Book Review: Eating Animals
By Cody Sexton
Note: This is not a defense of factory farming. Such a horrific capitalist institution could never be defended.
This is going to be a different sort of review (I hesitate to even call it a review) as I feel the book is already fairly well known. (Sam Anderson actually summarized the book perfectly well enough when he wrote):
“Eating Animals is a personal journey that follows, roughly, the Divine Comedy template. Halfway along life’s path, Foer finds himself lost in a dark wood: With fatherhood approaching, he feels compelled to make a final decision about the ethics of eating meat. Like Dante, Foer is an allegorical figure: he stands in for educated meat-conscious American citizens, those of us who’ve been troubled by PETA fliers but remain trapped, as he was, in diets of “conscientious inconsistency.” So he goes on a journey of discovery. First he descends into hell: An activist helps him sneak into an industrial turkey farm in the middle of the night, where he witnesses unimaginable suffering. (His guide slits the throat of a sick baby turkey who’s been left to die.) Next he explores the purgatory of indecision: Is it okay to reject meat as a sacred bond of social cohesion (e.g., his grandmother’s magical chicken and carrots)? Finally, he ascends to a kind of heaven: a tour of an heirloom turkey farm run by a heroic artisanal farmer.”
So instead, I would like to offer a few thoughts in reference to some of the books main ideas (not offering counter arguments exactly, which I encounter fairly regularly in regards to the merits of a plant-based regimen, but perhaps, I hope, offering a different perspective on the topic of vegetarianism/veganism altogether).
For about seven years I adhered to a strictly vegetarian diet, up until the time I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. And yet, during this time I was never once persuaded to become vegan. Why? Two reasons: (1) Whenever you have lots of people agreeing in principle to a goal that is impossible for most to achieve in practice, you have something resembling a religion. (Religions are all about setting standards that most people can never live up to). And (2) and more importantly, it struck me as an ideology that had a fundamental unwillingness to account, nor answer, for the privilege it required.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing to adopt a plant-based diet for personal ethics, but there is a problem when “eating ethically” is reduced to the black and white morals of “plant = good” vs. “animal = evil” without any consideration for the finer intersections of our greater food system. (A system where food is seen as a luxury. Where even health is seen as a luxury. Hell, even supplementing our diets with vitamins because our food is shit, is a luxury).
Not everyone can cut meat out of their diet sustainably or healthfully. It may not be an option for people in low-income households or, like myself, those people living with disabilities or chronic conditions. And regardless of what you’ve been told, there is such a thing as a sacrifice that goes beyond what is reasonable for each individual. (Morality should never be placed on the shoulders of individuals alone).
So don’t blame people for their food choices in an unequal system that’s completely out of their control. Instead, ask what’s realistic for their lifestyle and their individual needs. (Understand: food purchasing and consumption is a complicated global system, a system that’s not so easily altered or reformed by spending more of your dollars in one category).
But let me ask you this: If supermarkets disappeared overnight what would you do? You would obviously eat whatever your local environment could provide. For the majority of people, that would include meat. Plant-based diets are not natural to climates and landscapes that don’t support varied plant life. Furthermore, many animals are efficient converters of scrubby vegetation to a usable form of protein for humans. This has served countless cultures in areas of the globe without tillable soil. Sometimes I think people forget this. (Or choose to forget it). Which, again, is what makes veganism an absurdly privileged choice. (In fact, many people in developing countries are nearly vegan already. They are also starving, but there’s certainly no choice in that).
I am not however arguing that you shouldn’t be vegan just because someone else cannot. I’m simply pointing out that the vegan movement assumes everyone has the privilege of choice when clearly they do not. I’m also making an argument resolutely against the idea of ethical consumption. There is no such thing as ethical consumption under Capitalism. (This is also partly the reason vegetarianism always struck me as the more rational/ethical choice as it seemed more willing to take into account varying contingencies).
If you want to be a vegan, I have no issues with this. I assume that your heart is in the right place and you want the best for animals. I respect that, I wish more people would consider where their food comes from and seek to improve how animals are treated. But when you preach that veganism does the least harm or is the most ethical choice, that is simply not the case.
As for animal rights versus animal welfare, I would argue that while every creature deserves the respect of a humane death, no animal has the right to live forever. Humans included.
I’m often asked in response to this, what then might my answer be to the question: What would I say to an alien civilization that wanted to use humans as a food source? If aliens promised to provide humans with a pleasant life, one where all their needs where met and they were satisfied (much like ethical farmers are attempting to do now) what would then be my objection to raising them for food? (Since some humans must consume animal flesh, so too must some aliens consume human flesh in order to live.)
But I don’t have an objection. That’s actually the best someone could hope for. To have a pleasant life and a good death.
If I could have somehow been offered those terms upon birth, I would have readily accepted it. We all end up as food for something else anyway. If I could be guaranteed a good, decent life with a quick painless death at the end of it, I’d take it. I don’t think anyone could argue competently that the alternative would be preferable. It’s obvious to me that in creating a world where people, even if they had incredibly short lives filled only with the highest pleasures, would be preferable to one where people had long but barely pleasurable lives. (Such as the ones most of us are forced to live now). Understand: death is not a loss, but a finality to a contribution, the release of a purpose served, therefore: a happy sacrifice).
If you find such thoughts uncomfortable, good. Mindful meat eating forces us to remember that we, too—despite all of our rational powers and moral capacities—will eventually pass away. (We, too, are destined to end up as worm food, the cycle of life and death turning once more). Through the commonality of death, we reaffirm our kinship with the other animals on Earth. (To eat meat is to consume the body of the world).
It offers us a chance to remember that the animal kingdom runs on blood and that we, too, are part of that kingdom whether we like it or not. (What if we were to accept that pain is an inescapable part of being an animal? What if we were to fearlessly acknowledge our own mortality, and in doing so recognize that we share something essential with animals: death?)
Maybe part of getting older is realizing that it’s impossible to live a life without causing others to suffer. (In this world nobody escapes life without getting a little blood on their hands). And the unresolved tension of a strict animal rights philosophy is that, by severing us from our instincts, it separates us from our animal cousins. Animal liberation rests on an idea of human exceptionalism—man as moral paragon, untethered from the muck of the earth. When in reality man is just another ape, born between a river of piss and shit, that sweats and stinks with all the rest of creation.
Cody Sexton is the managing editor for A Thin Slice of Anxiety and author of All the Sweet Prettiness of Life. His work has been featured at: The Diverse Perspective, Writer Shed Stories, Detritus, Revolution John, Due Dissidence, and As It Ought To Be Magazine where he is a regular contributor. In addition he is also a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee for his pioneering essay The Body of Shirley Ann Sexton.