How should we fight meat?

The arguments against meat are overwhelming: the suffering imposed on the animals is unconscionable and the unnecessary killing of animals is ethically indefensible; there is no difference between pets and livestock that could possibly justify laws against cruelty to the one while industrialized horrors are committed against the other; meat is one of the main causes of global warming, air pollution, and the destruction of waterways, not to mention a colossal waste of resources; the production of meat is a major factor in the global food crisis, already causing widespread hunger and threatening large-scale violence if nothing is done.

Fighting meat is one of the most urgent issues we face - the crises in energy, food, and climate are deeply connected and are leading directly to a far more dangerous and impoverished world. Most urgent of all, every moment the number of innocent animals born to suffer horribly and then be killed without need is increasing. The OECD predicts a tragic 26 percent increase in meat consumption in developing countries alone over the next decade (The Wall Street Journal, 2008 August 1, “Brazilian Beef Clan Goes Global As Troubles Hit Market”).

Perhaps the arguments against meat are not convincing to right-wingers, who revel in their own selfishness, staunchly defend their right to take their pleasure at the expense of others, and delight in a violent masculinity. Yet most liberals and radicals eat meat as well, and many vegetarians eventually go back to eating meat. Despite the increasing awareness of the horrors of factory farms and the connection between meat production and both global warming and the food crisis, the percentage of Americans who are strict vegetarians remains a stagnant three percent, while the media continue to marginalize vegetarianism as a viable solution to the ethical and environmental devastation produced by meat (for the latest example, see this Chicago Tribune article, which explores every technological fix imaginable to the methane emissions of livestock while ignoring the obvious possibility of reducing or eliminating demand).

How are we to explain this? To a certain extent it’s simply ignorance - while the media have very tentatively begun to discuss meat’s connection to climate change, still only a handful of articles have been published since the news blackout started to crumble. Neither has the connection to the global food crisis captured much attention. Op-ed and editorial writers focus much anger on ethanol subsidies - a line of argument in keeping with their free-market principles - but ignore the massive inefficiency of producing crops to feed to animals, which is equally at fault for straining food supplies. Instead, the extremely high levels of meat consumption in the rich world and rapidly rising levels in 中国/China, India, and Brasil are treated as a force of nature.

If lack of information plays a part, willful ignorance may be just as big a factor. Many people are vaguely aware that the conditions at factory farms are unacceptable, but resolutely avoid exposing themselves to the many available online resources so that they can bury their guilt and keep eating meat. And even those people who feel bad about the industrialized torture of animals are perfectly comfortable with killing and eating animals if they don’t suffer. This line of thinking remains a fascinating mystery to me. Who would ever say that killing a human for pleasure is okay if it’s done painlessly? The animal itself wants to keep living at least as much as it wants to avoid pain - in supporting “humane” slaughter, whose feelings are we really protecting?

What we’re dealing with is more complicated than simply a lazy hypocrisy sustained by the old “meat tastes good” so-called argument. The fact of the matter is that human supremacy over other animals and the eating of meat is a deep-seated and intimate component of most people’s identities. How else can we understand the surprisingly defensive reaction that many people have when the subject is raised? Like racism, male chauvinism, xenophobia, antigay feelings, and other supremacies, domination over animals is both “common sense” until it meets strong organized resistance, and impossible to overcome simply thru the liberal remedy of “education”. A new culture and widely-shared identity must be forged that explicitly rejects human supremacy if the antimeat movement is to succeed.

Knowing all this, what are we supposed to do? I tried to start a conversation here and failed - the discussion here was more successful but came to no solid conclusions. Kyle’s suggestion to make common cause with other progressive issues is a good one, but the meat issue seems uniquely resistant to such an approach. For many people human supremacy is the ground upon which progressive politics are based - witness the vitriolic reaction that met PETA’s comparison of the livestock industry to the slave trade.

The obvious exception is on global warming and other environmental issues. Mainstream environmental groups have thus far been incredibly cautious on the livestock connection and refuse to even raise the issue, so putting pressure on them to discuss all the factors behind climate change is one direction forward. The food crisis is another potential line of attack, especially as high food prices increasingly hurt poor Americans, but seems to have drawn little attention so far amongst progressives.

Popular education efforts calling attention to meat's role in climate change and the food crisis are another possibility. Most people associate opposition to the killing of animals with marginalized subcultures like hippies or new age practitioners, and are unwilling to confront the fact that their eating habits are responsible for horrific animal cruelty, so framing the issue as a crisis of environmental sustainability and food security gives us a major new line of attack in raising the issue. Pamphleting during lunchtime or holding protests about the negative consequences for people of meat production is probably the most effective way of communicating with the vast majority of the population that doesn't even think twice about human supremacy. Once someone has changed enough to become vegetarian, considering the ethics of dominating animals is made far easier.

Another important target is the media. Generally reporters won’t cover anything that politicians avoid, so it will take public pressure and high-profile protests to force meat onto the public agenda. Every reporter who ignores reducing or eliminating meat-eating as a solution to these problems should be met with a barrage of emails demanding an exploration of all sides (that Tribune reporter's email address is mhawthorne@tribune.com). And reporters specializing in climate change should be constantly reminded that the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector (on the blog of New York Times environment reporter Andy Revkin (anrevk@nytimes.com), which focuses mainly on global warming, the livestock industry’s role in the crisis has not been covered once, and The New York Times has yet to publish a news article on the issue). We should also make a point to contact the editors who aren’t assigning reporters to investigative efforts that might help us understand why runoff from factory farms keeps killing people who eat vegetables, why the brutality against animals in slaughterhouses is so often mirrored by brutality against the workers there, and how factory farms have driven a complete reorganization of the agricultural economy over the last generation (this page lists editorial contacts at The Times - and don't forget to include the public editor, whose job is to provide oversight at the paper).

In some states, the best way to raise the meat issue is thru popular referenda. The run-up to a vote allows public discussion of the issues - which can range far beyond the ballot proposal and play an important role in educating the public and challenging widely-accepted ideas on the human relationship with other animals. A proposition (Prop 2) to ban tiny cages for chickens, pigs, and calves is on the California ballot this November. This is a hugely important referendum to win - both to reduce animal suffering and to energize the movement in the rest of the country. If you live in California, you should consider becoming active in the fight to pass the measure; if not, talk to any friends or relatives living in California.

Finally, we should consider using the emotional appeals that exist comfortably within the discourse of human supremacy but may be most effective at reaching people who have been taught their entire life no other way of thinking. Nicholas Kristof’s most recent column may express his own rank hypocrisy in recognizing the intelligence and individuality of farm animals while continuing to kill and eat them. Yet it also makes one of the most powerful appeals for compassion that I’ve read. Many a meat-eater might think twice after reading something like this.
I’m a farm boy who grew up here in the hills outside Yamhill, Ore., raising sheep for my F.F.A. and 4-H projects. At various times, my family also raised modest numbers of pigs, cattle, goats, chickens and geese, although they were never tightly confined.

Our cattle, sheep, chickens and goats certainly had individual personalities, but not such interesting ones that it bothered me that they might end up in a stew. Pigs were more troubling because of their unforgettable characters and obvious intelligence. To this day, when tucking into a pork chop, I always feel as if it is my intellectual equal.

Then there were the geese, the most admirable creatures I’ve ever met. We raised Chinese white geese, a common breed, and they have distinctive personalities. They mate for life and adhere to family values that would shame most of those who dine on them.

While one of our geese was sitting on her eggs, her gander would go out foraging for food — and if he found some delicacy, he would rush back to give it to his mate. Sometimes I would offer males a dish of corn to fatten them up — but it was impossible, for they would take it all home to their true loves.

Once a month or so, we would slaughter the geese. When I was 10 years old, my job was to lock the geese in the barn and then rush and grab one. Then I would take it out and hold it by its wings on the chopping block while my Dad or someone else swung the ax.

The 150 geese knew that something dreadful was happening and would cower in a far corner of the barn, and run away in terror as I approached. Then I would grab one and carry it away as it screeched and struggled in my arms.

Very often, one goose would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me. It would be the mate of the one I had caught, male or female, and it would step right up to me, protesting pitifully. It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.
Those are some ideas, but they're not really that satisfying against a problem so enormous and pressing. Any other thoughts?


jenny said...

a few things: 1. you can't confront people while they're eating, they will instinctively be defensive and not listen to you 2. pictures and videos are very powerful and we should use them more 3. when you talk to people about meat consumption, it's important to emphasize that even small changes in eating habits can make an impact. not everyone needs to become vegan immediately (although that would be ideal). gradual lifestyle changes are much more appealing/likely.

Jake said...

good point on #3 - it's very easy to get absorbed in the argument and forget that eating less meat is the first step toward more fundamental changes. i'm not sure i agree on #1 tho. lunch or dinner is obviously not the ideal time, but it's often the only chance you get to bring it up. i think the key is to *not* be confrontational (one-on-one interactions should never be confrontational), but to still make very calm and reasoned arguments. especially if you're sharing information that the person didn't know before (like the global warming or food crisis connections), the person you're talking to should have no reason to be defensive.

pictures and videos are powerful, but the question is how we're supposed to use them. like i was arguing, most people actively avoid that kind of thing because it would put them in a very uncomfortable position.

any thoughts about organized efforts? is it helpful to hold protests or do the kind of stuff PETA does?

Sandy said...

I agree that eliminating or reducing how much meat you consume can be one of the easiest (and least expensive!) ways to reduce your carbon footprint. I work for Meatless Monday, a non profit public health campaign that encourages people to give up meat one day a week to lower their risk of a number of preventable diseases. However, we also know that eating less meat is good for the environment in addition to your health. Take a look at www.meatlessmonday.com for some recipe ideas. We also have an article up about meat and the environment with some great resources for more information at http://www.meatlessmonday.com/dyk_environment

Patrick said...

As has been mentioned...the benefits of meat reduction (vs. outright elimination) are huge, particularly given how much meat is consumed by most Americans. Asking/inspiring people to cut down to 4 or 5 servings per week could still reduce meat consumption by 75% of more. (Just pulling numbers out of thin air...but I'd be surprised if they weren't that significant, considering that most people probably eat meat 2x a day or more.)

I've always wondered whether it would be possible to promote vegetarianism for poor people, as an alternative to the calorie-rich, nutrition-poor foods that they so often consume. One of the most powerful *social* arguments to me is that people on the lower end of the economic scale could get much more nutritive value out of a veggie diet than a meat-based diet, considering the execrable quality of inexpensive meat, and this would clearly have an impact on the serious health disparities in the U.S. as well as on animals.

Would it be easier, do you think, to reduce people's meat consumption through non-animal-based arguments, *then* introduce themes of animal cruelty and welfare once people have experienced the possibility of a (partly) vegetarian diet?

Jake said...

I'd love to see a poor people's vegetarian movement, both for the reasons I want everyone to be vegetarian and because it would get us out of the uncomfortable position of lecturing disadvantaged people about what they should be doing. And there's some reason for optimism. According to the Tribune, purchasing of meat substitutes is higher in minority households than white households - twice as high amongst Latinos. Since class generally tracks race, there might be something to build off of. But I'm not sure that overeducated white people - which seems to be the main constituency of ethical vegetarianism - have much social space to encourage that kind of thing. Can you think of any way around that?

jenny said...

the best socioeconomic arguments i've heard concerning food choices are about eliminating food deserts in poor areas. it's hard to ask people to make ethical food choices when they have no choices to begin with.

food waste is another thing. tons of really nice produce gets thrown into dumpsters every day because it's not salable. especially from high-end groceries like whole foods. there are several groups in chicago and other cities trying to redistribute perfectly good discarded food, that anyone can help out with. i've encountered a couple people in humboldt park who look forward to the vegan distribution every week as their "healthy" day.

community gardens help too, at getting people more involved with their food and empowering people.

aside from that, at least in chicago there is a black vegetarian community on the south side, soul vegetarian. they seem to be doing a good job spreading the word (even if it's religious) and cooking good food, and i don't think there's much place for elitist white folks like us to encroach on their particular message. but there are other ways to help.

Jake said...

veggies to go in hyde park is also run by black folks and has a mostly black clientele, but they're not connected to soul veg and aren't pushing any kind of religion. also their sandwiches are really good.

jenny said...

bob said veggies to go shut down.