December 21, 2012

An ethical blind spot of the locavores

John Sanbonmatsu writes:

Kill Bill. And Lou, too.

That's what officials at Green Mountain College, in Poultney, Vt., decided to do to the two affectionate oxen on the college's working farm after one of the animals, Lou, sustained a minor leg injury over the summer. The college, whose reputation rests on its sustainable-agriculture program, announced that both oxen would be "processed" into hamburgers for the student cafeteria.

The case of Bill and Lou adds a new wrinkle to America's debate about the ethics of eating meat. For the first time, the public has been asked to consider whether the lives of farm animals matter, and not merely their quality of life. The story of the two oxen shows us why they do.

For decades, animal advocates struggled to bring public awareness to the horrific conditions on so-called "factory farms," where billions of sensitive animals languish in squalor and misery. While 99 percent of all meat consumed in the U.S. still comes from factory farms, consumers are increasingly uneasy with "farming" that treats animals viciously and is an ecological catastrophe.

Stepping into this growing breach between our stomachs and our moral sensibilities come the locavore and sustainability food movements. Such Bestsellers as Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" have reassured consumers that they can have their meat and their consciences, too, by choosing "humane" animal products "grown" on organic local farms. The crisis of animal agriculture, it is argued, can be solved through "organic beef," backyard chicken coops and do-it-yourself slaughter.

In reality, studies suggest that raising and killing billions of animals for human consumption is ecological bad news no matter how it's done, whether on small family farms or in concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs). Cows grazed on pasture, for example, produce more carbon emissions per capita than grain-fed animals in intensive confinement.

Confronted with such inconvenient facts, however, locavores maintain that we have but two choices -- to eat animals "locally" or to eat them industrially. As Green Mountain's provost, William Throop, was quoted as saying in an Oct. 29 New York Times article about the situation, the college must choose "either to eat the animals that we know have been cared for and lived good lives or serve the bodies of nameless animals we do not know."

But the omnivore's dilemma is a false one. We could simply choose not to eat meat at all. Why then do locavores pretend that we only have two choices?

Perhaps because they have no good arguments to justify the violence required to run even a small-scale, organic animal farm -- the use of whips, nose-rings, barbed wire, castration, brandings with hot irons, decapitation by ax or knife. The absence of good reasons for their views may explain why locavores eschew moral philosophy for poetical reveries on the "cycle of life." As Green Mountain's provost put it, "Bill and Lou are not pets but part of an intimate biotic community" based on "relationships of care and respect."

However, there is something Orwellian about depicting animals like Bill and Lou as members of an "intimate community" of "care and respect," while moving with great institutional dispatch to shoot them in the head, cut their throats, bleed them to death, and serve them as burgers. Lip-service to "care" aside, the lives of Bill and Lou have been viewed with such low regard by Green Mountain that when a local animal sanctuary offered to take the oxen so that they might live out the rest of their lives in peace, the college flatly refused, explaining that, were the oxen permitted to live, they "would continue to consume resources at a significant rate, and as a sustainable farm" the college couldn't let that happen.

Merely to let Bill and Lou exist, in other words, would be to violate the college's virtuous circle of sustainability. As "living tools" -- Aristotle's definition of a slave -- Bill and Lou have had no value beyond their perceived usefulness. Once their ecological outputs exceeded their inputs, they became as dispensable as rusty farm implements. And so they must die.

Left unexplored in this chilling logic is why the human animals living and working on Green Mountain's campus, each responsible for a far greater carbon footprint than Bill and Lou combined, do not deserve similarly ruthless treatment. The average American generates 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year, far more even than the average dairy cow. Are we therefore "unworthy" of life? Or do we not recognize something vital about consciousness, all consciousness, that lends it a value beyond reduction to abstract efficiency ratios?

Year after year, Bill and Lou, lovely, gentle, intelligent, feeling beings, were coerced by their human overseers to labor for the college. They ploughed its rain-laden fields and pulled its heavy equipment, in inclement weather and in all seasons. The college then decided to "repay" this debt by cutting their throats and dismembering them, so that in this way they might be exploited one last time, in death too.

It is this grotesque and unfeeling utilitarian logic that accounts for the public outcry against Green Mountain's treatment of the oxen. It offends our sense of justice when "even" farm animals are treated with such ingratitude and casual brutality.

Alas, protests and petitions could not save Lou. In November, Green Mountain announced that it had "euthanized" Lou and buried his body in secret, claiming that his injury was causing him "discomfort." Bill has been granted a temporary stay of execution. The college won't say what it plans to do with him.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that the locavores have failed to dissolve the troubling ethical questions at the heart of animal agriculture, organic or not. Locavore critics assure us that it is morally acceptable to raise and kill other animals for food, provided that the latter have had a "good enough" life before being sent to slaughter. But they have not told us why.

environment, environmentalism, animal rights, vegetarianism, veganism, Vermont