Thursday, April 5, 2012

Meat Eater

“New Guineans...have expressed disgust at our own Western burial customs of burying relatives without doing them the honor of eating them,” wrote Jared Diamond in his book Collapse. Humans are, as physical beings, chunks of meat--a fact often horribly realized by lone hikers or seal-imitating surfers. And so the ethics of meat eating wades into dangerous territory.

Certainly we do not begrudge the shark who captures a seal in its jaws, but when it mistakes a man’s flesh for its normal fare the event is a newsworthy tragedy. Eating meat in this country has become, like much of the rest of American life, artificial. We grow our meats in factory farms without regard to their safety, welfare, or environmental impacts. And we put it out of our minds as we shove pink slime down our children’s throats. We never see our meat as it is, and it is us.

Meat eating animals that we are, Americans have managed to hide that fact by surreptitiously putting the source far from us. Meat-eating as the majority of Americans tend to define it is a farce. Many people are excited by the possibility of eating lab-grown meat sometime in the near future--animals don’t have to be harmed to satiate our cravings for perfectly marbled chunks of flesh. Through technology we think we can divest ourselves of the responsibilities that come with eating meat.

And that is what eating meat is--a responsibility. As meat bags with higher thought processes we have an obligation to utilize our most delectable organ--our brains. All of humanity is confined to earth’s ecosystem, a finite and sensitive resource. Measuring the ethics of eating meat must take into account the greater impacts on our world as a whole while navigating the norms of modern society.

In Spain there is no word for vegetarian, our ancestors needed meat to accommodate large brains, and Teddy Roosevelt killed and ate nearly every exotic animal in existence. Meat eating in itself is not an ethical conundrum. Rather it is what we choose to eat and our attitudes toward it that determines our ethics and our responsibility.

A cow requires upwards of 50,000lbs of water to create one pound of meat in the desert. By contrast the animal that graces Nevada’s state quarter--the wild horse--requires no assistance living in harsh high desert climates and is now over populated. Yet we do not open up hunting (and eating) season on horses to help manage their rampant herds. But we do subsidize the alfalfa and beef industries to keep a steady stream of cow in our burgers. In 2010 the beef industry in California alone received over $200 million in government subsidies.

What then, makes the consumption of meat ethical? Certainly there are religious, cultural, moral, environmental, and economic reasons which make that determination. And then there are considerations of the meat itself: where did it come from and who is impacted by my consumption? A careful evaluation of these variables will help each individual make this decision. Criteria are weighted personally and hold value in line with an individual’s personal ethical code of conduct.

Just as zoos changed from oppressive animal prisons to essential conservation facilities for endangered animals, so too can the consumption of meat enhance the overall quality of our lives. To do so we must honor and respect the flesh of our flesh. We eat what we are--meat, and we can’t forget it.