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Medium Dawn Felagund of the Fountain

On Achieving Ethical Consistency

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

On Achieving Ethical Consistency

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Anyone who has been hanging around this joint for a few years knows that 1) I am vegetarian and 2) I am highly ambivalent about that vegetarianism. I have been a vegetarian for twenty years, since I was twelve years old. The choice to change didn't come with any great fanfare: I was at a cousin's graduation party, I was bored, and I was reading a book on animal rights that I'd taken out from the library to learn more about issues involving companion animals. But I strayed into the section on food animals, and what I learned of factory farming predicated a change that has persisted across the majority of my life.

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!

  • Being a heterotroph (or any living, energy-converting thing, really) sure can be frustrating and confusing at times, right?

    I've wanted to be a vegetarian in the past myself, but had to realize a lot of the stuff you discussed, plus nutrition and controlling appetite/cravings has been a much bigger issue for me since I got my current job (which is full-time, sedentary, and exhausting in terms of brainpower). A few years ago, going without meat for a week seemed like no big deal, but now it's extremely difficult, even with plant products that can provide protein. (One "pro-vegetarian" argument that tends to push me further away faster is, "vegetarians are thin and healthy, and those people eating meat are obese slobs!" Yeah, I don't think nutrition works quite that simplistically--as if it's even okay to be so rude about other peoples' weight/health.)

    Good luck with the diet modification. :)

    (Btw, you wouldn't be interested in a book called The Animal Ethics Reader," would you? I have a copy on my bookshelf and I've been thinking about giving it away.)
    • Being a heterotroph (or any living, energy-converting thing, really) sure can be frustrating and confusing at times, right?

      Once we moved beyond the point of "oh look food ... I must eat it or I will very likely suffer and/or die"--yes! :D It certainly says something about inequality in the world when so many of us angst over what to eat (versus whether we will be able to eat at all). :^/

      One "pro-vegetarian" argument that tends to push me further away faster is, "vegetarians are thin and healthy, and those people eating meat are obese slobs!" Yeah, I don't think nutrition works quite that simplistically

      It certainly doesn't! A friend of a friend once wondered why she was gaining weight after going vegetarian. Well, she replaced the meat with chips and candy!

      Bobby is also thinner and in better shape than me (although I'm in much better shape than I was this time last year--not because of being vegetarian, though, but because of making a conscious effort to exercise at least five times per week and not to overeat! :)

      The "vegetarians are thin" argument has never sat well with me either, even though it's so blatantly simplistic. People come in a variety of sizes and thin certainly doesn't equal healthy. It was always mortifying, as a vegetarian, to see others in the movement making that argument. But the animal rights movement's tendency to be cruel to humans (like this billboard) in the interest of dubious "kindness" to animals is yet another reason why I stopped identifying with that movement.

      If The Animals Ethics Reader needs a new home, I'd be happy to provide it! :)
  • Your decision totally makes sense to me (another non-militant vegetarian, or selective-consumer-of-animal-products, or whatever). Enjoy your local bacon etc!

    For me also it's not the death of animals, but the amount of discomfort or suffering in life that is at issue, so definitely no to factory farms. I've thought about introducing humanely raised meat to my diet, but since I don't have any local farm connections that at this point, that entails research I don't feel energized to do.

    My household's brief experience with raising backyard chickens, before an opossum picked most of them off, actually made me more inclined to approve of carnivorous habits (contrary to the notion that the more time one spends with animals, the more one humanizes them and feels bad about the idea of killing them). Pragmatically speaking, what would we have done if we in a position to hatch our own chicks from which to raise more egg-layers? There would be a lot of little roosters which would be useless to keep around, and only one realistic and sustainable thing to do with them...
    • I believe it was Lierre Keith in The Vegetarian Myth who tells an anecdote about a militant vegan who identified chickens as "perfect vegans" because all they eat is grass. Umm. Clearly this person didn't spend time around chickens! We've lost as many chickens to other chickens as we've lost to predators.

      But I think things like this illustrate a reason why ethical vegetarianism has managed to get such a strong hold: because so many people are completely disconnected from the natural world. What they know of nature they learned from Disney and the picture books they read as a child where lion cubs make friends with meerkats and become insectivores. Nature is not pretty, it is not nice, and it is not humane. I don't think that absolves us as humans, capable of moral reasoning, from being humane, but the idea that there can be life without death is laughable.

      Bobby and I discussed this afternoon the possibility of raising some meat birds next year. It would make sense and would provide us with meat for the year. And, eventually, we'll have to do something with our hens that have stopped laying; we don't have the space for dozens of chickens that aren't providing anything in return!
      • Only grass, eh? If "grass" is the new euphemism for "anything," I"ll buy that.

        I don't think that absolves us as humans, capable of moral reasoning, from being humane, but the idea that there can be life without death is laughable.

        Amen (and I got a kick out of the Lion King reference).

        And, eventually, we'll have to do something with our hens that have stopped laying;

        That too.

        When we got our allegedly female chicks, one turned out to be a dude, and we had such a quandary about what to do with him. We tentatively decided we ought to eat him because he was very noisy and aggressive, but none of us had the guts to kill him (ironically I think I might have been more apt to go through with it than my roommates, despite my having been emotionally attached to "her" when "she" was a chick); we ended up giving him away to a friend of a friend who wanted a stud for their urban backyard flock. Since the rooster was so noisy and psycho, I doubt he lasted long there, and sometimes I still think we ought to have just taken responsibility and done the deed ourselves; I mean, removing the issue we'd created for ourselves as a household felt like an ethical cop-out to me.
  • (no subject) -
    • I'm sure it will! :D When I made the Big Switch, one of the first things I thought/said was, "Now I can eat from Evermore Farms and won't have to turn down Florence and Noah if they ask us to share a meat CSA again!" :D

      Loafer's Glory in Hampstead is trying to carry more local seafood. It's on Business 30, just north of the first traffic circle. Heading north, it is on the left, just past the Joseph A. Banks factory. They also carry Trickling Springs products, so we stop there often on our way home from work when we need milk or butter.

      Right now, Bobby is actually frying up a piece of Carroll County-caught rockfish that he bought there the other day. :) Availability has been inconsistent on the seafood since they're trying to get it established, but the guy there that Bobby talked to said they're definitely trying to bring in more local seafood.

      Very excited about tomorrow! :)
  • Your food ethics journey almost exactly matches my own. I began to be vegetarian in college, and just un-did it a couple years ago, after about 17 years. At first I wanted to avoid factory farming, but also antibiotics, hormones, and other nasty stuff for my own health; then later I wanted the benefits, both for me and the environment, of eating the quality local meat available. (Our next-door neighbor was giving us venison steaks regularly! If that's not local, sustainable, free-range, ecologically sound, etc. I don't know what is.)

    For me it was not easy to switch... when I stopped eating meat I hadn't necessarily intended to go full veg, but after drastically cutting back I found that I couldn't eat meat at all without terrible heartburn and stomachaches. Down-regulation of enzymes, apparently. So to be able to eat it again regularly I had to build up to it over a couple years, starting with broth and such. It was weird... at first I couldn't even taste the difference between chicken, pork, and beef! I also assumed that I just didn't like beef, from what I remembered of it, but have come to realize how much BETTER the good stuff is compared to typical factory-farmed meat.

    A big reason I switched was to be able to get some of those important nutrients that come from animal products -- especially the stuff helpful for joints. I have an old knee injury in particular that has been helped by eating meat. I also notice I don't need nearly as much moisturizer as I used to...

    Oh man, do I hear you on the nosy relatives thing. I didn't want to tell the family at first that I'd started eating meat again, partly to continue to avoid the bad stuff, but partly because I just didn't want to hear any more about it.

    I've come to believe that it's good to continually observe and sometimes change one's eating habits, no matter the direction, just to avoid falling into bad habits and to check in on how things are really working for you. Good luck in your journey!
    • It's interesting how similar our experiences were/are! :) I also did not intend to go full veg. My reason, though, was more of a, "Wtf, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right."

      I had pretty much a constant tummyache for my first week back eating meat but haven't had any problems since then.

      especially the stuff helpful for joints.

      I'm interested to see how this goes. For about a year, I suffered with severe pain from inflamed joints. I never found out why. Tart cherry capsules twice per day have solved the problem, but at the time, my husband and I talked about whether it might have been nutritional, from not eating meat.

      I also get horrible split ends and so am looking forward to the extra omega-3's for that. :D

      It's been interesting that, since going back, I crave fish pretty much every day, which does make me wonder if I was missing something all those years.

      Oh man, do I hear you on the nosy relatives thing.

      And clueless! I told my parents and inlaws last week. I phrased it as, "I'm eating local sustainable meat and sustainable seafood, so that means I'll really only be eating meat at home, although you may see me eat seafood out sometimes. I'll continue bringing something for myself to family dinners." My dad immediately follows up with, "Well, if I'd known you were eating meat again, I would have put sausage in the soup I made for you!" *facepalm* I told my husband that this is precisely why I worried over switching back for so long ...
  • Cinnamon bacon? Why does nobody make that around here? That sounds delicious.

    Maybe I should do a search and see if I'm wrong.

    Local food is huge where we live (near San Francisco), and we try to buy from local farmers at the weekly market whenever we can. We also try to focus on pastured/free-range meat and animal products, but that doubles the grocery bill if you eat it regularly. Trying to be ethical is rather expensive, in my view. Which doesn't mean one shouldn't do it, and I would like to, but I have to keep my bank account in mind when I do so, and that makes the choices a lot harder.

    What do you normally supplement your diet with, if not processed food? I've looked at going vegetarian before, and besides some dietary restrictions, it never seems there's much protein to replace meat.

    I wish I had thought of the ethics of food earlier in life. It's a recent thing for me. (Though for the record, I never teased friends or family for being vegetarian! Generally speaking, my grandmother will punch you in the face if you do something as crass as making fun of another person's food.)

    Edited at 2014-11-03 05:14 am (UTC)
    • We get our cinnamon bacon from Evermore Farm, which since we're in Maryland, is probably a bit far for you, but since SF is so into local food too, perhaps someone else has had the same idea? I recommend it in any case. :)

      Trying to be ethical is rather expensive, in my view.

      It is. Because, you know, the U.S. government subsides monocrops that get turned into processed food but can't subsidize farmers who are trying to right by the animals in their care, their customers, and the environment. *eyeroll*

      What do you normally supplement your diet with, if not processed food?

      Lots of beans! :D Bobby uses beans and legumes a couple times per week as the protein. He'd use TVP a lot for me ... but that's processed. :^| Occasionally tofu.

      Though for the record, I never teased friends or family for being vegetarian! Generally speaking, my grandmother will punch you in the face if you do something as crass as making fun of another person's food.

      It strikes me as such a dumb thing to comment on. I never get why people feel the need to remark on it constantly.
  • This is a brilliantly thought out post. :) I've had a similar (but much shorter journey) to you. I was vegetarian for a few years, but then reached a stumbling block: is my imported, vacuum-sealed block of processed tofu 'better' than the grass fed steaks I could buy from a local farm at the farmer's market? I don't think there is an answer to that question. I think you just have to make a set of guidelines that you feel comfortable living by, but remember that one of the guidelines is that nothing is set in stone.

    I hope you continue to enjoy some local ethical meat and seafood. :)
  • I love this essay. I love that you've really thought, not only about why you became a vegetarian, but how the world has changed since (affected, in part, by vegetarians like you!), and how you can, by altering your food habits again, continue to put your little bit of pressure on the world to change for the better. You're certainly one of the most thoughtful vegetarians-for-non-religious-purposes I've ever known.

    You're absolutely right that vegetarianism for the sake of "not being party to killing," as a different vegetarian acquaintance put it, is much more complicated than people make it out to be. All of nature requires a certain amount of death, and I think that a lot of vegetarians don't quite get how much death, particularly violent death, happens in the course of everyday planetary life. You can't really escape it, but you can sure be thoughtful about it, and you do that better than most people I know.

    I'd be interested to hear further how your meat experiments go. I've heard from some long-term vegetarians that their bodies take a while to adjust to having meat again, which is kind of interesting to me. And, of course, be very careful with shellfish! Shellfish allergies tend to be adult-onset, so if you developed one between becoming a vegetarian and now, you wouldn't have known it, and you might be in for an unpleasant surprise! (My personal position on that is that I love shellfish, but shellfish do not love me.)

    One thing I've noticed since moving to England and therefore starting my kitchen over from absolute scratch, is how much easier it is to eat local in a small country! The shops I go to, from the open-air market to the Co-Op, even to the local Sainsbury's, are all very proud to point out which of their products are British. As it turns out, one of the things that Sainsbury's is proud to sell is British-produced beet sugar! So the tea may come from far away, but dangit, the sugar that goes into it is produced right here in East Anglia!
  • Ed, my husband, became a vegetarian a few years ago. I think his motivation at the time was an increasing number of meat recalls from supermarkets for the presence of e. coli or other yucky bacteriae. But he will consume fish and sometimes chicken after he finds out where it's from and how it was butchered. I've learned to cook a variety of yummy vegetarian dishes and we eat these often. (Certainly one does not lose weight on becoming vegetarian...it seems always a struggle to keep it off!)

    Anyway, there does seem to be a shift lately in people's perceptions about vegetarianism etc., and this is welcome to say the least. Also I see a trend arising in the promotion of local foods, both produce and meat, which I believe to be a very good thing.

    I think the best way to promote a new, healthier way of eating is to get out there and be vocal about it...become an activist! But for an introvert with a social phobia like me, this is personally impossible to do. And what gave anyone the right to criticize what others choose to eat? Rude people will always be in abundance I'm afraid. But I know I was brought up to take great care in what I said to other people, always asking myself before I spoke if I would like to be spoken to that way myself. It's not hard to do, but alas...it's not the modern way it seems.
  • Sounds like a very good decision to me, and your diet does not seem confusing, it makes perfect sense. And yes, free-range bacon... yum!
  • Turning vegetarian or stopping being vegetarian is going to be commented on regardless of the latitude, believe me ;) However, having been vegetarian for 17 years, when I had to become a meat eater again due to health issues I simply announced that I would eat it from then on, but the reasons were my business. No questions answered. ;)

    If nothing else, having been one made me more conscious about food I eat. I fully support your effort to choose local products, as opposed to those mass-production ones. This is what we should do step by step to regain balance between us and nature. Of course, it would be stupid and delusional if I said that everyone should go to the forest to hunt their meal if they need meat, but by supporting local producers, those who believe in fair trade, we can say a firm no to factory farming. By reading labels and avoiding highly processed food; by simply being aware what what we eat wasn't born or didn't grow in a supermarket (as some teenagers here think).

    I, for the simplest example I can find, buy fresh/smoked fish at the seaside. It may not be a surprise, but I live 600 kms away from it, lol. I simply gather orders from friends and family and once in a while ask a certain fisherman to bring the fish once he comes southward to supply his 'corporate' buyers. Possible? Yes, very much so. :)

    Good luck!
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