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No Death, No Dinner

When people ask me how I first became a vegetarian, I’m tempted to lie. The truth is shameful: It all started with the big eyes and waggy tail of a winsome Cocker Spaniel named April, the childhood companion who left … Read More

By / May 14, 2007

When people ask me how I first became a vegetarian, I’m tempted to lie. The truth is shameful: It all started with the big eyes and waggy tail of a winsome Cocker Spaniel named April, the childhood companion who left me deeply suspicious that someone equally charming paid the ultimate price for each Big Mac.

No, the plain truth just won’t do. Carnivores leap at any chance to dismiss veggies as silly sentimentalists who couldn’t spot a serious moral dilemma if it smacked us in our mushy, protein-deficient heads. So when it’s time for vegetarian apologetics, I play a tough-minded rationalist, a solemn, furrow-browed ethicist with no time for anything so fuzzy as empathy, so frivolous as compassion.

But there’s a problem. Ever since the publication of Michael Pollan’s landmark book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “compassionate carnivores” are increasingly thick on the ground, startling vegetarians by defending meat-eating in the language of empathy and environmentalism, ethics and compassion. How the heck are we supposed to argue with this strange new breed of carnivore? We share too many premises! They sound more like us than we do! Where is this bewildering debate headed?

To find out, Jewcy conducted a little experiment: We brought together Isa Chandra Moskowitz, queen bee of ethical veganism and author of Vegan With A Vengeance, and matched her with Charles Eisenstein, author of The Yoga of Eating and pioneering theorist of enlightened, spiritually and environmentally motivated meat-eating. For our edification, Isa and Charles argue the Big Question “Can the ethical person eat meat?” The insights and sparks fly in ways this veteran veggie polemicist has never seen before…

— Joey Kurtzman

From: Charles Eisenstein To: Isa Chandra Moskowitz Subject: No death, no dinner

Dear Isa,

Let’s start with death.

Vegetarians, like the rest of us, must kill to eat. It is impossible for us to avoid killing—even an apple has living cells in it. All beings die so that others might live, and we do not think nature is evil for that. Not even the softest-hearted vegan cries for the worm that the robin plucks out of the ground. Is it an injustice that only one out of 5,000 fish spawn ever reaches adulthood? No.

Still, vegetarians are preoccupied with death. Why is it, though, that they value the lives of animals more than those of plants? It is because they’ve set up a hierarchy with—guess who?—human beings at the top.

This “hierarchy of being” is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. For the animistic hunter-gatherer, all entities—whether human, animal, plant, rock, or forest—were equally possessed of spirit. But over time humans saw less and less divinity in the world around them, gradually abstracting the concept of “spirit” in a process that reached its apogee with Descartes. “I think, therefore I am,” he wrote, thereby equating sentience with human thought and reducing the rest of the natural world to a bunch of spiritless stuff. Descartes’ ideology so saturates our culture that it’s nearly invisible to us, as water is to a fish.

I think vegetarianism is borne of a protest against this. It says, “Animals are beings too, deserving of compassion.” I think this is a step in the right direction. But we can take it further.

What would a food system look like that honored the indwelling divinity of all things?

To answer this question, we must develop an ethics that goes beyond the vegetarian’s preoccupation with killing. We must ask ourselves, “Are we eating in a way that is consistent with a world of beauty, harmony, and balance?” The answer today, whether for industrial meat production or monocrop agriculture, is a resounding No.

In our times we are awakening to a new sense of self. Rather than a Darwinian struggle for survival, we are beginning to understa
nd ecology as a vast gift network, to which each species contributes something necessary and unique. The view of the animist and the ecologist begin to coincide.

From this perspective, the ultimate crime is not killing, but preventing another creature from fulfilling its life purpose. And so the problem with today’s meat industry is not that animals die; it is that they are living a hellish life.

That is why I eat meat from farms that are themselves mini-ecosystems. On these farms, complex, mutually sustaining relationships exist between animals, birds, crops, insects, fungi, bacteria, the farm family, and the human community they serve. This is utterly different from the factory farms where animals live in misery. It also has much different effects on soil, water, air, and people.

I suppose we could argue about whether such “ecological” farms are more sustainable than all-vegetable farms. I happen to think they are. For instance, it is often less disruptive to graze animals than to break ground for crops. I have images of hogs turning compost, chickens following the farmer to eat worms he shakes out of apple trees, Muscovy ducks eating slugs in the vegetable patch. Wendell Berry offers some beautiful descriptions of the ecology of a mixed farm.

In animistic societies, the taking of life was never a cavalier act. Whether it was the slaying of a deer, the felling of a tree to make a canoe, or even the digging of a root herb, killing was always accompanied by some sort of ritual, designed to infuse the act with mindfulness. All beings die, but killing is wrong when it is done in ignorance, mindless of the consequences, callous to the purpose all beings have to their lives. All beings. Not just animals.

If we take death as the ultimate wrong, then ethics would seek to minimize death. My ethics have a different foundation. To me, a beautiful life is more important than a long life.

Yours truly,

Charles Eisenstein

Read Peter Singer’s response to Charles’s opening e-mail, here.

NEXT: If I say a prayer over you, may I kill you?

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