Eating Meat Essay Contest

The New York Times just held a contest to write an essay defending the ethical permissibility of eating meat.  The contest is announced here and the winner and finalists can be found here.  Unfortunately, I was neither a finalist nor the winner.  (Neither was my colleague Hal Herzog, whose entry was rather different than mine.)

All of the finalist essays were well written and interesting, but I find the winning argument a bit annoying: It will soon be ethical to eat meat, because lab-grown hamburgers will hit the market this fall.  Technology rescues us with a better substitute, and our separation from the land and our local economy grows even greater.  I wonder if the results would have been different if vegetarians were excluded from voting.


My Entry:  Eat Meat

A thoughtful, moral diet is an essential part of a thoughtful, moral life.  How we eat makes up the lion’s share of our connection to the land and our fellow creatures.  There are many disturbing problems with meat as it is currently produced and consumed—cruelty, disease, exploitation of the poor and pollution among them—none of which do I defend or excuse.  I defend the eating of meat.

The problems associated with carnivory are both conceptually and practically separable from it.  The carnivore need not be cruel to the animals eaten; from the Quran’s prohibition of sharpening the slaughter knife in front of the animal to the hunter’s pride in making clean kills, meat eaters have traditionally condemned cruelty.   Several now epidemic diseases are associated with the consumption of animal protein, such as heart disease, obesity and some cancers, but they are not linked equally with all forms of meat eating.  A bison steak or a roll of sushi is not the nutritional equivalent of a fast-food cheeseburger.  Confined feedlots and slaughterhouses may trap vulnerable people in subhuman work and poison the land around them, but when I shake the hand of my farmer, I support a neighbor in an enriching, sustainable, local job.

Refraining from meat, on the other hand, is not without costs and hazards of its own.  Despite the improved health experienced by some vegetarians, a good third of lapsed vegetarians return to meat for reasons of health.  Soy, often eaten by vegetarians in highly processed meat alternatives, is usually grown in large monocultures with the heavy use of chemical herbicides.   On top of the direct environmental impacts of such land use, expanding soy production is also a significant contributing cause to rainforest destruction.

The abolition of meat eating would also constitute a great impoverishment of cultural diversity.  The elimination of so many traditional cuisines might be compared to the extinction of languages, which proceeds at a frightful pace.   Not only would the cuisines be lost, however, but also all the professions and practices tied to them: ranching, shepherding, hunting, fishing and more.  Some of these, such as ranching and hunting, are particularly celebrated and promoted in North American society for their moral value.  Dealing with life and death on the farm or accepting the disciplines required for successful hunting are said to build important character traits.  And this is not implausible.  The hunter who waits all day only to pass up a shot that might not be clean exercises a great deal of patience and the ability to stick to principles when no one is watching.

Eating meat also offers the chance to more effectively combat cruelty and unsustainability in mainstream animal agriculture.  A minority which drops out cannot effect the market in the same way as a minority that buys selectively.  A market for humane, sustainable animal products allows for the creation of alternative practices and business models, which by their very existence give lie to the necessity of business as usual.  More than avoiding poor land uses, we can drive up healthy uses; putting more land into bison ranching is an important step toward the restoration of our western prairie ecology.  This approach also effectively increases the size of the dissenting minority, since many who are not willing to abstain still show a preference for humane or sustainable products.

So the best practice—in terms of cultural heritage, alleviation of animal suffering, stewardship of the environment and possibly your health—is to eat meat, but to do so mindfully, preferring higher standards to greater quantity.


The Violence of Coal

I looked for the first time with my own eyes on the devastation of mountaintop mining last weekend.  [expletives deleted] The violence against the earth was bracing.  But having prepared myself for that, it was the violence against people that caught me off guard.  It is one thing to lecture about the connection between the exploitation of nature and the oppression of people; it is quite another to hear Larry Gibson describe being repeatedly shot at, run off the road, harassed by drunk and lewd miners and having his dog killed and his family cemetery bulldozed—all because he didn’t sell to Massey but spoke out against coal!

Not only this, but the victims of big coal and those who oppose big coal are essentially denied due process.  The police won’t come to Gibson’s house but recommended he call homeland security.  The county health departments tell sick and dying people that their water is fine … no e. coli at all.  Meanwhile young interns for nonprofits uncover the flow of mine toxins and are sometimes able to save lives.  Big coal has impoverished and enslaved the people of Appalachia, purchased their government and budgeted for the safety violations which cost the lives of its own miners.

Why do theology?

Theology is not about forming creeds but is subversive of all creeds.  Theology is  inquiry about the nature of God.  You cannot genuinely inquire about something, unless you feel free to have original ideas and to disagree with what has been said before.  Creeds, however, make the acceptance of theological opinion to be the basis of acceptance in the community, effectively shutting down free inquiry for all but the bravest souls.  The meaning of the Nicene Creed was that the Arian communities may be treated with the sword instead of respect.

I do theology because the being of God is mysterious, interesting and wonderful to contemplate.  Theology is worship because it supposes that God is worth thinking about.  The reason is the same for doing natural science: nature is mysterious, interesting and wonderful to contemplate.  Doing science for these reasons also presupposes and communicates a valuing of nature.  In doing science we endorse that nature is worth the time and energy we spend studying it.  And often both science and theology have their beginnings in the same experience of wonder.

Science and theology have this much in common: both are forms of inquiry.  All attempts to change opinion by twisting arms are inimical to genuine inquiry.  If we are genuinely motivated by wonder, if we actually care about God or nature, then we must eschew creedalism and dogmatism in both science and religion.  We should be united in our commitment to inquire, not by our coming to the same conclusions.

Jaguar Territory

The jaguar is native to the US, but it doesn’t live here now.  At least not according to Alan Robinowitz, a major player in large cat conservation, and he seems surprisingly okay with that.  In a New York Times op-ed, he argues against the recent FWS decision to designate critical habitat for the species, a step long argued for by other conservation groups.

When a species is designated as endangered under the Endanger Species Act, the FWS is required to designate critical habitat and formulate a recovery plan.  They sometimes refrain from designating critical habitat when it is deemed imprudent to do so.  Usually this is done for secrecy sake, when publishing the locations of the remaining populations might expose them to increased poaching.  The jaguar was listed in 1972 and there is still no critical habitat protected.

The difficulty with setting habitat for the jaguar is that there are probably no individuals residing in the US, although they occasionally come over the Mexican border.  This means, on the one hand, that there is no danger of exposing them to poachers.  On the other hand, that means a recovery plan will have to be a substantial endeavor, possibly including reintroduction.

Robinowitz argues that the current absence of US jaguars “probably means the environment here is no longer ideal for them” and that it would somehow be unnatural to try to bring them back.  He accuses conservationists of wanting “jaguars to repopulate the United States even if jaguars don’t want to.”  All of this means that protecting jaguar habitat in the US is a diversion of resources and attention from other, sensible conservation efforts, which are already underfunded.

But jaguars did inhabit all the border states and likely Louisiana in the not too distant past.  If the habitat is no longer acceptable, then that is surely the result of the massive human transformation of the landscape since the arrival of European settlers.  Such habitat degradation and over-hunting is exactly the sort of impact that the ESA is meant to address and reverse.  As to the purported desires of the jaguars not to return, I would have to see the polling data.

The effects on other conservation efforts will be more than just a diversion of resources. Restoring a top predator to the region will have far reaching ecological benefits.  And the large scale protections required for jaguar habitat will be enormously beneficial for all other wildlife.  This could be a major step toward the re-wilding of the Southwest.

Jaguar (from C. Burnet, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike)

Jaguar (from C. Burnet, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike)

The National Parks

President Obama’s recent visits to some of our most prestigious National Parks serve as an important reminder that some of America’s finest achievements have had nothing to do with private enterprise. Even (perhaps especially) in times of economic hardship, Americans have acted corporately–yes, through their government–to great effect. The National Parks have not only enriched life in America, the idea has been one of our most significant contributions to world culture.

A lot of conservative argument today takes as an unquestioned premise that whatever government does it must do incompetently and inefficiently. The National Parks were born of a more optimistic age, when leaders like Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot believed in and worked for an intelligent and capable government, efficiently seeking the public good. And do you know what? It worked.

So if you should join the increasing numbers of Americans rediscovering the National Parks, take a moment to remember our progressive political heritage as well. They saw that the American people could be better stewards of the wilderness than private investors. And because of them you can visit the Grand Canyon instead of Pepsi Water Park and Reservoir.

No More Mastectomies for Mother Earth!

When cancer is spread throughout, as a last resort, doctors sometimes have to remove the most sensuous and beautiful places on a woman’s body. They do it to save her life. They do it with a scalpel.

When coal seams are spread throughout, and as a cost-saving measure, coalminers often remove the most sublime and beautiful places on Mother Earth. They do it for the money. They do it with dynamite.

The environmental impact of mountain-top-removal mining (henceforth MTR) is hideous on every front. Some of the most diverse habitat in the country is replaced with exotic grass. Headwaters to major rivers are buried in backfill and retention ponds for toxic slurry. Increased rain run-off has cause massive flooding problems for local communities. Blasting breaks the foundations of nearby homes. Wells either run dry, drained by the blasts, or run black, off the charts with heavy metals. More than a million acres have already been destroyed, and 1,200 miles of streams buried. Paradise is rendered an uninhabitable wasteland.

The defense is usually an argument from economics, but even this has proved bankrupt. MTR employs more machines and less people than underground mining. A recent study revealed that in Kentucky subsidies to coal mining exceeded revenues from it by $115 million.

The time to act is ripe. There are bills on the table to help address this. The senate is currently considering the Appalachia Restoration Act, which would prohibit filling in valleys. A report on the senate hearing.

Nonviolent, direct action is also increasing, and the opportunities are plentiful. Former NASA climatologist, James Hansen, and former WV representative, Ken Hechler, were among those arrested at the recent Coal River protest.

For more information and ways to help, look at the websites of Mountain Justice, Christians for the Mountains and Also, the documentary “Burning the Future” is excellent and invaluable.

A short video.

Poisonous Berries

Does creation exist for the sake of humanity?  Some say it exists for itself.  Others say it exists for God’s pleasure.  Still others deny the possibility of an answer.  But many have held that the purpose of creation is to be used by people, that God made it for us.  A friend once told me that God put the oil reserves under the ground for us, and so of course we should use them.  This belief acts as a sort of manifest destiny doctrine: You don’t have to worry about moral subtleties when you’re on a mission from God.

But is this plausible?  Some simple observations strongly suggest that the world was not created for us.  Take the existence of poisonous berries for an example.  What does it mean to think that poisonous berries were created for us?  Sweet, attractive, promising, lethal.  If God made them for us, then He must have been trying to kill us.  Or perhaps just teach us not to trust Him.  Consider some other parts of nature–brightly colored, little snakes and glowing rocks, each especially attractive to children and ready to cause a lingering death.  Besides these harmful things, there are multitudes of creatures and elements that seem to serve no purpose for us at all.  Just how does God expect us to use tens of thousands of species of beetle?

However, if the berries aren’t meant for us–if creation has more purposes than human use–then it is not such a big deal that some berries are poisonous to humans.  The birds eat them just fine.  God isn’t trying to kill people, just feed the birds.  The snake’s venom serves the snake’s purposes very well, if we allow that the snake exists for its own sake.

Maybe fossil fuel is just another poisonous berry.