A zen koan tells the story of a student who excitedly tells his master: “We should not eat animals because they are our brothers.” To which his master replies wryly: “Why should we not eat our brothers?”
Before I begin this examination of human attitudes towards non-human species, I should observe that I am a vegetarian, but I do not believe in foisting one’s beliefs onto other people. I would no more try to convince you to give up meat than I would convince a tiger to stop eating antelope (although I understand the tigers of the Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery in Thailand are fed a vegetarian diet). This is intended as an examination of inter-species relationships, and the resulting consequences, not a polemic intended to 'convert you'.
In the 1980’s or thereabouts, the inflammatory phrase ‘Meat is Murder’ was bandied around. The sentence is meaningful if, like me, you relate on a personal level with non-human species, but completely inappropriate if you do not. One does not talk of the eagle or lion murdering its prey, after all. In the spirit of this provocative phrase, I’d like to define three possible positions with which we can choose to base our relations with animals: Murder (omnivorism; where one eats meat and other foods), Slavery (vegetarianism, where one eats food produced by captive animals but not their meat) or Surrender (veganism; where one eats nothing produced from an animal).
(Of course, one can choose less incendiary terms – but I hope it is clear by setting the tone with ‘Meat is Murder’ one can comfortably arrive at ‘Soy is Surrender’ and ‘Cheese is Slavery’).
There are no moral absolutes, therefore until one accepts a framing belief system such as a religion or an absolute ideology (such as Marxism, or what might be called Dawkinism or anti-religious bigotry) one cannot appeal to morality as a means of determining what one’s relationship to non-humans should be. For the vast majority of people, their default position will be determined by their cultural attitudes. For instance, in the West we do not tend to eat dogs because we view them as pets – part of our own tribes – but in certain countries dogs are considered a legitimate food animal.
I find my position of animal slavery to be the one I am most comfortable with, in part because I find that those that proceed through the final gate into surrender occasionally arrive at strange and disturbing belief systems, and in part because a life without cheese is too horrifying to consider! As an example of a systematic insanity occasionally thrown up by veganism (and it should be understood I am not talking of all vegans but of the more extreme instances), I once met a pair of vegans who were insistent that because cows had been bred in captivity as food animals for so long that they can no longer fend for themselves, that we should stop raising cows altogether. In effect, their vegan logic led them to advocate bovine genocide. I found this quite disturbing, and was relieved that they warmed to my idea that we might instead breed the cows over many generations back into the wild.
The three positions I have defined could be redefined more neutrally as Predation, Symbiosis and Autonomy.
I believe it clear why eating meat can be defined as predation, although I would also like to point out that abattoirs are rather horrific places, not deserving of such a noble phrase: I have always had more respect for cultures who hunt for their own meat than those who execute their prey in large and gruesome factories; I do not view the latter as particularly civilised.
I believe that animal slavery can be seen as broadly symbiotic because both parties are receiving benefits. For the milk taken from a cow, the cow receives in return a relatively luxurious life in a field, free of the risk of predators. Well, at least that’s the theory. In practice, of course, our treatment of our animal slaves often leaves a lot to be desired, especially since many are also food animals. Nonetheless, now that I have escaped poverty, I feel better about the eggs I eat knowing that they are free range. Similar examples of inter-species symbiosis are rife in the animal kingdom, from ants raising fungus to the animal-algae alliance at the heart of each coral polyp.
Veganism can be seen as autonomy as it is an attempt to survive without a direct alliance with animals. In principle, a vegan is attempting to survive only on gathered or farmed plants, fungus (of which there are many tasty kinds!) and protoctists (like seaweed and algaes). In the long run, this is only going to get easier to achieve. We can already make modestly edible substitutes for milk, cheese and meat out of these raw materials – although as any advocate of predation will attest, there is still a long way to go in terms of accurate reproduction of the taste.
(Soy hot dogs, however, are extremely tasty - and have none of the snout, lips and colon of the real thing! When food is that heavily processed, it's hard to tell meat protien from vegetable protein. Highly recommended!)
Although these three positions have been defined in relation to our attitude towards non-humans, they extend in a general case to all our relations. Our decision to see all humans as part of our own tribe is a relatively recent one, after all. It wasn’t that long ago that nation-based tribal definitions allowed all manner of atrocities to be committed against other humans – because what is outside of our tribal group has often historically been without value. I hope we are moving past this, although it requires constant vigilance, as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay remind us.
If you are what I have termed a Lano (an acronym for Look After Number One), your attitude to other people is in effect one of (economic) predation; you are willing to take what you can from other people, including preying on other people’s stupidity. If, like me, you want to find mechanisms of co-operation with other people, your position can be seen as one of symbiosis, whereas if you just want to be left alone, your position can be seen as one of autonomy. Again, there are no moral absolutes, so all three positions are valid – depending upon your own beliefs. I personally find Lanos to be somewhat sad people, but you have to follow your own path, I suppose.
Once we are seeing the whole of life as a tribal equation, we reach the question of what to include and what to exclude from our concept of our tribe. A worrying tendency is that we are up in arms when we hear of cuddly little seal cubs being murdered for their fur, and deeply disturbed by tales of cruelty to cats and dogs (in the West at least), but are nonplussed when faced with the possibility of some random ugly creature becoming extinct. We are in serious danger of instituting a global policy of survival of the cutest – and this could be a fatal mistake.
Take the earthworm. Not exactly a species you’re likely to see being proudly displayed on posters in a student dorm. But without our little annelid allies, there would be no renewal of the topsoil, all agriculture would collapse and our species would be well on the way to extinction, along with a vast number of other plant and animal species. Ecology is rife with interdependencies such as these, which is why maintenance of biodiversity is absolutely essential.
A basic problem we are facing at the moment is that our species is continuing to grow in numbers at a worrying rate of knots, and this produces an ever-growing demand for food and water. The biggest threat to biodiversity is perhaps farmers in comparatively poor countries destroying diverse regions such as rain forest in order to produce farmland. It is seeming ever more likely that once we finish squabbling about the diminishing supply of fossil fuels that we will begin fighting over the limited quantity of potable water.
In this context, eating meat presents us more of a problem.
The US Department of Agriculture reports that one acre of land can be used to
grow cattle feed which will lead to less than 165 pounds of edible beef.
Alternatively, it can be used to grow 20,000 pounds of potatoes. It also takes roughly
a thousand times as much water to grow a cow for meat than to grow vegetables: a single pound of beef requires 5,000 gallons of water. (If the
We can support hundred times as many vegetarians as omnivores on the
same energy budget, and a thousand times as many on the same water budget. The higher up the food chain you eat, and the bigger the
animal you are taking meat from, the more energy (and water) expensive your
food is to eat. Beef is about as bad as it gets, chicken rather less so, and
not eating meat is about as good as it gets (at least in terms of energy and
Many people have enshrined human reproductive rights as absolute (which they need not be); I contend that something has to give in our extremely unbalanced global population and agricultural policy. If we wish to maintain people’s free right to breed (which may eventually become a wholly untenable proposition), we must consider reducing the energy and water costs of our food intake. Alternatively, we could massively cut down on our meat requirements in return for more latitude on our freedom to breed. These issues will become more relevant with each passing generation.
Depending upon the country in which you live, you have an unprecedented choice of food at your disposal. It would be better for humanity in the long run if you aimed to eat as low on the food chain as possible, but on the other hand the majority of people will continue eating according to their cultural habits, and therefore your individual eating patterns are less significant. Until you have children, of course.
Things will have to change. We can either begin instituting changes gradually, or we can wait for future catastrophes to force change. I’d prefer to avoid ecological collapse if possible, and it would be good if we could begin solving the problems with our food and water supply prior to further resource wars that are perhaps inevitable. (Perhaps they will only be miniature wars, like the current wars over control of oil supply). In the worst case, which is probably a mass extinction caused by our inability to adapt fast enough, take comfort in the idea that the ecology of our planet will survive and go on. We still have a few billion years left with our sun – plenty of time for new species to arrive and replace us. It is only our survival, and the survival of the other species in our current biosphere, that is at stake.
Cultural change begins with changing yourself. I can’t see the future, so I don’t know what to suggest, but perhaps if you are an omnivore you should give up eating low grade beef like hamburgers on a daily basis and instead enjoy a good steak every now and then. You’ll enjoy your food more, and you’d be helping out in your own way. If you are a vegetarian, you can help by not attempting to indoctrinate others into your own beliefs: no good can come of such aggressive attempts to convert other people’s beliefs. If you are a vegan, you can help by behaving in a sane, consistent and friendly fashion, thus compensating for the small number of mentally unhinged vegans who give that particular diet a bad reputation. Whatever your diet, you can provide astronomical assistance by having no more than two children.
Human or non-human, we decide what alliances we make. I have chosen to ally myself with the squirrel, but against the mosquito, for instance. (They have a taste for my blood – every country I visit, the local mosquitoes descend upon me as if I am the tastiest sanguineous buffet they have ever encountered. The picture is my arm after one night out in Hyderabad). I’ve also chosen not to eat anything more complex than an insect, largely on the grounds of the resources wasted raising food animals. Whatever you decide for yourself, I hope at the least that you will recognise that your decisions may have consequences beyond the scope of your every day life.