Tag Archives: locavorism

The ethics of food choices: down the rabbit hole

Contemplating the omnivore's dilemma?

I told my sister I would write a layman’s post on “Animal Ethics 101” soon, and was planning to make that my next post, but as you can probably gather from the title of this post, I’m putting that off for a bit. Tonight’s dinner–gnocchi with tomato and broccoli sauce and a side of mussels–got me to thinking about food ethics and whether something like veganism is necessarily deontological rather than consequentialist in nature. I don’t imagine many vegans would eat mussels, even if they don’t technically ‘have a face’, but the ethics of food choices are way too multifaceted for me to be able to put them in a single, convenient moral compartment. Let me explain what that means to me.

To start from the top: the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids essentially guarantees that no trophically high-up omnivores (I’m using this in the biological, not normative, sense here) can have a truly guilt-free diet. There are just too many factors involved, especially for the now-majority of the world’s population that’s urbanized and increasingly ‘alienated from the means of production’ (I was just teaching on Marx…). This is not to say that some diets will have bigger or smaller ecological footprints–a diet that eats lower down on a food chain/web (whether sardines or soy, etc., depending) will, ceteris paribus, have a smaller net impact on the world’s biogeochemical systems, which are coming under increasing pressure as the world’s consumption patterns balloon. Rather, it’s just to point out the obvious fact that livings things keep living by converting other living things into usable energy. This will remain true until humans develop the means to become autotrophs.

More concretely, I want to return to two points from my previous post on Rorty. 1) that we live in a tragically configured moral universe, and 2) that the aesthetic private impulse and moralizing public impulse may not ultimately be reconcilable. Rorty would have us coexist comfortably with this uncomfortable knowledge–indeed, this is the main challenge for the liberal ironist–but the reason I bring this up here is to point out the disconnect between the foodie vocabulary and the vegan vocabulary, to the extent that both can be pinned down. In its most civic-minded manifestations, the former tries to bridge aesthetic-moral divide by embracing both food-as-pleasure and a certain kind of food ethics, while the latter is more specifically concerned with food as morals.

Food activists of an animal abolitionist bent would respond that ‘mere gluttony’ is not a sufficient ethical justification for what they perceive to be animal slavery, but I think there’s a problem here–food choices are deeply embedded in our social and cultural lives, and to dismiss them as gluttonous, full stop, is to drastically simplify a complex picture.

To return to the first point–Isaiah Berlin’s claim that we live in a tragically configured moral universe–the ethics of food choices are as complex as we’re willing to track the positive and negative externalities down the food supply chain. In my environmental studies class, I just had my students hand in a life cycle analysis paper (the assignment was to track the environmental costs of a given product from resource extraction through manufacturing through distribution through consumption through disposal, imagining improvements along they way wherever feasible). I’m not implying here that food activists–whether vegan, locavore, or other–don’t understand the moral complexity of their food choices. Many do. I’m just pointing out that the least harm principle gets very confusing very quickly, and the moral high ground can fade frustratingly into the distance.

To combat this risk of paralysis, different people inevitably prioritize different things to care about in there lives, and I think this is one of the reasons that there’s a lot of blowback about the moralization of food choices, at least in Tea Party-era America. For us to take seriously the idea that all of our consumption choices have ecological and ethical as well as economic impacts (broadly, these are the ‘three pillars’ of sustainable development: social, environmental, and economic) is to radically reconfigure what for many is a Lockean vision of property in which all this talk of ‘negative externalities’ is just more unwanted government interference.

For a case in point: the first comment I read on this recent post from The Oil Drum, “Beyond Food Miles”, misses the point entirely by writing “so much for the food miles idea.” Instead of denigrating locally produced food, this article could as easily be seen as a call to reduce at-home food energy costs (also keeping in mind that the study is only focusing on food energy, and not on the Nitrogen, water, or various other footprints). Similarly, one could look at a vegan diet comprised of soy products and vegetables and decry the murder of field mice killed in threshing machines, the deforestation of Amazonian rainforest and the resultant loss of animal habitat, and the human rights abuses of migrant laborers doing stoop labor all day. This would, of course, be an unfair caricature–one could look at the same scenario and see instead a Brazilian economic miracle that’s lifting millions out of extreme poverty. But caricatures are easy to remember, so they persist.

Vegans v. locavores ctd.

Ever since this piece came out a few weeks ago in the Atlantic, responses and counter-responses have been piling up in my Google Reader feed. Generally, many in the vegan crowd (as an aside: it deserves saying that Erik Marcus just happens to run Vegan.com, but he doesn’t speak for the range of vegan activists–indeed, I’ve read excoriating reviews, Francione-style, ‘accusing’ him of being a compromiser…usually not a good thing in the Manichaean world of  animal abolitionists) have, unsurprisingly, latched on to Myers’ broadside… unsurprisingly because Myers is himself vegan, a registered Green Party voter, and passing judgment from the curiously distant shores of South Korea. Locavores and compassionate carnivores like Nicollete Hahn Niman have, also unsurprisingly, taken up arms.

So who has the stronger argument? As with most such broadsides, I can’t help but feel that two vocal extremes are yelling past each other (or, as one of the comments put it, ‘one snobby elite attacking another snobby elite’), with everyone else sitting on the sidelines and scratching their heads. I think the generally angry responses to this piece interest me more than the piece itself, and partly I think it’s because Myers doesn’t clarify that his argument is essentially the same thing that Foer and Scully have said. And Scully actually said it better, if you can get past all the God talk:

Nobody likes being preached to, especially about meals and clothing. I sure don’t, and most of us who worry about animal welfare have learned to let the point [that people should dedicate their attention to ‘serious human causes’] go. But spare us the haughty airs. If moral seriousness is the standard, I for one would rather be standing between duck and knife than going to the mat in angry defense of a table treat…In fact, let us just call things what they are. When a man’s love of finery clouds his moral judgment, that is vanity. When he lets a demanding palate make his moral choices, that is gluttony. When he ascribes the divine will to his own whims, that is pride. And when he gets angry at being reminded of animal suffering that his own daily choices might help avoid, that is moral cowardice. (Dominion, 121)

This, to me, is pretty much what Myers is arguing; he’s doing it obliquely, though, and in the process he casts too wide a net, catching sustainability-minded locavores with unarguably good intentions and (somewhat more arguably, but still defensibly) good arguments along with the haute Paula Deen caricatures.

Hahn-Niman’s response closes with the following paragraph:

The odd set of bedfellows—from Palin to Myers—launching accusations of elitism at the food movement share at least one trait: they remain stubbornly, willfully clueless about the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people in every corner of the country who are reshaping America’s food system. Making nutritious, safe, and yes, delicious food available to all people inspires much of their passion. My husband and I have met these people in every region of the country. They are young people setting up diversified farms; chefs dedicated to local, sustainable sourcing; community members establishing farmers’ markets; mothers and fathers remaking public school lunch programs, and on and on. They come from all incomes and every ethnicity. Few have wealth or political power. This is the real food movement, and one Myers should come here to learn about.

This provides a fair defense of food activism’s positive social, ecological, and human health benefits. It doesn’t, however, fundamentally alter the fact that the socially conscious foodie-ism she describes can be most of the above and still be elitist. (And elitism can have its merits! But the resurgence of anti-elitist populism in its various forms is a topic for another day…) Pollan might be right when he says that we should pay $7 for a dozen eggs–I probably would, if I knew what kind of animal treatment I was shelling out for, but also because I buy eggs relatively infrequently–but abstract arguments about negative externalities and economies of scale usually can’t compete with budget constraints.

Locavore-on-vegan infighting aside, the response to Myers’ piece demonstrates that food choices are indeed migrating from the private ethic to the public ethic, pace populists and libertarians, but different actors have very different conceptions of what that ethic should be. And I didn’t even mention the techno-Panglossians or their trade liberalizing siblings.