Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), which came out in 2012 as a movie. When his son was born he researched for three years and wrote the non-fiction Eating Animals (2009). (I contend that humans are animals too, but since we don’t eat humans, that’s not what Foer means. By ‘animals’ he means ‘non-humans’.) Foer’s abilities as a writer alone make for great reading. I bet his grocery lists are fascinating. Eating Animals, however, is no mere grocery list. Everything is connected. Why and how we eat animals is why and how we do anything. ‘This story didn’t begin as a book. I simply wanted to know,’ Foer writes, ‘what meat is. I wanted to know as concretely as possible. Where does it come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter? What are the economic, social, and environmental effects of eating animals? … As a parent, I came face-to-face with realities that as a citizen I couldn’t ignore, and as a writer I couldn’t keep to myself.’
During WWII, his grandmother fled persecution by the Nazis (she is Jewish). Brought pork, she faced a terrible choice: refuse non-kosher meat and starve or eat and save herself. She refused. ‘This book is my most earnest attempt to transmit [my grandmother’s] lesson to our son.’ Foer conveys her lesson: ‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.’ Eating animals matters.
One night, while researching this book, Foer steals into a turkey farm factory and encounters locked doors. He writes, ‘In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the doors locked. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.’
Why are the doors locked? Turkeys can’t even open doors, let alone unlock them. And it’s really hard to steal a truckload of turkeys. Doors are closed to hide the truth, and they are locked to keep them closed. Perhaps if people knew the truth. ‘The power brokers of factory farming know that their business model depends on consumers not being able to see what they do.’ However, if someone stole into the operation and got past the doors locked and wrote about it….
We didn’t always lock our doors, at the house or the barn. But families no longer live on farms, for the vast majority of farms have become factories. Of the demise of family farming and the rise of factory farming, Foer writes, ‘No one fired a pistol to mark the start of the race to the bottom. The Earth just tilted and everyone slid into the hole.’ When we drive by acres and acres of a monocrop, we see factory farming. Now instead of corn, imagine chickens, or hogs, or cows, row on row. Get the shovel and start digging.
Factory farming is environmentally bad and ethically bad, yet it accounts for almost all of our meat these days. Foer admits that ‘until sixty or so years ago, much of my reasoning wouldn’t have even been intelligible’ for factory farming had not yet assumed domination. You could choose to not eat meat. But is just changing your diet enough? Foer worries that ‘vegetarians are at best kindly but unrealistic. At worst they are delusional sentimentalists…. We need to do more than change our diets; we need to ask others to join us.’ Actions speak louder than words. Foer points out that few of us ‘actually farm, but in Wendell Berry’s phrase, we all farm by proxy.’ When we shop, we farm. When we cook, we farm. When we eat, at home or at Tim Horton’s or at McDonald’s, we farm. Foer asks hard questions. Are you ready?
- ‘Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else?’
- ‘If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals … isn’t motivating, what would be?’
- ‘If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is?’
- If not now, when?
Although Foer himself is a vegetarian, he knows most of us aren’t. He promotes ‘ethical consumerism, conscientious consumption’, for he believes in the basic goodness of human nature. ‘To accept the factory farm,’ Foer writes, ‘feels inhuman.’ How we respond to factory farming is how we respond to anything: with cruelty or with compassion. Foer concludes that ‘human beings cannot be human (much less humane) under the conditions of a factory farm or slaughterhouse’, a conclusion he writes of brilliantly in Eating Animals.