Monday, June 18, 2012

Eating and Running and Living

 "Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight."  ~Albert Schweitzer

With the release of Scott Jurek's book Eat and Run the subject of veganism and vegetarianism and meat eating has become a hot topic among both runners and non runners alike. Jurek's book has already hit the top 10 (at #7) of the New York Times best sellers list it's first week out. Clearly it's not just runners buying this book. Its release has inspired some interesting conversations among runners both online and in person.

As I settle into a seat at the start of Jurek's book launching event in Boulder the guy sitting next to me asks, "So, what brings you to this event?" "Well" I said "I'm a runner and I've been a vegetarian for 30 years so I'm interested in hearing what he has to say." He responded "Wow. Thirty years? That was before it was even popular." Yeah.

Whenever the subject of diet and nutrition comes up among a group of runners, or anyone really, the views tend to be adamant and contentious. Runners, in particular, only seem to want to hear about the views of others if they actually ask a question. Otherwise expressing an opinion (backed up with reasons) gets us all bent out of shape. Those with strong views are seen as zealots and wing-nuts obsessed with food or their bodies, etc. Eat what you want and let others eat what they want, is the general position.

So here's my problem: I also teach and think about ethics (it's my profession after all) and ethics sometimes requires us to argue with others about what's right and wrong. But in a culture that claims to subscribe to the "It's all good" mentality, voicing an opinion is bad form. Furthermore, most people see eating as a matter of taste - a matter of preference: I like the color green, you like the color pink. It's a matter of taste. You like meat, I don't like meat. It's a matter of taste. But are they really the same?

I don't think they they are the same. I've said many times before, that when my actions effect me alone, then I can do as I please. But, for me, when an action effects others, then it becomes an ethical issue. What we choose to eat effects others - human animals and non-human animals. If I purchase grapes harvested by exploited (mostly undocumented) migrant workers who are exposed to massive quantities of carcinogenic herbicides (because they are not protected by OSHA) then I contribute to the continuation of that practice. Likewise, when I purchase factory farmed meat I'm giving a thumbs up to the status quo.

When I met Scott Jurek last week as he signed my book, I thanked him for bringing this issue to the masses of runners. He is actually pretty clear that his main reason for his veganism is not strictly an "animal" issue, though he is mindful of that, but he just feels better and runs better eating vegan. I've only begun reading his book, so I will reserve further comment on his claims for later.

This is my argument, not his.
“To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”~ Peter Singer
So what's the real problem with meat? After World War II meat consumption in the US increased dramatically. In response to the ever increasing demand, intensive rearing practices were developed making meat cheap and plentiful. Initially cattle were placed in feedlots, dirt enclosures, and fed corn. Corn is the most cost effective way to fatten cattle fast and cheap. The problem is that cattle can not digest corn. So, the cattle began developing massive infections. The solution was to include large doses of antibiotics in with their feed. Problem solved. Now large numbers of cattle can be raised in very compact areas on cheap feed. The epitome of capitalist economic model: Based on Cost Benefit Analysis alone this is a brilliant method.

What do the critics say? Well, for one thing, this meat is not good for us. Consuming antibiotics in meat has led to the serious problem of antibiotic resistance, which is a scary deal if you ask me.

But, more importantly, what about the nonhuman animals? Do they deserve any consideration here? A general, and widely accepted moral principle is the principle of non-malfeasance: Not contributing the the harm of another (who can be harmed). Arguable, nonhuman animals can be harmed: They are sentient beings (can feel pain) and exhibit natural inclinations (chickens like to scratch). So, should we be acting in a way that contributes to their pain and the frustration of their natural desires when this treatment is unnecessary? Most of the meat that most of us eat today comes from factory farms. The principle of non-malfeasance would require that if we eat meat we should produce it in a way that minimizes pain and allows for at least a reasonably good life for the animals. This would require a complete overhaul of the systems and economic forces now in place.

And the question for runners is: Is it necessary to eat meat for the sake of performance? I don't think so, and I think Jurek offers a good example, though admittedly only one example, (and I'll offer myself as another) of the possibility that meat eating is not necessary.

It's really quite simple:
“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”~ Peter Singer


  1. Great post! Peter Singer's stuff is part of what made my atheist husband go vegetarian for a while (I guess until I corrupted him). You've certainly made me think about all of this more. My mind hasn't changed, but I do promise you that I will be even more diligent about sources of chicken and fish, including inquiring about the type of farm and the slaughterhouse conditions (if applicable). Shopping at Whole Foods or Alfalfa's may not be enough.

    You might find this link interesting. I hadn't seen this series before. My favorite essays are Stacey Roussel's and Bob Fischer's.

    1. One really awesome milk resource is Longmont Dairy - home delivery - not organic because their cows are free range (in the robust sense) so they can't monitor what they eat - but BGH free and the best milk ever.

      There are arguments in favor of ethical meat eating (more happy animals -> if people don't eat animals there would be fewer animals),and from your comments you seem to be making the effort. Big things would happen for animals if more people did what you do!

  2. I grew up on a farm. Our milk came from our cows, our eggs came from the chickens in the chicken coop, and our meat came from our poor cows. It always made me sad that I knew the cow I was eating (usually from the time there were babies), but it didn't stop me for eating the meat.

    When I became aware of how chickens were farmed - I remember our chickens and made it a point to only purchase eggs from free range chickens. The same for the meat - I'm fairly diligent in buying meat that was raised as close to the way as we raised our cows. They ate grass in the summer and hay (I had throw off 50# bales off the truck at 6am every morning) in the winter.

    I have no plans to stop eating meat. I feel every little bit I can do to support humane farming practices helps...just like recycling. I'm lucky I have a decent job as I find it's fairly expensive to eat this way and I am grateful I can afford it.

    I think people should discuss food and their choices in a reasonable manner. I agree with parts of many eating styles. I'm interested in hearing reasons for a vegan, gluten free and paleo diets. However, when it starts feeling like a religious argument - I disengage.

    1. I agree - my position is based on reason, not faith (religion), in the same way I believe sexism and racism is wrong - and I have reasons for those positions as well. And again, if everyone did what you do the situation would be very different. Yes, humane meat is more expensive, but do we need to eat meat at every meal, every single day? I think not.


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