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Kill the Cow, Save the Tree

Dear Isa, I’m going to start at the end, addressing your skepticism about “ethical omnivores.” So yes, I eat most of my food from farmers I know personally. In the winter, I do eat a lot of non-local produce, and … Read More

By / May 15, 2007

Dear Isa,

I’m going to start at the end, addressing your skepticism about “ethical omnivores.” So yes, I eat most of my food from farmers I know personally. In the winter, I do eat a lot of non-local produce, and I eat rice from Arkansas, and olive oil from Italy, but even then most of my animal food is local.

The farms that supply me are pretty idyllic. There are many people like me who really care. We are seriously committed to eating in an ethical way.

Can “idyllic” agriculture support six billion people? Well, it uses far less fossil fuel and groundwater than factory farming. Factory farming is only more efficient in dollar and labor terms, not in productivity per acre of land. In a truly sustainable agricultural system, we will spend much more time per capita to grow the same amount of food. I think this is a good thing.

By the way, much of the land used for grazing animals would be unsuitable for horticulture. This is the flaw in the argument that it takes ten calories of grain to produce one calorie of meat. However, I do think that in a truly sustainable system meat production would be lower than it is today. We overeat and waste enormous amounts. As much as half of all food is wasted today.

I hear your exasperation, but when I question your moral differentiation between plant and animal life, it’s not because I’ve failed to understand your points. Have you ever stood before a 300-foot-tall redwood or a thousand-year-old oak, and felt yourself in the presence of a great and wise spirit? I would sooner kill a cow than chop down such a tree. Perhaps I would sooner die. To say it is “just wood” would be to show the same prejudice toward plants that you decry toward animals.

Logic says, hey, it’s just a bunch of wood, just a collection of cells that are themselves composed of inanimate carbon, nitrogen, and so on. But this is precisely the same logic that Descartes’ followers used to justify their grisly experiments on animals, explaining cries of pain as nothing more than the wheezing of bellows and the creaking of wheels. At bottom, it’s all just force and mass, right? In our despoliation of the planet, we routinely use such logic to trump our innate biophilia, the love of all life that resides in our hearts.

I question your assumption that a plant doesn’t have the “necessary hardware” for sentience. Shall we dismiss millennia of shamanic experience that says otherwise? Or is sentience purely a function of a central nervous system—most highly developed in humans. (Here again is the implicit hierarchy of being, with us at the top.)

As a matter of fact, the intricate non-linear feedback loops of a central nervous system are rivaled if not exceeded in complexity by plant interactions mediated by root networks, mycelial networks, volatile aromatics, and other vectors. Stephen Buhner describes this beautifully in The Lost Language of Plants. I also recommend Elliot Cowan’s Plant Spirit Medicine for its compelling accounts of plant-human communication. I find a certain hubris in dismissing shamanistic beliefs as mere superstition, as you did when you claimed that “they came up with animal spirits.” I think it is the reduction of the natural world to a collocation of forces and masses that enables us to destroy the planet with expected impunity.

Most of our plant and animal food species are in a sense no longer "natural." A modern chicken wouldn’t live very long in the wild, and modern corn cannot even reproduce without human assistance. Like other species, we live in symbiotic dependency with our food sources.

I do not share your feeling that something has “gone wrong” in the gazelle’s moment of terror in the lion’s jaws, just as I see nothing wrong in another gazelle’s last agonizing, desperate struggle to rise to its feet as extreme old age overtakes it. Death and pain are part of life. Suffering is distinct from pain. I have experienced enormous pain without suffering. Suffering comes from resistance and attachment, and in a sense no one can make another person suffer. I am not excusing or justifying anything here, just questioning whether the prolonging of life and minimizing of pain are indeed the highest ethical guidelines. One way to investigate is to apply it to yourself. Have you, in your life, taken risks and endured discomfort in the pursuit of things more important to you than security and comfort?

What alternative ethical principles could there be, then? Any coherent, satisfying ethical system must address the obvious and profound wrongness that emanates from our present agricultural system, and especially factory meat production. But I think that vegetarians, perhaps being more sensitive to this wrongness than most, have misidentified its source. The animals are going to die anyway, whether or not we kill them, and in death there is usually terror or pain. The source of the wrongness is not killing. It is life out of balance. It is life distorted, contorted, perverted into a grotesque and hellish mockery of life.

You might ask, how can we know what the life purpose of another being is? Without that knowledge, isn’t it wrong to cut that life short? My answer is that we have an innate ability to recognize what is balanced, beautiful, harmonious, and right. The heart knows that a complex rainforest ecosystem is more beautiful than a parking lot.

Unfortunately, our culture has so alienated us from our natural wisdom that we no longer choose what is right. We have been intimidated by powerful economic and ideological forces that have marooned us in a realm of narrow self-interest and rationality.

Reason has its place, but it is the heart that knows. No Benthamite quantification of happiness and suffering will help us choose ethically. We can try to create a calculus of suffering, counting the pounds of biomass killed, the number of earthworms destroyed, the units of sentience in an insect vs. a cow vs. a human, and solve this vast equation to make a decision. But we would be rationalizing what we already know, and deceiving ourselves if we pretended to decide right from wrong on the basis of the equation. Such elaborations usually obscure rather than clarify.

In the end, I choose local organic food because it feels right. Soon in our dialog I hope to share with you how the same feeling has guided me to eat meat—the story of my journey to vegetarianism and back again!

With gentleness,

Charles

NEXT: What if I feel that we should listen to Neil Diamond, shoot heroin, and play D&D?

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