This week’s New Yorker uses its review of Tristram Stuart’s new book, The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, to examine (and gently refute) arguments for herbivorism from the Enlightenment to today. Critic Steven Shapin notes the tangled nature of humankind’s stance on the issue:
There’s no demonstration of the wrongness of eating flesh that hasn’t been countered by equally powerful arguments for its rightness, and different justifications have a way of both supporting and interfering with one another.
Maybe. Except for the majority of carnivores who justify their meat eating with a “powerful argument” that is basically some variation of John Travolta’s immortal line from Pulp Fiction: “But bacon is good.”
From theology to philosophy to environmentalism, Stuart advances the benefits of a vegetarian diet while Shapin bats them back: Livestock causing more global warning than the world’s transportation systems? Shapin counters that “walking to the local supermarket for a nice hanger steak cut from a grass-fed New Zealand steer may be kinder to the planet than getting into your Toyota Prius to drive five miles for some organic Zambian green beans.” Who’s buying Zambian green beans, anyway? And if our local supermarket has New Zealand steer, doesn’t it also have locally grown winter squash?
Perhaps Shapin just wants to be on the winning side. Near the end of his review, he notes a set of chilling statistics that clearly show where the hearts and stomachs of eaters lie:
[T]he world’s per-capita consumption of meat rises relentlessly: in 1981, it was 62 pounds per year; in 2002, the figure stood at 87.5 pounds. In carnivorous America, it increased from 238.1 to 275.1 pounds, and the practice is spreading in traditionally herbivorous Asia. Indians’ meat consumption has risen from 8.4 to 11.5 pounds since 1981; in China, it has increased from 33.1 to an astonishing 115.5 pounds.