Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Lit. Mercantile & Reader Paraphernalia

by wil — Feb 15, 2012

I saw this New Yorker cover while waiting for an appointment the other day:

2011: Books

by wil — Jan 20, 2012

New Year’s blew past, but it’s not yet Chinese New Year, so I figure I still have time for my annual book summary (nb, part of this post is a regurgitation of a May post, so if it seems familiar, that’s why).

meatMeat: A Benign Extravagance: An in-depth, heavy-duty, and sometimes dry investigation of meat-eating from an environmental/sustainability (and British) perspective.  A much longer review (Part 1 of 3) »

The TerrorThe Terror: An engrossing historical novel with a supernatural twist: 1840s, the Franklin Expedition searches in vain for the Northwest Passage and encounters an ancient arctic evil. I enjoyed it, but there are several spots where the story really starts to drag. I think it would’ve been stronger if it had been a bit shorter.

Faery TaleFaery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World: Signe Pike travels from NYC to Mexico, the UK, and Ireland in a heartfelt search for magic, belief, and a deeper sense of connection.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction UniverseHow to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe: A humorous, touching ride through Minor Universe 31, time loops, story space, memory, and family relationships.

Fight ClubFight Club: This is one of those rare instances where I think the movie is actually quite a bit better than the book. I felt like the novel was dark-and-disturbing just to be dark-and-disturbing. I had hoped for more, something deeper.

Foucault For BeginnersFoucault for Beginners: A quick overview of Michel Foucault’s thoughts on knowledge, truth, power, justice, etc. My impression: Foucault is highly influential, yet difficult to summarize/synthesize. I think I might try another, longer introduction to Foucault.

RumoRumo: And His Miraculous Adventures: Part Grimm’s fairy tale, part Princess Bride — a humorous, imaginative, delightful fantasy adventure. I will definitely be reading more Walter Moers.

The History of LoveThe History of Love: Warm, often-funny prose, but a story that feels disjointed. Halfway through, I set it aside for several weeks, but eventually picked it up again and finished it.

ConsciousnessConsciousness: A Very Short Introduction: An interesting but annoying introduction to the scientific study of the “hard problem” of consciousness. Susan Blackmore covers a lot of fascinating research, but for an introductory, presumably objective overview, I felt like she was a bit too free with her own subjective opinions.

If on a Winter's Night a TravelerIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler: The opposite of a flowing narrative, but interesting nonetheless. Calvino has lots of fun with conspiracies, obfuscation, and metafiction, popping in and out of the story/stories to write about writing/reading. Reminiscent of Borges and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—”I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Alone Together: A really interesting critique of social robots and the hyper-connected individual by a psychologist/MIT professor. Technology offers alluring “solutions” to many our problems — But what do these “solutions” say about us as a society? What are the downsides?  A longer review »

Hogfather: My first Terry Pratchett novel. The Hogfather (Discworld’s version of Father Christmas) is missing, so Death assumes the Hogfather’s duties while Death’s granddaughter, Susan, investigates the Hogfather’s disappearance. — Some laugh-out-loud bits, but all-in-all, too disjointed…too higgledy-piggledy for my taste.

The Hidden Brain: An interesting pop-science book on unconscious bias. Vedantam explores the often-unrecognized conflict between our conscious thoughts and the heuristic activities of our unconscious minds. One interesting, yet morbid bit: the (USA) suicide rate is twice the murder rate, but as a society, we tend to focus on murder. Why?

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time: Science writer Michael Brooks explores the boundaries of current scientific knowledge: dark matter & energy, cold fusion, the placebo effect, the Pioneer gravity anomaly, free will, homeopathy, etc. Engaging and intriguing.

An End to Suffering: A rambling history of Buddha/Buddhism + travelogue + memoir + primer of Indian politics/history. I particularly enjoyed the section on the discovery/rediscovery of Buddhism by early-19th-century European explorers. A longer review »

Daemon: I picked this up because I’m a sci-fi/cyberpunk fan and it got some rave reviews, but I was ultimately disappointed. It’s a fluffy, beach read, and I found myself chuckling at the ridiculous nature of the “this-could-really-happen” storyline.

Embassytown (audio): I read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station a couple of years ago, and was less than impressed. But I thought I’d give him another try…and…I still feel like he has talent, but falls short in the character development department. The plot was quite interesting, but I need characters I care about. I just didn’t care.

The Raw Shark Texts: A re-read. One of my all-time favorites. Funny. Surreal. Beautiful. Steven Hall’s first and (to-date) only novel. I’m thrilled to hear he’s working on a second, codenamed “Hula Hoop”.

Exploring Happiness: Ponderously dry philosophy.* This is not a “how to be happy” book. Instead, it asks questions such as: How do we define “happiness”? Can one be delusional or morally repugnant and happy at the same time? And the answers come largely from (to my mind) often tedious Enlightenment thinkers and Ancient Greek philosophers.

Making Supper Safe: Food politics/saftey. Ben Hewitt covers dumpster-diving, Monsanto, the FDA, the CDC, the Rawsome raid, etc. — interviewing Bob Marler, prominent foodborne-illness attorney; Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures Dairy; Justin Sonnenburg, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, etc. A longer review »

Total: 20
Fiction: 10 (including 1 audio)
Non-fiction: 10

FAVORITES

Fiction:

  • Rumo: A charming, imaginative fairy tale.
  • The Raw Shark Texts: Technically a re-read, so I’m not sure it counts, but it’s so freaking good.

Non-fiction:

  • Faery Tale: A sweet story of one woman’s search for magic and meaning in the modern world.
  • Alone Together: An MIT professor critiques social-robots and the always-connected individual from a psychological/sociological perspective.

* “Ponderously dry philosophy” — You might be thinking to yourself, is there any other kind? And the answer is, Yes!

Making Supper Safe

by wil — Dec 5, 2011

I recently finished Making Supper Safe, Ben Hewitt’s critique of food safety/regulation/politics. I enjoyed it — it’s a topic I’m interested in and he’s got a casual, engaging style (no angry screeds).

Basically it’s a critique of the industrial food system and the largely-pro-industrial policies of the USDA/FDA. And then a look at smaller-scale, regional alternatives.

I’ve cobbled together this Hewitt food-safety summary/manifesto (which I agree with wholeheartedly):

  • As long as we choose to eat, we choose to accept a certain degree of risk.
  • I know that the risk of contracting pathogenic bacteria from my food is small but real.
  • My food is teeming with bacteria because the world is teeming with bacteria.

What I have chosen, therefore, is a style of eating that affords me as much transparency as possible. To the extent that I am able, I purchase my family’s nourishment from producers operating on a scale or with an ethos that provides a clear view of the where, how, and why of production and processing methods.

I also believe that the widespread antibacterial/antimicrobial movement is good-intentioned, but wrong-minded. I’m not talking about life-saving antibiotics, but general antibiotic overuse*, antibacterial soap/wipes, food irradiation, etc. — and the notion that you can, or would want to, get rid of all bacteria/microbes.

It’s commonly estimated that the number of bacteria in and on our bodies outnumber the number of human cells by 10 to 1. We are bacterial hosts/symbionts. We need bacteria for vitamin synthesis, carbohydrate metabolism, nitrogen metabolism, fat metabolism, etc. And we regularly harbor pathogenic and/or potentially-pathogenic bacteria while maintaining overall good health.

There is a lot of evidence to support the idea that we are a victim of hyperhygenitization. The evidence is increasingly strong that when our intestinal microbiota is in a normal, healthy state, we’re more resistant to disease. In fact, one of the top predictors for salmonella poisoning is antibiotic use within the past 30 days.Justin Sonnenburg
Asst. Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Stanford

The way I see it, you can maintain a strong and healthy gut and immune system or you can get by with a weakened gut and immune system and try to kill off the “bad” microbes (a losing battle). I’ll grant you, it’s not a scientific study, but my wife and I hardly ever get sick. As kids and into our twenties, we got sick a few times a year, we got colds, the flu, etc. and we just accepted it as normal. But nowadays we very rarely get sick, and for what it’s worth, we attribute the change to our change in diet (from a pretty conventional, standard American diet to one heavy in home-prepared, minimally-processed, organic, farm-to-market foods).

* Why we feed antibiotics to healthy animals to hasten weight-gain — thereby promoting antibiotic-resistant microbia — is beyond me. Incredibly shortsighted.

Science fiction ghetto

by wil — Sep 27, 2011

I can remember maybe 10 or 15 years ago, walking into a bookstore that I went into fairly frequently, and there was a young woman who had a cart of books that she was…shelving the books, and one of the books that was on top of her cart was Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star, a novel that’s about the government supporting some mathematicians who are trying to decipher some signals coming in from a far star. It’s a fun read for a science fiction reader. And I said to her, “You know, that’s a really interesting novel. You should put a few copies up the stairs in the science fiction section.” And she looked at me and she said, “Oh no no, this is a very good novel.”Samuel R. Delany, via The Language of Science Fiction

An End to Suffering

by wil — Sep 13, 2011

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World is ostensibly a book about the Buddha/Buddhism — and it is, in part. It’s also part travelogue, part memoir, part primer of Indian politics/history.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is the chapter on the discovery/rediscovery of Buddhism by early-19th-century Europeans. By the 19th century, Indian Buddhism had all but disappeared, and the origins of Buddhism had become shrouded in mystery. But the story of the Buddha and Buddhism was gradually uncovered and reassembled and presented to the West in 1844 as the Introduction à l’histoire du bouddhisme indien, “the first comprehensive attempt to explain the Buddha’s teaching available in the West,” influencing, among others, Emerson, Thoreau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.

This section makes me want to explore the Western discovery of Buddhism further. I’m looking at The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion by Charles Allen as a follow-up. An End to Suffering has also turned me on to Montaigne and Vaclav Havel — so it’s definitely been worthwhile as a source for new reads, but in and of itself, it’s a bit of a meandering, mixed bag — interesting, but not particularly cohesive.

Alone Together

by wil — Aug 22, 2011

I finished Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other a while ago, but I’m only now getting around to writing a review.

Turkle is a psychologist, professor, and “the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.” Alone Together is a psychological/sociological critique of a) social robots (and the humans that interact with them) and b) the always-connected individual.

I found Turkle’s discussion of social robots quite fascinating. She worries that social robots might become so sophisticated that we begin to treat them as human, even though their underlying programming is entirely synthetic and different from our own. It leads to a Baudrillard-esque question:

What is the difference between a human-human (real) interaction and a human-synthetic (simulated) interaction, if you can’t tell the difference?

I think, for all practical purposes, there is no difference. But Turkle believes there is something fundamental missing from a human-synthetic interaction. It may well be that we aren’t truly in disagreement, but just offering our own nuanced answers. Either way, it’s an interesting topic.

In the second half of the book, Turkle discusses the social/psychological effects of always-on (phone, computer) connections and the rapidly rising frequency of screen-mediated interactions. She covers issues of privacy, burn-out, social anxiety, social decorum, loneliness, and sacred space.

Turkle is always thoughtful in her critique. She doesn’t lecture, she simply asks us to think about the issues; to move forward deliberately, not blindly. —Recommended.

Saraswati

by wil — May 21, 2011

Saraswati

In the Hindu framework, there is a goddess who gives us words and language and music and numbers. That goddess is called Saraswati. Today the Hindu world celebrates that name joyously and ceremoniously. By tradition, we are not allowed to read today. Books in the house are placed on a pedestal and worshiped. But tomorrow, at crack of dawn, children are expected to rise early from bed and read from a book, with a resolve to do that every day of the year.Varadaraja V. Raman, via The Heart’s Reason: Hinduism and Science

The veneration of knowledge, music and the arts — by way of Saraswati and the festival of Saraswati Puja — seems like such a wonderful notion…I just might join in next year (Jan. 28, 2012).

[ Image via Island Crisis ]

Meat Book Club, Part 3

by wil — Feb 7, 2011

The symbolism of meat-eating is never neutral.
To himself, the meat-eater seems to be eating life.
To the vegetarian, he seems to be eating death.
Mary Midgely

As the sole survivor of the Meat Book Club, I hereby present my final commentary on Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

Meat reminds me of the old line — There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Throughout the book, Fairlie drives home the point that statements such as “cows pollute more than cars” or “the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer” are often more ideological/political statements than well-researched, reasonable conclusions. He spends 300 pages looking at the data — delving into the complexities and interrelationships behind the data — adding to it his own personal experience as a farmer, and lays many of these simplistic statements to rest.

But who wants to read a 300-page treatise on meat — or, God forbid, do original research — just to answer a few questions about cows? Not many (see demise of Meat Book Club, mentioned above). Which leads directly to the issue of trust. Most of us are not animal husbandmen or climate scientists, so we have to look to others for information regarding pork conversion ratios or global warming. Very few people have the time and energy to really delve into a given topic, so we just try to pick trustworthy sources of information and let them serve us condensed nuggets of information. Which is fine, but we should keep in mind that we are only getting part of the picture. We don’t know what’s being left out. We can’t assess the quality of the research when all we get is the conclusion.

Fairlie wades through mounds of research data, makes some educated guesses, and offers his conclusions. He cites his sources (so we see where the data is coming from) and clearly, step-by-step argues his case. Is he biased? Yes (everyone is). But his arguments are convincing and his tone is measured. He doesn’t come across like a raving carnivore.

As I mentioned before (See Part 1, 2), Fairlie is not willy-nilly, all-you-can-eat pro-meat. He argues for a sustainable level of “default” production and consumption. He states from the get-go that meat is an “extravagance”. But he also points out that meat (beef in particular) is often scapegoated. Take, for example, Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday campaign (personally I have nothing against MFM, I’m just using it as an example). McCartney urges us to “help the planet” by skipping meat once a week, but if you read the fine print, what McCartney really seems to be saying is that we could help the planet by skipping factory-farmed meat once a week. There’s a huge difference between sustainable default meat and factory-farmed meat. And you could actually be increasing your environmental impact if you switched from local grass-fed beef to rain-forest soy products.

[T]o invoke the emissions from rain-forest beef as an argument for halting meat consumption, makes as much sense as arguing that we should boycott all vegetable oil, because palm oil is responsible for deforestation in Indonesia, and soya oil responsible in the Amazon.

There is a direct relationship between the amount of petrol a consumer puts in his (or her) car and the amount of carbon he emits into the atmosphere. There is no such relationship between the amount of meat he eats and the amount of deforestation he is responsible for.

Like most things, meat isn’t a black-and-white topic, there are plenty of shades of grey. One of the subtleties that Fairlie repeatedly touches upon is the notion of the non-essential as buffer. Meat is arguably non-essential. Organic produce is arguably non-essential. Strawberries and asparagus are arguably non-essential. But once we throw out the non-essential, we are left at the very edge of survival. If we don’t halt or reverse our large-scale destructive activities, getting rid of non-essentials may buy us some time, but inevitably we will suffer the consequences.

[T]argeting methane…may be the most effective strategy in an emergency, but it involves scapegoating methane emitters to compensate for our failure to address the long-term effects of fossil fuels.

For example, some argue that population growth is such that we can’t feed the world on organic. If we accept this argument, yet do nothing to halt population growth, soon we will reach the point where we cannot feed the world at all (organically or conventionally).

In the latter half of the book, Fairlie also looks at the idea of “Nature”. What is “Nature”? Is it static or evolving? Is “Nature” what the world looked like 50,000 years ago? Are we participants or simply observers? Are some humans, namely members of indigenous cultures, part of “Nature” and others not? Is “Nature” limited to protected wildlife preserves?

Is it “natural” to eat meat? “Unnatural” to not eat meat?

“The whole of Nature” said Dean Inge, “is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.” Every animal consumes living things, and in turn must be consumed, either by another living being, or by fire. Nature is cruel. By rejecting cruelty, by choosing not to eat nor to kill fauna, the vegan forces the greater part of the animal kingdom into exile from the human world, on the other side of the fence.

Is it “natural” to spend so little money/energy/time on food?

Currently…the margins on livestock are ridiculously small, sometimes negative. Nix in 2007 listed average gross margins as £14.69 on a fully reared pig, £1.33 on a turkey and just 8.1 pence on a broiler hen, and that is without factoring in rent and other overheads…. These pittances are an insult to the animals themselves, and to the people who look after them.

Fairlie argues that it might do us good to return to a far-less-urbanized, low-fossil-fuel, agricultural society — something akin to the Amish way of life. But he’s also aware this could be quite a tough sell:

This may be the point at which some readers, if they have persisted this far, will finally throw this book away in disgust exclaiming that the author is off with the fairies. There is a certain kind of person for whom anything that smacks of Luddism is on the same level of acceptability as Stalinism or paedophilia. The concept of “progress” is so deeply engraved upon their psyche that the idea that some of the activities which humans carried out for thousands of years and then stopped doing about fifty years ago might actually have been quite sensible is beyond their comprehension.

He’s not particularly optimistic about the chances of such a shift — and though I’m sympathetic to such notions, I’m not all that optimistic either. I might be better off (spiritually, mentally, physically) working outside, tilling the earth and herding sheep up into the highlands, but…I like my Web job and it’s so nice and comfortable sitting here in this chair.

I recommend Meat to hardcore local, sustainable, foodie/enviro types. If you’re a fan of Michael Pollan, you might like Meat, but I should warn you, there are some dry patches. Sometimes it feels like you’re slogging through an issue of The Farm and Pasture Journal and you might start asking yourself, Do I really care this much about cheatgrass or how many hectares are being put toward the cultivation of rapeseed?

Meat Book Club, Part 2

by wil — Jan 19, 2011

Melissa’s Meat (Section 1) discussion questions:

  1. What does extravagant mean? What do you think Fairlie means by it? What does it mean to you? What foods do you consider extravagant?
  2. Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? Do you agree with Fairlie’s definition of default?
  3. At what point are regulations part of a “nanny state?”

What does extravagant mean? Extra + vagant. Obviously. But I have no idea what “vagant” means, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster offers this etymology:

Extravagant — Middle English extravagaunt, from Middle French extravagant, from Medieval Latin extravagant-, extravagans, from Latin extra- + vagant-, vagans, present participle of vagari to wander about — more at VAGARY

So, etymologically speaking, extravagant means wandering beyond, wandering afar, wandering outside the normal range. I tend to think “lavish”, “excessive”, but at its most basic, it can mean simply “beyond the norm”. Is meat-eating extravagant? In its “beyond the norm” sense, clearly not (by all accounts, hominids have been eating meat for millions of years). But is meat-eating excessive, lavish? Again, I would have to answer, No. Meat-eating, much like corn-eating or cabbage-eating, is not, in and of itself, excessive. Excessive meat-eating/corn-eating/cabbage-eating is excessive. But, one might argue, isn’t it more energy/nutrient efficient (thus, less excessive) to eat plants directly? Generally speaking, Yes*. But does that make meat-eating, with its inherent inefficiencies, “extravagant”? My personal answer is No (yours may differ).

But what about this?

There is currently not enough meat around for every human to eat at the level at which it is currently consumed in the USA and other wealthy countries.

Isn’t it extravagant for the rich to consume more than their fair share? Isn’t it extravagant for the rich to eat meat when more than a billion people worldwide are malnourished? These questions are important and complex — and reach far, far beyond meat-eating.

Fairlie responds to some of these complexities here — referring to agricultural exports from the Sahel during famine conditions in the 80s:

The export of food under famine conditions is indeed an obscenity, but the accent on livestock is misplaced. It is largely because of demand for animal feed that any surplus food is grown in the first place. Under famine conditions the animal feed should have been turned over to human use, because that is partly what animals are for: to ensure that there is always a surplus of grain. The reason why it wasn’t…was because the people who were starving didn’t have control over it.

And here:

The causes of famine are many and complex; but one has to hunt high and low find any example of a famine being caused through ‘inefficient’ animal husbandry displacing ‘efficient’ arable agriculture…. [T]he distinction between livestock and agriculture is a red herring. The conflict is not between animal and vegetable, or between peasant farmer and nomad herdsman…. The conflict is more often between a locally rooted and proven tradition of land-use which invariably has its animal element, and a superimposed ‘efficient’ agricultural improvement, often a monoculture, designed to extract and deliver resources for the international market. Whether the commodities so delivered are to provide consumers with meat that they don’t need, cotton tee-shirts they don’t need, or palm oil they don’t need, is almost immaterial.

And here:

Ownership of a cow, a goat or a pig is a way for the landless to sequester whatever scraps of vegetation may come their way and harvest them, either daily in the form of milk, or at one final reckoning in the form of meat.

Those of us who live in countries where social security payments cover the unemployed’s supermarket bills may need reminding that while meat is the rich man’s luxury, in many parts of the world it is the poor man’s necessity.

[T]he poor and landless of India obtain four benefits from the cow: milk, manure, muscle-power and meat. The amount of milk produced by these hardy Zebus is pitiful by industrial standards, but it is protein for the poor and the feed is free.

The “extravagant” question leads directly to deep questions of an economic, political, and agricultural nature. What is your stance on foreign trade? Long-term sustainability? Short-term profitability? Social justice? Urbanization? International development? Privatization? Job creation? Self-sufficiency? Nationalism? Localism? Globalism? Monocultures? Synthetic fertilizers?

It is certainly laudable to offer a helping hand to those in need; for the rich to share with the poor. Absolutely. But as activist/writer/journalist George Monbiot states, “the world produces enough food for its people and its livestock, though some 800 million are permanently malnourished.” That is not an indictment of meat-eating, but rather the political/economic/social system. Inequality exists. Should it be eradicated via the State? I am by no means a radical communist (far from it) and am often highly critical of the State, but my opinion is that the State should indeed assist the very poor and curtail the excesses of the very rich.

So where am I going with this? I feel like I’m starting to veer off track. Let me wrap this post up before I start ranting about heavy-handed State regulation of raw milk.

What does extravagant mean? I dunno, but to quote Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? I read this question as the corollary to: Should meat production be sustainable? My answer to that question is, Yes.

At what point are regulations part of a “nanny state?” Regulations become part of a “nanny state” when they annoy you. ;-)

* See Meat Book Club, Part 1 for a list of common conversion ratios.

Meat Book Club, Part 1

by wil — Jan 12, 2011

I became aware of Simon Fairlie a few months ago — he’s been featured in Time magazine, The Guardian, etc. — but had to wait for his book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, to become available here in the US.

I received Meat soon after Christmas and started reading it a few days ago, then discovered that Melissa of Hung.Gather.Love is hosting what may well be the first ever (cyber) meat book club, discussing Meat, so I signed up.

I realize that discussions involving diet/food/food-production (like those involving religion or politics) can easily devolve into heated arguments (I’ve been guilty of getting unnecessarily and unhelpfully riled up by the topic myself), so I’m going to try my best to steer clear of purposefully inflammatory statements. And I suppose it might help here to talk a bit about my own diet/food practice/philosophy: I’m a pro-vegetable, one-time vegetarian (married to a pro-vegetable, recovering vegan) with sensitivities/mild allergies to most grains (wheat, corn, rice). I’m largely an organic, free-range, slow-food, sometimes farmers-market, raw-milk, butter and bone-broth omnivore. I eat this way for several reasons: personal preference, health, a concern for the environment, etc.

Meat is somewhat different from other foody books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals in that it doesn’t have much to say regarding nutrition or the morality of meat-eating (e.g., animal suffering). Meat‘s main focus is animal husbandry and its environmental impact/sustainability. In the introduction, Fairlie sums it up thusly:

This book is concerned with the environmental ethics of eating meat. The central question it asks is not whether killing animals is right or wrong, but whether farming animals for meat is sustainable. From this springs a range of secondary questions: Is meat-eating a waste of resources? Is meat a way of robbing the hungry to fatten the well-fed? Does meat-eating cause disproportionate levels of global warming? Does the rearing of animals for meat deprive wild animals of habitat and the world of wilderness?

And I would add, those secondary questions raise a host of tertiary questions, and the answers to all of these questions are complex and intertwined. For starters, what is “meat”? Is it beef, chicken, pork? (nb: Fairlie deals almost exclusively with beef and pork.) Where was it raised? Was it factory-farmed or pastured? If raised on feed, how was the feed grown? Where was the feed grown? Was it raised eating crops that might otherwise have been eaten by humans?

If you want an in-depth discussion of these matters and more, by all means, pick up the book! But for this post, I’ll try to synthesize and summarize.

First off, eating meat is an extravagance. Fairlie doesn’t beat around the bush:

Nowhere in this book do I put the case for eating lots of meat, because there isn’t one. Meat is an extravagance. However, to conclude that veganism is the ‘only ethical response’ is to take a big leap into a very muddy pond.

But how much of an extravagance? How does it compare to other extravagances, such as strawberries, chocolate, coffee, tea, wine, etc?

Chapter 3 attempts to answer the extravagance question by way of feed conversion ratios (the ratio of nutrition fed to an animal vs. the nutrition available when that animal is eaten as meat). I’ve compiled a list of them below:

UK pork: 4:1
Factory-farmed chicken (Src: CIWF): 2.1-3.0:1
Farmed fish: 1.5-2.0:1
US (NY) dairy milk: 3:1 (cow raised on 50% cultivated grain, 50% cultivated forage)
US (NY) dairy milk: 1.5:1 (cow raised on 50% cultivated grain, 50% uncultivated/uncultivable forage)
Cattle: 10:1 (cow raised on 100% human-edible, cultivated grain crops)
Cattle: 8:1 (cow raised on 100% human-inedible, cultivated crops)
US feedlot cattle: 3.2:1 (cow raised on 60% uncultivated/uncultivable grass, 40% grain and human-edible forage)
US pastured cattle: 2:1 (cow raised on 60% uncultivated/uncultivable grass, 40% grain and human-inedible forage)
Global aggregate of all human-edible meat (Src: FAO): 1.3:1

It may or may not be clear from this list that conversion ratios depend on the species, the product (beef, milk, etc.), and what the animal is eating. If the end product is beef and the cow is raised on corn or wheat or other cultivated, human-edible crops, the conversion ratio is high. If the end product is beef and the cow eats lots of uncultivated grass supplemented with alfalfa and clover, the conversion ratio is low. Basically, for beef, pastured/grass-fed/grass-finished = better. Feedlot = worse.

Fairlie adds:

However inefficient the conversion ratio of any given animal may be, if it is grazing entirely on land which could not otherwise be used for arable production or some other highly productive activity, then it cannot be said to be detracting from the sum quantity of nutrients available to the people of the world, but is adding to them.

And though Fairlie doesn’t get into the nutrition or humanity* of beef, others like Pollan and Foer do, and the same rule applies: pastured/grass-fed/grass-finished = better. Feedlot = worse.

In chapter 4, Fairlie covers “default” livestock production: “animal products and services that arise as the integral co-product of a wider agricultural system.” Fairlie opts for “default”, but it might equally well be described as low-impact, eco-friendly, integrated, permaculture, etc. — describing animals integrated into a well-managed farm system, raised on crop residues and food waste, grazing on uncultivated/uncultivable land, etc.

Fairlie estimates default livestock production at 50% of the world’s current meat and dairy produce (the other 50% is high-impact, energy-intensive produce). Based on 2000 figures, that comes out to 18.5 kg of meat/year + 39 kg of milk/year per person, or roughly .78 lbs. of meat/week and 1.33 pints of milk/week per person.

So if you’re eating more than three quarter-pounders a week, you’re eating more than your fair share of “default” meat. But then the question arises, can we sustain above-default levels of meat/dairy production? Fairlie estimates we might be able to sustainably add another 8 kg of meat/year (another third of a pound of meat/week per person) via additional non-default production. That would raise your sustainable fair share to a little over 1 lb/week. Beyond that, you’re probably in unsustainable territory.

I could go on and on — there’s tons of good stuff in Section 1 ( a critique of current pig farming, water-usage myths dispelled, etc.) — but I think I’ll stop for now and leave you with this:

To some extent, the stance which the thoughtful person takes in respect of animals in agriculture must be related to the stance they take on the use of artificial fertilizers. In a world where chemical fertilizers were banned or unobtainable, the advantage of a vegan diet would be slim indeed. If arable crop and meat production took place on organic mixed farms where the whole rotation operated at less than 1.5:1 conversion rate, then the produce of those farms, added tot he meat provided by beef and pork fed entirely on pastureland and crop residues would probably produce at least as much food as could be obtained from universal organic vegan production.

Put another way, the superior efficiency of a universal vegan diet can perhaps only result in a significant increase of food production if it is ‘subsidized’ by petrochemical inputs which a livestock-based system can do without.

* The “humanity of beef” sounds strange, doesn’t it? Of course I’m using humanity in its humaneness sense.

***UPDATE***

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