Note to people who are not Sean Upton: My good friend Sean Upton from my Korea days has started up a new blog, and a recent post, “Why Do You Eat Meat?”, was a little about his recent decision to be vegan, and a lot about asking meat-eaters why they aren’t vegan. He wrote it two weeks ago, but I’ve finally gotten around to answering.
Oh, also, this is the second new post this week, in case you didn’t see the previous one.
I’ve actually been wanting to answer your question for a while now. It’s just that I wanted to give it the amount of answer that it really requires. You’ve thrown just about every facet of this very large question into your one post, which means that any answer that’s not going to be just a glib thoughtstopper really has to be more like a blog post. (This may be why I’m the only person to answer you so far.)
You started with (and didn’t move far from) ethics. I’d like to start with the environment, though, because I have to set up some dominoes here before I get to ethics. Let’s start with a little thought experiment.
Grant for the sake of argument that, in a little internship program set up by God so He can take some divine vacation time, you have been chosen to be Most Supreme Ruler of the People of the Entire Earth for a day. The first thing you do, of course (besides the naughty stuff, which you’re probably too terrified to do anyhow, what with the possibility of unintended consequences), is to make the world a better place by decreeing that everyone is to be, henceforth, entirely vegan. Let’s go ahead and also say that you alter everyone’s digestive systems so that we can survive with no problems on a diet without animal products, and that every livestock farm is transformed instantaneously into a vegetable or grain farm that produces the same number of calories.
The world rejoices in a surplus of food. First World countries ship their excess to the starving masses in poorer nations. Scientists note a slight downtick in global warming from the elimination of cow-butt methane. Fisheries the world over make comebacks. You’re hailed as an unalloyed hero, at least by everyone who’s not bitter about not being able to eat bacon anymore.
So far so good. But what happens a few years down the line? At first humankind, in the aggregate, eats less food. A percentage of the world’s farms shut down and appear to be left to turn into parkland for people and animals to enjoy freely. But soon, people, well, they start having more babies. You didn’t decree they shouldn’t, so humans behaved like every other species in the world, and responded to an abundance of food by increasing our population. The farms that shut down are brought back online. In fact, because population growth has inertia, we end up needing more calories than we did when we started. And now they’re almost all being provided by broadacre monocultures. There used to be polycultures where humans still welcomed diversity of species. Especially in poor places, because that’s where people couldn’t afford fertilizers and equipment, so they used, say, chickens to till their soil a little, eat their pests, and fertilize with manure, plus provide the protein that the people used to need. But now there’s no point in a polyculture.
This is a form of Jevons’ Paradox. If you decrease how much people need something, they respond, reliably, by using more of it. Likewise, if you decrease how many acres’ worth of food people need, they’ll respond by eating more food until we’re back to the same acreage, even if they need to make more people to do it.
So eating less meat, while it seems to be a simple solution to a slew of huge world problems, turns out to just kick the can a little further down the road, and result in starvation again, only this time it’s starvation of a somewhat higher world population. That raises the obvious question of how we got in the unsustainable fix we’re in right now, where humanity requires so much food. The answer is not that we have some peculiarly human moral failing that gives us a bloodlust, nor is it that the inexorability of technological progress has given us a power to wreck up the environment that we haven’t yet learned the wisdom to control. In fact technological progress isn’t happening because of some innate inexorability at all; it’s happening because it’s linked inextricably with energy consumption. The same energy consumption is what allows us to inflict so much suffering on animals, plants, and all the other kingdoms of nature alike.
Over the last few hundred years, humanity has tapped into heretofore undreamt-of amounts of energy—first coal, then petroleum—and the result has been a mushrooming of the human population. With each new increment of amount of energy, the result will be more food and more people. First we create motorized tillers and harvesters. Then we expand into previously unfarmable land using gas-powered machines. Then we build transportation networks to feed people in places like Phoenix and Dubai where they would normally have scarce options and scarce populations—ultimately increasing demand. Then we start to synthesize fertilizers and pesticides. And so on.
Which is to say: the amount of damage that humans do to the environment is not a result of their dietary choices. Those choices are just a detail of how it’s done. The amount of damage is instead a direct result of how much energy we have to burn.
Now I think we can start talking about ethics. Let’s simplify a broad range of ethical options into two brackets. You can live with nature, or you can live despite nature.
Living with nature means accepting that nature knows better than you. (Nature, after all, is getting on for four billion years old, and you, if you’re a human, are at maximum about a hundred.) It means living within the limitations it sets, and not trying to tell it, “Yeah, but what if—?” It means, most fundamentally, accepting that you are a part of nature. If you aspire to ecological virtue in this kind of society, you don’t need to go too far: much like most people you know, you spread seeds, help tend the forest like a garden (which results in more biodiversity and more biomass), and use every part of the animals and plants you eat, returning the remainder to the land. This is how most humans have lived throughout human history.
Living despite nature means believing that you are wiser than nature, and that you can improve on its designs. It means you think the human brain, and human brains banded together to create culture, have such limitless capacity for ingenuity that we can solve every problem that exists if we just think hard enough about it to figure out The Solution. It means, again most fundamentally, not believing that humans are really a part of nature, but instead separate beings, living in separate places—cities, generally. If you aspire to ecological virtue in this way of thinking, your best hope is to minimize your negative impact—which, taken to the logical extreme, implies you should kill yourself. This way of living came into fashion ten thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, but really got kicked into gear when the Industrial Revolution started in the 1600s.
Now let’s examine the track record of these ways of thinking. Societies that favor the first one have been, by and large, egalitarian, peaceful, and non-destructive. They have their suffering and their wars, but so do ant colonies. Societies that favor the second one are marked by a tendency to grow bigger and bigger until suddenly they find that they have nothing left to consume, and then crash hard; they also tend to do a lot of destruction to their surroundings in the process. They are hierarchical, authoritarian, and warlike (you have to get those resources somehow, and your neighbors are a good place to start). They have a happy minority in their higher echelons—psst, that’s you and me, we’re middle-class and live in some of the most prosperous countries on Earth—and just hordes and hordes of unhappy, starving people supporting that minority.
Veganism seems decidedly to fall into the second way of thinking, and the consequences from God’s internship earlier bear it out. Veganism supposes that the way to fix our system is to transcend our primitive reliance on meat and become a more enlightened form of humanity that’s just that one step closer to perfection. It’s a nice image, but when you look at the details, it’s not much more than an image. It’s based on a simplified equation: meat = death = bad (and you can multiply all terms by –1 to attain veganism = no death = good). Nature is considerably more complicated than that equation. Nature is not an obedient machine. When you push on one part of nature, it pushes back in other places, and it’s to our repeated and embarrassing peril that we forget this.
Replace a cow with a field of soy: kill many more mice than you would have. In the comments on the “Honest Pig Farmer” article that you linked (which is available, like most defunct links, on archive.org), a bright person called GCW crunches numbers and finds that killing more mice than the pasture-raised cows you replace is an inescapable fact of broadacre tilled farming. Veganism ≠ no death.
Keep more animals alive: population explosions lead to worse catastrophes down the line. There’s a memorable thought experiment in environmental activist Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth. A naive vegan commented to Lierre once that Africa would be so much more peaceful for all the giraffes and hippos and lions if people would build a big fence, then put the predators on one side and the prey animals on the other. Lierre was in too much shock at the ignorance to respond to the person’s face, but in the book she explained how this would play out: the predators would all eat each other until there were none left to eat, and then they’d starve to death; the prey animals would overgraze their whole food supply, then starve to death. No death ≠ good (and incidentally, no death ≠ no death).
Similar, though less dramatic, dynamics play out when you remove animals from farming altogether and put them in game reserves. And, let’s not fail to mention, also when you remove them from old-style polyculture farms and sequester them in CAFOs, which I do not in any way condone, and which I monetarily boycott. The way out of this problem is to move toward nature, not away from it, and that means: pastured hogs in working polyculture or permaculture farms, especially if they’ve gotten to graze in an orchard; catching and eating fish that were able to participate in an ecosystem (catch a pike and you remove an apex predator—more little fish!); and yes, grass-raised cattle, which, if I understand right, you unaccountably seem to think are a bookkeeping trick and are raised in CAFOs after all.
That’s because death is a part of nature, and accepting that you participate in nature means accepting that death will result from your human life. Refusing to accept that you participate in nature doesn’t exempt you from participating, but it does ensure that you’ll do so more clumsily and leave a broader swath of destruction. And I think this gets to the crux of what you were driving at in your post. You asked over and over again: Why, meat-eaters, why do you support this killing, if you know it’s wrong?
Asking like this, you appeal to ethics that, you assume, are already settled, in a debate where you have identified and gotten on board with the side that has the correct answer, while the rest of us are still in denial or haven’t figured it out yet. (That tack, by the way, also gives your post a dose of the sanctimonious tone that is one of the things lots of people hate about vegans, and which stops them from listening to whatever good points you do have: something to bear in mind if you decide to continue trying to convince people to go vegan.) What you don’t seem to have allowed room for, or perhaps even conceived of, is the possibility of a coherent system of ethics where killing animals is a moral action, where you can kill an animal and not feel, deep down, that you are doing something indefensible. I have such a system of ethics, and I’ve ended up in it not because I needed some way to justify the unjustifiable act of eating meat, but because I try at all times possible to predicate my ethics on nature, not on human ideals.
I have killed and helped eat a deer. I have killed and eaten many fish. I have been party to the killing and eating of a rabbit. And not only do I not feel like a murderer, I treasure those real, intimate connections to the ecosystem that gives life to all of humanity (while most of us do our best to ignore it and mechanize it). I dream of a time when I can get more of my food from animals and plants whose lives I’ve witnessed, whether briefly or closely. This means enough to me that I intend to live most of my life on a permaculture homestead learning how to do it with skill.
Since I’m not on that homestead yet, I live day-to-day through a combination of mimicking it where I can (by buying from farms that raise their livestock in a way that improves the environment); not supporting the factory-farming industry monetarily (that is, I go dumpster-diving a lot, and my house has a pretty good freezerful of dumpstered meat); and, on the rare occasions when I get a chance, going hunting myself.
Of course, maybe I’m not a typical case. Much of your audience, quite likely, really is still in denial or hasn’t figured it out yet. For those people, I hope for awareness of the ecosystems that support them and how they can live with those ecosystems rather than trying to deny their existence. I hope that, for those who care about the environment, they can move away from the self-defeating mindset of “do less harm”—the one that logically leads to suicide—and into the much more useful mindset of “do more good”. The society that we live in is going to fall, one way or another; that much is inescapable. But as it does, someone is going to have to pick up the pieces and go on living in the ruins, and the more people who are “doing more good” instead of “doing less harm”, the better off our descendants and the societies they live in will be. Really, authentically doing more good requires a lot of work, far more work than going vegan, a lifetime’s worth of work. But it’s better for the person who does it, better for the people who live with them, and better for the planet we live from. So let’s do that.