The Vegetarian Myth, that is. I confess, I bought it because the author got pied by angry vegans and that made me curious. (This is a lovely example of wrongs that don’t harm. I believe the book is doing very well largely because of the pieing.)
First, the book’s style. Sometimes it reads like recovery literature. In her 20 years of being a vegan, Keith suffered mightily, both from countless health problems and moral torment. Sometimes it reads like the literature of religious awakening. Out of the darkness of veganism, she is reborn into the light of meat-eating. There’s also a coming-of-age component. Before she was a child, now she has “adult knowledge.” This recovered, enlightened, knowledgeable adult now speaks to us as a prophet, a healer. She issues fervent commandments. She tries to save us from our agony, our childishness, our stupidity.
Phew. So what’s the adult knowledge she wants to share so we too can be saved? I’m going to distill, here, but I’d say her primary message is that life comes from death. To wit: there are worms and little creatures in the soil, mice in our fields, predators in forests, bacteria in the rumens of cattle, and such like. Not only does life come from the death of animals, but it also comes from the death of plants. Thus, any diet we can choose will involve the death of plants and animals. Keith didn’t know these things during her 20 years of wandering in the vegan desert. Now that she’s found it out, she wants us to know too.
But what does it all mean? Isn’t there a difference between eating cows and eating carrots? No, she says. Part of her adult knowledge is a wildly anthropomorphic view of plants. On her view, plants make choices. Apple trees want us to eat their apples, and want us to defecate on the ground, so that the seeds can become new apple trees. If we don’t do this, then we’re not doing what the tree wants.
Keith even thinks plants are sentient. So are all the tiny creatures in the soil. Which makes me think: there is adult knowledge even in a dictionary. Look it up! A sentient apple tree would consciously want things and feel things. It might, for example, enjoy the gentle tug when someone picks an apple, feel pleasantly lighter after the picking, perhaps get mad at people for defecating in the wrong places. Sentience means feeling.
All signs are that feeling takes place in brains. No brains in apple trees, no feelings. No brains in bacteria, no feelings. It probably also takes a brain with a certain amount of sophistication for there to be feelings. It does not at all go without saying that worms, because of their nervous systems, have feelings.
As to values, I’m equally unimpressed. In Keith’s universe, there’s absolutely no difference between driving a spade into the ground and accidentally killing a snail, and driving recklessly down a busy street and killing a child. This hyperegalitarianism is essentially mystical and religious, not rational, and certainly not enlightened.
Some readers of this book are going to feel much better tucking into their next hamburger and ignore everything else. In fact, Keith preaches a gospel of abstinence. It’s just that she’s changed her mind about what we should abstain from. From being super-vegan, she goes super-green. Don’t have children, she says. Don’t drive a car. Don’t live in a city. Don’t live in a place where food can’t be grown locally.
And there’s more. Don’t support agriculture. You heard that right—the crime of crimes is planting annual crops. So: no wheat, no oats, no corn, and (for God’s sake!) no soybeans. Eventually topsoil is damaged, so agriculture isn't sustainable.
So: build yourself a little hut, get yourself a goat and some chickens. I’m pretty sure she’ll let you have a garden, but only if you fertilize with goat and chicken manure. Heaven forbid that you should walk into the Home Depot garden shop.
What next? If “Thou shalt be green!” replaces the ten commandments and the categorical imperative and the greatest happiness principle, how may I fill my time? If we mustn’t ship in oatmeal from across the country, may we ship in books? Can I have a computer if it’s manufactured in China? Do I have to dress in skins?
Does your ultimate greeniac have a goat or not have a goat? I think that’s the fascinating (or not so fascinating) question this book is really about. She says: get the goat. It’s good for you too. She never met a low-carb salesman she didn’t love.
But what about the goat? Remember: vegetables are sentient. Apple trees get mad when we use flush toilets. So the goat matters, but not especially.
I say: the goat matters, and yes, especially. The city folk matter, because there’s a ton of them. There’s no point in contemplating the end of agriculture, because you need it to feed 7 billion people. And let’s not kid ourselves: it’s complete nonsense to think that our giant herds of livestock are easy on the earth, while crops are brutal. Livestock needs lots of space. They displace wildlife. They use tons of water and erode land. We’re already using 1/3 of the earth’s non-ice land surface for livestock. Responsible environmentalists know that we need less meat, not more.
Putting aside animal issues, this book raises an interesting question: if the ultimate green life is not a good life, do we have to choose it anyway to keep earth habitable for as long as possible? I don’t really think so. What the point of chugging away in our gardens, childless and with only the provisions that we can get within bicycling distance? I think I’d get tired of reading the super-local poets and having quilting bees or whatever it is that’s supposed to fill my time. There’s a reason people gave up that life 10,000 years ago. They preferred a different one. I prefer a different one. If we really can't live a good life on earth forever, then so be it.
Reading this book made me want to run out and buy Thomas Friedman’s book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, with all it's clear-eyed realism. We’re not going back in time, we’re going forward.