Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Eating Animals I

Three years ago, I attended my fourth year of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer program. That year, my chosen course was Ethics (section B), and the instructor was Dr. Mark Ralkowski (which my have been a significant part of why I signed up for the course). The year was 2010, I was sixteen, and I'd been entrusted with the sacred laurels of the Poetry Goddess, organizer of weekly poetry-night readings open to all campers (and staff).

That year, Mark tried out a unit that he had developed for his college students (at U. New Mexico in those days...) on the ethics of agriculture. We read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, talked about eating animals, and stopped eating animals. (Every one of us except one boy nicknamed 'Steaknife', whose real name I can't remember for the life of me.)

Our reasons, as I recall, were mixed. Some of us cared about animal suffering, some about the environment, and some were just grossed out by the meat-packing industry. ('Meat-packing', I learned, is a term more relevant than ever today, as 'the packing of meat into small metal containers' accurately describes the lives of modern livestock as well as it does their postmortem processing.)

I'm really not sure why I went vegetarian. I do remember the moment that I stopped eating a plate of chicken tenders; I suddenly a-lieved that the plate of food I was putting into my mouth was the same product that had absorbed 10%-30% of its net weight from "fecal soup" -- that is, slaughterhouse-wastewater "cooling vats". And when I came home, I told my mother that I was a vegetarian now, and she started cooking meatless dinners (with occassional meat on the side for the then-still animal-eating family members.)

A word of advice for aspiring vegetarians: before telling people that you don't eat meat, have ready your answer to the question "why not?" Because they will ask you. Not every time, but often enough that you get tired of shrugging and brushing them off with a "y'know". (To be fair, I ask that damnable question of every vegetarian I meet. I like to think of myself not as a hypocrite, but simply uncontrollably curious.)

aside: A flight attendant just got my attention to ask me if I had, in fact, ordered a vegetarian meal (I'm writing from a 14-hour nonstop from New York to Beijing.) You know, just to be absolutely sure that they didn't accidentally give me half a meal by mistake. Of course, neither passenger next to me was asked whether it was the chicken, beef, or fish that they wanted -- presumably, those mix-ups were excusable. (Even though the difference in animal suffering per kilogram between chicken and beef is an estimated 35 times larger than that between beef and vegetables.)

At this point, though, I don't know what to say when asked "why?". I don't know what to tell people who want to know why I don't eat meat; early on, I'd attempt to give them a two-minute synopsis of JSF's book -- I'd rush through an explanation of CAFOs AND the adverse environmental effects AND the lamentable paradox of industry-regulated 'animal welfare' (do I need to link this one?) AND the abhorable exploitation of (human) manual laborers AND the health effects (okay, just go and read the book if you want an explanation) AND the way it just seemed disgusting to me now AND that I had been doing it for a while now, so I might as well continue AND ... sometimes I go tired and my answer become "I was never a big meat-eater before; why not?" Most recently, I've decided that my default off-the-cuff reply will be "status quo bias, I guess", because that's more true than anything else, in the end.

I've been vegetarian for three years, and I still don't know why. The proximal cause was something in those three weeks in 2010, but I'm not really sure precisely what. It's not really that I care about animals (It's not that I like knowing that they're suffering, and I don't -- in the abstract -- wish to profit from their pain, but I still feel that anti-animal-suffering charities are a waste of altruistic effort. Non-speciesists: if you like, you can rail at me for not being part of the solution, but at least I'm sub-medially part of the problem.)

aside: Yesterday, I was handed a flier about the benefits -- ethical, environmental, medical -- of veganism; I walked five steps and dropped it in a trash can. The time that my mother told me "I can do vegetarian, but vegan is just insane" was, I think, a formative moment. "Humans," a professor of mine once told her class, "cannot always be conscious. Somewhere in the day, we are hypocrites placing our faith somewhere, before we can go anywhere."

It's not really about saving the planet -- vegetarianism and a modicum of local-food-ism are almost literally the only things I do that are even slightly environmentalist (granted, outcome-wise, this probably makes me more of an environmentalist than most environmentalists). It's not about meatpackers' rights -- I believe altruistic interventions are likely to be orders of magnitude more effective in the third-world. Maybe it's about health -- I try to be generally health-conscious on principle, but believing that the human body can work perfectly well with no meat requires a little too much faith in dietary reductionism for me to hang my hat on it. Maybe it's driven by basic system-1 disgust (the rationalist in me hopes that I'm better than that), or maybe it's just a part of carving out an ego in identity-space (shudder) or maybe it's a high-school rebellious streak looking for a way to stick it to the proverbial man. (I...really hope not.)

It's difficult to explain my reasons at the best of times, and almost impossible without some sort of shared understanding. If you're interested in having this conversation with me sometime, I suggest reading at least Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Omnivore's Dilemna by Michael Pollan. (If you don't, I'm going to spend a lot of time waving my hands and trying to explain them to you in vague terms.) The world of twenty-first century food production is not the least bit rural, often profoundly disturbing, and unintuitive in the extreme, so it's difficult to have substantive discussion without some background reading.

A warning, and some unsolicited advice: Everyone has their own relationship to their food, so I can't tell you how yours will change with more information. But it's unlikely that the answer is "not at all", so I would approach the matter with some caution.

Join me next time, when I'll talk about the two most compelling reasons not to be a vegetarian.