Monday, May 23, 2011

Eating Animals

I saved this book by Jonathan Safran Foer as a kind of reward after those two anthropological and historical books discussed in earlier blogs.  Foer likes his pet dog and is happy that most of us share the taboo against eating his (and other) dogs.  He seems to believe that if people knew more about factory farm conditions they would join him in his vegetarianism.  It is a fairly populist approach.  For example, on pages 78 and 79, we are treated to a blank rectangle measuring 67 square inches.  We are then told that the typical cage for egg-laying hens is this size.  Apparently cage free birds do not have any more space.

I think Foer overestimates the potential impact of knowledge.  In the current economy, people are price sensitive and are unlikely to pay a large premium, or a premium at all, for more humanely fed and slaughtered animals.  It would be difficult to convince the average American family that it should forgo some food or other material good in order to prevent the suffering of the chickens it consumes.  

This book seems to aspire to do for factory farming what Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" did for meat processing.  There are, however, many contemporary books that draw attention to the inconvenient truths of factory farming.

One new thing in this book is the attention paid to the regulation of factory farms.  Foer emphasizes that the regulating agency, the USDA, is also the entity charged with promoting the success of the agricultural sector.  He is very critical of various conflicts of interest and industry trade associations, including the National Dairy Council, the American Restaurant Association, and even the Surgeon General of The Unites States.  It is interesting that inadequate or conflicted regulation was also an issue with regard to Sinclair's target.  Again, there is the question of whether a more neutral source of information would cause consumers to behave differently.

In its most melodramatic moments, Foer tries to frighten us by asking what the world would look like if Indians and Chinese were to consume chickens at the American pace, and with these chickens pumped full of antibiotics, as they are on American factory farms.  He argues that more antibiotics will accelerate the loss of the medicinal value of antibiotics, because their overuse will bring about serious anti-microbial resistance.  Foer warns of a coming pandemic.

Even if Foer is completely right, the reader is left to draw diverse conclusions.  Some readers will continue to eat meat, but will avoid meat that is factory farmed.  Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" encouraged just such a conclusion as well as a "locavore" diet.  Other readers will be encouraged in their vegetarianism, and perhaps a few will consider veganism.  Most readers will, however, shrug, just as those who become informed about factory conditions in parts of the developing world rarely eschew mass produced goods.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder what you think about the power of imaginative literature, and the arts more generally, to get people to change their behavior. Foer's book is distinctive because he is such a good writer, and he uses his novelistic abilities to put the plight of animals before us. There's a lot of good research, most of it done by Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas, that hearing a vivid narrative of another person's plight is highly correlated with compassionate emotion and, after that, with helping behavior (if there's something relatively simple and ready to hand that can be done about the plight). With animals, this sort of appeal to the imagination seems particularly important because most of us have never really exercised our imaginations thinking about the experience of animals, and a powerful artist can help us make this leap. Books like Anna Sewell's BLACK BEAUTY had a huge influence on people, and really did change the care of horses, the use of various sorts of bridles, etc. As you say at the end of your post, people may just go away and forget it, since we all have many distractions, and self-interest and habit are themselves powerfully distracting. But it's at least one intervention in ordinary life. Sometimes these interventions do bring about change.

    Peter Singer is a very odd case. For he wrote a book that, like Foer's, powerfully appeals to the imagination. And yet, in his theoretical writings (particularly in his comments on J. M. Coetzee's Tanner Lectures on animals, which defended the role of empathy and imagination), he says he really doesn't like to rely on the imagination, because it is uneven and quirky; he prefers to rely on utilitarian principle. Well, the truth is that we need both: we need principle to tell us how to apply our insights fairly, but we need imagination to see what is worth caring about.