(Delivered in a forum on humane animal agriculture at the VeganFest in Asheville, June 12, 2016)
I have been an organic gardener and an active recycler for more than 40 years. I lived off the grid in a solar powered house built largely of recycled materials for 22 years and pooped in a composting toilet to recover my waste as fertilizer. Today I live in a grid-connected, all electric home with a full solar array. I confess to using a flush toilet. I’m approximately net zero and this summer I’ll add enough more solar panels that I can charge an electric car. I ate an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet for about twenty years and was a vegan for eight. I have written books dealing with the ethics of our diet, our relationship to animals and the earth and as a member of Asheville’s City Council have done my utmost to reduce the City’s energy use, to increase recycling, to reduce pesticide use, to make Asheville the first Bee City USA, to facilitate farmers’ markets and to find ways to make public land available for food production.
I have tried throughout my life to live up to something I learned from my father when I was a child – a lesson bolstered by my years as a Boy Scout. Always leave a campsite cleaner than you found it. Or in the wider world, always leave the place you live better than when you arrived.
But there is one thing I haven’t mentioned that has had and will have more impact on the future of planet earth than everything else I have done put together. I chose not to have children.
There is no problem confronting us today that is not made worse by population growth. It is the scale of human numbers that is creating the climate crisis, the phenomenon of world-wide drought, the poisoning of waterways and the chemical changes in the ocean, life threatening air pollution, the death of coral reefs, the mass extinction of species and the constant pressure toward war. In wild animal populations the food supply is always a limiting factor. We humans have gamed the system.
If a single lifestyle choice has any relevance to the human future, it is for millions of people to decide not to have children.
But this weekend event is focussed on diet, so I should probably discuss my current thinking regarding food, though it greatly hinges on our burgeoning numbers.
No vegan who is also a gardener can easily escape the reality that agriculture kills animals. If I go out in the yard with a shovel I am signing up as an executioner. Of course at the personal level it is mostly earthworms and other soil creatures that die, though this spring I inadvertently killed a baby snake as I was turning over the soil. Then too, I pick off pests and have very occasionally resorted to so-called organic pesticides to get rid of a pestiferous infestation. I have done that reluctantly and with full knowledge that I was killing a whole lot more than the target bugs, possibly including birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians somewhere in the food chain.
Last summer the netting I strung up for snow peas caught a sparrow, dead before I discovered it. And the year before I trapped a ground hog that was mowing down my garden and released it several miles away in a woods. I then felt bad all summer having cheated the critter of his well dug habitat and having released it in a place that had much less of the food it needs to thrive. But this year I moved another. It was wiping out my garden.
Looking down from 30,000 feet one can reasonably argue that agriculture, not eating apples, was our original sin. We escaped the bounds of nature and set about transforming the earth.
Of course most vegan apologists would argue that the worms and millipedes and ants and beetles and so forth are low forms of life and that the sparrow’s death was an unfortunate accident. But taking such a narrow view elides the truth. Living does not demand cruelty, but it inevitably requires dying. Agriculture displaces preexisting natural systems. The death of many animals, even extinction of some species, is inherent in our diversion of land and water to our own use. The ground hog I moved is just one small example.
Rodents, to take another example, do immense damage to our food supply, not to mention the rat-borne diseases that have occasionally wiped out hundreds of thousands of humans. There is no large scale food system that does not rely on eradication of rodents. Once again our lives depend on death.
I recall many years ago visiting Kings Canyon in California, near Sequoia National Park, and witnessing the incredible power of the Kings River with a current so forceful that boulders were being tossed into the air. And then learning that the river no longer reached the Pacific Ocean – diverted to agriculture. Back then I visited the Grand Canyon and the amazingly huge Colorado River, only to learn that it no longer reaches Mexico and that we have drilled wells to pump water into the river to meet our treaty obligations with our southern neighbor. By some accounts we now use or divert more than half of the fresh water on earth to human enterprises and we have entered what appears to be a permanent de facto drought. Water we use is generally not available to other creatures, and certainly not in the way it was before. Whether it is hot water pouring out of a power plant cooling system, agricultural run-off with its soup of nutrients and pesticides, the effluent from sewage systems, warm water lakes behind dams on formerly cold rivers, and on and on and on … we have twisted the hydrological cycle to our own ends..
Furthermore, the agriculture that feeds 7 or 8 billion people is entirely dependent on the oil industry, a business that is very hard on animal life even without the Exxon Valdez and the BP oil platform explosion. The fertilizer that made the so-called Green Revolution possible is manufactured from natural gas. The tractors in the fields and the trucks that deliver food run on oil and gas. And yes, we may be able to shift a great deal of our energy production to solar and wind, but I haven’t heard a plausible argument for a large-scale nitrogen fertilizer alternative in the foreseeable future. Modern sewage sludge is so toxic it ranks as a hazardous waste.
Perhaps the massive destruction of the natural world could be minimized if we each grew all of our own food using only the rain that falls on our gardens and hand tools. We could use our own waste for fertilizer as I did for twenty years with my composting toilet. But I don’t see personal gardening as a realistic option given our numbers and the massive concentration of human beings in cities. Even there, as I’ve noted, we are displacing animals.
This touches on an environmental argument favoring veganism, which involves the idea that it takes a lot more land area to support an omnivorous diet. There is some truth in that, particularly with grain fed beef. That argument spoke to me 30 years ago, but I’m less certain today. Animal manure used to be the principal nitrogen fertilizer source on farms, today it is replaced as I mentioned with natural gas. Manure is much healthier for the soil than the chemicals used today. And conversion of sunlight via grass into manure while producing protein is the natural way to preserve topsoil health. We are all, inextricably, dependent on topsoil to live. Any vegan who buys local produce from a small farm is almost certainly benefitting from manure or other animal products. If you buy organic fertilizer, check the label – it generally includes feathers, bones and blood.
On another track I have followed the work of many biologists, ethologists and evolutionary researchers and found this to be true. Hominid apes are omnivores. I recall how surprised Jane Goodall was when she discovered that chimpanzees hunt. Volunteering each week at the WNC Nature Center I’ve had the chance to show children the skulls of various animals and discuss their diets. Strict carnivores have fangs and cutting teeth. Strict herbivores have biting and grinding teeth. Omnivores like humans and chimpanzees have both.
Moreover, all of the higher functioning animals are either omnivores or carnivores – which makes a bit of sense since it presumably takes more cunning to stalk prey than to run. An interesting corollary to this is that our brains need fats to function well, and there is strong evidence that low fat diets contribute to Alzheimers and other brain disorders. Animals are, of course, not the only source of fats, but they contain a higher concentration of fat than virtually all vegetable foods. Mothers’ milk is a very high-fat animal-based food that is perfect for a quickly developing brain.
While researching and writing my book Whale Falls: An exploration of belief and its consequences, I discovered the only other animals on this planet who seem to have brains as complex as ours and which have developed syntactical language are the dolphins and whales – all primarily carnivores. I would note that the animals we tend to cherish as pets are also carnivores or omnivores and even chickens, which some Ashevillians hold dear, love nothing better than frogs. At least that was my experience when I had free range chickens and lived near a swamp.
So we kill to live. Beyond that the dietary discussion is reduced to where we draw our lines. As I described in Whale Falls, cultural decisions fall all over the map. Some Jews don’t eat pork, others don’t eat shellfish and some keep strict Kosher – separate containers and serving ware for different foods. Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays so they served fish, while some Native American cultures held a proscription against eating fish at all. In China cats are a normal dietary item and in Japan they eat whales. One mideastern religion abjures lettuce and rain forest tribes tend to eat a lot of insects. There is very little meat below the forest canopy in rainforests so they invented blow guns and occasionally bring down a monkey. Neanderthals didn’t understand that fish were edible and our direct ancestors apparently ate Neanderthals.
Another dietary argument repeatedly offered in favor of veganism involves health. It is plausibly argued that eating meat contributes to heart disease and stroke, and less plausibly to a long list of other ill effects. The problem with this view is first that it assumes good health is everyone’s highest goal, and it demonstrably is not. People do all kinds of things that are more or less likely to shorten their lives. On the flip side, while personal experience is hard to generalize, I know that when we became vegan my then-partner was going through menopause. We ate a lot of soy products. Before she died of estrogen positive breast cancer one line of research I read indicated that her high intake of soy estrogen might very well have accelerated her very aggressive cancer. Would she have survived if we hadn’t become vegans at the wrong time in her life? There’s no way to know.
Personally I favor decent treatment of the animals I eat. I am appalled at the horrible conditions and practices that are often justified in the name of commerce. But I have come to accept that my living requires dying and I am comfortable with my decision to eat meat.
I fully understand that those who choose to attempt veganism are well intended, but when it is held out as a form of moral superiority I get very uncomfortable. I’m embarrassed today by the holier than thou attitude I somewhat embraced during my vegan years, laying a head trip on people who didn’t share in my purity. I am way over myself as an authority figure. A lot of true believers seem to fall into that trap, and it’s probably even easier for those who give up something they like: Hey, I’m suffering for this moral superiority, unlike you sinners. Priestly celibacy comes to mind.
But I also firmly believe that it is impossible to be fully vegan in the sense of not participating at all in the killing of animals. There is approximately no way around complicity. Plastic bags, shampoo, tires for your car or bike or the bus you ride to work, the threads in your garments, transportation fuel, your walls, your roof, heating, cooling, your cell phone, your alfalfa sprouts … all of it has a bad impact on other living creatures. Echoing the philosopher Albert Camus one might plausibly argue that the only serious philosophical question for a determined vegan is suicide.
The dominant life on earth began once as far as we can tell – though life might have emerged and failed multiple times before things finally worked out in our favor. Everything since then has been part of an immense food chain that ebbs and flows through photosynthesis, metabolism, growth and decay. In a very real sense the whole planet is one organism and it is that planetary organism that is threatened by the current dominance of one specie that learned to rig the game in its favor. Our 10,000 year experiment with agriculture has been devastating to all of our cohabitants on planet earth.
I greatly fear we will not be among the survivors.
Addendum: I should probably have been more specific – pursuant to the above, I believe an organic diet is better for the planet than a strict vegan diet.