Monday, April 23, 2012

The Ethics of Eating Meat

The New York Times recently ran an essay contest on "the ethics of eating meat", and the six winning entries were just published. They can be read here.  Both Garth and I entered the contest, though neither of our essays were published by the Times, but since I have a platform here I thought I'd share it with all you dear readers.

Small disclaimer - there was a 600 word limit, and that is the primary reason for such a string of statements without further explanation about the reasons I hold the beliefs I do.  Anyway, here it is.

My belief that eating meat is ethical is informed by several concepts I hold about the world, namely, that humans are a part of the world and dependent upon it, that human choices affect the natural world for better or for worse, and that partnering with animals under a rubric of wholisitic management is the best way to achieve maximum health for livestock, humans, and the environment we share.  

By no means are all steaks morally equivalent, and certain parameters must be met for eating flesh to be acceptable. The animal that makes up my meal must have lead a life free of inescapable manure, pain or noise, and had little exposure to fear inducing structures or machines.  Stated in a more positive manner, I eat animals whose living situations enabled expression of the full range of instincts and desires they were subject to in life.  Most slaughter houses do not yet live up to this standard, but some do, and there is a nascent movement that is pressing for industry wide reform.

Human history is inextricably linked with the consumption of other animals.  Building and fueling large brains required the concentrated source of calories that meat and offal provide.  Thousands of generations of meat eating shaped our guts and metabolisms to be optimally healthy with flesh as a component of our diet, and all the vegetarian beliefs I used to propound cannot change this simple fact.

Bad range management is one of the greatest of humanity's failings.  But improper application of grazers and wholesale disruption of ecosystems by poor grazing management in the past is not a reason to foreswear the many ecological benefits that can be gained from good pasture management. I take it as an unalloyed good that streams run clear and cool, the air smell clean, grass grow lustily and green, wild animals have space to meet their needs, that carbon is sequestered and soil made more fertile, and that we all - humans, domestic animals and wildlife, enjoy access to these environmental services.  All of these goods can be affected for the better by grazers, increasing overall carrying capacity and thereby enabling more life, of many different forms, to live.  Partnering with herd animals is the only way to achieve the high level of ecosystem vitality I currently see in a few small areas and easily envision on a much wider scale.  To fully create this type of world requires that some of the herd be culled each year, and cycling their bodies into the larger whole makes more sense to me than composting them or feeding them exclusively to obligate carnivores like dogs or cats. 

I eat meat because I see it as an integral piece of the larger puzzle we need so desperately to solve.  Our healthcare crisis could be dramatically attenuated or even reversed by eating as our ancestors did.  The potential reduction of morbidity and suffering is truly mind-boggling.  Many of our ecological problems could be solved with the help of large herds of ruminants.  The members of such herds can lead truly full lives where they find space and time to act on all their various drives.  Cutting short the lives of some animals that the others in the herd, the range itself, and we humans can all achieve greater health is a difficult choice, but it is one that life demands.  

- Edmund

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