Rewriting the Conversation

Missing the Mark
by D. R. Hildebrand

In the December 10th issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for the magazine, discusses an observation by the British economist Arthur Pigou that “private investments often impose costs on other people.”  As an example of this, Kolbert describes a drunk man stumbling out of a bar (a private investment) and an officer who then arrests him (the taxpayers’ burden).  She goes on to consider a much greater private investment, and a much greater public expense: pollution and a carbon tax.  “Such a tax would be imposed not just on gasoline,” Kolbert writes, “but on fossil fuels—from the coal used to generate electricity to the diesel used to run tractors—so it would affect the price of nearly everything, including food and manufactured goods.”

The New Yorker often publishes commentaries and articles that address global warming.  Oddly, it nearly as often publishes stories glorifying animal agriculture and the consumption of meat.  Just one week before Kolbert’s piece on Pigou and the rationale for carbon taxing, the magazine ran its annual Food Issue.  These are the topics it covered:

  • Wolvesmouth, a young, underground restaurateur in Los Angeles who serves anything from rabbit to roasted pig’s head
  • Eating out in Oaxaca, Mexico, with ramblings on pork, beef, grasshoppers, duck adobo, dried maguey worms, and double-boiled deer penis
  • Trout, with the author stating, “I had never before felt vegetarian scruples, yet they were aroused by the butchering of a creature with such clear eyes, so recently alive and blissful in its element.  I asked my prey for forgiveness.”
  • The story of a boy returning to the farm in Pakistan where he was raised, and, at the age of eight, received his first gun, which the author explains, “finally put me on the way to hunting game—deer in the nearby desert, duck on the ponds . . .”
  • Sausage-making
  • The perfect Manhattan
  • Parisian bread, including discussions on salted butter, soft-boiled eggs, and melted cheese
  • A bachelor’s repertoire of cheeseburgers, fries, and Lean Cuisine glazed-chicken dinners
  • An Israeli chef who lives in London and prepares a medley of grains and vegetables, and just as many dead animals
  • Bear-skinning in Wyoming

New Yorker Dec 3_10

Politically, The New Yorker is unabashedly liberal.  Culturally, however, it is esoteric and elitist and it takes pride in civilizing modern man’s return to savagery, even while going out of its way to inspect any other possible cause of environmental devastation.  This Al Gore-like enthusiasm for changing light bulbs and recycling newspapers, while categorically ignoring the disaster that led to one’s dinner, appears to be a growing trend—never mind the inconsistencies.

We need to rewrite the conversation.  We need to highlight not what matters to us individually, be it animal suffering or the like, but what will get the greatest number of people to listen.  Readers of The New Yorker already understand Pigou’s hypothesis and already comprehend Kolbert’s concern: they see the effects of global warming and the dollar signs connected to it.  This means something to them, so they listen.  Yet what do suffering animals mean to them?

Omnivorous friends of mine often create distinctions between things they consider “rational” and things they consider “emotional.”  It is rational, they say, to end human suffering; it is emotional, however, to attempt the same for animals.  It is rational to respond to starvation, war, disease, global warming, “the stuff that actually matters,” but it is emotional to even ponder the animals who live and die each day in equally tragic misery.  Just recognizing the fact that humans inflict so much pain on so many creatures for so little reason is an emotional strain few wish to endure, so they dismiss it as “irrational” and carry on.

Yet we can draw their attention back, and we can do so without compromising our objectives.  When we hear people talking, for example, about a lack of clean drinking water, vast starvation, the wars now waged over finite resources, we should mention that 50% of clean water and 80% of grains in the U.S. are given to animals destined to be slaughtered, and we should ask, casually, which might feed more people: the flesh of a single being or the total lifetime of water and food she consumes?  And when we hear conjecture over the origins of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other preventable illnesses, we should recommend books like The China Study and films such as Forks Over Knives that articulate the benefits of a whole-foods, Water Pollutionplant-based diet, and we should ask, in earnest, which is the wiser: for our government to subsidize the industries that make us most sick—dairy, meat, and egg—or those that keep us well?  And when others talk about pollution and global warming, realities that are now impossible to deny, we must mention, with grace, the 35,000 miles of rivers contaminated by the urine and feces of countless animals who are fattened simply to be killed; the millions of acres of annual deforestation, solely to plant more crops for more animals for more death; the exploding quantities of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide that the tens of billions of slaughter-bound animals emit into the atmosphere day after day, and we should ask, as innocently as possible, which might cause less destruction: consuming animals, or consuming plants?

None of this is to say we should abandon the element of animal suffering from our discussions, for it is real and it is abhorrent and there will always be someone who is moved by it.  We will, however, reach more people when we focus on the issues that matter most to them, like hunger, and disease, and natural disasters.  It we address them with Pigou’s ideas of public cost in mind we will, over time, see more responses like Kolbert’s, and come that much closer to achieving our goals.