A new book criticizing vegetarianism and veganism is making a splash in the UK. Reviewers have called it "groundbreaking" and "life changing." After reading the book, George Monbriot, a well known environmentalist and advocate of veganism, has reversed his position and is now advocating eating animal flesh, as long as the animal has been sustainably raised. The book causing all the fuss was written by Simon Fairlie, a farmer with experience in permaculture, which is a type of agriculture that seeks to mimic natural ecosystems. The book is called Meat: A Benign Extravagance. It's a descriptive and revealing title that simultaneously sums up the gist of Fairlie's argument and also reveals the weakness in it.
In an article based on the book, (which won't be available in the U.S. until next year), Fairlie argues that animals are not only useful but necessary in a healthy permaculture system, and that foregoing locally produced meat means many people end up importing other forms of protein. Both of these arguments are true. But that doesn't mean a person needs to eat meat, or that eating meat is ethical. The point Fairlie doesn't address is that animals can play a useful role in a farming society without being killed. A person can get dairy from cows and goats without mistreating them. And if they choose not to eat any animal products, a person can still get plenty of protein from plant sources.
Fairlie does make a very good case for why we should ban factory farms and return to local, subsistence agriculture. But he does not make a good case for why we should eat animals. In fact, he doesn't even try. He simply assumes that animals are food and the only reason a person would abstain from eating animals is because they are worried about their carbon footprint, or that they are consuming more than their share of the world's resources.
Although much of Fairlie's study revolves around the role living animals play on a healthy farm, it's clear from his title that he already considers their slaughter a foregone conclusion. The book might as well be called Animals: Created For Our (Thoughtful) Consumption. Fairlie attempts to prove that it's ecologically and ethically okay to eat locally produced meat in moderation. But the only ethical question he addresses is whether growing grain for animals takes it out of the mouths of hungry people. Indeed it does, which is why he champions the old-fashioned, common sense method of feeding farm animals grass, scraps, hay and other foods that don't cause them to compete with people. In other words, he considers the effect that eating animals has on other people, but he doesn't consider the effect that eating animals has on the animals.
George Monbriot, who publicly announced his conversion back to an "ethical" meat diet by writing a positive review of Fairlie's book in the British newspaper The Guardian, writes at length about poverty and the environment, but makes no mention of the animals themselves. Presumably, he also considers the suffering of animals beneath any ethical consideration. In fact, in his initial pro-veganism manifesto back in 2002, he summarized the great inefficiencies of feeding grain to animals destined for slaughter and concluded, "As a meat-eater, I've long found it convenient to categorize veganism as a response to animal suffering or a health fad. But, faced with these figures, it now seems plain that it's the only ethical response to what is arguably the world's most urgent social justice issue." If figures are what first persuaded Monbriot to embrace veganism, it's no surprise that figures, cast in a new light, have now persuaded him against it.
The problem is that Monbriot and Fairlie both confuse efficiency with ethics. But efficiency is not a reliable standard by which to judge our actions. Efficiency can also be employed in the service of tyranny, as has been witnessed in totalitarian regimes that exercised reigns of terror in the name of ruling "for the people." Efficiency is all in the eye of the beholder. The farmer may appreciate how efficient it is to have his cows eat grass, expel manure as fertilizer and give milk. But the businessman thinks it's more efficient to lock up the cow, force feed him cheap corn, and slaughter him after fourteen months.
Fairlie thinks the problem is in what we've done - based on bad information, or markets gone awry, we've constructed an inefficient system that causes waste and inequality. But the problem isn't what we've done. The problem is how we think. We think of animals as simply parts in a machine, reducible to what they give us - their strength, their manure, their flesh. But animals are more than the sum of their parts. They are living beings, with the ability to feel, to solve problems, to form attachments and to display affection.
Imagine a small, cozy farm full of people, plants and animals. There are chickens eating bugs off the plants and expelling nitrogen rich manure. There are cows maintaining perfect fields of grass just by grazing them. There are goats getting into trouble and eating the shrubbery (as far as I can tell, there's no good reason to keep goats apart from feta cheese, exercise and a good laugh). There are cats chasing mice and dogs keeping watch and horses hauling wagons and oxen plowing fields.
If we view all these animals as living beings, as partners in an effort to feed ourselves, then our attitude and our behavior changes. If we appreciate that the bull who's pulling our plow is not only helping us to feed our children, but is working to feed his as well, then there will never be a good reason for us to confine him, exploit him or slaughter him. If we don't protect animals by the strength of our gratitude and appreciation for them, then we will exploit them on a small scale and we will open the door for profit-mongers to exploit them on a mass scale. So, this Thanksgiving, give thanks to animals for everything they give us: their labor, their companionship, their affection. Give thanks, and don't take more than they offer, and you'll be participating in a real groundbreaking, life changing movement.