Monday, June 6, 2011

The Case Against Indifference

29. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I read this book out of curiosity. Out of a desire to say "Look, I read this book, but it didn't change my life. I'm still not a vegetarian!" Now...I think I might become a vegetarian.

I expected this book to show me how the meat industry is horrible. I expected animal mistreatment, threats of infectious disease, threats to the environment. I never though the factory farming industry was a model to look up to. I didn't expect it to be pretty. But what I didn't bargain on were two things. First, the scale of the threat to human health and environment and yes, the scale of the animal cruelty, and Two, Foer's ability to tell a gosh-darn persuasive story and unabashed willingness to tell people exactly what they can do to help the situation. I admit, I should not have underestimated Foer, but I did, and now I'm stuck with the consequences.

What caught my eye as I flipped through was this passage:

"I, too, assumed that my book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn't. A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it's not what I've written here." (Foer, 13)

This is a deception! It's true that Foer doesn't conclude that everyone should stop eating meat. He concludes that everyone should stop eating factory-farmed meat and animal byproducts. However, this essentially means that everyone would need to become a vegetarian at least most of the time, because what he calls "ethical meat," raised on farms that meet certain qualifications for animal life quality and reduced threat to disease and environment, does not exist in nearly sufficient quantities for current or even reduced meat consumption. I have a problem with his ethics when it comes to lower economic levels. Meat is currently cheap and plentiful, in the grocery stores and fast food joints. People want to eat meat, people are socialized to eat meat. It's not fair to ask people to stop when they don't have access to alternative foods that are probably more expensive. I have to admit though that this doesn't apply to me. I may not have the money or access to buy ethical meat, but I could afford to be vegetarian.

Eating Animals is an entertaining if disturbing read. As opposed to the stats and journalistic interviews that characterized Fast Food Nation, Foer tells a series of stories, about his own experiences as a struggling vegetarian, the food-eating legacy of his Holocaust survivor grandmother, the story of his break-in to a chicken farm, and the stories of factory farmers and workers, ethical meat farmers, and animal rights activists, in their own words. I think Foer's strategic use of others' stories was a clever build to his case. He makes this story a very human one, a human struggle that is too easily relatable. He asks imaginative questions and makes definitive statements that force his reader to think and decide, to take a stand. For example, he looks into the American fondness for dogs and taboo against eating them. "What might be the reason to exclude canine from the menu?" (Foer, 25) he asks. Doesn't a pig have the intelligence of a dog? What about a dog that's not a pet? What about countries where dogs have never been kept as pets and are routinely eaten?

Foer asks questions I never thought to ask, like how much more a genetically altered, factory farmed animal suffers, as compared to animals of hereditary breeding stocks. These animals are born and raised weak, sick, unable to move or procreate. In Foer's words, "We have focused the awesome power of modern genetic knowledge to bring into being animals that suffer more" (Foer, 159).

Foer gets to the heart of why and how this has happened and relates it to the overall problems of our culture. I am sure bell hooks would have much to agree with here:

"We have let the factory farm replace farming for the same reason our cultures have relegated minorities to being second-class members of society and kept women under the power of men. We treat animals as we do because we want to and can." (Foer, 243)

Foer will not let us get away with pleading ignorance, he reminds us that every time we eat meat, we are making a choice.

"We can't plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, 'What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?'" (Foer, 252)

He doesn't vilify us, he sympathizes with us, brings up Michael Pollan's "table fellowship," reminds us that he too is foregoing his grandmother's traditional dishes, like chicken and carrots. He doesn't say we won't miss out. But he is adamant that there is a right choice to be made.

"If anyone finds in this book encouragement to buy some meat from alternative sources while buying factory farm meat as well, they have found something that isn't here" (Foer, 257).

"When we lift our forks, we hang our hats somewhere. We set ourselves in one relationship or another to farmed animals, farmworkers, national economies, and global markets. Not making a decision-eating 'like everyone else' is to make the easiest decision, a decision that is increasingly problematic...Our straw may not be the backbreaker, but the act will be repeated-every day of our lives and perhaps every day of the lives of our children, and our children's children..." (Foer, 262).

These are the passages that stood out to me. I know my individual decision will not make a difference, but I cannot continue to be indifferent. At least not right now. There is much to be said for meat, I enjoy it, it is part of my family's tradition, it is good for me, it is natural. But none of these arguments overcome the dangers and horrors of factory-farmed meat, which is not natural and is dangerous to my health and future human health.

I dislike the idea of someone else telling me what to do. But Foer's case is not merely well-written, in my judgment, it is right. Not for everybody, but I think it must apply to me. This book is and will continue to be a strong case for vegetarianism and ethical meat for those who choose to listen.

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