Flesh choice: A meat lover’s guide to giving it up
I once saw a turkey carcass in a New York City garbage can. It did not look good. I said to myself, I’m never eating meat again. A few hours later, I ate meat.
If you have ever driven between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the 5, you may have seen a disgusting cattle ranch on the east side of the road. It is like an insect swarm of cows. I have driven by this ranch many times, and sworn I would never again eat meat. And a few hours later, I eat meat.
I really like meat. I like steak. I like chicken. I like pork a great deal. If I had to pick a favorite meat, I’d pick lamb.
I never thought I would bother trying to give up meat. But now that I’ve been writing for Grist for about six months, it’s impossible for me to ignore the fact that meat is not just bad for animals — it’s bad for the planet.
In case you don’t know why, here are several reasons: Livestock use about 30 percent of the world’s arable land. Livestock are responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gases. Raising livestock uses up as much as five times the amount of water it takes to raise a similar amount, nutritionally, of plant-based food.
So I have decided to go six weeks without eating meat.
This is not my first time giving up meat in earnest. I’ve had skirmishes with vegetarianism before that did last more than a few hours. There was a period in 1996 when I first got into yoga. There was another a few years later, after I read an article about chicken farms, or maybe meat farming in general. (I don’t remember what it was about except it was in Granta, it was about meat, and it freaked me out.)
I’ve decided not to eat meat because it’s healthier, and because it’s better for the planet, but mostly because deep down, I think eating animals is weird. I suppose it was one thing when you had to kill the things yourself, but now they are just mass-murdered and delivered to us in packages. It doesn’t seem like a fair fight. Anyway, many thoughts and ideas have led me to explore vegetarianism. But only one thought has ever made me stop exploring it, and that thought is “mmmm … meat.”
Enough about meat — let’s talk about you. You’re a Grist reader, so none of this information is getting to you for the first time. But are you actually a vegetarian? I don’t pose the question in a judgmental way. I mean, I know all of this stuff, and I still eat meat. Partly because I like it, and partly because the environmental “community” (I consider the environmental community to just be a very large collection of people with various levels of commitment and interest in this subject) provides plenty of escape valves for people who want to consider themselves environmentally aware but also still want to eat meat.
Meat’s OK if it’s organic. It’s OK if it’s local. It’s really great if you bought it from someone you know and especially somehow if you bought a whole cow and it’s in your freezer and you’re supporting the local economy. But who actually eats meat like that? I don’t. I mean, I do eat all that good healthy acceptable meat, but then I eat all the other meat too. Trying to keep your meat-based groceries happy, free-range, and local doesn’t work all that well if you then get drunk and eat the shit out of some General Tso’s.
I can’t undertake this six-week thing pretending it’s the beginning of forever. Maybe I will have some kind of vegetarian conversion experience. Maybe I won’t. But the last times I decided to stop eating meat, I didn’t provide myself with any continuing education that might have helped me to, well, not really want to eat meat.
So this time I am not only not going to eat meat, I am also simultaneously going to read a lot about meat and what it takes resource-wise to produce it — so that this information is doing more than lurking in the back of my mind in some half-remembered Granta article or image of a pigeon-pecked turkey carcass. I’m going to learn about slaughterhouses. I’m going to look at pictures of dead animals and read books about them. I’m going to try to watch someone kill an animal. I’m going to find out about what industrial farming does to animals and to the planet.
And after all of that, well, maybe, I’m still going to really, really love meat. The truth is that no matter how much I know intellectually about how bad it is for the planet, if I have an appetite for it, I’m going to eat it. I think willpower is bullshit and a lot of scientists tend to agree with me. If I actually stop eating meat, it will only be because I have really lost the taste for it — and that’s why, at the end of this experiment, I might surprise myself after all. Because it’s my sneaking suspicion that the more you know about meat, the less you actually want to put it in your mouth.
I leave you with an adorable video of a lamb that I watch every morning to fortify myself against the coming day and moments when I might be tempted by meat.