Somewhere between my ex-vegan interview at Let Them Eat Meat, the blog Hunt.Gather.Love, and Paleohacks, it was at least once recommended to me that I read Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth.” So, I did.
The author spent 20 years as a vegan. Understandably, veganism became ever nearer and dearer to her identity, but it also ruined her health (depression, hypoglycemia, spine problems, chronic pain, reproductive health issues, etc). Eventually, she came to realize that vegetarianism only apparently resolves the issues that trouble its practitioners: animal welfare, nutrition, and social justice. This book is partially a telling of Keith’s journey. However, the story is filled out generously with evidence to support the conclusions at which the author eventually arrived.
The book has three main sections:
- Moral vegetarians: This section dispels the common vegetarian idea that abstaining from animal foods allows you to eat without causing any death. Rather, it is an inescapable fact that all life requires death. Plants have to eat, and even to grow grains the soil must be fertilized either with animal by-products or synthetic fertilizers produced using huge amounts of fossil fuels. Monocrop agriculture is also very harmful to natural environments, ruining soil and water which causes the deaths of many animals. As such, your vegetarian diet is only apparently death-free.
- Political vegetarians: This section discusses various political aspects of the eating of animal foods which vegetarians often criticize. For instance, some vegetarians claim that fewer people would be starving if we fed more grains directly to people, instead of to industrially produced animals, and they point to the huge amount of water that it takes to grow a cow. This is misleading, for a variety of reasons. The animals produced for food are more nutritionally dense than grains. And, they are only fed grains due to a perverse history of agricultural subsidies and incentives that makes it cost efficient. But, when raised naturally on grasses, food animals give back nearly as much to the land as they take from it – in stark contrast to the destructive grain crops. Because grains ruin the land, countries need more and more of it, possibly leading to economic exploitation of, or militaristic action against, other countries. And anyway, most alternative vegetarian foods are produced by brands owned by the largest agricultural conglomerates in the world. Vegetarianism, then, is not really the diet of peace and justice that it is made out to be, and it doesn’t really help you to opt out of the oil-fueled, government-assisted food industry. The realities of food production and distribution are much more complex.
- Nutritional vegetarians: Keith discusses some ways in which conventional nutritional wisdom has gone wrong. Contrary to the dietary establishment, she argues that a low-fat, high-carb diet is unnatural to humans and unhealthy for us. Special attention is paid to debunking the lipid hypothesis and presenting some of the work of the famous alternative health practictioner Weston A. Price. Keith also discusses the dangers that soy poses to human health, which is of particular interest to current and former vegetarians who often eat soyfoods instead of animal foods.
The whole book is rather depressing, and Keith’s conclusion is pessimistic. She think that the only way to achieve morality, justice and good nutrition is to dismantle the foundational institutions of our current way of life (agriculture, suburbia) and to return to being hunting and gathering locavores.
I really, really enjoyed the book. Of course, it is not comprehensive – what book on those mammoth topics could be? – and I have not verified all of the research myself. But it was invaluable to hear all of these things from someone who understands the pull of vegetarianism and who felt that pull enough herself to learn its pitfalls the very, very hard way. Keith switches effortlessly from educational sections to personal narratives and back again. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but at times I felt myself responding to her prose in that way you’re supposed to respond in church.
However, no book review would be complete without a few criticisms:
- Animism: Keith argues that humanism is morally bankrupt, leads to exploitation of the earth and its creatures, and must be abandoned in favor of an animist ethic. I think this is crazy. I don’t believe that humans have souls, let alone rocks, and I can’t accept any moral worldview that promotes disregarding important moral differences between beings (consciousness, capacity for reason, etc). It’s easy to see why animist cultures did a better job of respecting the environment – they thought that they could actually wrong it in some way. As such, the environment placed moral demands on them, rather than mere demands of self-interest in producing food. But I don’t think there’s anything about humanism that’s inconsistent with more sustainable practices; Keith’s understanding of humanism seems like a caricature in this regard.
- Masculinity: Keith thinks that the cause of exploitation of the earth, among other forms of exploitation, is a kind of masculinity (not to be confused with biological maleness) that is obsessed with dominance and power. I’m not really sure what this adds to the book, other than making its main points look more radical than they really are. Keith is an anti-pornography kind of feminist, so actually I wouldn’t be surprised if the masculinity stuff figures more prominently into her thinking than the book suggests. I’m not really interested in this form of social criticism and don’t know what legitimacy or value it has.
- Technology: Keith repeatedly worries that the human population has grossly overshot the carrying capacity of the earth, and she is condescending toward those who hold out hopes for technology that will solve the problem. I think this condescension is quite unwarranted, considering that her proposed alternative is radical, grassroots political action. Why think that technology is so much more unlikely to fix things than some people holding democratic meetings in a basement somewhere? It’s this obsession with old ways of life (and old spiritual practices, like animism) that really turns me off to many environmentalists and other social critics.
All in all, though, a more than worthwhile read. I would especially recommend it to anyone who has spent time as a vegetarian, and to anyone who has a currently or formerly vegetarian family member or friend.