Capitalism is Free Range Carnism

February 18, 2013

If I ever stopped being vegan, I would probably go to business school. After all, what is capitalism but a little bit of species-on-species predation?

Actually, if anything, wage labor is a generous proposition compared to pasture labor. Unlike an animal raised for slaughter, whose entire life and death are managed by the farm boss, wage labor under capitalism promises a few hours per day of relative autonomy. Sure, the boss gets the bulk of your life, but he doesn’t control your very birth and death; not directly, anyway.

If you believe that you can have some kind of natural, holistic relationship with another creature whereby they spend their whole lives accumulating calories for you to harvest when you’re feeling peckish, fantastic. But I want you to then tell me why it’s wrong for somebody else to establish that same kind of relationship–different only in that it is kinder–with another human being.

Humans have always ruled other humans, haven’t they? Isn’t this natural? Isn’t it right?

Processed food: What are you talking about?

August 14, 2012

Can we start really thinking about what we’re saying when we use the term “processed food”, and when we reject or moralize about foods based on that phrase? This phenomenon has become central to anti-vegan discourse.

Just because it’s a vegetarian “meat-substitute” (although it might behoove us to just see it as good plant-based protein that exists in its own right, apart from the existence of meat) doesn’t mean it’s processed, folks– at least, not processed in the evil way neocarnist discourse always refers to. You know the conversation: processed = bad, not processed = good. I can’t really offer a definition of “processed” beyond that, as it’s currently used, because there doesn’t seem to be one.

Let’s break down some examples of foods that are currently trendy to preach against based on their “processed-ness”:

-Tofu. Let’s clear this up, folks: Tofu is made with a blender and cheesecloth from three to four ingredients including water, an emulsifier (a big word, but something that is used in countless simple foods, both vegan and non), and a bean. You can buy that bean GMO-free very easily; many, if not most, explicitly vegetarian products like tofu which involve soy are GMO-free now. What’s non-GMO as far as soy goes are a) those soy fillers in all kinds of other food products, including many animals products, and b) the unbelievable amount of soy that’s fed to farmed animals.

You can even get soy from sustainable farms like Vermont Soy and Eden Soy. Those farms might even be local (gasp!!!) depending on where you live.

Actually, you can make this kind of tofu product with many different beans, as I learned while living with Burmese folks, who often make and eat tofu from lentils.

Right in your own kitchen. Right next to those vegetables you process by… cutting and cooking them.

-Similarly fallacious is all the moralizing about the “process” that goes into making wheat gluten or tempeh. These are products that actually have very few simple, healthy ingredients and can be made easily. You don’t need a Bunsen burner or a mask.

-And to make an alternative “milk” such as soy or almond, the idea is similar. Two or three ingredients plus a blender. Same with any “cheese” alternative that’s made with these things. All of these products are less processed than even the most organic and “happy” cheese.

I’m not sure why so many neocarnists take a moral stance against these plant foods, but most likely it has something to do with things like unblinking Michael Pollan-ism and the Weston A. Price Foundation’s government lobbying, reactive anti-science, and fear-mongering (particularly in regards to soy). Some well-meaning folks, I think, often lump in foods made from Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) with simpler foods made from tofu, nuts, or wheat gluten. TVP is made from soy flour and a significant number of steps are involved in its creation. Some TVP makers use hexane, which is controversial. But whatever one’s ideas about TVP, the current dialogue about it being an evil “processed” food cannot be removed from the influence of Michael Pollan’s hyperbolic, pseudo-scientific diatribe against TVP in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Additionally, hexane is used in multitudes of animal foods. As always, do your own research and use your critical thinking skills.

From the minute you rip a vegetable out of the ground, to the minute you collect rice grains from a stalk, to the minute you bring them home and clean, peel, cook, cut, ferment, freeze, marinate, combine, and flavor them, you are processing foods. You process them in your mouth, too, as saliva breaks them down, and then in your gut, where they are dissolved into their component parts. Life is a process and so is the food that enables it.

If you want to talk about foods with ingredients that are made in labs, talk about that. If you want to talk about GMOs, environmentally unfriendly packaging, huge industries, awful companies, and how complicated that all is across huge realms of both plant and animal foods, please do. But don’t conveniently muddle those concepts with the mere existence of vegetarian foods for the sake of a political agenda or a romantic, lazy paleofantasty about what’s “natural” and what’s not. In short, it is incoherent to consider these veg foods processed yet not consider foods processed that require creating, artificially inseminating, squeezing, prodding, torturing, then slaughtering an entire animal. If you want to talk about excessive food processing–by which I mean the actual time, physical and psychological energy, and other resources that go into the creation of a food–and how it might have moral implications, talk about this: We literally destroy huge pieces of the planet to actually raise entire huge, individual, sentient, ambulatory beasts!!! We artificially inseminate them by putting sperm into their vaginas with poles or our gloved arms, cut off their inconvenient body parts such as penises, testicles, tails, and beaks while they’re still alive, kill them with complicated weapons and machines, drain their blood and cut off all their skin, cut off and throw away their heads, cut out and throw away their organs, pull their reproductive secretions out of them (often after starving and blinding them into laying), squeeze and prod them with hands or machines til the insides of their bodies finally give you inevitably puss-and-blood laced milk which is then turned into convoluted dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Yet, incredibly, it’s a  loaf made of beans and water–no cutting off and throwing away a head involved–that’s called Frankenfood! While plant foods and agriculture are indeed complicated, there is absolutely no plant-food processing comparable–ethically, practically, environmentally, physically, psychologically–to the necessary extremities that must be visited while “processing” individual sentient animals for food. If they’re not the most processed food of all, I don’t know what is.

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.


Thanksgiving: What’s to Celebrate?

November 24, 2011


It’s difficult to find the right words for a day like today. This is especially true when you’re surrounded by drunk and overfed relatives who, quite frankly, don’t want you spoiling their day off with another tirade on whales or Bosnians or whatever the hell it is today. But, god bless ’em, you’re going to do it anyway. Years from now, your younger cousins will thank you for showing them that critical engagement with social issues is a far more effective ways to piss off adults than the entire Slipknot back catalogue. Congratulations, you’re a role model.

Having a day off work is great, but it’s important to be aware of what today represents to the indigenous people of the Americas. Many have called for a National Day of Mourning to commemorate the victims of a genocide that is yet ongoing. The systematic extermination of the original inhabitants of this continent defies comprehension in its scale and brutality. According to whose figures you accept, the native human population of the Americas was reduced by between 80 and 99 percent in the 400 years between Columbus’ arrival and the massacre at Wounded Knee. We’re talking about up to one hundred million people. More people than you could have met in ten lifetimes. More people than the top eight most populated cities in the world combined. A little more than one out of every one hundred people currently alive today. Behind every “self made” millionaire is this history of primitive accumulation.

Humans were not the only victims of these policies of extermination and the violent conversion of the common fruits of the Earth into discretely bound units of private property. In just a hundred years, the North American bison population dropped from about 60 million to one or two million. [1] During the mid nineteenth century, passenger pigeons thrived to such a degree that “there would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another.” [2] Today, they are completely extinct.

Area of primary forests in the United States (lower 48)
Deforestation Leads to Exinction

The ecosystems of North America were once burgeoning with an integrated diversity of species: salmon, wolves, mink, ermine, badgers, beavers, otters, bears, cougars, bobcats, cranes, eagles, turkeys and so on. Yet one by one, these creatures were displaced and nearly or completely eradicated because of the same philosophy that legitimized the genocide of American Indians, the same philosophy that legitimized the exploitation of European peasants and the same philosophy that legitimizes global capitalism today: manifest destiny. That what is is good because god wills it; because it is “natural.” The genocidal imperative.

Ward Churchill has made the argument that we ought not be surprised when the United States government engages in wars of aggression overseas or domestic repression at home. After all, it was the genocidal imperative that founded this country and, from near the outset, wealth began to be centralized among those who were willing to commit the most heinous atrocities. We have arrived at a point now where our society rests on a foundation of normalized violence. Our economy depends on war all the time to function. The bodies of the body politic literally run on the product of extreme systemic violence: 50 billion nonhuman animals killed every year for a nutritional need that does not exist. The aforementioned staggering death tolls pale in numerical comparison to this figure, yet it occurs annually and with little fanfare.

We are not listing these examples to try to present some sort of equivalency between the suffering endured by humans and the suffering endured by nonhumans. Quantifying and comparing one person’s suffering or oppression to another’s is absurd and incoherent. The purpose is to identify common modes of oppression and the cultural logics which justify them. The purpose is to honor and mourn those who are gone and to fight with those who still remain. The purpose is to understand the history of how we got came to live in arguably the most violent society in all history and to ask why that seems normal to so many of us.

If we are aware of the histories that precede us, then we can begin to construct functional and peaceful alternatives to the cultural logic of genocide. Confronting manifest destiny is a necessary part of this process even if (and maybe especially if) it makes your relatives uncomfortable.


“As an indigenous person, the fur trade represents so much more to me than just animal abuse. It represents cultural genocide. They were the footsoldiers of an invasion and conquest of the new world. They were ones who introduced disease and alcoholism. They were the ones who introduced gunpowder and many many things that lead to our decimation.”–Rod Coronado

If you plan on eating turkey this thanskgiving, this is required viewing. Please don’t fool yourself into thinking that “humanely raised” or “free range” turkeys live and die in appreciably different conditions. Raising animals for food means rape, castration and murder 100% of the time.

1. The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001, pg 321-322

2. A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting, Penguin Books, 1992, pg 168-170

The “C” Word

September 19, 2010

(No, I’m sorry, it’s not “canteloupe.”)

A lot of what we’ve written on our blog so far is about details. Before we did anything else, we wanted to make it clear that Keith’s method of research is profoundly dishonest; that she is willing to distort, fabricate and manipulate as it lends false credence to her polemic against veganism. Suffice it to say, she has obliged us to do a careful, line by line reading of The Vegetarian Myth; there is simply too much wrong with this book to do anything else!

But, for the moment, I would like to take a step back from the details and talk about a particular pachyderm hanging out in that corner over there. He’s wearing a monocle and spats and makes you trade hours of your life for Illuminati tickets. Yes, let’s talk about capitalism, baby. People might misunderstand…but that’s a part of life.

Description vs. Manifestation

“Capitalism” is something of a lazy word to throw around. Like any theory it doesn’t really exist outside of the papers (or blogs) upon which we write its name. Capitalism, like communism, fascism, socialism, totalitarianism, etc. is a vision and an ideal. None of these theories exist in the real world, but would-be governors attempt to prise them from the minds of theorists and overlay them upon civilian populations. Naturally, there are always problems in translation. The unconscionable brutality of Stalinism barely resembles Marx’s hopeful tirade on an inevitable era of social equality, peace and cooperation.

So What Is Capitalism?

Theorists have come up ways to refine their definitions of abstractions like “capitalism” or “communism” by applying funny adjectives to them such as “late stage,” “techno” or “state monopoly.” Sometimes these terms are useful but I think it’s easiest if I just get to the point and tell you exactly what I mean. When I speak of capitalism, I am describing a vast set of economic relationships whose functionality is predicated on their ability to expand. The method of the capitalist system is to extract utility (use value) from resources (anything and everything) in order to maximize profit (monetary gain). This results in the accumulation of capital (money or resources) which is reinvested in order to extract utility from more resources. The drive to maximize profits corollates with an ever-increasing rate of resource extraction. This is expansion.

This cycle is never-ending. When it stops or slows down we end up with depressions, recessions and various other colorful euphemisms for “systemic failure.” The logical engine of capitalism drives toward the location of more resources and it always extract as much use value from them as possible. The ways in which this is problematic do not often occur to people until they think of ways in which workers can be seen as resources, rainforests can be seen as resources, non-human animals can be seen as resources, and so on.

So what does this have to do with Lierre Keith, paleolithic diets and veganism?

This fundamental mode of exploitation, which I argue is central to capitalism, is antithetical to the vegan ethic. Throughout The Vegetarian Myth Lierre Keith makes the assertion that what vegans cite as exploitation is merely the way the world works and that we should accept it. This opens some interesting ethical doors.

When Is(n’t) It Exploitation?

If we are comfortable with Keith’s proposition that killing non-human animals for food is not exploitative, then what would qualify? Certainly not the condition of the working class under capitalism, which could be easily understood as a kinder, gentler form of species-on-species predation. After all, employing an undocumented labor force that at times begins to resemble slavery is downright magnanimous compared to cutting to the chase and eating their bodies. However much green spin is put onto animal husbandry, it entails rape, castration and murder one hundred percent of the time. As malignantly oppressive as the modern institutions of wage slavery are, they have at least been ameliorated through labor and civil rights struggles to the point that workers have some degree of control over their own bodies (although we can see this being eroded through the criminalization of undocumented workers). To what natural law is Keith appealing that she thinks that we ought not do this?

If domestication and murder qualify as “holy” (23-24) then what on Earth doesn’t? The truth is, Keith has packed some abominably exploitative and speciesist assumptions into a Trojan Horse made to resemble ecofeminism and deep ecology. Wishy-washy spirituality notwithstanding, her project is to legitimize the use of nonhuman animal bodies as resources to be exploited. She attempts to obscure this by assuring the reader of that we are simply “eaten as well as eaters…tak[ing] our place at the table” (23). Keith would have us believe that we are not domesticators, but equal participants in domestication. Through some very convoluted rhetorical gymnastics and an anecdote about getting snow down her shirt on the way to feed her chickens, she arrives at the conclusion that domesticated animals are getting a better deal than the humans that eat their flesh. She makes the incredible claim that we are co-evolving with the nonhumans we domesticate in the exact same fashion that any other predator does with their prey. Nowhere does she make mention of the fact that humans wield ultimate biopower over their domesticated charges, binding them to rape racks and managing their (d)evolution so as to rear strains that are unable to stand. After all, they’re not supposed to.

Speciesism and Die-Offs

Once again we are left with this question: if Keith has no problem with managing the biological evolution of animals in such a way as to suit her whims, then why not manage the social evolution of people for the same reasons? The reason, of course, is that Keith is a speciesist who treats “Others” in a way she would never treat humans. Or maybe she would treat them that way. When one considers that Keith’s diet would require a mass die-off (she uses the colorful euphemism, “energy descent” [259]) to be sustainable, one wonders exactly what it is she’s proposing. The last time anything like the food-system she envisions existed, there were 90 million people spread throughout the Americas, many of whom did depend on “the ten-thousand year rupturing gash of agriculture” (271) to survive. With 300 million in the United States alone, where are we going to find the land to make this fantasy into reality? How do we attain this primitivist Eden when, to feed those suicidally noble New England cows Keith won’t shut up about, it would take 390,000,000 square miles of land? Oh, and that’s when you’re looking at a diet supplemented with grains. Suddenly, soylent green’s starting to look kind of viable.

I didn’t find an answer to these questions in The Vegetarian Myth. They weren’t asked. I found a lot of starry-eyed paens to animals that are totally okay with being raped and murdered as long as you pray over them first. I found a lot of fetishistic portrayals of non-industrial indigenous cultures whose lifeways Keith wants to appropriate. I found absolutely incessant invocation of a long-lost green utopia that Keith rhetorically hides from, tantalizes with and re-discovers for the reader. I found a lot of dumped quotes from Derrick Jensen, because he published her book. I found a disturbing amount of passages where Lierre Keith actually tries to write from the perspective of a voice inside the reader’s head. This book is actually a triumph of programming in the way it tries to seize on the reader’s perceived insecurities, works to break her down through a steady rhythm of emotional needling and then, when she’s at her lowest point, present Weston Price and Derrick Jensen cloaked in the language of woo-woo spirituality. This book is, as a good friend quipped, “fucking bonkers.” In my next post, we’ll get deep in to just how fucking bonkers it gets.