Eating Animals (I'm going to read it over the holiday break--so stay tuned for a "review" in January).
Everyone who's made dietary changes for ethical reasons has encountered the same reaction from omnivores. But do you wear leather? But do you eat fish? But do you eat eggs? Even Elizabeth Kolbert, clearly an unrepentant omnivore, can't resist a dig about what Jonathan eats in her largely sympathetic New Yorker review: "Foer never says anything about forgoing eggs or dairy, which seems to imply that he consumes them."
If you're a vegetarian, you get this kind of reaction from omnivores all the time. There's no question what the motive is--to dismiss the whole argument for giving up anything. They want an excuse to think about nothing and do nothing. Obviously, they're being illogical. Making less than the optimal effort is no excuse for making no effort at all. But that's how people think.
Vegetarians should ignore Elizabeth and Co and the high priority they assign to consistency. If you do prioritize consistency, you're going to start thinking you've got to choose between being a consistently indifferent omnivore and a consistently scrupulous vegan. A huge number of people will choose the first. It's just the way it is--if you've spent 10 or 25 or 50 years learning to love ice cream, and you're surrounded by ice cream eaters, the only path to consistency you may be able to take is the path back to consistent indifference.
And that really would be a pity. If you didn't eat chicken all year, that's about 25 fewer chickens dying after a miserable life. You'd be making a big mistake if you discounted that savings, just because you could have saved 26 (that's about what it works out to), if you'd also given up eggs.
The obsession with consistency hampers all sorts of efforts people make to do good. For example, you might (wisely) decide that saving the lives of strangers is more important than buying luxuries. How inconsistent of you to write a check to Oxfam and then, the very next week, but yourself a new ipod! For that amount of money, you could literally have saved another life! But again, if faced with a choice between consistent indifference and consistent life-saving, most of us will choose consistent indifference. It's really important not to think that's the choice we face.
The same point can be made about efforts we make to be "green." If I had to be consistently indifferent or consistently green (which means recycling everything, flying nowhere, riding a bicycle all the time, etc.), I would certainly choose to be consistently indifferent.
Most absurd of all, Jonathan Safran Foer has been getting flack from a handful of militant vegans for being "just" a vegetarian. They ought to think through what it means, practically speaking, to demand perfect consistency. It's an obvious fact about the psychology of consumption (whether it's food or other stuff): the person who puts a premium on consistency is much more likely to choose consistent self-indulgence rather than consistent compassion.
Maybe what the militant vegans are really complaining about is the fact that Foer is not a vegan, yet he wrote a book of animal advocacy. I'm sure glad the author didn't worry about that--or we wouldn't now have a powerful work of animal advocacy nearing the Amazon top 100. I very much doubt his readers will find him less inspiring because he's still drinking lattes (if he is). In fact, many people are going to find inspiration in the message that normal, struggling, imperfect people can start thinking and doing differently. Go Jonathan!