Tag Archives: books

Eating Meat

Yesterday, more than 150 million animals were slaughtered for human consumption. The same number will die today. This is a worldwide number, and it doesn’t include marine life.

It’s a veritable animal Holocaust, happening everyday, out of sight, out of mind. And I use the H-word advisably here, not in any original way. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Jewish, Nobel Prize-winning author who in 1935 fled the growing Nazi threat in Warsaw for New York, referred to our daily massacre of animals as “an eternal Treblinka.”

It arises from something called speciesism, the notion that humankind enjoys a set of rights which all other living species do not. It’s applied unevenly of course, without any real logic. We kill and eat cows, chickens and pigs, but protect cats, dogs, horses and… great apes, that is select wild animals. Lest you immediately think the concept is truly wacko, I would remind you that, only 50 years ago, a large number of people believed that all members of another race enjoyed considerably fewer rights than did we white folks. If we track back 200 years we find that nearly everyone in the West believed this.

Back to great apes for a moment, as we consider the wacko-ness of speciesism. Are you entirely comfortable with the idea that we capture and imprison a mountain gorilla for our edification and viewing enjoyment? Me neither. The next question would be, why not? (Sure, zookeepers argue protection of an endangered species, but if that was the only reason we would put all our resources into protecting gorillas in place.)

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Back in 2006, Dr. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas published a book called The China Study, rightly subtitling it “The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted.” Dr. Campbell is a Professor Emeritus from Cornell University, and The China Study was conducted through that University, Oxford, and The Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing. The gist of the massive study’s findings might be summarized as diets with higher meat and dairy consumption correlate directly and significantly with higher rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the so-called ‘diseases of affluence.’ Likewise with obesity, same sort of correlation.

The typical Chinese diet contains less fat, less protein, more fiber and iron, and much less animal foods than does the typical American diet. And the incidence of the most common killers in North America is far lower. Interestingly, the average Chinese citizen actually consumes more calories than does the average American, indicating that it’s not how much you eat, but what, plus how active you are.

What’s more, Dr. Campbell and his cohorts discovered that, if you were already afflicted with the diseases of affluence, a plant-based diet is in fact effective treatment of those diseases.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard more of this study, you might want to read Dr. Campbell’s chapters on “Why Haven’t You Heard This Before?” The experience he describes directly parallels the too-long successful campaign by the fossil fuels industry to obfuscate the climate change debate—essentially the meat, dairy and egg industries pay for research which contradicts The China Study, succeeding not in refuting the evidence presented, but in simply ‘muddying the waters,’ causing you to think there is no conclusive case to be made, either way.

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The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald's
The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald’s

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the devastating ecological effects of the livestock and fishing industries worldwide, and how the big environmental organizations like Greenpeace, in their own selfish interests, avoid criticizing these industries. With the possible exception of our global abuse of fresh water resources, no single factor contributes as much to our environmental peril as do the farmed animal industries. You likely have only to think about habitat loss, factory cattle and hog farms, and the water-born runoff of pollutants to grasp the enormity of the destructive impact, including the industry’s contribution to climate change.

There is really no doubt about it, whether you come at it from a moral, health or environmental perspective, there is no good reason for our continued consumption of animal-based foods. There is, of course and however, one overriding explanation as to why we continue to eat meat: habit.

Why I Read Non-Fiction

As a young man I read only fiction. My tastes ranged widely, from Dostoyevsky to Atwood, from Thomas Hardy to John Updike, but it was almost always a novel. Even a short story was somehow ‘beyond the pale.’

These days I read exclusively non-fiction; biography, history, memoir, the odd quasi-scientific text such as The Sixth Extinction.

funkandjazz photo
funkandjazz photo

 

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

My wife and I joke that it is because, in picking up a non-fiction book to continue reading it, even if just 24 hours later, we don’t have to struggle to recall where we left off. (I like to say that, for me, ‘Short term memory is just a fond memory.”) No paging back, trying to pick up the most recent story events. It’s just inherently easier to resume reading a non-fiction text.

It’s also interesting to note that my first choice in visual media back then, in my callow youth, was invariably a dramatic movie. Something with some edge, growing up as I did in the last great decade of American filmmaking (I’m thinking of movies like Midnight Cowboy or Scarecrow), but nevertheless it was a fictional work that I wanted to see on any given, dissolute Saturday night.

And again, these days my viewing preference is usually documentary, though not as consistently as it is when it comes to the written word.

Real as is the phenomenon of short term memory loss with advancing age, I do think the explanation for this transition in taste is slightly more complicated. As a young person, you live in a world of possibility. Your own story is yet to be written, and so an imagined future is simply more compelling to you. We tell one another stories in order to offer one another life lessons, and thus reading about a sympathetic character struggling with a relatable problem becomes not so much a projection of our current life, as it is a counselling, an offered perspective on the prospects for our coming life.

In middle age and beyond, we seek not so much projection as we do comparison. And we’d just as soon the events of the story be real, as opposed to imaginary. What choices did an individual or group make, what were the consequences, good and bad? These are the questions, I think, which tend to preoccupy the older reader. It’s not that the lessons offered by a fictional story aren’t valid—the greater emotional truth of a manipulated story is certainly authentic and useful—it’s only that, in the slowly fading second half of our lives, we’d rather know that the outcome did happen, as opposed to could happen. For us, there’s something just a bit too easy about the imaginary world, with its unmitigated creative freedom.

It’s indefensible, really. More definitive perhaps, more actual of course, but at the same time, this choice of fact before fiction is depreciated, like the brand new car that you drive off the sales lot, only to watch its resale value drop by at least a quarter by the time you park it. I suspect that no history book will ever be more worthy than Macbeth, and that no documentary film will ever exceed The Rules of the Game in its intrinsic value.

No, admittedly, I read non-fiction in order to check in on my fellow human beings in a more literal, less justifiable way. To see who’s fallen, and why. To see who’s triumphed, and what price they paid in order to do so. It’s comforting in an odd, somewhat disconcerting way. To know that no life is perfect, no outcome guaranteed. To see how large a role chance, luck and circumstance play in failure or success. Not that will, hard work and persistence don’t factor in too; they do, especially persistence, but life has never been fair, and you are lucky if you grew up in a circumstance free of abuse or poverty, where you were loved, supported and well cared for. Many people don’t, and many who succeed are driven by neurosis and insecurity and pain that never leave them.

Reading non-fiction is validating, or it isn’t. It will always inform; if well-written it may entertain. Like fiction it must be honest, and if so, in reading it you will be enriched, given insight. It may not excite the way fiction did in your youth, or inspire, or possess the indisputable, ineffable magic that a single passage from James Joyce or Kazuo Ishiguro may proffer, but then it isn’t meant to. It is meant to carry you on, down the road of life to a destination where every reader of every book, and every watcher of every movie is heading too. When you get there, greet your former self with a smile, and maybe give him a shake. Tell him he’s still loved, and then tell him to get on with it. The real thing that is.

Your Good Side

It’s an apocryphal story that my friends, family members and students have heard too many times, but it was surgical for me in its impact over the years, and so I think it bears repeating.

I was standing in a long lineup for hours, waiting for a booth to open and begin selling tickets to a Bob Dylan concert.  I had somehow been chosen by my friends to go alone to buy tickets for the bunch of us, so was standing as part of a group of strangers who inevitably got talking.

The fellow I talked with the most was tall, with an impressive mustache and bad teeth, engaging in a funny and oddly insightful way.  He was telling me at one point about a co-vivant relationship between a professor friend of his and a younger woman, a relationship which soured with time.  The turn of phrase he used caused me to laugh out loud at the time, and think more about it later:

“They were still at that phase where they were showing one another their good sides.”

Sad but true I thought.  On that first date we are shining in our virtue, our willingness to behave in the most admirable, unselfish ways.  Love blooms, issuing forth all manner of florid songs and poems about the very paragon of beauty and refinement that our lover is.

Fast forward to when we have been living together for a year, when all the foibles and flaws have been fully exposed.  She now knows that you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle and refuse to ever put a new toilet paper roll on the holder; you now know that she is a slob who leaves underwear lying all over the bedroom floor and spends hours every day on the phone with her mother.  It’s an arc of change that indeed seems inevitable.  We are many-sided creatures, and so, inexorably, we reveal all sides, including the dark one, to those who come to know us intimately.

Many years later, I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment, but I’d also suggest we can contend with the slide.  We can resist the tendency to arrive at two separate standards of behavior: one for those who know us best, and one for everyone else.

The latter standard is of course the one we should aspire to, the one where we don our very best cloak of behavior in an attempt to make the best possible first impression.

Kurt Vonnegut Rashawerakh photo
Kurt Vonnegut
Rashawerakh photo

It’s a daunting prospect, but the great American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. set down what are in fact some encouraging words in this regard.  In the introduction to Mother Night, he wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

You see, there is the matter of will in this gloomy revelatory fate, offering what must be the most constructive strategy in the face of it.  We can all go about pretending we’re still on that first date.  In the grand (or not-so-grand) tradition of ‘What would ____ do?’, we can ask, ‘What would I do if we had just met?’

With sufficient effort, I’d suggest that—in stark deference to Abraham Lincoln’s inescapable maxim that we can’t fool all the people all the time—we can in fact fool most of the people most of the time.  If you pretend to be a good person most of the time, happily, most people will think you are.

Here’s another relevant Vonnegut near-aphorism (the guy was brilliant at them), from my personal favorite of his books, Sirens of Titan:

“The purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

So let’s be clear about the nature of the challenge here.  The tough part is to go on pretending to be a good person around those people who know you well, who know all about your lazy, selfish side, who aren’t about to be fooled.

Regardless, there’s no getting around it now.  This is your new charge, having unwisely taken the time to read this digressive post.  You must now go about at all times pretending that you just met the person you’re with.