Sam Corey: A Review of ‘Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism’
In undergrad, two of my friends got into a debate.
Jeff was reminiscing on his childhood, describing acts of cruelty he and his friends enacted on animals for fun. He spoke of times when he put fireworks in the mouths of frogs, and then lit them off.
Jeff’s peer, Kevin, was appalled. He called Jeff a fascist.
Jeff quickly retorted: do you eat meat? Hot dogs? Hamburgers? What makes your actions any better than mine?
Kevin was stunned.
He’s been a vegetarian, and now vegan, ever since.
Kevin only changed his mind about meat consumption because he became aware that he was part of a system that perpetuated the death of cows, pigs, fish and lamb (and, possibly frogs). Most of us, however, remain unaware of the systems we partake in that cause suffering for ten billion animals each year (excluding fish), according to The Humane Society. The problem is invisible, allowing us to ignore it, which, not incidentally, ceases the phenomenon from becoming a problem at all.
This is the argument social psychology professor Melanie Joy makes in her book “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.”
Our ignorance, she says, is contingent upon a lack of transparency of how, for example, a chicken turns into a McNugget. That, she explains, is intentional. Ag-Gag legislation, which prevents revealing animal abuse on industrial farms, and an understanding of how our food gets into a grocery store and onto our plates, have been enacted in several states and pending in others.
Joy describes the net effect this has on us as “psychic numbing”: we feel mentally and emotionally disconnected from an experience, allowing us to abdicate responsibility for our actions. This is why, as Jonathan Haidt writes in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” it was only after seeing a slaughter house — registering the emotional pain of other beings, his mirror neurons firing — that he briefly became vegetarian before the feelings wore off. Haidt, like Joy, explains that we register an emotion and then build logical superstructures on top of them, not the inverse.
But if corporate opacity, preventing citizens from understanding the source of their food, smells fishy, that’s only the beginning of the issue.
Food systems significantly contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases, according to a 2012 study. That’s particularly true for animal food production.
“The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined,” according to a 2014 Guardian article.
Just as we cause the problem, humans can also reverse it.
If Americans reduced their meat intake by one quarter and substituted that with plant proteins, we’d save 82 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or a reduction of one percent, according to a Scientific Reports study.
Of course, in addition to the globally negative externalities and possible health consequences from excessive meat consumption, there’s also the simple fact of animal suffering, something Joy hints at in her title, asking why is it that dogs and cats get all the love?
As written in National Geographic and numerous studies, animals feel pain, including fish. In fact, animals experience a range of emotions, as explained in Carl Safina’s book “Beyond Words.”
Explained differently, when the Buddha said “all life is suffering,” he was including all sentient beings, or everything that experiences consciousness.
But Americans have a funny way of leveraging this thought process, as Joy recognizes. When those of us travel to countries like China, we feel struck by people eating dogs. They are creatures we refer to by name. The same, however, largely goes unsaid for chickens, cows, pigs or fish.
We frame these creatures in generic terms, rather than the specific. As a result, we treat them as inanimate objects, without sensations or emotions.
For all of its thorough research highlighting the problems of meat eating, there are blindspots in Joy’s book.
First, there is little mention of farmers — their wellbeing and livelihood — particularly those not operating on industrial farms.
There is no discussion of the cultural relevance of meat consumption, and how meat eating plays into traditions, rituals and the ways Americans explore the world.
Maybe most disappointing, though, there is no talk at all of how humans co-evolved with dogs, leaving them under our generous care as opposed to pigs, cows and chickens, who suffer greatly at those same hands. That is, how we got to this point, where our food system more drastically began incentivizing meat consumption, goes unexplained. Nor does she describe how we get out of the complicated space we’ve constructed.
None of this is to say that Joy’s arguments aren’t compelling.
There is little to excuse humans for our voracious meat consumption, especially because, in our industrialized world, it frequently leads to brutal and short lives for those we are consuming.
Intellectual superiority, as historian Yuval Harari suggests, should have no bearing on our treatment of animals because we may soon live on a planet where artificial intelligence supersedes our own intellect. Would their superiority justify our suffering? What if Extraterrestrial beings, more competent than Homo sapiens, landed on Earth — should they have the right to do whatever they want with us?
I think most humans would think otherwise.
Contact Staff Writer Sam Corey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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