If you don't quite see the connection there, you're not alone. After all, if I wanted to rally the masses against factory farming, I'd focus my consciousness-raising efforts on the group of people in the best position to have an enormous impact -- meat-eaters. Even if I thought veganism was nuts, I wouldn't see much point in "debunking" it; vegans are a minority in the culture, and don't wield nearly the economic clout of average omnivores. Strategically, vegans wouldn't even be on my radar; it would make much more sense for me to recruit meat-eaters than to piss off vegans. Yet, the latter is exactly the approach Keith decided to take in her book, The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability.
Color me confused by this approach.
While she is an undeniably brilliant writer (truly!), Keith seems to be missing the point. Vegans are not the architects of the civilization she opposes, nor are we rushing to the ramparts to defend industrial agriculture. If she succeeded in starting a revolution against factory farming by recruiting meat-eaters committed to sustainable agriculture, it's a safe bet that 99 percent of the vegan community would rally to her cause. There is nothing to be gained by alienating us.
I'll admit up front, I haven't read all of her book yet -- just the first 93 pages provided as a preview on Google Books. So, I will not presume to offer a comprehensive review or rebuttal here, at least for the time being. Other vegan bloggers have done so, and rather than duplicate their efforts, I'll let their work speak for itself . (See here, here, and here, for good starting points). Plus, the book is almost a year old now, and pretty much old news in my world.
So, this article will mostly address a question raised in my mind by reading Keith's book: namely, what next? What is her vision of a sustainable future, especially given a world in which the human population is projected to reach 12 billion people within 40 years? From what I've read of her book, and gleaned from the reviews (both positive and negative) I've read of it, she implies that a return to some kind of hunter-gatherer existence would be ideal, but never actually says so. And I question how sustainable any such existence would be.
Like many critics of civilization before her, Keith romanticizes prehistoric hunter-gatherers, apparently seeing them as a collection of enlightened wanderers living in harmony with nature. It's a theme that runs strongly through the part of the book I read:
Humans have lived on savannahs and grasslands for millions of years without devastating them, and without needing technical fixes. We shared them with other species and kept our own numbers at carrying capacity. We didn't destroy the world, our home. [p. 46]This appeal to a pristine prehistoric past -- a new iteration of the "noble savage" idea -- is also common among many Paleo-diet gurus and afficionados, some of whom also see vegans and vegetarians as a kind of lurking menace. They will often spout the idea that we are "perfectly adapted" to the alleged existence of our Pleistocene ancestors (see, for instance, John Durant on The Colbert Report), and/or that "Paleolithic" humans instinctively led some kind of balanced existence with the rest of the natural world, by filling in some "natural" predator niche.
This is, however, nothing but elaborate paleofantasy. For one thing, organisms are almost never "perfectly adapted" to their environment; that is a cartoon view of evolution. Whatever gets a species by is good enough; faulty "designs" and out-grown genes get replicated all the time, provided they don't threaten the survival of a species.
For another, the Paleolithic was a huge span of time that witnessed about 20 separate human species and a wide range of climates, so making generalizations on scant evidence is ill-advised.
For a third thing -- and more relevant to the implication in Keith's book -- the lifestyle of Pleistocene hunters was far from sustainable. In fact, it is the leading culprit in the one of the largest paleontological mysteries of the recent past.
The Late Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinction
Starting about 50,000 ago, and lasting until about 10,000 years ago, the world lost 85 percent of all mammal species larger than 44 kg (100 lbs.), including a member of the human family, Homo neanderthalensis. The extinction event wiped out whole genera (plural of "genus," a group of related species) on every continent, and transformed North America in particular from a habitat much like modern Africa to the veritable bio-wasteland inherited by the ancestors of the Native Americans.
There are several things about this mass extinction that distinguish it from previous ones. First, it was asynchronous: it didn't happen all at once, all in the same place.
Second, it was discriminant: previous mass extinctions impacted all levels of life, from micro-organisms to plants to megafauna. This one only wiped out large mammals.
Third, and most tellingly, the wave of extinctions follows a pattern: emerging from Africa about 50,000 years ago and spreading across southern Eurasia, down through Southeast Asia to Australia by 30,000 years ago, then across the Bering Strait into the Americas by 13,000 years ago... which is about when it also kicked into high gear in Europe.
This wave of death deprived the world forever of mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, giant kangaroos and hundreds of other species. It was most devastating in Australia and the Americas, but in Europe it wiped out our cousins, the Neanderthals.
What's more, because many of the species lost were keystones in the local ecologies, this global extinction event triggered many smaller, regional extinctions of small mammals, birds, gastropods, insects and other seed-distributing organisms. This, in turn, altered seed dispersal patterns worldwide, promoting the spread of grasses and, in some place, desertification.
The timeline of the Pleistocene mass extinction correlates almost exactly with the radiation of modern H. sapiens out of Africa and across the rest of the world. This was a species far more adept at hunting and tool-making than any previous hominid. This was us.
And this is probably who Keith and other paleo-romantics imagine when they talk about our more enlightened paleo-ancestors.
To be fair, the case against H. sapiens isn't closed. Paleontologists still debate the role of climate in all of this, and whether the impact of humans was a sustained "blitzkreig" of over-hunting across the face of the world, or a "sitzkreig" of the gradual interplay of hunting, disease, and climate. But one thing is absolutely clear: anywhere that Pleistocene human kill-sites are found, the evidence is that they were anything but sustainable hunters.
Correlating the end of this extinction wave with the beginnings of agriculture is interesting. I'm not much one for meta-narratives, but it's difficult to resist the temptation of ascribing agriculture's invention to a survival strategy developed in response to these extinctions. Humans at the Paleolithic-Neolithic transition were in the midst of a global bio-diversity crisis, much of it unknowingly wrought by their own hands.
Whatever the evils of modern industrial agriculture -- or even of Neolithic farming -- it's hard to see how anyone with a realistic understanding of Pleistocene paleontology can consider the record of H. sapiens from this time as the inspiration for a sustainable future.
The Final Problem
I see one last flaw in Keith's book: its practical, real-world impact is likely to be reactionary, despite all her best intentions. The average skeptic of veganism who reads The Vegetarian Myth and finds herself convinced isn't, in my view, likely to adapt a sustainable long-term paleo-approach to their life. The more realistic impact, I think, will be that this person's inherently human confirmation bias will take over, and they will continue eating factory-farmed animal products, perhaps salving their conscience by looking for "leaner" cuts of beef, pork, chicken, and so on.
I freely admit, that's just my opinion. But it's one born from experience. Most people I know who saw Food, Inc., for instance, tried to eat "free-range" for a while, but soon fell back into their normal consumption patterns. That's not because of any character flaw; it's because they're only human.
And we humans are stubborn beasts, as the poor mammoth learned all too well.