Foer makes the case, in this final chapter of Eating Animals, that food is at the heart of the human dilemma. Eating is the most universal act, and its implications are far reaching. What we eat affects our relationship with our environment, our relationship with family and with our extended family – the other living beings that inhabit this planet. Food is a source of comfort for most people. We eat, many times, to resolve our anxieties. We eat to forge social bonds and to escape, temporarily, from the constant barrage of demands we face in life. Eating, then, is the activity which most calls on us to consult our conscience, and the activity we are least willing to examine.
When we talk about eating animals, the conflict between remembering and forgetting is only intensified. As Foer points out, over the past few years awareness of factory farms has become increasingly widespread. Anyone who reads newspapers or pays even minimal attention to the world outside their front yard has to go out of their way not to know that their meat is conceived, raised and killed in cruelty, that the safety of meat is dubious at best, and that modern systems of animal agriculture have a devastating impact on the environment.
Why aren’t people willing to face up to these facts, which are clearly in their best interest to acknowledge? Possibly because reality is sobering, and it will take the sizzle out of your back yard barbecue and the thanks out of your Thanksgiving turkey feast. This is not a small thing to ask of people, that they give up the traditions, the tastes, the smells and the rituals that they’ve come to associate with comraderie and with comfort. Still, if we care about them, we must ask this of them, in whatever way they can hear.
Generally speaking, people like to hear things they already agree with, or which accommodate or justify the behaviors they’re already practicing. Permissiveness, especially in the guise of reason, will always guarantee an audience, while calls for restraint will get short shrift. Foer quotes Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and master of reasonable permissiveness: "'I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian….Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be it’s own form of hubris.'" Foer continues with his analysis, “[Pollan is] right that emotional responses can lead us to an arrogant disconnect. But is the person who makes an effort to act on the dream of innocence really the one to be pitied? And who, in this case, is denying reality?”
Over the course of his career, writing about the history of agriculture and the modern agribusiness industry, Michael Pollan has become one of the most prominent advocates for conscious eating in this country. He stops short, however, of advocating a vegetarian diet, instead writing long, thoughtful sounding passages grappling with the "dilemma" of eating meat while never offering a concrete, practical and obvious solution to the dilemma: stop eating meat. When Pollan calls vegetarianism unrealistic, what is he referring to? Practically speaking, nothing holds him back from being a vegetarian. Certainly, he has both the means and the knowledge to find alternatives to meat. He also has the desire for moral clarity, which he intuits can be found in a diet devoid of animal flesh. So he is not talking about what is realistic for him, but rather what is realistic for society at large. Pollan makes the mistake of judging his own actions and his own convictions against the standard of the majority.
If we only did things or professed beliefs that we expected the majority to readily adopt, culture would stagnate, altruism would vanish and education would devolve into the worst kind of politics. Life calls us each individually to search our conscience and answer with our actions how best to live. Living with integrity means holding ourselves to a standard higher than we hold others. And holding ourselves to this standard speaks volumes. Foer concedes, “As a ‘solitary eater,’ your decisions will, in and of themselves, do nothing to alter the industry. That said, unless you obtain your food in secret and eat it in a closet, you don’t eat alone. We eat as sons and daughters, as families, as communities, as generations, as nations and increasingly as a globe. We can’t stop our eating from radiating influence even if we want to.”
So while it’s true that one person alone can’t stop an entire industry by boycotting their products, Foer is pointing out that the social nature of food causes each person’s decision to influence others in his community. It is worth pointing out also that as a “solitary eater” we may not have much effect on the entire agribusiness industry, but we have a huge effect on our own health. Even if Pollan finds it unrealistic to expect all of society to convert to a vegetarian diet, he should still adopt one himself based on the health benefits alone.
So, if you find yourself, like Pollan, on the fence between the so-called unrealistic dream of vegetarianism and the far-too realistic moral morass of being a “selective omnivore,” remember that your actions affect not only your reality - what you see on your plate every day, and what you take into your body - but others as well. Your choice has the effect, without you having to speak a word, of suggesting to your friends, family, strangers and acquaintances that another, and a better, reality is possible. When you take the next step and tell them what you know about vegetarianism and health or help them make the connection between the animals they love and the animals they eat, you are asking them to make a sacrifice of their comfortable forgetfulness, but you are also asking them to join you in this new reality.