Hi, I’m Carolyn Zaikowski. For my part, save some teenage self-righteousness that’s become a more and more complicated analysis as I get older, I see veganism as a way to minimize destruction and death–not eradicate it. I do not deny the fact that death and destruction exist, which is something Keith states about vegans in several different ways. I fully understand the destructiveness of agriculture– this is a point on which Keith and I agree (and even the most “humane” farming, especially if it involves animals, is quite destructive.) I understand the politics of peak oil, permaculture, bioregionalism, local farming, soy production, industrial vegetable farming, etc. I’m not an expert, but I have been studying these issues for 15 years. As a result, I try my darndest to both eat vegan and local, as much as is possible. My goal is to minimize, in obtaining my food, the use of both animals and plants, in an attempt to balance my political and ethical concern for both individual animals and whole species. As a resident of the Northeastern United States, I have not found this diet impossible by any means. Challenging in some ways, certainly; requiring compromises sometimes, of course, especially in the winter. My diet is ethically imperfect as any diet is, due to the unfortunate state of the planet. Keith’s is imperfect too. But she doesn’t earnesly admit it, which is a shame, because this creates a tone that distracts from some of her really important and critical points about the destruction caused by agriculture.
I rued the day in college when I had to take a research methods and statistics class, thinking, how will this ever be useful to me? I am a radical! I believe in direct action, not abstract math or “quantifying” human behaviors! I believe in the validity of complicated emotional information, not just cerebral logic–I am proud of my right-brain! Science is elitist and patriarchal! I never thought that one day, years later, I would come across a context in which I’d be so glad that I had learned about the most basic research methods and argumentative fallacies.
Are there ignorant vegans? Of course! Are there ignorant carnists? Of course! Ignorance is a trait that cuts through human life, far beyond dietary choices. Especially when consumer capitalism is brought into the equation, we see horrifying patterns in food production across the board. But, while it is entirely possible to eat an environmentally irresponsible diet as a vegan, it is not the fault of veganism, as a philosophy, that some vegans are self-righteous or do not have information about ecology. Just as, for better or worse, there are lots of reasons why people eat meat, there are lots of reasons why people are vegan, and there are lots of ways that people are vegan. Not all of us– maybe even not most of us, though I can’t say for sure, since there are no numbers– fit into the convenient stereotypes Keith paints. If we’re going to assume, then it is probably safe to say that most vegans, like most humans, have extremely complicated beliefs, lifestyles, emotions, and general ways of relating to the world.
Self-righteousness, fallacies, , “kas-limaal”, and erasure of vegan permaculture
My distaste and surprise at Keith’s arrogance and tone is solidified on page 5, when she posits that vegetarians have the minds of ignorant children, while people like her have the minds of integrated adults: “The only way out of the vegetarian myth is through the pursuit of kas-limaal, of adult knowledge. This is a concept we need, especially those of us who are impassioned by injustice. I know I needed it. In the narrative of my life, the first bite of meat after my twenty year hiatus marks the end of my youth, the moment when I assumed the responsibilities of adulthood. It was the moment I stopped fighting the basic algebra of embodiment: for someone to live, someone else has to die.” I begin to wonder why I should read this book, since it feels extremist and insulting in tone, and I haven’t been convinced to trust it, or her.
I can’t find any information on “kas-limaal”, a concept Keith refers to in one way or another throughout the book. I do not speak the language, but a simple google search shows many hits that refer to the word only in regards to Kieth, and one or two that refer to the book she quotes it from. My library search engine yielded no results. In a different spelling, “k’aslimaal”, I’ve found, refers to the name of Guatemalan organization who says that the word means “life” or “rebirth”. I haven’t read the book that Keith gets her information about “kas-limaal” from, but it is written by a Native American with roots in New Mexico and Canada, who moved to Guatemala and was initiated as a Mayan Shaman. I don’t doubt it’s a concept; but for what it’s worth, and considering the rest of sketchy information in Keith’s book, I think a little skepticism and our own research regarding Keith’s interpretation of “kas-laamal” could be useful.
Onward. Here is one of her first examples of fallacy: “I’ve heard vegetarian activists claims that an acre of land can only support two chickens. Joel Salatin, one of the High Priests of sustainable farming and someone who actually raises chickens, puts that figure at 250 an acre.” In the text, the former point is based on literal heresay, with no citation. The latter point, however, has one, which is an unfair way to argue. She goes on to spend pages talking about her negative experiences with vegans on internet message boards. She is actually using anecdotal evidence from message boards—and she doesn’t even tell us which ones, or who was talking. I hate to be a hypocrite and make assumptions myself, but I really think that most reasonable, curious people can understand why this does not equal reliable research. For instance, just now I googled “anti vegetarian” and found a facebook message board called Anti-Vegan Action Group upon which someone wrote: “since i’m in idaho for a year, i’m really picking up on my meat-eating, and it feels great – just like dennis leary said…vegatarians say, ‘you know, you eat red meat and it stays in your colon for ten years.’ GOOD! I paid for it, i want it there! anyway, i put a nice 3 inch steak on the grill for prob under 5 minutes last night and it was delicious. i like it bloody.” Most writers would never refer to this genre of source in a book that is touted as scientific and expected to be taken seriously. This is not even allowed on Wikipedia. Keith does not, as she could have, wrestle with the abundance of centuries of highly regarded first-hand research and accounts of innumerable theories and practies of animal rights, welfare, liberation, and abolitionism, from Pythagorus and ancient Greece, to Peter Singer and Henry Spira, to the intersection of feminism and anti-vivisectiion movements during US First Wave Feminism, to Mahatma Ghandi, to modern anarchists and ecofeminists, to sects of all the major religions. In chapter 2, she speaks generally about facets about humanism and the animal “rights” movement, but again fails to wrestle with, debunk, or cite complicated theory. Literally, all of her claims about animal rights theory and practice are unsubstantiated. In over two hundred references, she cites one– one!–pro-vegetarian resource, Diet For A New America by John Robbins. I (sort of) apologize for being flip, but if this is not a dubious and wildly biased “scientific” research style, then I have fourteen arms and twelve nipples. I recently finished writing a critical master’s thesis, and I never would have earned my degree if I had not considered the research and theory that challenged my thesis. There is a reason for this– it makes us more honest and gives us a deeper understanding of the issues.
Keith becomes very up front about, literally, how stupid she thinks her readers are when she states: “So, on the theory that many readers lack the knowledge to judge this plan, I’m going to walk you through this.”
Here’s some more of her selective information: “Because without grazers to literally level the playing field, the perennial plants mature, and shade out the basal growth point at the plant’s base. In a brittle environment like the Serengeti, decay is mostly physical (weathering) and chemical (oxidative), not bacterial and biological as in a moist environment. In fact, the ruminants take over most of the biological functions of soil by digesting the cellulose and returning the nutrients, once again available, in the form of urine and feces. But without ruminants, the plant matter will pile up, reducing growth, and begin killing the plants. The bare earth is now exposed to wind, sun, and rain, the minerals leach away, and the soil structure is destroyed. In our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything.”
This is the beginning of a discussion– grazers as necessary to keep soil healthy– that is one of the major themes throughout the book. In some ways this is right, in regards to how some grazing works. But what she leaves out here is significant: Humans have evolved many ways to renew topsoil with no or minimal non-human labor: crop rotation, companion planting, ley farming, composting, using human waste, green manure, and other ways, plus possibilities for the future. In farming, there is no necessary connection whatsoever between renewal of topsoil, sustainable farming, and grazing animals– there never has been– let alone killing them or using their products. In part, it seems, Keith makes these kinds of claims because she is invested in making a case for a return to prairie-style living, which we will get to later. But vegan permaculture is an established practice all over the world, in all kinds of climates. Keith’s claims about this impossibility, which she makes throughout the book, are a complete falsehood. I simply do not understand why Keith has not only erased this possibility, but this actuality.
Furthermore, grazers in the wild are much different from grazers in domestication, who have been constructed for centuries to be of human use, by various forms of domination, and kept in captivity. There’s no way, really, to know if or how we can compare them, their bodies, or their effects on the earth. But is my opinion that, if we are radical and looking to alter a paradigm, we must consider this wide-spread form of domination that is animal agriculture. Let’s, then, touch upon the phrase “in our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything”, which is an absolute falsehood. I am a great believer that emotional appeals and emotional information can be valid, useful, and based in reality. But this appeal is little more than a hyperbolic emotional reaction, not connected to any substantiated claim that is suitable for holding up a theory supposedly based in science. “We’ve killed everything” is an unfair, simplistic emotional manipulation, and it doesn’t admit to its own basis in biased ideology and knee-jerk polemics.