November 2009

Becky Ferreira


"That's just a pig thing."

For mysterious reasons, Gourmet magazine chose David Foster Wallace to cover the Maine Lobster Festival for their August 2004 issue. Don’t get me wrong: what resulted was one of the weirdest, most wonderful essays about animal welfare ever published. I’m just not sure Gourmet, when they sent a reporter to this folksy annual fair, anticipated that it would be compared to “a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest,” or that Wallace would conclude that to be a tourist is to be “economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.” But then, he was never known for fluff pieces.

The essay, titled “Consider the Lobster,” probed the dubious morality behind our omnivory, an investigation that Wallace himself seemed surprised that he was conducting. In it, he frequently expresses concerns over coming off as sentimental or shrill when positing that boiling a sentient creature alive is a high price to pay for gustatory pleasure. He parses his conclusions with assurance that he is not going PETA on Gourmet’s readers, and one can almost sense him wincing when he asks, “Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in?”

In his first book of nonfiction, Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer asks the same question, albeit with a steadier hand. Foer asks other questions too: why is the most egregious contributor to climate change -- the meat industry -- all but absent in the public debate about global warming reduction? Why is such scarce attention paid to the crucial role of animal agriculture in the outbreak of swine and avian flu pandemics? Why has America, a country that ostensibly glorifies heartland values and industries, allowed the family farm to be so rapidly marginalized? Given the increase in public awareness about the shit (literally) that goes into factory-farmed meat, why do we still eat it?

They are good questions, and many people have already thought to ask them, but Eating Animals may be the first serious attempt to provide answers. Of course, much of the book is built upon statistics, facts, and Foer’s firsthand accounts of farming conditions: this material confirms rather than exposes the high toll exacted by the meat industry on our environment, health and ethics. I do not mean to de-legitimize any of Foer’s original and extensive research when I say this, but of course we’ve heard some variant of it all before. Foer himself admits that when he told people he was writing a book about eating animals, they would automatically presume that it was a case for vegetarianism: “It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.” Several chapters later, he condenses this thought into a powerful axiom: “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference.” The moral implications of this sentence reverberate long after reading it.

But just like Foer’s previous books, Eating Animals is clever, compassionate and above all, fervently original. More than just a reiteration of our already latent understanding of the meat industry’s abuses, it is also a very personal book about adjusting tradition and leading an empathetic life. Foer likely achieves this careful, tender tone because the impetus for his research was the birth of his first child. The book is a direct result of the conflict between his desire to replicate the traditions with which he was raised and his responsibility to shield his son both from unhealthy consumption and moral ambiguities. It’s through the lens of fatherhood that Foer addresses why we have refused to come to terms with the disastrous by-products of the factory farm, and how we justify delaying such enormous questions of conscience indefinitely. As such, the book does not read as a rebuke or a sermon or a study or a morality tale or an amalgam of related facts. It reads like a conversation. 

More to the point, it is a conversation. Foer includes several italicized passages, representing the opinions of remarkable people like Frank Reece, a revolutionary poultry farmer, or Nicolette Niman, a vegetarian rancher, or an unnamed vegan colleague of Reece’s who designs humane abattoirs. We hear anonymous tales both from animal rights activists and slaughterhouse employees. Instead of locking the problem into polarized debate, though, these monologues suggest that most people, whether they work for or against the meat industry, oppose the status quo. The inclusion of such diverse perspectives, all of which regard the current industry as unsustainable, unhealthy and deeply immoral, is weighty enough to generate a serious discussion about reform.

I mentioned earlier that Foer’s hand is steadier in his assessment of animal welfare than David Foster Wallace’s, and not only because Foer’s book is a tome, not an essay. Still, it’s an interesting comparison: both writers came to the same conclusion, by way of their own scrupulous reasoning, that eating animals without any regard to how they live or die is inhumane. Wallace was anxious about this, and thought that anyone “who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see themselves as cruel or unfeeling” should also be anxious. Caught between his own ethical judgment and his reluctance to reevaluate such a major tenet of his lifestyle, he seems to end up advocating an aftertaste of deep shame for every bite of flesh one takes. 

It was a step in the right direction. Wallace refuted the option of ignoring the whole ugly matter entirely, even if he knew it meant he would have to live with his brain and gut at odds. Foer posits the problem as a similar sacrifice, urging his readers to acknowledge that “virtually all of the time one’s choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals.” However, he closes the central debate that Wallace left open. Guilt is not an adequate shift in perspective. Refusing to eat meat is the only sufficient response.

Foer does not understate how ingrained meat is in our culinary traditions or what a momentous sacrifice it is to forgo it. On the contrary, Eating Animals contains some of the smartest observations about the influence of food in our stories, our relationships and our identities ever written. But we can no longer afford to keep ourselves blinkered, and Foer’s book is an overdue wake-up call. That we subject billions of animals to tortured lives and painful deaths each year unfortunately says much more about us than it does about them, and it is imperative that we do not forget that we are implicated.

In a particularly affecting chapter, Foer describes being shown around a relatively humane slaughterhouse called Paradise Locker Meats. While all the pigs about to be sent to the kill floor are agitated, Foer notices one that is simply lying on the ground, trembling. He asks his guide about the pig and is told, “That’s just a pig thing.” It’s not, of course. To imply that an animal is behaving normally when it is rendered immobile with fear is a denial not just of empathy but also of reality, which is, in fact, a distinctively human thing. There is a link between observing the “pig thing” and Foer’s later statement of personal conviction: “I simply cannot feel whole when so knowingly, so deliberately, forgetting.” Whether we are ready to hear it or not, Eating Animals has made an implacable argument that we are culpable, even for our indifference