Saturday, August 22, 2009

An Open Letter to Vegetarians

I've enjoyed watching the seasons turn over in the meadows around my home. The fields are dominated by a resurgence of yellows and whites while roadside ditches are noticeably bare of pink and orange. The local fawns are losing their spots (and thankfully seem to be gaining caution around cars) while some bucks have sprouted velvety, 8+ point antlers.

This reminds me of a question I've always wanted to ask an intellectual vegetarian - "why?"

I admire those who make this big sacrifice in order to (profoundly) decrease their environmental footprint. Even a small decrease in meat consumption across the developed world would dramatically decrease agriculture's footprint.

I don't understand the moral argument though (as opposed to religious ones). Well, I do at first. It seems that all of ethics boils down to "it's wrong to hurt people." It's obvious and intuitive to extend this to animals, at least the more person-like ones.

A former professor of mine made the interesting observation that domesticated cats are obligate carnivores. Unlike dogs, cats can't be kept on a diet of rice and veggies. Does this mean it's unethical to keep cats as pets? I guess I could accept this corollary of vegetarianism, but it starts to lose me as I keep following it to its logical end.

Almost all vegetarians/environmentalists I've run into are big fans of reintroducing charismatic megafauna back into the wild lands our ancestors extirpated them from. The wolves of Yellowstone have been a particularly striking example. Biologists were amazed at the ecological transformation that followed the return of wolves. Wolves not only thinned out the overpopulated deer and elk herds, but created a "landscape of fear" that influenced where these herbivores travelled. Along streams, huge willow trees sprung up, spared from being browsed to the ground. Biologists hadn't even realized the willows were supposed to be there! Any Easterner who thinks hardwood forests are generally open and free of herbs and scrub have experienced this effect.

So if carnivores are required to maintain healthy and balanced ecosystems, why is it wrong for humans to participate? What difference am I missing between humans re-establishing wolves into Yellowstone and humans taking some of the prey directly? We're not really even an exotic species. Humans integrated into North American ecosystems after traveling over the Bering land bridge thousands of years ago, the same as any other major terrestrial carnivore.

I hesitate to wonder if the wolves are doing our "dirty work" for us. Most people don't hesitate to buy shrink-wrapped ham, but I don't know how many could bring themselves to kill and butcher a pig. I can't help but feel that vegetarianism might be a symptom of our disconnect with nature. No one likes death, but it's just the way this world works. We are part of the natural world, not foreign observers.

I'm especially concerned about the future ecological integrity of the eastern forests as the white-tailed deer population continues to explode. Much of this region is too densely-populated to re-establish wolves, mountain lions or bears and the number of U.S. hunters is cratering. What's the solution? Am I missing something?

Ultimately, it may be too much to ask people to explain their ethics. I'm reminded of a thought experiment that demonstrates how illogical morality is. Paraphrasing:
Imagine you see a speeding train. You know that if it continues on its track, it will kill 50 workmen around the next bend. If you throw the track switch in front of you, it will divert the train so it only kills 1 man. What would you do?
Now imagine there are still 50 men around the bend but there is no switch, only a man working near you. If you shove him in front of the train, it will stop before killing the other 50. What would you do then?
Most people would say "yes" to the first and "no" to the second, and most couldn't tell you why.

13 comments:

  1. one of these days, we're both going to drink some yuengling and contemplate these usual-philosophies vs. reason conflicts. I guarantee it will be enlightening.

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  2. haha, were you there back in high school in Jill's basement that day when Rob got ridiculed for (out of the blue) suggesting that "having a philosophical discussion" was a solution to our boredom?

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  3. Matt, your philosophical statement on morality forgot the altruistic person: "Throw yourself on the tracks to save 50 people's lives."

    I have been reading Guns, Germs, and Steel recently and have come to the chapter describing the evolution of our domesticated species. I think the valued point of the chapter to modern ag is as follows: Since we domesticated the animal, we are responsible to maintain a healthy population. Without us, this animal wouldn't of been domesticated - and probably would of been hunted to death by early humans.

    Tangentially, I came up with another philosophical point...if we didn't domesticate the cow, sheep, goat, llama, pig, etc. would have we done more damage as humans because we would of have had to kill other wild animals to meat the protein need of the population? If we take early North American Native and New Zealand populations for example, the answer would have been "YES." It is thought that early North Americans killed off the equippus (sp?) and large sloth, while Polynesians (Maori) killed off many large flightless birds in New Zealand.

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  4. That's an interesting idea.

    I wonder if early humans were likely to drive non-naive animals to extinction in addition to moas and sloths that weren't adapted to dealing with humans.

    The Amerindians were probably among the most advanced hunter-gatherer cultures, but even poison darts and hunting on horseback didn't drive tapirs or bison to extinction. I wouldn't doubt for a second though that wild pigs, sheep and goats (in addition to aurochs) could have been driven to extinction in Europe in historical times if the nobles didn't forbid it...

    I think you're on to something.

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  5. Aurochs, the ancestor of the cow is extinct. But the cow, which was domesticated, is found throughout the world. The domesticated dog is found in higher populations than the long distance relative wolf. This makes the point that there is a reason to co-evolve with a species...if that species is successful. Another tangent.

    The argument Diamond makes is that domestication of animals was basically due to traits of the animal, not human intelligence. He used the horse for example: once introduced to the Americas, escaped, wild, horses became domesticated by Native American Tribes. His conclusion is that all civilizations had the intelligence to domesticate animals, just some animals weren't able to be domesticated. This still holds true today - wild stallions, born and raised in the Colorado Wild can be broken and made into a domesticated horse.

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  6. Yeah there's no doubt that the animals (and plants) that became domesticated produced far more descendants than their neighbors.

    I'd love to see a ratio of the number of currently living corn to teosinte plants!

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  7. I love a good discussion of ethics in the morning, thanks!

    I'm not a vegetarian, and I grew up in a liberal culture very far from any hunting. Even after reaching the conclusion that hunting deer wouldn't do harm to the overall deer population, I still found the idea of a human going out to kill something for sport to be distasteful on an emotional and ethical level. Don't we strive as a species to be less violent? Must we entertain our base bloodlust?

    However, having met a few actual hunters (and finding them to be good people), and after having owned up to the fact that I don't have it in me to give up meat entirely, I now consider it my responsibility as a carnivore to be more involved in the growing and harvesting of my own meat. The first bunny that I helped to catch and eat didn't put me off from this, so my plan is to start raising chickens sometime in the next couple of years. I'll take some comfort that in raising my own meat, I won't be calling on the services of the meat industry so much.

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  8. Heartily agree about the philosophical inconsistency of vegetarianism.

    It's probably reasonable, to first order, to reject all mainstream commercial meat production on ecological, health, and humanitarian grounds. But that still leaves many small, local producers, as well as the option of raising your own. (My wife and I raise chickens for eggs and rabbits for meat in our urban garden. Don't tell the city.)

    In permaculture, the argument goes that eating (properly cultivated and harvested) meat is more ecologically sound because it allows one to harvest food indirectly from marginal land (pasture), rather than getting all your calories (directly) from prime ag land.

    I've often wanted a device -- I call it the "Dead Bunny-O-Meter" -- which would enumerate for the vegetarian the number of cute furry animals that were killed in the process of raising and harvesting, processing, packaging, and shipping their tofu.

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  9. Ha! Dead Bunny-O-Meter.

    I remember when I went on a tour of a spinach processing/freezing plant and they showed us how they filtered out the rats and birds.

    I was surprised to learn that birds nest in veggies (e.g. heads of lettuce) not uncommonly, and get scooped up in the harvest.

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  10. Nice discussion! I just came here from the Sustainablog and roamed around until I got to this post.

    One thought for the Almond Doctor: I love Guns, Germs & Steel! But I don't think that, in the absence of domesticated animals, we would've driven all the game animals extinct to feed our growing population. The only reason our population grew was that we created agriculture capable of creating a massive oversupply of food, which we've consistently matched with an oversupply of humans.

    I've been doing a lot of reading about hunter-gatherer cultures lately and have found them to be remarkably stable and sustainable - they gathered, picked or killed what they needed, and kept their populations stable and in synch with the food supply.

    Theirs is the world I admire. It's the one I catch a whiff of when I hunt. I doubt I'd ever have the courage to give up what I have and live that way, but I think it would be better for us, fellow animals and the planet as a whole.

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  11. I never noticed this post before, and even though it's more than a year old and the comments have mostly stopped, I'll try to add something.

    I've been a vegetarian about 25 years, more than half my life. I don't take any special care in my diet, and am generally pretty healthy. I don't feel weak or hungry or anything else.

    First of all it's not a sacrifice for me in any way. As a child perhaps I liked meat, but as I got older I just lost the taste for it. Certainly as a vegetarian I don't care for the taste of meat, and I don't miss it at all. I'm also not particularly repulsed by meat either.

    There is no nutritional need for meat. It's just an extra food in your diet. There are lots and lots of people who assert this is not true, but the fact of the matter is a large part of the world is vegetarian or even vegan, and there are no health consequences as a result. Eating modest amounts of meat won't hurt you, but it's of no benefit.

    Contrary to what a lot of meat eaters believe, vegetarians do not have to take any care in what they eat, other than eating a variety of foods. This is true for meat eaters too by the way.

    As a vegetarian, you don't need to worry about B12 or protein or omega-3 or anything else. You can just eat what you want. You'll find long running discussions on all these things on the Internet if you're interested, but the bottom line is in the end none of them matter.

    I have to split this over 2 comments, because Wordpress isn't accepting something so big.

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  12. Statistically speaking vegetarians and vegans are slightly more healthy than those who eat meat, but the difference is not great.

    Beyond this meat is expensive, and the way modern factory farm meat is produced is bad for the environment. Free range meats are hard to come by, and the worlds demand for meat could not be met this way, because there is not enough pasture land available.

    Increasingly there's a lot of evidence to suggest grass fed pasture meats are a lot healthier for you, and factory farm meats are very unhealthy. This is nothing new however, and knowing this was the main reason I became vegetarian in the first place, as I was unable to buy meats I found acceptable to eat.

    I have two cats. They are not vegetarian. They eat a strict diet of ordinary supermarket kibbles, and except for not feeding them so much wet food they get fat, they don't have any sort of ethical ideals imposed on them in their diet. I think virtually all vegetarians who have cats understand they can't be fed a vegetarian diet, and very few cats suffer in the hands of vegetarians.

    Yes, it's a little bit of a waste to think about all the animals that are killed for meat, but this really has nothing to do with my decision to be vegetarian. As well as not having the desire to eat meat, I also don't have the desire to slaughter any animals. I slaughtered a chicken when I was in college, and I didn't find that very fun.

    In the same way as meat, I find factory farm eggs I buy at the supermarket or even organic markets to be disgusting. There is just something about eggs produced on a large scale that makes them almost inedible for me. On the other hand I had a friend who raised their own chickens, and found those eggs delicious! It's mostly the same with cheese, as I almost only eat cheeses I buy from local farmers. Other cheese tastes like plastic to me.

    I don't eat meat because I'm vegetarian, but if I were to eat meat I suspect it would be the same way. I would make friends with the farmer, go and visit his animals, and choose the one I was going to eat.

    I have a friend who is a cheese farmer, and sells the meat from his cows. This might be the kind of meat I would eat, but he doesn't even eat it himself as far as I know! I don't think the idea of eating his own cows appeals to him. He doesn't know I'm vegetarian, and has never offered me any of the meat.

    So now you might ask why I don't eat GMOs?

    Well, I think a similar argument could be made. They aren't a necessary part of my diet. There is nothing special when it comes to taste. It's no sacrifice not to eat them, and there are plenty of alternatives available. There are some credible arguments to be made concerning health and the environment, and few credible arguments over their benefits.

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  13. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary!

    These discussions always get fired up when people draw lines in the sand but I think your thought process illustrates how sometimes (maybe most of the time) supposedly politically-charged decisions are made for very normal, mundane reasons (like not particularly liking meat in the first place).

    It's funny, whenever vegetarianism comes up, I think about how much I like certain types/cuts of meat - like charred, medium rare steaks (mmmm....). it feels really important in the moment, but now that I think about it, I've probably eaten two steaks in the past 12 months, so it's clearly not a very important part of my life...

    This post was inspired by some self-righteous airhead vegetarians I know, but I bet most people who dont eat meat have much less sensational reasons for their decisions...

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