Monday, March 8, 2010

Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith

In her book, The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, Lierre Keith successfully assails not only vegetarianism, but also industrial civilization and agriculture itself. The effectiveness of her assault may dishearten anyone with abiding fondness for these institutions. She puts the puzzle pieces together excellently and without holes; the resulting picture challenges the foundations of industrial capitalism. She gives no quarter, and, as in James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, her proposed resolution is not an easy one.

She starts by explaining her motivation. She deplores factory animal farming, and seeks above all an end to cruelty and oppression of all kinds. This is why she herself was a vegan for 20 years. In this respect, her goals are still aligned with those of moral and political vegetarians and vegans.

According to her, their hearts are in the right place, but they've got the facts wrong.

First, she describes her own early, naïve attempts to grow a vegan vegetable garden. When it came time to fertilize the garden, she shunned industrial, fossil-fuel-based fertilizer, for political reasons. Using manure was morally questionable, because it would have made her garden dependent upon the oppression of animals. The remaining option was organic fertilizer from the garden store. She recounts her surprise when she read the list of ingredients: blood meal, bone meal, and so on. As she said, "My garden wanted to eat animals, even if I didn't."

Next, she explores (and explodes) the notion that a grain-based diet is morally superior to an animal-based diet. Eating meat is demonstrably compatible with preserving species and ecosystems in many places that have been inhabited by hunter-gatherers. On the other hand, agriculture based primarily on annual grasses (also known as grains) necessitates clearing fields, cutting down forests, draining rivers, and depleting topsoil. In place of killing individual animals, we destroy entire ecosystems and we eradicate the multiple species of animals that inhabit them and depend on them.

She similarly investigates the notion that if people in rich countries stopped eating meat and ate grain instead, we could end hunger worldwide. Among other problems with this idea: most parts of the world can only grow grain with huge water inputs, and there's not enough water; the topsoil wouldn't last very long; and, for various political and economic reasons that she explains convincingly, growing grain leads to poverty.

In the largest section of the book, she discusses the nutritional consequences of shunning or consuming animal products. She testifies that her 20 years on a vegan diet did not enhance her health (to put it mildly). She goes on to tell the story of the misinformation campaign propounding the benefits of a low-fat vegetable-based diet; the confusion about the role of cholesterol in the body and its links to heart disease; the metabolic challenges of carbohydrate-based diets; and the elevation of soy protein from an industrial by-product to a "health food". Keith makes excellent arguments against eating soy, citing its damaging effects on digestion, mineral absorption, and the endocrine system. Although it doesn't prove anything, I found this tidbit fascinating:
The Chinese characters for barley, millet, rice, and wheat are pictures of the grains, because it's the edible parts that matter. The character for soy shows the roots, because it was grown as a cover crop, not a food. [quoting Kaayla Daniel, The Whole Soy Story, p. 9]
You may have some idea by now where she is leading us. Eat local, native food. Stop driving cars. Stop having children. And: there's no way that we can feed all the people on the earth. There's going to be a die-off, same as when deer overpopulate a forest and exceed its carrying capacity. The bonanza of fossil fuels has allowed us to postpone this die-off, but the day will come, probably sooner than most people think, and the more we continue with business-as-usual, the less prepared each of us will be for it.

Her perspective as a radical feminist activist suffuses the text, resulting in some interesting side-trips into the sexual politics of war, and the connections among vegetarianism, eating disorders, and the dominant culture. At the same time, the unfolding narrative of her personal journey from vegan to anti-grain runs throughout the chapters. She does a great job of integrating her own story into the larger one.

Parts of the book, including the title itself, will challenge many readers. It is my hope that these readers will start reading and keep on reading, because Keith has put together so many important ideas in this book, so artfully. We owe it to ourselves to hear them, discuss them, and most importantly, act on them. The time is ripe. (Or perhaps the time was ripe 10,000 years ago.)


Anonymous said...

wow, you can write a good review! I love this book already.

Alex Lewin said...

Thanks lala :-)

Anonymous said...

Keith is right to condemn factory farming, but she's living in a fantasy world.

There are various critiques out are a couple FYI.

Alex Lewin said...

Hi Anonymous,

I am at a slight disadvantage responding to the two critiques you cite, because I have lent out my copy of Keith's book! So I can't double-check her references, etc. But I will do my best.

I find correcting_the_vegetarian_myth.pdf uncompelling. The first point, for instance: Keith says "I built my whole identity on the idea that my life did not require death...Did the lives of nematodes and
fungi matter? Why not? Because they were too small for me to see?" The author of the pdf dismisses this as a "straw man argument"; the author claims that "[t]hese views are not held by most vegans." Is that really true? Says who? I am no more willing to take the author's word on this than the author is to take Keith's! The author goes on to ask "Why shouldn't the
cow with its undeniable ability to suffer take precedence over plants and organisms with limited or non-existent nervous systems such as the nematodes Keith frets about in this book?" This is the very same question that Keith is asking...except that Keith is asking why should it? Who are we to judge? It is not a simple question, nor a question with a single clear answer. And to dismiss it so casually reveals an unwillingness to consider difficult questions.

The last point of the pdf author is that Keith has no answer to "What then?" (when we run out of fossil fuels). I disagree. Keith suggests not driving, not having children, and eating local food. And she believes that the human race will suffer a thinning-out regardless, just like deer who have overpopulated a forest. Either the pdf author missed this entirely, or just refused to process it because it was such a horrible thought. But it was there.

Other arguments in the pdf suffer from other fairly obvious problems, in my opinion.

The blog post at permavegan is FAR more thoughtful than the pdf. I agree with almost all of what Maxson says, and I admire the eloquence and clarity with which he says it. He points out that Keith exhibits a lot of anger in her first chapter, mostly directed at veg*ns holding certain beliefs. He demonstrates beyond a doubt that not all veg*ns fall prey to the problematic beliefs that Keith describes, and thus that Keith's attacks against veg*ns rely on generalizations which are not universally accurate.

"Informed, mature vegans understand that each type of diet has its advantages and disadvantages." Fair enough--but I (and I suspect Keith) would respond that ideological, didactic vegans claim that their diet is the only morally upright way to live. I have no way to assess whether most vegans are this way, that way, or the other way. It would be interesting to take a poll.

Maxson's reflections about Buddhism as a guide to navigate between necessary death on the one hand and unnecessary suffering on the other hand is fascinating. I agree that it bridges the gap between mature vegans and mature omnivores.

I'd encourage anyone who's interested to read . It adds some balance to Keith's book. I certainly don't see it as a "rebuttal" in any typical sense.

I look forward to Maxson's next installation...

Leah said...

I stumbled across this blog because of my interest in fermentation, but after reading your thoughtful review of this book (and I look forward to reading more of your reviews), I'm really excited to read Keith's book. It's going on my library request list right away.

Thank you for taking the time to write this!

Alex Lewin said...

Leah, I'm glad you enjoyed my review! Best regards--

the Wonderer said...

Good review of a compelling book.

Alex Lewin said...

Jeanmarie, glad you liked it.

Alex Lewin said...

A new book coming out on the subject: