Monday, April 18, 2011

On vegetarian fundamentalism

I made a mistake today, a very big mistake. I was browsing the interwebs in between meetings, and I stumbled into an interview Anthony Bourdain had a few years ago on his book, The Nasty Bits, in which he explained his distaste for vegans. I then stumbled into articles written by a sample of those vegans, probably unrepresentative of the population, but enough to prompt me to write a blog sharing my distaste -- not for vegans, but for what has been colloquially termed "vegetarian fundamentalism".

In my mind, vegetarian fundamentalism has traits like many of the religious fundamentalist counterparts. Fundamentalism is, for one thing, blatantly and intentionally controversial. It provokes "us against them" mentality, often supported in the believers' minds by anecdotal "evidence" or blind doctrines of, at best, questionable validity. Fundamentalists also are advertisers, if not propagandists, seeking fear in the "nonbelievers" by exaggerating or completely fabricating "evidence" in support of the philosophy/lifestyle.

Anthony Bourdain has called vegetarianism, particularly the vegan sects, "rude". He frequently gives an example of an impoverished family who grows food and offers you the one animal they have available on a particular day. A vegetarian would turn it down, saying "No, thanks". "It's antihuman. It's antisocial," he says in this interview.

He's right.

But he alludes to a far better point about one of the main sources of "evidence" that vegetarian fundamentalists use in their propaganda campaigns: They do not take into account the peoples who simply do not have the luxury of deciding meat or plants for dinner. Bourdain hosted an episode from Namibia, in which a nomadic tribe hunt for their survival. They live, and die, by the day's hunt. With Bourdain as a guest, they were lovingly offered wart hog, an animal many if not most Americans would sneer at. But I ask you: Would you turn down food offered by someone who could very well die if they can't find the next meal? If so, you are, in Bourdain's words, "rude". And you are. And you are completely unaware of the world around you.

Those who claim that meat-eating humans are contributing to global warming are certainly onto something. Plenty of studies exist showing that fossil fuel usage for a certain amount of protein is much higher than an equal portion of plant-derived protein. Of course, the problem with this argument is that converting from this animal-growing to pure plant-growing world is simply impractical. Because plant-growing is certainly climate-dependent, what are the farmers going to do in the High Plains if the plants they would need to grow can't grow there? What if the plant-growing they convert to is not sustainable, or profitable?

This argument, yet again, ignores the impoverished people of the world, who simply have no choice but to eat what they can grow/raise for themselves. It's naive.

My two favorite arguments with vegetarian fundamentalists are the animal's right not to be eaten, and the "we will die if we eat meat..." claims. An animal has a right not to be eaten. Uh, huh. Certainly that is supported by the wealth of predators forgoing eating prey in the unspoken number of years this planet has existed. Do you think a cow will survive in the wild if there's a coyote around? Will a bear pass the next salmon stream? This argument is so absurdly funny, that I cannot even believe it has metastasized. Animal cruelty is one thing, but let's get one thing straight: any death of an animal by another animal is inherently an ugly, painful, cruel way to die. It is also fundamentally natural.

Now torturous deaths of animals for food, in which some strange version of pleasure is derived from the pain the prey has before its death, is certainly abhorrent and completely indefensible. But even a quick, relatively painless death, is still by nature savage. But there is no dignity in death, ever.

The more problematic argument is that people who eat meat are destined for an early grave. That argument is, simply, an exaggeration -- a simplification. In the statistical sense, there certainly is evidence of this -- or, perhaps better worded, there is statistical evidence that suggests that vegetarians, on average, live longer than omnivores. However, the findings are quite variable and not overly convincing. Some studies show a life span increase of up to a decade, whereas others show 1-3 years. Study after study, website after website, show rather conflicting data, which suggests inherent uncertainty. Many of these studies also do not consider a cornucopia of ethnic groups, or citizens of multiple countries/continents. There are also various uncertainties associated with these studies, including underlying tendencies to use alcohol/drugs/tobacco, inherent knowledge of nutrition/health, etc. Although I believe it is certainly reasonable to conclude that vegetarians/vegans may live longer in a statistical sense, I wonder if there are correlations with other variables, including exercise, habits, religious practices, social interactions, geography, climate, etc. Given the underlying uncertainty associated with these studies, it appears this topic deserves further scrutiny.

Thus, claiming that people shouldn't eat meat because it will kill you sooner -- is just naive. Individually speaking, it's fear-mongering. A particular individual's susceptibility to premature death via meat craving is not clear-cut.

I don't have a problem with a person's choice of being vegetarian/vegan. I whole-heartedly support it, actually. I do have a problem with the propaganda campaign, though. Spouting moral superiority is just nonsensical, incredibly insulting to the people who could very well perish without their next kill, and ignorant of the world around you. People are starving all around the world, so scaring people into ridding people of steak knives seems misplaced to me. In many ways, I wish people were as passionate -- more passionate -- about preventing human cruelty versus animal cruelty.

I wonder if, given some worldwide calamity -- what would a vegetarian do if the only means of food around him/her was an animal? Would that person choose suicide? If so, his/her beliefs are rock solid, but the natural world will have the final say. Darwin would not be on that person's side.