Confessions of a Moderate Meat-Eater
Now that the eminent young litterateur Jonathan Safran Foer has published a high-profile denunciation of the carnivorous life, meat-eating is suddenly a hot topic. Should we or shouldn’t we? How can we love our dogs and still love hamburgers? Aren’t animals human, too? Will our descendants look back in horror at our history of zoological mass-murder, the way we now shudder at the depredations of Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot?
The New York Times just printed a lengthy op-ed piece by Gary Steiner, a vegan with a zero-tolerance attitude toward anyone who consumes animal products. As Mr. Steiner admits, it takes an almost obsessively scrupulous sleuth to isolate all the products made in whole or in part from animals. (I knew about Jell-O, but who would have guessed that beer, refined sugar and even Band-Aids are culprits in our ongoing vendetta against the animal world?)
Mr. Steiner reports that some 53 billion land animals march to their doom each year to feed our gluttonous gullets. That was a shocker. If you add fish, shrimp and other sea creatures devoured for our gustatory needs and pleasures, we’re looking at a biological holocaust of unimaginable proportions.
I love animals (mosquitos, investment bankers and other parasites excepted), and yet I continue to eat meat. Granted, my conscience troubles me when I stare at a medium-rare slice of cow carcass on my plate. I eat substantially less flesh than I did in ages past: I’ve reduced my intake of mammal meat to a bare minimum, and I no longer admit veal or other baby critters to my plate. (Well, I close my eyes and eat lamb once or twice a year because I’m of Armenian heritage and lamb is our National Meat.) I’ll find it more difficult to banish bacon or ham entirely from my diet, despite the reputedly high IQs of the porcine population. And I’ll continue to gobble seafood with a relatively clear conscience. Most fish and crustaceans are carnivores, anyway; they understand the rules of the game, as much as cold-blooded sea creatures can understand anything.
As valiantly as I try to give our animal friends a break, my efforts wouldn’t please an uncompromising vegan like Mr. Steiner. He didn’t translate his tract into political terms, but he clearly has no use for moderates on the subject of meat-eating… the way most of us would have no tolerance for moderate murderers or moderate burglars.
I argue that moderate carnivores like me — those of us who have scaled back our flesh-eating propensities out of sympathy for our fellow creatures — help reduce the number of lives lost annually in the meat markets of the world. True, we’re not eliminating the problem, but neither is Mr. Steiner. He neglected to observe that humans aren’t the only consumers of meat; the planet abounds with bloodthirsty carnivores in all shapes, sizes and biological affiliations: lions, tigers, bears, poodles, hawks, owls and even woodpeckers (they prey on bugs and grubs) contribute to the carnage. Most of them devour their victims alive. Big fish gobble little fish, and no amount of vegan hectoring is going to stop them.
I admit it: meat-eating is undeniably cruel, and I sometimes wonder why it was necessary in the scheme of things. (What was our Intelligent Designer thinking?) But for better or worse, predation is nature’s way.
What does meat have to do with politics? Simply this: one can be a moderate meat-eater but not a moderate vegan. By nature, a vegan is an extremist — someone who fights natural appetites and instincts with a righteous (and often intolerant) fervor. As with extremists on the right or left, their missionary zeal is both narrow and futile. You simply can’t impose rigid controls over anything as messy as nature (especially human nature), which is a fact that the extremists have yet to learn.
Meat-eaters, on the other hand, can temper their appetites. We can eat substantially less meat than we used to, thereby sparing countless animals the indignity of the slaughterhouse. We can skew our carnivorous leanings toward relatively witless creatures like fish, crustaceans or bivalves, leaving the more sensitive cows and sheep to graze contentedly in their meadows. (Of course, if it weren’t for meat-eaters, most of those cows and sheep wouldn’t have been bred in the first place.)
The point is that moderates are naturally more supple and tolerant than extremists. Not because we detach ourselves from rock-solid principles (after all, moderate meat-eaters like me are still concerned about the mass slaughter of animals and want to reduce it). It’s just that, as moderates, we’re flexible enough to realize that we can’t remake the world in our image. All we can do tip the balance away from evil. If we can accomplish that much, we shouldn’t have to hang our heads when we order the occasional anise-encrusted tuna.