There is a difference between knowing something on an intellectual level and truly knowing something in that deep place where our core thoughts call home. There are many things I know intellectually but have not absorbed into my core thoughts and beliefs. This is simply part of being human.
I know when I tell people to not only embrace death but to celebrate its inevitability and purpose that no amount of clever writing alone can truly change someone’s views on a topic. Words can be a catalyst for change but individual reflection and action will always be needed to close the circuit.
And so, for a while, I’ve known—intellectually—that I shouldn’t eat meat.
The arguments in support of this proposition are myriad, and rather than trying to be exhaustive, I will highlight those which most resonate with me:
- Raising animals for meat production is truly awful for the environment. One kilogram of beef is responsible for over 70 kilograms of green house emissions. Meat production is the leading cause of deforestation. Meat production uses obscene amounts of water as an input and outputs terrible water and air pollution. No matter how you look at the data there is not a good story to be told about meat production (and hence meat consumption).
- Eating as much meat as many of us do is terrible for our health. Red meat, process meats = bad (although just how bad seems up for debate). White meat? Also bad. Even fishies are bad. The most delicious meats seemingly are the worst for us.
- Meat production is unethical, cruel, and inhumane, especially at modern commercial and industrial scales. Staggering amounts of waste abound. 7 billion male chicks are killed each year. A common method of killing them is, and I shit you not, to throw the chicks into a high-speed grinder. There is some upsetting footage of the process here. 20 million farm animals in the US alone die en route to be killed. The ravenous demand for cheap meat has led to ever worsening conditions.
- Eating meat denies animals their sentience. Animals are far more like us than plants. They experience both positive and negative emotions and display their individuality, intelligence and, well, soul. We refuse to eat fellow humans because we know that eating people is wrong, and yet we simply ignore that eating animals is likewise also wrong.1No matter how sexy Mads Mikkelsen may be in the wonderfully baroque Hannibal series by Bryan Fuller. The absence of supporting links in this point is entirely intentional as the existence of animal sentience at this stage has moved beyond debatable.
I could go on, but others have done a better and more informed job arguing the case for not eating meat. And the above is essentially incidental to my broader point which is that I know all of the above and yet still continue to eat and enjoy meat. In other words I know I shouldn’t eat meat, but I don’t know it.
It took until adopting a dog—my wonderful, life-changing (and indeed, life-affirming) greyhound—to really understand how eating meat is wrong.
Every day he surprises me with his curiosity, intelligence, and clear sense of personality. He is constantly growing in response to the world around him. At times he displays more of what we call humanity than some people I know.
And yet, while I think he is special, realistically I recognise that this is just the bias of love and of caring. He is as special as the next dog which is as special as the next cow, pig, chicken, or indeed, person. The truth of the matter is that living beings deserve love, care, and respect. And not to be thrown into a grinder just because they were born the wrong sex, or to live miserable lives of cruelty merely to feed us affordable protein.
The rights that most of us take for granted should, on some level at least, apply to every living thing on the planet. Of course this is an impossible statement, and yet the heart of it is undeniably true. It is sheer anthropocentrism to argue otherwise. Each year we seemingly discover that another species once written off as being essentially insensate is, in fact, much more alive than we thought. And yet each year we do not correspondingly adjust what we consider it fair or ethical to kill for our consumption.
It is impossible to ignore that the pig who was killed to make breakfast’s bacon was as deserving of love and life as my dog. The difference between animals and humans feels as arbitrary as the difference between humans themselves.
I do not believe there is any defensible moral, practical, or logical argument for eating meat. It is cruel, it is hastening the destruction of the only home we have, and it exposes staggering inequality: a minority of the world’s population eats the majority of the meat.
And yet, and yet—I cannot quit, at least not quite yet.
A juicy cheeseburger is a signal pleasure, one that even the best planet-based burgers cannot fully replicate. A plate of salami triggers waves of delight. Oh, the joys of the Christmas ham. Some perfectly grilled lamb, infinitely superior to beef, is a thing of dreams.
I am forced to live in the contradiction, where I do the thing that I know is wrong. It may make it seem like I am weeping each time I chow down on a meatball, a performative act of self-flagellation. This is not the case. Instead, I try to do the bare minimum. I try to eat less meat. I try to buy higher welfare meat, recognising that the often breathtaking-expense is a truer reflection of what meat should cost. I try to draw inspiration from Asian cuisines that use meat sparingly and for great impact, as opposed to the western culinary world where meat is the point of the meal. I know that the economic future is that climate change will perhaps achieve what all of the above arguments have not been able to achieve and make meat simply unaffordable to eat for most. I am aspiring towards being a mindful omnivore.2Missing, of course, from this essay is a discussion on veganism. In short, I rarely find all-or-nothing philosophies compelling, and will perhaps explore this in the future.
As a person with depression, I have learnt to survive, I must find joy from this world where I can. And for me, food is not just fuel, but it is a reason to live and to look forward to the next day and the next day after that. To be alive is to live caught between the crushing weight of contradictory views, and to find a way to keep going, regardless of that weight. And here, this means eating (and enjoying) meat. At least for now.
- 1No matter how sexy Mads Mikkelsen may be in the wonderfully baroque Hannibal series by Bryan Fuller.
- 2Missing, of course, from this essay is a discussion on veganism. In short, I rarely find all-or-nothing philosophies compelling, and will perhaps explore this in the future.