Meatlessness and Sustainability, Part 1

Ashley Thorne

The longer I live in the New York area, the more vegetarian friends I gain. I realize vegetarianism isn’t specifically a New York fad, but in the city that sets trends for the rest of the country, it’s especially in vogue. My mom, who lives in Texas, says she never thought to ask her dinner guests if they prefer a meatless meal; it simply isn’t an issue. But for me, a young wife learning to cook and trying to avoid faux pas among my modern friends in a progressive city, it is an issue.

And so it is on college campuses, the nation’s other politically correct trendsetters. Nearly sixty U.S. colleges and universities have adopted “Meatless Mondays” in their dining halls. Meatless Mondays is a national movement to encourage Americans to take a break from meat one day a week. It’s like a Twitter trend—think #FollowFriday. I suppose national fads with alliterative names are particularly appealing.

Vegetarianism has been a preference for individuals for a long time. In the past it was generally seen as an eccentric choice made by a fringe group of people. It was usually treated as personal, not as normative. Starting in the fifth century BCE, followers of the mathematician Pythagoras adhered to a diet free of meat and fish. So did some members of the early Christian church. Leonardo da Vinci, George Bernard Shaw, and Leo Tolstoy were also vegetarians. Today, the practice is much more evangelistic. Its advocates use shame to produce conformity, the way PETA has done with fur. We all see fur and instantly think “unethical!” That’s the direction vegetarianism (in its many forms and levels of extremity) is taking. Often we see the word “proud” associated with it.

Meatless Mondays, celebrities advertising their particular eating habits as a badge of honor, and new books by Michael Pollan and others aim to (1) standardize vegetarianism, (2) make vegetarianism cool, and (3) produce a “my-eyes-have-been-opened” effect . All this amounts to an aggressive effort to convert people in such a way as to cause them to think it was their idea.

Henry David Thoreau (who was not a strict vegetarian) wrote in Walden, “Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

Are herbivores more civilized? Whenever I learn that one of my friends is a vegetarian, I like to inquire the reason. I’m intrigued by the variety of answers I meet with. Health is the usual motive, but some people simply don’t like meat. One person said she was just grossed out by a scene in the movie Into the Wild in which the protagonist kills a moose but fails to preserve the carcass from spoiling. Interestingly, animal welfare is a motive I never hear.

Health plays a big role in driving the meatless movement nationwide. Among the benefits advertised for vegetarianism are improved digestion; decreased cancer, diabetes, and heart disease risk; and longer life. But the reason colleges give for going meatless is “sustainability.”

“Help us hold the university accountable for its promises of sustainability,” says a student at Wesleyan University in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, “Reforming the Carnivores.” The student is explaining how she persuades other students to approve campus activists’ efforts to vegetarize the college cafeteria.

What does vegetarianism have to do with sustainability? I’ve decided to find out.

To that end, I ordered the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, which three colleges (Duke University, Saint Michael’s College, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) assigned to students as common reading this year, and which UNC Classics professor Brendan Boyle praised in “Tolstoy in the Slaughterhouse.”

It arrived in the mail last week, its dazzling green cover the same color as most “fat free” labels on things like chocolate pudding containers. I’ve been stealing sidelong glances at it sitting on my desk and I just now got up the courage to thumb through and see how many pages it is. 267 – but the font is large.

Foer is a proponent of the idea that vegetarianism reduces “one’s ecological footprint.” I’m apprehensive about reading a book like this. I’m afraid there’ll be horror stories from slaughterhouses and butcher shops intended to gross me out. More than that, I’m afraid the author will win me over and I’ll become one of them, a vegetarian. While I tolerate vegetarianism in my friends, I think if I ended up converting to it I would feel like a traitor to my Texan roots and a sell-out to political correctness.

But I’m curious as to what Foer has to say that can be so attractive to the higher education world, so I’m diving in despite my fears of what this book may do to me. I’m especially interested in the arguments he’ll make connecting vegetarianism and eco-stewardship. I’ll give a report when I finish.

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