I have a third-degree sunburn and I want nothing more than to rest. I have been on the road for three weeks—a cross-country trip from Atlanta to the west gate of Yosemite to work on a goat farm, then through the redwood forest and back. As soon as I return to Atlanta, my body starts a revolt. I am violently ill, feverish, vomiting. Someone suggests a food allergy as the culprit. One by one, I cut out food items: dairy, gluten, alcohol. It’s not until I go meatless for two weeks that I emerge from this fog of illness. There is no clear why of the sudden aversion to meat. The internet suggests a bite from a lone star tick that shows up often as a meat allergy. I eat nothing but salads and nuts for weeks. I get better. I feel like a person. A week or two passes and hubris takes over: I eat meat. I feel fine. The illness does not return.
I have been concerned about animal welfare and happiness for years. I have shown Food Inc. to students in composition classes. I talked with friends about giving up meat. A pescetarian friend visited me in Atlanta and we talked about my partner and I talking about vegetarianism. The visiting friend asked why I haven’t switched yet, what’s holding me back. I did not have a satisfactory answer. Animal suffering should have been enough. I knew that cows develop friend relationships with each other and show signs of depression when their friends are taken to slaughter. I was a carnivore, almost with every meal.
I am Nebraskan by birth; some might say that eating meat is in our bones, our cells, our muscle memory. If anyone who has never visited Nebraska were to tell you anything about Nebraska, they might mention steak. My father grilled steak at least once each week growing up, no matter that it might be below zero and snowy in winter. He would shovel the porch and light the coals. We all sat and shared the meat as a family. I would cut away the pieces of fat and around veins.
Perhaps there’s something American in carnivorous diets. Daniel Penner, at Grist, t ried to figure this out . It isn’t in our wealth or in the abundance of farm subsidies. Meat-eating is tied up in colonialism and imperialism. Carnivorous diets are, in a sense, part of the American history of domination, violence, and expansion. More land equals more grazing space for livestock. More livestock equals more meat available to anyone who wants to eat meat. Calves may be slaughtered early on for veal while others are kept in crates that restrict movement or grooming and deny socialization. Beef cattle are slaughtered swiftly and efficiently so more meat is produced for consumption. Sows may be confined during pregnancy. Animals are castrated, horns are cut off and tails clipped. Chickens are kept with thousands of others in artificially lit sheds where brightness is meant to keep them from sleeping and to encourage eating and growth. They are born and bred for slaughter.
I decided to teach a class on food ethics and ecology, the theme around which I’d shape a composition course. I read material on animal suffering, on the racial and sexual politics of meat, and on avocado cartels. Again and again, I asked students, Does this knowledge affect your attitudes about eating meat? Again and again, they told me these things did not make them consider vegetarianism or pescetarianism. I later realized I could not ask students these questions without turning inward and interrogating myself.
I have a shelved novel I’ll probably never return to, a western about the life of Isom Prentice “Print” Olive, a little-known figure of the American West. According to Mari Sandoz’s book, The Cattlemen , Print and his brothers, along with their father, became some of the most prominent cattlemen in Texas; following the Civil War, he was one of largest landowners in the country. Olive’s story is one of violence as a method of taking, keeping, and controlling his land. Two men—Turner and Crow—were suspected of rustling cattle. Print wrapped the men in cowhides sporting the Olive brand and left them in the sun; they suffocated as their skins contracted. Bob Olive, Print’s brother, was killed in a gunfight when he went to confront two men, Ketchum and Mitchell, about a dispute. The men were hanged and burned by a mob led by Print, who was then called “Man Burner.”
What interests me now about this man, this story, is land ownership. The animal agriculture industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than our transportation . Beef “ requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer and 11 times more water ” than pork and chicken agriculture. Estimates claim that 45% of Earth’s land is covered by livestock. Others claim that animal agriculture is the greatest contributing cause to “ species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction .” Olive’s cattle are extensions of the violence—to people, to animals, to the land, to climate—carried out in the name of food.
Food is political. Plant-based agriculture uses far less land and water than livestock. But an overnight cessation of meat-eating could be catastrophic for the world economy. Raising beef could be more efficient in parts of New York state than a vegan diet. The locavore movement is often problematic and fails people of color and women. However, the links between food and climate change are staggering and they could very well mean the difference between thriving and destruction.
I have taught three different sections of this food ecology course. At some point, I ask students to develop an argument in response to this question: What are personal or societal impediments to personal change?
Privilege allows me to stop eating meat—I have easy access to fresh produce—but it also allows me to consume without real consequence. I show my students a Hardee’s commercial promoting their All-Natural Burger , where Charlotte McKinney walks through a city market. The commercial purposely makes it appear that McKinney is nude—ice, water spouts, and fruit (melons placed on a scale in front of her) all act to obstruct the fact that she is wearing a bikini top and shorts. Men in the market objectify her, and the images (such as the spraying water hose) are suggestive of sexual release. I show this commercial when we discuss Carol Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat . Adams writes that objectification allows oppressors to view beings as objects and that dissociation allows consumption. She writes: “Consumption is the fulfillment of oppression, the annihilation of will, of separate identity.” Invariably, there are male students who cheer or ask that I play the commercial again. We talk about rape culture and objectification. Many male students have difficulty with these topics. They often do not speak up or engage the commercial or discussion critically. They do not have to. We do not have to.
In The Faraway Nearby , Rebecca Solnit writes, “[e]mpathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you.” I cannot help but feel that as I eat meat, I fail to see and empathize with other people. I distance myself as a body with impenetrable boundaries. Print Olive killed men who crossed the boundaries of his land. A man closes himself off—erects (imaginary) boundaries around himself—and empathy disappears. That lack of empathy breeds violence. It’s easy to close one’s self off, to think only or mostly only of the self, but empathy can be a radical act.
I eat fish, even though overfishing threatens oceans and whole species of marine life. I eat cheese despite knowing that dairy cows are mistreated. I eat eggs. I do not know that veganism is right for everyone and I worry that ardent advocacy for vegetarianism is itself evidence of privilege. I woke up with a hangover and ate a double cheeseburger out of a selfish desire to feel well, even though I have no reason to believe there’s a real connection between meat and curing a hangover. Eating fish or cheese or a cheeseburger out of desire are compromises. I can enjoy this, still, even if I feel I should not. We make pacts with ourselves daily concerning just how much change we are willing to make. Empathy is a choice, and it is one we often opt for comfort over.
I eliminated foods to single out the source of my fever and sleeplessness and vomiting and pain. Pain is a symptom, and striking it out requires finding the cause. In my case, the pain was temporary. Meat caused these symptoms, but would not always. I ate meat again and it took another year and a half until I stopped. When we are in pain, we communicate less and withdraw from others. It is easy to see pain in others, too, and dissociate from them. We eat meat and tell ourselves these bodies are just burger, ham, filets. Pain—in us or between us and the bodies around us—is distancing. It is easy to wrap that distance, that disconnection, around us. To name the source of pain is to seek out its erasure. In others, however, we might see pain as a chance for connection, not distance. To close the span between me and the pain in another is to embrace understanding.
I still eat meat despite what I know about the harm to animals and the environment. Eating is tied so heavily to socialization, which sticks with us and often goes unquestioned. I returned to meat because it comforts me, and it is tied to the associative comfort of family. For thirty-four years, part of my identity was tied up in how I ate, but that identity is different now. I had to take the step of seeing the capacity for harm in me. I had not eaten red meat for six months until I fell back. I thought I’d find comfort in the act of eating. There was mourning in that act, a momentary rebuilding of that old wall, a re-establishment of those old boundaries. I have not eaten meat today. The next bite, every bite, is capable of violence, and I have to choose to turn away.