Friday, April 22, 2011

The Wrong Side of History

I wonder: In a few generations, when our distant descendants access their history feeds, and take a look back at the 21st century, will they look on the meat-eaters among us with the same horror and embarrassment with which we look back on slave-traders?

I don't think that veganism (or even vegetarianism) will become the dominant mode of nourishment for most people in the developed world anytime soon. Probably not even in this century, if ever. But it is a growing movement. I personally feel that, barring the occasional violent repression, humanity is definitely trending towards increased freedom and equality. As my Dad likes to point out, at the beginning of the 20th century, no country on Earth was a true democracy. Not even the United States. By the end of that same century, democracy was not only the norm, but through the United Nations, democratic nations actually had the power to peacefully impose economic sanctions on states which mistreat their citizens.

So, democracy and freedom are on the rise. People are showing more concern for their fellow humans. But what about their fellow organisms? What about freedom for other types of animals?

Most people, when asked about vegetarianism, will say that they respect it as a lifestyle, but it's not for them. They admire vegetarians' commitment to animal rights, but they don't personally feel the need to change their eating habits. When pressed, most of them will try to deflect criticism with humor: "Animals may be our friends, but they're so delicious!"

This argument doesn't hold much water. Simply because something is easy or pleasurable does not make it morally acceptable. Most people recognize that the meat they buy at the grocery store does not come from animals who have lived a full and happy life on Old MacDonald's Farm (E-I-E-I-O). Even fewer would feel comfortable actually watching a slaughter take place. People feel uncomfortable acknowledging that the meat on their table, until very recently, was a living, breathing animal.

People acknowledge this, but they ignore what they know. I feel it's similar, or at least related to, the tendency to change the channel as soon as a Save the Children ad comes on TV. They feel guilty, and know that they haven't been doing all they could. To open themselves to the suffering of one child means acknowledging the suffering of many more, and facing up to the fact that until that moment, they could have saved lives but chose not to.

Carnivores say that animals aren't human, and hence don't deserve the same rights. We feed and shelter them, and thus it's within our rights to use them as we see fit. They couldn't survive in the wild anyway, and we keep them safe and well fed for their whole lives, which may be short, but hey, they're not missing too much, right? What's more, eating meat is a central part of many cultures, and has existed since the dawn of time. The last time we tried to outlaw something so delicious and fun to consume was during Prohibition, and that didn't go over too well, now did it? Besides, the meat industry built several major American cities (such as Chicago), and many towns still depend heavily upon it for their economic sustenance. In 2009, the U.S. cattle and beef industry alone was valued at $73 billion!

Well, I hate to break it to you, but these arguments all sound suspiciously like the ones that slaveholders used to argue against Abolition. The fact is that vegetarianism is on the rise in the developed world, and those who continue to eat meat may one day find themselves on the wrong side of history.


But what about me? I eat meat all the time! I know the moral implications (as you can see in the blog post above), but I continue to eat it anyway. Even for someone like me, who (more-or-less) knows the science and knows that it would be better to make a change, the process is very difficult. We don't live in a society which encourages vegetarianism. It's tolerated, even accommodated, but it's very difficult to avoid eating animals when even Caesar salad dressing contains pureed anchovies.

Going vegetarian would be better for my health, would help reduce or prevent climate change, would make it easier to end world hunger, and is better for the welfare of my fellow creatures.

So what's stopping me? Am I being too hard on myself? Or am I just lazy?


  1. You're being too hard on yourself. People go veg for all sorts of reasons, and it's not just about animal rights. Right now it's fairly trendy--but people have been craving, raising, and eating meat for...well, a very long time. I've been mostly vegetarian for the past eleven years, but I've also raised chickens that my family has happily eaten.

    The issue that a lot of people don't address is how respect figures into vegetarianism. Respect for your body: knowing where your meat comes from, and what is in it. Respect for the animals. Picking up pre-cut meat at the grocery store is completely different than raising your own animals. And respect for what other people choose to eat. I've been made fun of for years for not eating meat. It's like growing up without a television--people without imagination can't envision it. At the same time, a lot of vegetarians can be snobbish about their diet, especially when offered meals cooked by people who are not vegetarians.

    Neither the many forms of vegetarianism nor omnivorism is wrong. I think the issue should be more centered on how we get the products that we eat.

  2. humans are naturally omnivorous. the range of food we can eat is astounding. a vegetarian diet wipes out a huge portion of that range and makes it more difficult to acquire certain nutrients that are easier to find in meat sources. granted the way that an omnivorous diet is often handled in this country is seldom healthy, it does leave a larger variety of foods from which to choose. throughout most of history the decision of what to eat has been largely dictated by the availability of food options. now it's more a matter of personal preference. there are options that don't involve mistreatment of animals, the pollution of global ecosystems, or global food markets.

    read the book Everything I want to do is illegal. it lays out an alternative system for meat production. also it's hilarious. also it's informative as hell. it focuses largely on the concept of local food production which has many benefits over the centralized, corporatized, dehumanized production model currently in place. benefits like being economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable.