Sunday, March 14, 2010

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I think it’s inevitable to compare this book to The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. They are the two most widely known books (as far as I can tell) about the subject of our food systems and the ethics of eating animals, and both writers seem to have received a lot of media attention for their work.

Foer’s book is a much quicker and more engaging read. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that Foer’s view on the subject of meat is very black and white. He makes this clear several times when he describes humanities’ current situation as a “choice between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals” (p. 229). Foer’s language is much more opinionated, and he is not afraid to call something cruel when he sees it. I think his condemnation is more powerful than Pollan’s, and Foer even mentions that many people he knows who have read Pollan continue to eat factory farmed meat, although they often make attempts to eat “moral” meat. This stuck with me because that is pretty much the category that I would put myself under since reading Pollan’s book. I still eat meat that involves cruelty, but I eat much, much less of it, and I make attempts to buy non-factory meat. Foer’s book is likely to have just as much, if not more, of an impact on how I eat because it serves as a particularly effective call to action. On page 173 he says if this book means something to you, “then perhaps the drama of the growth of the factory farm in that Iowa kitchen will help produce the resistance that will end it”.

And I think he’s right. For people who consider themselves principled, there really is no way to excuse eating factory farmed meat. It is bad in every way, and Foer’s book is much more focused on enumerating the specific cruelty and destruction that factory farms cause than is Pollan’s. Pollan certainly did not offer such a broad condemnation of eating meat, and he offered an eloquent defense of meat eating at the end of his book that left the door open for people to continue eating meat.

However, I do think that some of Foer’s criticisms of Pollan fall a bit short. When he is discussing the “myth of animal consent”, Foer quotes a long passage from The Omnivore’s Dilemma in which Pollan describes how it has been evolutionarily beneficial for domesticated species to become reliant on humans because their species have become more widespread. But Foer uses this as a modern example of the various myths throughout history that have described animals as wishing to be slaughtered by humans in some sort of supernatural balancing of scales, and that is not what Pollan is saying. Foer leads off his next section with the sentence “But species don’t make choices, individuals do”. He’s exactly right, but individuals do not make the choices of evolution. In fact, it’s the individuals that are being selected by evolution, not the other way around. Whether something is detrimental to the individual or not, natural selection will choose the traits and individuals most likely to survive and propagate, and those happened to be domestic animals once human agriculture came along.

Another bone that I would pick with Foer is his definition of cruelty. Nearly all of the practices he describes as cruel are unarguably so, but he includes two “humane” farmers under the term because one of them brands the animal and the other castrates them. First, castration is practiced on dogs and cats everyday. I actually don’t know if anesthetic is usually given, but if it’s done early in life, I think it can be seen as an acceptable practice. Controlling the domestic animal populations is a task that humans are going to have to face regardless of whether we eat meat or not. And second, while I think there are surely alternatives to branding, it just struck me as another example of Foer’s black and white view on the subject of cruelty. There is no wiggle room for performing procedures to modify animals into something they would not be in nature, even if something arguably as painful, circumcision, occurs to millions of humans at birth.

However, despite his own black and white viewpoint, a highlight of Foer’s book for me is other opinions that he includes. There are several essays from figures in the food industry such as a PETA activist, a factory farmer, and “humane” farmers. The diversity of strong opinions allows the book to be a self contained debate, and the debate participants are surprisingly good writers. The juxtaposition of the essays is also clever. I especially enjoyed the two accounts, one by Foer and one by unnamed animal rights activist, of an undercover mission to a factory chicken farm which were titled “I’m not the type of person who finds himself on a stranger’s farm in the middle of the night”, and “I am the type of person who….”. His discussion of shit at factory farms made me laugh out loud, partly because he is a funny, witty writer, and partly at the simple fact that he used shit so many times in three pages. Towards the end of the book, Foer even gets a little Marxist when he talks about the workers’ alienation from the product that they are producing. I think alienation describes a large part of why consumers and the factory farm workers aren’t bothered by the cruelty. The consumers never see it, and the workers are dull from seeing it too much. I also think the distance and alienation answers what I thought was a profound question posed by the activist mentioned above, which is “Why is taste excluded from the moral constrictions that we place on our other senses?”

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