Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day?

Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, claims you can't be a meat-eating environmentalist. Approximately 30 percent of the earth's ice-free land is now devoted to raising livestock. Around the globe, huge swaths of land are cleared to make more room for livestock and the crops that feed them. The widespread use of antibiotics and hormones to produce meat faster have become the norm.

It takes more than 4,000 gallons of water per day to produce food for a single meat-eater, compared to 300 gallons for a vegetarian. Factory farms also generate 300 million tons of manure each year - more than double the amount produced by the entire human population in the US. Many churches now claim to be "green." Will people of faith live out their values by refusing to participate in the devastation of the planet?


  1. There is, I think, middle ground. It is possible to eat less meat, which, if everyone would do it, could significantly reduce our environmental impact. As would eating only locally grown, organic, free-range meat when we did eat it.

    If we don't opt for some middle ground, we run the risk of turning veganism into a contemporary Nicene Diet - a contemporary creed-esque test of faith and faithfulness such as UUs usually profess disdain for.

    Credo in unam diaetam...I believe in one diet, preserver of heaven and earth.

  2. Well said, Paul. The righteous vegetarians and the faithful omnivores need to hold hands and work together to get rid of CAFOs and other terrible agricultural practices. Too much energy gets wasted vilifying each other over issues "about which people of good faith may differ."

  3. The grass fed, free range animals that you cite, Paul, are generally acknowledged as better treated than other animals used for food, and the beef cow is the best treated of all of them.

    Even so, their time at the slaughterhouse is no picnic. Below is a short description. It’s an excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, published in The Guardian on February 22.

    Personally, I don’t think it takes a creed to be opposed to this, although one like the Golden Rule can help.

    How Cows Become Beef - Jonathan Safran Foer
    The Guardian 2/22/10

    It isn't hard to figure out why the beef industry won't let even an enthusiastic carnivore near its slaughter facilities. Even in abattoirs where most cattle die quickly, it's hard to imagine that any day passes in which several animals (tens, hundreds?) don't meet an end of the most horrifying kind.

    At a typical slaughter facility, cattle are led through a chute into a knocking box – usually a large cylindrical hold through which the head pokes. The stun operator, or "knocker", presses a large pneumatic gun between the cow's eyes. A steel bolt shoots into the cow's skull, usually rendering the animal unconscious or causing death. Sometimes the bolt only dazes the animal, which either remains conscious or later wakes up as it is being "processed". Let's say what we mean: animals are bled, skinned and ­dismembered while ­conscious. It ­happens all the time. The combination of line speeds that have increased as much as 800% in the last 100 years and poorly trained workers – labouring under night­marish conditions – the guarantees mistakes.

    In 12 ­seconds or less, the knocked cow moves down the line to arrive at the "shackler", who attaches a chain around one of the hind legs and hoists the animal into the air. The animal is now mechanically moved to a "sticker", who cuts the carotid arteries and a jugular vein in the neck. The ­animal is again moved to a "bleed rail" and drained of blood for several minutes.

    Cutting the flow of blood to the ­animal's brain will kill it, but not ­instantly. If the animal is improperly cut, this can restrict the flow of blood, prolonging consciousness further. "They'd be blinking and stretching their necks from side to side, looking around, really frantic," explained one line worker.

    The cow will next move along the line to a "head-skinner" – a stop where the skin is peeled off the head of the animal. The percentage of cattle still conscious at this stage is low but not zero. A worker familiar with these practices explains: "A lot of times the skinner finds out an animal is still conscious and it starts kicking wildly. If that happens, the skinners shove a knife into the back of its head to cut the spinal cord."

    This practice, it turns out, immobilizes the animal but does not render it insensible. I can't tell you how many animals this happens to, as no one is allowed to investigate properly.

    After the head-skinner, the carcass (or cow) proceeds to the "leggers", who cut off the lower portions of the animal's legs. "As far as the ones that come back to life," says a line worker, "it looks like they're trying to climb the walls . . . And the leggers don't want to wait until somebody gets down there to reknock it. So they just cut off the bottom part of the leg with the ­clippers. When they do that, the cattle go wild, just kicking in every direction."

    The animal then proceeds to be ­completely skinned, eviscerated and cut in half, at which point it finally looks like the stereotyped ­image of beef – hanging in freezers with eerie stillness.

  4. It seems to me that one consideration that gets left out of these sorts of conversations is the purchase and use of leather products. If principle leads me to eschew the eating of goats, pigs, sheep and cows, then oughtn't the same principle lead me to forswear the use of any product made from the skins of these animals? Principled vegans carrying leather purses or wallets, wearing leather shoes or jackets, and carrying leatherbound editions of a Bible or prayer book elicit a certain amount of cynicism from this -- let me fully disclose it -- Texan.

  5. Charlie wrote: "Personally, I don’t think it takes a creed to be opposed to this, although one like the Golden Rule can help."

    First, Mike was making an argument from environmental consequences while your argument is based on cruelty as part of the meat production process. It is possible to solve the specific cruelty issues without reducing meat consumption. It may be politically difficult, and it may increase the cost of production, but it is possible. And it is possible to eliminate meat consumption without removing cruelty from the world. So while a person may be moved by both environmental and humane arguments in deciding how to eat, they are unrelated ethical issues and should not be conflated.

    But as for whether a creed is implied in dietary arguments, it depends how you use your information. Do you alter your own behavior? Seek better laws? Do you engage in mutually respectful dialog, explaining why veganism is right for you and how reducing world meat consumption would also benefit life on earth? Do you present your argument in ways that help people take an incremental step even if that is all they are able or willing to do?

    Or do you try to bully people into doing what you believe is right and not accept any middle ground? This latter approach is creedalism of the worst order, and I 100% oppose it, regardless the merits of the position promoted.

    PETA's public positions fit this latter, creedal category. Ingrid Newkirk's opinion, cited by Mike above, is bullying creedalism. If you can't recite the vegan creed, you're not allowed in the environmentalist club. You are a heretic, not to be allowed back until you have done what a small cadre of equally fallible humans have set as a new orthodoxy.

  6. Paul, your opinion that PETA uses “bullying creedalism” seems off base to me, although I do more than occasionally wonder if it’s using its resources most cost effectively in some of its campaigns.

    As a follower of the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere, you’re probably aware of the PETA-bashing that rears up here from time to time. But trust me, that rhetoric doesn’t hold a candle to the fire bombing from animal rights abolitionists who revile PETA for its campaigns to alleviate the suffering of the victims of animal agriculture rather than to end it now.

    You favor an approach to “help people take an incremental step even if that is all they are able or willing to do.”

    That’s remarkably similar to Ingrid Newkirk’s opinion expressed in “A pragmatic fight for animal rights” in the January 21 edition of The Guardian.

    Here’s an excerpt, but I hope you’ll read the entire piece (it's not that long) at :

    For those who decry gradualism, the practical philosopher Peter Singer would ask, "Would you prefer to live in the horror you're in, bred to grow seven times more quickly than natural so that your bones splinter and your organs collapse, or would you prefer to be able to live without chronic pain? Would you prefer to live your life crammed into a small cage, unable to lift your wings, build a nest, or do almost anything else that you would like to do, or would you prefer to, at the very least, be able to walk? Would you prefer to be hung upside-down by your feet and then scalded to death or lose consciousness when the crate you are in passes through a controlled atmosphere stunner?" The answers should be clear.

  7. Have any of you seen the movie Food Inc. It's about how livestock is raised and processed in America today. It's not a Michael Moore view but rather a realistic perspective. Well worth watching.

    I don't pass judgment on people who eat meat or not. As I've eaten less and less meat I feel better, so it's a health thing for me. Plus, the environmental issues are pretty clear.

    As a somewhat religious person, my other question is whether the church has the moral authority to challenge people regarding the way they live their lives, in regard to this issue in particular; and in defining the good life as counter to the prevailing consumer culture.

  8. Randy, you astonish me. I've never met a vegan who used leather.

    I'm a quasi-vegetarian (haven't given up fish, have little justification for eating it) and I try not to use leather, but I sometimes find it hard to avoid. When I lived in Vermont and had little money, I wore leather boots because warm footwear is a matter of safety & health (concerns that I believe justify killing animals, under some conditions) and non-leather alternatives were beyond my means. Now, with more money and living in California, I know leather is purely cosmetic.

    But all in all I'm wary of any argument that says "go all the way or don't go at all." We are all struggling along paths toward our ideals, vegetarians included.

  9. Amy,

    Last February the Guardian published a short excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, describing the suffering and environmental devastation caused by fishing. It’s an eye-opener, and for many people, a heart one too.

    The Guardian no longer has it available at its site, but you can see it here: