Friday, February 4, 2011
Eating Our Way To A Whole New World
It shouldn’t be the consumer’s responsibility to figure out what’s cruel and what’s kind, what’s environmentally destructive and what’s sustainable. Cruel and destructive food products should be illegal. We don’t need the option of buying children’s toys made with lead paint, or aerosols with chlorofluorocarbons, or medicines with unlabeled side effects. And we don’t need the option of buying factory-farmed animals.
Jonathan Safran Foer
Should we serve turkey at Thanksgiving? If it had to come down to one question to summarize his 2009 instant classic Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer offers this American absurdity. Is he serious? Of course he is, but his utter seriousness does not consume him until he is finally faced with the prospects of having his first child. He was a vegan flirt and vegetarian backslider until he made it his mission to find out exactly what was going into his child's body. It wasn't about his narcissistic, undisciplined self anymore. Now it was personal.
The variety of reactions from folks who haven't read Eating Animals echoes my own process with this vital isse. The first, for me, was comically predictable: "Oh, I don't want to know about that stuff." Perhaps, ignorance is at her blissest at the dinner table (although a case could be made for what happens in war). It just tastes tooooo good to be have to abandon it for some inconvenient ethical stance.
The second was tragically predictable: refusing to eat animals is too "radical," and, quite frankly, un-American. Let's get our grill on. Abstinence is weak. Go kill and eat. Besides, if everyone stopped eating animals it would put farmers out of work. And the business of America is always business.
And the third response was just plain unimaginative: if I stopped eating animals I wouldn't be able to get enough protein. I would wither and eventually die...or running on veggie-fumes, barely survive. Besides, I wouldn't want to be a burden on friends and family when they invite me over for dinner. It'd be a bit presumptuous demanding an animal-free plate...wouldn't it?
How, then, does Foer actually make the compelling case for abandoning animal-eating altogether? The answer involves a tangential web of disgusting factory farm practices (lakes of feces!), rampant abuse of workers (underpaid! overworked! intimidation! threats!), shameful lack of government regulation (bribes! neglect!) and massive consumer indifference & denial over the whole debacle. And here's Foer's bold claim:
We know, at least, that this decision will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.
Oh, is that all? But seriously, all of this injustice heaped on my plate? Yes, because Foer surely knows (as so many Americans don't) that we are not autonomous humans walking around making choices that do not affect anyone else. As MLK wrote from a jail in the Bible Belt almost 50 years ago: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." Indeed, what happens on a farm in Birmingham, Alabama will be on my plate in Southern California next week. And with that, I am indicted in the abuse of animals, workers and God's land (Psalm 24:1).
Eating is intimately contagious. When someone changes their meal habits it affects friends, family and even acquaintances in abrasive and invigorating ways. Ethical consumption practices beckon others to cast votes for all of God's creatures. Sure, a full-fledged rejection of animal-eating raises eyebrows and breeds awkward dialogue, but these, Foer writes, are needed sacrifices when we get serious about creating a new world:
What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption...Choosing leaf or flesh, factory farm or family farm, does not in itself change the world, but teaching ourselves, our children, our local communities, and our nation to choose conscience over ease can. One of the greatest opportunities to live our values—-or betray them—-lies in the food we put on our plates. And we will live or betray our values not only as individuals, but as nations.
This way of thinking resonates with progressive Christians and all "people of conscience." Sure, Jesus didn't say anything about eating animals, but if he were on the North American continent today and he witnessed the systemic injustice in the entire process that eventually brings meat to our plates, perhaps he would have overturned tables at the factory farm instead of the Temple. 99% of beef and chicken that comes to market turns up its nose at justice, mercy and humility in regards to animals, workers and the land (not to mention your body). This issue is not just for animal lovers, tree huggers and the nutrition obsessed. It's for all of us who care about those Jesus calls "the least of these." In fact, Foer claims that what we eat is a litmus for how we treat the disinherited of the earth:
Our response to the family 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. Consistency is not required, but engagement with the problem is.
This injusice has been invisible for far too long, but great resources like Eating Animals are opening our eyes and hearts to transforming this all-too-American industry. De-regulation is precisely the wrong answer (what kind of country does not protect its citizens from deceptively unhealthy food?). Policy must change, but the paradigm-shift must start with our grocery and table practices. We can no longer plead ignorance or insanity. Now we know:
We have the burden and opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness.
In the in 1980s Stanley Kubrick Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket, the comically prophetic Private Joker tells his fellow war correspondants that the recent war developments constitute "a huge shit sandwich and we're all gonna have to take a bite." Following Foer's detailed research and page-turning creativity, we might say that factory farming in North America is "a huge shit sandwich so we're all gonna have to refuse to bite." The revolution has already started...so join in. Buy from companies that bleed social consciousness. Grow your own veggies. Bike to the Farmer's Market. Drink soy milk. Support local farms. Go to Native Foods. Serve Tofurky for Thanksgiving. And remember, this isn't just about eating. It's about creating a whole new world.