Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?

I want to find a book that is the perfect introduction to veganism and vegetarianism. That is a hard task. The issues are so far-reaching, and the implications so vast that I do not think any one book could adequately give a solid introduction. Eating Animals comes close though.

Jonathan Safran Foer (author of the wonderful Everything Is Illuminated which everybody should read) has waffled between an omnivore lifestyle and vegetarian life style his whole life. Finally coming down on the side of vegetarianism, Foer wrote this book to give his reasons for making the decision.

Overall, I liked this book. Foer does something that most animal rights books don’t do: he gives a voice to the meat producers. Large portions of the book are spent talking about what life is like for a small farmer and how the meat industry itself has destroyed that lifestyle. Foer has a strong awareness that the question of meat-eating has a strong cultural aspect, that the consumption of meat is not just an ethical issue, but one of heritage and history. By giving voice to those in the industry, Foer shows that there is no easy solution to the question of factory farming, and that any decision made has long-lasting consequences.

Of course, like any book about animal rights, Foer spends the first half of the book talking about the disgusting practices of factory farming. And he is very clear. 99% of meat comes from factory farms. Rarely (if ever) are omnivores eating “ethically” sourced meat. Anybody who reads these depictions of factory farm practice has to feel disgust at the way animals are treated. Anybody with empathy will disapprove of the way that our culture treats animals.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Foer asks about the fundamental differences between animals. Why is it that people come out in opposition to violence against dogs, while at the same time giving their money to an industry who does much worse to chickens, fish, cows and pigs? Why is it that one animal life matters more than any others?

Those are hard questions, and be warned, once you start down that lines of reasoning it’s nearly impossible to turn back.

However, I have a problem with Foer’s approach in the end of the book. He talks a lot about farmers who oppose the meat industry and try to give their animals a good life.

I liked that Foer gave space to ranchers to tell their stories. He made it clear that this is more complex an issue than just black and white. But I did not like that he seemed to ignore the ethics of killing. He was very concerned with suffering, but never came down on one side about whether it is right to kill animals in the first place. I felt like he seemed too comfortable with the idea of ethical meat eaters, and the book could be read to imply that it is alright to eat meat as long as it is sourced ethically. I was disappointed that he only focused on factory farming and implied that was the only real issue of meat-eating.

This comes across feeling like Foer does not really know if he wants to be vegetarian or not. He obviously has issues with factory farming (as any thinking and feeling person should) but also seems ok with eating meat depending on the source. That is fine for him, but the ethics of killing another animal for unnecessary nutrition is a big part of animal rights thought, and it was completely left out. I found myself wondering what exactly Foer was trying to get across. He buys into the myth of “ethical meat” far more than I feel comfortable with. I got the impression that he was against meat eating, but only if it came from factory farms.

But maybe that is the crux of this whole issue. For most people clarity is impossible, and for omnivores, Foer acts as a good proxy to lead them through the world of the meat industry, with all of its confusing questions and misleading rhetoric. I am well aware that this book is not meant for me, somebody who already eats vegan and feels comfortable with that philosophy. If I had read this three years ago, I could have gotten more from it, but as a vegan it came across as incomplete.

So maybe this is the best book to introduce somebody to vegetarian thought? Certainly people could do a lot worse. But for me, it is lacking in key aspects that do not allow me to give Eating Animals a hesitation-free recommendation.

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