BOOKS: Eating Animals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2011:

Eating Animals
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Little,  Brown & Co. (1271 Ave. of the Americas, New York,  NY 10020),    2009.
341 pages,  hardcover.  $25.99.

What most clearly sets Eating Animals apart from the bulk of animal rights literature is the perspective from which it is written–not the firm, impassioned mindset of a longtime activist,  but that of a lifelong omnivore engaged in his first thorough exploration of the vegetarian debate.  Jonathan Safran Foer’s catalyst for writing Eating Animals was not any conviction as to the merit (or lack thereof) of a vegetarian lifestyle,  but rather the birth of the author’s first son,  and the necessity of making responsible dietary choices on his behalf and raising him with a consistent moral framework.

As such,  Eating Animals is considerably more balanced than most books on the subject. As Foer explains early on,  all of his statistics come from the most conservative sources available (he lists his citations at the end of the book), and have been verified by multiple third-party fact-checkers.  Even these conservative numbers are often too high to be easily conceptualized, though,  a problem Foer remedies by opening every chapter with an illustration.

Chapter Five,  for instance, opens with the words “influence” and “speechlessness” alternating,  in small-font single-spaced print, for five pages on end,  an apparent waste of space until I realized,  with staggering horror, that every letter on those five pages–21,000 in total–represents one of the animals the average American will consume in a lifetime.

Observing that facts take on meaning only when put into a larger ideological framework, Foer delves deeply into the scientific, emotional, and philosophical context that gives the facts relevance.

For example,  where an animal rights activist may cite studies on the intelligence of animals,  and a meat-eater may observe that most domestic animals would not exist at all if not raised by humans for food,  Foer frames these and other talking points in lengthy discussions of topics such as the value of suffering,  the relationship between species and individual,  and what it means to be a “human” as opposed to an “animal.”

On nearly every issue,  Foer ultimately comes out on the side of the activist,  though the depth of his analysis–and ultimate rebuttal–of meat-eaters’ arguments shows that his desire for balance and fairness is sincere. Foer even allows farmers and industry executives to defend their positions directly,  in their own words,  on four separate occasions.  Only one of the four is involved in factory farming.  The other three are small independent producers committed to high standards of animal welfare.

That Foer gives such a prominent voice to these farmers,  who represent such a tiny fraction of the industry–in his own words, “there isn’t enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island and not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City,  let alone the country–is extremely important.  On the one hand,  including the farmers demonstrates that the issues are not as black-and-white as either vegetarians or factory farmers often portray them.  On the other hand,  including these particular farmers exposes the limitations of animal agriculture even when practiced with lofty intentions.

Foer shows that even the most humanely raised animals are subject to various torments, including branding,  castration without anesthesia,  and eventual slaughter.  That these cruelties pale when compared to industry standards only drives home how horrific factory farming really is.

Foer covers an enormous body of material, including much with which the average activist, if not the casual reader,  will already be well familiar.  Foer also gives significant attention to many more obscure issues.  For example,  Foer discusses seafood,  a topic so neglected by the animal rights movement that many self-proclaimed “vegetarians” still frequently consume fish and shellfish.  Foer touches on seafood numerous times,  including from the perspective of the consumed animals themselves, with reference to studies on the intelligence and social lives of fish,  and within a larger environmental context.

Regarding “bycatch,” the creatures caught accidentally in commercial fishing operations, Foer has this to say:  “Imagine being served a plate of sushi.  But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi.  The plate might have to be five feet across.”

Other less often discussed topics include “selective omnivorism” of the sort advocated by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma,  and the do-it-yourself slaughter which has become increasingly popular in recent years.

The former is treated with some respect, though the shortcomings of Pollan’s approach–the scarcity of humanely raised meat,  and the difficulty of accommodating it in restaurants or family gatherings–are made clear.

Do-it-yourself slaughter is condemned as hypocrisy:  “Killing an animal oneself is more often than not a way to forget the problem while pretending to remember.  This is perhaps more harmful than ignorance.  It’s always possible to wake someone from sleep,  but no amount of noise will wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.”

Foer makes his most remarkable observations in addressing the least explored topic of all:  why it is that well-meaning people,  even after learning the facts of where meat comes from,  continue to eat it?

Many a vegetarian,  myself included,  has puzzled over this bizarre phenomenon.   In Eating Animals Foer offers a satisfying answer.  He opens the book with an anecdote about his grandmother,  who in his childhood would feed him chicken and carrots and tell him stories about her escape from the Holocaust during World War II.  At the time,  Foer believed his grandmother to be the greatest chef who ever lived,  and even as an adult confesses that “her chicken and carrots probably was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.  But that had little to do with how it was prepared,  or even how it tasted.  Her food was delicious because we believed it was deliciousŠHer culinary prowess was one of our family’s primal stories.”

Stories,  Foer maintains,  are what sustain us through life,  and it is our ability to place events and facts into a narrative that gives meaning to our existence.  Stories may even prove more important than life itself,  as another story about his grandmother illustrates. While fleeing the Nazis, close to starvation, she was assisted by a Russian farmer, who gave her a piece of pork to eat.  Because it was not kosher, she refused it. When Foer asked why she wouldn’t eat it to save her life,  she replied, “If nothing matters,  there’s nothing left to save.”

By exposing the profound significance that food can assume in our emotional lives, Foer offers insight into the psychology of meat-eating,  which may equip activists to more effectively combat it.

This insight helps to explain the persistence of traditions such as the Thanksgiving turkey,  and why even some vegetarians are compelled to partake of meat at Thanksgiving,  Christmas,  and Easter,  or Passover,  or Ramadan.  Considering the emotional context of initiation by a parent or grandparent could also help to explain the persistence  of such practices as bullfighting,  sport hunting, and animal sacrifice.

Recognizing the full symbolic importance of meat might seem to make the task of changing human attitudes towards animals appear even more daunting than ever,  but Foer believes that change is possible.  We are not just characters in a story;  we are the  authors of that story as well.

Near the end of Eating Animals,  Foer writes,  “If we are not given the option to live without violence,  we are given the choice to center our meals around harvest or slaughter, husbandry or war.  We have chosen slaughter.  We have chosen war.  That’s the truest version of our story of eating animals.”

He closes the chapter with a challenge:  “Can we tell a new story?”

Although much of the content of Eating Animals is distressing,  as is usually the case with animal rights literature,  Eating Animals is nonetheless an immense pleasure to read.  I wholly and enthusiastically recommend it,  both to vegetarians and,  far more importantly,  to omnivores struggling with the ethical ramifications of their diet. –-Wolf Clifton

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