In Defense of Omnivorism and Human-centrism
Recently my beautiful roommate Gabby made some remark about wishing humans would die so that animals could live in happiness. Not only that, but my dear friend Brent has started a fashionable trend of referring to any dish that contains meat as, “murder soup,” “murder pie,” etc. It’s enough to make an omnivore like myself a little defensive. The co-op where I live is split about 50/50 between omnivores and vegetarians. The house recently switched over to eating sustainable meat from a local farm near Ithaca. When the weather gets better, we will go on a field trip and pet the cows destined for our plates, to salutary moral effect (Gabby hopes.)
I subscribe to a wonderful magazine, called “YES!” and the most recent issue was all about meat and animals. They had an interview with farmer-activist Joel Salatin, who raises livestock in a way that restores the land. There I found the perfect retort to “murder soup.” Salatin said, “It is a profound spiritual truth that you cannot have life without death. When you chomp down on a carrot and masticate it in your mouth, that carrot is being sacrificed in order for you to have life. Everything on the planet is eating and being eaten. If you don’t believe it, just lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. That sacrifice is what feeds regeneration. In our very antiseptic culture today, people don’t have a visceral understanding of life and death.”
Yeah, I’m not sure where he was going with the whole “naked in the flower bed” thing….. but I feel him about our “antiseptic culture.” Sometimes I feel like vegetarians only believe in a Disney version of nature where all the deers are Bambi. However, the next article in the magazine was written by a Vegan in a wheelchair and turned my head around again. She said, “Nature is one of the most common justifications for animal exploitation. The arguments range from romantic declarations about the cycles of nature to nuanced discussions of sustainable farming. But the assertion that something is ‘natural’ (or ‘unnatural’) has long been used to rationalize terrible things. As a disabled person I find arguments based on what’s ‘natural’ highly problematic. Throughout history and all over the world I would have at worst, been killed at birth, or at best, culturally marginalized— and nature would have been a leading justification.”
Okay, lady, I get it. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s natural for dolphins to rape other dolphins and for naked mole rats to eat their babies in times of famine. Predation may be “natural,” but that doesn’t mean it’s right. But then, flipping further in the magazine, I found this article about Yellowstone: “The gray wolves of Yellowstone helped regulate elk populations, which protected young plants like cottonwood saplings from overgrazing. But wolves were systematically hunted down…. Seventy years later, the ecosystem was collapsing: the elk population had exploded; young trees rarely made it to adulthood; birds, bugs, and other small animals had to compete for space: and soil was rapidly eroding, clouding streams and damaging fish habitat.” When they put the wolves back, the nearly extinct cottonwood trees began to make a comeback.
In this example, the predation is what supports the health and well-being of the system as a whole. The terror and suffering the elk feels when the wolf implants its fangs into her jugular and rips out her throat in a spatter of ruby blood….. that’s the price we pay for the majestic cottonwood tree to spread her sheltering arms. Although the wolves may seem on the surface to be servants of chaos, spreading bloody mayhem and destruction, they are actually servants of a larger order. Could humans, with all their destructive ways, be servants of a larger order as well?
You might argue that while wolves maintain ecosystems, human beings pull them apart and destroy them. For example, the wolves were only missing from Yellowstone in the first place because we shot them. But I would argue that humans are agents of creation as well as destruction. Whenever we pull something apart, we create something new out of the pieces. Manhattan is also an ecosystem— and not just because eagles nest on the skyscrapers and raccoons party in the garbage cans. We praise the beaver for it’s ingenious damming of streams; we praise the bee for its clever creation of wax; we praise the birds for their tuneful repetoire of songs. Where is the praise for the Eiffel Tower, the New York Public Library, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? What the beaver dam and the Eiffel Tower have in common is that they are both built by animals, and therefore expressions of the beautiful Mother Nature that gave birth to us all.
In fact, this whole divide between the natural and the artificial, this moral elevation of Yellowstone Park over Manhattan, is based on one deeply faulty assumption: HUMANS ARE NOT ANIMALS. I choose to believe that they are. When you enjoy a painting or a poem or take a ride in a high-speed train, those are all facets of nature. I do not cringe from my animality. I glory in it. HUMANS ARE ANIMALS TOO.
Animals, yes— but what kind of animals? There has never been a single species so invasive, so determined to inhabit every possible niche and spread itself throughout the world. Ever since we got our hands on fire and tools we’ve been bringing death and destruction in our wake. But who says death and destruction are actually BAD? On a geological time frame, catastrophes can be viewed as much-needed agents of change.
When plants first evolved, they produced a toxic gas called oxygen which killed all non-plant life forms. But the ecosystem adapted, and now oxygen is desperately vital to life. When the asteroid hit us, it killed off the dinosaurs. But that led directly to the evolution of the adorable cows we will be petting this spring. “Life” is not in any sense endangered by the presence of humans. In fact, it seems to thrive on ecological catastrophe, using it as an excuse to spur new forms of invention.
If you are motivated by nothing but pure altruism, you ought to be cheering on global warming. Global warming might be for us what the asteroid was for the dinosaurs. A chance for currently dominant species to retire from the stage, to be replaced by the next generation of life forms. The dinosaurs had their fling; we’ve had ours; now it’s time to give a turn to the newcomer. You might make that argument, if your only concern was the proliferation of new forms of life.
Thank God, I am not an altruist. I support the fight against global warming out of purely human selfishness. I believe the only way to preserve human health and happiness is to preserve the ecosystems we have long called home. I want human’s turn for life on earth to last as long as humanly possible. I do not fight to preserve the panda because he deserves it. I fight to preserve the panda because he DELIGHTS me. And yesterday, I enjoyed my delicious meal of humanely raised murder sausage.