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.)