Friday, April 22, 2011

The Carnivore's Dilemma

This morning I read a piece by Bob Comis, a contributing writer on Grist (and according to his bio, a guy who was a "very unsuccessful vegan" after a three-month attempt). The title had intrigued me: "The omnivore's other dilemma: expanding access to non-industrial food," a topic that interests me very much. It turned out this was not about access to non-industrial food, but non-industrial meat. As I read, I found myself mentally backing up to a time when I ate meat regularly, and was just beginning to make the journey from taking animal food for granted, through the incremental steps to demanding naturally, organically and humanely raised animal food, to realizing I couldn't justify eating animal food at all.

There are several points that came up for me as I thought about the man's dilemma--and for my vegan readers, let me interject that we'll need to suspend our personal views for the length of this post in order to understand and empathize with the meat-eating public (which is vast). My personal view, for example, is pretty straightforward: "Eat plants--what freaking dilemma?" And it works for me, because I've made the effort to unravel the other parts of Michael Pollan's now-famous seven word solution, consider the implications of what I eat, and arrive at my own conclusions. But what about people who haven't come to the same conclusion?

Say I'm wrong. Say a human being MUST have animal food in order to be healthy and thrive. And to be honest, I really don't know, because although there are many examples of people who have been on a vegan diet for twenty, maybe even thirty years, we're all different and some of us may have specific needs that others don't--and one thing I've learned is that it never pays to be dogmatic about anything. Even after two years, I'm still thinking about this. I'm paying close attention to the way I feel on a day-to-day basis, and wondering if I'm getting all the nutrients I need to enjoy optimum health. So far so good. I haven't been sick a single day, and (I think) I'm in better shape than I was before. But let's just say I'm wrong, and people do need to eat animals. That would remove a large part of the ethical component, wouldn't it?

So here we are, in modern times, with not thousands to feed locally, but millions--and, in at least two countries, billions. There are only two possible scenarios for the near future: either we drastically cut back on our animal consumption (or simply drop it altogether), or we will ultimately destroy our environment in the attempt to feed everyone in the style to which we have become accustomed. I'm not talking ethics here; I'm talking survival. You see, when we talk about the environment, global warming, "save the planet" and all that, it's not really the planet that's in danger; it's the human species (and a lot of the animal kingdom). If we die out, the planet will most likely return to the equilibrium that made human life possible in the first place, but we will be gone.

Right or wrong, we're at a crossroads. The choice we make in the next decade or two will most likely determine whether or not we ultimately survive. Raising animals for food as we know it is following a trajectory that is unsustainable.

Yes, it's possible to raise animals naturally, humanely and kindly. I'm not too sure about killing them this way, but I suppose that an argument could be made that this is possible too, by taking the time to do it carefully and consciously, calming the animal, giving it as swift and painless a death as possible. This, for example, is the essence of "hallal," the "permitted" method of animal slaughter according to Islam--everything must be done to minimize suffering, and even at the moment of cutting the animal's throat (with so sharp a knife that it barely realizes what has occurred), the executioner, with an attitude of humility and gratitude, utters "bismillah"  ("in the name of God"). With a meat-eater's view in mind, I could never argue with this approach. It covers just about every possible ethical angle--if one believes animal consumption is necessary. Native Americans had their own version of this, as have many cultures around the world.

But here's the carnivore's dilemma: how can this realistically be done on a scale that will feed meat to billions of people every day? How, indeed, could we even manage to supply dairy products alone (humanely, organically, naturally, kindly, sustainably) to all these people?

The answer is not a vegan answer; it's a human answer. I don't call myself a vegan; I'm simply a human being who's paying attention and wants to do the right thing--no more, no less. And from all that I can tell, the answer is concise and straightforward--even without considering the degrading filth, disease, unconscionable cruelty, and irresponsible pollution associated with mass animal farming: it really can't be done, and if we hope to survive as a species, it must be drastically cut back or abandoned.

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