of treating animals humanely (in the Bay Area we can buy from Niman Ranch or Marin Sun Farms, for example)
- don’t buy meat and pork raised in factory farms
- boycott Sea World and other parks that keep captive dolphins and whales for entertainment purposes (often under poor conditions)
- support farmers who use integrated polyculture, and grow some of your own food on your own land
- consider hunting and/or fishing some of your animal food from non-endangered wild species
So that’s where I stand at the moment. I intend to continue to strive towards a diet and lifestyle that is both enjoyable but also has a low ecological impact and a minimum amount of cruelty towards animals. My own ideal is not veganism, but rather decentralized, distributed food production, reduced use of fossil fuels and artificial fertilizer, more intelligent and efficient land use (all forms of polyculture), and a worldview that values all forms of life.
As I’ve written before, the “diet wars” are largely a battle of straw men. For example, paleo diet advocates and vegans, both being concerned about what they eat and where their food comes from, have more in common with each other than they do with mainstream culture that embraces packaged Frankenfoods and deplorable, wasteful, cruel farming practices.
I’ll leave you with this video from Steven Pinker re: the expanding circle of empathy. What are you own thoughts? Please share below, but remember to be respectful of people who don’t share your exact beliefs. Your own beliefs might change over time!