The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith

2011-12-18 (Sunday) § Leave a comment

Cover of The Vegetarian MythThe rage of Lierre Keith, which sent so many vegans down to Hades

I ran across this book at random in a bookstore a couple of weeks ago. I’m a vegetarian and I wanted to know what the myth was. 1) False things said by vegetarians? 2) False things said about vegetarians? 3) A tale of the mighty deeds of vegetarians long past? Despite the cave paintings of horned beasts on the cover, the topic turned out to be #1, only stronger and meaner.

This won’t be a book review exactly. I’m working through some thoughts about the book and prompted by the book.

I was afraid this would be a contemptuous dismissal of vegetarianism by someone who had no respect for or understanding of why a person would embark on that dietary choice. I started into Chapter 1 in the bookstore and was immediately relieved:

I was a vegan for almost twenty years. I know the reasons that compelled me to embrace an extreme diet and they are honorable, ennobling even. Reasons like justice, compassion, a desperate and all-encompassing longing to set the world right. […]

These political passions are born of a hunger so deep that it touches on the spiritual. Or they were for me, and they still are. I want my life to be a battle cry, a war zone, an arrow pointed and loosed into the heart of domination: patriarchy, imperialism, industrialization, every system of power and sadism. If the martial imagery alienates you, I can rephrase it. I want my life – my body – to be a place where the earth is cherished, not devoured; where the sadist is granted no quarter; where the violence stops. And I want eating – the first nurturance – to be an act that sustains instead of kills.

[bold added for my favorite phrase]

That’s some rhythmic prose. The martial imagery did alienate me a little, but the force of the language pulled me in. (A friend has since pointed out to me that it’s a biblical rhythm and it sounds like the voice of God to the vestigial Christian in my brain.)

I was impressed by the compassion and care on this first page. I thought it meant Lierre Keith would understand why I don’t eat meat and deliver thoughtful arguments that would show me why I was mistaken without trying to ridicule me or shout me down.

A few months ago I attended a Buddhist meditation course.  The claim of the course organizers on the website I browsed before I decided to sign up was that the meditation technique taught there, if practiced long enough, would completely free a person from suffering.  Damn.  I was plenty skeptical, but this claim was striking enough to make me curious.  A friend who I trust had attended the course and assured me there was nothing creepy or harmful in it.  So I went.  What I found was a mixture of homespun wisdom, some interesting, somewhat plausible and possibly life-changing assertions, plus a fair dose of nonsense.  By my own prior consent I had to sit silently and listen to the evening homilies containing this spicy concoction.  Inside my head I argued back and got mad at the epistemic sloppiness I was hearing.  It started to distract me from the useful and plausible parts.  Eventually I realized this, and with practice I got better at picking out the wheat and leaving the chaff.  This is a lesson I’ve had to repeat while reading this book.  Except Lierre Keith wants us to stop eating wheat too.

Moral and ecological arguments

The vegetarians, except for all the other vegetarians

Three successive chapters of the book aim at three kinds of reasons for refraining from consuming animal products.  The first, “Moral Vegetarians”, starts with a takedown of people who refrain from meat because they don’t want to be involved in killing.  This was chaff to me.  I’m a moral vegetarian and my moral reason has nothing to do with killing, only with suffering.  The difference is crucial for Keith’s line of attack.  She starts with an acknowledgement that there are different kinds of reasons to be a vegetarian: moral, political, nutritional.  She has devoted a chapter to each of these categories.  But under “moral” she knows only those vegetarians whose moral objection is to killing and would therefore be disturbed to contemplate that their diets required and caused it.  As with other occasions throughout this book, here it seemed to me that not only was she not talking to the kind of vegetarian I am, she didn’t even know there was such a thing.  It means nothing to me for moral purposes that eating fruit can be seen as a kind of killing, or even that plants respond to their environments and communicate with each other.  The only thing that can give them moral significance for me is if they experience suffering.  Keith makes no attempt to establish that.  I realized quickly that when she referred to “the vegetarians”, she was talking about someone else besides me.

Soil

Later on in the chapter, Keith flips the moral question around by asking us to take a broader set of facts into account when weighing the moral cost of a meat-eating vs. a meatless diet.

There’s a basic moral calculus that many vegetarians rely on to explain why they don’t eat meat:  To eat parts of an animal’s body, you have to permanently injure or kill it.  You don’t have to do that to plants to eat parts of them.  Keith asks us to weigh more facts than just those related to the moment when our food is severed from its organism of origin:  namely, what is destroyed and cleared away to make agriculture possible.

I thought I had considered this already by thinking about what’s destroyed in the course of agricultural operations, like mice being killed by tractors.  (Mice have central nervous systems, so I think they have some capacity to suffer.)  I figured mice die unpleasant deaths in the wild anyway, so one more environmental hazard for them is hardly enough to outweigh the moral cost of slaughtering animals for food, if we’re choosing between meat and agricultural produce.  Keith introduced me to a whole new set of costs created by agriculture.

As with everything in her book, I’m adding several grains of salt to the facts she cites to do this.  She strikes me as not a particularly reliable assessor and reporter of facts, for reasons I’ll go into later.  But a lot of the assertions she makes about the broader costs of agriculture seem credible to me.  Here they are, paraphrased:

Plants have to grow in topsoil.  That means soil with a lot of organic content, including decayed dead organic matter and living microbes, in addition to mineral content.  The topsoil we have on this planet is the remains of millions of years of lifeforms great and small doing their thing, dying, and then decomposing.  I guess it must have started with amino acids on bare lifeless rock.  (That’s vaguely informed speculation on my part.)  Anyway, plants eat topsoil and it gets used up, so it has to be replaced by more minerals and more decaying dead stuff.

Keith says here that in order to remain fertile, the soil has to take in either 1) bodies and excretions of animals or 2) fertilizers made by people using fossil fuels.  Sustainable agriculture therefore requires death.  Okay.  I’ll just take her word for that since it doesn’t bother me one way or the other.

Page 37 is where she starts making assertions that interest me.  She cites regions that were once fertile:  Lebanon, now cedarless; Mesopotamia, no longer a remarkably fertile Crescent; Greece.  (Doing a little exploring on the internet just now, I learned that the Aran Islanders of Ireland have built soil capable of supporting grass where none previously existed, but I’ll save that for later.)  Keith says agriculture destroys topsoil by stripping away the perennial plants (perennial grasses in particular) that would otherwise hold the soil in place, replacing them with annual plants that are a net drain on the soil’s mineral and organic content, and reduces the ecostructure that stores and releases water throughout the year: trees and wetlands.  This causes a continual net loss of topsoil.

The kernel of the matter

Out of all everything Keith says in this book, here’s the claim that carried the best combination of salience and plausibility for me:

It is my conviction that growing annual grains is an activity that cannot be redeemed.  It requires wholesale extermination of ecosystems – the land has to be cleared of all life.  It destroys the soil because the soil is bared – and it has to be bared to grow annuals.  In areas with inadequate rainfall, agriculture demands irrigation, which drains rivers to death and salinizes the soil.  It also requires endless physical labor for sub-par nutrition.  And it has devastated human cultures, leaving slavery, class stratification, militarism, population overshoot, imperialism, and a punishing Father God in its wake.

(page 42)

I’ve been reading conversations about this book and articles on related topics ever since I finished reading the book, and nothing has cast any doubt on these particular points (apart from the last two sentences that I crossed out, whose relevance and plausibility are more questionable to me).  This is the lesson that will probably stick with me from reading this book:  ecologically speaking, annual-grain agriculture is rapidly depleting a resource that takes a really long time to rebuild.  What that means I have to do personally will take more time to figure out.  I’m still eating bread for the time being.  I have to weigh these facts together with other considerations, like the fact that the 7 billion people on the planet right now will have to either be fed or allowed to starve to death.

Other arguments

The remainder of the book is mostly chaff for me.  It’s like my Buddhist meditation course: together with the occasional piece of outright nonsense or plain good sense, it’s full of assertions that may well be true and will be pretty important if they are, but which are rendered significantly less credible by insufficient epistemological caution.  In other words the author isn’t interested or imaginative enough in pursuing all the ways she might be mistaken.  Keith has been looking for textual support for her current point of view, and unsurprisingly, she’s found it.  I saw confirmation bias threaded all through this book, forcefully and eloquently expressed.

She’s a former vegan and she was persuaded out of that view by constant pain and the catastrophic weakening of her bones.  She attributes that to not having eaten enough meat.  She may be right about her personal case.  But she goes beyond her personal case and those of people she knows with similar problems to generalize to all vegetarians:  if you keep refusing meat, this will happen to you too.  Yes, she says that in so many words.  I’ll quote it at length because this was the plainest example of poor epistemics:

This is what will happen if you eat vegetarian, especially if you go vegan, for any length of time.  Maybe not all of these things, but some of them.  You will wear out your insulin receptors.  The human body was never meant to absorb that amount of sugar.  You can call it “complex carbohydrates” if you want, but it’s sugar.  The hypoglycemia will make you shake, sweat, and crave, god, those cravings.  You’ll feel like you’re going to die if you don’t put food in your mouth every three hours, every two hours, then thirty minutes after you eat.  Hypoglycemia is its own emotional hell:  the sudden weepiness, the temper fits, the instability.  It’s inexplicable when you’re living it, and you also think it’s normal, just life.  It’ll get worse every year.  And yes, obviously you could do this to yourself as an omnivore.  The standard US American [sic] diet contains vast quantities of sugar, with or without the meat.  But it’s hard to avoid as a vegetarian unless you live on eggs and cottage cheese, and impossible to avoid as a vegan.

You will destroy your bones and joints.  You won’t get enough minerals; unless you pretreat every seed (grains, nuts, beans), the phytates will bind with what few minerals you are ingesting; and you won’t have enough dietary fat to absorb whatever is left.  And you won’t have enough vitamin D to build bone matrix, or enough zinc to build collagen.

The polyunsaturated fats, unstable and rancid, will wreck your blood vessels, your heart.  Without protective saturated fats, adequate protein, and enough vitamin D, you will be at tremendous risk for cancer, especially the kinds that kill.  Remember that hunter-gatherers don’t get cancer.  Remember who does.

The high omega-6s (and the nonexistent omega-3s) will create inflammation everywhere.  Your joints, your blood vessels, your gut, your liver, your nerves, your brain are all potential victims.  Maybe you’ll get fibromyalgia.  Maybe you’ll have unnamed low-level pain where everything aches and you hate to be touched or jostled.  It’s because everything’s inflamed.

[Infertility, thyroid damage.]

You may destroy your stomach like I did. Your hair will dry out, thin, and your skin may get so dry it hurts.  Your immune system, built from protein, won’t be strong enough to protect you.  And it may kick into overdrive from all the plant lectins and their molecular mimicry.  Remember who gets autoimmune diseases and who doesn’t. You’ll be cold.  Then you’ll be freezing.  You’ll be tired and you won’t know why.  Everything will become such an effort.  You won’t understand how other people have the energy to go to school and then to work and then out dancing.  It’s not normal to be that tired.  I’m telling you:  it’s not normal.

And then there’s the B12.  The terrible sticking point.  Just accept it:  there are no non-animal sources of B12 and you can end up blind or brain-damaged without it.  B12 deficiency also leads to infertility, miscarriage, and maybe Alzheimer’s.  Just take the damn supplements.

[Your kids will suffer neurological damage and possibly die.]

(pages 239-241)

Damn!  In summary:  If you go vegetarian or vegan for any length of time, you will suffer at least some of the effects described above.  Keith makes this claim emphatically without qualification.  That means it requires just one counter-example in order to be falsified:  one person who has gone vegetarian or vegan for any length of time and has not suffered a single one of the effects described above.  That’s being charitable: she’s strongly implying that vegetarians and vegans will suffer more than one of these things.  Not “may” or “have an increased chance of”, but “will”.  Counter-examples are plentiful and would be quickly found by anyone who was looking for them.  I know a few offhand, including myself.  But when you’re down with confirmation bias, the only counter-examples you’re interested in are the ones you can have publicly hanged as an example to the others.

Solutions

Keith’s formula for how food should be produced is, in her own words, “animals integrated into perennial polycultures”, those animals to be eaten by people who live nearby.  She says this is the only way to get all the nutrients you need and be sure topsoil is being built and not depleted.  She declines to specify which animals and what plants: this should be whatever is appropriate to each place.  That part makes sense to me.

What doesn’t make sense to me is how 7 billion people are going to be fed this way.  It doesn’t make sense to Lierre Keith either.  She admits candidly that the planet is past its “carrying capacity” (pages 257-258).  So what’s to be done with the 7 billion of us?  After a couple of pages of attacking masculinity (“I’m not talking about biological maleness.  I mean a psychology based on entitlement, emotional numbness, and a dichotomy of self and other”), Keith lands on this:  “There is no personal solution.”  She draws up a dichotomy of liberals vs. radicals, of which she ridicules the former:

The goal of any action [by liberals] isn’t to change the material balance of power, it’s to feel “empowered” or to feel “community” or to feel our hearts open to our inner children because our mean, mean mothers never loved us, and all of it is endless and self-referential and useless.  And the people who get caught up in this workshop culture will insist that their precious little navels have something to do with changing the world.  Meanwhile, the planet is being eviscerated.  If you want to do this with your life, well, it’s your life, but please don’t pretend that you’re changing the world.

So what do you want from me, Lierre Keith?  Here’s what she wants:

  1. Inoculate people against future fascism.  “Because civic society is going to be under some tremendous strains very soon.  As the basic arrangements of industrial society fail, fascism is one likely outcome.”
  2. Build local economies for a post-petroleum world.
  3. Do all of this not as an alternative, but as self-conscious opposition to the dominant culture.  What does that mean?

It doesn’t mean everyone has to do direct action […]  But even if we’re not personally on the front lines, we have to support the people who are willing and able to do what’s necessary.  […]  by standing between fossil fuels and what’s left of our planet.  Massive civil disobedience is one tactic that could do that.  There are also others.  Industrial culture is in fact very vulnerable as it’s utterly dependent on an infrastructure of oil, gas, electricity, and highways.  […]  Our planet needs us.  She needs us to think like healers and act like warriors.  And if you think that’s a contradiction, then get out of the way.

TL;DR

This book starts as a compassionate attempt to explain to vegetarians where we’re mistaken.  It ends as a contemptuous dismissal of anyone who doesn’t endorse or participate in direct action to dismantle modern industry.  Between the two stretches a long chain of uncritical citations of popular authors, hasty conclusions, and forceful attempts to define one person’s experience as the only valid measure of reality.

I learned one important, useful thing from this book:  Annual grains might be a pretty bad thing to have a lot of our arable land devoted to.  More research needed.

I did not learn most of the things the author meant for me to learn, even though they were frequently prefaced with “Understand: ” or “Remember, “.  She may be right that any food system other than perennial polycultures fertilized by animals will fail when we run out of fossil fuels.  It’s a critically important matter.  I’d love to read something about it by someone who carefully weighs multiple points of view and stays constantly ready for new evidence to change the story.  Lierre Keith isn’t that person.

For the time being, I’m still a vegetarian.

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