Archive for August, 2010
“How dare you tell me what to do!”" – an exchange regarding the question of meat-eating environmentalists
Last year I got this email from a student journalist, who defended meat-eating, even though she wrote articles on climate change for the student paper and considered herself an environmentalist:
“I do not have the desire nor the time to read a very lengthy explanation on why eating meat is bad. It’s not even a matter of agreeing with you or not. The facts state that raising livestock is horrible for the environment, there’s no doubt about it. But it is not up to, or anyone, to tell me how to live my life. I am very happy with what I do for the environment, and how dare you tell me otherwise. It’s neither respectful nor prudent on your part … End of discussion.”
In the era of climate-change, should diet be considered a personal choice or is it a matter of public policy?
If 18% of greenhouse gases come from factory farms, and if climate change kills hundreds of thousands of people and threatens to kill many billions and wipe out 80% of all other species – which climate scientists say is the case – then it is plausible to argue that this makes diet a matter of public policy, especially when meat-eating is optional. At the very least, environmentalists should not eat meat; it sends the wrong message to the public. It is morally inconsistent.
My original email to her quoted PETA: “you can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist.” I had a discussion with her about it. This, apparently, disturbed her a great deal. She ended up writing an op-ed for the student paper, defending meat-eating environmentalism, against what I said, but not including my arguments in it.
The article (see http://thevarsity.ca/articles/21749) says that I “chastised her moral fibre.” I don’t recall doing that, but I did stick up for the PETA argument, which is a correct one, as I will argue below.
Interestingly, I was not given the chance to argue this in the paper. The basic environmental arguments against meat-eating were conveniently ommitted from the op-ed.
Her arguments were essentially two-fold:
1) Personal liberty. Her above quoted statement sums up that argument: essentially, I don’t have the right to tell her what is right or wrong or what she should or should not do. But this argument does not take into account the liberty of the animal eaten, and does not take into account the lives of those adversely affected by climate change.
Justice Oliver Wendell Homles said long ago, “Your right to eat to swing your fist ends where your fist meat my face.” In a modern context: “your right to eat a hamburger ends when your food choice threatens the lives of future generations and innocent animals and those alive now who are suffering drought and flooding due to climate change, caused in part by factory farming emissions.” Personal liberty does not include the liberty to infringe on the liberty of others to the extent that you take their lives.
2) Moral relativism. Aside from the ethical (i.e. animal rights) issues, meat-eating cannot be defended environmentally, except if one says something like “chicken is less harmful than steak” – which was essentially her argument. But that argument, predicated on moral relativism, could also be used to defend murder: I only murdered one person, not ten, and one is better than ten, so it’s okay. Is it?
The prinicple of moral absolutism, which is the counter-argument to moral relativism, says that it’s never okay to murder, whether one or ten. The murder in this case is not abstract: climate change does kill human beings, even now (300,000 per year). It also kills non-human animals in the millions and will will trillions as the century unfolds. And of course, the animal himself/herself is murdered too, and as ethicists Tom Regan and Peter Singer have shown, their right to live is as valid as yours or mine.
But that aside, how responsible for climate change is she if she eats even just 2 chicken wraps a week? It is true that eating one animal or part thereof does not of itself contribute very much to global warming, but in a world of seven billion humans and 50 billion farm animals the effect is cumulative.
As Wayne Roberts says, anything to do with food has a huge impact, because people eat so much of it. He gives the example of chopsticks. One pair is not much, but whole forests are felled daily so that China can use them. If meat-eating is optional (which it is, to survive) how can one justify it ethically, if it kills animals and people, even a little bit?
Thus, every meal does count, as a matter of principle, if not on utilitarian grounds. The deontological (duty based) argument is more appropriate for diet or car-driving than the consequentialist or utilitarian arguments: duty to the universal rights of all individuals is paramount, regardless of the relative size of the impact of the meal. The duty-based principle, if adhered to by enough people, will have a practical impact.
And it represents a good in itself (the non-consequentialist argument), as well. Moral consistency demands it, if one is an environmentalist, because environmentalism is presumably about protecting life from unnecessary harm. It is inconsistent to harm one and not another.
One cannot rightly divorce environmental from ethical issues so neatly. Animal rights and environmental integry are tied together, just as human rights and the environment are, since a clean environment is a human right.
A universal ethics, which takes into account the well-being all of all lifeforms, is necessary to avoid “environmental fascism” – wherein environment is put ahead of the rights of the individual – which represents a moral contradiction, since the individual is part of the environment.
Which is to say, I am at fault if I kill X and save Y, when saving both X and Y is possible, and then claim that saving Y makes me a morally good person. Philanthropists like Peter Munk whose gold-mining business destroys the land and water and violates human rights cannot excuse their actions overseas just because they give to hospitals here. In the same way one cannot claim to be a good environmentalist if one eats meat.
It has taken me over a year to pull together some basic thoughts on this unpleasant exchange with the student journalist. I waited till the argument was long over, in order to speak dispassionately about it.
The student in this exchange is represenative of many environmentalists I have run into who do not think that the environmental impact of their personal diet is an issue that has to be examined. This is the ethical blind spot of the climate change movement. Her note provides us with a great deal of insight into the errors of judgement that many environmentalist makes regarding this issue.
Diet and other personal choices are not only not unimportant, but they are perhaps the most important things of all: after all, if we cannot change our own habits and vices, how can we reasonably expect to the world to change for the better? Environmentalist have a moral duty to lead by example.
The most common rational defense of oppression is that it is “natural”, part of “natural law.”
The Grain Chain of Being, caste system
In the West, this idea was influenced by Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being, and in the East through the caste system. Both were used to enshroud class and race-based prejudice in unassailable religious belief-systems, to protect the self-interest of those who constructed them: anyone who objected that it was wrong to harm others was said to be against God.
Today we see a new generation of environmentalists who like the taste of meat trying to justify to themselves something they know to be environmentally inconsistent and morally problematic. So they revert to the naturalistic fallacy, based on speciesism – which as a philosophy is morally indefendsible, rationally (as Tom Regan has expertly shown in The Case for Animal Rights). Slavery of animals is being justified as as natural, just as slavery of humans was — and they are both wrong for the same reasons.
Of course, there was also a tension within those traditions: Jesus’ own teachings advocate non-harm and in the East there is the similar idea of “ahimsa”. I will get back to ahimsa shortly.
A modern secular version of the naturalistic fallacy is social Darwinism.
Regarding the oppression of animals we see the natural argument still prevalent, as though factory farms or even selective breeding or hunting using modern technology could somehow be considered “natural.”
The fact that something exists in the material world does not make it “natural.” The naturally existing world, the world of nature, is the world unaffected by human technology, which has radically altered it.
At what point in human evolution did humans separate themselves from natural processes? There are two answers: 1) 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and civilization; and 2) more recently with the advent of the industrial revolution.
The world people create from nature is itself not natural. It creates a set of conditions apart from the the natural world (the wilderness) — what is sometimes called a built environment — based on ideas, which have actually disrupted naturally occuring evolutionary behaviors. Rural landscapes are built environmentas, like cities, but with more greenery.
As a result we are now in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction on Earth and the only one created by one species. How can anyone call this “natural”? Not for two billion years has there been a mass extinction on this scale.
The “Venus Syndrome” (worst case scenario for climate change) speaks of the eradication of ALL life on Earth if temperatures get to 450 degrees C. Is the eradication of all life on a planet by a single species in any way “natural”? If you think it is, then I suppose you could also declare nuclear weapons and biochemical warfare natural.
These things are not pre-determined but are chosen through the use of free will. They are thus outside the natural schema, even though the human actor exists biologically within it. In the same way, artificial selection and farming are un-natural. For this reason, we cannot reasonably justify them as natural, or determined by nature. We choose these things; we could well choose another way. Is every way that we choose ‘natural’ also? Clearly not, because our imagination are shaping the reality of the world around us, by means of technology which we invent. If there is choice involved we cannot justify one way as natural and the other not. It is a logical contradiction!
No lower or higher in evolution
Similar to social Darwinism, used to justify social oppression, is idea of biological evolution to justify a hierarchy from “lower to higher” species, with man on top. This is a distortion because humans are just one species among many, not higher or lower than others. We are just more complex than most, due to our imaginations. Darwin himself rejected the lower-higher view of evolution.
Evolution simply refers to the changes that occur in a species in order to adapt to an environment, to survive. There is no moral hierarchy implied by the idea.
Free will instead of evolutionary adaptation – a new set of conditions
As long as we exist we never stop evolving. To exist is to evolve. Sometimes evolution results in successful adaptation; sometimes it does not. It looks as though the capacity for technology is not, in the long run, a good adaptive mechanism.
As stated above, humans have placed themselves outside the framework of naturally-occurring evolution by creating built environments, issuing from their imaginations, according to their desires, and this brings with it a certain power and new set of responsibilities not faced by other species.
We have free will and exercise it and then call the results “natural” or “normal.” This is a logical contradiction, since two opposing courses of action could be chosen. Which one would be “natural” and which “unnatural” according to this view? Both cannot be natural, in the sense of what ought to be – what is in accordance with natural law – if they oppose one another.
For example, a man has before him a choice to walk or take a car. One is sustainable and other unsustainable in the long run (since cars run on fossil fuels which are running out). Which is natural and which not? Rather, the question should be which is most just, sustainable and practical? That is, which is most in accordance with what Kant calls “practical reason”?
The natural-unnatural dichotomy is just not helpful for decision-making because it is too maleable, according to subjectively determined views of what is natural or not.
In contrast, practical reason follows an iron-clad rule: do that which takes into account the well-being of everyone else, universally.
Living sustainably is the most practical way to do this, if everyone’s life, now and into the future, depends on living in a stable and clean environment.
Kant gave us the tools to see beyond religious dogma; these same tools can be applied to the question of environmental sustainability and practical ethics.
Is does not imply ought
The “normalization” and “naturalization” process are identified by sociologists (e.g. Peter Berger):
people will create conditions that would not occur in the natural world and then begin to believe that it represents the world as it naturally occurs, and from that infer an “ought” where only an “is” exists. But as Hume stated, “is” does not imply “ought.”
Agriculture and civilization
Humans, though evolved as omnivorous primates (but depending more a plant-based diet than meat), do not require meat to survive or prosper, since the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago. This led to the rise of civilization. As civilized people we conform to a social contract not to kill one another and to live peacably.
Our inner conflicts
Sadly, this social contract exists in tension with our aggressive drives. As Freud showed, this creates an inner conflict in the human psyche.
He hoped for a more enlightened society, where we acknowledged our drives and aggressions, consciously and did not repress them, where they become autonomous and erupt as violence.
The violence against animals is a legacy from the past, which no longer has a proper place in the world of technology.
I would not dispute the right of Aboriginal peoples who live through subsistence hunting, but this should not apply to rest of us. Culture and tradition is not a good defence for a morally wrong practice because any sort of evil can be justified this way.
If Aborignal peoples do not need meat to survive, is it rational that they continue to eat it? Such a question seems politically incorrect, given the legacy of colonialism against Aboriginal peoples (that continues to this day in various ways), so it is prudent to avoid the question.
But in an historical context free from that consideration (colonialism) we could clearly say that meat-eating by ANY culture is not morally justified solely on the basis of culture and tradition.
A moral evolution required
Our moral evolution requires a shift from war and slavery and oppression of animals to a peaceful, egaliatarian society dedicated to the principle of non-harm towards all senient beings.
This is actually consistent with the survival of humanity, which cannot continue to be sustained if we continue to kill animals wholesale, because such a practices is unsustainable environmentally.
Even grass-fed beef is not environmentally friendly. This must also be pointed out (I write on this elsewhere in this blog).
Psychologically, it is also unsustainable, as it creates a cognitive dissonance in us, whereby we deny the source of what we ingest — just as slave-holders thought of themselves as good people.
Humanity’s war against itself and other species and against nature is all tied together, one contributing to the other.
If we are to oppose war and murder and rape and slavery, on the grounds that harm to others is wrong, morally, then the next step is to understand that it is wrong to harm other animals for the same reasons.
Sadly, many human beings still feel that war and murder are necessary, however. They are motivated by unconscious aggressive drives, which Freud referred to as “the death instinct.”
Humans are animals who construct reality for themselves and in their minds “naturalize” that which is constructed. In human society many ways of being are possible, including ways that do not require harm to others.
An Enlightenment view is that humans can construct a society based on universal (i.e. trans-cultural) principles of egalitarianism and social justice.
Non-humans now included
This has traditionally been inclusive only of human animals, but since the 19th century many philosophers have started including non-human animals within the scope of those who warrant our concern.
While not “rational” beings in the same way that human are, many are nonetheless feeling, emotive, thinking beings, and as we have no need to harm them to surive, the thinking is that we ought not to.
Remarkably this same moral evolution from harm to non-harm occurred in many world religions many centuries previous, when it was no longer deemed necessary to sacrifice animals during rituals. Yet somehow, though many religious practitioners grasped this crucial point, it was lost on the society at large.
Ritual sacrifices continue in secular guise
Strangely, we see the idea of ritual sacrifice of animals migrate over to ritual murder at the termination of scientific experiements. The researchers actually call the killing a “sacrifice.” Is this also considered “natural”, even though it occurs within the purview of science?
Farming is not “natural”
Perhaps the most receptive forum for the naturalistic argument is among pseudo-environmentalists and defenders of traditional farming methods.
They all condemn factory farms, in principle — though many still patronize the factory farm products unthinkingly — but continue to defend meat-eating as “natural” – and invoke the example of the small farmer or the Aboriginal culture.
This is a specious argument if ever there was one, because both selective breeding of domestic animals and hunting using rifles and crossbows and trucks and snowmobiles relies on techniques produced within the context of civilization.
In any case, the naturalistic argument is not a good one, for reasons stated above. If we can choose two paths, and call one “natural” and the other not, this already suggests the poverty of the argument.
Rather, it is important to determine our course of action according to practical reason.
See this clever video rebutting the naturalistic argument:
That crucial historical shift to an agriculture based society thousands of years ago allowed human socieities to morally evolve to not kill animals because plant-based diets were made possible then.
Some communities made that transition more fully than others. We see this among some Hindu and Jain peoples, based on the universal principle of ahimsa.
Of course “rights” and “ahimsa” are constructed ideas too, but if one must choose which construction to adhere too — one that causes unnecessary pain and suffering for others or one that respects others — why would we willingly choose the path of pain and suffering, based on self-interest?
Whenever you hear the naturalistic defense of meat-eating remember that it is a constructed idea, like all other human ideas, and is no more “natural” or necessary than human slavery is.
A possible objection, and reply to it
A possible objection to this thesis is that the idea of moral evolution is objectionable because it is no more than another constructed worldview, no better than any other. There could be many versions of moral evolution, one could say – so why this one which protects animals?
The answer is that if we wish to be morally consistent and if we believe that women and people of different colours should have basic rights, then it stands to reason that the same rights should be extended to animals who have the same basic traits as humans.
The idea of moral evolution is not a hierachical worldview, nor even a progressivist worldview, but rather a response to the flagrant abuse of power that we see daily against animals. To hide this behind a pretense of naturalism is self-delusional.
We cannot jusify the morality of ahimas and non-violence against other species (and our own species) as “natural” but we can justify it on the basis that it is rational and practical — that is rationally coherent. It is rationally incoherent (or irrational) to extend rights to one group but not another. Rights must be universal to be coherent.
For all these reasons the naturalistic argument fails, within the context of human civilization — and there is not a single person among us who is outside of that context.
One often hears the view that animal rights activists are “racist” and that their views, imposed on other cultures, is an example of “euro-centrism.” This is my reply to that charge.
The idea of human rights – from which animal rights (in the strictest sense of the phrase) derives – came from 17th-18th century Enlightenment period of European history. However, the idea of “rights” as universal, which is to say that speaks to something that transcends cultural barriers.
The most important thought explored in this short essay – and one which I owe to Shelly Harrison, who started this blog – is that the historical oppression of a people does not justify them oppressing others. Thus, the Holocaust does not justify the dehumanization of Palestenians and for the same reason the oppression of colonized peoples around the world does not excuse their continued oppression of animals or one another.
The animal rights philosophy takes the concept of rights and extends it not only beyond culture but also species. It is the most fully universal and inclusive concept of rights, aside from the “rights of nature” philosophy – which it is historically linked to (as described in several environmental ethics history books, where the idea of rights was extended outward from white to black, men to women, and in the post WWII period from human to non-human societies and to the land itself, starting with Aldo Leopold in 1948).
Postmodern thought eschews universal concepts as euro-centric, but in this regard it is mistaken because in doing so it ignores the essential commonality of beings who share embodied existence as individuals and who are subject to common emotions and drives. To say this is actually egalitarian, not hierarchical, though criticism of the rights perspective is that it is hierarchical. This criticism is incorrect, as I hope to show.
That thing or element in all of us which makes us all equal, according to Kant, was the capacity to reason, but Tom Regan extended the concept of rights to mean self-awareness and world-awareness, basic intelligence, capacity for emotion, and individuality. This is the idea of being a “subject of a life.”
This much broader defintion makes more sense because it is more inclusive of all the animals, whom we know have emotions and feelings, and thus cannot be discounted as mere things. It certainly includes all mammals, and would also include chickens who are very self-aware and aware of the world and who are distinct individuals in their own right.
The main point here is that the idea of rights transcends culture. That is why we speak of “universal human rights” to refer to the violation of them in many nations, in many cultures.
The counter-view is “cultural relativism” – each society or culture makes up its own views and morality and they are all correct depending on what that society says. But is slavery okay then? Or bride-burning? These are cultural practices, but they are not defensible on rational grounds because they are non-inclusive, and harmful to others unnecessarily.
Our society can exist without slavery, without burning women alive, and it can exist just fine without enslaving animals and eating them, as well. In fact, due to the role of the factory farms in the climate crisis, it is now clear that our society cannot survive as long as it continues to harm animals in this way.
Some practices are indefensible when they cause harm to vulnerable members of that society. And ALL human cultures have within them cultural practices which victimize animals, and therefore deserve a critical response. It is not racist or Euro-centric to critsize those cultual practices, if they violate human right or animal rights.
Of course, this criticism can be disengenuous, as for example George Bush Jr. or Stephen Harper’s feigned concern for the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, as a pretext for invading that country, or moral positioning of one’s own culture over other cultures — for example, saying it’s disgusting to eat dogs and cats while at the same time eating pigs and cows. There is a moral inconsistency in that, which points to the real reason for the person’s criticism of the other culture as a way of “othering” that culture, in order to elevate one’s own. A consistent criticism of harm to animals must be also be critical of harm done in one’s own culture.
But I would contest the idea that the animal right movement as a whole is guilty of racist or Euro-centric bias in challenging animal rights abuses cross-culturally. We know that some people have use the idea of rights wrongly, to impose cultural hegenomy on others (colonialism), or in the example above (othering, hierarchial positioning through misuse of moral terminology) but that is not what AR people do, on the whole. They are just saying that the right of the animal to live and not be tortured or reduce to food or a thing for sport (e.g. bullfighting) trumps the right of a certain people to do that to maintain their culture.
Cultures can change and become more humane: at one time animal sacrifice was widespread in religions but the idea died out because it was considered inhumane. The relgiions still exist without blood-letting; in the same way, cultures which kill animals regularly can change also.
The historical oppression of a people does not entitle them to automatically oppress animals. This raises the sensitive issue of Aboriginal people. In Canada at least, Aboriginal peoples are excempt from hunting and fishing bans or restrictions (except where the species is endangered), and it is understood that many of them still are subsistence hunters/fishers. I do not think anyone seriously takes issue with that.
What animal rights activists do take issue with, however, are practices that have nothing to do with subsistence hunting but are defended on cultural grounds. The main problem is commerical or non-subsistence fur-trapping. Recently the Inuit opposition to the EU seal pelt ban, even though the Inuit are themselves exempt from the ban. They were defending commercial seal-hunting in Newfoundland, thousands of miles away. Why? Because of political corruption and ties to the Harper government.
I’m sure a few AR activists have been racist – when they denigrated a whole culture because of a few practices (e.g. blanket statements such as “why does China hate animals”) – but on the whole, AR people – the one’s I’ve met or had contact with anyway – are actually more enlightened than the average person on these matters, because they are sensitive to discrimination against animals and by extension all discrimination (based on race too).
This is because specieism and racism have the same root: discrimination, prejudice. Anyone who fights either should be able to see this, but sometimes it is not seen when people extend their circle of concern to only animals – leading to misanthropy – or to only “racialized” peoples – which is a combination of speciesism, anthropocentrism and ethnocentrism.
Extending that ciricle of concern to sentient beings is the most enlightened, most egalitarian position. And yet the animal rights movement continually gets this bad rap of being racist or discriminatory, based on the words of a few people in it. Why is that?
It’s easy to scapegoat this movement for two reasons: the mainstream media do it constantly (and get away with it in a speciesit culture) and AR activists never respond to the criticism, even if they know it to be untrue of themselves. One rarely hears a response to it. This comment that you are reading is a rare exception.
“…the worst thing that will probably happen – in fact is already well underway – is not energy depletion, economic collapse, conventional war, or even the expansion of totalitarian governments. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process now ongoing that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”
- E.O. Wilson, 1992. The Diversity of Life. (Penguin Books, London, UK.)
The following is a good article on how the governments of the world have failed to protect biodiversity, despite the fact that we are in the midst of the world’s sixth great mass extinction and the only one caused by one speices:
About 150 species go extinct per day, due to habitat destruction, toxics, invader species, and climate change (see UN Red List).
From a “rights” point of view it is the individuals in the species that matter, as much as the species itself. But whichever way you look at it, it is bad and getting worse as our numbers increase and we take over more, at the expense of animals.
Words fail Monbiot when he thinks of it. Me too.
This post is a response to an article, Death By Storytelling by Tim Murray, which typifies a kind of fatalism about environmental isues. The part that I took issue with was the idea that environmentalim is delusory. Some brands of it can be, to be sure, but not all. Murray writes, “Take refuge in a virtual reality. Perceive the real world differently and confuse that perception with objective reality. Embrace a faith like environmentalism, which seemingly offers us the hope of accommodating infinite growth by infinite reduction in our per capita consumption. Or believe that industrial civilization, or civilization itself, is sustainable, if only it was organized along equitable lines. Or immerse yourself in murder mysteries, children’s fantasies or tales of the supernatural . Or invest your hope in a technological fix. Dream about new technological miracles that will save us from ourselves, much in the way that the Nazis dreamed of miracle weapons that would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The name of the game, after all, is to feel good about yourself, not about actually changing society around you.”
My thoughts on this article …
My reply to it will, I hope, serve as a kind of antidote to the deterministic fatalism that many people feel in response to this crisis, or to the mass slaughter or animals or mass poverty of this world.
The above essay is worth reading, and he makes good points – much like the points that Jerry Mander was trying to make with his Four Arguments Against Television – but the author assumes something that is by no means irrefutable.
It comes out in his critique of what he judges to be ineffective environmentalism, one of the types of delusion. Why is it ineffective in his view, and thus also predicated on delusion? Because it is not enough to mitigate the ultimate catastrophe of civilization’s downfall.Either it doesn’t go far enough (it is “greenwash” one might say) or not enough people are doing it to have an effect.
But the hidden assumption in this is what ethicists call “consequentialism” – judging the moral worth of an action by it final outcome. This may be juxtaposed with the non-consequentalist /deontological view that the action’s worth lies in the act itself, and more specifically the intention that informs it, and observance of duty to conscience from which it is derived.
This is usually posed as the problem of the philanthropist who does a good deed for self-gain, versus the man who acts out of altruism, but his deed has less of a visible impact on the world. Which deed has more worth? Thus the parable of the Widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44): the rich man gave much more, but the widow, though she gave less, gave all she had, and that was more pleasing in God’s eyes (for “God” read”conscience” if you are a secular humanist).
Or, for example, if I am in a war and I choose not to kill the enemy soldier, as an act of conscience, the worth of my refusal to obey orders to kill lies not in whether or not I end the war (which clearly I do not by this one act), but rather in the fact that I did not take a human life. I did not save the whole world, but I saved the whole world of that man I did not kill, as well as living according to my conscience (e.g. saving my soul, in religious terms).
Or let us say, I am offered the choice of veal, which I know causes terrible suffering for calves, or a vegetarian dish. 50 billion animals are killed every year for human consumption. Does it really make any difference whether I eat this one or not? From a consequentialist point of view, no. But it does for that one calf -and for you, the eater, in that moment. Two beings in a world of billions still matter. We are not reduced in importance by the fact that there 7 billion of us or 1.5 billion of his kind. Each life matters. And we have free will to choose to harm or hurt others. The deterministic fatalism – that we are doomed as a species – ignores our ability to change things if we so desire.
In the same way, environmentalism, which aims at saving the whole world and judges the merit of actions solely on that outcome, cannot be sustained, and leads to cynicism or desperation or justifications for violence.
We see this in the philosophy of Derrick Jensen who advocates blowing up the infrastructure of industrial society rather than working to change it through more civilized means: through rational discourse,through political movements. His solution has great appeal to some,but falls into the utilitarian thinking in which some lives are expendable for the greater goal. Nowhere is this thinking more evident than in capitalism or state Communism. Jensen commits the same error.
For him the end justifies the means, even if the means requires killing in some cases. But as Gandhi said, as the means so the end.Ends and means should be consistent. And as Kant said, never treat a person as means to an end, but always an end in himself.
If we have learned one good thing from the experiment of civilization in the last few hundred years it is that lasting social and political change for the better must occur through non-violent, civil means,rather than through violent revolutionary means, which perpetuate the cycle of violence.
The fatalism and consequentialism of the apocalyptic scenarios can have a negative effect on genuine efforts to act altruistically in the world today. I admit that I indulge in some cynicism quite often too,when I see the failure of our civilization to take adequate steps to mitigate climate change …
But then I am reminded that I am indulging in a form of historical materialism when I do that, which invests all meaning in the end, and ignores the means whereby it is to be achieved — that is the importance of acting with integrity in the process. And it is all process: there is not “end” in fact — only one long process.
Ironically, concern for future generations is consistent with investing meaning in the present action, as though that action counts– as though (as Kant said) everything hinges on my actions in the present. The “everything” is the part of the world I have power over;if I ignore than because I am focused on what my species is doing or failing to do I paralyze myself and ignore my immediate duty to act with good conscience in the present.
Saying that meaning lies in the present action does not mean that I must act with hedonism, however – though some take it mean that.Rather, I think it points to altruistic action based on the understanding that if we are here only once in this world, we ought to live the most meaningful lives we can, and it is thus better to be an altruist than a hedonist, which brings only short-term satisfactions.
The author of the article I am critiquing does not seem to believe that his good actions matter: in so doing he negates the meaning of the present for a meaning entirely wrapped up in future outcomes.
Even if my actions do not effect the final outcome of human history(as though there is some “final outcome”!) — they are nevertheless still worthwhile — that is, environmentalism and pursuit of human rights is still worthwhile — if you consider this:
All of human history is finite. One day our species will be extinct. A human life is finite. One day we all die. It all ends. So based on this, do we say that what we do in the present doesn’t matter? Of course not. It matters because people matter, living beings, matter,life matters. It is the totality of our existence! We do it a disservice by discounting it.
The delusory way of thinking, the endless distractions of this society, are escapes from reality. And they prevent living in the present moment — an idea that Nietzsche emphasized quite a lot in his writing and blamed traditional religion for.
Now we know that today’s religion of consumerism and television is more to blame than any religious doctrine – especially when some of these more enlightened versions of religions are trying their level best to emphasize the sacredness of life (e.g. Creation theology — or course we also still see the more popular and destructive versions too, such as the Prosperity Gospel).
Like the conscientious objector, the meaning of it lies in act itself,even if it saves only one individual tree, or animal or human being,or results in less pollution. The good lies in “the good will” even if not acted on.
Of course, this is hard for us to accept, because we are all conditioned to accept some version of consequentialist utilitarian worldviews, but as we reach the finite limits of the bubble of civilization, perhaps it is time to question the assumptions that led us here. There is a great opportunity for critical self-examination here and re-imagining what it is to be human.
In summary, I know that through one good act to reduce my carbon footprint and increase my compassion foot printI have done what I can,whether or not my fellow human beings did or not. I cannot judge the worth of my action by what they do or don’t do.- Show
The original poster’s reply to me
Thank you for the extended reply. The author, of course, could argue that your explanation and reasoning is also more story telling. Once we accept that all verbal thinking and argument are “just” stories, then we are in an unhinged context. I suspect, that if this author got bitten by a rabid dog, that he would go with Pasteur story about anti-rabies vaccine.
Yes, that’s true. It’s all storytelling. The question then is what sort of story to tell oneself or others? One that is really delusory or one that admits some reality in and tries to deal with it practically? How does one tell what is delusory and what not? There is no total escaping of human fiction because that is how we understand reality, how it is mediated through us, how we communicate. So it’s important to choose the right story to go with. Kant’s answer is to understand they are all stories and to choose the “practical” one -the one that is most morally good for everyone. Thanks for the exchange!
Please watch this slideshow
My roommate is part of a group of environmentalists who have organized a bee colony in the city. The environmental case for it is that flowers and other plants need to be pollinated. The bees have been decimated due to an illness some blame on cellphones, but is more likely the result of contagious deadly virus. So, certainly cultivating bees sounds like a positive thing, environmentally, but what about the ethical implications of taking their honey?
Taking honey is the moral equivalent of taking cow’s milk. Both are produced by the animal for their offspring, and both are taken by the farmer to sell or consume for himself. It is often described as symbiosis, because the farmer supplies the stall or the bee hive, but in fact it’s closer to parasitism. This is because cows and bees, as they existed in the wild, fended for themselves.
The domesticated versions of these species are bred for human use, which violates the fundamental principle of abolitionism in animal rights philosophy against the instrumental use of animals by humans for any reason. For those not versed in this principle, it simply means that just as we would not use human slaves to produce food for us, so too we ought not to use other animals in this way, because they have lives of their own, independant of ours, and to reduce their lives in this way is the same as shackling humans and using them. Whether or not conditions are humane is irrelevant to this principle.
True, that this particular use of animals by humans seems to be less egregious than, for example, slaugthering cows or skinning minks, but in reality bees can and do die as a result of having their honey taken. Today my roommate stuck his hand in the colony to check on it, and was stung three times. Each bee who stung him died from doing so. He effectively killed three animals today.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. The average person you talk to about this finds it ludicrous and foolish to include bees in any program of animal rights. Why? Because they are insects. And even most animal rights activists do not accord any great significance to insects as compared to mammals or birds or even repitles or amphibians. Why is that? E.O. Wilson, the biologist, suggests it is because they are small, so they seem unimportant to us. He says that if they were our size, we would accord them far more respect.
Tom Regan, while not giving insects “subject of a life status” – as he does to mammals – does however say that where there is any doubt as to the possibility of that status, that it is wise to err on the side of caution and not to kill an animal accordingly. And bees, however small and unimportant they may seem to us, are still animals of a certain kind — just as we humans are animals of a certain kind as well.
And who is to say that humans are more important, just because we are larger and seemingly more complex? Insects were here hundreds of millions of years before we were, and almost certainly will be here long after we are gone. They are the most resiliant and adaptive and biologically diverse and numerous animals on Earth. I agree with Wilson that we ought to accord them more respect.
A step in that direction is not to succumb to the sophistry that cultivating bees for honey is an environmental good. Yes, bees should exist in greater numbers, so it is wise to give them homes and help them along in that process, but taking their honey introduces the element of human self-interest and unavoidable killing of bees into the equation. There are plant-based sweeteners one can use instead of honey. The environmental argument is sophistry because it seems to be a justification for bee-farming for honey for human use.
Bees do not suffer the horrors of factory farms – they have freedom to fly from their hives, for example – but it is nonetheless a type of exploitation of animals to use them in this way. It is more consistent with the principle of animal rights to leave them alone, especially since human well-being does not depend on the use of bees in this way. If environmentalists want to do some good for pollination of flowers, by all means cultivate the hives, but leave the honey for the bees, as a matter of principle. They do not take our food; we should not take theirs.
Several articles on the following topics:
* Response to the scientific challenge to the UN report of 2007 on factory farms, by scientist funded by Big Meat lobbyists
* Human interests versus animal interests? No, this is a false debate on many levels.
* The free-will argument: it is how humans appear to be different, but it does not make us superior or entitled to use animals instrumentally. This is a response to the naturalistic argument for meat-eating.
* Response to the claim that in indigenous cultures there is “respect” for the animal killed, and how that article of Aboriginal religion is now used by non-natives to justify their meat-eating.
* Debating China and animals? Is is racism or is there a universal rights claim being made? What are Chinese language groups doing on this front? How is religion playing a role in this?
* Trying to get factory farms on the the agend of climate change conferences.
* Debate over supposed “pain-free” and “guilt-free” animal models and meat.
* Environmental and other costs of animal research. The barriers to change.
* Ethanol and tax subsidies to grain producers: the environmetal cost and economic remedy.
And more … stay tuned.
Let me start this article with a letter I wrote to NOW magazine, a left-wing newspaper in Toronto, which did an article praising grass-fed beef. They actually printed it, which surprised me. This is the short version of the ethical argument.
It is disappointing that NOW would promote a form of cattle-raising over veganism as an environmental good in your Green Issue (NOW, February 25-March 3).
This so-called “green idea” ignores the well-being of cows whose violent end can never be considered humane. It reflects a disturbing speciesist bias that views the environment as existing only to serve human desires.
Isn’t that the anthropocentric attitude that caused the climate crisis in the first place?
We can use a term coined by ethicist Tom Regan to describe the grassland-fed cow idea: environmental fascism. A vegan diet is better for the planet and for people, and is far more humane as well. True environmentalism requires us to act with compassion toward all living beings.
Prelude to extended argument
Before I launch into the extended argument against grass-fed beef (below) I should mention two things:
1) Many envionmentalists are promoting grass-fed beef in public in order to to justify meat-eating for the present and future.
There is a psychological reason for this: they still eat-meat, are addicted to it, and wish to rationalize it to themselves.
Many still eat factory farm meat but justify this to themselves (and other) using a combination of the naturalistic fallacy (discussed elsewhere on this blog) and an errenous environmental argument.
George Monbiot recently came out in favour of this option, for these reasons. This was very dissapointing to me, as I like his writings.
It reminds me a great deal of carbon offsets: it helps people deal with “green guilt” and continue what they like doing (meat-eating) but is rationally indefensible.
2) I know some very nice people in California who promote grass-fed beef as an environmental solution.
The rationale is that if a person is going to eat meat anyway, he or she might as well eat grass-fed.
They are earnest and sincere and I don’t doubt their integrity as environmentalists, so this article is not meant to discredit their efforts.
However, knowing what I know about environmental ethics and animal rights philosophy, I feel it is my duty to set the record straight, so that earnest and sincere environmentalists — and I do not mean people like Lierre Keith, who are insincere and dogmatic about this — can evaluate the choice, armed with all the facts.
So I am writing this article for the environmentalists who don’t have all the facts at hand, first and foremost.
If a person is open-minded about these issues, he or she will review all the facts and decide accordingly, and not make decisions based only on prejudice.
Extended arguments, both environmental and ethical
If you ever wondered whether the grass-fed cow idea had any merit, and ought to be widely adopted, this article explains that it does not.
This is important because many environmentalists and animal welfare advocates believe it represents a viable alternative to factory farms.
There are three major arguments to consider: the possibility of greenwash and they psychological phenonenom of denial (self-delusion), the environmental argument, and ethical argument.
Possibility of greenwash
World Watch Institute, which has done a great deal of research on factory farms and the beef industry, claims that the Big Meat industry uses the idea of grass-fed cows to promote beef consumption, but there is no evidence the cows are in fact grass-fed. See (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5406 Article reprinted below).
This is because right now grass-fed is a voluntary standard, not regulated. A consumer might pay more for grass-fed beef but in fact be getting grain-fed beef. There is no way to tell, just as with free-range eggs, also unregulated, and probably not true free-range, if sold in large grocery chains.
Many people buy grass-feed beef and in fact they are not doing anything positive environmentally, but they believe they are.
As I will explain shortly, whether or not the cow is grass-fed, there is still considerable environmental damage caused by purchasing it and perpetuating that industry. Self-delusion plays a big part in the environmental crisis. This is no exception.
Some people will actually buy factory farmed meat and tell themselves it’s okay because next year they will by organic grass-feed beef, when prices go down. There is no end to the number and diversity of lies we tell ourselves to rationalize self-interested behavior to ourselves and others.
Part of this may be understood through an examination of the role of food in comforting us, allowing us to feel secure. People will defend their food preferences at great cost, and otherwise sane and rational and ethically good people will try to rationalize truly evil practices to defend their food choices, for this reason.
They consider a personal choice, not as having any impact on the environmental or other people. But unfortunately they are wrong.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that tomorrow all grain-fed cow operations are shut down and only strictly grass-fed beef is allowed to be sold. We are still left with the environmental and ethical arguments against it.
There are many issues that relate to the environmental argument: water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, land use. I won’t go into them here in detail, for the sake of brevity, but essentially they claim that compared to grain-fed cows, grass-fed cows have less of an environmental impact.
This excellent article mentions a number of environmental arguments against the grass-fed idea, worth considering:
I am including the full article below.
The most persuasive claim being made here, vis-a-vis the climate crisis, is that grass-fed beef does not necessarily reduce green-house gas emissions, at least with respect to the methane produced by the cow, which is over 20 times more powerful than CO2 in its ability to cause global warming.
In fact, as the author points out, methane gas released is more than with grain-fed cows?
Yes, the CO2 emissions from industrial agriculture are taken out of the equation, but there is an increase in methane, which is more damaging in the short term. This is a very important claim and essentially negates any environmental benefit argued for by grass-fed beef advoccates.
Another issue is water. David Catherine, a fellow activist, sent this note to me:
“An important area of environmental concern is riparian rehabilitation (which is necessary for eco-systemic habitat, wildlife corridors and important to water quality and aquatic eco-systems).
“Firstly, cow/cattle manure introduces excess nitrates that enter directly into rivers/streams or leach out of the soil into the rivers/streams and underground aquifers.
“Excess nitrates disrupt both the soil micro-biology and the chemical composition of the streams (affecting insects, reptiles, fish, and thus also mammals who feed on them); excess nitrates also promote excess growth in algae and other water flora that chokes the water (affecting insects, reptiles, fish, and thus also mammals who feed on them).
“Cows/cattle physically destroy riparian zones critical in performing important buffer functions for the rivers/streams; they contribute to desertification, soil erosion and severely impact on stream-bank stability, all of which affects the riparian zone dynamics (including flood control) and water quality.”
This applies to grass-fed cows too.
Ultimately, the environmental argument has to be considered in the context of the choice between non-meat eating (going veg) and meat-eating. If it is considered only as a choice between two types of meat-eating, this presents a false choice.
Methodological problem: “best of sector” approach omits the choice to abstain
What is not questioned, generally, in these comparisons is the methodology of how they are presented. It assumes that given two choices, the one that is less harmful is better. In reality, we have three choices: grain-fed, grass-fed, and not to eat beef at all, or abstention.
Why is the third choice not given as an option by environmentalists? I think it has a lot to do with a strong psychological attachment to comforts and a sense of security. Food does that for people: ironically, the psychological need to be safe, by taking refuge in comfort foods – including meat – is killing all life on Earth. So veganism is not the table for them. This can be the only logical explanation for people like Lierre Kieth, Derrick Jensen and George Monbiot opting for meat, despite claiming to be environmentalists.
The third way, environmental veganism, is the most environmentally and ethically sound. It is no mistake that the comparison is between “two evils”, persuading us to accept the lesser of evil, and omitting mention of alternatives, such as artificial meat — which is the same price or cheaper in many cases, and much healthier in some cases as well.
It reminds me a lot of the choice between two cars: we are told to pick the electric car, but are not told that it can be as damaging environmentally as the non-electric car. Walking or taking a bike or public transportation is the better way.
In the same way, flying: fly without carbon offsets or with them. Carbon offsets, as it turns out, are just greenwash, so there is no difference. The choice is a false one. They both cause climate change equally.
Or take the issue “corporate social responsibility.” We are, for example, presented with a choice: invest in Barrick Gold, which has the highest industry standard for CSR, or Goldcorp, which has been de-listed as an ethically sound investment by some “ethical fund” advisors. There is actually a name for this methodology: the “best of sector” approach.
But consider that Barrick Gold still murders human beings and dumps raw mine waste into rivers and burns down the huts of villagers who protest and jails and beats them, at the Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea (See articles on this at http://protestbarrick.net).
Thus it is like being asked to choose between the concentration camp that kills the fewest inmates over the one that kills more. We are forced into a utilitarian choice, contrary to the rights position.
Both human rights and animal rights in their purest experessions are predicated on a rejection of utilitarianism, in favour of a duty-based position that recognizes the intrinsic worth of the individual.
The best solution, ethically, is not to have concentration camps at all, or open-pit mining, or use cows for food.
The third choice, not mentioned by proponents of the grass-fed cow solution — veganism – is better than two poor choices, one of which is only marginally better than the other.
(And for those so interested, the solution to the open-pit mining problem is recycling of minerals, not extracting new ones).
Ethically grass-fed beef makes no sense: to enslave other sentient beings is wrong, if we consider that they have an equal right to life and liberty by virtue of the fact that they are sentient, aware, emotive, etc.
The happy cow idea has been soundly critiqued by many animal rights thinkers, because it is a form of welfarism, not abolition of slavery. It has also been called “illfarism.”
The comparison with a slave plantation is in order: Death-camp slaves can be likened to grain-fed cows. Plantation slaves of the Old South can be likened to the “happy cow” and grass-fed ideals.
Emancipation from slavery can be likened to the abolitionist view that no instrumental use of cows is ethically sound. Here again, but from an ethical point of view, we have the correct solution to the best-of-sector ethical dilemma:
total abstention from consumption of good produced which require the deaths of other sentient beings — be it gold or food or something else.
It is a basic principle that any solution to the climate crisis should take into account everyone, not only the members of one species. If it does not, this is called speciesism.
That would be like saying that the solution to the climate crisis is to kill all members of one group – such as all black people or this nationality or this ethnic group – so that the other group not killed can survive. It is not a universal solution. It is a fascist solution, a form of climate injustice. The idea that all cats and dogs must be killed because they produce GHG emissions is also fascist.
See my article on this, below: http://cruelty-free.org/environment/?p=286
The most environmental and ethically sound solution to the problem is for every human to become vegans, based on local organic agriculture.
The fact that this probably won’t happen anytime soon does not negate the soundness and virtues of the solution.
In any case, peak oil will solve the problem for many, forcing them to become vegetarians or starve. But if it were done now, voluntarily, rather than later by compulsion, there would be enormous environmental and health benefits for all species.
There’s Nothing “Natural” About the Livestock Industry
Why Grass-Fed Beef Won’t Save the Planet
By GEORGE WUERTHNER
Another livestock industry propaganda piece recently appeared in Time Magazine by Lisa Abend titled “How Grass fed Beef Can Save The Planet.”
The basic premise of the article is that factory farming is bad, so grass-fed or free-range beef is good for the planet and even human health.
Grass-fed beef is the latest fad with people who have little scientific training, and thus are easily duped by pseudo-scientific sounding pronouncements.
While there are some livestock operators who are promoting grass-fed beef, many of the advocates are well meaning people who are vulnerable to anything that have the word “natural” in it.
Just because raising cows in factory farms on grains is bad for the Earth, does not mean that cows grazing on pasture or hay are better for the Earth.
The assumption of many people is that less industrialized makes it better to consume. Some of the “natural” folks eschew city water treated with chemicals, for instance, and prefer “natural” water sources.
Yet many natural water sources have many unhealthy things in them. Arsenic, for instance, is often found at naturally high levels in water at levels that are a health risk to drink.
One needs to be careful about assuming that anything more “natural” is automatically safer, healthier, and better for humans and the planet.
[yes, especially as these industries have only inadequate regulation, most of it voluntary]
I do not want to contend that industrialized livestock production is good. There are huge problems with factory-raised meat. Cattle raised on grain tend to be given more hormones, and grain production generally requires heavy pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as fossil fuels to operate machinery.
But just because a cow grazes in a pasture, does not mean it is “green” or that eating grass-fed beef is environmentally beneficial.
Indeed, as a generalization, almost all the negatives associated with Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) exist with grass-fed beef.
And grass-fed livestock has many unique impacts not shared by their factory-raised counterparts that may be more environmentally destructive.
The assumption that grass-fed beef is “healthier” is based more upon wishful thinking than reality.
One of the presumed benefits of grass-fed meat is the idea that somehow livestock fed grass reduces global warming gases.
Research suggests that livestock, particularly cows, are a major source of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are warming the planet.
One recent UN report finds that as much as 18% of the GHG are from livestock—more than all transportation and/or industry sources of GHG.
Others put the figure even higher. No matter which studies are used, there is little dispute that cattle are a major contributor to global warming.
Fermentation in the animal’s rumen generates huge quantities of gas—between 30-50 liters per hour in adult cattle.
So those proponents of grass-fed beef start with the simplistic assumption that since cattle evolved to eat grass, such a diet must be superior to grain-fed factory raised animals.
Yet grass is a poor substitute for grains in terms of caloric energy per pound of feed. As a consequence, a grass-fed cow’s rumen bacteria must work longer breaking down and digesting grass in order to extract the same energy content found in grain—all the while the bacteria in its rumen are emitting great quantities of methane.
Researcher, Nathan Pelletier of Nova Scotia has found that GHG are 50 percent higher in grass-fed beef. If somehow magically we could convert all factory grown cattle to free range grass-fed animals, our global warming situation would be greatly accelerated.
[This alone is the single biggest environmental argument against it]
Beyond the GHG issue, free ranging cattle present other problems that CAFO raised animals do not. For instance, one of the major consequences of having cattle roaming the range is soil compaction.
There’s not a single study that demonstrates that having a thousand pound cow trample soil is good for the land.
Soil compaction reduces water penetration, creating more run-off and erosion. Because water cannot percolate into the soil easily, soil compaction from cattle creates more arid conditions—a significant problem in the already arid West, but also an issue in the East since the soils are often moister for a longer period of time.
Moist soils are more easily compacted. Sometimes the influence of pasture grazing is long lasting.
One study in North Carolina found that stream insect biota were still significantly different in streams heavily impacted by agriculture 50 years after agricultural use had ceased compared to control streams.
Soil compaction also reduces the space in the top active layer of soil where most soil microbes live, reducing soil fertility.
Free ranging cattle trample riparian areas, the thin green lines where 70-80% of all western wildlife utilize for homes and food.
According to the EPA livestock is the major source of pollution and riparian damage in the West.
But that doesn’t let eastern cows off the hook since trampling of riparian areas also occurs in the East, though with less biological impact since fewer species are solely dependent on this habitat.
Cattle, of course, release a lot of manure on the soil. A typical 1,100 pound cow releases 92 pounds of manure a day as compared to a typical person a pound of feces.
Most of that excrement is left on the land where it washes into streams and adds to nutrient loading as well as the spread of disease like E coli bacteria. In fact, livestock manure is a major source of water-borne disease and pollution throughout the country.
To put this into perspective, consider that state of Vermont has approximately 150,000 cows, most of whom excrete their waste either directly on pastures or if collected from barns it is later spread on fields.
In either case, most of this waste winds up on the land without further treatment. This is the same as permitting a city of nearly 14 million people to spread their human waste on the land!
It has been asserted without good evidence that grass-fed beef cattle produce less E-coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens. Yet all of these diseases have been repeatedly isolated from both grass and grain-fed livestock.
Outbreaks of diseases like E coli have been traced back to pastured animals. Notably, the E. coli spinach outbreak in California in 2006 was isolated from pastured cattle. And there are other examples.
By contrast CAFO operations, because of their scale and ability to collect and process manure in a treatment plant, can potentially be less polluting overall compared to grass-fed beef—though admittedly this is not common practice as yet.
There are disease issues for wildlife as well. For example, grass-fed animals carry disease that can harm native species. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) or Mad Cow disease is thought to have originated with domestic livestock and later transferred to elk and deer.
And foot and mouth disease transmitted from cattle has been shown to infect bison. Brucellosis, another disease originating with domestic cattle, has created a huge controversy in Montana, where bison infected with the disease are killed when they wander from Yellowstone National Park.
Free range cattle are also problematic for other reasons as well. Take predators. Most grass-fed cattle are vulnerable to predators, and it is the presence of “free range livestock” that leads to conflicts and the eventual slaughter of everything from wolves to coyotes both as preventative or in retaliation for predation.
On western rangelands where livestock are often let loose on public lands, even the mere presence of cows socially displaces native herbivores like elk that simply won’t graze in the same place as cows.
Since there are no empty niches, these native herbivores are displaced into lower quality habitat. Thus even “predator friendly” beef is more hype than reality.
One of the big problems with grain-fed livestock operations is the huge amount of land that is used to produce grain.
Approximately 80-90 million acres of land in the US are used to grow corn alone. That is 80-90 million acres of once native prairie that is now growing a mono crop at a tremendous loss of biodiversity.
As bad as that plant community conversion may be for natural process, and native species, grass-fed beef generally dine on either pasture or hay—both of which consist of exotic grasses that are planted at the expense of native plants.
In most states, the biggest single factor in the destruction of native plant communities has been their conversion to hay or pasture. Indeed, across the country more than 130 million acres have been converted to hay and pasture.
To put this into perspective, the entire footprint of all urbanization and developed land in the entire US is about 60 million acres.
In a sense one could argue that grass-fed cows have destroyed far more of the native plant cover than all the cities, highways, factories, Wal-Mart parking lots, etc. combined. No small impact.
Whatever the exact figure may be, there is no denying that a lot of native plant communities have been converted to hay or pasture.
In the West, much of the pasture and hay is created by irrigation thus require water withdrawals from streams and rivers. In most of the western United States, the majority of water consumed is not for domestic or industrial uses, but for agriculture, and the prime agricultural product produced is hay and/or irrigated pasture.
As a consequence, aquatic ecosystems are fragmented, destroying fisheries, degrading riparian areas (water withdrawals affects water available for streamside vegetation), and increasing the effects of pollution (because toxins become more concentrated).
Even cattle grazing on native grasslands are not immune from judgment. One can’t be putting the majority of native grasses into the belly of exotic animals like cattle which are then exported from the system without impacting the ecosystem.
Every blade of grass going into a cow’s belly is that much less forage for native animals, from grasshoppers to elk.
There are far more ecological problems I could list for grass-fed beef, but suffice to say cattle production of any kind is not environmentally friendly.
The further irony of grass-fed beef is that consumption of beef products is not healthy despite claims to the contrary. There may be less fat in grass-fed beef, but the differences are not significant enough to warrant the claim that beef consumption is “healthy.”
There is a huge body of literature about the contribution of red meat to major health problems including breast, colon, stomach, bladder, and prostate cancer. The other dietary related malady is the strong link between red meat consumption and heart disease.
Another health claim is that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fats which are considered important for lowering health attack risks. However, the different between grain-fed and grass-fed is so small as to be insignificant, not to mention there are many other non-beef sources for this.
Fish, walnuts, beans, flaxseeds, winter squash and olive oil are only some of the foods that l provide concentrated sources of omega-3 fats.
Arguing that eating grass-fed beef is necessary or healthier grain-fed beef is like claiming it is better to smoke a filtered cigarette instead of a non-filtered one. The health benefits are minor if they make a difference at all.
There may be ethical reasons to prefer grass-fed animals over the often inhumane treatment given to factory-farmed animals. But even that rationale seems hollow to me.
If one is that concerned with ethical issues, one should consider whether keeping any animals captive for slaughter is really ethical.
Beef consumption, whether grass-fed or grain-fed animals is neither healthy for the planet nor for humans. Reducing or eliminating red meat—whether grass or grain fed—from one’s diet is one of the easiest way to “save” the planet.
George Wuerthner is the editor of Welfare Ranching—The Subsidized Destruction of the American West as well as a contributor to Fatal Harvest about Industrialized Agriculture, and a soon to be published book on Factory Farming.
World Watch Institute article
Of course “grass-fed” beef doesn’t mean “grain-fed”!
by Danielle Nierenberg on October 18, 2007
The food blogs have been buzzing this week with the news that a new “grass-fed” standard for meat was released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. My favorite headline of all was “USDA limits grass fed label to meat that actually is”—from Ethicurean.com, who has been following this issue very closely.
It took five years and lots of wrangling from farmers and advocates of grass-fed livestock to make sure that the standard is finally in place. But why all the hooplah and controversy over labeling? At first glance, the issue seems pretty simple: Meat that is labeled as “grass-fed” should come from animals that ate only grass, not corn and soybeans. Similarly, cows that were fed grain (in the feedlots and industrial dairies that dot the Western U.S.) should not be labeled as “grass-fed” when they reach grocery store shelves. Right?
The problem is, big beef wanted to cash in as well, especially since beef and other products that come from grass-fed animals, including milk, butter, and eggs, are so popular right now the beef industry was stamping the “grass-fed” label on cattle that had actually been fed grain nearly their entire lives (all cows start off eating grass, but if they’re sent to industrial feedlots, they spend the last few months of their lives being finished on grain). Some producers were even feeding feedlot-confined animals with hay and corn stalks and other agricultural leftovers, then labeling them as “grass-fed.”
This post is an effort to inform animal rights activists of one of the most contested philosophical issues arising from the “rights” position: the clash between the right of the individual and the integrity of the environment of which he or she is a part. I also look at how this clash can be resolved in a way that does not result in mass violence. Thus it is an exploration of one possible solution: legislation to bring about needed behavioral change, and the problems arising from implementing it.
Defining environmental fascism
The “culling” (murder) of elephants herds in national parks in parts of sub-Sahara Africa, in order to protect the environmental integrity of the parkland from over-foraging by them, is the type of scenario that led animal rights ethicist Tom Regan to coin the term “environmental fascism” to describe the abrogation of individual rights for the sake of a local environment.
This concept applies to human rights, as well as animal rights, and to climate change mitigation schemes which create “climate injustice,” as well as to parklands.
For example, nuclear energy reduces emissions, as compared to coal-fired power plants, but threatens to harm those in the future who live near the radioactive waste. What is considered a solution, environmentally, is a problem for local populations in the future.
Allegations of misanthropy
The allegation of misanthropy has been applied to those who advocate getting rid of some or all humans for the sake of the environment or other animals (see excerpt below on Caldicott).
The phrase environmental fascism applies equally well to describe the ethic of hunting deer or catching fish to keep populations down, supposedly for the sake of local environments. It can also be used to describe the idea that we need to get rid of dogs and cats because they have large carbon footprints.
Wherever the basic right of individuals to live and experience a basic degree of freedom is abrogated, the term can be used.
There have been some responses to this controversy that attempt to reconcile environmental concern and the animal rights worldviews, by philosophers. This is very difficult to do, it seems, but not impossible. It is difficult, because there will always be a scenario in which the death of individuals or the violation of their rights seems to serve an environmental good – except for those individuals whose basic rights are violated in the process.
The most obvious examples and problematic example of environmental fascism on a really large scale concerns humans and cows populations, the two species on Earth now most responsible for exacerbating climate change. In the cows’ case it is involuntary, through methane. In the human case, it is voluntary, raising moral issues.
So for example, a fascist solution to the climate crisis is to mass-murder most of the people in the world, especially those with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions (in the global north). But clearly this is not an acceptable solution, from the rights point of view, which locates intrinsic value in the individual, not solely in the environment.
Any solution, from the rights perspective, must take into account the right of the individual, whatever their species. If the solution is speciesist or racist, that is problematic.
Restricting human behaviors to avoid luxury emissions
Continuing with life with some restrictions on human behavior, to reduce emissions, is one solution. The human being, in this type of society, would still have basic freedoms in areas of behavior that do not significantly impact on the environment, but would be limited to very little driving, flying, meat-eating and other areas that create large emissions. Realistically, this restriction would mean an actual prohibition on these behaviors altogether for the great mass of humanity. The prohibition on meat-eating would at the same serve another good, by protecting the basic rights of the non-human species.
It is useful to distinguish between luxury emissions and necessary emissions at this point. Luxury emission are those that need not occur, to ensure the survival of a human being. These are the emissions that need to be severely limited or prohibited, in a civil society, to ensure the right of everyone – human and non-human – to continue to enjoy basic rights.
Reconciling the two positions – the rights position and environmental integrity – is possible, if the number and consumption of individuals is limited prior to their becoming a problem to the point that it leads to the death of either group (or both groups, in the case of climate change). This means conservation efforts for humans, and greatly reduced numbers of cows, achieved through an end to all factory farms, and an end to all creation of new cars and computers and things that damage the environment significantly.
The right to live trumps the right to overconsume
Given the choice between the right of a human being born in the future to live, and the right of the person today to own a new car, the right of the future person is greater and must be given priority.
Many of these changes will come about anyway through the end of the oil age, but others must be implemented by human beings, through laws.
The rights to overconsume (e.g. eating meat, driving, flying, buying many things) could be considered lesser rights, or rights that can be abrogated (restricted), through legislation if necessary, in order to ensure that basic rights of all sentient beings – the right to life and freedom from harm – are not violated.
Universal maximum income is one proposed solution
But such legislation will only work if everyone experiences the same limitation, with the assent of the majority, and not if one group does and not another. The solution to that is legislated maximum income, because people do not spend what they don’t have.
Limiting consumption and adopting ethical veganism, in order to ensure the right to life of both humans or non-humans seems very draconian to some — but the alternative is far worse. It is a proverbial tightening of the belt, which most of the humans will not agree with, and thus would have to be legislated.
Without actually passing laws against meat or flying, universal maximum income would achieve the same thing, in effect, by limiting how much everyone did spend. There would be no income for luxury emissions. The trick is ensuring that such a restriction is universally applied – which is difficult because there are also some people who want more wealth.
Restrictions on behavior, to enforce conservation, not ideal, but necessary
There is a certain irony in the thought that a government which some would wrongly call “eco-fascist” (e.g. restricting on personal choices) is needed at this point to prevent real eco-fascism (mass-murder of the many for the benefit of the few in a world of dwindling resources and reduced tolerance level to human created emissions). But it is either that or the great mass of humanity chooses, of their own free will, informed by reason, to do the right thing for the sake of their fellow Earthlings. And the latter has not happened yet nor seems likely to.
Restrictive legislation on consumption and income and certain personal behaviors which have an environmental impact is not an ideal solution, but it is the only practicable one that does both things: protect the global environments and protect the basic rights of all individuals to exist.
Caveat: this is a thought-experiment only to help further our understanding
Achieving that solution is very difficult, probably impossible, given the general unwillingness of most people to acknowledge the problem of climate change, let alone the violation of animal rights. For that reason, this essay is more in the way of a Gedadenexperiment which won’t be implemented, but should nevertheless still be thought out, to further our understanding of the issues.
The key terms in the excerpt below are “intrinsic value” (value located internally a person or animal as an “end” in itself/himself/herself) and “instrumental value” (value located not in the person or animal but only in what that person or animal can do for some other end, whether it is capitalism or environmental integrity, or something else).
Controversy over the concept: charges of misanthropy
Criticizing the individualistic approach in general for failing to accommodate conservation concerns for ecological wholes, J. Baird Callicott (1980) has advocated a version of land-ethical holism which takes Aldo Leopold’s statement “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” to be the supreme deontological principle.
In this theory, the earth’s biotic community per se is the sole locus of intrinsic value, whereas the value of its individual members is merely instrumental and dependent on their contribution to the “integrity, stability, and beauty” of the larger community.
A straightforward implication of this version of the land ethic is that an individual member of the biotic community ought to be sacrificed whenever that is needed for the protection of the holistic good of the community.
For instance, Callicott maintains that if culling a white-tailed deer is necessary for the protection of the holistic biotic good, then it is a land-ethical requirement to do so. But, to be consistent, the same point also applies to human individuals because they are also members of the biotic community.
Not surprisingly, the misanthropy implied by Callicott’s land-ethical holism has been widely criticized and regarded as a reductio of the position (see Aiken (1984), Kheel (1985), Ferré (1996), and Shrader-Frechette (1996)).
[It is not only misanthropic, possible leading to a violation of human rights, but also contrary to animal rights, as Regan notes in his critique of Adlo Leopold's "land ethic" on which Caldicott's analysis is based.]
Tom Regan (1983, p.362), for example, has condemned the holistic land ethic’s disregard of the rights of the individual as “environmental fascism”.
Under the pressure from the charge of ecofascism and misanthropy, Callicott (1989 Ch. 5, and 1999, Ch. 4) has later revised his position and now maintains that the biotic community (indeed, any community to which we belong) as well as its individual members (indeed, any individual who shares with us membership in some common community) all have intrinsic value.
The controversy surrounding Callicott’s original position, however, has inspired efforts in environment ethics to investigate possibilities of attributing intrinsic value to ecological wholes, not just their individual constituent parts …
Following in Callicott’s footsteps, and inspired by Arnie Næss’s relational account of value, Warwick Fox in his most recent work has championed a theory of “responsive cohesion” which apparently gives supreme moral priority to the maintenance of ecosystems and the biophysical world (Fox 2007).
It remains to be seen if this position will escape the charges of misanthropy and totalitarianism laid against earlier holistic and relational theories of value.
To see full article, go to “Environmental Ethics” at