This was an essay written for a New York Times Essay contest, the question being, “Why is eating meat ethical?”
Not eating meat is a denial of death. Death is a part of life. It is the cycle that is important, and where humans break Nature’s cycles, we pay the price. Eating meat is a part of that cycle. There is a degree of hubris in the idea that if one stops eating meat, that somehow this balances the scales. This only pushes death away, making it less personal. To refuse to eat anything with a face ignores both the vitality of plants, and the myriad small birds and mammals that are killed in farm equipment. These lives are not less valuable than that of a domesticated cow or pig.
Everything dies, and to live is to create a devastation. Every minute, microorganisms are killed in our digestive tract. Building and heating our homes kills trees. Feeding our beloved carnivorous pets kills other animals. This is a tide we cannot sweep back. Life feeds on life. There are, in the animal kingdom, both predators and prey, and prey does not die of old age. Our prohibitions, inhibitions and regulations around the killing of animals have disrupted the natural balance, and while it is stupid to embrace an ethic of rejoicing in death, it is appropriate and healthy to embrace an ethic of cyclical living.
To ask the question “Is it ethical to eat meat?” is to imply that eating meat is an option. Humans are the animals that need ethics purely because we have the capacity to choose our behavior. But despite this capacity, we are still animals, tied to our biology and our body’s needs. No matter how much we might desire to eschew consuming our fellow beings, denial of our needs comes at a cost. We evolved eating meat. We evolved because we ate meat. Digestion and assimilation is an expensive process. Plant eaters have to spend far more time eating and digesting than do omnivores or carnivores, and human omnivores get many nutritional needs met by eating our fellow beings. It is indeed the case that some humans are better adapted to maintain health without meat, but this is not true for all, and we simply do not know enough about nutritional science to make a judgment about percentages. To deny these costs is to devalue our selves.
Humans have valuable contributions to the planet. In the Americas before Columbus, humans were stewards of the land. Indigenous people burned trees every single year for thousands of years, which returned nutrients to the soil and made the forests open and easy to navigate. They cut back forests to make room for wildlife that they could then hunt. They created lively, vibrant eco systems.
It is true that overusing land results in it degradation. It is also true that ignoring it causes degradation. In the western US, lay a number of “exclosures,” areas that were overgrazed in the 40s and have been set aside to recover. They are not recovering. Without human intervention, they look like parking lots; flat, dry expanses with only a few scraggly trees. Standing in stark contrast are the managed lands of U Bar Ranch in Southwestern New Mexico. The ranch hosts the largest population of three endangered species, including 30 to 40 percent of Willow Flycatchers. This spectacularly successful management is done with beef cattle. Humans are not separate from Nature, nor do we have be an anathema. Eating meat is not a question of ethics, it is a matter of humans being willing to play their role in a very complex ecosystem.