LIVING THINGS (ERIC SHAPIRO, 2014)

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Living Things consists of a dinner-table debate between a vegan and a meat-eater. That’s it: just two people sitting down to dinner and debating the morality of eating animals. Never having been a fan of two-handers, I had my doubts about the film, but because its subject matter interests me, I decided to give it a look. To my surprise it wasn’t half bad. Despite having its share of overwritten dialogue, the film is watchable because of the intense interplay between the two characters, whose increasingly malicious verbal sparring steadily escalates, then spins out of control and, finally, explodes into physical violence.

The acting too is better than expected, especially that of Ben Siegler as Leo, a macho meat-muncher whose incipient rage bubbles under the surface of his barbed comments, sarcastic retorts, mocking tone and unwavering eye contact. Siegler brings considerable intensity to the role, so much so that he overmatches Rhoda Jordan, who plays Leo’s vegan daughter-in-law, Rhona. It doesn’t help that Rhona is stereotyped as a quixotic, muddle-headed vegan prone to spout New Age mumbo-jumbo. She loses credibility before the debate even starts with this foolish statement:

“In yoga we study the unconscious mind. In the unconscious mind everything’s the same as its opposite, so when you say “No” your unconscious also says ‘Yes.'”

Such stupidity renders debate utterly pointless, for if “No” also means “Yes” then when a vegan says “No” to meat she also means “Yes” and when a meat-eater says “Yes” to meat he also means “No.” So it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter, end of debate. At least Leo had a good retort: “A lot of frat boys would be happy to know that.”

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Other eye-rolling things Rhona says:

“Love is the ultimate truth. Compassion is the ultimate truth.”

“I see karma playing itself out in everyone’s life every second of every day.”

“Everything is everything. We are all interconnected. You’re me and I’m you and we’re all one.”

“All beings are one.”

So very nauseating.

Moreover, some of Rhona’s weak rebuttals to Leo’s arguments had me yelling out what she should have said and what I would have said if I were there. Happily, my blog provides a forum for me to rebut Leo’s arguments.

Leo’s first objection to veganism is no surprise: where oh where do you get your protein from? That meat-munchers emit the “protein question” with such robotic predictibility suggests that it has been preprogrammed into them. And so it has. All of us were brainwashed into believing the protein myth early on. Remember what was in the protein box of the “Basic Four” food group charts we were shown in elementary school? Why, a thick steak, of course. And didn’t our parents tell us that we had to eat our meat (and drink our milk) if we wanted to grow up to be big and strong like them?

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But wait, surely our parents and teachers wouldn’t steer us wrong. They always spoke the unvarnished truth! If there’s one thing we can believe it is this: to get enough protein we need to eat cows. Otherwise, we’ll turn into scrawny and malnourished vegan wimps. End of story.

But like many stories this one is a myth, which begins with “once upon a time” and ends with cancer or heart disease. Yes, I’m afraid our parents did steer us wrong (and did wrong by steers) when they told us that we had to eat our meat.  Reality tells a different tale. And reality never lies. Ma and Pa, on the other hand, overlooked some facts:

  • 1) All the protein we need is easily obtained from plants. Where do you suppose the animals we get our protein from get theirs? Hint: plants. Just as lions get their protein from gazelles who get theirs from plants, so we get our protein from cows who get theirs from plants. Vegans simply bypass the animal and get their protein directly from the source: plants.
  • 2) Broccoli has more grams of protein per calorie than steak. So does kale. So does Romaine lettuce. Mom and Pop never took a class in nutrition so they never learned that fuckin’ “rabbit food” has more protein per calorie than steak. As my pops might say, who’da thunk it? But that’s not all. Broccoli and the rest also have more iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, folate, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin E per calorie than steak. Veggies also have more, way more, fiber, vitamin C, Vitamin A, and beta-carotene than steak…because steak has precisely *zero* of these nutrients. And veggies have more, way more, many orders of magnitude more, phytochemicals and antioxidants than steak because, again, steak has *none* of these cancer-fighting, cholesterol-lowering micronutrients.

Beans, legumes, seeds and nuts are also packed with protein. So toss some chickpeas, walnuts and pumpkin seeds on your spinach salad, then make like Popeye and go kick a pansy meat-muncher’s ass.

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Crucial point: it is the *protein* we need, not a specific type of food that contains protein. Meat contains protein that we need to eat but we do not need to eat meat to get the protein. Even if, thanks to the hunting prowess of our troglodytic ancestors, a meat-adaptive gene were somehow embedded in our genome – let’s call it the Burger gene, which phenotypically expresses itself whenever we walk past the supermarket meat counter or drive past a McDonalds – we need not conclude from this that meat is, should be, or must be an essential part of our diet. Again, we can get all the protein we need from plants. The same goes for every other essential nutrient, with the sole exception of vitamin B12, which is readily available through fortified foods and/or supplements. The fact is, if you eat animal products, you do so because you *want* to, not because you *have* to.

Exactly why humans associate eating animal protein with superior size and strength is a mystery given that the biggest and strongest land animals on earth eat nothing but vegetation. Maybe you’ve heard of them: hippopotamuses, giraffes, rhinoceroses, buffaloes and elephants. Unless I’m terribly mistaken, elephants neither grow to their mammoth size nor acquire their prodigious strength by eating other animals. No, I’m pretty sure elephants grow big and strong by eating plants.

Speaking of plants…

Leo expresses another common and equally baseless objection to veganism when he says:

“Plants have feelings too. It’s a matter of fact. They feel pain even.”

Inexplicably, instead of challenging Leo’s idiotic assertion, Rhona accepts it as fact! In an admission most unbecoming of a karmically-concerned New Ager who believes that “everything is connected” and that “all beings are one,” Rhona says that although plants can feel pain, she neither cares about nor empathizes with plants because, I kid you not, she can’t “snuggle up next to them.” This is her rebuttal. This is how she justifies eating plants – plants that she evidently regards as sentient. Oh yeah, but of course: the decision whether to inflict pain, suffering and death on a sentient being hinges on a deep philosophical question: can I snuggle up next to it? If snuggling is not an option, then anything goes – so feel free to brutalize that worthlessly unsnuggable creature with as much gusto as you can muster.

But wait, let me rack my brain and see if I can come up with a better argument. Hold on, I’m brainstorming here. Yes, yes, an idea is forming now. Just a minute. Almost there. Eureka! By George, I think I’ve got it! How about this? To experience pain one must have a brain. A plant has no brain. Therefore, a plant cannot experience pain.

Only a brainless human would contend that a brainless plant feels pain. And Rhona, I’m afraid, is nothing if not brainless. Not to mention karmically fucked.

Even Daniel Chamovitz, an authority on the biology of plants who argues that plants can respond to sights, sounds and smells, told Scientific American that “just as a plant can’t suffer subjective pain in the absence of a brain, I also don’t think that it thinks.” He goes even further on his blog: “so if suffering from pain necessitates highly complex neural structures and connections of the frontal cortex, it follows that plants obviously don’t suffer – they have no brain. Your plants may ‘know’ what’s happening, but frankly my dear, they don’t give a damn.”

And *that* is why, my dear Rhona, you need not give a damn about plants: because plants don’t give a damn about themselves. But maybe plants just need a little lovin’, so go snuggle one.

Even if plants could suffer pain, that would be no reason to stop being vegan. Veganism would still cause less harm to plants than non-veganism for this reason: non-vegans slaughter countless plants to feed to and fatten up the sentient animals they in turn slaughter and eat. Fact: it takes about 16 pounds of plant protein to produce a pound of steak. So to those meat-munchers who say that plants feel pain I say this: every time you sit down to a steak dinner, just remember that you’ve got 16 pounds of plant pain on your plate. How do you sleep at night knowing that you’re responsible for the suffering and death of all that sentient vegetation? If you truly care about the plants – and you must, otherwise you wouldn’t be arguing that they can feel – there is something you can do for them right now, today: GO VEGAN, because veganism minimizes the harm done to poor, defenseless plants. So, I repeat: Go VEGAN! Do it for the plants.

Plants: sentient since 1960.

A more sophisticated but no more persuasive argument related to plants not raised by Leo is this: the number of wild animals killed in crop production exceeds the number of *pasture-raised* animals killed for meat.

Note that this argument applies only to ruminants raised on pasture such as cattle, sheep and goats. No one would be foolish enough to make such a claim about commercially farmed chickens, pigs and feedlot ruminants because before these animals go to slaughter, at a fraction of their natural life spans, they consume astronomically more harvested crops than humans. It makes no sense to argue, with regard to factory farmed animals, that vegans kill more animals than non-vegans, given that meat-munchers fatten up the billions of farm animals they eat each year on harvested crops whose production kills untold numbers of wild animals. In short, meat-munchers not only *intentionally* kill vastly more animals than vegans, they also *unintentionally* kill vastly more animals than vegans.

And make no mistake: unless there is a dramatic paradigm shift toward veganism, factory farming ain’t goin’ away. As a practical matter, the quaint family farms of yesteryear, where happy animals once grazed peacefully on verdant pastures before going on a leisurely drive to the slaughterhouse to be humanely exsanguinated, cannot possibly supply the overwhelming demand for animal products. Only hyper-efficient factory farming has the wherewithal to churn out the massive amounts of meat, eggs, and dairy needed to satiate the voracious appetite of the non-vegan. (By the way, you are either deeply deluded or willfully ignorant if you think that “happy” meat from “jolly” farms and “friendly” slaughterhouses doesn’t involve significant suffering and death. It does, so stop lying to yourself.)

But imagine that by some miracle everyone and his gristle-gobbling grandmother agreed to forgo chicken and pig and eat only grass-fed ruminants. (Wait. Give up bacon and wings? Perish the thought!) Could this newfangled animal-eater legitimately claim that he causes less harm to animals than vegans?

Short answer: Nope.

Longer answer: I’m afraid not.

Longest answer: http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc

The longest answer is a link to an exhaustively researched study that decisively debunks the animal-gobbler’s argument.

The introduction explains why the argument fails:

“In a 2003 article in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Steven Davis advanced the argument that fewer animals would be harmed if we consumed a diet containing large herbivores (namely cattle) fed on pasture than if we consumed a vegan diet, based on his calculation that more wild animals would be killed in crop harvesting than in producing food from a ruminant-pasture-forage system. Gaverick Matheny identified a crucial error in Davis’s calculation: it assumed that equal amounts of land will produce equal amounts of food from crops or from animals on pasture. In fact, an amount of land will produce much more food when used to grow crops for direct human consumption than when used to raise cattle, provided it is suitable for growing crops. Once Matheny corrected the calculation, Davis’s argument made the case for, rather than against, a vegan diet, given an objective to cause the least amount of animal death.”

Crucial point: because an acre of cropland produces so much more food for so many more people than an acre of grassland used to raise ruminants, far *fewer* animals are killed *per consumer* in crop production than are killed in raising animals on pasture.

The chart below, which provides an eye-popping visual snapshot of the study’s results, leaves no doubt as to which food system kills more animals.

Finally, as a moral matter, there’s a difference, is there not, between *accidentally* killing animals in crop production and *intentionally* killing animals for food? Intention matters, no? Yet some animal-eaters would have us believe that, since wild animals are unintentionally killed in the harvesting of crops, it’s perfectly okay to deliberately breed, fatten, slaughter, and devour farm animals by the billions every year, even though it isn’t nutritionally necessary to do so. What nonsense. Vegans do not bring billions of animals into existence year after year for the express purpose of fattening them up for slaughter and eating them, just to titillate their taste buds. Animal-gobblers do.

Here’s what vegans do: 1) reject outright the intentional killing of fellow sentient beings, and 2) seek ways to improve harvesting methods so that fewer animals are accidentally killed in the process.

I ask you: which way is more humane?

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It’s only a matter of time before the self-justifying animal-gobbler brings up “nature” – and it doesn’t take Leo long to go there:

“Humans are animals and animals eat each other. That’s how nature works. And guess what? We are part of nature. It’s no big deal, it’s just nature.”

Yes, humans are animals. Yes, (some) animals eat other animals. Those are facts. Here is another fact: humans have no nutritional *need* to eat animals. Here is yet another fact: unlike nonhumans, humans can reflect morally on the issue and choose not to kill and eat animals.

Given that we have no nutritional need to eat animals, and that we have the cognitive capacity to make the moral decision not to eat them, we are left with a few simple questions: why choose to eat animals when we have no nutritional need to do so? Why choose to eat animals when we can choose not to – when we can choose to eat something else instead? Why not bypass the supermarket meat, dairy and egg aisles and toss only veggies, fruits, beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds into the shopping cart?

Callous animal-gobblers might respond this way: “I kill and eat animals because I *want* to not because I have to. I want what I want and have no *need* to justify my predilection for animal products. I kill and eat animals because they taste good. And I don’t give a fuck what happens to animals on their way to my stomach as long as they arrive there. Pleasuring my palate outweighs the mere life of an animal.”

I’ll say this for such an animal-gobbler: at least he gives an honest accounting of his heartless disregard for nonhuman life. For him, titillating his taste buds trumps the suffering and death of sentient beings. What is there to say to so coldhearted an animal killer as this? “Fuck off” sounds about right. So to him I extend my heartiest dactylion.

More often animal-gobblers try to justify their animal-gobbling by appealing to something over and above mere personal predilection. Eager to explain away their craving for animal flesh and secretions they point to something outside of themselves; very often that something is “nature,” which is precisely where Leo points. “Humans are animals and animals eat each other. That’s how nature works.”

But to argue as Leo does that it is natural and therefore okay to kill and eat animals because other animals do so is a fallacious appeal to nature. That nonhuman animals *must* eat other animals for survival has no bearing on the question of whether the human animal *should* eat other animals for pleasure. Yet Leo, an animal with the capacity to reflect morally on his own actions, appeals to the actions of animals with no such capacity for moral guidance.

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Not for nothing is he named Leo, which means “lion” in Latin. (Leo the Lion is also the famous MGM mascot.) Peering through his safari binoculars, Leo observes that lions chase, catch, kill and eat buffaloes, and therefrom concludes that it is perfectly fine for him to drive to the supermarket and buy a steak. “Look, see what lions do? They eat buffaloes, therefore I must eat cows.” Leo fancies himself an apex predator atop an imaginary food chain doing what his Paleolithic ancestors did: stealthily stalking prepackaged prey at Kroger armed only with a crude hunting weapon fashioned out of plastic called a credit card. Yes, Leo is at the top of the food chain in that he hunts for food at the top supermarket chain.

Imagine Leo at the supermarket:

 “Meat. Meat. Me must eat meat.

As a carnivorous apex predator, I am constitutionally incapable of not eating meat. Make no mistake: me must eat meat. I hunt for food at the top supermarket chain; therefore, I am at the top of the food chain. I must wheel my shopping cart up and down and all around the meat aisle because my Paleo-powered brain constantly sends me urgent pro-meat messages in the form of inner whispers: “Beef is what’s for dinner.” “The other white meat is what’s for lunch.” “The incredible edible egg is what’s for breakfast.” “Get milk.” Whence do these messages originate? Surely not from the meat, dairy and egg industries, for I am impervious to Madison Avenue brainwashing. No, no, the messages emanate from a more primal source – namely, the tiny Paleolithic caveman residing within the innermost recesses of my brain. It is he who whispers these must-eat-meat exhortations. And it is to him I owe my allegiance. Hail to the Stone Age homunculus in my mind!

I am powerless to resist the dictates of my prehistoric brain. I must obey the whispering troglodyte in my head. Bypassing the meat, dairy and egg sections at Kroger is unthinkable. My legs dutifully follow a mandate to walk to the meat counter. My mouth is forced to order ground beef. My hand is compelled to reach for milk and eggs. What’s more, buying bacon strips is indelibly etched into my genome. I can do nothing about it. I just find myself involuntarily tossing body parts into my cart. I am merely the locus through which a biological imperative to eat animals operates.

Beans bad. Grains bad. Meat good! Meat. Meat. Me must eat meat.”

Inspired by Leo and other wannabe troglodytes, I hereby propose the Meat-Muncher’s Mantra: “Meat. Meat. Me must eat meat. Meat. Meat. Me must eat meat….”

Still, as stirring as the Meat-Muncher’s Mantra may be, I can’t help but notice that Leo is mighty selective about where he casts his field glasses. Hasn’t he observed a male lion taking over a pride from another male and killing the ousted predecessor’s cubs? In one fell swoop the lion eliminates a rival and the rival’s offspring and brings the female into heat so as to have his own offspring by her. Why not emulate this leonine behavior? What better way to maximize your reproductive fitness! Why not kill some guy and his kids and then rape the wife/mother so that *your* genes rather than *his* get passed on? No biggie, right? It’s perfectly natural. After all, lions do it. And if lions do it, why shouldn’t we?

As for our Paleolithic ancestors, it is a typical phenomenon, is it not, associated with evolutionary development that competition for limited resources be exploited as a means of displacing or eliminating weaker organisms and/or weaker groups of organisms? By outcompeting other tribes for resources we guarantee our tribe’s success and eliminate the other tribes. So let’s do it. No biggie, right? It’s perfectly natural. After all, cavemen did it. And if cavemen did it, why shouldn’t we?

And therein lies the problem with basing one’s morality on “nature.” What evolution has wrought often bears little resemblance to what is generally considered “moral behavior.” Few of us would be moved to consider it moral to kill off an entire people. Likewise, if only we’d reflect on it for a minute, few of us would be moved to consider it moral to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on sentient nonhumans.

One more point about “nature.” By arguing that eating meat is natural, Leo implies that veganism is unnatural. He’s suggesting that whereas he possesses a natural inclination to eat animals, Rhona’s veganism constitutes an artificial constraint she’s imposed upon herself on the basis of her own experience. That is nonsense. Since the human animal has come into existence through strictly natural processes and nothing else, we cannot but act, in every instance, in complete conformity to nature. All that we are has been produced by nature, including our moral sentiments, which occur in us just as naturally as any other desire. Leo’s implied distinction between natural and artificial is a false dichotomy: Rhona’s moral concern for exploited animals is just as natural as Leo’s selfish desire to eat them.

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So much for Leo’s main arguments. Here are my replies to a few other things he says:

“Like you said 95%. Like they say about McDonalds, how can a billion people be wrong?”

Leo needs to crack open an introductory textbook on logic and look up argumentum ad populum. Inside he’ll discover that an appeal to what the majority likes or believes is a fallacious argument.

“You got a cause? Great. But don’t come around telling 95% of the population that they’re butchers.”

It is true: 95% of the population do not themselves butcher animals. But 95% of the population pay butchers to do what butchers do, which is butcher animals for 95% of the population to eat. He who pays a butcher to butcher an animal is as responsible for the butchering of that animal as the butcher.

“It may allow you to live mentally in a self-satisfied state of idealism. But what you are onto here is contributing absolutely nothing to the greater good.

The only one satisfying himself here is the guy pleasuring his palate with animal flesh. And veganism does contribute to the greater good. It contributes to the greater good of *nonhuman animals* (not to mention the planet). Ya see, my friend, doing less harm to nonhumans necessarily contributes to their greater good.

“You know what your problem is? The fact that you’re a philosophical person. We do not live in a philosophical world. And since people have been around there have been philosophers doing their damndest to tell us why we shouldn’t fight, or we shouldn’t kill, or we shouldn’t eat meat. But generation after generation, human nature reveals itself to be reliant upon all such things.”

What past generations did has fuck all to do with what I decide to have for dinner tonight. I don’t need a philosophy degree to choose not to victimize innocent animals. Just a functioning conscience.

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