Thursday, December 31, 2009

Responses to "Ethical Implosion"

I had a feeling my previous post would get more comments than usual...

I was responding in the comments, but I noticed my response was starting to get longer than the original blog post. So I figured I'd start a whole new post to answer the comments, and elaborate on my situation and where I am coming from.

I'll start with just a couple of quick responses, with the meat of this post below the fold.

gerwitz said:
Someone has to start social change.

Well duh, but that doesn't stop it from sucking for those who do. Someone has to be an early adopter of new technologies too, and those people generally get fucked (e.g. my friend who bought a Series 3 TiVo, only to see the TiVo HD released less than a year later with more features and a third the price). The fact that "somebody" has to do it is cold comfort when you are the one paying the price -- whether we're talking about something as trivial as DVRs or as important as climate change.

Sabio Lantz wonders about one of my remarks:
"I'm a reasonable man."

I just mean, I may have my faults and foibles, but I'm a good dad and a good husband and I pay my bills and go to work, and I'm not a thief or a crackhead or anything. The worst things I do are that I pirate music sometimes, I almost never remember to bring the reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, I lose my temper a little too easily, and I eat and drink a little too much. I'm a reasonable man.

Also, at one point in arguing with my wife I unexpectedly found myself quoting Radiohead...

Joel said:
The idea that air travel is "unethical" because it causes pollution seems bizarre to me. Is there an ethical imperative not to pollute ever?

I'm actually way less worried about that one, and it's not been an issue for my family, i.e. we both agree that flying is necessary sometimes and well worth the trade-off. It was just frustrating stumbling on that comment at Bjørn's blog when I was already undergoing ethical overload. Just as I have posted at least three times about how my visceral need (as opposed to the rational need) to speak out about religion is fueled by the ubiquity of religious exposure, I find it similarly frustrating to find that a lot of every day choices are, if you look beneath the surface, infused with hidden political and ethical implications. In the same way as I feel I can't escape religion, I sometimes feel I can't escape considering the ethics of my choices, even for a day.

Of course, there is an important difference, in that religion is all made up, while many of the ethical and social and environmental problems facing humanity are all too real... But that doesn't make it any less annoying that I find myself constantly confronted with it!

And now on to the tough stuff. Joel also said:
Also, guilt only works if you let it.

Heh, this is true... but I also don't feel I want to be the person who lives any kind of life I want without regard to the effect on society and on the planet. Of course it's a balancing act, and one can only do one's best. One needs to decide what is important to each one of us -- and that's the crisis I'm having right now, is I'm so overwhelmed with all of the factors in play (see my response below about The Vegetarian Myth for just how complicated it can get) that I am having trouble telling what is important to me. Add to that a bitter spousal dispute over household diet, and... yeah, it pretty much sucks right now.

Sabio Lantz continued:
Suggestion: Challenge your wife to read:
The Vegetarian Myth before she insists her whole family follows HER fanatic trip !

So without having read the book, but only reading the description on Amazon... This might be interesting, but I worry this would mean we'd just need to buy more expensive produce :D

I'm already aware that the argument about meat production being inherently inefficient (calorie-wise) is bogus. Humans can't eat grass, and you can't plant human-edible crops on every square inch of land that is undeveloped. Furthermore, massive agricultural monocultures -- be they organic or conventional -- can be just as devastating to the local environment as most factory animal farms (except perhaps pig farms, which are an unmitigated disaster -- but my wife and I long ago mutually agreed to mostly give up pork, except for wild boar and occasionally a bit from local farms where the pigs are pasture-raised).

But the rebuttal to the "efficiency" argument mostly falls apart when you are talking about modern factory farming. Cows fed on corn are most definitely less efficient calorie-wise (even though the varieties of corn fed to cattle is not generally fit for human consumption, that doesn't mean the same land couldn't be used for human-edible agriculture). Which is why -- again, mutually agreed -- my wife and I decided to mostly avoid factory-farmed meat and try to buy from small operations at local farmer's markets.

This was the position held by both my wife and I until quite recently. The problem was that for Christmas she got the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer acknowledges the points above, visits small animal farms raising animals in a sustainable and ethical manner, and agrees that this is a good thing (though he points out -- and I was already aware of this, but had decided this was not enough on its own to make me give up meat -- that all the animals go the same slaughterhouses, the conditions of which are not well-regulated and in many cases are highly problematic).

But Foer goes on to argue that in practice it is virtually impossible to be a meat-eater and never eat factory farmed meat. (And indeed, though my wife and I mostly eat meat from operations where we can feel good about it, in practice it has turned out to be anything but a hard and fast rule) He argues that anyone who wishes to avoid participating in the factory farming industry must for all practical purposes become a vegetarian.

To be honest, I think this is a reasonably solid argument. My only response is to ask, what is the goal? Is it to push for change, or is it to remain ethically pure? Of course, my wife called me out on the fact that my invocation of "purity" was a form of begging the question, but I think, perhaps phrased in a less confrontational way, this is still the central question, and the one my wife and I answer differently. For her, the idea that she is playing a part in unnecessarily unpleasant and unsanitary conditions, that she's supporting an industry with highly dubious (and viscerally disgusting) practices, is the paramount concern. And taking that as a given, I think Foer's argument more or less holds.

I can't actually in good conscience say that my paramount concern is enacting change, though I do feel that, as far as rationalizations go, I've got a pretty damn good one: If you are a vegetarian, the mainstream meat industry does not consider you a potential customer. You're dead to them. On the other hand, if enough people starting buying meat only from local farms with more sustainable and ethical practices, the mainstream meat industry will say, "What can we do to capture this market?"

Still, I must admit my paramount concern is just that I love food and I love cooking. My wife's argument that meats are just a few foods, and that there are a whole world of vegetables, is frankly fucking bullshit. Blue is just a few shades, and there is a whole rainbow of other colors, but if somebody told me I could never see the color blue again, I'd kick them right in the nards. And there's more to it even than that, which I won't bother to go into here since this post is already getting really long.

My wife either backed off from saying she wants me to go vegetarian, or else I misunderstood her. Well, I might argue that her continuing position that she "hopes" I might feel the same way is a de facto request, when it comes from a spouse, but in any case that's not a central bone of contention. Mostly she was upset because she felt that I responded with hostility and derision to one of her aspirations, and she wants me to be supportive. I didn't mean to be hostile or derisive -- mostly I was just glum, because if I'm the only person in the house who eats meat that means in practice I won't be able to enjoy cooking meat the way I have in the past, and furthermore I think it's pretty fucking fair for a foodie to be a little unhappy that his wife is renouncing meat altogether -- but I also need to remember that my wife and I mean different things by the words we use, and often I interpret her comments to be far more definite than they are.

For example, if I say, "I'm ready to go", that means I can walk out the door in less than thirty seconds, or else I'll be apologizing because I forgot something; whereas if I she says, "I'm ready to go", that means sometime in the next ten minutes. By the same token, though, if she says, "Maybe we should consider exercising some more," I tend to hear, "Get off your fat ass now, you lazy slob!", when of course it's unreasonable to interpret it that way. The biggest two lessons I have gotten out of this are a) whenever I think my wife is making a demand I should interpret it as a suggestion, and whenever I think she is making a suggestion I should interpret it as just brainstorming; and b) my first response to any idea my wife has, no matter how shitty I think the idea is, ought to be questions rather than rejection. This latter part is both so that I will be less rude, and also because, as I described above, my wife and I mean different things by the same words sometimes...

The gorilla left in the room is what to do about our son. He's only ten months old right now, so I'm not that concerned if he eats a purely vegetarian (not vegan!) diet. But when he gets a little older, it is really important to me that I be allowed to share with him the full palette of flavors and food experiences, and someday the experience of cooking meat. (I'm sorry, but there is nothing in the vegetarian world that is remotely like the experience of braising a beautiful piece of short ribs or chuck roast, seeing this tough fatty piece of meat transformed into a buttery, savory treat... Braised vegetables are total ass in comparison)

We've discussed some of how this might work, and I think we'll be able to make it happen. My wife would love it if I took him hunting or fishing before consuming our bounty, or take him to a cattle farm (preferably the one we'd be buying he meat from) to meet a cow and explain that it helps transform the grass into something we can eat, etcetera. I agree this would be a lovely experience, though I don't want it to be an absolute prerequisite, and there could be some disconnect about appropriate ages. (Though I do hope to be able to talk frankly to my son about things like the reality of eating animals from as young an age as reasonably possible..)

Luckily, we have a few years to work that one out.

And one last quip from Joel:
Running the heater in the winter pollutes, is that unethical?

Hey, don't laugh, I have a friend who is really worried about this and struggling to find the least carbon-emitting method of keeping their pipes from freezing. He won't even let his wife get a stove with gas burners, because then they'd need to get a propane tank (they live out in the middle of nowhere) and he'd rather use electricity, since around here it mostly comes from sustainable sources (nuke and hydro -- I know hydro in general has it's own problems with environmental destruction, but in this case I'm talking about Niagara Falls, which is pretty much free sustainable power).

So yeah... some people DO worry about it all the time. In a way I admire that, but it's not for me. No sir, not at all.


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