Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What is Your Calculus of Death?

A harsh title to this post, I'm sure, but let's not beat around the bush: Things die that other things may live.

A few months ago I heard the Senior Vice President of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, talking on a radio show. He was on for the entire program, so I was able to hear a lot from him, about an hour, and I came away with an appreciation for his passion and love for living things. But, I was completely floored by his apparent inability to see the death that takes place in order for him to continue to live. He preached about the horrible industrial slaughterhouses (which are, indeed, horrible), and he talked up wearing pleather and latex instead of leather clothes. He talked about the health benefits of eating vegan.

The question that formed in my mind for this man became the title of this post.

By this question, I mean: How do you ethically calculate the deaths of creatures for your sustenance? PETA folks claim that killing animals for food is ethically wrong. But, why? In comparing meat-eating to plant-eating, what is the determining factor that makes one preferable to the other?

If the determining factor is the total number of dead animals, then I suggest that eating meat is the ethically preferable alternative. And, if the determining factor is the total biomass of dead animals, I again offer eating meat as the ethical alternative. In both cases, hunting is probably even the most ethical choice.

A person who lives on a vegan diet requires farming. Most farming in the US is done on a massive scale, with hundreds of thousands of acres allotted to a single crop. The ecological footprint of these enterprises is enormous, with the result a devastation of biodiversity. Merely harvesting a patch of wheat results in the deaths of countless birds, snakes, mice, voles, and other species. Many birds attempt to nest and raise young in wheat fields just prior to harvest. And even organic farms eradicate pests, or else they would not succeed as farms. Compare a vegan to a meat eater:

A person who eats a vegan meal requires that a swath of land be stripped of its native flora, tilled and planted with non-native vegetation. Then, pest deterrence and eradication must begin, through trapping, pesticide or other forms. Last, harvesting takes its toll. In the meantime, a person who eats a meal of grass-fed bison encourages the replacement of native flora and wildlife, thereby helping to restore natural watersheds, air quality, and therefore animal life. Killing the bison does not require mowing down countless other animals incidentally. Even more striking, a hunter who takes a deer in its native habitat, especially here in the West, is most efficiently converting the calories of the land into usable calories. Most native plants in the West are inedible to people, but many animals make do nicely, and by fitting into the existing system, we encourage positive impacts to it.

And the gentleman's suggestions to use fake leather or latex? I don't think he really considered the impact of latex farms on the biodiversity of rain forests, or of the petroleum drilling and carbon footprint of buying yet another plastic product.

We all make ethical decisions that involve death. Most of the time, we don't have to think about these decisions (like driving). However, when a person eats meat, and especially through hunting or fishing, they are more directly confronted with the truth of death in our existence. Hopefully, in time, this leads to better decisions, like choosing not to buy beef from those horrible slaughterhouses, and instead spending a little more and buying grass-fed, free range beef.

I eat meat. Also, I hunt and fish. Further, I believe that my hunting and fishing have a smaller negative impact on the environment, and a much, much larger positive impact, than if I had not ever hunted or fished. PETA folks find this behavior abhorrent, because it leads to the death of animals at the hands of people. But, as we've seen, even the most vegan lifestyle kills animals. Perhaps, instead of trying to eradicate death, we should understand its central role in our world, and try to make life better, to help perpetuate life and quality of life on the larger scale, while truthfully acknowledging the deaths that happen to make our lives possible.


Paul said...

We've spoken about this topic a couple of times, and each time we do I feel a good deal better about being a meat eater. I think there are few things as natural in this world as taking a life for for the sustenance of another. How can people try to refute this? The PETA people do bring up a good point about the mistreatment of farm animals, although I think its laughable that they think that their alternative lifestyle has no negative impact on animals.

Bob J said...

I basically agree with your assessment, but I doubt PETA would be moved by your thesis. But, then again, fringe groups are rarely persuaded by silly things like logic and evidence.

Josh said...

Thanks for your comments, guys. My first! PETA folks tend to be taken from the ranks of suburbia, at young ages. That is probably the most processed, least natural habitat ever created on earth, so I understand it when they can't relate to animals, though they've seen and heard about them.

Lasgunpacker said...

Excellent post! I particularly like the mention of mono-culture farming with regards to rain forest bio diversity (although latex can also come from other sources)

When your only experiance with animals is with pets, your perspective on nature is skewed. More kids ought to spend summers on farms, or even just camping to get an appreciation for the natural world, and the nature which occurs in said world.

native said...

Excellent read Josh,
I am going to book mark this essay and "Quote" from it occasionally if you don't mind.

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