The Pathfinders Column from the August 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
Strange how cultural ideas evolve, or don’t. As far back as records go, four thousand years ago in India, people were arguing about vegetarianism versus meat farming. How one should treat animals depended on how one saw them, and this in turn depended on one’s practical experience of them. The pantheist view of them as sentient beings with ‘souls’ clashed directly with the more down-to-earth farmers’ view of them as brainless kebabs on legs. With the rise of monotheism came an anthropocentric view of nature and animals which has persisted ever since. The Christians repudiated the notion that any non-human creature had a ‘soul’, thus suffering was impossible and any treatment was justifiable. Since then the debate has moved from ‘souls’ to ‘intelligence’ but science for all its advances has not really resolved the question how one should regard, and by implication treat, non-human species. If anything it has blurred whatever species distinctions did exist. Chimpanzees make and use tools, parrots can invent word-phrases, dogs can feel a sense of injustice, and rats can get depressed.
The debate is likely to re-heat. While many parts of today’s developing world are rapidly increasing their meat consumption in aspiration of Western living standards, advanced capitalist countries are coming to just the opposite conclusion. After the success of the pan-European smoking ban, and imminent plans to tax sugar products in an effort to fight obesity, attention is now turning to another key ingredient of the power food and sedentary lifestyle equation responsible for so much pressure on health services.
As the global meat industry grows, the pressure is mounting. To feed the world’s population on a western meat diet would take 5 planets because it is inherently such an inefficient use of land. It is also reportedly responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, prompting the UN to brand meat production as bad as fossil fuels. Following recommendations from the 2007 Stern report the UN is pushing for a wholesale dietary reduction (‘UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet’, Guardian, 2 June). There are already almost ten farm animals for every human alive and the figure is set to double by 2050 while the human population increases by a mere third (See here). Reaction against this blatantly unsustainable growth is surely not an if but a when.
One indicator of the force of the propaganda campaign now getting started is the tendency of some adherents or opponents to overstate or distort the arguments. Never shy of a controversial cover page, New Scientist clearly felt unable to resist doing so with a recent headline grabber ‘What happens if we all quit meat? Why eating greens won’t save the world’ (17 July). But if readers were hoping for a vindication of the meat lifestyle they were in for a disappointment, because the magazine did nothing of the sort. Instead it provided the same damning statistics that it had done on many other occasions, with the rather paltry proviso that there might be a place for a few scrawny chickens living on kitchen scraps and perhaps a few goats here and there on small fractions of marginal land that could not be used for grain crops.
But what of this claim that ‘eating greens’ would save the world? Are there vegetarians so self-obsessed that they go around telling everyone that a soya chunk casserole is the road to earthly salvation? Well, it’s possible. Lierre Keith, a dispirited ex-vegan, seems to have been one of them. She describes the disillusion that drove her to become a born-again carnivore and write a book attacking the very ‘earth-saving’ ideas she had apparently subscribed to for 20 years: “... a desperate and all-encompassing longing to set the world right... to save the planet... to feed the hungry...” (introduction to The Vegetarian Myth, 2009). But more fool her for such grandiose illusions in the first place. Meat reduction could be part of the solution, but it’s not the solution, as any veggie with their finger on the pulse would readily admit.
The Vegetarian Society does argue that meat reduction would reduce carbon emissions, but does not claim that such a lifestyle will ‘feed the hungry’. Just as well, because land freed from meat production would probably not be used for grain production but more likely for biofuels, since engines are owned by people with money while empty bellies are owned by people with no money and who are otherwise known as ‘ineffective demand’. A meat-free diet can’t change this. A capitalist-free diet could.
What will become of the meat and dairy industry in socialism? At present the socialist case focuses necessarily on the emancipation of the human species from capitalist-induced oppression and suffering, while the ethical question of how we should regard and treat animals remains as one of the iceberg of other issues submerged below the waterline. What is clear to socialists if to nobody else is that humanity’s relationship to nature was never really anthropocentric but in fact ‘oligocentric’. Nature and everything in it including the vast majority of the human species existed for the sole purpose, use and disposition of the few members of the ruling elites. In the view of those elites, we humans were simply clever animals. Once this highly destructive oligocentric principle is overthrown, a new ethical framework will inevitably emerge in relation to resource exploitation. Quite what this will be and whether it will become genuinely anthropocentric or alternatively expand to encompass considerations beyond the species barrier is at present an open question. If socialists expect a large-scale meat industry they will have to face the fact that there is no ‘ethical’ way to do this. The New Scientist article points out that free-range farming is the most inefficient method both in terms of land use and greenhouse gas emissions, and argues that intensive factory farming is the only logical choice.
No reasonable person today really questions the fact that animals, or at least farmed animals, are capable of fear and pain. Most people do not visit abattoirs nor do they really want to know what goes on in them, yet there is an unspoken knowledge behind the sterile and sanitized supermarket packaging. As the Nobel Prize winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer put it in The Letter Writer (1968), speaking of factory farming: ‘In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.’ The rise in demand for ‘cruelty-free’ products in Western countries shows that, given the luxury of choice, people prefer not to be responsible for inflicting such suffering.
At all events, without a global revolution in the way society collectively owns and controls its resources people are never going to get the luxury of choice over this or any other resource question. Unless and until the welfare and humane treatment of humans is first attended to the question of the ethical treatment of animals must remain an issue waiting for its moment. They still shoot people, don’t they?