The basic must-knows of carnism and neocarnism

March 7, 2012

Melanie Joy’s celebrated presentation on carnism and the psychology of meat-eating is finally online in its entirety. If I could have people watch or read one thing about animal rights, it would probably be this. It’s about an hour long and truly worth engaging with if you’ve got some free time. Melanie Joy is an extremely articulate and brilliant animal, and I believe her work is at the forefront of animal liberation philosophy and practice.

I think it’s important to note that in some societies meat-eating is not a choice, but truly a matter of survival. We have to discuss this carefully. Many people are frankly offensive when they talk about what “survival” does and doesn’t mean in terms of food. In my experience, many folks use the word “survival” not to connote actual, literal life-and-death situations, but to justify chosen behaviors. The classic carnistic protein myth–that one needs protein to survive and that meat is the only good source of protein–is a perfect example of this. One simply needs protein to survive and, save extremely rare physiological conditions that you almost definitely don’t have, one can get all of the protein they need from plants. Another good example of the faulty invocation of food-related survival is when we use words like “omnivory”, a necessary practice, to refer to what is actually carnism, a set of choices and beliefs. We’re calling upon the naturalist fallacy here to justify chosen behaviors and beliefs. Biologically speaking, we are not obligate omnivores. We will not die or get sick without meat. Therefore it is more accurate to refer to meat-eating as an ism or ideology, just as we do with veganism.

So when I say that some peoples use meat for survival, I don’t mean folks debating whether human teeth were “made” for slicing and chomping meat and deciding in the affirmative; I don’t mean the oft-spouted fallacy that we must eat meat to get all of our essential nutrients and amino acids; I don’t mean various vague, often new-age, often inexplicable “intuitions” that it just feels better to eat meat and that this is the only information one should need to make ethical decisions. By “survival”, I mean that a person has no other choices. Some Inuit peoples might represent an example of this: in most Arctic climates plants cannot grow, and for some traditional Inuits, it is virtually impossible to even get to locations where there is access to a larger variety of foods. Unfortunately, and absurdly, many meat-eaters use this extremely harsh survival situation to justify their first-world meat-eating. I’ll draw another example from current personal experience: right now, I am a teacher for Burmese refugees and political exiles who, at times, have had to escape into the forest for long stretches with no food at all. If they come upon meat and eat it, that is survival. Survival is pre-moral because survival is not a choice and is therefore not based on beliefs and ideology.

So, to talk about both carnism and veganism, we must recognize the differences between survival and the luxury of choice.

These survival scenarios couldn’t be more different from a person– like most of us reading this blog– in the “developed” world who has some level of informed choice over what they eat.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to have chickens in their front yard in Brooklyn or Boulder instead of growing a vegetable garden.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different than a farmer making the choice to farm animals instead of plants.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to buy flesh or eggs instead of legumes and vegetables at the grocery store or farmer’s market.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to eat locally slaughtered pigs instead of locally grown vegetable products.

I have a bias: I feel flustered and offended that such situations are framed as survival to so many meat-eaters, when there are about a billion people in the world who have no food at all, and the mass existence of non-necessary, first-world carnism is so destructive to the world and everyone’s food supply at large. Let alone the fact that with the luxury of choices comes the incredible ability to enable the survival of others by not eating them.

The point is this: Basic survival is not a matter of ethics. Chosen behaviors, including most meat-eating, are. They have their roots in complex ideology. For most people, meat-eating is based on carefully-constructed, mutually-reinforcing cognitions and actions. And since most people are good people who don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, to unnecessarily eat meat requires complicated feats of cognitive dissonance. Simply put, the core identity as a nonviolent person, on one hand, and the behaviors, on the other, of most carnists don’t match up. Not even the kindest person in the world can eat meat without engaging in violence. Carnists must use complicated defense mechanisms to navigate this disconnect. Those defense mechanisms become the basis of an entire ideology structured around meat-eating. This ideology, like all ideologies of the dominant culture– patriarchy, white supremacy, ecocide, capitalism, heterosexism– remains largely invisible and taken for granted.

This is, in my eyes, the core of Melanie’s research and teachings: that almost all people identify, consciously or not, as non-violent people. They would generally never harm another human except in perceived self-defense; they wouldn’t harm the vast majority of most nonhumans, either. They only harm those seven or eight species–out of hundreds of thousands–who fall into the tiny, culturally-constructed group of “edible animals” (in US culture, this groups consists basically of cows, pigs, lambs, a couple types of bird, and a couple fish and crustacean species. The “edible animals” group changes from culture to culture but always remains tiny.) We are compassionate, empathetic, and creative creatures, yet we make choices several times a day–some people, every time they eat–that have unnecessary suffering and death at their core; we are gentle and full of love, yet for some of us, the only contact we ever have with fellow creatures is literally as so many dead body parts on a plate. We use the ideology of carnism and its attendant defense mechanisms to maintain this disconnect. We shut down, we justify, we deny, we intellectualize, we look away, we naturalize, we objectify, precisely because we care and are good people.

Since Melanie talks about this in much more detail and with much more eloquence, you should watch the video to learn more about the intricacies of how we, as cultures and individuals, banish the realities of meat from our awareness so successfully. I think both carnists and vegans and everyone in-between will get a lot out of it.

Melanie has also recently published an illuminating article that touches on many of the issues in this blog, entitled Understanding Neocarnism: How Vegan Advocates Can Appreciate and Respond to “Happy Meat”, Locovorism, and “Paleo Dieting”.  She breaks down the psychology, cognitive dissonance, and defensiveness behind three issues central to neocarnist ideology: compassionate carnism (humane meat), ecocarnism (carnism for ecology’s sake), and biocarnism (carnism as biological imperative). She frames neocarnism as a backlash against veganism– which, in some respects, we should take as a positive sign that veganism is working as a movement. Unsuccessful movements do not inspire backlash.

Watch it. Read it. Love you.


PaleoVegan say it’s curtains for the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis; Carolyn jams out on sociobiology and violence

November 29, 2011

This is worth a re-post. Once again the brilliant pre-frontal cortex over at PaleoVeganology has done some wonderful reporting and analysis. This time it is regarding a new study that appears to put the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis to rest once and for all. He also discusses, among other things, the history of this hypothesis and how it was never meant to encompass such simplicities as “meat made us smart” or “meat made us human”. Alas, as ideologies compete to be representative of the most “natural” and therefore most “normal” and “necessary” way to be, many paleodieters and other carnists have relied heavily on this hypothesis for their arguments.

But as we leave ETH’s funeral, we shouldn’t just clap our hands and embody everything we argue against by saying, “SEE? It’s NATURAL to be vegan! Science has proved it!” That’s not what this is about. Rather, the way that the ETH has been used by carnists represents a phenomenon: Our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our choices, or to even admit that we have choices. This Normal, Natural, Necessary brand of logic has been used to uphold almost every type of unnecessary violence in human history, and pseudo-science has often accompanied it. We’ve written about this extensively elsewhere in our blog including here, here and here. Science is wonderful and liberating when it’s used how it’s supposed to be used (as Paleovegan uses it): as a method; as a critical thinking tool, as a path by which to ask questions, open doors, admit we’re wrong, assess, reassess, make connections, get awestruck, and hopefully figure out a thing or two in the process. But leaving our complicated social and psychological choices to vague arguments about “nature” and cherry-picked data isn’t science; it amounts to little more than sociobiology, rationalization, and dangerously lazy thinking.

We don’t need to say “veganism is natural” or “meat eating is not natural” in order to make good arguments for veganism; if we do that, we are falling prey to dangerous and convenient sociobiological arguments. Sociobiology is the study of the “biological sources of social behavior.” And sociobiology should always be questioned, for it has generally not amounted to much more than biological determinism. It is the editorializing of science. It is taking objective biological facts and assuming that certain subjective behaviors can and do extend from them. From there, there’s usually some kind of sticky, subtle moral leap: This ancestor ate meat, so we should too, in fact we’re stupid if we don’t. Men are bigger than women, and women are reproductive machines, so that’s why men rape. Animals kill each other, so it’s natural for us to be at war, and we’ll never not be at war because we are just naturally aggressive.  Homosexuality is an aberration because it doesn’t lead to reproduction (OR homosexuality is evolutionarily smart because it staves off overpopulation… how about homosexuals just exist because they love each other?) Women have smaller brains, so of course they’re not as intelligent. There’s a scientific explanation for everything, right?? But many people believe that sociobiology is little more than racism, sexism, and other violence wearing science’s clothes.

In short, we should carefully distinguish between science and sociobiology, and the latter should, if not scare the pants off anybody who wants to change the world, at least make them really weary.

Now, here’s some actual science: Humans have big brains relative to other species, and in particular, a big frontal cortex. When you have the kind of frontal cortex a human does you are able to make all kinds of complicated assessments and choices. And here’s my wish, given that fact: Let’s work with what we have, and celebrate our ability to make conscious choices, and our ability to do the least harm…and let’s stop worrying so much about which of our ancestors ate what and who and when. While we’re at it, let’s stop worrying about a gold-standard perfect diet and, by extension, perfect health and immortality, because those things don’t exist, and never have.

Anyways, the historical truth about food, as usual, is messy; some humans ate some types of meat at some point, others ate other things, and there are a thousand scenarios, motivations, and ecologies to be accounted for. But even if there were one answer as to what our paleolithic ancestors ate, it would be irrelevant. Because we are not paleolithic. Because we have to worry about ourselves, now. Today. 7 billion humans, industrialization, capitalism, ecocide, 2011, hundreds of billions of unnecessary nonhuman deaths, constant war. And, among other things, a whole bunch of us who deny that we are regularly making choices–not just being whipped around by some mysteriously undefined inkling called, conveniently, “nature”. Like it or not, this is what we’re working with. Let’s be present with our situation instead of copping out by slipping into simplistic, irrelevant, and ultimately impossible fantasy re-creations of the past.

On the Holy Grail of Nutrition

November 1, 2011

There isn’t one. Move on. First world humans spend undue energy searching for a perfect nutritional formula that will turn us into bronzed, teutonic gods. This is a little silly considering the fact that a fair percentage of the human population doesn’t get enough of anything to eat.

Getting enough calories is important. Getting enough vitamins is important. Not eating foods that make you sick is important. Beyond that, people are pretty adaptable. Most of us are just making do with what we can get. As a vegan, I could argue that dairy products are “bad for you” and “unnatural.” But clearly millions of people survive, many of them quite healthily, while consuming dairy. So I don’t make arguments about what a person should or shouldn’t eat based on nutrition. I make them solely on ethical grounds. I refuse to eat dairy not because it’s bad for me, but because it’s bad for cows.

The Paleo Diet: Not the Way to a Healthy Future

The Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past.

Eat with your ethics. Because you can.

The (Actual) Truth About Soy

June 7, 2011

This warrants reposting. A few years back, we were seeing a lot of stories in the mainstream media suggesting that high soy consumption could put you at risk for breast cancer, amongst a host of maladies. Most of the news agencies (even Fox) have since recanted, deferring to a litany of peer-reviewed research of the kind Zen Habits cites. Unfortunately, they seem to have inadvertently made a lot of two-drink experts (you know, they kind of person who becomes an expert on everything once he gets two drinks in him) with their initial misstep. As we all know, the best way to send them sulking back to the bar is to arm yourself with information.

I won’t allege any sort of media conspiracy to turn people off healthy food and onto meat and dairy; the media mirrors the United States’ obsession with finding some kind of perfect nutritional formula to make our bodies run at mythological efficiency. The media, in their ever frantic scramble for eyeball hours, seem to have seized upon a meme planted by the Weston Price Foundation in spite of WPF having been roundly and repeatedly discredited as purveyors of pseudoscience.

We live in an unprecedented age of information sharing. It’s never been easier for any old yahoo with a library card to, oh I don’t know…let’s say, start a blog to deflate a would-be demagogue through elementary fact checking. That’s why it’s such a shame how many people are willing to cede instant credibility to any soundbite followed by a citation. It may make a good conversation piece at parties or it may make your viewers stare at the screen just long enough to see the first few seconds of the commercial break, but it can’t be the groundwork for an intellectually honest conversation about issues that matter. If we take questions of sustainability, food justice and animal rights seriously, then we need to make a serious effort to educate ourselves. That involves doing primary research and not simply relying on syntheses by authors who support opinions we already hold. Like they say at l’Académie Française: “get off of Wikipedia, I’ll see you in the stacks!”1

1Nobody at l’Académie Française has ever said, written or thought this. You see why it’s important to check footnotes?

James McWilliams: What’s Being Butchered Here is Logic

May 27, 2011

James McWilliams’ recent piece in The Atlantic has been making the online rounds recently. I read it this morning and thought he highlighted a few interesting points about nonhuman animals that often get passed over when people are discussing sustainability and food production. Namely, McWilliams discusses the ways in which Darwinism problematized the binary human/nonhuman paradigm which, for a stone age throwback, still gets a lot of play in certain quarters.

When humans and non-human animals are part of a continuum, rather than qualitatively distinct forms of life, human meat-eaters confront a serious quandary. It becomes incumbent upon us to forge a contemporary justification for carnivorous behavior. Aristotle and Genesis will no longer do. By undermining the long-held basis of inherent human superiority over non-human animals, the science of evolution obliterated the framework within which thoughtful carnivores long justified their behavior. As it now stands, human meat-eaters, unless they reject modern science, support the killing of non-human animals without the slightest intellectual or ethical grounding.

I can’t say I’m a fan of foodie-ism as it pertains to real solutions for the problem of food production, distribution and sustainability. It rankles just a little bit to see people turning food into an expensive hobby when you know that over a billion humans worldwide are starving, to say less of the 45 billion nonhumans being murdered every year for a nutritional need that does not exist. I’m glad that there seems to be a consciousness shift away from CAFOs and industrial monocultures, but sometimes well-meaning people can be frustratingly blind to matters of class or species privilege. Food is not a toy. We live and die by it. Or, as Josh Harper put it: “reading a Michael Pollan book doesn’t excuse you (or him) from having to consider the lives you are taking and the suffering you contribute to.”

“Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States”

April 20, 2011

This study is a must-read for anyone concerned with food politics. It’s one of the only studies done on the issue. Abstract and full text are available here: Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States

For those not into the technical language of scientific articles, here are the basic findings:

1) Food miles are not an accurate way to measure a food’s ecological footprint. Transportation of food accounts for only about 15 percent of its ecological footprint.

2)Production, storage, whether a food is animal or plant, non-carbon greenhouse gas emissions, scale, and other factors account for about 83 percent.

3) An accurate picture of a food’s environmental impact needs to include all those aspects and that can be done much more throroughly with a life cycle assessment (LCA). Movements for ecological sustainability would fare much better if they used the LCA instead of the food miles model.

4) It is impossible to do an all-encompassing study on the climate impact of food. This study is based on the “average” US household. Unmeasurable factors might play a role in many situations. Despite, these findings point to critical issues regarding diet and ecology.

5.) For the average household, eating vegan food one day a week achieves more of a reduction in environmental degredation than eating local animal products every day. Or, more precisely: “The results of this analysis show that for the average American household, ‘buying local’ could achieve, at maximum, around a 4−5% reduction in GHG emissions due to large sources of both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in the production of food. Shifting less than 1 day per week’s (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and/or dairy to other protein sources or a vegetable-based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers.”

I look forward to more work being done on this, and more conversation being had.

Interesting article: The Locavore Myth, James McWilliams

March 8, 2011

The Locavore Myth

James E. McWilliams,
Forbes Magazine August 03, 2009

Why buying from nearby farmers won’t save the planet.

Buy local, shrink the distance food travels, save the planet. The locavore movement has captured a lot of fans. To their credit, they are highlighting the problems with industrialized food. But a lot of them are making a big mistake. By focusing on transportation, they overlook other energy-hogging factors in food production. Take lamb. A 2006 academic study (funded by the New Zealand government) discovered that it made more environmental sense for a Londoner to buy lamb shipped from New Zealand than to buy lamb raised in the U.K. This finding is counterintuitive–if you’re only counting food miles. But New Zealand lamb is raised on pastures with a small carbon footprint, whereas most English lamb is produced under intensive factory-like conditions with a big carbon footprint. This disparity overwhelms domestic lamb’s advantage in transportation energy.  New Zealand lamb is not exceptional. Take a close look at water usage, fertilizer types, processing methods and packaging techniques and you discover that factors other than shipping far outweigh the energy it takes to transport food. One analysis, by Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, showed that transportation accounts for only 11% of food’s carbon footprint. A fourth of the energy required to produce food is expended in the consumer’s kitchen. Still more energy is consumed per meal in a restaurant, since restaurants throw away most of their leftovers. Locavores argue that buying local food supports an area’s farmers and, in turn, strengthens the community. Fair enough. Left unacknowledged, however, is the fact that it also hurts farmers in other parts of the world. The U.K. buys most of its green beans from Kenya. While it’s true that the beans almost always arrive in airplanes–the form of transportation that consumes the most energy–it’s also true that a campaign to shame English consumers with small airplane stickers affixed to flown-in produce threatens the livelihood of 1.5 million sub-Saharan farmers.

Another chink in the locavores’ armor involves the way food miles are calculated. To choose a locally grown apple over an apple trucked in from across the country might seem easy. But this decision ignores economies of scale. To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market. The critical measure here is not food miles but apples per gallon. The one big problem with thinking beyond food miles is that it’s hard to get the information you need. Ethically concerned consumers know very little about processing practices, water availability, packaging waste and fertilizer application. This is an opportunity for watchdog groups. They should make life-cycle carbon counts available to shoppers. Until our food system becomes more transparent, there is one thing you can do to shrink the carbon footprint of your dinner: Take the meat off your plate. No matter how you slice it, it takes more energy to bring meat, as opposed to plants, to the table. It takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken and 10 to 16 pounds to make a pound of beef. That difference translates into big differences in inputs. It requires 2,400 liters of water to make a burger and only 13 liters to grow a tomato. A majority of the water in the American West goes toward the production of pigs, chickens and cattle. The average American eats 273 pounds of meat a year. Give up red meat once a week and you’ll save as much energy as if the only food miles in your diet were the distance to the nearest truck farmer.

If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer’s market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian.


*Has anyone read his book, Just Food? Thoughts? I’m going to look into it. -cz