A few days ago I read a nauseating article over at Irunfar. Nauseating in that too many of the commenters are divorced from the way in which our livelihood is intertwined with the land, in ways which should usually cause a considerable amount of dis-ease.
The question of whether animal protein is a necessary or healthy part of a modern human diet is irrelevant. That we eat by killing things is the whole story. Most people see an epistemic and ethical distinction between killing an animal and killing a plant.
I do not.
In the past the difference was far more robust. Stalking an elk with an atlatl, or a salmon with a spear, requires a precision which fosters deep intimacy with the land and with the creature that dies. Picking biscuitroot does require knowledge of when and where to find it, but the fact that the biscuitroot doesn’t run away no doubt changed the game. Plants were an essential piece of survival pre-agriculture, but were not imbued with the spiritual weight of nutritious megavertebrates.
This changed with modern agriculture and irrigation. Foisting a crop rotation scheme or monoculture on a landscape to which the plants were not native required attunement to soil type and seasonal variations in climate. It may well be the case that insofar as they were bending locale to their will with artificial means, 19th century western American farmers developed a particularly intimate bond with their plants. A successful harvest demanded as much.
Today, the pendulum of abstraction has moved universally to one extreme. Any consequential impact our subsistence might have on the landscape is many degrees removed. While having a significant percentage of ones diet be meat is not the most trophicly efficient use of land and resources, ethically it is no different than veganism, provided the ethics take a landscape level view of trauma.
The impact of modern agriculture is incalculable, by which I mean that actions like the wholesale destruction of the American prairie (for instance) will continue to have consequences which are categorically beyond human comprehension. Statements that we can in fact understand and master the consequences of our actions, be they related to diet or predator control, are what I find to offensive.
In the end, all discussions of vegetarianism goes back to wolves. Wolves taught us to hunt, that much is clear. That they are still better than us might start down the right path of why we hate and fear them after so many years, and so much technology. Climate change, invasive species, the Colorado River Compact, predators, industrial farming, and Whole Foods: they should all remind us that we are but agents among many in the world. In the long view, we are masters of very little. Most of our actions, due to our species’ place in history, are destructive; and just because we personally did not mean it to be so does not make us any less guilty. Most horrors throughout human history had remarkably little individual malice. So eat your meat, or not, but do not pretend that that choice alone mitigates the viciousness we inflict upon the planet every day.