Image credit: Marlon E, used under Creative Commons license.
When someone says "I'm not going to sit here and say that eating meat is right or wrong", I usually get wary. Because inevitably they proceed to do just that. So when Mark Boyle, whose exploits as The Moneyless Man have hit headlines worldwide, declared he wasn't going to declare himself an authority on the matter, I suspected that some strong words were going to follow. And sure enough they did. Comparing meat eating to The Holocaust, to cannibalism and to eugenics, he is likely to annoy a fair few people.
While he may be opinionated and controversial though, his arguments are interesting to say the least. Are Low Meat Diets the Answer?
In an opinion piece over at Permaculture Magazine entitled Have Simon Fairlie and George Monbiot Got It Wrong About Meat Eating?, Boyle takes issue with the recent trend of justifying diets consisting of low quantities of meat, sustainably farmed, as being more environmentally responsible than veganism. And it's a timely issue. With even Anthony Bourdain claiming we should eat less meat, there is a strong cultural meme going on for making meat a rare treat, rather than the star of every meal.
Low Carbon Does Not Mean Ethical
Yet while advocates like us may hope that a weekday vegetarian diet will entice carnivores to eat meat a little less, anecdotal evidence would suggest that there are plenty of ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians (myself included) who now buy the occasional local pork chop to satisfy their urges.
This, says Boyle, is contradictory and hypocritical. And while arguments around low carbon farming and reducing greenhouse gas emissions may be compelling in an age of Global Warming, the Moneyless Man warns that we shouldn't reduce every ethical decision to a mathematical equation over carbon footprints. He illustrates this with a rather extreme—and doubtlessly offensive to many—analogy:
Taking Monbiot's and Fairlie's reasoning to its logical extreme, I can only assume that they would have considered Auschwitz acceptable as long as the trains that transported the victims there were run on a clean, renewable energy (or, ideally, to bring small mobile - yet unfortunately industrialised - concentration camps to the Jews), and that they were then slaughtered 'ethically'. It you think these words are harsh, consider that the Noble Laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer (himself a Jew), once wrote: "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."
What is Speciesism?
And while many—myself included—would argue that it is an entirely anthropomorphic approach to view the needs of other living creatures as being equally pressing as our own, Boyle says this is a prime example of "speciesism", and insists that it is important to distinguish between major and minor needs:
"If you're going to starve to death in the wild unless you kill another animal, that's a different story and quite instinctual to anyone whose name isn't Gandhi or Sakyamuni. Taking sentient life when survival is genuinely at stake isn't speciesist. A wild life, where human civilisation isn't maintained at the expense of all, isn't speciesist. But a kebab on the way home after a swift six pints is hardly a major need, though it probably feels it at the time."
Can't Animals Be Speciesist Too?
While I get where Boyle is going with this reasoning, I take issue with the idea that humans are the only "speciesists" out there. I have seen enough carnage and waste in my chicken coop to know that other animals can discard precious food too. And don't even get me started on my cat and its thing for baby rabbits. (OK, admittedly that is a domesticated animal whose behavior has been modified by hanging out with too many speciesists.)
Boyle goes on to reject the argument that meat eating is justified by humans being more intelligent (he wonders if it is OK to eat those with learning disabilities), or that killing and eating humans is different to killing and eating animals because the former is cannibalism. ("Does that mean I can kill Simon Cowell and feed him to my more attractive canine friend, Boycie?")
Evolving Beyond Meat
Ultimately, says Boyle, humans are on an evolutionary path. And just as we have—at least in theory—moved beyond seeing rape and slavery as morally justified—he foresees a time when meat eating is equally abhorrent.
I can't say I agree with him. There are plenty of omnivorous animals in the wild that could probably survive without meat, but choose not to. Humans are just one among many. But while I find the references to the holocaust and eugenics to be both hyperbolic and counterproductive (I doubt calling anyone a Nazi helps win them over), I do take Boyle's advocacy for veganism as having a lot more weight than many.
What Does a Future Without Farm Animals Look Like?
This is a man who clearly advocates for a wilder, more primitive existence and has taken some big steps toward making that happen for himself. While many vegans seem to get fuzzy when you ask them what we should do with all the farm animals already in existence—I suspect Boyle has thought this through. While he doesn't address it in this post, I would imagine the future according to Mr Boyle includes a lot more foraging, a lot less farming, and a lot less procreating. Paradoxically though, for those who survive into this future, I suspect meat eating may become an important tool of survival. But then, I guess, Mark would be OK with that.
[author's note: The reference to valuing other creature's needs as being equally pressing to our own as being anthropomorhic has been corrected from original of "anthropocentric". I believe the former term more accurately conveys my point.]
More on Meat Eating and Sustainability
Even Anthony Bourdain Says Eat Less Meat
Why Eating Guts, Brains, Feet and Genitalia is Green (Video)
The Offal Truth: Would You Eat Guts, Brains and Genitalia?
Why Graham Hill is a Weekday Vegetarian, and You Should Be Too
Vegetarian Diet Could Cut Climate Change Mitigation Costs by 70 Percent