On Achieving Ethical Consistency
I had my fling with animal rights activism. It was short-lived, and by the time I was out of high school, I no longer defined myself as such. But I remained a vegetarian because I still opposed factory farming, and at this juncture in my life, to eat meat meant supporting factory farming.
In recent years, a lot has changed. Spurred by journalists and activists like Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Joel Salatin, eating local, sustainable foods has become a popular movement in the U.S. Furthermore, Bobby and I live in a rural county; in addition to a half-dozen farmers markets in our county, CSAs, and farms that do direct sales, more and more stores are carrying products from local farms. Our favorite feed store now sells local dairy and cheese. A general store in the next town south of us has added local seafood to their existing offerings of local dairy.
Things are very different from when I became a vegetarian twenty years ago.
For the past few years, I have been dithering with the idea of changing back. But I've been like the kid at the public pool who climbs up to the high dive, goes to the end, looks over, and climbs back down.
Let me say first why I climbed back down: One does not become a vegetarian in much of the U.S. without it being an issue for comment and, often, one of contention. When I was a kid, it was one item on the list of things that I was teased about. Even as a kid, relatives became militant with me and would regularly start arguments at family gatherings. (Even when I was young and still identified as an animal rights activist, I was never one of those obnoxious types that says things like, "Do you know what happened to your ham sandwich before it died?" Even then, I believed that people have to make their own ethical choices and that those choices won't be the same for everyone. So I am confident that, aside from having the gall to not put turkey on my sandwich at family gatherings, I never started these arguments. Also, my parents were supportive of my choice, so I'm not sure why it was anyone else's business.) As an adult, people are less eager to pick fights with me--shy 12-year-old girls make much more appealing targets, it seems, than educated, sharp-tongued grown women--but I am still subject to comment and curiosity. I am the first vegetarian many of my coworkers have known and people feel liberty to comment on anything that they see me eating about how it looks weird or how they know it doesn't contain meat or how they imagine it would taste better if it did. The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that these things are what has moved my vegetarianism so centrally to my identity: Other people have made it that way. After twenty years, to me, it is just a facet of who I am and not a very important one at that (just as someone with a food allergy or religious prohibition would not likely define themselves by that allergy or prohibition). I've remained a vegetarian for reasons of comfort and simplicity. (Because I will not eat factory-farmed meat, and if explaining vegetarianism is hard? Try explaining the difference between this chicken and that chicken and why, no, I can't cheat even this once.)
And I do not want to be defined by my vegetarianism. It's a ridiculous centerpiece to one's self-image. Also, as I've gotten older and the world around me has changed, my ethical views have changed as well. Aside from a blip when I was at my youngest and most radical, I have never believed it wrong to kill animals for food. I opposed factory farming, full stop. My ethical beliefs have since shifted to be less concerned with animals as with the Earth as a whole and attempting, as much as possible given that I live in a Western nation in the 21st century, to minimize my own contributions to the destruction of the ecosystems and resources on which all life--yes, even we!--depend.
Diet of course becomes a huge part of this. Bobby and I try to produce as much of our own food as possible, and what we can't produce ourselves, we try to source locally whenever we can. We are not perfect--for example, since starting to teach at a public school and finding his take-home work increased significantly, Bobby gives us Amy's packaged meals usually twice per week for lunch--but we do try to sharply minimize the amount of heavily processed food we eat and try, whenever possible to go for local, then sustainable, then organic whenever we can. It is extra challenging to do this as a vegetarian. We have a nice growing season in Maryland, but we also have real winters when nothing grows, and vegetables are much harder to preserve for the winter than many meats. Inevitably, though I try not to, I end up falling back on heavily processed faux meats.
I have been uncomfortable with this for some years now. Part of that is the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality that pervades among the most extreme vegetarian activists. These people measure ethical worth primarily by the number of animals killed, but they ironically do so only in terms of animal deaths that are easily measurable by the food they produce. I say "ironically" because these are very often the same people who make the (bunk, imho) argument that if people had to kill their own meat, "then we'd all be vegetarians" and claim that the only reason people can eat meat is because they are content with it being "out of sight out of mind." (I say that is bunk because it is only very recently where people didn't have some contact with the animals they ate and the killing of those animals. My dad--a city boy through and through--remembers going to the Broadway Market in Fells Point with his grandmother for duck blood to make czernina and watching her choose a goose that was beheaded and bled on site. She also raised and killed her own backyard chickens, and she lived in Baltimore City.) In any case, militants vegetarians do the out-of-sight-out-of-mind thing perhaps more than meat eaters do. Short of wild-gathering everything you eat, no matter what choice you make in what you eat, animals die for it. Agriculture requires destruction of ecosystems, which kills animals. Habitats are destroyed, monocultures limit food choices, machinery kills animals in the fields and destroys the homes of those who managed to eke out a living in the field, pesticides kill yet more, fertilizer and other agrichemical runoff pollutes the soil and water and air and kill yet more ... and on it goes.
You could say, then, that there is a baseline of animal death that cannot be avoided in any agricultural system, so vegetarians are simply choosing not to add to that baseline by further killing animals for meat. However, that baseline is not always the same. All food is not created equal, and conventional agriculture--with its abundant use of pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers and its reliance on monoculture--is far more destructive of ecosystems (and therefore takes more animal lives) than small-scale sustainable agriculture is. Sustainable agriculture begins with the philosophy that a healthy ecosystem is essential to productivity; conventional agriculture seeks to correct deficiencies in the ecosystem with still more inputs, which explains the ever-increasing use of fertilizer and pesticides in conventional ag.
In any case, you don't hear many vegetarian activists talk about this stuff. Why, I wonder? I think because it presents an uncomfortable reality. Most vegetarians rely pretty heavily on processed foods and conventional agriculture; even organic produce, obtained outside the growing season, often requires energy-intensive growing and transportation process. And I don't think anyone would name the petroleum industry as exactly eco-friendly ... Meanwhile, a sustainable agricultural system requires an animal element. Most organic fertilizers (and all of the high-nutrient organic fertilizers) come from animals: manure, blood, feathers, bones. So organic lettuce sounds very peaceful until one gets down to the blood and bone meal that provided the nutrients that fed that very peaceful organic lettuce. This makes synthetic fertilizers sound very peaceful until one ponders the petrochemical-intensive Haber-Bosch process that makes them and considers that their runoff produces vast aquatic dead zones like the one in the Gulf of Mexico (down to the size of Connecticut this year!) ... but these realities are, of course, out of sight to most people. How many militant vegetarians even understand what the term "soil fertility" means?
The discomfort for me, then, has been in achieving ethical consistency. I advocate strongly for a return to small-scale, local, sustainable agriculture. I believe in supporting local farmers who are willing to make conscientious decisions where both sustainability and animal welfare practices are concerned. Much of what Bobby and I have been doing in our real lives for the past several years have been with these goals in mind. And then I make a choice--a comfortable choice--to rely more on processed foods than I would otherwise have to do; I make a choice that sends my food dollars to large, distant companies (that are often owned by the same food giants that have created and profited from our warped food industry in this country) instead of local farmers who have become people we care about, who invite us to their homes for Thanksgiving, who share some of our most dearly held beliefs.
When Bobby and I sit down to supper, he with his local free-range chicken and I with my quorn filet, I cannot say that I am making the better choice or a choice that is in any way consistent with my beliefs. I am making a choice that is familiar and comfortable and that will minimize the amount of explaining of myself that I will have to do to other people. For several years now, I have angsted over this (Bobby will attest to this!), periodically walk to the end of the high dive, looked over, and always walked back.
Not this time. Bobby and I were talking about sustainability and agriculture the other day, and it took its usual turn to my discontent with my vegetarianism, and Bobby suggested not for the first time that I could return to eating only local and sustainably/humanely raised meat, and this time I said okay. He made breakfast for us and made me a single strip of cinnamon bacon from one of our local farms. I ate it. I didn't die; my head didn't implode; I didn't feel dirty or like a murderer or sick. I felt ethically consistent.
And, yes, it was also delicious. :)
So my diet has just become more confusing. I will eat local, sustainable, and humanely raised meat only or sustainable seafood (which, thanks to living in Maryland, is often local as well). This pretty much means eating meat only at home or in a few farm-to-table restaurants we patronize. Most of the time, I will still be a vegetarian, just like Bobby is, because the kind of meat we eat is expensive enough that you can't eat it every day. To everyone else, I will still be a vegetarian to keep things simple, so I don't have to explain myself, and to avoid being more of a pain-in-the-ass at parties than I already am.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!