Meat is oppression

Update: Since writing this piece, the reasons to stop eating meat have grown ever more compelling. I already spelled out the serious environmental damage caused by the meat industry, but we now know that the livestock industry is also one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases - it accounts for nearly 1/5 of all human-induced emissions, more than all cars, planes, and other forms of transportation combined. In addition, because meat production is such an inefficient use of cropland, the world's increasing demand for meat is now starting to put pressure on global food supplies and the world's most vulnerable people are starting to go hungry so that the richest can enjoy their meat. I still believe the philosophical arguments are most compelling, but the idea that human welfare crucially depends on a significant decrease in our consumption of meat is something that cannot be contested no matter what your view on the moral value of nonhuman life is. [2008.02.13]

When many of us first become aware of problems like sweatshops, abuse of migrant laborers, union busting, or environmental damage caused by overconsumption, our first instinct is to address the problem by changing our buying patterns. We are, after all, a nation of consumers. Choosing what to buy is as much a part of our identity as "family member", "friend", or "student".

So we start buying fair trade coffee, sweat-free clothes, organic produce, earth-friendly cleaning products. All of which is good; we should all be conscious consumers. But focusing on products explicitly marketed to progressive consumers might distract us from far more useful changes we could make in our consuming.

The single most important change you can make in how you consume is to stop eating meat. In contrast to other products we regularly buy, Americans eat meat every day. And though corporations today create pain and environmental waste everywhere they go, the meat industry is responsible for uniquely massive amounts of both.

According to the USDA, the average American eats around 200 pounds of meat a year. To meet this extraordinary demand, the modern meat industry has invented the factory farm, an institution that mechanizes the raising of animals for slaughter — and makes the process brutally efficient.

Most people's image of farm animals involves a sunny field, a barn, and animals wandering around freely. The factory farm is as far from this as a playground is from a concentration camp. Animals are crowded together in tightly-packed pens that prevent them from moving. They are fed an unnatural diet of feed grains meant to fatten them up for slaughter as fast as possible. Then they are shot full of antibiotics because their excruciating living conditions breed rampant disease.

Pigs have their teeth broken off and their tails cut off because, under these conditions, they tend to attack each other and chew on the tails of the animal caged in front of them. Chickens' beaks are sheared off with hot blades because overcrowding otherwise leads them to peck each other to death. Throughout their lives, these animals suffer terrible pain, until the day they're taken to the slaughterhouse and many are dismembered while fully conscious.

Our moral responsibility to these animals is no less than to the cats and dogs we've outlawed cruelty against. I would go further, and say that these animals have just as much a right as humans do to lives free of pain and open to pleasure, and to protection from a violent death. What exactly is the difference between humans and other animals that makes it okay to torture and slaughter the one but not the other? We all have desires, we all feel pain.

In the past, when people have sought to justify the exploitation and killing of other humans, they've simply defined the target group as fundamentally different and inferior. This is always the logic used by apologists for slavery, apartheid, gender inequality, homophobia, genocide, and war. "They" are below "us", so the rights we acknowledge as ours need not be given to them.

The dominant attitude toward nonhuman animals is simply another expression of this all-too-honored approach. For most people it's just common sense: we kill and exploit animals because they're different. Slavery was once understood in the same way. Anytime committing violence seems so natural, we should be worried.

Eliminating meat would not only reduce pain and killing, it would also eliminate one of the top two or three most environmentally destructive human industries. Along with the chemicals and petroleum industries, the meat industry threatens to make the planet virtually unlivable for humans.

The most visible environmental damage is seen at factory farms, where animal waste is concentrated in huge amounts. The smell makes living in the area virtually impossible, and the runoff badly pollutes nearby water systems.

But a much bigger threat to the environment is found in the intersection of meat and big agribusiness. To feed the enormous numbers of animals raised for meat consumption, the American grain industry has dramatically expanded the percentage of grain it produces to feed meat animals rather than humans. Today more than 70 percent of U.S. grain production goes to livestock. But it takes 6 to 10 pounds of grain fed to livestock to produce only 1 pound of meat, meaning that this is a tremendously inefficient food system.

But so what, if we have the capacity? The answer is that our current methods of grain production are deeply unsustainable, and take a major longterm toll on the land. We might be able to afford such inefficiency today, but soon enough the land will be ravaged beyond use.

Today's monoculture grain production (planting acres and acres with just one crop rather than diversified farms with crop rotation) is heavily dependent on the intensive use of water and energy and on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These practices contribute to water pollution, global warming, the depletion of water sources, and tend to erode topsoil and the fertility of the land. Despite the incredible yields this form of agriculture makes possible, it is simply not viable in the long term.

Yet maintaining current levels of meat eating means relying on the indefinite availability of such yields. The planet just isn't capable of such a thing; something's got to give. Either we switch to sustainable agriculture (meaning lower yields) and accept a low-meat or meat-free diet, or the food system will eventually collapse, leaving us with much less food and a lot more strife over who gets it.

"Low-meat diet"? Yes, a sustainable food system probably is consistent with some meat eating. But if we're committed to a sustainable world with equality, it will be a low level of meat indeed. Right now the world's food economies are geared toward producing meat for the rich countries (USA, Europe, Japan) and for the elites of poor countries. This is a small fraction of the world's population. Evenly distributing this meat to the billions of vegetarians-by-necessity would mean a drastic cut even to Americans' current unsustainably high levels of consumption — so that cut would be even bigger if we reduced meat to sustainable levels.

At that point we'd have to make a choice: continue producing meat and follow in the footsteps of those who denied the right to life and happiness for all of history's "others". Or choose a path more in line with the heritage of liberation we usually subscribe to.

But isn't vegetarianism an attack on the world's food cultures? How can we ask people — even historically oppressed people — to give up important cultural practices? The first, easy answer: there are many vegetarian ways to duplicate meat — try Blind Faith in Evanston, Alice and Friends in Edgewater, or Soul Vegetarian on the South Side if you're skeptical.

Beyond that, liberation movements have always understood that people's most cherished traditions might still be caught up in forms of oppression. From chivalry in gender relations to the gentility of the old South, valued cultures have rested on unacceptable forms of degradation and inequality. Giving up some of your favorite dishes seems a small price to pay next to the cruelty, death, and environmental catastrophe brought to us by meat.