Landscape Trauma

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.

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16 thoughts on “Landscape Trauma

  1. Vegetarianism is, essentially, a luxury that living in a time of plenty allows. Our ancestors were not vegetarians, nor are impoverished people. In those sorts of circumstances, one eats what one can, and when. When starvation is only a short step away, animal protein goes down nicely thanks very much.
    Vegetarian is also Southern Tutchone for “poor shot”.
    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    • Meat intake is highly correlated with wealth in today’s world. Rich nations (ie. USA) eat the most meat, while poor nations eat the least.

      Pure vegetarianism may be a luxury in the sense that it entails turning down certain foods, however a primarily plant based diet is not a luxury but rather the only option for much of the world. Choosing to grow plants for animal feed to grow meat is a far greater luxury.

      I’m far from a vegetarian, but I am concerned about the state of our planet. This has me wanting to reduce my impact and eating less meat is a part of that since meat is far less energetically efficient to consume than plants. We could have a lot more wild spaces if we didn’t use them to grow plants to feed cattle lots.

      • Dan, good points. However, vegetarianism implies the conscious choice to not eat meat. And as you said, most of the worlds population doesn’t have that choice. That being said, many of these people would happily eat an Elk steak given the opportunity.
        However, as you said, raising animal protein for consumption is definitely NOT good for our planet.
        Dave had a good post a while back on wolves being reintroduced. This doesn’t sit well with ranchers. I could go off for hours on ranchers and cattle farmers and their negative impact on our western landscape and ecosystems, never mind their privileged elite mentality.

        • It still baffles me that ranchers have so much sway in this argument – and even then they might be mistaken about their own situation. Wolves definitely control herbivore populations (i.e. deer) that otherwise would have a larger negative impact on crops. This positive indirect effect wolves have on cash crops may outweigh the negative direct effect they have on livestock. More wolves = less deer = less crop loss = cheaper feed for livestock outside the pasture season.

          The direct effects get a lot more airtime because they’re more obvious.

  2. +1 To your comment at irunfar: “Not seeing the virtual blood in your oatmeal is nothing but a failure of imagination.”

  3. I think a distinction is in order. We can don camo and play “apex predator” chasing wild animals around our forests, but hunting is a far cry from eating the meat of sick and degraded factory animals raised and slaughtered by the millions.

  4. Even most ecologists have a myopic view concerning landscape level effects. Can hardly expect runners to think about it just b/c they run outside. Almost none of those paleo Crossfitters are thinking about where their meat is coming from either. And a lot of hunters are ass-blind and complain if deer aren’t running around in herds of 30 head (see PA). Basically, you’re expecting too much from people immersed in a culture that trains them to see nature to be used, period. Blame any or all of your least favorite philosophers.

  5. ” Hunt. Gather. Eat. Survive.”, ” love to hunt because I’m human, and I’m human because I hunt.” , “Kill or be killed”. I could see how this article could be offending. You may hunt vegetables , but you don’t necessarily have to kill the plant to eat it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with hunting, or not hunting. I feel Human, I survive, and I have never felt I had to kill or be killed.

  6. I couldn’t decide whether to respond to this here or in a separate post on my own site. I might do both, but I think it’s worth posting here in support of your message.

    I was really annoyed by the comments on the irunfar post. It’s infuriating to see such superior attitudes engendered in a group of people who travel long distances by fossil fuel, have support crew follow them for long periods in gas-powered vehicles, and consume huge amounts of crappy mass-produced and internationally-shipped junk food served to them in hundreds upon hundreds of disposable containers to take part in hugely wasteful events that seem to make them think they are proving themselves environmentally minded.

    My freezer is stocked with fish and game that I caught or shot, and processed with my own two hands. I’m willing to bet that those few animal deaths had far less impact on the environment than just ONE of those huge “ultra” races. More importantly, I know exactly where food comes from and how difficult it is to get it without the benefit of a supermarket which I’ll assume that no one who has never hunted or raised farm animals would ever understand.

    I also don’t understand how the word “runner” got to be synonymous with “delicate sensibilities” to the point that a photo of a little blood would put a “runner” off his breakfast, and have others insisting that the offending photos and remarks be removed from the web site, while still others flounce out in a huff, swearing never to return. That’s just ridiculous.

  7. I think as long as you hunt your own meat, or buy from those who do, that’s probably relatively ok for the environment. But imagine if the majority of people decided to start doing that, it would wipe out a lot of wild animals and quickly so. Doubt that will actually happen, but it’s a possibility even if remote. Meanwhile, eating vegan etc, will tend to cause less harm than supporting factory farm raised animal products since it takes SO much crop and land to feed these. Especially so if the majority, or even many people, decided to start hunting their own food.

    While i choose to eat mostly vegetarian (minus a little wild caught salmon occasionally), and at times mostly vegan, i have a lot of respect for people that hunt and fish their own animal foods. For awhile, we kept chickens for eggs, but after the 3rd got killed, we decided to stop. But any time you’re interacting more directly with animals for food, it can give you more appreciation and attunement for the larger process of “food”, just as growing your own garden does (which we do as well, but have sucky conditions for), hunting, fishing (i use to fish a lot for food when i lived in Rockport MA), etc.

    Unfortunately, there are too many black and white views in this world, too much extremism, not enough balance and deep consideration of the various views and issues.

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