The New York Times recently ran a piece by Natalie Angier called “Sorry Vegans, Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too“. It was categorized under the “Science” section, with the further distinction of “basics“. In other words, the author wants to let us know that making an ethical argument to curtail the science-fiction and horror-movie-like indignities and atrocities that animals endure in exchange for a plant-based diet is flawed because plants want to live – and duh, that’s just basic science.
“…plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.”
That may be true, if it’s aspirations we’re talking about. And following this line of logic, we may as well throw in that lightning does not aspire to illuminate a bulb, a mountain does not aspire to be a car-frame, an island does not aspire to be a tourist destination, or a child does not aspire to get heart disease.
Can you imagine if Angier said “plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a woman aspires to be raped”? It is consistent with this line of logic where no one is safe, and one wrong justifies another. When I was four, I learned that two wrongs don’t make a right. Eating plants doesn’t make eating animals okay (if eating plants were even an equal “wrong” as Angier suggests). The optimal inner-dialogue she wants us to have upon reading her article goes something like this: “well, if plants are that hell-bent on surviving, what’s the point of trying to spare animals when clearly they are just as deserving of consideration – and we have to eat something, so we may as well just eat what we want because it’s such a big gray area“.
“It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.”
So let’s humor Angier, even though plants are lacking a brain, and even though we know that while someone who is brain-dead (a vegetable), though bio-chemical reactions still persist, does not respond to bodily injury that would typically cause the type of pain most animal advocates seek to alleviate. Let’s say that plants can suffer in a similar way as do people and animals. Let’s just say that ripping a carrot out of the dirt is along the lines of forcibly impregnating (raping?) dairy cows, then tearing the baby away (which is met by hours and days of a howling, distraught mother), sentencing the calf to a veal crate (where he can not even turn around or lie down) and stealing the milk for ourselves. Does the former justify the latter? I don’t want to live in Angier’s world where potentially causing pain justifies certainly causing pain. Mustn’t that also justify inflicting pain upon people? This is a messy, messy road to go down.
I wonder if Natalie Angier is aware of what farmed animals eat? I also wonder if she knows what the ratio of plant-based animal feed converted to meat and dairy is. Or how much land is used to meet the demands of producing animal products? If she did know these things, and she were a vehement “plants’ rights activist” she would still be making the most ethical choice by going vegan because the most plants would be spared, instead of being converted into animal protein and graze-land at a losing ratio.
How about some clarity? Most animal advocates are talking about actively avoiding causing incredible amounts of suffering, ecological devastation, and health and social problems in relation to using animals for food, clothing, research, and entertainment. This can result in legislation, direct action, grassroots activism, lifestyle changes, and other advocacy with the aim of alleviating preventable suffering, decreasing environmental impact, and improving health and human welfare. Natalie needs a lesson in “basics”, herself. Far from the recent, trendy food discourse she invokes exists the response to her confusion, as laid out by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1789. “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
To frame the moral dilemma in “Killing animals for human food and finery” as being about aspirations is to fail in understanding the agenda of many animal activists. The intention of many vegans I know is not moral purity – yet this consistent misconception isn’t responded to as clearly by animal advocates as it should. It is more often a social justice issue involving individual animals who actively dissent by vocalizing and struggling to escape sources of pain and suffering, defending their young, mourning the death of and separation from family and friends, maintaining a preference for complex and communicative social structures, and seeking out comfort when faced with pain.
Like many critics who consider animal advocates self-righteous cow-huggers, and whose first response to finding out that someone is vegan is typically “well, what’s your belt made out of?“, the author of this article exemplifies this misconception about the purpose of veganism. Is it political? Yes. Is it about moral puritanism? Not usually. Nor is it about preventing death. Of course plants strive to live, but everything living eventually dies. It is about preventing preventable suffering. It is about not choosing the duck or the lamb because they have brains and bodies that register suffering in a way with which we can empathize.
Angier blabs, as if her audience were the confessional:
“I still eat fish and poultry, however and pour eggnog in my coffee. My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I’m willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don’t have a good answer.”
If the title itself didn’t make it obvious enough that the purpose of the article was to rationalize her whimsical diet and piss off vegetarians who live in the “moral penthouse”, as Angier refers to it, then the content itself does the job. Angier neither offers insight into her inability to exert self-control in face of cheese and duck, nor does her artless and callow argument to consider the will-to-live of vegetation on same playing field as the suffering endured by animals with consciousness, brains, and nervous systems have any defensible logic. It is riddled with the anthropomorphizing of plants (something of which animal advocates are commonly accused), and it is creepily reminiscent of the joke website VRMM.
“Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl.”
Is it valid to point out that plants fight, cooperate, and evolve to optimize survival, like any other living organism? Sure. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and all living organisms are amazing, complex, and have spent billions of years evolving into performing delicate and not-so-delicate dances with everything around them. Whether homeostasis is the Earth’s aspiration (as proposed by James Lovelock‘s Gaia Hypothesis) or the destruction of everything is the Earth’s Aspiration (as proposed by Peter Ward‘s Medea Hypothesis), or if the Earth or universe even has aspirations are not the issues at hand when we talk about veganism or animal advocacy.
Angier claims “This is not meant as a trite argument“, yet her purpose in writing the article seems as trite as rationalizing her own, flimsy food choices.
Joshua Katcher is the brains and brawn behind The Discerning Brute. He lives in Brooklyn where he is a writer, artist, vegan chef, and television producer.