When is the last time you read a book that changed the way you do things?
I don’t mean in a #prompttwitter sense of books that were, like, totally lifechanging — I mean in the literal sense. What book changed the way you do things in a very specific, tangible way?
I finished up Peter Singer’s Ethics in the Real World a week or two ago. Overall, it was not a good book, and I struggle to recommend it — a lot of the essays were vacuous and cursory and it is hard to get a meaningful amount of intellectual engagement in topics like, say, AGI, in four pages.
But Singer’s background as a bioethicist meant that his arguments about the environment and about animal ethics were strong and cogent, including this package that has stuck with me:
There is one very simple thing that everyone can do to fix the food system. Don’t buy factory-farm products.
Once, the animals we raised went out and gathered things we could not or would not eat. Cows ate grass, chickens pecked at worms or seeds. Now the animals are brought together and we grow food for them. We use synthetic fertilizers and oil-powered tractors to grow corn or soybeans. Then we truck it to the animals so they can eat it.
When we feed grains and soybeans to animals, we lose most of their nutritional value. The animals use it to keep their bodies warm and to develop bones and other body parts that we cannot eat. Pig farms use six pounds of grain for every pound of boneless meat we get from them. For cattle in feedlots, the ratio is 13:1. Even for chickens, the least inefficient factory-farmed meat, the ratio is 3:1.
Most Americans think the best thing they could do to cut their personal contributions to global warming is to swap their family car for a fuel-efficient hybrid like the Toyota Prius. Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago have calculated that typical meat-eating Americans would reduce their emissions even more if they switched to a vegan diet. Factory farming is not sustainable. It is also the biggest system of cruelty to animals ever devised. In the United States alone, every year nearly 10 billion animals live out their entire lives confined indoors. Hens are jammed into wire cages, five or six of them in a space that would be too small for even one hen to be able to spread her wings. Twenty thousand chickens are raised in a single shed, completely covering its floor. Pregnant sows are kept in crates too narrow for them to turn around, and too small for them to walk a few steps. Veal calves are similarly confined, and deliberately kept anemic.
This is not an ethically defensible system of food production. But in the United States–unlike in Europe–the political process seems powerless to constrain it. The best way to fight back is to stop buying its products. Going vegetarian is a good option, and going vegan, better still. But if you continue to eat animal products, at least boycott factory farms.
And so I’m buying local now. Seattle has no dearth of farmer’s markets and Washington state has no dearth of local products; this is perhaps the logical endpoint of a long west coast journey into hipsterdom anyway. But I’ve spent the past two weeks (hardly the test of time, I know) skipping the meat section at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and biking out to where I know I can buy from Washington farmers.
I don’t harbor any illusions about this making a dent in my overall impact. But it feels good: this is my ideal form of improvement. I pay a little extra and suffer a little inconvenience in order to feel better about my habits. A tithe to the gods of self-rationalization, perhaps.