“Blood and Soil”: Lierre Keith, Michael Pollan, and the Trouble with Locavore Politics
Until very recently, the terms of what we might call human species right – the perceived, autogenous Recht of our species to appropriate, exploit, torment, and kill other sentient beings for any and all purposes, forever – were seen as natural and immutable, and so went unquestioned.[i] In the late 20th-century, however, an international social movement for animal liberation arose to challenge the terms of this presumed right, suggesting that it is both possible and desirable to forgo enslaving and killing other beings, for our sake as well as theirs. Yet even as that movement struggles to find its way in the teeth of government repression, widespread social prejudice, and an entrenched corporate-capitalist system based in animal exploitation, a group of intellectuals has risen up in determined political reaction against it. Like those who earlier mocked suffragism, opposed the abolition of slavery, or lifted their pens to decry civil rights for blacks, today’s anti-animal critics would discredit the movement before its critique can gain traction in the wider culture. Despite the shoddiness of their arguments, these critics find credulous readers, not because of the quality or novelty of their ideas, but because their prejudices happen to coincide with the bad conscience of the majority.
The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith, is a recent entry in this new genre of apologia for human empire. It is noteworthy for showing us that that majority now includes a portion of the radical Left, which has received Keith’s intellectually dishonest book with apparent enthusiasm (enthusiastic blurbs from Alice Walker and Derrick Jensen accompany the book). With the wind of the locavore movement at her back and food writer Michael Pollan as her lodestar, Keith, a radical feminist turned animal farmer, sets out to destroy vegetarianism and, en passant, animal rights. The author’s own vegetarianism almost killed her, she tells us, and unless vegans and animal rights activists are stopped, they are going to destroy the earth. This frankly apocalyptic narrative sets The Vegetarian Myth apart from scholarly critiques of animal rights by philosophers on the Right. The Vegetarian Myth may be many things – a paean to diet fads, a primer on the sins of agriculture, a primitivist anti-vegetarian screed, a Bildungsroman of Keith’s passage from infantile veganism to the “adult knowledge” of the necessity of killing other beings. But as a literary form, its nearest cousin is the millenarian tract. With its determination to divide the world into friends and enemies, its willingness to scant reason and traduce fact to compel the reader to its fevered conclusions, and above all its steely determination to abolish a civilization it deems hopelessly corrupt and wholly evil, The Vegetarian Myth ultimately has more in common with John’s Revelation than with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Apocalypticism in leftist discourse is not new – but the use of apocalyptic rhetoric by an avowed leftist to attack a radical social movement may be. It is worth examining Keith’s arguments in some detail, if only as a symptom of the overdetermination of some quarters of contemporary leftist thought by capital.
Locavorism and the American Pastoral Ideal
Most of the educated public is by now familiar with the term “locavore.” Dovetailing with the urban guerilla gardening movement of the 1980s, the locavore movement in the US came to the fore of popular consciousness in 2006 with the publication of Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Behind the movement is a well-meaning desire for healthful, ecologically sustainable, socially just, and above all locally grown foods. Locavores favor small farms over big ones, organic and sustainable agricultural techniques, and backyard plots filled with chickens and other animals for DIY slaughter. Some locavores (like Keith) also subscribe to bioregionalism – the idea that we should only, or to the extent possible, consume foodstuffs that are native to our particular biotic region. Eating locally and growing one’s own food is said to build community and encourage sustainable farming practices. Prima facie, the virtues of locavorism are clear. Supporting local farmers, or family-owned farms, makes vastly more sense socially and ecologically than does supporting corporate giants like ConAgra or ADM. Moreover, like its sister Slow Food movement in Europe, locavorism is as much about affirming a communitarian ethos as an environmentalist land ethic. While locavorism is generally depicted as a progressive or leftist movement, however, that movement is more ideologically ambiguous than it at first appears to be.
It first bears recalling that objections to industrialized agriculture have been with us for some time. In 1934, Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization noted the fallacy of equating mechanization of agriculture and commodification of food with social progress. While canning and refrigeration make sense, he wrote, “as a means of distributing a limited food supply over the year, or of making it available in areas distant from the place originally grown,” using “canned goods...in country districts when fresh fruit and vegetables are available comes to a vital and social loss.” Anticipating the objections of today’s locavores to excessive “food miles,” Mumford observed that there was “no virtue whatever in eating foods that are years old or that have been transported thousands of miles, when equally good foods are available without going out of the locality.”[ii] Public suspicion of corporate agriculture prompted others around the same time to sing the virtues of independent farming. In 1940, E.B. White gently mocked the “self-sustaining farm,” as he called it in a review in Harper’s of a popular book entitled, Practical Farming for Beginners. According to the publisher’s blurb on the book, Practical Farming “will be welcomed by ‘an increasing number of American people who, fed up with the pressure of city living, are going back to the land for their livelihood.’”[iii] Referring to the book’s author, White wrote, “Mr. Highstone’s book presents a formula for subsistence farming, that is, farming for consumption rather than for profit, farming to produce all one’s needs.”[iv] Highstone outlined an animal-based farm economy which fiercely proscribed the feeding of grain to livestock. “Mr. Highstone will have you buy nothing; and he is very stern about that. It’s forbidden, and if you start slipping and buy a bag of grain, the whole structure will topple.”[v]
But Highstone’s book merely riffed on an age-old theme in American culture. A century earlier, Henry David Thoreau had offered his own version of the self-sustaining “gentleman farmer,” in Walden. Even then, the idea of the self-reliant agriculturist was a hundred years old and already deeply rooted in the American mythology. Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the first to make the American pastoral ideal into a full-fledged intellectual sensibility. In a letter in 1795, Jefferson tells his correspondent how much he enjoys his withdrawal from public life, which he “‘never liked,’” and how he has returned to his sheltered home “‘with infinite appetite, to the enjoyment of my farm, my family and my books, and...determined to meddle in nothing beyond their limits.’”[vi] Remarkably like Lierre Keith, who implies that we should break off all trade with other nations and peoples and even with other bioregions in North America too--she writes that we should consume only foodstuffs found within our own bioregion, which in my case, living in Massachusetts, means dandelions, burdock, and chipmunks, among other delectables--Jefferson tells a correspondent of his wish that the new American states “‘practice neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand with respect to Europe precisely on the footing of China. We should thus avoid wars, and all our citizens would be husbandsmen.’”[vii]
A renaissance of the Jeffersonian ideal of agricultural self-sufficiency can be seen today, in such phenomena as the vogue for local farmer’s markets, the food intelligentsia’s critique of agribusiness (films like Food, Inc. and Our Daily Bread), and in the popularity of FarmVille, the world’s most popular video game (played online by hundreds of millions of digital farmers on Facebook).[viii] At times, the new “urban” pastoralism takes the form of anti-corporate critique. At other times--or even at the same time--it tends toward the right rather than left end of the political spectrum. Indeed, the locavores’ ideal of self-reliance, suspicion toward cosmopolitanism, and the fetish of the local into some deeply conservative strains in American culture.
First, proponents tell us that the solution to the ills of civilization are ready at hand, and that they can be discovered in voluntarist and individualistic actions whose aim is individual self-reliance. This is, at root, a libertarian vision rather than one of collective political action. Thus, we learn from one recent news report, more Americans are keeping “farm” animals and turning to home-grown killing to last out the economic recession, perhaps “to instill an invaluable sense of self-reliance.”[ix] As a sales rep for a large poultry supply company observes, “‘People are buying up guns and chickens and seed....That tells me people are wanting to depend on themselves.’”[x]
Second, the organo-libertarian narrative of self-reliance is meanwhile connected to an identity-based aesthetic of self-realization. Food not only tastes better when it is locally grown; being “in touch” with the land bestows existential authenticity on the act of consumption, grounding it in ostensibly unmediated relations with producers. This fetish of the local can drift uneasily toward nativism: native plants, native peoples, those who belong and those who do not. Even in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson’s local-first attitude coincided with what Leo Marx describes as widespread “pious” popular aversion after the Revolution to European “sophistication, aristocracy, luxury, elegant language, etc.” This was the period when the slogan “‘Buy American!’” was first heard in the streets, a slogan which signaled “that crude local products were preferable (on moral grounds, of course) to European finery.”[xi] More recently, as Vasile St?nescu observes, today’s environmental movement’s emphasis on “the local” at times exhibits “a deeply disturbing strain of conservatism, provincialism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.”[xii] Ursula Heise indeed observes some disturbing historical resonances between the Nazi slogan of Blut und Boden, “blood and soil,” and the contemporary fetish of local ecosystems and a land ethic—a point I return to below.[xiii]
In this regard, it is telling that Lierre Keith’s touchstone for the ideal animal farm is Polyface Farms, owned and operated by Joel Salatin, a graduate of Bob Jones University, the right-wing Christian fundamentalist college. Like others on the agrarian right, Salatin has voiced suspicion of foreign workers in America’s fields, and has made common cause with the anti-immigrant movement.[xiv] While Keith would find such a nativism anathema to her anti-imperialist politics, she seems unaware of the hazards that her agrarian, anti-cosmopolitan proscriptions bring in their train, and tone deaf to the implications of aligning herself in her text with (among others) Salatin, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Mormons. Even Michael Pollan, the intellectual godfather of locavorism, acknowledges the conservative implications of the movement, approvingly citing a 2007 editorial in The American Conservative that dubbed locavorism “a conservative cause if ever there was one.”[xv]
Destroying Civilization To Save It
While ordinary social conservatives would turn the clock back to the 1950s, however, that’s nothing for Keith, who would like to turn the clock back 10,000-46,000 years. Whereas hunting was always tied to “the sacred,” she avers, agriculture led to “religious theocracies.” Leaving aside the fact that a firm distinction between early hunting-gathering cultures and sedentary food producers probably did not exist, Keith’s thrust is that since killing and eating animals is our heritage we ought to honor that heritage by keeping it up. Would Keith listen to the evil vegetarians, she wonders, or “would I learn the grammar of my great-grandparents, and feed the trees with the bones of animals that lived beside me?” An unapologetic primitivist, Keith asserts that hunting is natural and that animal flesh is “the food of our ancestors.” Lest any of Keith’s readers not get her point, her publisher helpfully posts a colour photograph of the cave paintings of Lascaux on the front cover of her book. Keith refers several times to the paintings, waxing poetic about her desire to participate in the world of the people who created them. What “literally made us human,” she writes, was our hunting of the “megafauna of the prehistoric world, the aurochs and antelopes and mammoths.”
Here, the curious reader might wonder what happened, exactly, to all those lovely mammoths and aurochs. Keith doesn’t say. But the prevailing scientific view is that humans hunted them to quick extinction. In fact, while Keith repeatedly invokes the many inherent virtues and “sacredness” of pre-civilizational hunter-gathering cultures, she fails to ask how good those hunter-gatherers were at managing their ecological “resources.” Jared Diamond helps fill in the blanks:
Beginning with the first human colonization of the Australian continent around 46,000 years ago and the subsequent prompt extinction of most of Australia’s large marsupials and other large animals, every human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans – whether of Australia, North America, South America, Madagascar, the Mediterranean islands, or Hawaii and New Zealand and dozens of other Pacific islands – has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals that had evolved without fear of humans and were easy to kill, or else succumbed to human-associated habitat changes, introduced pest species, and diseases.[xvi]
These and similar grim facts would seem to complicate Keith’s romantic portrait of hunter-gatherers. Presumably this is why she leaves them out. Unfortunately, the pattern of human domination and extermination Diamond describes never ended. Today, technological capitalism has greatly improved the rate and efficiency of extermination, speeding up the grisly business many times over. It is estimated that as many as one in three to one in seven mammalian, reptilian, amphibian, and avian species will be obliterated from the earth in a matter of decades.
Keith romanticizes hunting and animal domestication in part because she sees the alternative—agriculture—as worse than both. Keith blames agriculture for everything that has gone wrong in society from “slavery, imperialism, [and] militarism” to “chronic hunger, and disease,” urbanization, “class stratification... population overshoot... and a punishing Father God.” Like the born-again Christian who discovers that one cannot be a “little” bit saved (nor a little bit pregnant), Keith is adamant that “[a]ny attempt to grow annual crops... will destroy the land.” All agriculture ends “in death.” “Agriculture…is the end of the world” (emphasis added). Hence Keith’s radical solution to the global crisis: to reduce the human population by more than 90 percent, and to replace crop cultivation with a virtuous mix of hunting-gathering and small-scale animal husbandry.
On the one hand, Keith writes movingly of the toll that modern mechanized agriculture takes on local ecosystems and on the myriad animal species who live in them. Leaving aside the often exaggerated environmental cost of having asparagus and oranges available at the local supermarket year-round (the energy used in transporting food long distances is de minimus[xvii]), there is no denying the overall toxicity of modern agriculture. Agriculture ruins rivers through salinization, dumps nitrogen run-off into the sea, rips the nutrients out of the soil, poisons or displaces millions of birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles, and turns once thriving ecosystems into desert wastelands. Keith aptly describes corporate agriculture is indeed a “war” on the earth, one akin to “ethnic cleansing.” In agriculture, humans “take a piece of land and...clear every living thing off it, down to the bacteria.” As for the animals, they “are killed, often into extinction.” Agriculture is a “catastrophe that never allows the land to heal.”
So to this extent, at least, Keith is right: the current system of monocrop agriculture, which relies on unsustainable and ecologically fatal infusions of petrochemicals, is broken. Indeed, the existing global food system is poised on the brink of catastrophe, as agribusiness cannibalizes its own means of reproduction, the biota of the earth. Furthermore, Keith is also right that many vegans (and meat-eaters, for that matter, though Keith doesn’t say so) have no idea how the food on their plates got there, nor that much of the health food market has been cornered by ecosystem-destroying corporate behemoths—e.g. that the leading brands of soy milk are produced by agribusinesses that are owned by such enlightend companies as ExxonMobil, General Electric, and Citigroup. The trouble is that Keith extends her sensible critique of corporate and petrochemical-based forms of agriculture to condemn all agriculture as such – ancient, modern, future. What she fails to show, however, is that all forms of agriculture are equally bad, or that agriculture leads inevitably to global “biocide.” There is thus a false dilemma built into her argument.
Historical precedent exists for sustainable stewardship of the land. Dwellers in the Tai Lake region of ancient China have been engaged in sustainable agriculture practices for almost a thousand years, even increasing their yields over time, all without depleting the soil.[xviii] The highlanders of New Guinea, meanwhile, have been growing crops sustainably for 7,000 years.[xix] Much more recently, the postwar experience in Europe and the US with small-scale organic farming shows that agriculture can be both sustainable and practicable – that farmers can nourish and replenish the soil, mitigate most of the harmful effects of clearing the land, conserve fresh water resources, and protect the other species who suffer the effects of agricultural technique. This is not to say that even organic agriculture does not come at some ecological cost, nor that nonhuman beings don’t suffer “collateral damage” from plant cultivation (they do). But it is to say that the choice is not, as Keith argues, between ending agriculture or accepting planetary death, nor between eating animals and the figure of “a starving child.”
Yet Keith is so deeply upset by her own sense of personal “betrayal” by vegetarianism (see below) that she blames vegetarians both retroactively, for the past sins of civilization, and projectively, for the future end of the world. “Ten thousand years of destroying carbon sinks of perennial polycultures has added almost as much carbon to the atmosphere as industrialization, an indictment that you, vegetarians, need to answer,” she writes. Or again: “The annual grains of the vegetarians are causing mass destruction.” This last is a curious phrasing, since vegetarians represent a miniscule percentage of the population and 99% of those annual grains globally are being fed either to meat-eaters or to other animals who will then be eaten by humans. But it is not enough for Keith to blame vegetarians for the millennial sins of agriculture, she must also evoke the frightening image of a future in which the vegans had their way. Keith maintains that if the vegans ever had their way, the world’s ecosystems would collapse. There would be nothing worth saving left on the land mass. Most species will have long since gone extinct. Why? Because vegetarians/vegans would continue the conspiracy of agriculture, rather than returning us to a virtuous mix of hunting-gathering and small-scale animal husbandry.
What is strange about Keith’s entire line of argument is that the international flesh economy is in fact a far greater threat to biotic survival than plant agriculture. Somehow, no where in the course of her in her 300-page book does Keith mention the fact that of the estimated 40 percent of the planetary landmass given over to agriculture, three fourths of these lands are devoted either to grazing animals for human consumption or growing plant matter to feed them. The ugly reality is that the rise of factory farming as a way to provide middle class humans with cheap nonhuman flesh has led led to greater and greater demand for meat production, with global production skyrocketing from 71 million tons in 1961 to 284 million tons in 2007.[xx] As a result, animal agriculture accounts for about one-fifth of all gases associated with global warming, the razing of millions of hectares of rainforests in Latin America, the Phillipines, and elsewhere, and the poisoning of watersheds and riverways.[xxi] Meanwhile, the social consequences of animal production are abysmal. Intensified animal agriculture displaces peasants, poor farmers, and indigenous peoples from their land, strengthens the power of local oligarchs and the military in the Third World, and distorts national economies by making them dependent upon an ecologically unsustainable, violent, export-driven form of development.
Even world elites are worried, nervously eyeing a meat economy that threatens to destabilize the international political order. A special task force of the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, and the European Union urges immediate action to offset “the very substantial contribution of animal agriculture to climate change and air pollution, to land, soil and water degradation and to the reduction of biodiversity.”[xxii] Meanwhile, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has urged the world’s citizens to reduce – or eliminate – meat from their diets as a way of combating global warming. Even Pollan, who as an organic foodie wants his local meat so that he can eat it too, nonetheless recommends that Americans observe “one meatless day a week”—the equivalent, he points out, “of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year.”[xxiii] Pollan might have said five meatless days, or even seven. But no matter. The question is why, in the face of overwhelming evidence that animal agriculture is eating up the planet, endangering human food security and health, and subjecting animals to unspeakable forms of misery, has Lierre Keith written a book calling for the increased consumption of animals as the solution to the global ecological crisis?
More striking still is Keith’s proposed remedy for what supposedly ails us. Put simply, her millenarian vision would have us destroy civilization in order to save it. Hers is an anti-cosmopolitan vision of a Cro Magnon political economy of Jeffersonian “husbandmen” growing their own food and living off the grid. She neglects the fact that human beings have been trading with one another for as long as we can remember—that aboriginal hunter-gatherers in what is now Australia, for example, traded with crop-growing farmers in the Torres Strait Islands for thousands of years. Trade is one of the aspects of the human condition that we cannot, and indeed should not, do without. When we trade goods, we also trade knowledge, culture, and experience. Keith would seemingly drive humanity into self-imposed isolation, since it follows from her position that we should also not trade with other countries or regions, either. Instead, we would be reduced to stay at home hunters and chicken farmers with little need to interact with or have contact with a wider world.
Nowhere does Keith offer us any clues about how society is to function, or whether it would or should have such modern conveniences as electricity or printing presses. Nor is it clear, if we are all to be animal farmers, how the other labor of the society is going to get done, or who is going to do it. What about other commodities? If it is not “sustainable” to get our food from outside our own bioregion, how can it be sustainable to get our clothing, our metals, our minerals, or anything else from another region? Presumably we must all clothe ourselves in deerskin, blow our own glass, and trade in our light bulbs for tallow candles. As E.B. White dryly observed of the agrarian vogue of his time: “The life of self-sufficiency in this 20th century is the dream of persons with a nostalgic respect for early American vitality and ingenuity. It conflicts, temperamentally, with modern ways.”[xxiv] The same is true, but in spades, for Keith’s vision, which seems as far removed as Mars as the basis for a practical politics of social change. For while it is possible to imagine humans one day forgoing their pork chops, chicken wings, and offal, it is unlikely that many of us would want to live in a world without pasta or the infinite varieties and textures of bread, rice, or any of myriad other harvested foods we which form the basis of our cultural identities. Falafel, enchiladas, pirogies, tempeh, spaghetti, risotto, collard greens, injera, corn bread—it would all have to go. We would also have to bid farewell to champagne brunches, Manischewitz on Passover, wine on the beach, or grabbing a cold beer after work. (Hops and grapes come from crops too.)
What then would Keith have us eat? Like Keith, I live in Massachusetts. I therefore have my choice of moose, deer, salmon, squirrels, cod and—since locavores fiercely defend the autochthonous ideal in farming, except when their stomachs get the better of their arguments--dairy from non-native cows and flesh and eggs from non-native chickens and pigs. To add some spice to my diet, I might also avail myself of edible native plants and fungi, including cattails and lichen. But ordinary spices, even humble black pepper, which comes from Vietnam and India, would presumably have to go. We would also bid farewell to bread, corn on the cob, oranges, grapes, coffee, tea, and just about everything else. (Forget sugar, chocolate, sweets of any kind too—the consistent locavore has to eschew those things too, unless she happens to live in Haiti alongside some wild sugar cane.)
While Keith blames vegetarianism for imposing such “strict” dietary requirements that it leads to eating disorders in women, next to her vision of bioregional carnivorism veganism seems as richly decadent, varied, and morally permissive as French cuisine. Keith depicts vegetarians as fascistic, controlling, and unnatural in its stringency and moral discipline. But her proposal is far more radical and austere (so much for vegans as ascetics).[xxv]
Vegetarianism Will Kill You
Sensing perhaps the logical and evidentiary weaknesses of her claim that universal vegetarianism would destroy the world, Keith shifts ground. Not only is vegetarianism bad for the planet, she writes, it is also physically incompatible with our biology as hominids. Eating animal flesh is not only preferable to a plant-based diet, it is biologically compulsory. This specious line of argument leads to a certain incoherence in Keith’s narrative, since the scientific consensus that Homo sapiens is biologically omnivorous. While Keith once or twice admits that we are omnivores, she seems not really to understand what that means. Omnivores have evolved bodies that enable them to eat, and live on, either plants or animal flesh (or both). Keith’s position, though, is that a plant-only diet is not compatible with the biology of our species. Or to put it plainly, she argues that we cannot live without meat. However, if that were true, we would be obligate carnivores, not omnivores. Obligate carnivores like cats and sharks cannot survive on plant matter alone; omnivores can.
Does Keith really believe that we’re carnivores? Only once does she let slip a reference to “carnivore stomachs like our own.” Keith otherwise avoids explicitly saying that humans cannot live without meat. But she doesn’t need to. Carnivores who don’t eat meat get very sick and eventually die. Cats, for example, need the flesh of other animals in order to get taurine, an essential amino acid; and without taurine, cats will develop cardiovascular, immunological, and digestive problems. Similarly, Keith argues throughout her book that if deprived of meat, we too inevitably develop catastrophic health problems and die prematurely. The Vegetarian Myth in fact reads like a laundry list of all the fatal, near-fatal, and just plain ugly diseases and illnesses that a vegetarian diet supposedly brings in its wake.
Keith links vegetarianism with “illness and exhaustion,” hypoglycemia, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, tooth decay, eating disorders, sugar cravings, fertility problems, depression and anxiety, cessation of endorphin production, endometriosis, schizophrenia, Multiple Scleroris, and much more. Vegetarianism “is not sufficient nutrition for long-term maintenance and repair of the human body. To put it bluntly, it will damage you.” Vegetarianism, she writes, can “never... provide enough protein, fat, fat soluable vitamins, or minerals” for the human body. You will put yourself “at tremendous risk for cancer, especially the kinds that kill,” have inflammation "everywhere," destroy your thyroid and your stomach. "Your hair will dry out, thin, and your skin may get so dry it hurts" and "you'll be cold." Meanwhile, “a diet of soy, wheat, or corn will result in massive malnutrition...and...death.” Vegetarianism “is not sufficient nutrition for long-term maintenance and repair of the human body. To put it bluntly, it will damage you.” Keith describes meeting vegans who look like cancer patients, with “a noticeable C curve in their posture.” Keith concludes: “This is what will happen if you eat vegetarian...for any length of time.” As for parents who would impose vegetarianism on their hapless children: “Here's what you'll do to your kids: neurological damage that could well be permanent.”
Keith does not bother to provide any scientific evidence for any of these and other claims concerning the health dangers of vegetarianism. Instead, warning her reader away from the epidemiological literature on meat and plant-based diets, Keith turns to personal anecdote and invective. When not ridiculing vegetarians ad hominem, Keith, a former vegan, begs them to quit before it’s too late, because “I destroyed my body” and “you don’t want to end up like me.” Veganism almost killed her. During the 14 years she was vegetarian and vegan, she writes, she became very ill. She “felt sick, nauseated, and bloated” and exhausted all of the time. She stopped menstruating and her dry skin peeled off in flakes. She suffered “cold and exhaustion” and gastroparesis. She also underwent an “emotional collapse” as a result of not eating meat. Worst of all, in the ultimate violation of her dignity as a predator, Keith reports that a Chi Gong master she consulted breaks the news to her that she has no Chi. Vegetarianism killed her Chi. No wonder that, encountering a group of vegetarian permaculturists, Keith exhibits the visceral reaction of a former POW suddenly encountering an enemy brigade: “They couldn’t make me go back....I’d done enough damage to my body—my thyroid, my joints—by eating the inedible.”
Sounding at times like a vampire or a werewolf, Keith describes being filled with strange, primordial “cravings” for flesh (Pollan similarly compares the desire to eat meat to the desire for sex). “I was hungry all the time. All the time.” When she finally gives in to those cravings, it feels like “coming out of a coma.” She even compares the experience to being freed “from a prisoner of war camp.” Dining with a young woman still in recovery from veganism, the two women laugh out loud, "happy to be alive." "Oh god...this is what it feels like to be alive." Echoing the advertisements of the meat industry, Keith writes that meat is “real food,” filled with “real protein and real fats.” Pleading with other vegetarians to quit before it’s too late, Keith writes, “you don’t want to end up like me.” Even switching to a meat-centered diet hasn’t been able to undo the damage. Keith must now live “in life-altering pain for the rest of my days because I believed and believed in veganism.”
Of Keith’s many horrifying afflictions, and they are legion, the one that has condemned her to the most physical agony and emotional hardship has been her degenerative disk disease. Because of vegetarianism, she says, her spine now looks “like a sky-diving accident.” However, here as in the case of all the other afflictions Keith blames on vegetarianism, Keith offers no scientific or other evidence to support her claim. Since a search of the scientific literature turned up nothing on a link between vegetarianism and disk disease, this reviewer got in touch with the man who wrote the book, in this case literally, on degenerative disc disease. Dr. Robert Gunzberg, a senior researcher at the Brugmann University Hospital in Belgium, has spent his entire professional life studying the causes of degenerative spinal disorders and treating patients afflicted with them. One of the handful of world authorities on the subject, he is also the chief editor of an authoritative book-length treatment of the subject. When queried about Keith’s claim, Gunzberg sent the following clipped, unequivocal reply: “There is absolutely no link between degenerative disc conditions (better than ‘disease’) and vegetarianism.”[xxvi]
Why then is Keith claiming, in a book published by an anarchist press, that her illness was caused by vegetarianism? Perhaps she is granting herself a special epistemic privilege concerning her own medical condition. However, it is one thing for me to give a first-person phenomenology of my experience as someone with Alzheimer’s Disease, say, and quite another for me to claim in print that my illness was caused by my excessive TV-watching or my penchant for cold showers. Even more troubling would be for me to turn around and claim that others who watch too much TV or take cold showers put themselves at grave risk of developing Alzheimer’s. But here is Keith: “But take my word: you don’t want to end up like me.” She adds: “Please....I’m not too proud to beg.” But blaming the onset of her illness to vegetarianism is a form of post hoc ergo propter hoc—the fallacy of claiming a causal relationship between two unrelated phenomena due merely to their coincidence in time. Degenerative disk problems trouble millions of meat-eaters, but that doesn’t mean that eating meat caused their problems, either.
In fact, both the American Dietic Association and the Canadian Dietic Association have found that “vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”[xxvii] Moreover, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that vegetarians are significantly healthier as a group than meat-eaters, while meat consumption has been positively correlated with colorectal cancer as well as cancers of the prostate, breast, ovaries, and so on. Keith herself cites a study showing that Seventh-Day Adventists, the largest population of vegans ever studied, live longer and “have lower rates of ‘hyptension, diabetes, arthritis, colon cancer, prostate cancer, fatal CHD in males, and death from all causes’” in comparison to the non-vegan population. By this point in her book, however, Keith has been arguing for more than 200 pages that living on a vegan or even vegetarian diet is biologically impossible. How, then, can it be that these vegans are not only not dying from excruciating diseases, but are actually healthier than the rest of the population? She writes: “comparing Seventh-Day Adventists to the average American is absurd, because they are also forbidden to drink alcohol and coffee and they aren’t allowed to smoke. They eat substantially more fresh food and substantially fewer doughnuts. Of course they’re healthier.” But whether or not the extraordinary health of the Adventists is partly due to their not drinking liquor and coffee is irrelevant: Keith has acknowledged that people living for years on a vegan diet are far healthier than the meat-eating mainstream. Keith thus refutes Keith.
Lacking any scientific evidence to support her contention that a vegetarian diet is unhealthy or indeed incompatible with our biology, Keith turns instead to personal invective and anecdote. To prove that veganism causes dementia, Keith tells us that she personally knows “a number of vegans with serious memory problems” and includes two pages of dialogical burlesque between herself and a vegan “friend” who appears to be a mental incompetent. But if the personal is political, for Keith the political is, well, personal. This is an author with some serious score-settling to do. Writers embark on a particular work for all sorts of reasons, but the surest and least complicated way to start and to sustain a narrative is revenge. And vengeance is what fuels The Vegetarian Myth. Having been brow-beaten for years by one too many members of the “vegan police,” Keith is determined now to let them have it. Not only does vegetarianism lead literally to the end of the world--worse, it produces insufferable vegans. Veganism is “one part cult, one part eating disorder,” she rails. Of “self-righteous” vegetarians, Keith writes, “you know the tone: smug and precious and self-satisfied.”
We do know the tone, and regrettably it is on every other page of Keith’s book. Like other evangelicals, Keith’s certainty is as absolute and unwavering as the Word. She cannot betray ambivalence or doubt. And though she begins her book saying that, in contrast to the self-righteous, childlike, ignorant vegetarians and vegans she knows all too well, those who ply books filled with “hellish descents into factory farms and their righteous weighing of grain,” she will proceed with an economy of forgiveness and generosity, she abandons the cause on the very same page, mocking vegetarianism for its “so life-affirming and ethically righteous” claims, and vegetarians for embracing “those oh so eco-peaceful grains and beans.” Animal rights fanatics feel compassion “for the creatures that...tug at your heart and conscience,” while ignoring the subjectivity of microbes and plants. Echoing her intellectual hero, food writer Michael Pollan (who dismisses vegetarians in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as “puritanical,” “urban,” and “parochial”[xxviii]), Keith dismisses animal rights activists as full of “arrogance and ignorance.” “I know it’s an emergency,” she says, addressing vegans. “I know it as much as you do, okay? But you don't have to kill yourselves or each other.” “Are you listening?” she demands.
After hundreds of pages of this, Keith finally reaches for her revolver: nutritional determinism. “You know the type I’m talking about,” she writes—“aggressive, rigid, on a hair trigger, and in a constant state of rage. That’s what happens to a human with a brain deprived of protein and fat.” Only once does Keith disappoint her reader and it is here, when she neglects to raise the possibility that her own aggression, ideological ridigity, and ceaseless rage, on vivid display throughout this work, are themselves symptoms of the deprivations suffered by her own brain during her lean years in the vegan wilderness.
There is precedence for Keith’s all-knowing, mocking, sarcastic tone. It was the same tone readers heard in the first pronouncements of Christopher Hitchens after he had been re-born as a Neocon in 2001, the same tone that marked the early writings of disaffected militants of the Old and New Left like Irving Kristol (a former Trotskyist) who leaped ship once the movements of the 1960s fell apart to land in the bosom of the ascendant Right. The God that failed. Once burned, twice shy. Or as Scotty remarked on the old Star Trek, “Fooled me once, shame on you. Fooled me twice, shame on me.” Well, this much we know: Lierre Keith won't be fooled again. Once a true believer in the vegan cause, she is now determined to expiate her past sins by trash-talking the cause she once committed herself to body and soul. But preserved in the bitter amber of that political self-awakening is the same dessicated self-righteousness and smug certainty of old.
The Ethics of Eating Meat
It is not enough for Keith to claim that we are biologically obligated to eat meat, she also wants to convince us that eating other animals is morally permissible. But here a word is necessary about Keith’s approach to the moral philosophy of animal rights.
Arguments over whether and under what circumstances it is ethical to kill other animals go back to ancient times. The first person to call himself a philosopher (literally, “lover of wisdom”) was Pythagoras, in the sixth century B.C.E., who advocated vegetarianism to his followers, apparently for ethical as well as metaphysical reasons. Many other philosophers and critics, in both the East and West, have made the case for ethical vegetarianism in the centuries since, and some religious groups (some Buddhists and the Jains) have had a vegetarian or predominantly vegetarian lifestyle for over a thousand years. By the 19th century, both ethical vegetarianism and animal rights, topics which had been debated in Europe already for more than a century, became the subject of carefully sustained philosophical defense by such figures as Henry Salt, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, Percy Shelley, Max Scheler, and Leo Tolstoy, among others.[xxix] However, it was not until the 1970s that the idea of animal rights as a total critique came to the broader public’s attention. The publication of philosopher Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975 is generally seen as the turning point in the creation of the contemporary movement for animal rights. Since then, hundreds of other scholars, from dozens of different fields of study--philosophy, sociology, women’s studies, political science, anthropology, psychology, literature, critical legal studies, and so on--have written in defense of animal interests.[xxx] Scholars have pulled back the veil on the social construction of our relations with other animals, including the complex ideology of “meat” itself. Scientists in the interdisciplinary field of cognitive ethology have meanwhile demonstrated that other animals are capable of modes of consciousness, reasoning, and emotional complexity far beyond what anyone suspected, including feats of memory, sense perception, and spatial reasoning that in some cases surpass our own. Finally critical theorists have drawn attention to the myriad ways in which human social domination—the domination and killing of humans by humans—is historically derived from, modeled on, and based on technologies of, the human control and domination of other animals.
I rehearse all this simply to highlight Lierre Keith’s response to what is now an extensive, well-established literature exploring practically every dimension of the history, cultural ramifications, social construction, and ethical problems with our treatment of other animals, including eating them. Confronted with a mountain of carefully reasoned philosophical and scholarly work, from Continental philosophy and theology to radical feminism and Marxism, Keith simply ignores all of it. Let me be clear: Lierre Keith has written a book-length treatment of animal rights and ethical vegetarianism which ignores everything that has been written on the subject over the last century and beyond. Instead, The Vegetarian Myth is the kind of book that eschews the philosophy and sociology of human-animal relations for best-selling diet fad books like Protein Power and The Dark Side of Soy. Keith goes on for pages about “the cholesterol myth” and includes a two-page chart comparing the teeth, gall bladders, colon size, etc., of dogs, sheeps, and humans, all in order to prove that humans are not “meant” to eat a vegetarian diet, but rather a meat-based one. In so doing, Keith falls back on the locavore version of intelligent design, conflating an accidental natural capacity with immanent teleological purpose. We learn, for example, that cows and other animals brought to the Americas for ruthless exploitation five centuries ago “all have the lives they were meant to have”; meanwhile, “we [humans] are built to consume meat.” Yet the fallacy of this line of reasoning is not hard to see. Looking down at my hands, for example, I see vestigial claws – “nails.” In evolutionary terms, claws served many useful purposes, including self-defense. But the fact that I retain the ability to use my vestigial claws to gouge out the eyes of my neighbour does not therefore mean that I am entitled to do so. Similarly, whether or not our bodies are capable of digesting animal parts has no ethical significance. We can also digest human flesh and bone in a pinch (and many have, through the centuries), but that fact is a poor excuse for anthropophagy.
The rub of the problem in The Vegetarian Myth and with arguments defending our consumption of other animals more generally is that they inevitably turn on one or another form of the naturalistic fallacy. Keith unfurls her own idiosyncratic version of the fallacy in three stages. First, she sets up the straw argument that the ethical vegetarian position rests on the mistaken belief that humans are biological herbivores (rather than carnivores or omnivores). Keith then “refutes” the position by piling up facts that we are not ruminants and “showing” that our bodies are capable of eating meat. Finally, she argues from the fact that we have evolved the ability to digest animal flesh to the normative position that this capacity makes it morally permissible to eat meat. In other words, Keith like other apologists for human domination, justifies the killing of animals on grounds that doing so is natural. As Pollan quips in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a quote Keith repeats in her book), reading animal rights and vegetarian literature one cannot help but “wonder if their quarrel isn't really with nature itself.”[xxxi] Keith meanwhile writes, in an essentialist vein, that “Australopithecines, our species’ forerunners, ate meat,” that we are “predators” down to our roots, and that predation is “the basic algebra of our embodiment.”[xxxii]
Repeatedly, Keith asserts that “for someone to live, someone else has to die.” She writes: “Life and death are the same moment: for someone to live, someone else does indeed have to die.” Contra the positions of both ethical and political vegetarians, she says, one cannot be a vegetarian or even a vegan without killing. But anyway, killing other animals isn’t wrong. “We aren’t exploiting each other by eating,” Keith writes. “We are only taking turns.” Thus, muddle-headed animal rights proponents have “the black-and-white thinking of a child” because “they refuse the basic fact that death is the sustance of life”—what she terms “adult knowledge.”
Perhaps there are indeed vegans out there who believe that agriculture can proceed without “collateral damage”—i.e. unintentional but nonetheless predictable mortalities in native animal populations. But if so, they don’t bother to publish their work in respected philosophy journals. It is openly acknowledged in the literature that probably all forms of agriculture injure and kill insects and other animals living on the land. Mass mechanized agriculture is particularly destructive to animal life: field mice get crushed by the farmer’s combine, cutting down forests to make fields and diverting rivers to irrigate crops destroys the habitat of many millions of animals, and so on. And while there are undoubtedly ways to greatly reduce the number of these mortalities (no one has bothered yet to find a way to minimize them), Keith is right in this narrow sense that food production is inevitably bound up with death. However, this is not news to anyone, certainly not to informed scholars and ethicists in animal studies. Nor is killing animals accidentally or as a by-product of agriculture the same, morally, as setting out to confine and kill them in order to eat them, which without question leads to a much higher number of mortalities. By analogy, automobile accidents kill tens of thousands of Americans each year, but it would be far worse, morally speaking, to round up and execute that same number of Americans as a matter of intentional policy--whether or not the total number of dead proved to be the same.
Satisfied that she has trampled her straw man, Keith next inquires into metaphysics. As the crowd-sourced online site devoted to critiquing Keith’s book notes, The Vegetarian Myth “veers unclearly and inconsistently between hylozoism (everything has life) and panpsychism (everything has a mind).”[xxxiii] Here she advances two contradictory arguments concerning the ontology and moral status of plants. First, Keith suggests that the ability of animals to experience the world—sentience—is a capricious or arbitrary basis for ascribing moral interests, because it leaves out insentient entities. “Maybe you don’t find trees and grasses compelling as species,” Keith writes, because “you” don’t see them as “sentient or suffering”; they just don’t “tug at your heart and your conscience.” By this reasoning, there is no ethical difference between grabbing an injured baby pig and smashing its head to death on a concrete slab--a standard way of disposing of unwanted pigs in the industry--and, say, mowing the grass. Suffice it to say, however, that few if any philosophers alive today would agree with Keith that an ability to feel and experience the world—to have emotions, sensations, and the capacity to suffer and feel joy—is morally irrelevant. Moreover, the whole history of social justice movements bears witness to the heroic effort to mitigate suffering in the world. This is why Marx’s ontological starting place in the 1844 Manuscripts is the insight that “man is a suffering being.”
Yet having once gone to lengths to show that sentience is morally irrelevant, Keith then contradicts herself by arguing that the ability to feel is morally relevant--to plants. “At what point are you [the reader]...willing to acknowledge that plants are sentient” she demands. Plants have interests, intentionality, and desires. According to Keith, plants “love their lives” as much as animals. They even have “mothers” and “some of them have fathers too,” as well as “plant babies,” just like sentient animals. And just because plants don’t seem to be sentient doesn’t “mean they love their offspring any less” than animals.
In the face of such embarrassing assertions—the ascription of feelings, desires, intentionality and even “moms” and “dads” to insentient life--it seems almost cruel here to observe that it is Keith herself, not animal rights advocates, who has succumbed to the most vulgar forms of anthropomorphic description. While we should not dismiss plants as unworthy of any moral consideration at all, we should also not fool ourselves into thinking that entities or beings who lack central nervous systems, pain receptors, and brains, who do not howl and scream or run away when attacked, or who are incapable, as far as we know, of forming meaningful thoughts, of constituting socieities or cultures, or indeed of having first-order experiences of any kind, etc., are sentient. No credible biologist or philosopher alive today believes that they are. Be that as it may, even if Keith were right about plants, she would have demonstrated only that we also need to take plant interests into consideration, i.e. along with the interests of animals too. Even then, we would still be left with a moral imperative to become vegans, since universal veganism would still take far fewer plant lives than would animal agriculture (even in the small-scale, locavore version).
Locavorism and Post-Fordist Capital
Like Michael Pollan and other locavore critics, Keith treats human killing and exploitation of other animals as though such practices were pre-social, even pre-categorical, thus forgetting that human labour is an historical and social production, not a given natural “fact.” However, the moment we find ourselves in practical relation to other animals, we and they are bound up in a historical, social relation. Unlike the shark who seizes a smaller fish in its jaws, when humans appropriate the bodies of other animals they always do so in media res, i.e. in the context of culture and its web of ideologies, mythologies, and so on. Meat as a form of capital—it is one of the biggest commodities traded on the world market—is constitutive of that context. It too involves a panoply of social relations that are culturally, discursively, and semiotically mediated. Keith neglects the fact that the struggle over human species imperialism in general, and over the Recht or imagined political right of humans to organize society around the consumption of animal flesh in particular, is a struggle over the representation, psychology, and “existential” nature of meat. The Vegetarian Myth enters into this struggle, but in ways that the author herself is tragically oblivious to.
Keith’s text can be most productively read as an expression of the contradictions of capitalist society. The key to such a reading lies in the contradictory nature of the locavore movement and that movement’s unconscious articulation with the violence and aggression of late capitalist culture.
The rise of a serious social critique of animal oppression has impelled capitalism to protect its own “heritage” by defending itself against the ecological and animal rights movements. In this context, Keith’s romanticization of killing other animals is part of a broader movement to recover the meat mystique by reinforcing human species right just as it has come under challenge. In the wake of hundreds of health studies showing a high correlation between meat consumption and numerous human diseases, along with growing public awareness of the ecological and moral crimes of factory farming, the meat industry has been strategizing for years now about ways to prop up its sagging public image. Faced with these twin threats, the industry has gone on the offensive and spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a concerted, multi-pronged counter-movement. While Keith, Pollan, Kingsolver, and others are against factory farming too, but their locavore defense of killing and eating animals provides ideological cover for this larger project.
Far from being a movement taking place outside “the system,” the locavore movement is at peace with entrepreneurial capital, which it in fact intersects with. Notwithstanding the potentially oppositional moment implicit in the movement’s anti-corporate stance, the locavore movement has successfully yoked an unproblematized naturalism to a post-Fordist consumer culture of “niche” commodity production. Thus the spectacle of organic goat ranchers Bill and Nicolette Niman, who have built an $85 million business to create “the best-tasting animals around.” The Nimans have teamed up with “a parade of investors” and hired a “new management time...led by Jeff Swain, who had been at the company that produces Coleman Natural Beef.”[xxxiv] Meanwhile, writing in a decidely Neoliberal vein, Michael Pollan writes of the need to “liberate” small producers of pesky federal safety regulations designed to protect consumers from the frequent poisoning associated with animal products. “Today,” he writes, “the revival of local food economies is being hobbled by a tangle of regulations originally designed to check abuses by the very largest food producers....Food-safety regulations must be made sensitive to scale and marketplace....”[xxxv]
One of the functions of locavore discourse in fact has been to enable the animal industry to recuperate the lost “aura” of flesh-as-commodity, by re-naturalizing killing and eating other animals. In the carno-locavore narrative, corporate or industrialized agriculture is damaging our ecosystem, bad for our health, and “cruel” to the animals trapped inside the system. Worst of all (for middle class locavores), it produces inferior commodities – bad tasting flesh, cow’s milk tainted with hormones, and an unsafe food supply. But happily, there is a solution. If only we grow our own food, raise and kill our own “meat,” we can defeat the corporate Machine, restore the ecosystem to its former natural splendor, and feel good again about what we eat. It’s a win-win for all concerned – for “consumers,” for poor people starved by trade imbalances, for ecosystems ruined by a petrochemical agriculture system, and for the farm animals who will now live “pampered” and healthy lives before being mercifully killed.
The leading ideologist for this story is the aforementioned Michael Pollan, whose book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has become a runaway international bestseller and is now widely taught at the college level. In its impact on the common sense of the dominant class, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is analogous to The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman’s fantasia of the virtues of globalization. Both Pollan’s Omnivore and leftist novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s account of living “off the grid” of commercial agriculture by raising and killing her own animals, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, have become the reading public’s main venues for understanding contemporary food issues, hence too for understanding potential alternatives to what almost everyone now agrees has been a disaster—industrialized agriculture. Consumers can take comfort in knowing that they can have their pound of flesh and their political and ecological conscience too (hence the name of a popular haunt here in Cambridge, the Clear Conscience Cafe, which boasts of its organic-fed “Angus beef”).
Alas, what has thus far gone unremarked on the left is the ways in which the locavore ideal of “authentic” food production and consumption segues imperceptibly into the aestheticization of violence and the naturalization of human species right. Specifically, the libidinal pleasures of killing animals are conjoined with a narrative of (white) bourgeois entitlement. Since the publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, numerous articles have appeared in the New York Times and other elite media highlighting the sensuous pleasures of killing and eating animals one has “grown” for oneself. The Times, for example, relates how “artist and agricultural activist” Laura Parker and her friends butchered a pig raised on a friend’s farm, in order “to see if its flavor would match that of the dirt it grew up on.”[xxxvi] Similarly, urbanites drive long distances into remote rural areas to personally kill and butcher “their” own animal, spending as much as $10,000 for a course on killing and butchering.[xxxvii] Meanwhile, hip young butchers exert “the raw, emotional appeal of an indie band.” Fans can “be a part of meat and liquor mash-ups at a local bar where he butchers a pig while people drink cocktails....”[xxxviii] In these stories (often in the “Style” section), the environmental benefits of locavorism are mentioned only in passing: what counts is the bourgeois quest for an “authentic” experience – a “primal connection” – in which the consumer looks “his” animal in the eye.[xxxix] Hence Jackson Landers, “an insurance broker by day,” but by night a teacher of “a course...called Deer Hunting for Locavores.”[xl]
The spectacle of killing in this way gets wrapped around the spectacle of conspicuous, and strangely eroticized, consumption – young, white, upper middle class urbanites gathering around the table with friends to gaze upon the vanquished, dismembered body of a pig or other being.[xli] When Michael Pollan and his upper middle class white friends, seated in the lovely enclosed porch of a million-dollar home in Berkeley tuck into the succulent flesh of a goat they have personally butchered – and when the Times lavishes a three-page spread in the Magazine on the spectacle, along with the recipe – we are light-years away from Keith’s “natural predation” and closer to the fascist’s mockery of his powerless victims.
Notwithstanding the locavore movement’s supposed concern for the “excessive” cruelty of factory farming, an element of sadism and death fetishism has come to the fore of the locavore aesthetic. The Style columns in the Times are especially striking for their glib descriptions of killing animals “up close and personal”:
Last Friday, in front of 4 million television viewers and a studio audience, the chef Jamie Oliver killed a chicken....[staging a] “gala dinner,” in fact a kind of avian snuff film....“It only costs a bit more to give a chicken a natural life and a reasonably pleasant death,” he told the champagne-sipping audience before he stunned the chicken, cut an artery inside its throat, and let it bleed to death....[xlii]
In another episode, the host “suffocated a clutch of male chicks according to standard egg industry procedure, in a chamber of carbon dioxide”—that is, a gas chamber--ostensibly to educate British consumers about the vices of factory farming and the virtues of locavorism. [xliii] As indicated by the TV host’s reference to “a reasonably pleasant death” and even more by the reporter’s joking reference to “an avian snuff film,” there is an ideological and affective surplus to such demonstrations that exceeds their supposed “educational” function. Such spectacles, which merge consumption with public sadism, are clearly performative.
The innovation of The Vegetarian Myth is to bring this death fetishism to the Left. As a young vegan, Keith relates, she would go to great lengths not to kill the insects in her garden. Then came her epiphany: the soil in her garden “wants” and needs blood and animal tissue. From then on, having arrived at the “adult knowledge” that “life isn’t possible without death,” she breaks down and feeds her soil “blood and bones.” To those with an historical imagination, this literal conflation of Blut und Boden, blood and soil, cannot but sound creepy. There are viable non-animal alternatives to fertilization and enrichment of the soil, from phosphorous and seaweed to “night soil” (human waste) and the waste of wild animals living on the land. But Keith dismisses them out of hand. Plants only grow, she maintains, in blood-soaked earth – “Blood meal, bone meal, dead animals.” In fact, experts consider blood-meal hazardous for plants.[xliv] Yet so intent is Keith to justify a political economy built on blood and bones – let us be clear, she would organize the ideal society around the domination and killing of other animals in perpetuity – that she doesn’t notice. “I’ve learned to kill,” Keith writes. “And I’ve learned to say my own grace.”
While other locavore afficionados have at least acknowledged their personal struggle to reconcile killing animals with ostensibly “caring” for them – “The hardest part of the slaughter was the betrayal....The pigs get in the trailer because they trust you, they get out of the trailer because they trust you, they go into the pen because they trust you”[xlv] – Keith, by contrast, cannot see any contradiction between expressing her “love” for her tender charges one moment and slitting their throats and bleeding them out the next. Contemplating her friend’s killing of animals on her farm, she consoles herself with the knowledge that the victims “would have been well cared for, indulged even.” Meanwhile, her own chickens “happily lounged” and her cows “spent contented lives” at pasture –before getting the pickaxe or bullet to the brain.
By now we are all familiar with the crude Cartesian view of animals as mere unthinking machines, and we all know where that kind of thinking leads. But we lack a proper phenomenology, or DSM-IV diagnosis, of the dissociative condition that enables a carno-locavore like Lierre Keith to warmly describe the animals on her farm as “the joy of her days,” as beings who will “accept you” – beings intelligent, perceptive, and sensitive enough to “come to you for help” and for “cuddle sessions”– and then to turn around and celebrate her killing of them. One cannot but be reminded of Adorno and Horkheimer’s caustic observation about the Nazis’ supposed love of animals: “The precondition of the fascists’ pious love of animals, nature, and children is the lust of the hunter. The idle stroking of children’s hair and animal pelts signifies: this hand can destroy.”[xlvi]
How does a vegan who once “wanted to believe that my life – my physical existence – was possible without killing, without death,” end up waxing rhapsodic about hunting and singing joyously as she kills her farm animals with her own bare hands? But then, how does a radical feminist opposed to violence, war, and militarism end up extolling the virtues of a political economy that subjects other beings to unending human domination?
Every Slave Consents to Slavery
Horkheimer and Adorno observed that “for the being endowed with reason [i.e. Man]... concern for the unreasoning animal is idle. Western civilization has left that to women.”[xlvii] The early Frankfurt School theorists reasoned that, like nonhuman beings, women too had been subject to the terror and violence of a patriarchal order whose guiding premise remains the suppression of feeling and sentiment and the fetish of control over self and other. Half a century later, Carol Adams extended this critique with The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which Adams showed that meat is not something “natural” at all, but rather a complex social text abounding in the metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of gender.[xlviii] Among other things, Adams showed how farm animals are represented as sexualized feminine objects, while women are represented as animal-like commodities to be consumed by men. Subsequent feminist critics have elaborated on Adams’ work, deepening our understanding of how the political economy of animal killing has taken place within a discursive structure shaped by the values, institutions, and myths of patriarchal culture. Among other things, they have shown how the denigration of the so-called “feminine” emotions as mere “sentiment” by a wider, uncomprehending masculine culture obscures the radical ethical and political potential of mitgefülh – “feeling-with,” or com-passion.[xlix]
Faced with this extensive feminist literature, Keith characteristically lapses into silence. Instead, urging us to embrace the “adult knowledge” that shooting pigs in the head and wringing chickens’ necks is necessary, beautiful work, Keith accuses animal rights activists of sentimentalism. To make her case, she turns to Roger Scruton, the reactionary philosopher. Sentiment, according to Scruton, is really only self-love. “For the sentimentalist,” he writes, “it is not the object but the subject of the emotion which is important.” By this topsy turvy logic, the animal rights activist who is moved to political action by the unspeakable acts of violence and violation we inflict on the bodies of hapless beings in our control, is guilty of narcissism and anthropocentrism. One of the most prominent conservative critics of animal rights, however, Scruton is also a frank misogynist who blames feminism for having ruined the natural relations between the sexes:
Feminists have harped and harped on about the position of women in modern societies. But what about the men? The radical changes in sexual mores, patterns of employment, and domestic life have turned their lives upside down. Men now encounter women not as “the weaker sex” but as equal competitors in the public sphere—the sphere where men used to be in charge. And in the private sphere, where an ancient division of labor once gave guidance to those who crossed its threshold, there is no knowing what strategy will be most effective. Manly gestures—holding open a door for a woman, handing her into an automobile, taking charge of her bags—can spark insulted rejection....
Feminism has caused such havoc, writes Scruton, that “[w]hen women forge their own ‘gender identity,’ in the way the feminists recommend, they become unattractive to men....”[l]
In light of such manly “sentiments,” it is no small irony that Keith, a radical feminist, should choose Scruton as her ally to attack sentiment, which for generations has been a favorite target of conservatives opposed to social change. (In 1837, for example, pro-slavery Congressman Henry L. Pinckney denounced the “sickly-sentimentality” of abolitionists.[li]) In reality, though, many of Keith’s arguments are conservative ones, since they turn on various forms of the naturalistic fallacy, and naturalistic arguments have long been the weapon of choice for reactionaries, precisely because they enable them to mask normative claims as statements of “fact.” Pro-slavery apologists justified slavery on grounds that slavery was natural. Men still justify the sexual subordination of women on grounds that sex roles are natural (or divinely ordained). Etc.
For centuries, the same conservatives have attacked social reformers and radical democrats as dangerous individuals who would betray the “natural” order in the name of some starry-eyed and irresponsible utopia. In this connection, Keith repeatedly describes animal rights activists as naive, infantile figures who cling to the vision of a world that does not exist and cannot be. Here it bears noting that the meat industry itself, through one of its propaganda organs (MDB Communications, a large PR firm), conducting a viral media campaign to associate animal rights with extremism, has adopted a strategy of isolating “radicals” while “cultivating” so-called “idealists” so as to educate the latter into becoming “realists.”[lii] Virtually the same language of naive “idealists” versus meat-eating “realists” crops up in Lierre Keith’s book. “The challenge of adulthood,” she explains, “is to remember our ethical dreams and visions in the face of the complexities and frank disappointments of reality.”
Despite her otherwise admirable radical politics in other venues, then, Keith joins conservatives in denying the possibility of a world in which killing and domination are not the norm. Indeed, Keith’s proximity to Scruton is closer even than she realizes, since in his latest book, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope, Scruton like Keith attacks “optimists and idealists... with their ignorance of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed.”[liii] While Keith would reject such a sentiment when directed against progressive social movements like feminism and anti-racism, she is unable to see how Scruton’s vicious attacks on animal rights might be of a piece with his larger hatred of egalitarianism. Nor is she aware of the ways in which her own positions are reflections in miniature of the ideological program of corporate agribusiness.
Meanwhile, like the worst reactionaries, Keith goes beyond merely denying that the human use of tools to kill other animals was “the first act of domination, of political oppression” to maintain that animal victims “choose” to be dominated. While as an anti-porn activist Keith has no difficulty understanding the thoroughly political nature of consent, e.g. the fact that women who participate in the euphemistically named “sex work” do not do so under conditions of their choosing, but within the ideological and relational structure provided by patriarchy, Keith as an anti-animal rights activist has no qualms ascribing consent to the billions of nonhuman beings exploited for their labor and flesh.
Here a parallel suggests itself between the arguments of the carno-locavores and earlier apologetics for slavery. In both cases—slavery and carno-locavorism--the use of violence, terror, reproductive control, confinement, psychological manipulation, killing, etc., by the dominant or oppressor class is said to be for the benefit of the oppressed. Opponents of abolition were not content to argues that blacks, as the natural inferiors to whites, deserved to be slaves, they also argued that it was in the interests of the “Negro race” to remain in bondage. As Senator John C. Calhoun wrote, “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually,” as under slavery.[liv] Declared another apologist, “Slavery is that system of labour which exchanges subsistence for work, which secures a life-maintenance from the master to the slave, and gives a life-labour from the slave to the master,” even as “it ensures homes, food and clothing for all.”[lv]
In a similar vein, Pollan argues that domesticated animals chose us, so that they might safely reproduce and therefore “benefit” from the arrangement. For animal liberationists to speak of the lack of freedom of the billions of animals raised and ruthlessly killed by human beings is therefore absurd: “To say of one of Joel Salatin's caged broilers that ‘the life of freedom is to be preferred’ betrays an ignorance about chicken preferences that, around this place at least, revolve around not getting one's head bitten off by a weasel.’”[lvi] According to Pollan, “the life expectancy of a farm animal would be considerably briefer in the world beyond the pasture fence or chicken coop.” The same reasoning, however, was used to justify the preference of American slavery over European serfdom in the nineteenth century. Apologists for slavery argued that freed slaves “were less free after emancipation than before,” for once freed, “[t]heir obligation to labor was increased; for they were compelled to labor more than before to obtain a livelihood, else their free labor would not have been cheaper than their labor as slaves. They lost something in liberty, and everything in rights--for emancipation liberated or released the masters from all their burdens, cares and liabilities, whilst it increased both the labors and the cares of the liberated serf.”[lvii]
Keith like Pollan takes it as an article of faith that domesticated animals are better off being “cared for” by human beings than left to the violence of the wild. Complaining about having to dig through the snow to reach icy water “so that my chickens would have something to drink,” Keith concludes, “I’m not exploiting them. They’re happy, safe, warm, and fed. I’m the one who’s miserable. Chickens won’t even walk in snow, let alone hail supplies for me....Chickens have gotten humans to work for them.” By this logic, the farmer who strangles or chops up “surplus” baby male chicks as “useless”; who breeds hens’ bodies to mature so quickly that their hearts and limbs give out within four years; who slits the egg-layer’s throat when she is no longer useful, and so on, is in reality the chickens’ benefactor and protector.
In fact, wild chickens can live up to 30 or more years.[lviii] By comparison, today’s female “broiler” hen, bred to mature so quickly that her organs give out after four years, can look forward to a life expectancy of exactly 42 days in the hands of a locavore producer like Joel Salatin, the right-wing Christian lionized by both Keith and Pollan in their works. The vast majority of farm animals are killed at a young age, at a fraction of their possible natural lifespans. Meanwhile, conditions in factory farms, which provide 99% of the flesh consumed by Americans, are so nightmarish as to defy description.[lix] Violence and brutality in fact attend every step of the process of breeding, raising, and killing chickens for human consumption, whether in factory farms or organic family-owned ones. It is therefore strange that Keith should impute consent and even conscious intention to powerless beings whose freedom, sociality, and ultimately lives have been snatched from them by human beings.
As evidence that the chickens really “want” all this, Keith glibly observes that “[w]e have carried chickens all over the globe, extending their range beyond the wildest dreams of a broody jungle fowl mom.” But this is only the predator’s rationale post factum (Latin for “after the meal”). History is tragically full of examples of groups, including entire classes of organisms, being pushed hither and yon without their consent or even knowledge, whether by the capricious exigencies of evolution and chance or by the organized malice of dominant social classes or species. The fact that humans, in enslaving and genetically altering other species to suit their needs, have also happened to scatter them across the face of the planet tells us nothing about the desires, interests, or intentions of either those groups or of the individuals who make them up. Indeed, to argue that chickens “benefited” from domestication is akin to arguing that the people of India and Africa benefited from colonialism after the turn of the twentieth century, since the populations in those nations increased markedly under Europe’s yoke, or that the Imperial government of Japan really had the interests of the Chinese and other Asian peoples at heart in establishing its Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (weren’t they trying to “protect” them from Western imperialists, i.e. other “predators”?).
In fine, the fact that a particular species--or people—may happen to increase in numbers through geographical displacement or dispossession (a process Marx called primitive accumulation) is no proof that the group in question "chose" this path, nor is it a demonstration of the moral conscience of the ruthless groups who imposed these policies through violence and murder. The putative evolutionary “advantages” conferred upon domesticated animals count for nothing in phenomenological or ethical terms. As Karen Davis observes, “the chicken’s doom is not to become extinct,” but on the contrary to be born and reborn in ever more infernal systems of confinement and slaughter.[lx] Keith nonetheless persists in her fantasy that she is doing the chickens a favor by “protecting” them from foxes, weasels, and other predators, and protecting the hens from the rapine of the roosters by segregating the sexes. Slavery, after all, always improves the physical and moral condition of the slave: “It supports him in comfort and peace. It restrains his vices.”[lxi]
It is not enough for the slave to be benefited by slavery, however: like Rodney King, he must be portrayed as being in control of his situation, even while being abused. Keith and Pollan, who rail against the “anthropomorphism” of animal liberationists, themselves have no compunction imputing agency to our nonhuman captives when it suits their interests. The animals, they tell us, are making use of us as much as we are making use of them. “We changed them...and they changed us.” Just as humans have experimented on cows, let us not forget “the bovine experiment on humans.” “It’s a partnership,” Keith concludes. Echoing Pollan, who also denies the basic ontological distinction between subjects and objects, agents and acted-upon, oppressors and oppressed, Keith grotesquely compares the “agency” of corn in getting us to cultivate it to human domination of other animals. “As far as corn is concerned, we’re just the draft horses.”[lxii] Keith only leaves out that corn never developed steel bits to put in our mouths, blinders for our eyes, whips to compel our labor, and killing centers to process our still living bodies in the name of its mutuality and partnership. But perhaps it will come to that one day.
Ignoring the origins of poverty in the structural inequalities and exploitative relationships of the international capitalist system, Keith also defends the perpetual servitude of “[d]raft horses and water buffalos” as the solution to people starving in the Third World, since their use “require[s] no steel mills, no fossil fuels, no bank loans.” In fact, an estimated 36% of the world’s poor people are already directly reliant on animal exploitation (“livestock”)—yet they remain miserably poor.[lxiii] Keith either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care to know, that hundreds of thousands of draft horses and water buffalos, still in widespread use around the world, are beaten, whipped, and starved, then brutally killed once they have outlived their usefulness. Indeed, she denies that such violence, the norm rather than the exception since ancient times, constitutes “‘domination’” or “‘exploitation.’” Rather, it’s all “partnership” and a “relationship...of mutuality and respect”--or, as Pollan writes, “mutualism or symbiosis.”[lxiv] Keith thus denies our own species agency in or moral culpability for our expansionist drive to destroy the other living beings. In the Just So story of benignant naturalism in Keith’s account, all this is “simply what every species does, how evolution works.”
Pace Keith, however, who finds fault with agriculture but not with animal husbandry, it is doubtful that any epochal change in the history of our species proved as momentous as animal domestication some 11,000 years ago, which marked the transition from hunting and gathering societies to settlements organized around the rational control, segregation, and killing of “domesticated” (i.e. pacified) animals. It is here that we find the beginning both of civil society and the formation of a permanent warrior class. Socrates speculated as much in Plato’s Republic, rooting the “origin of war” in the need for pastureland to satisfy the craving for animal flesh; a variety of other thinkers have held a similar position through the ages, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Engels. The latter argued in The Origins of Private Property that the subordination of women to men—patriarchy—owed to the development of animal agriculture and the keeping of cattle, which for the first time also made possible surplus accumulation and the centralization of political power:
With the herds and the other new riches, a revolution came over the family. To procure the necessities of life had always been the business of the man; he produced and owned the means of doing so. The herds were the new means of producing these necessities; the taming of the animals in the first instance and their later tending were the man’s work. To him, therefore, belonged the cattle, and to him the commodities and the slaves received in exchange for cattle. All the surplus which the acquisition of the necessities of life now yielded fell to the man; the woman shared in its enjoyment, but had no part in its ownership. The “savage” warrior and hunter had been content to take second place in the house, after the woman; the “gentler” shepherd, in the arrogance of his wealth, pushed himself forward into the first place and the woman down into the second.[lxv]
In fact, the anthropological and archaeological evidence suggests that Engels was more or less right—that animal “domestication” lead to gross social inequalities, prepared the way for early wealth accumulation, strengthened patriarchal control over women, and legitimated later forms of violence and domination, including slavery.[lxvi]
With domestication, nonhuman animals could now be subjected to rational forms of physical control and psychological domination. Along with this simple bifurcation of civil space—the space of freedom and community, on one side, and that of domination and control, on the other--human beings also developed technological and (as it were) “moral” knowledge useful for controlling and dominating their fellow human beings. As Maria Mies emphasizes, the predatory mode of production did not end with tribal culture. Nor did it end with the waning of feudalism and the rise of capitalist relations. On the contrary, the “predatory mode of production”[lxvii] as she calls it remains with us to this day:
...[T]he various forms of asymmetric, hierarchical divisions of labour, which have developed throughout history up to the stage where the whole world is now structured into one system of unequal division of labour under the dictates of capital accumulation, are based on the social paradigm of the predatory hunter/warrior who, without himself producing, is able by means of arms to appropriate and subordinate other producers, their productive forces and their products.[lxviii]
The advent of modernity did nothing to dissolve the predatorial gaze, but rather extended its reach. As Adorno and Horkheimer suggested in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Enlightenment represented the culmination of a centuries-long effort by patriarchal reason to empty the world of anything that might stand outside its grasp. Nature itself, along with all its living, conscious beings, was to be reduced to standardized units of control and manipulation. In this way, the “modest hunting ground” of “civilized man” was transformed into a “unified cosmos, in which nothing exists but prey.”[lxix]
The innovation of carno-locavorism, against this backdrop, has been to legitimate this violent mode of appropriation by disguising it as a project of social reform, even of revolutionary possibility. The fact that this discourse is being developed by liberals and leftists like Pollan, Kingsolver, and Keith is however a disturbing sign of how deeply the predatorial gaze has penetrated into even erstwhile “critical” regions of human thought.
The Carno-Locavore Left
In The Racial Contract, his critique of liberal social contract theory, Charles W. Mills describes the racial contract that white Europeans invented in the early modern period as a way of constituting a particular identity, normativity, and polity. The fact that whites could and did rule the world for centuries was a corollary and consequence of the prior “fact” that they deserved to. And they deserved to because they and they alone were able to enter into a contract whose terms were by design racially exclusive. The racial contract enabled the spatial division of the world into zones of violence where everything was permitted (the Congo and the Americas, e.g.), and other zones of “civilization” where whites were permitted to enjoy the fruits of their conquest.[lxx] In a similar manner, the human social contract functions as an onto-political surety for us, the linguistic beings, that we alone have inherent worth, while the rest of the natural world—above all its other conscious beings—do not. Just as the racial contract legitimated European expansionism and primitive accumulation by constructing a world of racial herrenvolk overseers and Untermenschen, the human social contract legitimates a form of human subjectivity, society, and state power able to exert total control over the bodies and minds of all the other conscious subjects on the earth, which multiplicity and difference we contemptuously reduce to the single term, “animal.” However, our contract derives from a most peculiar notion of species exclusivity. Although we are the one species whose very existence, in its present form, is a lethal threat not only to itself but to practically all of the other living species, we adduce our natural superiority and species right to our supposed unique status as the planet’s only moral being. As for the rest, the Others, the millions upon millions of conscious and intelligent beings who live alongside us--they are collectively and individually considered Lebensunwertes Leben, “life unworthy of life” (to borrow a locution heard around middle Europe in the 1940s).
Something unprecedented is happening, however. For the first time in history, millions of human beings are refusing the terms of this contract, and not in part, but in toto: from the “rape racks” for impregnating female monkeys in scientific laboratories to the windowless to the airless hog farms sequestered in sleepy rural towns, and from the anal electrocution of minks and rabbits on fur farms to the abject spectacle of elephants and lions being caged in zoos or marched around in circles at the crack of the whip “for the children.” Until recently, political reaction to the new race traitors came exclusively from the political right. Now, however, Ayn Rand followers and Trotskyists alike find common ground in portraying animal rights as an infantile disorder.[lxxi] Animal liberationism is depicted by both sides as a threat to human civilization—either as a symptom of decadence and an affront to God’s natural hierarchy of beings (the Right), or as an affront to the proud humanist project upon which socialism and other liberationist traditions stand (the Left). While Lierre Keith describes vegetarians as “Pied Pipers” who have led the left astray and “infused” it with “the righteous aura... of plant-based foods,” the reality is the opposite: most leftists remain as dismissive of vegetarianism and animal rights today as they were a century ago.
Until recently, however, leftists simply ignored the animal question altogether.
What then accounts for the left’s new interest in attacking, in print, a young social movement already besieged by the state and by global capital?[lxxii] Why has Mother Jones published articles making light of the vegetarian critique? Why has PM, a small anarchist press in Oakland, California, published Keith’s Vegetarian Myth?
Why have such leading lights of the left as Alice Walker and Derrick Jenson loaned their good names to Keith’s book (their blurbs adorn the book’s cover)?
Ironically, the answer may be sought in the very failings of The Vegetarian Myth: its aesthetic of killing, its impatience with scholarship, its contempt for sentiment. Coming after a period of extended historic defeat for the left, including for radical feminism, The Vegetarian Myth, with its voluntarist politics and its apocalyptic rejection of civilization itself, flashes up like a primordial cri de coeur against the existing order. At a moment when alternative forms of culture have been all but destroyed, and when neither socialism nor feminism are anywhere on the public agenda, it is perhaps no wonder that Keith should feel personally empowered by dominating and consuming hapless animals, or feel the need to vent her rage against other marginal, powerless radicals (vegans). By the same token, it it perhaps not surprising that elements on the left should be drawn to the death fetishism of carno-locavorism, in lieu of an effectual political program. In the contemporary context, speciesism, rather than anti-Semitism, may really be the socialism of fools.
As I have already hinted, the preoccupation in American grassroots politics with locavorism – often to the exclusion of virtually all other forms of oppositional politics – suggests the overdetermination of the radical imaginary by the structural imperatives of post-Fordist capital. But the problem goes even deeper than this. For the acute crisis of the left – its ideological incoherence and strategic drift – stems in part from its unexamined relationship to a humanist tradition that obstinately reduces the other conscious beings to the status of mere things for our unending use and consumption. Since the world ecological crisis is itself a direct result of just such a predatorial conception of human agency, this means that the Left is itself complicit in ecocidal and exterminationist forms of violence. In this regard, the uncritical reception of Keith’s book simply speaks to the inability of contemporary critical intellectuals and activists to strike out on a path that would be truly independent of the dominant technological order.
Carno-locavore discourse, far from representing a new form of resistance, is in fact at one with patriarchal capital’s attempt to work out a new mode of regulation in the face of the massive social and ecological contradictions of the existing system. Part of capital’s quest involves shoring up the legitimacy of systemic violence. And this is as much a psycho-affective project as an economic one.
While premodern cultures saw eating other animal species as part of the natural or cosmic order, they nonetheless developed a variety of propitiatory rites and myths to legitimate the violence they inflicted against them. Eventually, these rites and rituals were replaced by an altogether different set of ideological justifications and mythologies to justify human species supremacy. Judeo-Christian gave birth to the view of a natural hierarchy of humans over nonhumans. Later, this view merged with and became subordinate to Cartesianism--the view of other animals (and ourselves too) as mere machines. Today, however, in the face of incontrovertible evidence that other animals are complex feeling and thinking beings, not machines, a whole new set of rationalizations and defenses is required to shore up the global animal-based economy and with it the overall social order of appropriation by exploitation. Only now, in keeping with the prevailing terms of the technological order, domination no longer is seen to require a metaphysical or ethical rationale: the nakedness of power is its own justification. Hence the growing prevalence of anti-vegetarian websites with openly sadistic themes and slogans, as well as hundreds of “road kill” commodities making fun of the suffering of the hundreds of millions of animals injured and killed by automobiles every year.[lxxiii]
In this context, Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of how the release of libidinal instincts – rather than their repression – comes to form the basic structure of late capitalism is apropos. For as Marcuse argued in One-Dimensional Man, what is particular to our contemporary order is the degree to which the release of libidinal instincts, rather than their repression, has become constitutive of late capitalism. Whereas, in healthy social forms, the destructive drive is subordinated to and harnessed by the erotic, life-preserving drive, Eros has now been “desublimated” or given expression in the drive toward the annihilation of all life.[lxxiv] “Destructive energy becomes socially useful aggressive energy, and the aggressive behavior impels growth...of economic, political, and technical power.”[lxxv] A similar dynamic can be discerned in the death fetishism of the carno-locavores, who affirm the control and destruction of other animals with evident satisfaction. The fascination with domination of the weak and vulnerable can now take place openly, in the celebration of technics of extermination. But to reconcile oneself to the enslavement and killing of sensitive, conscious beings is only to accept the further intrusion of technological rationality into the realm of everyday life.
Keith and other locavores on the left deserve credit for pointing out that the agricultural system is broken. And they are right that, among other things, we must reduce our population and shift toward smaller scale, sustainable farming if we are to avoid destroying the biotic community. But they are wrong, profoundly wrong, to suggest that the problem facing humanity is plant-based agriculture, per se, rather than a totalizing system of domination that reduces humans, animals, and ecosystems to the stuff of pure instrumental control. A true solution to the ecological crisis, and to the violence of corporate industrialized agricultural, must be sought not in a new aesthetic of killing, but in a socialist praxis willing to break not only with capitalism but with a leftist culture that is itself complicit in the violence of human beings toward the other creatures.
[i] A shorter version of this essay appeared in the May 2011 issue of Upping the Anti (Toronto). I would like to thank Andrew K. Thompson and the editorial collective of UTA for granting me permission to publish this longer version here, as well as Zipporah Weisberg for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. Finally, I would like to thank Michael Albert of Znet for the opportunity to publish this longer version of my original essay.
[ii] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1934), 276.
[iii] E.B. White, One Man’s Meat (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944), 173.
[v] Ibid., 175.
[vi] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford, 1964), 137.
[vii] Leo Marx, 134.
[viii] That the American pastoral ideal is just that, an ideal, can be seen in this telling observation by a real-life animal farmer addicted to FarmVille. "'I was having all these deaths [of animals] on the farm and hurting myself on a daily basis doing real farming....This was a way to remind myself of the mythology of farming, and why I started farming in the first place" (emphasis added). Donna Schoonover, proprietor of a farm that raises and kills goats, sheeps, and rabbits, quoted by Douglas Quenqua, "To Harvest Squash, Click Here," New York Times, Oct. 29, 2009.
[ix] William Neuman, "Keeping Their Eggs in Their Backyard Nests," New York Times, Aug. 4, 2009, B1.
[x] Quote in Neuman, B4.
[xi] Ibid., 132.
[xii] Vasile St?nescu, “‘Green’ Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local,” in John Sanbonmatsu, ed., Critical Theory and Animal Liberation (Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2011), 247.
[xiii] U.K. Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Cited by St?nescu, 247.
[xiv] St?nescu, 250-51.
[xv] Michael Pollan, Magazine, 65.
[xvi] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 9.
[xvii] Stephen Budiansky ignited a firestorm of protest from the locavore movement when he wrote an op-ed chiding locavores for grossly exaggerating the amount of fuel used in shipping produce from one end of the country to the other. Stephen Budiaksky, “Math Lessons for Locavores,” New York Times, Aug. 19, 2011. While Budiansky overlooked the clear social and ecological advantages of community-based, organic agriculture, he was correct that locavores fetishize local production in ways that can be irrational. As he noted, it takes only about 100 calories of energy to ship a pound of lettuce by freight across the US, but 14,000 calories to make a 10-mile drive to and from the farmer’s market. See Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber, and Greg Taylor, “Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry” Research Report, No. 285 Lincoln University, New Zealand, July 2006. Cited in Vasile St?nescu.
[xviii] E.C. Ellis and S.M. Wang, “Sustainable traditional agriculture in the Tai Lake Region of China,” Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment (1997), 61:177-193.
[xix] Jared Diamond, Collapse (New York: Penguin, 2011), 280.
[xx] Mark Bittman, “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler,” New York Times, Jan. 28, 2007.
[xxi] “Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate Change, and Health,” The Lancet, vol. 370, (6 October 2007), No. 9594: 1253-1263.
[xxii] Henning Steinfeld, et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow, published by the Livestock, Environment, and Development Initiative (LEAD) of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (2006).
[xxiii] Pollan, "Farmer," 71.
[xxiv] Ibid., 178. White continues: “It is the best diagram of that scheme I have studied. It is hardboiled, sound, persuasive, and convincing. On that account I regard it as one of the most dangerous of books, capable of destroying whole families, wiping them out like flies....”
[xxv] One cannot help wondering whether some of this eco-asceticism is not merely for show, since how few pangs of conscience the intellectual boosters of locavorism seem to suffer when participating in the carbon economy in other ways. Customers who crave Christian right-winger Joel Salatin’s artisanal flesh products at Polyface Farm drive hundreds of miles for it (Salatin encourages the practice). Both Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver jet around the world giving talks and taking holidays abroad in lovely places. Keith herself (we learn from her book bio) maintains not one, but two domiciles, one in Northern California, the other in Massachusetts. How does she get back and forth? Presumably she doesn’t drive, having urged her readers not to drive a car (or have children). But flying is even worse for the environment. Perhaps she travels in symbiotic “partnership” with a pack mule.
[xxvi] Dr. Robert Gunzberg, private email correspondence to the author, January 11, 2011.
[xxvii] “Vegetarian Eating,” Eatright.org (website of the American Dietic Association undated).
[xxviii] Pollan, Omnivore’s, 325.
[xxix] Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).
[xxx] Of the hundreds of works available, see especially Gary Francione, Animals as Persons (Columbia University Press, 2009), Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum, Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford, 2005), and Susan Armstrong, The Animal Ethics Reader (Routledge, 2008). See also J.M. Coetzee’s fictional treatment of our domination of other beings, The Lives of Animals (Princeton University Press, 2001) and Elizabeth Costello (Vintage, 2002). For leftist treatments, see for example David Nibert, Animal Rights/Human Rights (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Bob Torres, Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights (ReadHowYouWant, 2010).
[xxxi]Pollan 322. Emphasis added.
[xxxii] Keith often makes tendentious use of the facts, when she doesn’t simply get the science wrong. Here, for example, Keith implies Australopithecines had a meat-based diet, whereas the anthropological consensus is that this hominid species was predominantly vegetarian (if, however, omnivorous).
[xxxiv] Kim Severson, "With Goat, a Rancher Breaks Away from the Herd," New York Times, Oct. 15, 2008, D4. The Nimans have also been given plum real estate on the Op-Ed page of the Times: in one disingenuous article, Nicolette Niman wrote that while "it's sensible to cut back on consumption of animal-based foods," the consumer should strive for a "more sophisticated" approach "than just makiing blanket condemnations of certain foods." An $85 million business is of course well worth defending. Nicolette Hahn Niman, "The Carnivore's Dilemma," New York Times, Oct. 31, 2009, A17.
[xxxv] Michael Pollan, "Farmer in Chief," New York Times Magazine, Oct. 12, 2008, 70.
[xxxvi] Dara Kerr, “Gourmet Dirt,” New York Times Magazine, Dec. 13, 2009, 42.
[xxxvii] Melena Ryzik, “The Anti-Restaurants,” New York Times, Aug. 27, 2008, D1. Alex Williams, “Slaugterhouse Live,” New York Times, Oct. 25, 2009, Sunday Styles section, 2.
[xxxviii] Kim Severson, “Young Idols with Cleavers Rule the Stage,” New York Times, July 8, 2009, D5.
[xxxix] This quest for authentic and "socially just" meat has also spilled into the Hasidic community, where some young orthodox Jews are taking to personally killing their own chickens. Samatha M. Shapiro, "Kosher Wars," New York Times Magazine, Oct. 12, 2008, p. 50.
[xl] Sean Patrick Farrell, "The Urban Deerslayer: Seeking a Primal Connection with What's on the Table," New York Times, Nov. 25, 2009, D1.
[xli] Michael Pollan, “Communal Oven: The 36-hour Dinner Party,” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 19, 2010. See also, Peter Applebome, “A Party for Local Farming and Locally Grown Food,” New York Times, Sept. 13, 2009.
[xlii] Julia Moskin, "Chef's New Goal: Looking Dinner in the Eye," New York Times, Jan. 16, 2008, D1.
[xliv] “Blood meal is dried slaughterhouse waste containing about 12% nitrogen. Unless used carefully, it can burn plants with ammonia, lose much of its nitrogen through volatilization, or encourage fungal growth. In view of the extremely high cost of blood meal, farmers should be sure that it really is the best source of nitrogen in a given situation.” The source of this information is no vegan website, but the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service of the National Center for Appropriate Technology, which is funded through the Rural Business-Cooperative Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/altsoilamend.html).
[xlv] Tamara Murphy, quoted in Moskin, p. D4.
[xlvi] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 210.
[xlvii] Horkheimer and Adorno, 206.
[xlviii] Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat (New York: Continuum, 1990).
[xlix] Roger Scruton, Animal Rights and Wrongs (London: Claridge Press, Ltd., 1996), 127. Quoted in Keith, 75.
[l] Roger Scruton, “Modern Manhood,” City Journal, Autumn 1999 (http://www.city-journal.org/html/9_4_a3.html).
[li] Manisha Sinha, “The Caning of Charles Sumner: Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer, 2003).
[lii]John Stauber, “Managing Activism: PR Advice for ‘Neutralizing’ Democracy,” Center for Media and Democracy, PR Watch, Second Quarter 2002, Vol. 9, No. 2 ((http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/2002Q2/managing.html). See Harold Brown, “Examining the Dynamic Between the Animal Industry and the Animal Movement,” paper delivered to the Thinking About Animals Conference, Brock University, March 2009.
[liii] Ad copy for Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope (Oxford, 2010).
[liv] John C. Calhoun, “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions” (1837), quoted in Gail Hagedorn, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 122.
[lv] William John Grayson's The Hireling and the Slave, second edition (Charleston: John Russell, 1855). http://www1.assumption.edu/users/lknoles/douglassproslaveryargs.html.
[lvi] Pollan 321.
[lvii] George Fithugh, “Cannibals all!” (1857), http://chnm.gmu.edu/exploring/19thcentury/debateoverslavery/pop_fitzhugh.html.
[lviii] Gail Damerow, The Chicken Health Book (Pownal VT: Garden Way Publishing,
1994), p. 43. See Karen Davis’s important critique of the exploitation of chickens by small farms, including ones run by locavores, in “Thinking Like a Chicken—Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection (Duke University Press, 1995), http://www.upc-online.org/thinking_like_a_chicken.html.
[lix] Readers unfamiliar with the basic facts should take the trouble to watch this short video by PETA, which if anything understates the suffering of animals in the meat and dairy industries: http://www.meat.org/video-2.asp.
[lx] Karen Davis, “Procrustean Solutions to Animal Identity and Welfare Problems,” in Sanbonmatsu, 54.
[lxi] William John Grayson's The Hireling and the Slave, second edition (Charleston: John Russell, 1855). http://www1.assumption.edu/users/lknoles/douglassproslaveryargs.html. Pro-slavery intellectuals also argued that the end of slavery would produce economic chaos, the end of agriculture, and widespread starvation, and vilified abolitionists as “crazy fanatics,” reducing their careful and impassioned moral critiques to a “noisome pestilence.” The Staunton Spectator, Nov. 29, 1859.
[lxii] Keith, p. 27. While Keith explicitly cites her “need” as a farmer to exploit other animals “labor and the products of their bodies,” she denies that her actions constitute exploitation (58). The dictionary definition of “exploitation” is therefore instructive: “to turn...to economic account,” “to take advantage of,” to make use of meanly or unjustly for one’s own advantage or profit” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1993).
[lxiii] Livestock’s Long Shadow, p. 268.
[lxiv] Pollan 320.
[lxv] Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (New York: Penguin, 2010), 199. I would like to thank Chris Bobel for reminding me of this passage.
[lxvi] See Nibert.
[lxvii] Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (London: Zed Books, 1986), 65.
[lxviii] Mies, 71.
[lxix] Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 6.
[lxx] Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1999). See also Carole Pateman’s prior, homologous treatment of modern patriarchy in The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).
[lxxi] See John Sorenson, “Constructing Extremists, Rejecting Compassion: Ideological Attacks on Animal Advocacy from Right and Left,” in Sanbonmatsu, 219-238.
[lxxii] Keith is not the only leftist attacking animal rights. See also Peter Staudenmeier, “Ambiguities of Animal Rights,” Institute of Social Ecology, Jan. 1, 2005 (http://www.social-ecology.org/2005/01/ambiguities-of-animal-rights/).
[lxxiii] At vegetariansareevil.com, consumers can purchase a T-shirt depicting a number of endangered animals in a large pot under the title, “Adorable Stew. The slogan reads, “Who cares if they’re endangered, they’re delicious!” Other T-shirts depict a smiling man walking up to a placid cow in a field, holding a board with protruding nails behind his back. The site links to groups associated with the far-right Tea Party movement.) See Dennis Soron, “Road Kill: Commodification and Structural Violence,” in Sanbonmatsu, ed., pp. 55-70, on the commodification of animal suffering in “road kill” products.\
[lxxiv] As Klaus Theweleit observes of the elaborate rallies of the Nazis, such spectacles functioned as “public staging[s] of the forbidden.” The participants secretly thought, “ ‘I can’t believe my eyes...what in the world are they doing?’—and then the liberating thought, ‘But everybody’s doing it...my God, they’re actually doing it!’” Masculine Fantasies, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987,) 430. Something like this desublimated aggression occurs in TV programs of hunters clubbing or shooting animals, and in the “snuff films” one finds on Youtube showing how to kill animals for locavore consumption. The message is, everything is now permitted.
[lxxv] Marcuse, Negations, 257.