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Extremely Unsustainable and Incredibly Cruel: Jonathan Safran Foer vs. the Meat Industry

February 3, 2010

Goat. To be enjoyed, not eaten.

Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer’s third full-length book, his first non-fiction, and the first major ideological risk he has taken.  Foer’s purpose is not simply to describe the meat industry in all its nastiness (as has been done well by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) – rather, Foer’s purpose is to convince the reader that vegetarianism is the only practical and philosophically satisfying means to influence the cruel, environmentally catastrophic industries of factory meat and dairy, and large-scale fishing. This is risky because only 3.2% of American adults are vegetarian, and even if a bigger percentage of Americans are ambivalent about eating meat, for many it would be uncomfortable to be told that they need to make the step to completely stop eating meat.

Foer does not allow for much intellectual relief without full conversion. Unlike a book on pollution that encourages readers to use less energy, or an article challenging readers to give more money to AIDs relief in Africa, Eating Animals calls for complete action – one cannot read it and be simply be satisfied that he will eat less meat, because Foer does not ask his readers to do more of something positive, he asks them to completely stop doing something negative. And so for omnivores and “flex-itarians”, Eating Animals is a provocation.

Eating Animals, though, was marketed as more than a niche read, and despite (because of?) its provocative nature made it to 20th on the New York Times Non-Fiction Bestseller list for Nov 27, 2009. Without going into what an argument for vegetarianism’s sales success means, it remains a gutsy move for Foer to follow Everything is Illuminated and the 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with a condemning work that should offend or intellectually bother anyone who isn’t already vegetarian.

On to the book itself: where Jonathan Safran Foer is strongest is in showing the disconnect Americans make between our companion animals and the just-as-intelligent, just-as-feeling animals we kill for food. Our rationalizations for eating meat while finding cruelty to companion animals wrong (and even illegal) are weak, and are buoyed by a mental disconnect between what we eat and the life the animal lived (and, indeed, what it is we are actually eating – that is, chemicals, e coli, and a lot of added waste-water). Foer makes a strong philosophical case for vegetarianism, but buffers this with a much more coldly compelling rationale: the meat and dairy industries are the single biggest contributors to global warming worldwide. This, unlike many of the chemicals needed for production and transportation, such as gasoline, is quite unnecessary pollution. In the United States, this is pollution produced so that Americans can get cheap meat in large quantities – amounts consumed per person far above what Americans consumed fifty or one-hundred years ago. So on both philosophical and realistic environmental counts (add to global warming the disastrous ecological consequences of trawling for sea life such as shrimp), Foer puts forward strong, clear arguments that the current factory farming system is profoundly unsustainable.

The decision which must be made at this point, though, is usually whether more ethical ways to produce meat, such as family farms, are a good alternative to vegetarianism. Foodies such as Michael Pollan somewhat poetically view the end of meat as some further tragedy, almost as bad as the cruel factory farming they would like to end. And perhaps highly regulated, small organic farms producing expensive meat could take away some market share from factory farming (especially if they were incentivized by the government). But expensive meat will not affect the majority of consumers if they have the option to eat cheap meat, and unless omnivores are willing to only eat small-farm, organic meat (a very dubious proposition if one ever wants to eat meat at a restaurant), they are part of the problem, not the solution.  Why, then, does Foer spend so much space talking to small farmers, organic farmers, ethical farmers? He critiques them even as he says he supports what they are doing; this is a difficult position to be in, as the environmental eaters – small farm, the ethical treatment of animals, and vegetarian crowds –  are not huge and splintering the group is not in anyone’s (well, except the meat industry’s) interest. Still, Foer is essentially saying “these farmers are doing their best to change things, but you shouldn’t buy their products.”

One characteristic of Eating Animals which may put off some, but which kept my happily adolescent mind engaged, is Foer’s language (a not-entirely-unrepresentative passage: “To take a step back: shit itself isn’t  bad. Shit has long been the farmer’s friend, fertilizer for his fields, from which he grows food for his animals, whose meat goes to people and whose shit goes back to the fields. Shit became a problem only when Americans decided we wanted to eat more meat than any other culture in history and pay historically little for it.” pg 176-177). Some may hold that this language is not befitting a book as serious as Eating Animals; I would tend to argue that for younger (20s and 30s) readers – probably Foer’s prime audience for his previous books – the language, as well as some unorthodox formatting (five pages of the words “Speechlessness/Influence” repeated continuously, one letter for each of the average 21,000 animals each American eats in a lifetime) may be demographic appropriate.

The gist of the book, not surprisingly, is that eating meat is unethical and unsustainable. And Foer, to my mind, convinces. The excuses for eating factory produced meat are almost entirely disconnected from need. No one needs to eat meat. A vegetarian diet is often healthier, and – despite how cheap meat has become – still less expensive. And it isn’t cruel. And it isn’t contributing to global warming. And it isn’t making us fat. A vegetarian diet is, however, inconvenient. Like other inconvenient environmental truths, the unsustainability of factory meat needs to discussed and acted upon. Devour Eating Animals as soon as you can.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. ingrid sassner permalink
    January 3, 2011 11:33 pm

    today I listened to your interview with Antony Bourdain. As always I am very much interested in more evidence about the useless slaughtering of animals. What a coindecence today again in the German news a big food poisening scandal was reported. Having added toxins to food of chickens, turkeys and pigs. In my opinion much more cruelty needs to be published to make people aware what is really going on behind the so called safty slaughtering. Yes animals have also an emotional life. Kind regards Ingrid

  2. Ingrid Sassner permalink
    January 4, 2011 12:16 am

    Hi, today I listened to your interview in the radio at 90.3in Sarnia. I liked your comments very much and when I see your web I think we need to see much more cruelty exercised on animals when taken to the slaughter house. I stopped eating meat in April 2006 but to my disguise I am still eating fish, however I am working on this as well. I did stop eating meat for the reasons mentioned. Tomorrow I am going to get the book and I know I will be surprised what I am going to read. I admire people like you who have the courage to go that public with such a delicate issue. Kind Regards, Ingrid

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  1. Extremely Unsustainable and Incredibly Cruel: Jonathan Safran Foer vs. the Meat Industry « Adventist Activism

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