Meat and flourishment: carnivorocity, take three

Martin’s post last week describing the first slaughter (and I use the word “slaughter” advisedly) in our new endeavor as purveyors of bison meat elicited a comment that urged us to consider the ethical fault line (presumably) running through every conscience, that unsteady place where we find ourselves rationalizing our actions to ourselves or to whatever audience our imaginations conjure up.

Martin tried to make his/our unease clear with the post’s title: Bloody Hands. So I’m wondering once again about the ethics of carnivorocity, as visible and treacherous a fault line as abortion, euthanasia, gun control, climate change, or cloning: when you stand on one side of the fault line, it’s easy to think that the earth itself will justify you when it opens up and swallows the dummies over there, proving that you were on the right side, at which point you can stop worrying all the time, for heaven’s sake, and go on your merry way without thinking about the issue ever again.

As usual, diving into the conversations available on the internet just sucked me deeper into the murk. A defense is available for every possible position and offered with wildly varying degrees of civility: meat-eaters supporting vegans and trashing vegetarians; meat-eaters sneering at any thought of self-restriction; vegetarians and vegans calling meat-eaters all sorts of names; vegetarians acknowledging that some meat-eating is environmentally acceptable; meat-eaters acknowledging that American meat production and consumption is for the most part grotesque. What’s a utopian-minded bison rancher to think?

Serendipity, as usual, is my guide: in chasing internet rabbits down their holes, I found a momentary resting place in a review of Maggie Kozel’s book The Color of Atmosphere: One Doctor’s Journey In and Out of Medicine. After describing a flummoxing patient she had as a second-year medical student, Kozel said, “[I] devoured the answers without asking the right questions.”

Of course, if you’re obsessive the way I am, then you’ll immediately begin worrying about what the right questions are, as in, if I’m “right” then others must be “wrong.” One of the hallmarks of the debate about meat-eating and its impact on the environment or the individual soul is the array of statistics and science that each side has amassed to prove the objective superiority of its argument. I’ve been persuaded by both sides and neither side, depending on the time of day, what I’ve just read, the weather, my most recent meal, and/or the health of my family, among other random criteria.

In other words, I don’t think science and statistics by themselves allow us to ask the right questions, since apparently convincing evidence can be found to shore up either side. Eating is one of those human activities rich with multiple levels of meaning; expecting questions directed at a specific level to adequately address the full range is a little like expecting a monoculture to support the diversity a polyculture allows. Although science poses some vitally important questions when it examines the issue of meat-eating, the nature of its inquiry must ignore other equally pressing but less quantifiable questions, such as, what conditions allow a multi-species community to flourish? Does eating meat (by humans) contribute or detract from our community’s flourishment (a word coined by our friend Hugh Fitzsimons of Thunder Heart Bison)?

I hear the howls of protest even before I finish typing this sentence: how do you measure flourishment? Who decides the standards? Invalid! Too subjective! Well, yes. That’s what makes this a fault-line issue: it addresses the limits of our humanity and so necessarily includes subjective experience. To be honest, I don’t know how to measure flourishment; I suspect you just know it when you see it. And when you see it, you’re moved to describe it, knowing that the urge will be frustrated to at least some degree because flourishment, like all fruit, is the result of such a complex interaction of elements in space and time that any description will be incomplete. And of course it’s not a steady state; it waxes and wanes as circumstances change and sometimes double back on themselves.

In this context, the question of whether meat-eating is ethical can be answered unequivocally: it depends. One of the preconditions for flourishment is a sense of justice, a perspective that includes but also rises above the immediate tit-for-tat concerns of fairness. The scope of justice includes not just humanity but the earth itself—and perhaps the cosmos. It unrolls over the course of history, recognizing that particular injustices sometimes take generations, centuries, or millennia to wither, even with the powerful witness and effort of prophets and their followers. As I said in an earlier post, it may be that vegetarians and vegans are living forward into a time where justice is more fully realized. At the same time, issues of fairness and justice press at us every moment in this world where the lion and the lamb cannot yet lie down together, where predators are a vital part of an ecosystem that has developed in sync with domesticated animals.

Can meat be produced and consumed in a way that encourages justice and, hence, flourishment? I think it can. There are multiple instances of communities and societies that eat meat and live within that delicate balance that looks to the long-term well-being and dignity of the system as a whole, places like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, although there are many, many others. (We’d love to hear some of your favorites.) There are multiple instances of communities and cultures flourishing without eating meat, most notably for the purposes of this post the Hindu cultures whose vegetarian cuisines I eat with great pleasure. (We’d love to hear some of your favorites.)

Likewise, there are communities and cultures that eat meat without flourishing, including most of the industrialized world, where concern for short-term profits and their consequent incitement of unrestrained appetite smother any hope of flourishment under mountains of animal excrement and anguish. Those places that encourage us (in the industrialized world) to measure the value of food in one way only—cheap is best—smother flourishment. Food is at the center of family, of community, of myth, of life. To reduce its essence to a single component is to denature its multivalent nutritional value.

Back to the ethical fault line, that place we stand uneasily, knowing that we may be swallowed: may those of us who recognize the fault line join hands—bloody or not—across the chasm and help each other seek the firmer footing of justice as our foundation. Flourishment will surely follow.

What we’re reading
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (still!)
Martin: Rodney Crowell, Chinaberry Sidewalks

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One Response to Meat and flourishment: carnivorocity, take three

  1. Brad Kik says:

    I've just been reading the essay Standing By Words by Wendell Berry, which I think has some useful comments on ethical fault lines and measuring flourishment amidst the howls. Some quotes:

    "It is this sort of external accounting that deals with connections and thus inevitably raises the issue of quality. Which, I take it, is always the same as the issue of propriety: how appropriate is the tool to the work, the work to the need, the need to other needs and the needs of others, and to the health of the household or community of all creatures?" [p51]

    "…the problems of propriety are never 'solved' but are ceaselessly challenging and interesting." [p 51]

    and as a sort of restating of the 'fault line:'

    "…in any culture that could be called healthy or sane we find a much richer, larger concept of intelligence. We find, first, some way of acknowledging in action the existence of 'higher intelligence.' And we find that the human mind, in such a culture, is invariably strongly placed, in reference to other minds in the community and in cultural memory and tradition, and in reference to earthly localities and landmarks." [p57] (emphasis in the original)

    It strikes me that your call in this essay could be a way for us to begin rebuilding the culture that defines (yes, subjectively) flourishment in each of our home places. And that while I may be able to come down to the ranch and recognize the flourishment you've created, it's not until I've immersed myself in the culture, economy and ecology of your place (not to mention sufficiently humbling myself) that I could possibly possess the intelligence to create flourishment as part of my efforts to feed myself.

    Thanks for another thoughtful essay.

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