The ethics of eating animals (and why I do it anyway)

The sixth post in a nine post series.

This has been a long story to tell, going all the way back to early marriage and walking through a lot of territory; health problems, changing our diet, cooking a lot of food, raising kids on plants, my innate tendency to seek and follow authorities, the apocalyptic nature (in the original definition) of our hike, learning to disconnect good mom from good cook, living in a culture of so much choice, the difficulty in defining health, and my mid-life desire to learn to trust my own body, my own authority.

It's complicated in the telling but also contradictory because I still "think" plant-based eating is healthy, physically and ecologically, but I don't eat on those terms any more.

Why? Because I don't want to. And I have no better reason than that. And I'm not going to pretend I do.

Head knowledge tells me certain foods aren't very health-supporting, but I eat them anyway because I enjoy them. Why do we enjoy something that isn't very health-supporting? For very complex reasons that I briefly touched on in my previous post. One of them is evolutionary biology.

Our biology which tells us to eat salt, sweets, fats, hasn't caught up with our modern reality of fossil fuel supported food production (producing a surplus of calories), global movement of goods, advertising, and manufactured food. We haven't evolved fast enough to change our taste buds or our metabolism. We can literally eat ourselves to death now. Something unimaginable for most of human history.

We evolved to be very omnivorous eaters. And eating that way allowed us to live long enough to pass on genes. Genes that told us to eat everything that was available because our life depended on it. We lived in a tension with our environment which always put natural limits on what and how much food was available. And we spent most of our waking hours working to obtain it.

This is not the reality for most of us any longer. We have to think our way through a complicated food maze.

How is one supposed to eat and live in this culture? In this age?

In spite of writing this series, I'm not actively seeking an answer to that question right now. It hangs in my life as an unknown. I do not have the bandwidth in my life to devote to that deep dive. But if I did, I think I would come to conclusions that would cause me to change my diet, again. Which I just don't have the creative energy for right now.

I've become a moderate in my food choices. I eat everything in moderation but I don't use moderation as my standard. It's just where I land. I truly eat the food I want in the quantities I want and this shakes out to be lots of green plants (my favorite lunch is a large salad), some carbs and starchy foods, animal products and animals (full fat dairy, some meat - can't afford all organic), and some processed food for both convenience and taste.

I don't have any food rules. I don't follow 80/20 or a food guide or food pyramid.

Why I would return to plant-based eating

If I was to return to plant-based eating, it would be a spiritual decision.

The more contemplative my faith practice becomes the more aware I am of the connection of all things, living and non-living, to each other and the Divine.

I don’t see humans as set above the rest of creation but nested in, different and unique by virtue of our consciousness and brain development which gives us an awareness of our own connection to the Divine. (But who knows, maybe all animals have this.)

Perhaps the gift of being human is to actually know we’re not the center of creation. We can think of ideas and creatures outside of self. We know we are one of many. And it’s that knowledge that confers the responsibility we have assumed as keepers of the earth. (We've done a pretty poor job of this.)

As humans we often ask ourselves what is the meaning of all this? Is there a God? and all the other stuff, but cosmologically speaking, even those beings and non-beings that don't ask those questions are still connected to God and the energy that animates the whole universe.

Every time I eat anything, plant or animal, my living depends on either taking something from another being or the death of another living thing.

I live because other living things die. And I have enough awareness to know this.

Perhaps this is the foundational principle of why humans offer prayers for their food. We are acknowledging the death of another life, plant or animal, to sustain our own life. The exchange of life and vitality, from another being into ours.

In this context it's strange to eat animals when my survival does not depend on it. Perhaps it's even immoral. Hardcore ethical vegans would say so.

Traditional hunter gatherer societies had rituals around the killing of animals. A recognition of the exchange of life. It was visceral and spiritual. You were never removed from the action of taking life to give life.

Modern society has done a good job of building a large chasm between the two. A chasm so ingrained in my experience I can't imagine jumping across.

I'm not ready to kill my own meat, to watch the life-force leave an animal's body in order to nourish my own. Neither am I prepared to grow all my own vegetables. I don't feel a primary, secondary, or even tertiary calling in my life to embed myself more in the food growing culture of my ancestors and all humans up to the industrial revolution.

I like to be removed from a lot of the process and the work. I have other things I want to do with my cognitive and spiritual awareness and physical strength. I would like to say I buy only ethically-raised meat and dairy products (which vegans would say is an oxymoron), that I have a personal relationship with the farmer who grows my food. I don't.

And that's what it is to be a modern human. We choose.

It's not simple at all, and yet to eat is one of the simplest and most basic acts of animal survival.

I have no answers. I have no dogma. With everything I've just shared there's no way for me, at this stage of my life, to lay out a personal food philosophy and to live by those standards.

For now, I make room in my life for a lot of inconsistency, complexity, and contradiction around diet and food. And I extend this to everyone else.

I'm choosing for this life season to feel my way through, which is not natural to me, and to not think about it too much. Writing these posts has put all my various and scattered thoughts on the subject into one place, but contrary to how it might appear, I don't "think" a lot about what I'm eating. And I don't engage in situations that ask me to do so.

For example, I will not watch food documentaries, no matter how much well-meaning friends and family recommend them, about cows or local farms. I've spent years of my life thinking about all this stuff, six ways to Sunday. It's time for a damn break.

These kind of inconsistencies would have driven me crazy when I was younger. Everything had to line up. (Even though it was impossible.) Truth had to be Truth, and I tried to live by it.

I don't know the food "truth" anymore and I don't know who to trust and I get tired just thinking about it. I don't know what's best, and even if there is a best, and assuming I had an objective measure of that, I don't know that I would follow it.

Next post: A mixed family diet (the nitty-gritty of what we eat)

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  • Tina

    Tina on Aug. 23, 2018, 2:29 p.m.

    You've written this series so well that I can almost feel a peace seeping into you as you enter this changed season. Thank you for sharing!


    • Renee

      Renee on Aug. 23, 2018, 2:32 p.m.

      Hi Tina,

      I do have a peace about this. A peace with inconsistency and contradiction and also knowing I can change and I can learn to listen to my body.


  • Wanda

    Wanda on Aug. 23, 2018, 3:53 p.m.

    Renee!!! This post was so full of grace it brought me tears. Thank you for extending these well thought words and permission to others to be as they are. My favourite part was was about the history of our forefathers that recognized the sacrifice of animals and honoured it. As a meat eater, I never take for granted this circle and hope that my children understood this through our rituals and their upbringing on the farm.

    I’m sharing this post.


  • Catherine

    Catherine on Aug. 25, 2018, 11:30 a.m.

    It IS time for a damn break! This thought of choice that we have as modern humans (that even most of our grandparents didn't have) really struck me during our farming years. After 2 years of sweat, debts and stress (and too many animal lives taken from our inexperience), I really questioned why we were doing it. And chose to stop. Because I had the luxury of choosing to, without dying of hunger. It is interesting to note that many people chose to give themselves a break when they reach their 40's... we are looking for a middle ground, a break from dogma. We pay more attention to the little voice within than all the other loud voices outside. And it is so freeing.


  • Desiree

    Desiree on Aug. 25, 2018, 1:40 p.m.

    Renee, the suspense of this being eight parts has left me trying to guess and extrapolate why the change and I honestly laughed out loud (in relief? in the realness of it?) when i read this: "Why? Because I don't want to. And I have no better reason than that. And I'm not going to pretend I do." I've been following on and off for the last nearly 7 years, and I can understand the need to take a break from all of the intense thought and effort that has been so much of your food. Cheering for you and the weight that had been on your shoulders being lifted. (For clarification, I don't mean to imply veganism or eating plant-based is a burden... life has burdens, and we have to adjust and carry the weight individually). I'm so grateful for your honesty and the realness you share with us here <3


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