Tom MacWright

I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer on


I went vegetarian in 2009 and vegan in 2017. I didn’t see a horrifying spy video of factory farms or read a book. I don’t miss meat or mind the slightly different texture of vegan scones. I didn’t mention it much to my friends. I just thought about it, made a choice, and my preferences shifted seamlessly from burgers to Morningstar Farms to Seitan.

So now I’m reading Eating Animals, in 2020. I haven’t seen anyone in person in weeks. The virus is another looming apocalypse on the list. More urgent but of the same timbre as the political, environmental, and cultural downfalls of the last ten years.

Eating Animals is shocking. Factory farms are terrible, ethical meat doesn’t really exist, and farms are an ecological and environmental disaster. Animals are intelligent and emotional and they’re tortured because of our whims and picky preferences. Everyone knows this and nobody cares.

Add it to the pile.

The economics of food are confusing. Sort of like gasoline, or, in the context of The Dreamt Land, water, most food should be more expensive. There’s no reason why meat has to be so cheap. And there’s no good reason why we’ve fought wars to keep gas cheap, and spent millions to help farmers trying to farm dry ground.

For these goods - meat and gas - we see how the US government can bend the market and regulations to fix an outcome. Left to natural conditions, there’s no way that factory farms would survive the lawsuits. There’s no way that without influence on science and policy, Americans would still eat so much meat.

It’s sad that we only use this superpower, this control of the market, for evil.

Eating Animals is a pretty good book. The contributed letters that integrated into the text are outstanding. Maybe Foer went through several rounds of copyediting to get them there, but they shine with authenticity and character that’s hard to fake.

Eating Animals made me reconsider the role of diet in my life. Veganism can be an identity, a diet, and a moral stand. I’ve persistently represented it only as a diet. When it comes up in conversation, I try to squash it as quickly as possible by saying that it doesn’t work for everyone, and that my own choice was uninteresting and unprincipled. Veganism might be like paleo or gluten-free, the way I frame it.

But really it isn’t. And my choice wasn’t all that arbitrary: I knew the ethical arithmetic when I made it.

So why do I loudly dislike cars, and stay quiet about meat? The private attitudes toward both are discouraging. Folks will tell me that they can’t live without a car and can’t live without meat. That they’d love to change but they truly love bacon. They need to commute to the suburbs for work and the bus is too slow.

Maybe I view cars differently because I see the leverage points. We can and should design cities and towns to make car ownership untenable. We don’t need to win over car owners: we just need to increase the price of everything associated with driving to reflect true costs, improve the quality of every alternative mode of transportation, and people will switch.

Food, though, seems immovable. The kind of local action that exists for transportation doesn’t exist for food. The problem is centralized and highly guarded: federal regulation, massive companies, supply chains. How can anyone make a difference on that scale? I’m not interested in convincing friends and acquaintances: I hear the well-worn excuses. They might switch slowly without realizing it because that’s what good at the grocery store, or what their partner eats. I probably won’t be the one to convince them.

And one last thing: I am so there for Foer’s critique of ‘The Omnivores Dilemma’, even though I haven’t yet read the Dilemma. Because I’ve heard that line of thinking before, the insidious idea that somehow vegetarianism is about foolish purity and that the right middle road is to eat boutique locally-farmed cows. It has the same ring as when Tesla owners talk about how they no longer have to feel guilty about pollution. It’s uncomfortable because these purified versions are always fancier and more expensive, and so ethics are luxury. It’s weak for the reasons Foer lays out, that ‘ethical meat’ is impossibly hard to procure, and that it’s an even harder dietary preference to satisfy than vegetarianism. It’s annoying because it reveals an inability to change the shape of ones life: the ethical burger is zero sacrifice, zero need to adjust, zero acknowledgement that it might be best not to drive, not to kill.