by Jonathan Safran Foer
Reviewed by Scott F. Parker
What do we value more, our morals or our pleasure and convenience? Or try this formulation: is having inexpensive meat worth the torture of billions of sentient animals a year, the destruction of the environment, and the proliferation of disease and ill health? That's what's at stake in our diets these days, and that's what Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals asks us to ask ourselves: how much do we care about what we care about? Enough to change?
Providing specific details about the way our animals become our food, Foer takes the reader soberly and thoroughly through the meat production industry. He shows us the shockingly mechanized and inhumane factories that produce almost all of our meat, as well as some of the very few traditional farms that are still around. He considers the relevant issues in terms of community, pollution, health, economics, politics, and morality, among others. He does not back down from uncomfortable topics, and most of the topics he's looking at here are very uncomfortable (for him, for the reader, for the "farmers," and for the animals). The details are frightening, and if you don't know them you probably can't imagine them (see bycatch, CFE, downer).
But Foer isn't a vegetarian evangelist. Before beginning research for this book, he was one of those mostly vegetarian people who allow themselves to compromise on meat eating when it would be too inconvenient not to. "I never thought of a response to our babysitter's code [to try to not hurt anything], but found ways to smudge, diminish, and forget it. Generally speaking, I didn't cause hurt. Generally speaking, I strove to do the right thing. Generally speaking, my conscience was clear enough. Pass the chicken, I'm starving." Learning he was going to be a father presented Foer with a new kind of moral urgency and prompted him to learn enough about meat that he make a conscious decision about feeding it to his son. It was only after his investigation that he decided to write about it: "Through my efforts 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."
You'll notice there's a gap in time there between when he decided to write the book and the beginning of the journey he describes in the book, and there's a danger here that Foer might let his conclusions intrude on the process of reaching those conclusions in the narrative. But Foer handles this deftly. It would be disingenuous of him to pretend for very long his mind isn't made up, for when the data and observations start coming in, it's pretty obvious where he's heading. What he does instead is to report on his own feelings in the same disinterested tone he uses to report on, say, feces in our meat being called a "cosmetic blemish," a tone that prevents him from coming across as condescending or preachy. Foer is a curious and objective narrator, just what we need from a guide through a secretive industry and emotional subject.
Moreover, this gives the book the chance to be read by people who don't already share Foer's views. Since Eating Animals has a specific agenda -- to change the way we relate to animals -- Foer needs to find readers among omnivores. It's thus admirable, both morally and rhetorically, that he goes to some lengths to accommodate readers who might initially be reluctant to have their diets challenged. He is honest and fair and empathetic. He gives voice to all the people he writes about, so each position receives its strongest articulation. When he points out weaknesses in the arguments, he does so with respect. Too often vegetarians are vitriolic about their compassion, when a deeper compassion would lead to a position more like Foer's: you can decry the evils of our current system, but you don't have to be a jerk.
Reading this book might change your diet, or it might not. What it will do is make you fully aware of the consequences of eating animals. As just one example of the kind of thing you will find, here's Foer: "No jokes here, and no turning away. Let's say what we mean: animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious. It happens all the time, and the industry and the government know it." Something to consider the next time you're in the grocery store.