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.