Bring on the Meat Factories
On August 31, 2007 my wife took me out for dinner at a Japanese steakhouse where I ate my last beefsteak -- for a year, if not for the rest of my life. This occurred on the heels of a reasonably obnoxious George Dvorsky essay on why we should have all already given up eating meat and why meat-eaters are (George's words) "bad people." Dvorsky's essay led to an interesting discussion about the merits of the case vs. his in-your-face rhetorical approach. I tend to think that there is a lot to be said for the former, and not much to be said for the latter.
On the subject of the former, I wrote:
I've written more than once on my belief that the world will one day be a meatless -- although not necessarily vegetarian -- place. I agree that it's wrong to cause animals undue pain. I agree that our current industrialized livestock management practices are abhorrent. And, from a purely practical standpoint, I think we'll have a much stronger moral footing with our AI descendants if they see us treating weaker / arguably inferior life forms with as much kindness as possible. In short, I think I'm just about ready to be persuaded that I should give up eating dead animals altogether.
On the subject of the latter, I wrote:
Here we have a world-class futurist taking an "I'm good; you're bad: be like ME" approach that even the most backward fundamentalists dropped decades ago. You see a lot of this kind of thing among "progressive" thinkers when dealing with the great unwashed who haven't yet achieved their level of enlightenment. (An example -- for whatever reason, atheists seem particularly prone to these excesses when arguing against belief in God. This could be a reverse application of the old adage that "converts are the worst." Which would also apply to George, I suppose, what with his five-year tenure as a morally superior being.)
But then Dvorsky fired back with what I think was a fairly sound defense of his approach:
Let's imagine for a moment that I had written an article titled 'Racists are bad people,' or 'Homophobes are bad people.' Do you think I would have received the same kind of negative response? Hardly. Aside from a few anachronistic and unenlightened perspectives I'd get a slew of comments saying, 'right on, brother.'
But the fact that I didn't get these sorts of supportive comments, aside from a small minority, indicates to me that our transition to a mostly meat-free society is a process still in its infancy.
I think he's essentially correct -- one day, meat-eating will be viewed as a cruel and primitive custom from the past, but we aren't yet. Even so, after writing this...
I only know what works on me. The accusatory approach turns me off. Telling me that I have no excuse for behavior that I've never sought to justify to anyone -- and certainly don't think I owe YOU any explanation for -- doesn't get me any closer to changing my behavior.I personally think it's better for me to figure out that I'm a benighted moral cretin than it is to have someone tell me (very insistently) that I am. But that's just me.
...I realized that I was, if not a benighted moral cretin, at east an individual who was ready to re-examine his position on meat-eating. And I found that I was ready to give it up, at least some of it, at least for a while. So, in the interests of taking a more ethical stand towards some of my fellow creatures, while trying to take a step that I thought I could actually manage and live with, I decided to give up eating dead mammals. (I would also decline dead marsupials, but that never comes up.) I realize that birds and fish also have nervous systems, can also feel pain, and that a completely consistent approach would have required giving them up, too -- but hey, small steps. I thought this was one I could manage, and so far I have managed it fairly well.
In addition to not eating mammals, I have tried to make sure that any poultry or eggs that I eat come from birds which have been treated humanely. For me, this means looking for "free range" and "cage-free" labels.
It's important to note that I did not give up eating (red) meat for health reasons. There is plenty of evidence that one can consume a reasonable amount of meat and maintain good health. I think eating meat is natural in that we came by it via evolution. I also really like meat and miss eating it. I prepared my wife some lamb chops for dinner a few nights ago (I'm not religious or judgmental in my giving up the eating of mammals, so if she wants me to cook meat for her, I do so), and genuinely felt that I was missing out on something by settling for some turkey for myself.
I'm undecided as to whether I will extend this year-without-dead-mammals for a longer period -- say, another year or the rest of my life -- but even if I do go the distance with it, I still have hope that I will enjoy a nice burger (or steak) again at some point in the future. The trick is to divorce meat production from killing animals. And there are some people working on that very thing:
The world has seen the first international conference on manufacturing meat. This is the process, tested so far only at laboratory scale, of growing pork, chicken, or beef through cell culture in vats instead of raising and slaughtering animals.
A point of interest about the group who sponsored the event, the In Vitro Meat Consortium: their interest in the topic is primarily environmental, not ethical. Livestock are one of the chief sources of greenhouse gas. Eliminate the market demand for livestock by providing a factory-produced, vat-grown substitute, and the worldwide population of cattle, sheep, and pigs will plummet -- along with their gaseous expulsions.
This raises an interesting issue of its own. We need to get livestock populations under control for environmental reasons, and I'm also arguing that we should stop slaughtering cattle for humanitarian reasons. So suppose we end up with a world where there are only a few cows, kept more or less as pets on some historical farm-themed parks and petting zoos. Otherwise, they don't exist. I guess the question is -- what about all the cows who will now never see the light of day? Are they better off never having lived than living a life that just ends in slaughter? And how can we possibly make that determination?
Per the Andrew Revkin piece from the New York Times (quoted above), the conclusion of the first conference on manufactured meat was that the initial options will be considerably more expensive than the livestock-produced alternative for some time to come. And, for now, all they are talking about producing is highly processed or ground product: no drumsticks, no t-bones, and no lamb chops. Sigh. Not for a while, anyhow.
I have little doubt that the market will eventually take care of both the cost and the lack of a realistic meat-eating experience provided by the manufactured alternative. As I noted above, I and many others like me are willing to pay more for free-range chicken. People will also pay more for manufactured meat, even if it's just ground stuff good for making sausage or putting into spaghetti sauce.
As with my decision to take a break from eating mammals -- it's a start.