Damn you, Eating Animals

The College of Charleston picks a book each year for our College Reads program.  It's a book that everybody on campus is encouraged to read so that we can have all kinds of chewy conversations throughout the academic year.  Our 2012-2013 book is Eating Animals, a nonfiction book by Jonathan Safran Foer.

It's a book about factory farms and other forms of meat production--about how they're destroying the environment, they're cruel, and they don't actually do anything good for the world.  They make world hunger worse.  They compromise--even threaten--our human decency.

Shortly after the book was announced as our College Reads selection, I was having breakfast with some colleagues.  (For what it's worth, I was eating a muffin--no meat!)  I made mention of the book.  "I'm going to read it," I said, "but I already have plenty of stuff that I feel guilty about.  And I've already gone through my vegetarian years.  I'm going to read it, but I'm going to keep some distance between myself and Foer's claims."

"That's what I said going into it," one of my colleagues replied--a geologist, so not a big-time feminist scholar or anything.  "Particularly with the fish section.  I said, 'I'm not going to stop eating fish!'  Now I don't eat fish anymore."

This comment filled me with dread, but despite that, I read the book.  And here's what I have to say about it:  it has added to the level of guilt I now feel on a daily basis.  I haven't yet changed my diet, but every bite of meat I eat, I think about motherfricking Jonathan Safran Foer and the compelling points he made.

For instance, he's basically convinced me to stop eating chicken.  99.9 of chickens are from factory farms, and these chickens--whether they're "cage free" or not--are living inside a space that's a bit smaller than the double-page spread of a typical paperback book.  Their beaks are cut off, without anesthesia, and they're killed in ways that are careless at best, incredibly cruel at worst.  This last fact, as it turns out, is true of virtually all meat animals these days.  He does quite a bit with the slaughterhouses and really makes you start thinking about how bad cruelty is not only for the animals but for the folks who do it for a living.  How corrupting it is to their humanity.

Then the chicken corpses are cooled in a communal tank of water called "fecal soup."  These days 11% of the weight of the chicken you buy from the store is the fecal and germ-infested water it soaked in.  Our chicken is filled with E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter. Yum!

He knows his reader.  He knows that he's writing for a thoughtful, liberal audience, so he continually lobs things like this at you:

We can't plead ignorance, only indifference.  Those alive today are the generations that came to know better.  We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness.  We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals? (252)
He wants his readers to become vegetarians, and he makes many, many good arguments to convince us to do so.  You want to say, "Yes, yes, Jonathan Safran Foer, but I've already got too many political commitments!  I don't have room for one more!"  And he responds with comments like the quote above.  You think, "But I love bacon so much!" and Foer says, "Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless--it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another" (267).

Then you think, "Well, crap."

Here's what else I'll say:  I figured this book would be a guilt-tripping nightmare (true!) that I had to force myself to read (not true!).  The pleasant surprise is that the book is a page turner.  Foer is a strong enough writer that he's able to make the whole book really fascinating and fast paced, even as he's encouraging your feelings of despair.  He also provides some reassuring case studies of individuals doing ethical family farming, so it's not all nausea-inducing.


mary said...

sounds like a pretty interesting read. i hadn't thought about how the humanity of the people working in these factory farms is being messed with... we have been teetering on the edge of going totally meat free (no fish) for a long while now. somehow i bet that book might throw us over.
i am glad he includes info about small family farms!

Elizabeth said...

Yikes. You know -- I heard his wife, Nicole Krauss, read once here in Los Angeles. She's spectacularly beautiful, has an incredibly melodious voice, is a beautiful, best-selling writer, is married to him, another great best-selling writer, and now they're both ethical vegetarians. I'm wondering what the catch is. :)

Trey said...

*goes to find some family-farmed chicken*

Jay Crockett said...

A couple of months ago my wife watched a couple of documentaries on netflix, followed up with some books and as a result is now vegan. (She'd stopped eating meat except for fish when she met me 9 years ago). She wanted me to look at this information but I didn't want to. You see, I had been exposed to this information 16 years ago, that why I became a vegetarian then. I just couldn't bring myself to give up dairy. Even though its probably the worst thing for you physically and spiritually.

I think what we eat is deeply ingrained in us and not easy to change.

Alison said...

Jay, one of the bummers about Foer is that he KNOWS that our diets are deeply ingrained, and he addresses that--addresses the ways that food functions to form community, etc.

Fortunately, he doesn't advocate veganism, which is good because I simply don't think that's an option for me.

And yes, Elizabeth, I'm wondering what the catch is, too! Another friend said that his sister is also an incredibly talented writer. Good grief!

Mary, read the book if you want to stop eating fish.

Anonymous said...

Now that we can buy all our meat and eggs from a family farm we've visited I think I can finally handle reading this book...

We buy our meat from these folks http://www.schachtfleecefarm.com/ and have visited the farm on one of their "open farm days". I'd never seen happier pigs! I knew I had found the right place when I read the piece "If you eat meat it had to die" in their newsletter: http://www.schachtfleecefarm.com/july2010newsletter.html

It's expensive so we can't afford to eat much meat, but I feel better about what we do eat. :)

Thanks for the reminder about this book. I'll be reading it soon!

Anonymous said...

Yikes - After "Fast Food Nation" I thought I'd stop eating meat, then returned eventually. After reading "Skinny B*tch", again, I thought I'd stop some of my eating habits which eventually returned - including meat.
So I'll have to read this book, but my gut tells me I'll eventually need/crave meat. There must be some healthy meat to eat somewhere - I hope this book points those supply sources out.