“Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer

•May 19, 2012 • 2 Comments

I have just finished reading, three years after the book’s publication, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I am so moved by this book that, after not updating this blog in nearly two years, I am now absolutely compelled to do so. Out of the 15+ books I have read on the subject of animal farming and animal eating, there is doubtfully any that more closely represents my views on the topic, and there is certainly none that has felt so clearly, comfortably right upon reading the last sentence.

What I love most about this book is not only that I agree with it to a nuanced degree, but it’s remarkable story-telling power. Yes, the story-telling has been mentioned before – indeed, this is the main comment I heard from others about the book before reading it, and the main reason I wanted to read it – but the book was more powerful for me than I could have imagined. The author, who is a famous novelist, takes you on his own intellectual and practical journey with animal farming and animal eating, and in doing so, he becomes the narrative’s hero. He’s an effective hero because he’s one with which almost any reader could and would wish to identify – he is thoroughly and genuinely honest, kind, curious, inquisitive, passionate, humble, courageous, and all-around good, and his flaws (having been an inconsistent vegetarian) and his obstacles (should he be vegetarian? should society be? who, even, is the antagonist?) are made clear and without pretense or evasion of the issue. By emphasizing that this is his journey, and yet not only his journey, he invites you to identify with that journey without trying to force you to. And he speaks not in any kind of academic jargon, but in the plainest, rawest language that doesn’t attempt to hide his personal feelings behind any kind of so-called rational thinking or ideology.

On top of all that, he tells many, many stories of varying and seemingly opposing perspectives, without judging any individual as being the antagonist. There is no cynicism in this book. Every perspective in the book could be the perspective of the hero. Everyone becomes a hero, including you, the reader. The quest that Foer sets out on is to find out who is the real antagonist, and he makes the answer clear in the end: it’s not a carnivore, it’s not a vegan, it’s not a shady corporate executive or anyone else, but rather a system that he unambiguously describes as “bullshit.”

Nor does he even use the word “system” the way so many radical and often cynical leftists/academics do, but instead he narrates it to you, going into great detail about the inner workings of both factory farms and proposed animal farming alternatives. (And I was duly impressed by his research, even after having read and watched so much documentation of what goes on on farms.) He doesn’t come to you as a theorist or philosopher, a romantic or anything of the like; he comes to you as you come to any book on this topic: a person earnestly, and perhaps passionately, seeking truth.

One aspect of his story that magnifies this point is how it was his own maturity into fatherhood – beginning with the decision to have a child – that set him on this journey to maturity regarding eating animals. His son represents a small creature under his care – in this sense, not unlike another species of animal – someone who is beyond him and yet a close extension of him, who will be directly affected by his decisions as a father and about the ethics of eating animals. It speaks to family values, but more than that, the element of family captures in story form what is both so incredibly personal and so incredibly interpersonal about our relationship to animals and farming and eating.

Punctuating this quest for truth are as many questions as there are answers. “What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?” Foer asks. “For what, at Thanksgiving, am I giving thanks?” “If you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?

In the past nearly four years since I stopped eating animal products, my perspective has evolved and matured immensely like Foer’s. For a long time, I was never completely comfortable with my own thoughts on veganism, largely because I thought – or at least wished – that everyone should become vegan. And I was afraid to face the fact that something I had made such a passionate part of my identity, and something that the vegan community likes to police vigorously as a matter of identity and righteousness, could be profoundly misguided.

Foer is easier for me to identify with than a carnivorous hero would be because he does, ultimately, commit to vegetarianism as I do. And, like me, he has decided that it’s okay if not everyone is vegetarian or vegan. It was a key element in my own journey with eating animals when I decided to be okay with others eating meat. There are several reasons I made this decision: 1. it’s clear to me that only someone in denial could deny that not every human is even marginally healthy on a vegan or vegetarian diet (clarification: some humans, like myself, can do veganism, but some can’t); 2. it’s not clear to me that the human world would be sustainable without animal farming/consumption; 3. it’s highly dubious that humans as a species would stay vegetarian for long, even if in the unlikely event that we ever got there in the first place; 4. I got tired of worrying about the well-being of a lot of creatures (i.e. insects) who are too numerous to begin to keep track of and with whom it is very difficult to relate and so have meaningful compassion therefor; 5. the philosophy that everyone should be vegan required me to worry constantly about even the least violent deaths of animals both in captivity and in the wild, which is just plain exhausting and depressing and not particularly productive.

In the second to last chapter, Eating Animals makes some of its key points in a few nutshell sentences, which I will share here because they are important and true:

ranchers can be vegetarians, vegans can build slaughterhouses, and I can be a vegetarian who supports the best of animal agriculture.

At what moment would the absurd choices readily available today give way to a firmly drawn line: this is unacceptable?

At the end of the day, factory farming isn’t about feeding people; it’s about money.

One thing I must add that Foer never mentions in his book is the evidence that not all people can even “be” vegan or vegetarian. Although it is not evidence that is necessarily yet well-documented, it is evidence too much for me to dismiss. Ever since I became vegan, I’ve been hearing regularly from a small number of former vegans/vegetarians reporting more or less the exact same, extreme health difficulties with the diet, and I am not talking about those who didn’t do the diet justice. Some of them tried remarkably hard to stay on the diet, but no matter what they did, it failed. At one point, there was a massive controversy in the online vegan/ex-vegan community when the blogger of “Voracious Vegan” came out as an ex-vegan, epically detailing her irreconcilable health problems. The nasty and dismissive response from many vegans was awfully unattractive.

(This post isn’t quite finished. Will update soon.)


D.C. VegFest 2010

•September 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Vegan and Raw Food Cuisine Expert Lauren Von Der Pool is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Los Angeles and Paris and is a DC native.

Today I attended this year’s D.C. VegFest. It just started back up last year, and from the looks of it there were more people than last year. Just like the 2010 Animal Rights Conference, I found it really energizing and am so glad I went. I got there at 2:50pm, so almost halfway through (6-hour event). Last year I was only there for the first hour and a half volunteering to sell food donated from Java Green and sadly did not get to listen to any of the speakers. So I decided that this year I was going to just go for myself instead of volunteering.

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On Killing “Pest” Species: Where do you draw the line?

•August 19, 2010 • 5 Comments

In India and Nepal, rats are less associated with dirtiness and disease than in the U.S. and are in this case allowed to roam freely in a temple. They are, on the other hand, more likely to be eaten.

When does it become justifiable to kill individuals merely because the species they belong to is associated with disease or property damage and the entire species (unless kept by humans) may thus be marked “dangerous (to humans)”? I think that wild animals in general are associated with disease and illness, and understandably so, but why is it that when we talk about wild dogs, cats, squirrels, and various others, the visceral response is “stay away,” while for mice and especially rats it is “kill it!”?

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Conference and Benefit for Liberation Prisoners

•August 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Today I attended a benefit for animal and earth liberation prisoners, which was sort of a mini conference. That makes it my second conference ever, after the Animal Rights Conference. Since I have never looked much into the issues surrounding the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) and the like, I saw this and thought it would be great to try something new. I got a bit better of an idea of what the AETA is about and had a more fruitful time networking than at the previous conference.

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Animal Rights Conference 2010

•August 6, 2010 • 6 Comments

people standing in front of flier/pamphlet table

Three weeks ago I attended the 2010 Animal Rights Conference near my city (D.C.); it was essentially vegan. I was worried that the conference would be too mainstream and thus not very self-critical, and it seemed only perhaps slightly less mainstream than I expected. Nevertheless, it improved my appreciation for mainstream AR. People are doing a lot of good work, and it was good to hear from people out there working in shelters and working to stop unnecessary hunting, as opposed to merely facts recited by those who’ve heard from others who’ve recited about someone else’s reports, etc. 🙂
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Book Review: Making a Killing

•August 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

In the past month, I have read 3.25 animal/vegan-related books – that’s a new record for me. 🙂 Here is my first animal book review.

I just finished reading Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres (2007). It’s not terribly long (153 pages) and not very difficult to read. Overall, Torres’ ideas are interesting, but they aren’t on the whole particularly original, as you might expect, nor very complex. This isn’t all bad per se, but I do want to explain what the book is.

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Havahart Animal Traps & Repellents

•July 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Havahart Mouse Trap

Fitting into the Animal Geographies focus on urban wildlife, I just discovered a company called Havahart that sells animal traps and repellents which are virtually harmless to the animals. The traps look great, and I am considering buying one for rats (it’s only $20). Eventually, wildlife (including rodents) is something vegans are going to have to address much more, if we are to reconcile our philosophy with environmental and other issues (what do we do about rats, let alone cougars and deer overpopulation). As I feel this issue is relatively infrequently addressed, I want to give a brief pre-purchase analysis of this interesting company to promote awareness, and also discuss my own experience with rodents and why I am so excited about Havahart traps.

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