Saturday, January 8, 2011

Meat and Veg(etarianism)

UPDATE: I stumbled upon this George Monbiot post today (Jan 24) from a few months back, discussing what seems to be a very interesting book by one Simon Fairlie: "Meat - A benign Extravagance". Fairlie apparently skewers a number of "green" myths concerning the environmental damage wrought by meat production; although he advocates a much different farming system than the one we currently have to prevent the environmental degradation and suffering that does occur from livestock farming. To his credit, Monbiot (an already admirable environmentalist and journalist in many ways) recants his previous views in light of Fairlie's evidence and research. Read the post; there's much food for thought (he he sorry) therein.

Something's been cropping up quite often in conversations that I've been having lately.

Me? I eat lots of meat. Too much, I fear, and have recently endeavored to cut back on red meat in particular. Now, "Stickman" isn't a particularly ironic moniker so I guess you could say I'm doing okay in the weightiness department. However, there is good evidence to suggest that large portions of Western society consume more meat than is strictly healthy. Part of the problem is that we humans are outgrowing our biology, as we now consume certain foodstuffs in much greater quantities than the natural settings of our ancestors ever allowed. (More on that below.) I thus find myself sympathizing with a several pro-vegetarian arguments, although I don't think I'll be going full veggie any time soon myself. Still, a number of my friends have embraced the non-meat path and my discussions with them, as well as fellow carnivores like myself, seem worth jotting down.


To start, it seems biologically obvious to me that we are "meant" to eat meat. Humans are essentially the perfect omnivore. Our teeth are a nice mix of flat molars, premolars, incisors, etc that allow us to easily process both plant and animal material. Similarly, our digestive tract (intestines and all) is adapted to process and absorb the nutrients from all ends of the spectrum. Not only have our bodies evolved to deal happily with everything from rump steak to salad leaves, we actually require certain vitamins and nutrients that are only available in one food group or the other. In other words, we have to source some food from animals (e.g. certain B-vitamin complexes) and some from plant matter.

Can't we just talk about this?!
Of course, that last sentence only holds true in completely natural surroundings and, as I said earlier, I see the vegetarian debate is an example of us "outgrowing" our biology. The irony is that the consumption of meat played a pivotal role in the development of the human brain and broader civilization. The higher protein and calorific content of a partly carnivorous diet provides sustenance over longer periods, which among many other things allowed us time to plan and engage in other activities besides living literally hand-to-mouth. Perhaps most importantly, it fostered coordinated group action and communication between individuals, which were critical to tackling your average woolly mammoth.[*] And, indeed, doing pretty anything of substance ever since.

Getting back to what is "natural", I guess you could say that this is now a largely redundant concept. We don't live very naturally at all anymore... And, of course, this is part of the problem as we now have instant access to quantities of meat (and sugar and fat) that we would never have come across in such abundance in nature. Witness the rising trend in developed nations where more people are dying from diseases of lifestyle opulence and excess (e.g. heart attacks and obesity) than infectious diseases. The flip-side to this is that we are having to consciously curb our intake of certain foodstuffs that our bodies crave; something that I don't imagine has precedent for most of human history. The other aspect of having "overcome" nature in this way is that we now have all manner of supplements and products to make fully-fledged vegetarianism a viable and healthy lifestyle alternative. Or so I'm told.

And then you have to unpack the more tricky component of our evolved biological selves: Ethics.[**] While our physiology and human history provide very good reasons to dismiss the notion that we should be herbivores, there's no denying the strong moral compulsion that many people feel when it comes to killing animals. While it's hard to defend someone's distaste for hunting when they eat meat that comes all conveniently packaged from the supermarket, I do think that decent people can agree the suffering endured by many farm animals is abominable. (Watch Food Inc or the even more disturbing Earthlings - which you can see in its entirety online - if you're feeling up to it. On a quasi-related subject I plan to write something on GM crops sometime soon... I'm actually generally pro them for reasons that I shall explain.) It's not too much of stretch going from anti-cruelty to believing that we should not kill animals at all, although I do make this jump myself. Visiting my family in England (including my aunt who has been a vegetarian for decades), my cousin had an interesting thought. She mentioned how she'd been discussing vegetarianism with a friend and they'd pondered whether eating meat might suddenly become totally unacceptable in much the same way that slavery did. I think that this idea has more to it than face value, because it shows how dramatically  we can shift away from a norm that has been socially acceptable for the majority all of human history.

Another twist in the ethical tale is related to matters of resource use, loss of biodiversity to farming and (dum dum daaaa) climate change. I have several friends that have completely or to a large extent cut back on meat, because of such reasons. I admire the strength of their convictions, but can only see the general trend in meat consumption moving one way... particularly with the increased wealth and rising demand for higher protein, Western-style diets coming out of developing nations.

I'm about done here, but I thought I'd leave you with a final, macare thought. I'm not sure where this thought first came to me -- likely some low budget sci-fi film -- but I sometimes have this vision of aliens feasting around a dinner table in much the same way that we do in polite society. Except, rather than roast pork or skewered beef, the meal on display is a grisly composition of human parts. The fleeting image of an exposed human rib-cage ready for the offing might not be enough to permanently put me off my food, but it does cause me to take a depressing second thought about that rack of lamb I love so much.

Right, that's it for now. I'm off to lunch.
(fat full Stickman)

[*] This is a major theme in Jacob Bronowksi's The Ascent of Man, which although dated in some minor aspects, is still a fantastic read. The other great book detailing the role of diet in driving civilization is, of course, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

[**] I know many would contend that morality stems directly from a higher power. I would encourage you to view this post if you're interested in that debate.


  1. Thoroughly over vegeteranism after having Canadians and Americans staying with us over Christmas and going ooooon and oooon about it.

    If you're that highly 'developed' and advanced then do whatever you want, but don't come and preach. It's facking annoying!

    If we didn't eat (and, yes, maybe abuse) a few animals along the way none of us would be here. We tamed, used, farmed and ate animals to get to a point where billions of us exist - so if they really object they should donate their money to some little free range chickens and top themselves out of sheer guilt. Otherwise STFU and HTFU.

  2. Well, never one to mince (he he he) your words, Poncey!

    In addition to your position on "preachy" vegetarians, your reference to "billions of us" is another hot topic; the burgeoning human populace apparently at the root of all our major problems according to an increasing number of punters out there. (And of course, Poncey, you are well within your rights to ask how many of these are forgoing the right to procreate themselves in a bit to stave off disaster...)

    TBH though, barring an apocalyptic disease or nuclear war, I don't see us avoiding the nine and a bit billion people max estimated by the UN for 2050. If I may revert to some economics lingo: I'm personally less concerned about this "extensive" population margin (the number of people) than the "intensive" margin (how much each person consumes). That's where the real issues and conflicts, both violent and nonviolent, are going to come from.

    PS - HTFU?

  3. I was out to dinner a while back and in our company was two vegetarians, something I didn't know at the time as we had just met. I ordered the veal pasta, and as you can expect got the biggest skeefs ever from them. Jules told me afterwards they were veggies. I had such a laugh and still chuckle to myself every time I think about it.

    I'm with you poncey, different strokes for different folks, if veggies really object so much to the killing and slaughtering of these animals, they could buy them from farmers before the slaughtering. But also what about the fact that chickens are the most abundant specie of bird on earth and there are several billion sheep and head of cattle that would hardly exist if we didn't eat them. There's the pinch with our dying out rhino's...we should eat and farm them! or at least farm the horns and make its trade legal. Ultimately the vegetarian's aim (whether they realise it or not) is to wipe out cattle and sheep as they serve little purpose otherwise.

    Stickman, on your "intensive" margin, just need to point out that it is not only a consumption issue, but also a production issue. Looking at only the consumption side ignores the management and use of resources, which is clearly equally important. People can consume increasing amounts as long as they produce more.

  4. BB, thanks for stopping by. Your opening paragraph reminds me of something I read a while ago to the effect of: "If someone tells me that they are a vegetarian before coming to eat at my place, is it fine for me to tell them that I eat meat when I go to theirs?"

    Tongue-in-cheek stuff notwithstanding, my point about "intensive margins" is that production and consumption are inseparable. We have only produced several head of sheep and cattle because people are eating them. (And, yes, I believe that there are many, many instances where the costs of this animal production and mono-cropping and have not nearly been borne out in full... I'll leave biodiversity and other matters out of it, except to ask how would you put a price on animal suffering?)

    In a related point on they could buy them from farmers before the slaughtering, I think that it is unconscionable to leave matters of morality entirely up to the ability to pay. Direct financial incentives are unquestionably important in shaping our actions, but civilization is built on much more beyond that.

  5. Haha, ja unluckily (!) I don't have any vegetarian friends to run that first para of yours past, otherwise think I would've already. Come to think of the possible responses to that, is it just me or is there a sense of humour loss when people go vegetarian?

    Serious note. Where there is a moral case to be made, it follows there must also be a business opportunity for those with no resources to pay to save animals’ lives. The service would be to save these animals from being eaten and securing them better lives, and the business model would be convincing meat-eaters and vegetarians - who CAN afford it - to hand over their money so you can fight for the cause. Charities also come to mind. There's a couple thousand jobs to be created right there, IF you get buy-in from consumers.

    Who else would you leave the matter of morality up to? Somebody else’s ‘good’ judgement?

    However, think of the price impact of both herbivores and carnivores bidding for the same resources, the former to keep cattle alive, the latter to get them dead.

    Now that would lead to a Bull market of note...

  6. Again, I seriously disagree that business incentives are sufficient - let alone ethically defensible - in this matter.

    In your ideal world, you would have people breeding animals simply for the purpose of threatening to harm/kill them lest a (sufficiently wealthy) animal lover pays them off? Do you seriously find this morally acceptable?

    While markets are, among other things, indispensable in arriving at economically efficient outcomes, I do not share your faith in them being able to miraculously arrive at the desired social outcome in every instance. What's more, I think history sides firmly with me on this issue. (We have debated this before - and I have written a fair bit on this previously - although others might be interested in my posts on segregation and smoking bans as two examples.)

    Who else would you leave the matter of morality up to? Somebody else’s ‘good’ judgement?
    No, like many cases, I actually think that the decent treatment of living creatures is a social good deserving the requisite levels of public discourse and debate. Similarly, we have not outlawed child labour in modernised countries because it is unprofitable to firm owners, but because it is morally repugnant. There are innumerable parallel examples throughout history , while I mentioned the "slave" scenario above as a case where the moral compass of society - as a whole - swung dramatically to new bearings.

    However, I do agree that charities need to find both financial backing AND incentives for stakeholders. Not directly related, but that's why I endorse as much for-profit "development" spending as possible.

    Bull market
    Hahaha... nice :)

  7. Okay, so if you do not share my faith in the market attaining the desired social outcome in every instance, what would you propose be done to reach the “socially desired outcome in every instance?”

  8. Your insistence that there is a (single) mechanism to arrive universally at best outcomes is precisely where we part company. In some cases, I believe that markets must be left all but untouched, but in others I wholly endorse strong regulation.

    Being intellectually curious about these things, I encourage you to read Thomas Schelling's "Micromotives and Macrobehavior", (which I've mentioned several times before here) for some thought-provoking examples of how undesirable "macro" situations arise from "micro" agents pursuing seemingly benign/virtuous actions on their own. (Of course, that's but one example and I'll be happy to provide more if you're interested...)

  9. So if I understand you correctly: regulate some markets but not others?

    And who will choose what to regulate and what to leave alone?

    Thomas Schelling? Or the public, after rigorous debate and discourse?

  10. A pointless snark.

    I was going to say please read the book instead of asking facetious questions, but you might simply ask yourself whether society can use information presented to us by researchers and thinkers (like Schelling) to make better decisions on matters that stand to affect us all. The answer, I trust, is self-evident.

  11. HTFU

    Chopper Read - Harden The F*** Up!


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