Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reasons for Vegetarianism (which I hate)

People often make presumptions about why I'm a vegetarian.  Most of the time, these fall in the realm of religious reasons or the belief that I have some sort of indomitable affinity for animals, and can't picture gobbling up Fido or Mittens.  Well, I hate those types of reasons for going with vegetarianism, and it is rather saddening that those are mainstream reasons for it.  Now if I were totally honest, while I'm not vegetarian for religious reasons, it would be wrong of me to say that they had no role in the matter.

The simple reason why I'm a vegetarian is the same reason most people who eat meat eat meat -- I happen to like that type of food.  Now the reason I do say religion had some role in the matter is because I did grow up in a house of Hindu Brahmins, all of whom are strict vegetarians (not vegans, though.  They'd be considered lacto-vegetarians formally).  That meant I grew up most of my life eating no meat, no seafood, no poultry, and no eggs. Well, that's pretty much the role it played, to be honest.  I'd already found my own religion to be pure idiocy of the highest order and considered myself an atheist around the age of 5.  I thought science was far more magical than anything Vishnu could do (or more accurately, pretend to do, since he really only creates illusions).  But having that sort of food growing up meant it colored my tastes and preferences.  Those preferences still carry on to this day.  That's basically it.

That's also how it is for most people.  We're all most likely to have a preference for the food we grew up on.  The food which is familiar to us.  The food which signifies the comforts of home and childhood.  We're pretty well-conditioned to like something which we've generally liked for a long time.  That's perfectly fine, and at the very least, it's a reason based on food (which a lot of reasons for vegetarianism/veganism are not).  If people did not seek out that which is familiar to them, there probably would not be a market for things like veggie burger patties or vegan hot dogs.  It's really quite normal for a person to eat more of that which he/she likes the most.  Now in all fairness, that sort of decision, when carried out to a full diet plan, is only a really complete and full decision when you've actually explored outside your normal boundaries.

In my case, I did that to a large extent.  I've tried a variety of beef, pork, lamb, and chicken items.  In the long run, they didn't really hold much if any appeal for me.  I've been so used to food that has a wide variety of spices and combinations of powerful aromatics that I just couldn't find much to like.  In fact, the only ones I could like to some degree were the ones that were effectively seasoned/spiced/flavored to hell and back twice over.  At that point, what was I enjoying in the end?  Now I'll admit that all my experiences were in the realm of the types of meats that didn't cost more than a car (e.g. Wagyu beef), so there's probably plenty I'm missing out on.  And back when I did try all these, I was making about 1/3rd of what I make today (and I'm still only middle-middle-class!).  I'll grant that as a valid point, but I can only explore within my means...  so it's no surprise that I've never tasted lobster, for instance.  I'll feel comfortable about throwing down that kind of money when my annual income doubles.  For all that trying, though, did my tastes expand?  You bet they did.  Hell, I found entirely new cuisines that were not known to me prior to my college days.  It has also made me more discerning and appreciative of food and drink.  It's turned me into a connoisseur (read : snob) of beers, gins, and whiskeys.  I'll also add that eggs were originally out-of-bounds for me, but I actually rather like them (or at least things made with them).  I'm not particularly fond of the taste of eggs straight up (e.g. in an omelet), but I accept their usefulness in food, and they can be used to make things I do like.

As a result, I'm not what one would describe as the standard stereotype of a vegetarian here in the U.S.  No, I'm not some treehugging hippie wailing about locally grown organic produce wearing a "Meat is Murder" hemp fiber T-shirt and Che Guevara beret while I sip a $5 double-short nonfat caramel latte with a hint of nutmeg sweetened with agave nectar and listen to Bob Dylan on my iPod.  Now there's a stereotype.  I'm not interested in feeling morally superior to meat-eaters.  I'm not interested in saving the planet through my diet.  I'm simply interested in eating the food I like.

Likewise, I'm the sort of person who despises idiotic reasons for vegetarianism.  And to a large extent, it puts me on the side of a lot of people who are not vegetarian.  I don't deal here with any of the arguments like the "we didn't evolve to eat meat" because these are just patently and demonstrably false in every way.  Nothing more need be said about it than that.

Religious reasons and/or traditions -- This is always a bad reason for anything.  I don't care how strongly you feel about your religion or if you feel your God is going to punish you for eating pork.  Even if I were to ignore the fact that religious beliefs are based on mountains of bullshit, this is still an indefensibly stupid reason ever to do anything.  The simple reason for this is the fact that it is done without thinking.  It's not your idea;  You didn't think of it;  You didn't explore the matter;  You didn't try anything.  You just listened to what somebody told you and were taught that it's morally reprehensible to violate that requirement and to even think for yourself is a sin.  I find that not only stupid, but flat out unacceptable.  Who cares if it's tradition to eat only unleavened bread on Passover?  Tradition is nothing more than a euphemism for not thinking for yourself.  Don't expect your outright absence of independent thinking to be worthy of any respect.

Environmental reasons -- There is a germ of fact to this argument in that there is a huge amount of greenhouse gases caused by factory farms of cattle raised for beef and so on.  There is also the huge resource drain in raising animals for meat and the feed they have to consume and the amount of farmland that needs to be used to feed those animals which could otherwise be used to grow crops for human consumption.  The problem with this argument is that it takes the position to an extreme conclusion.  Greenhouse gas emissions from cattle are not to be answered simply by cutting off the market, but by using those gases to your advantage.  Cows produce massive amounts of methane, and that is a far more significant greenhouse gas than CO2 ever could be, but it is also burnable as a fuel, and can be harvested and collected.  Bear in mind, also, that this is fuel that is created through the breakdown of cheap plant material, and is therefore carbon-neutral.  Some smaller dairy farms are already doing this to the point where they can be effectively non-polluting and self-sustaining.  As technology advances, it will be possible to carry out this process more efficiently, and on a larger scale.  I will deal with the resource drain along with other arguments since the counterarguments for these are all ultimately the same.

Health reasons -- This is one I don't hate that much, for two reasons.  One is that it is based on some germ of truth like the environmental reasons.  The other is that it is one of the few arguments where you're making a case for a dietary plan which is actually based on food value itself.  My big problem with this argument is that it is based on a distorted comparison.  And this is the same problem that occurs with the resource drain argument in the previous part, which is based on the American picture of meat consumption.  Many people in the United States not only eat meat, but they eat entirely far too much meat, and insufficient quantities of fruits and vegetables.  Health issues make a compelling argument when you compare vegetarianism or veganism to diets that involve excessive consumption of meat, particularly fatty meat products like bacon or sausages (not so much so if the preferred choices of meat happen to be seafood).  The same arguments fall pretty flat when you compare a vegetarian/vegan diet to one where people maintain a healthy balance between meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains.  Moreover, if someone falls into the latter group and does have health problems, the most effective improvements can be enacted not through diet, but through exercise.  This is a problem in the United States where there was a period during which meat was extremely inexpensive, and that fueled a subsequent culture of excessive meat consumption.  If you look around to other countries, this is really not as big an issue, and it's also why things like factory farming are comparatively rare outside this country.

This is a classic case of taking things to extreme leaps because of differences on extremes of the spectrum.  Diet is a continuum of value consisting of several variables, and to overlook that spread means you are going to come to some faulty conclusions every time .  If you compare a vegan marathon runner to some lardbelly who lives on bacon, burgers, butter, and brie, of course things are going to look better for the vegan.  Try looking at other points on the line before you use this argument.

Moral/Ethical reasons -- I hate this one most of all because it is the most divorced from reason.  It is largely an appeal to emotion, and that, to me, is not sufficient grounds for changing one's own diet.  It's also the mode of argument which inspires a wide variety of lies and faulty lines of thinking.  It's also one of the reasons why I don't consider veganism to be about food, but rather about politics, since the movement itself begins and ends right here.  Not eating honey because you are concerned about consuming processed sugars is a decision that is about food.  Not eating honey because you feel it exploits bees is not about food at all.  Moreover, any notion that the bees suffer for it is necessarily wrong.  Just the very simple fact that it is in the best interests of the beekeeper to ensure that their bees thrive should tell you that.

The first problem I have with this argument is the unwarranted anthropomorphizing of animals.  It's one thing to draw the similarities between us and chimps or even cows and pigs...  it's another thing to draw the same similarities between us and shrimp.  When we think of using animals for food, it is fair that we should not unnecessarily harm them.  But there is a big difference between throwing a live lobster into boiling water and throwing a live pig into it.  The former does not even have a nervous system sophisticated enough to really sense pain, let alone feel fear and despair the way a mammal can.  The level of consideration due is a sliding scale, and just as bacteria or yeast deserve no moral consideration at all (pragmatic considerations, yes, but not moral), there's no reason to give a salmon the same degree of consideration as you would your own child.

The second problem I have is, like so many other arguments, an incredibly poor sense of scale. You can show me all the factory farm cruelty you like.  I've seen it all.  I've seen the cows shoved around on forklifts;  I've seen the live fully-conscious pigs writhing in agony as they're dipped into boiling water;  I've seen the lambs wailing in terror as a wet saw slices through their necks...  These are all terrible images, and I agree these types of practices need to be stopped.  But when you leap to the extreme position, you are making a huge oversight.  Right now, these types of practices exist because the market, particularly here in the U.S., has a demand for massive volume and it's unfortunate that there is simply not much else that can be done to meet that on the supply side.

The thing that everybody seems to overlook is that this sort of platform could just as easily be used as a strong argument to boycott factory farming and actively support more cruelty-free farming practices (e.g. free range grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs).  You might say, "Well, this is so much more expensive, isn't it?"  Yes, that's true...  but that cost, in turn, drives people towards a better balance between how much meat they eat and how much fruit, vegetables, and grain they eat, and if the market at large moves in that direction, you have a powerful motivation for all suppliers to change their practices.  Overall, I'd say that deals with the moral, the health, and the environmental issues to a large degree.

The short form of all that is...  shut up and eat what you like in sensible portions, support supplier practices you wish to support with your wallet, and the world will be better off.