THE COMPARISON is almost too obvious: If Eating Animals had been penned in an earlier era, undoubtedly it would have incited a firestorm of reform not at all unlike Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But this is a new age, and it’s unclear whether books still hold that kind of sway with the public. It’s hard not to be cynical — even after we learn of links between factory-farmed animals and mad cow disease, swine flu, and tainted meat recalls, we continue to support industrial agriculture in its basest forms.
That said, if any book can launch the revolution, this one is it. Even on the heels of so many best-selling food books, Jonathan Safran Foer’s first nonfiction work stands alone — so luminous that, even if one tried to shield one’s eyes from its glaring revelations of the cruelty and filth in today’s meat industry, the images would remain burned into the retinas. Indeed, even when we can’t bear one more tragic example, this book refuses to be thrust aside. Because Foer’s tone is one part anxious, two parts earnest — a little like Woody Allen at times (one chapter is headed “I’m Not the Kind of Person Who Finds Himself on a Stranger’s Farm in the Middle of the Night”) — the reader is beckoned, not distanced, by its vulnerability. This is not the voice of an activist, nor that of a journalist. It’s the voice of a guy who has just become a father and wants to know what’s in his son’s food.
Foer concludes that the only moral thing to do in this day and age is to abstain entirely from meat. But if he won my commitment to zero consumption of factory-farmed animals, he is less convincing in advocating an exclusively vegetarian diet. We may be able to get along fine without animal protein, but vegetarianism is not without its animal welfare problems — something he largely fails to address. Ask any farmer about threshing a field of grain. He’ll tell you how many animals — like bedded-down fawns — are killed or maimed in the process.
Foer also scoffs at the “myth of consent” — the understanding that some believe exists between the hunter and the hunted, the agrarian and his domestics. He trumps our omnivorous instincts with morals — deeming them more important than the psychology and physiology with which we, and animals, evolved in concert over millennia. So how do I say this next thing gently? I was raised by ranchers and hunters whose primary focus was sustenance. The lessons I learned about organisms eating other organisms were not always pleasant or fair. Coyotes ate calves. A wounded buck would get away. Admittedly, I have had the luxury of living close to the land and its bounties — something most people no longer have. And for that reason, Foer is right to urge a vegetarian ethic until factory farms are out of business. Still, it’s hard to take seriously an argument for not eating animals from an urban intellectual who didn’t have so much as a family pet growing up, and who has never hunted or raised his own food.
To declare as our goal the end of all animal suffering is to deny that animals are, well, animals. Our species’ Herculean efforts to avoid discomfort are precisely what have severed our connection to the natural world — and in turn, to the most vital parts of ourselves. As D. H. Lawrence put it, “When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego, / and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality / and get into the forests again, / we shall shiver with cold and fright / but things will happen to us / so that we don’t know ourselves.”
Nevertheless, Foer has explored nearly every square inch of the meat industry’s dark and dirty underbelly — as widespread and secretive as it is. Where Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and others left off, Foer continued, and we follow right on his heels because he keeps us close even when we want to run for our lives. Even as a food-conscious working mother who does consume meat, I have remained guilty of the occasional McDonald’s drive-through. But no more. Where no other work has dissuaded me from such episodic meals, Eating Animals has made the case in a way I cannot even momentarily forget.