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Have Simon Fairlie & George Monbiot got it wrong about meat eating?

Mark Boyle
Wednesday, 16th February 2011

Agricultural campaigner Simon Fairlie's explosive book, Meat, proposed that a low-meat diet can be a sustainable, ecological choice. Mark Boyle - aka the Moneyless Man - strongly disagrees...

Mark Boyle

Mark Boyle - the 'Moneyless Man' - believes that meat-eating is a symptom of humanity's obsession with itself

I'm not going to sit here and say that eating meat is right or wrong. As we all do, I've my own personal opinions on the subject, but that doesn't suddenly make me some all-knowing, all-seeing, fictitious character in the sky.

One thing I feel we would all be wise to do, however, is to question conditioned mindsets – often anthropocentric – and to shed light on humanity's capability to simultaneously hold inconsistent and contradictory views.

This has two benefits to mankind: firstly, it reduces the levels of cognitive dissonance we all suffer from today; but more importantly, we have zero hope of creating a more just, respectful and compassionate world unless we ask ourselves those difficult questions. Such contradictory beliefs exist within almost every person, vegans and omnivores alike.

Vegans fuel their cars by handing over their cash – the new vote – to oil companies that are responsible for more deaths than all the world's wars combined; the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe is but the extreme example. Many omnivores claim to 'love' animals – especially Rover and Felix – whilst simultaneously going out and, at best, buying organic 'local' meat for their dinner. Both want to control and manage Nature to an extent and manner that benefits their own species first and foremost. And almost all environmentalists, irrespective of diet, bizarrely seem to want a nice clean planet and their youtube and BBC i-players (the "I don't have a TV" person's TV).

So whilst no one can claim divine knowledge on right or wrong, even a fool could highlight most of these rather bizarre inconsistencies. The most obvious, and most outrageous, seem to creep in on our attitudes towards animals and meat. In recent years two schools of thought have emerged; you have the trend of published works from people such as George Monbiot and Simon Fairlie, arguing that going vegetarian or vegan is less sustainable than a system of subsistence farming that includes meat, if it replaces imported vegetarian protein crops. At the same time you have people like Lord Stern reporting that we all need to go vegan if we want to be sustainable.

The meat of the matter

I find this entire approach is in danger of reducing all life to a carbon footprint equation - a scenario not even Galileo himself would have dreamt up, and doesn't get to the real heart of the matter. I'm not at all saying that it isn't crucial to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to at least 350ppm (the opposite, in fact); but that I think it is very dangerous to start making this the only moral and ethical consideration today.

Taking Monbiot's and Fairlie's reasoning to its logical extreme, I can only assume that they would have considered Auschwitz acceptable as long as the trains that transported the victims there were run on a clean, renewable energy (or, ideally, to bring small mobile – yet unfortunately industrialised – concentration camps to the Jews), and that they were then slaughtered 'ethically'. It you think these words are harsh, consider that the Noble Laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer (himself a Jew), once wrote: "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."

If we were consistent with our logic and philosophies, and were as serious about protecting the natural environment as we pay lip-service to, humans would be the first animals to be culled. Or at the very least we'd stop keeping ourselves artificially alive through an industrialised healthcare system resulting in a small island having a population of 61 million humans who then need to kill everything else that competes for 'its food'. No animal on the planet destroys its natural habitat on anything close to the scale we do.

'Of course you can't kill humans to protect the environment!' I gladly hear you exclaim. I agree, what a completely abhorrent scenario to even contemplate.

So why is it so disgusting when we kill some animals – such as humans and others we've chosen to like such as dogs and cats – yet simultaneously so positive when we kill others such as pigs, lambs and cows? The real answer: because we like the taste of them. To do so, we create a delusional culture that eases the levels of cognitive dissonance we have to endure.

The history of meat eating

OK, you may argue that we've eaten meat for much of our history (though not it all), and that it is therefore 'traditional'. Just because something is 'traditional' doesn't necessarily make it wholesome, or justify it for that matter; it may just mean we've been doing it for far too long already. War is traditional. Rape was traditional. Few, thankfully, are suggesting we don't evolve beyond those two patriarchal social symptoms as soon as we can. Many people argue that humans eat animals simply because humans can, because they're more powerful. By their reasoning, surely rape is also justified, given that men are more physically powerful, in general, to women. Just another case of those in the strong position in the power relationship abusing the weak. I'm obviously not suggesting that I believe rape is acceptable under any circumstances, I'm merely highlighting the discrepancy in philosophies that most people simultaneously hold.

It's only our anthropocentric mindset that can see human life as somehow worth more than that of a cow, dog, bird or any other sentient being. It was for that purpose that we abstracted God from Nature and depicted him as a male human. Two hundred and fifty years ago we still believed that white lives were worth more than black lives. Now we call that racism. One hundred years ago we still viewed women as being worth less than men (and in terms of salaries and recognition we still do today). Today we at least recognise that as sexism.

All I am suggesting is that in another hundred years – if humanity evolves quickly enough to survive that long – some generation may view our attitudes to the way we enslave and then kill non-human animals to be as brutal and incompassionate as we now view the human slavery of the 18th Century; what world renowned philosopher Peter Singer terms 'speciesism'.

Humanity: obsessed with itself

Speciesism, briefly, consists of putting the minor needs of one's own species over the major needs of another. If you're going to starve to death in the wild unless you kill another animal, that's a different story and quite instinctual to anyone whose name isn't Gandhi or Sakyamuni. Taking sentient life when survival is genuinely at stake isn't speciesist. A wild life, where human civilisation isn't maintained at the expense of all, isn't speciesist. But a kebab on the way home after a swift six pints is hardly a major need, though it probably feels it at the time.

You may argue that animals kill other animals, therefore we should to. Animals do kill other animals. But humans also kill other humans. On that reasoning, we could justify killing other humans because other humans do. Which is ridiculous. Yet we enact similar contradictory philosophies every day. You may add that killing a human isn't justified as it would be cannibalistic to eat one; fair point, but does that mean I can kill Simon Cowell and feed him to my more attractive canine friend, Boycie?

If you believe that the discrimination against animals is justifiable because we're more intelligent than them, then why do you not argue in favour of killing one year old babies with Downs syndrome? I despise the mentality that even labels a beautiful child as such, but I'm not the one arguing in favour of illogical discrimination here.

Why is it that we discriminate and hold contradictory ethics simultaneously? Is it because our facial features and organs are displayed a bit differently? Or because we still subconsciously believe that animals – and the rest of Nature – is but a Cartesian machine for us to control and own? On what basis is the discrimination?

Slavery, and the subjugation of women, were once socially acceptable. If humanity is to have any hope of evolving to a more compassionate and ecological worldview, it's going to involve us all questioning our own conditioned mindsets. Not just for the benefit of what Daniel Quinn calls the 'rest of the community of life', but for ourselves. For as Leo Tolstoy once said, 'as long as there are slaughterhouses, there'll be battlefields.' It won't matter much if they're mobile ones.

A vegan alternative?

Let's not reduce all life to a Galilean mathematical equation; it's much too beautiful for that. Can veganic locavorism feed 61 million in the UK? Evidence would suggest it would require a complete systems re-design, at best. But maybe the real question is, should there be anything close to 61 million humans in the UK anyway? And is building in industrialised infrastructure, whilst enacting inconsistent and contradictory philosophies and stories into our manufactured culture in an ever intensified attempt to protect that growing 61 million, at the expense of all else, maybe the real problem? How many other lives is it justifiable to domesticate, enslave and kill (or euphemistically cull) to keep those 61 million humans alive and 'sustainable' on a tiny island?

The saddest part is that we've domesticated and enslaved ourselves in the process.

Mark Boyle is the Founder of Freeconomy (www.justfortheloveofit.org), and the author of The Moneyless Man.

 

Decide for yourself! Simon Fairlie's Meat: A Benign Extravagance is available from Green Shopping 

Help spread the permaculture word...

peterwhilluk@yahoo.co.uk |
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 6:16pm

Very much enjoyed the article.

Unfortunatley due to the rat race etc etc, people are so ignorant and blind as to what they are putting into their mouths.

I cant see the human race ever stopping eating meat.
I always wonder,if sheep ruled the planet would they farm humans for meat?

thanks

Mark Boyle |
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 6:44pm

There seems to be a fairly big debate - as always over understandably emotive issues such as this - on Permaculture Magazines facebook page.

Why not bring the debate in here for those lucky souls who've managed to resist facebook so far!

Fergus |
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 7:14pm

I read recently that cities may have evolved to serve bacteria. The more of us they can cut off from the natural world to sweat and shit together the easier it is for them to breed. We (those in the cities) are being farmed!

I find the meat question quite difficult as my high ideals come up against the dominant existing reality (note: I don't say, 'the real world') of the so-called developed world. Eating roadkill has been my temporary solution. Sometimes though news of ‘breakthroughs’ in ethical (?) meat production both horrify and intrigue me, i.e. the production of meat-mass, pure muscle tissue. I think this will happen. What is worrying in that situation would be all those who might think that, with meat - from regular animals- freed from the process of rearing and slaughter any ethical debate is redundant.

I recently received an email from a PR company who had a client that wanted me to run a bespoke foraging course for an 'ethical company' client of theirs. I sent my usual kind of reply to such requests - that usually ensures they don't get back to me. In my reply (below) I forgot to add that, "of course I'd be delighted to help out if your mass distribution system doesn't depend on industrial infrastructure". But I forgot.
Meat-mass machines? No thanks. Wooden and manually operated leaf curd makers? Yes please. No doubt we'll give this a go eventually Mark.

"Thanks for getting in touch. What your client wants may be possible, but then equally may not. Foraging is 90% about the fun and creativity but always from a strong ethical foundation. Having looked at your clients products, apart from the sweet items, I'd only really be happy working with the cheese (possibly) and white bean tapas. I'm a roadkill eating vegetarian. I don't wish to condone the deliberate slaughter of animals for food. On the other hand, I am a realist. If ALL Unearthed's meat products are guaranteed fully free range and, preferably organic, and they know all their suppliers on a personal level and can guarantee excellent animal welfare to encompass travel to slaughter or rather they are killed painlessly with do travel to slaughter then I'd be happy to talk."

.......he says, sitting at his computer!

Mark Boyle |
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 6:59pm

@ Fergus

Let's make one this weekend!

I've no problem with Roadkill - we've had these discussions! - I've a problem with cars!

Good response btw.

marion |
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 11:20pm

Having concieved born and raised two vegan children, I have looked carefully at this. Roman gladiators were vegan, barley, I think was their staple diet. Meat is not essential for health but variety is, and balance. Leaf curd, yum! Wild food foraged food, wild food is richer in nutrients and less is needed, variety rather than quantity. What has thin and pale got to do with this? Someone 'in conversion' might struggle for a while to adapt. I do have a theory that meat eating- and a host of other practices are about living in temperate climes. But I have heard that may be changing-what's new? Whatever you eat enjoy it.

DavidNorth |
Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 6:45am

I don't find your arguments regards ethics of eating meat convincing, either regarding ethics or sustainability. In particular you fail to make a case for Veganism as opposed to Vegetarianism.

For example, there are several traditional cultures in the world that depend entirely on animals, often more for milk than meat. These people have a relationship with their land and animals that goes back hundreds of years, the animals sustain the people, the people protect and sustain the animals. They live on land so marginal and climates so harsh that one could not survive by cultivation of crops. And these people waste nothing that their animals provide. So what would you have them do? Starve? Re-locate? Cease having new offspring? Import grain and vegetables from elsewhere? I think such cultures epitomize sustainability and a connection to nature that we are so badly lacking in the developed world, but I suppose a vegan would condemn them from a position of moral superiority while understanding nothing of their way of life. A vegan world would simply deny their existence.

I agree meat production has its problems with respect to land use. But production of milk and eggs can by highly sustainable and humane. There are many good reasons chickens and ducks are so popular in permaculture systems. A chicken can get a large part of its nutrition from arthropods, weeds, other green forage and perennial grains, none of which a human is well adapted to eat. We can protect the chicken from predation and give it a full natural life, being fully able to express its true chicken nature. In return we get eggs which are one of the most complete food sources available, and particularly valuable to growing children. Please explain to me why such food production is not sustainable or humane? Likewise a house cow is a perfectly sustainable and humane source of food. On such a small scale the animal will receive full attention to its health and other needs and can live a long life, being productive with milk for many years. And raw milk is probably the most nutritionally complete foods available, nothing from the vegan diet can compare to it.

What about game? In the UK we have a problem with deer population due to lack of their natural predators. Their population threatens their own health as well as agroforestry and other rural activities. Hunting these animals provides extremely healthy, nutritious meat in a completely sustainable manner. The animal's death will be quick and humane, more than they could expect from their natural predators. As a vegan, what would your solution be? Sterilization? Re-introduce their natural predator? Why should a human not take that role?

I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on these questions.

maharawj |
Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 6:46pm

I find your argument , fiction and fantasy.
I just happened to read an article on Egypt. Their love for meat is creating hunger as grains are being grown for the meat industry. The prices of vegetables going up.

Its extreme fantasy that some meat eaters conjure up when arguing, that there are cultures that have been eating meat everyday of their life.

They talk about cold countries and Ice Age. What do they eat there. Snow Roosters/hens, Or the "Polar cow"??

I used to think the lies about meat eating was some sort of a huge conspiracy(for reasons I could not figure out).
But I guess its just utter nonsense that meat eaters come up with to justify meat eating.
http://www.thehindubusinessline.in/life/2005/01/07/stories/2005010700080...
here is a link of a tribe in the Himalayas. Extreme temperature. They are 100% Vegetarian(Do not eat dairy or honey, technically they are animal products).
This tribe can trace their ancestry back to 18000 years(officially accepted is 5000 years, for reason that is really not relevant).
This is just one of the 300+ tribes in India and one of the few tribes in the Himalayas living in High altitude extreme conditions.
The Yak Milk is just a myth. The Bon Pa and other tribes never drank Yak Milk. Buddists Monks in India and Nepal too do not drink Milk.

A person I know has visited them. Talking about conspiracies. He had written a book on Tribal life which was published, during this time he discovered that many tribals are raw vegan while the ones in colder regions depend on cooked food comprising of grains and lentils in the winter.
He himself turned raw vegan he has visited 600 of these tribes around the world and wanted to write a book on raw veganism and how old that lifestyle really is.
All his publishers turn him down after a while.

Celebrity vegan Markus Rothkranz speaks of these tribes and is familiar with the ones living in africa.

Its just a myth we have been eating meat. I can challenge anyone to live on meat. I could give you a dozen cow and some land and lets see you eat beef everyday three meals a day.

I can give a man a handful of grains and he can start feeding an entire village in a year or so.
BTW you will still need grains to feed the cow too and to make some bread. Cause you need the fibre.

It common sense preserving meat was invented recently. Before that if you killed any animal you had to finish it off in a day. You could only eat birds but not cows. Or you would be wasting a lot of meat.

Also its really hard to slaughter a cow. slaughtering a Pig is a nightmare(you should try , I will leave alone with a Hog and you try slaughter it).

About Cows milk, Its sustainable if you rape the cow every times she stops giving milk keeping her pregnant for her entire life and lactating. While killing her calf off.
Do you think Cows want to be pregnant and lactating 365 days a year?

About deers I had this argument with someone before. First of all Humans kill of the predators. You created the problem and want to show as if you are a doing a favor.
Someone said that Deers are a nuisance they bang into cars when crossing highways. Since their population is more they are crossing highways.
I can understand if deers come into residentials areas. But crossing highways that have forests on both sides?? I think we put a highway on their regular path and now we blame them.
We have a go slow sign near schools why not on highways where there are deers. Or lets build flyovers over these areas. Problem solved.

Another argument from a meat eater. They talk about cave drawing of hunting as proof that they were meat eaters.
If they had to put drawing to show they were meat eaters they would shown a Butcher skinning the dead meat.
Why would they "record" their daily activities??
Its is recorded because the "hunting" was either not hunting at all, but they saving themselves from predators or they hunted very rarely.
The person was ridiculing my comments that why would man reject all the fruits and vegetables literally falling off trees(that he could eat raw before he invented fire) and resort to killing an animal. Which he could do only after inventing tools. Hunting with primitive tools is just not practical. Its again juts fantasy where they show primitive man(which mainstream anthropology like to project as dumb) creating strategies that required precision co-ordination and a lot of planning to get a days meal.

He said that we did not see cave paintings of cave men spear a apple or a banana.
I commented the above and said yeah right why would any Man document what he does for on a daily basis. Just because there are no cave painting of cave men shitting does not mean they never took a dump. Guess what this was on Dr. Mercola's website on a article justifying meat and my comment got marked as spam and deleted.

@Mark Great article just love your quote about right or wrong, Right on!! :-)

Graeme Dow |
Friday, February 18, 2011 - 10:50am

Put your tits away, you great twazzock

justjoy66 |
Saturday, February 19, 2011 - 5:52am

there are pros and cons to every argument. My question is this;

If we choose to give the same rights to animals as we do to ourselves, does that include bugs , vermin , and even bacteria ? Everyone is going to draw that line in a different place.

I personally believe that just because we don't hear or see a plant in pain, doesn't mean it's not experienced. So why is it considered unethical to kill animals, but not to kill plantlife ? You talk of cognitive dissonance, and we wouldn't be human without it, no matter where you draw the line.

I agree , for instance , that we can avoid purchasing products that have been tested on animals, but if I need medical treatment, especially life saving ... I'll be glad that bunny gave up it's life.

villenilsson |
Monday, February 21, 2011 - 9:53pm

I can obviousley hear very clearly that Mark cares a lot about our planet and the wellbeing of it's inhabitants. So do I, and I have one question that I would like to hear you answer in order for me to know how much I can trust your arguments.

If you want the planet to be eating an all vegetable and grain diet, what will you use to feed your crops?
Fossil-fuels or manure?

lou |
Monday, February 21, 2011 - 11:05pm

I am sorry but this is a really flawed argument.
You have somehow missed the point.
Simon is mearly recognising that getting the vast majority of the uk population off of meat is not going to happen for a good number of years. and that it will evidently take a huge paradoxical shift in thinking.
As i understand it, what Simon writes in regards to getting enough protein from within our own country for vegans and veggies in a sustainable manner is at the moment near nigh impossible.
We ship in all this quinoa and varying lentil which the vast majority of vegans and veggies eat to maintain a varied diet from all the corners of the earth which will not be sustainable for very much longer. I am myself a veggie so i am not coming from the point that i wont to condone eating or killing another living thing, but low scale local infrequent eating of meat be that fish rodant or mammal is the most sustainable way to go in regards to diet. We need to get the masses to radically reduce their meat intake and then we can get decent agricultural systems more in balence. Comparing being a meat eater to the holocast is childish and maybe if you used some realistic and well grounded comparisons then maybe your argument might stand up a bit more. I am glad you wrote the article because it is easy to get sucked into thinking that what ever George Manbiot or Simon Fairlie say is the gossple, but on this one Simon has made a very well justified and well researched argument.

Aranya |
Saturday, February 26, 2011 - 8:14pm

Surely building soil fertility is no big challenge if one is cycling back all unused vegetation / organic matter back into the soil for the soil life to do their job... including of course our own human wastes.

Needing fossil fuels or imported animal manure to maintain soil fertility is only a symptom of wasting resources (e.g using a flush toilet)!

ringtor |
Monday, July 11, 2011 - 5:05pm

Nearly half of our grassland is not able to be cultivated because the soil is thin, its too high or too steep. If this land is used for meat production then it might produce 400gms each person per week. Quite enough for the carnivores.
We need to utilise all our land which will need many more hands if its to grow vegetables on the smaller fields while the bulk foods are grown on the easy land.
Our diet in the last war was good if one had a garden and a couple of chooks.

progressiveoutdoorsman |
Saturday, December 17, 2011 - 11:18pm

I live in Minnesota in the United States, where we have a thriving hunting and fishing culture, a significant minority of the population gets a substantial amount of protein from these activities. It is also a good way to get into the outdoors and experience nature. Humanity has done this since the beginning of time, and it is still common in rural areas of many modern societies, esp the U.S., Canada, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. My wife and children have lived for several weeks on venison as our main protein source, and will continue for another 6-8 weeks, all from two deer I killed in early November.

This is good for the environment of done in a sustainable matter, which through modern hunting regulations it is. The biological matter is clear, only a third of the word is arable, a third is forest or grazing lands, the last desert or ice. Animals that can provide protein live on the forest and grazable land, but it would be horrible for the environment to cultivate those areas, adding greatly to global warming.

Pure carnivory of course would be bad as well. High consumption of meat by all of humanity would be totally unsustainable.

I don't see how anyone advocating permaculture can be anti-hunting. Hunting and organic farming are complimentary. The farmers in our area that do organic farming and conservation practices also have more wild game to hunt, as there is more habitat for these animals to live in, as well as non-game species.

Veganism, or even vegatarianism, if adopted by humanity as a whole

Robert Grillo |
Tuesday, August 12, 2014 - 3:01pm

To illustrate how indoctrinated we are into the dominant, meat-eating, prejudicial view of animals, consider how even so-called “conscious carnivores” use the word “meat” while never even thinking there might be a problem with it. First, note the basic biological fact that we too are animals composed of flesh, bones, cartilage and blood, but note that we do not refer to human bodies as “meat,” but as corpses.

The word “meat” intentionally strips animals of their identity and value beyond the commodification of their flesh.

“Meat” turns a non human someone into a “thing” to be consumed.

“Meat” is the objectification of a someone who had a lifetime of experiences and a mind that evolved to function well in complex ecosystems, finding the right mate, building shelters, giving birth, finding and storing food for her family, raising and educating her young, negotiating and communicating with others in intricate social groupings, forming bonds, friendships and maybe even enemies, learning from past experiences and anticipating future events, expressing likes, dislikes, pains, pleasures, loves and losses.

“Meat” is a word that functions much like the word “slave” in how it defines someone as a piece of property to be exploited for someone else’s gain.

“Meat” is a word that expresses an ingrained human prejudice against certain species and the baser side of our nature of dominating those who are weaker.

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