Food

Can Humans Truly Connect With Nature by Eating a Big Mac?

A recent essay titled "Toward a Moral Case for Meat Eating" has attracted a lot of attention.

Big mac cow
Photo Credit: (L: urbanbuzz; R: Kimberley Rennie (Shutterstock)

Do we really need to kill other animals to connect with nature and with ourselves?

A recent essay by Sierra magazine editor Jason Mark titled "Toward a Moral Case for Meat Eating" has attracted a lot of attention. My email box has been "ringing" nonstop about it and, as of this writing, there are 172 comments of which numerous are extremely critical for a wide variety of reasons. Mr. Mark's essay is available online, so here are a few snippets that might get you to read the entire piece. I do not know Mr. Mark, and my comments here focus on what he writes, not on him as a person. 

Mr. Mark once experimented with vegetarianism, and now he is a born-again carnivore (please see, for example, "Dead Cow Walking: The Case Against Born-Again Carnivorism) who is driven by a belief system that psychologist Dr. Melanie Joy calls carnism

While Mr. Mark is not a fan of industrialized agriculture because it is incredibly abusive, he writes, "But we don’t have to abuse animals in order to raise them." This claim raised a red flag for me and many who wrote to me, as well as some of the people who commented on his essay. He also writes, we can continue eating meat in a way "that honors the sacrifice of animals and which respects animals’ instincts for a life worth living."

It's a double-cross to "humanely" raise an animal and then kill her or him for a meal: Would you do it to a dog?

After extolling in eulogy-like fashion the virtues of Dinner Bell Farm where happy pigs are humanely raised and then killed for food, Mr. Mark writes that this farm "could be mistaken for an animal sanctuary." However, what a huge mistake that would be, for the animals don't live there until they die. Rather they're shipped off to a slaughterhouse in Petaluma, California where they are killed. Mr. Mark writes:

I’ve never been to the Petaluma slaughterhouse, but I know that it has been certified by Animal Welfare Approved. A couple of times I’ve hung out with the owner, Dave Evans, and I know that he is passionate about animal welfare. From what Paul tells me, the animals that enter there experience no pain upon death. They are dispatched [sic] with what’s called the stun-kill method—a hammer to the head before the knife to the throat, the mind going dark in advance of the bloody work.  

The use of the impersonal word "dispatched" is sickening and makes the animal seem like they're nothing but an unfeeling object, and there is nothing that rings humane about being killed with "a hammer to the head." They are not being "killed softly."

Mr. Mark confesses, "For the pig, that’s the end. I imagine it’s horrifying; every mammal must suffer some fear at the ultimate moment. Yet the well-treated pig might have it easier than most humans." (my emphasis) So, because the pigs might have it easier than most humans (and I don't see how Mr. Mark or anyone really knows this), it's perfectly okay to slaughter them by beating them over the head for unneeded meals.

Recall Mr. Mark writes, " ...we don’t have to abuse animals in order to raise them." While this might be true, how about killing them by hammering and slicing them to death? Isn't this abusive? 

Furthermore, just because a killing facility is Animal Welfare Approved means very little about how the animals are actually treated, for it's well known that numerous such death traps have been found guilty of egregious violations of the few and minimal standards to which they are supposed to comply. Big Macs supposedly are humanely raised, transported, and killed. 

And, is this sort of death really "humane?" Would you do it to a dog? I would like to believe that just about everyone, including meat eaters, wouldn't ever tolerate a dog or other companion animal beings treated in such a violent way. Of course, food animals are no less sentient nor do they suffer less than the animals with whom we share our homes. Dogs wouldn't like being beaten to death and neither do other animals. 

Given that other animals suffer, is there any social good in killing animals for food?

Mr. Mark agrees that meat eating causes animals to suffer, so he wonders, "Might the suffering that animals experience in the course of being sacrificed for human food contribute to some other social good?" His answer is "a conditional yes." And, in these two paragraphs, he offers what could be called an apology to the animals.

By eating animals, we can remind ourselves of our animal natures. That recognition of our corporeal reality—the fact that we are flesh and blood and bones and skin, each of us ever on the way to very likely an unpleasant end—can, like few other things, keep us connected to the living earth. Surely such a connection is vital in an age of increasing dislocation between human civilization and non-human nature. When we kill other animals for our sustenance—as long as we do so with careful moral consideration— it can reinforce our interdependence with other species, linking humans to the rest of nature. And that linkage is a social as well as a trans-species good. 

By taking another animal’s life, we can attune ourselves to the laws of ecology, and the laws of the animal world of which we, as animals, are a part. Those laws state that everything is connected, and that there can be a harmonious balance in a natural food chain. Mindful meat eating plugs us into that chain, and connects us to the fates of other living beings. Paradoxical as it might sound, the conscientious carnivore can reestablish our moral obligations to the other species with whom we share this planet. Meat eating can be an ecological good insofar as the act reaffirms an environmental ethics that places other species’ interests alongside human interests. 

I find this justification to be all too anthropocentric, although Mr. Mark tries to weave in the nonhuman animals into this discourse. He also uses the word "we" as if he's speaking for all or most of humankind. He surely is not speaking for me or for just about everyone I know, carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike. 

The last sentence, "Meat eating can be an ecological good insofar as the act reaffirms an environmental ethics that places other species’ interests alongside human interests" is far too fast and glib for me. Are other animals really interested in being raised and then killed for human food? In his comment on this essay, art historian Stephen Eisenman aptly asks, "How many apologists does it take to turn an evil into a good?

At the end of his essay Mr. Mark writes:

As for animal rights versus animal welfare, I would argue that while every creature deserves the respect of a humane death, no animal has the right to live forever. Humans included. We, too, will end up as worm-food, the cycle of life and death turning once more. I can’t imagine a better end than having my ashes dumped in the compost pile, so that my bones might feed the soil that helps feed my family. 

If you find such a thought uncomfortable, then good. Mindful meat eating forces us to remember that we too—despite all of our rational powers and moral capacities—will eventually pass away. Through the commonality of death, we reaffirm our kinship with the other animals on Earth.

Of course, one could write volumes on these two paragraphs as they could do on Mr. Mark's essay, but here I just want to note that Mr. Mark having his "ashes dumped in the compost pile, so that my bones might feed the soil that helps feed my family" is far different from being hammered to death in a slaughterhouse. And, is the trip to a slaughterhouse and time spent there, where an individual waits to be beaten to death, really humane? No, they're not

The thought, "Through the commonality of death, we reaffirm our kinship with the other animals on Earth" leaves me hanging, so to speak. Surely, there are many ways other than violently slaughtering animals to reaffirm this kinship. 

We do not need to kill other animals to connect with nature and ourselves

I hope you will read Mr. Mark's essay and come to your own conclusions. I am utterly unconvinced that eating other animals plays any role in reminding "ourselves of our animal natures" or attuning "ourselves to the laws of ecology, and the laws of the animal world." It would be very useful for conservation psychologists and anthrozoologists to study these suggested relationships. And, what a misleading lesson for youngsters -- killing leads to connecting. 

No matter how humanely raised they are, the lives of nonhuman animals raised for food can be cashed out simply as "dead cow/pig/chicken walking." Whom we choose to eat is a matter of life and death. I think of the animals' manifesto as "Leave us alone. Don't bring us into the world if you're just going to kill us to satisfy your tastes."

We do not need to harm and kill other animals to connect with nature and ourselves. We can easily connect and rewild our hearts in numerous non-violent ways. So, let's get on with it and stop killing other animals. 

Personal/ad hominem comments will not be accepted. 

This article was originally published by Psychology Today.

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Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He is the author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Find him online at marcbekoff.com.