Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lierre Keith’s Vegetarian Myth: Nostalgie de la Boue

There have been many theorists who have pointed to some specific revolution in history and proclaimed that it was the moment when everything started to go wrong. Some would denounce the recent digital revolution as the start of a downward trend, but others would go further back and attack the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, or the Reformation. A recent movement would push the date even further back to the Neolithic Revolution, the point when humans first developed agriculture. Two of the best known writers in this genre are Derrick Jensen and John Zerzan. Evidently, even Jared Diamond, the author of the bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, wrote an article supporting an anti-agricultural view. Fellow travellers promote a “Paleolithic” diet, similar to the Atkins diet insofar as it largely consists of animal protein and shuns carbohydrates. One of the latest additions to this movement is Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth, a polemical and confessional work from an ex-vegan. In this book, Keith describes her gradual conversion to the view that agriculture is unsustainable and that it brings about more death and suffering than hunter-gatherer modes of subsistence do. She also describes the process by which she came to accept the notion that her many health problems were a result of her vegan diet.

One general objection I have to Keith’s book is that her thesis is essentially utopian and unrealistic. She calls for the elimination of all agriculture, saying that this is the only way the planet can be saved. Repeating a familiar Marxist view about revolution, she says that this change will not happen through educating people and changing their ideas but through communities of people changing institutions. In this case, one wonders why she wrote a book. Perhaps she realized that communities are unlikely to make institutional changes of the type she envisions because hardly anyone shares her goal to begin with. I don’t think it can be seriously maintained that most people, or even most workers, most poor people, or most mothers will ever come to have the goal of bringing an end to agriculture worldwide. As many would be opposed to a revolution seeking to dismantle agricultural society, and as it would require the destruction of economies around the world, such a revolution would surely involve considerable violence and suffering as well. Keith would probably reply that agricultural societies themselves are at least as violent and that they are unsustainable besides. This could be debated, but as the worldwide reversion of societies to their condition in Paleolithic period is not going to happen, the debate would be purely theoretical. Keith really does a disservice to people who might otherwise be likely to support more realistic goals, such as advocating more sustainable forms of agriculture, instilling them with the belief that only a radical change in world culture will suffice. This could easily lead people into despondency when they realize how unlikely it is that this radical change will occur and how much suffering it would involve if it did occur.

To support her case that agricultural modes of subsistence must be eliminated, Keith offers arguments based on what she describes as an “animist ethic”. This evidently involves the view of the whole world as alive and imbued with spirit. To support this view, she provides accounts of nature laced with anthropomorphisms (examples from page 36 include the claims that trees try to make a forest, that grasses want a prairie, and that water aches for wetlands). These accounts include assertions about vegetation that Keith presents as overwhelming evidence for plant consciousness. It should be noted that almost every citation she gives to support her claims on this topic refers to the same book, a work by Stephen Harrod Buhner. As plants do not have central nervous systems, or even so much as ganglions, they cannot be said to be conscious in the literal sense of that word. Keith seems to recognize this tacitly, as she avoids claiming outright that plants are conscious and instead poses rhetorical questions: “Why don’t we want to include plants in the circle of us?” (p. 90) She also confesses that the view of plants as conscious is something “spiritual” and that it must be based on experiences rather than arguments (p. 30). If she wants to take this “spiritual” view based on experiences, I have no great objection, but she cannot then make claims like her assertion that the difference between her and vegetarians is that she is informed and vegetarians are not (p. 16). People can have all kinds of experiences of things real or illusory; no experience of itself makes one informed. She also poses a false dichotomy, implying that you either regard plants as conscious or you look at them as dead matter to be manipulated (p. 92).

Apart from decrying the damage that agriculture wreaks on insentient objects such as soil and plants, Keith also mentions that the conversion of wild lands to agricultural fields ends up killing animals, either directly by activities such as tilling the soil or indirectly by depriving them of their homes. She apparently doesn’t draw a moral distinction between the killing of animals in such instances and the deliberate killing of animals for food, and it seems that she therefore doesn’t draw a moral distinction between actions whose aim is not violence but which can be expected to result in violence and actions whose deliberate aim is violence. Failing to make such a distinction leads to absurdities, though. For example, if one sets up a legal system, no matter how excellent it may be, the imperfections of the real world will be such that it will still result in acts of injustice such as the imprisonment or death of innocent people. But this cannot be seriously equated with the deliberate imprisonment and execution of innocent people. Likewise, if one goes to war, no matter how careful one is about preventing harm to civilians, civilians will be injured and killed. This cannot be equated with the deliberate murder of civilians, though.

In order to provide an additional argument to establish that agriculture requires death, Keith offers a narrative about her gardening hobby in the days when she was a vegan, leading to a description of her discovery that modern fertilizers can contain blood meal and bone meal. She seems to think that this will come as a disturbing revelation to vegetarians and vegans everywhere and cause them as much cognitive dissonance as it did her. However, I have been a vegetarian for over twenty-two years and I have known about this since the beginning of my vegetarianism. I also don’t see it as a threat to my vegetarian principles. The reason why Keith thinks that the use of blood meal and bone meal in fertilizers threatens vegetarianism is that she attributes the views that she had when she was a vegan to all people who are vegetarians for moral reasons, seeing them as utopians trying to change the world and remove all death from it (p. 14, 16, 18). This is really setting up a straw man, though, for I have never seen my vegetarianism as part of a project to remove death from the world. My principle has always been that if it isn’t necessary to kill animals for food, clothing, medicine, or other means of survival, then it is wrong to do so, and when it is necessary to kill them, then it should only be done to the extent that it is necessary and in a manner that inflicts as little suffering on the animal as is possible. If this principle were enacted worldwide, then I think it is likely that in some parts of the world people would still kill animals for food and clothing. Speculating about such a situation is mainly of theoretical interest, though, for by following this principle I am not committed to the attempt to establish it as a law followed by all people.

Given that vegetarianism need not be a utopian movement to remove all death from the world, it isn’t clear how the use of blood meal and bone meal to grow plants is supposed to threaten vegetarianism. If plants are grown with blood meal, this does not mean that they are themselves blood meal in anything other than a metaphorical sense. If we want maintain that the plants are blood meal, then we can also assert that the cow’s blood is actually grass, so there is no problem. But let us be serious. Keith’s point seems to be that the production of plant food requires the killing of animals, although she admits that plants can be fertilized with manure, compost, or artificial fertilizers as well. My admittedly cursory research on the subject indicated that fertilization with bone and blood meal didn’t occur on a large scale until the Industrial Revolution, when large amounts of slaughterhouse by-products could be obtained, processed, and transported. It could be that in some parts of the world agricultural methods would require fertilizing the soil with the by-products of animal slaughter, but as a vegetarian I need not aim at a utopia in which all death is eliminated. It might be argued that by eating plants fertilized with blood and bone meal one is indirectly supporting the kinds of intensive meat production called “factory farming”. In fact, it is hard to avoid supporting this industry in our culture. For example, books could have glue in the spine made with gelatin, soap could be made with fish oils, and the foam in fire extinguishers could be made with slaughterhouse blood. But buying books and washing with soap is not comparable to supporting the industry by eating factory farmed meat, for it is unlikely that the industry could survive as such if it only sold by-products.

The problem doesn’t seem to be that Keith has no compassion, but rather that she suffers a great deal from her compassion. Describing her life as a vegan, Keith recounts an episode in which she lifted a rock in her garden to see that she had disturbed an ant colony and confesses that she had trouble holding back her tears as she watched the worker ants scurrying to carry the larva away. She also tells the story of her attempts to protect her garden from slugs without killing them and how she went so far as to put them in buckets and drive them to a nearby forest, all the while trying to avoid the nagging thought that they would die in the woods anyway. She says that she had trouble eating seeds and nuts because she felt she was eating a plant’s “babies”. She mentions that she once contemplated becoming a breatharian, a person who supposedly utilizes esoteric practices to live on breath and sunlight alone. She presents her current view as an “adult” one that comes to accept the necessity of death, but my impression is that she still hasn’t come to terms with death. I am not opposed to the killing of animals for food in every circumstance, but I would say that in the cases in which it is acceptable, killing an animal is an unfortunate but understandable necessity—the animal doesn’t offer itself to be killed. Keith, it seems to me, couldn’t bear to accept this view of the world as a place in which survival may depend on “domination” and “exploitation”. She needed to view the killing of an animal as part of a beautiful compact that the animal had entered into, one in which the animal allows us to kill it if we agree to become prey ourselves at some point (e.g. p. 23-24, 271). By “becoming prey” Keith apparently means that we will die, be buried, and become part of the soil. She resents not being allowed a “sky burial”, meaning that it is currently illegal to dispose of corpses by exposing them to the elements (p. 24).

Keith implies that her “animist ethic” is the same as the worldview of “indigenous cultures”. At one point she identifies it with the worldview of the ancient Mayans (5), which is strange as the Mayans are mainly famous for having founded a civilized, agricultural society in the New World. I doubt that her animism has much to do with the religious ideas and practices of Native American cultures, though. The sense of relatedness to plants and animals described in accounts of many indigenous American cultures has more to do with the totemism of tribal systems than an ethic of leaving a light ecological footprint. Some have theorized that the extinction of New World megafauna at the end of the last ice age was a result of the hunting practices of the newly arrived Clovis humans (although this theory remains controversial). Somewhat less controversial is evidence of hunting practices at buffalo jumps, which appears to upset the view that Native Americans only killed as many animals as they could use. Whatever the case may be, these archaeological observations would not imply any moral condemnation of Native Americans, who like all other people developed methods for surviving in their environments as best they could. It is absurd to consider such observations racist, as some have done, and one is not doing Native Americans any favours by romanticizing them to serve one’s own ends.

The goal of returning to a pre-agricultural society seems to have a strange contradiction at its core. Keith’s arguments about change coming through activism rather than education notwithstanding, this goal rests on a view of humans as capable of conceiving an ideal type of society and remaking their societies through the use of reason and free will. Such a view is a relatively recent product of modernity and therefore a product of the kinds of society that Keith and her ilk say they oppose. Hunter-gatherer and pastoral societies are based on institutions such as tribal systems established by tradition and preserved as sacred. The notion of a revolutionary remaking of society from the ground up would make no sense in such a context, and so it isn’t clear how it could be said to reflect the ethos of hunter-gatherers.

Another main objection I have to Keith’s book is that many of her arguments commit the genetic fallacy. She cites a theory which suggests that the switch to a diet of meat made it possible for hominids to develop the type of brains characteristic of modern humans, implying that if we don’t eat meat now we will not be fully human. Yet even if humans developed certain traits by eating meat, this does not mean they must now eat meat to maintain those traits. Furthermore, it should be noted that the theory Keith cites is being debated by anthropologists and that there are rival theories that Keith does not mention. A relatively recent overview of research on Paleolithic and Neolithic modes of subsistence is found in this article. She also mentions that the Neolithic Revolution and the beginnings of agriculture first resulted in a decline in health in humans, implying that lifestyles in modern agricultural societies will necessarily also result in worse health than that enjoyed by Paleolithic humans. This conclusion doesn’t follow, for technology and knowledge in agricultural societies today make possible very different diets and lifestyles from those of agriculturalists in the Neolithic.

We should be skeptical about arguments that appeal to human evolution to come up with conclusions about what we are “meant” to do. Vegetarians have often used this kind of argument to conclude that we aren’t meant to eat meat, and it is the type of argument Keith relies on in many cases to arrive at the opposite conclusion. The study of the human body as it exists today is the most useful method for figuring out what kinds of diets are best for humans to eat now. The study of the sketchy record of human evolution in the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods is primarily suited to explaining why the human body is this way.

The medical experts I have spoken to regard diets like the Atkins Diet and the Paleolithic Diet as fad diets. After the low fat diet craze, when people found that they were not losing weight by eating low-fat treats loaded with sugar, the pendulum of fashion swung towards diets like the Atkins diet, high in fat and low in carbohydrates. Traditional medical advice is less exciting: losing weight is still fundamentally a matter of burning more calories than one takes in, and the recommended diet is a balanced one low in saturated fats and low in simple carbohydrates. Meat can be a part of such a diet, but it need not be. The choice to be vegetarian simply requires ensuring that one gets enough minerals such as iron and vitamins such as B12. Agriculture and civilization may have made it possible for people to have unhealthy lifestyles, but a person who lives in a civilized agricultural society today does not have to embrace such a lifestyle.

In the fourth chapter of her book, Keith tries to establish that a vegetarian diet is necessarily unhealthy. However, in this chapter I found questionable assertions and evidence of very sloppy research. At one point she responds to a statistic commonly given by vegetarians, one which indicates that Seventh Day Adventists, whose religion recommends vegetarianism, live on average seven years longer than the general population. Keith makes a fair point when she notes that this could be the result of other lifestyle choices, for Seventh Day Adventism also recommends exercise and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. She then claims that you have to compare Seventh Day Adventists to a group that has a similar lifestyle but which consumes meat. Then she asserts that Mormons have the same lifestyle with the exception that they eat meat, and she argues that they live longer than Seventh Day Adventists. I would expect that she would reference a scientific study that compared the two populations to support this claim. However, she references a book The Culprit and the Cure by Steven Aldana, and the author of that work refers to two different studies. One study is by Gary Fraser and David Shavlik, who studied Seventh Day Adventists and reportedly found that the men observed lived 7.3 years longer than the national average and that the women observed lived 4.4 years longer than the national average. The other study is by James E. Enstrom, who studied a cohort of Mormons and reportedly found that the men observed lived 11 years longer than comparable American males and that the women observed lived 7 years longer than comparable American females.

One of the main problems with Keith’s direct comparison of these two studies is that she assumes they measured the same variables and that the two cohorts observed had the same lifestyles with the exception that all the members of the Seventh Day Adventist cohort were vegetarian and all the members of the Mormon cohort were meat-eaters. In fact, in the study by Fraser and Shavlik referenced by Aldana, all of the cohort were white, non-Hispanic Seventh Day Adventists, but only 28% of the men and 31% of the women were vegetarian (defined as never eating meat or eating meat less than once a month). Fraser and Shavlik conducted a multivariate analysis, comparing several variables such as exercise, abstinence from smoking, consumption of nuts, and vegetarianism. The study found that each of the variables measured contributed to a higher life expectancy at age 30. When all covariates were at medium risk levels, vegetarianism resulted in 1.53 extra years in men and 1.51 extra years in women. Thus, contrary to Keith’s claims, the study was able to exclude the influences of other healthy lifestyle choices and demonstrate that vegetarianism contributes to a longer life. Aldana evidently understood this, and on page 6 of his book he claims that studies show being a vegetarian will result in 1.5 extra years. Although Keith herself references Aldana’s book, she evidently overlooks this.

It should also be noted that when Aldana gives a figure comparing the life expectancy of Seventh Day Adventists to the national average, he is citing a figure that compares the life expectancy of all the Seventh Day Adventists studied and the life expectancy of other white Californians. When offering this figure, Aldana misleadingly refers to the Seventh Day Adventist group as “these vegetarians”, but in fact only about 30% of the cohort were vegetarian. According to Fraser and Shavlik’s study, the life expectancy of vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist men was 9.5 years higher than that of other white Californians and the life expectancy of vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist women was 6.1 years higher than average. When the other risk factors measured in the study were at intermediate levels, then the vegetarian men and women had respective life expectancies 11.5 years and 9 years higher than average. Keith evidently did not check the original article by Fraser and Shavlik and simply repeated the figure offered by Aldana assuming that it referred to vegetarians alone.

In the second study referred to by Aldana, James E. Enstrom observed a cohort of Mormons in California from 1980 to 1987 and compared the number of deaths of the Mormons during this period to the number of deaths in the population of white Californians, expressing the difference in terms of standardized mortality ratios. It is mentioned in the study that Mormonism recommends a lifestyle outlined in the Word of Wisdom, which says that meat should be eaten sparingly but which does not proscribe its consumption. However, meat consumption was not one of the variables measured in the study. Aldana describes the results of this study, but he also makes the aforementioned claim about the life expectancy of the cohort, which isn’t mentioned in the original article by Enstrom. As Aldana did not provide a citation for the numbers on life expectancy, I did some research and found that around 1997 Enstrom was interviewed in popular publications claiming that in a follow-up study of the healthiest of the Mormons he originally observed, he discovered that they had a life expectancy 8-11 years longer than that of the general population of white Americans. As far as I could see, Enstrom did not publish the results of this follow-up study in a peer reviewed journal until 2007 (a couple of years after Aldana published his book). By that time, he had observed the group from 1980 to 2004. In the 2007 paper he again claimed that the “optimum subgroup” of Mormons had a greater life expectancy than that of comparable white Americans, but there he indicated that the men’s life expectancy was 9.8 years higher than average and the women’s was 5.6 years higher. Keith takes her figures straight from Aldana’s book, repeating the numbers that seem to come from early reports before the final results were published in a peer reviewed journal.

People sympathetic to Keith’s ideas could object that I have just picked out one of the statistics that she gave and that I have yet to refute the countless other statistics in her book (although another review that accuses Keith of substandard research can be found here). I will admit that I have had neither the time nor the motivation to check all of the citations that she gave. It is an extremely time-consuming process to check citations and to hunt down and read the original research they are based on. This is especially the case when dealing with the style of writing employed by Keith and favoured by polemicists of all persuasions. She offers waves of statistics without providing an adequate account of their context, failing to describe the nature of the original research and the nature of the debates in the relevant literature. I don’t believe that Keith’s supporters have checked all of her citations either, though. They like her conclusion, and so they will assume that her arguments are sound and her research strong. I suspect that we will find her sympathizers repeating her claims about Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons, citing her book for support and consequently appealing to a source even further removed from the original research papers. I have concluded that it isn’t worth my time checking all her citations, for her thesis is utopian, her arguments are generally unsound, and the citations that I did take the time to check revealed sloppy research. I should also mention that the tone of her writing is often vituperative and condescending and that her prose is consequently very irritating to read. I believe I’ve already devoted more time to her book than it really deserves.