Ezra Kilty wrote a pretty good summary of why I’m vegetarian, which has little to do with the stereotypical “animals are people too” philosophy most people assign to me when they hear I don’t eat meat. I often half-jokingly say that I don’t like animals and I’m vegetarian because I want to eat their food source and starve them to death. This is only half-joking because starvation would be a natural, reasonable way for animals to die. Industrial meat farming, on the other hand, just doesn’t make any sense. There are a lot of things I still eat that also don’t make sense, but industrial meat is an extreme. It’s a clear aberration in the history of food, and I want nothing to do with it.

I part with Ezra here:

… As living things, [animals] deserve not to be managed strictly as food items. They deserve to eat a diet that their digestion is adapted for, rather than one that fattens them up. (If they are meat-eaters, they deserve to eat other living things, rather than the ground bones of other industrially-farmed animals, which is commonly used as feed.) They deserve to roam, to graze—to follow their behaviors. The industrial system puts the animals in an extremely tight cycle of birth, feeding, waste removal, and slaughter, which is not a life.

My own vegetarianism is more selfish. I don’t think animals deserve any of this, but I do think I deserve to live in a world where animals are treated like, well, the animals they are. The industrial meat industry (and the meat-rich diet that sustain it) upsets me in the same way someone claiming that 2 + 2 = 5 upsets me. It obviously doesn’t work, and I want my world to work.

Nature will acquiesce to most of our modern attempts to bypass it. Our highways through mountains, our televised realities, our internets all infringe on the way the world has optimized itself to work. But industrialized meat goes too far, rearranging the way life itself works. This can’t last. Nature will not adapt to this; it will give us mad cow diseases until we adapt. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be vegetarian, but we will have to eat much less meat. My vegetarianism is a proof-of-concept that this is still possible, that we can still back out of the broken food cycle we’ve created.

 

Nelson’s knife-fork, © National Maritime Museum, London

Have you ever thought a knife-fork was a good idea? I’ll admit, I have. I don’t remember whether it was before or after I first encountered a spork that the idea to combine a fork and a knife first struck me. But I do know that after that moment, I looked on simple forks and knives with some disdain. Why was humanity wasting its time with two utensils when it could use just one? Isn’t the increased efficiency and simplicity of knife-forks obvious to all who eat?

Apparently not obvious enough. Decades later, knife-forks remain relatively rare. The problem with a knife-fork, it seems, is that it can easily cut your mouth. I expect this is why most cultures consider it rude to put a knife in one’s mouth.

Of course we could all be more conscious of our food as it enters our mouth, and indeed we should be for reasons beyond knife-forks, but we’re not. We eat with little regard to the food we’re consuming, much less the utensils we’re using to transport that food from plate to mouth. However, the mouth-cutting problem is apparently not insurmountable for knife-forks. When Horatio Nelson lost an arm in 1797, for example, paying more attention to avoid cutting his mouth must have seemed a small price to pay to avoid continuously swapping knife for fork, fork for knife, while eating a meal. So he used knife-forks.

Still, most two-armed eaters have proven unwilling to adapt eating behavior to accommodate the superior knife-fork. Alas, another brilliant idea brought down by an unreceptive society. I’ve since had many more such ideas. Men and women can share unisex bathrooms. Gender inequity: solved! Plumbing waste: solved! Rich people should give money to poor people. Poverty: solved! Abuse of power: solved! Everyone should vote for their favorite candidate. Democracy: solved! And so on.

Yes, I’ve had many knife-forks, solutions that work great as long as everyone is willing to change their behavior accordingly. But of course, these aren’t really solutions at all. Knife-forks are abstract ideas, fantasies that make us feel better about a hypothetical world in which they’re adopted, but don’t actually improve the real world in which they’re not.

Perhaps I’ve grown cynical, but where I once became excited by knife-forks, they now completely fail to excite me, and sometimes even annoy me. Some people are actually working, inventing chopsticks or something, to improve the real world, not some hypothetical world in which everyone pays more attention to their eating. And distracting them with your knife-forks hampers such progress.

Also, it’s a bit arrogant. Sure, the world would be a better place if everyone were, like me of course, willing to pay enough attention to their eating to use a knife-fork. But why should they? When presented with a world that refuses to eat with knife-forks, the humble knife-fork enthusiast asks why and starts working on a better utensil that addresses knife-fork problems. The more common arrogant knife-forker dismisses the world as inadequate to appreciate the brilliance of knife-forks.

American politicians are especially fond of knife-forks. Dennis Kucinich adamantly opposed the latest war in a Congress full of war-supporters. Now he can run for President on an "I was right" platform, even though he accomplished nothing. George Bush supported spreading democracy in a country unprepared to accept his generous gift. Now he can righteously claim democracy would have flourished if only the world had better supported his brilliant idea.

Technologists are pretty good at knife-forking as well. Every day there’s a new website that would eliminate world hunger, if only it had a million or so visitors. And the intersection of technology and politics is even better: sign my petition to demand people with real power start paying attention to internet petitions!

So now when I have great ideas (I could organize music events better than MySpace!), I try to ask myself: is this really a knife-fork? Does my great idea require people to fundamentally adjust their lives? Because if the answer is yes, it doesn’t really matter if I’ve just come up with a cure for cancer (I’ve got one too: avoid all known carcinogens). If the world doesn’t accept a great idea, it’s not a great idea. It’s just a knife-fork. Put it in the drawer, and get back to work making something the world will appreciate. Have you considered knife-chopsticks?

 

I finally finished The Omnivore’s Dilemna while in Peru. I read the first half in about four months, and the last half in about four days. It’s a lengthy book, but I found it well worth it. It did, however, ultimately fall a bit short of my expectations. The book is an excellent collection of ideas around a specific philosophy of eating, but it is not, as the title suggests, a general-purpose thesis on eating well.

The book starts with, and claims to be an answer to the question What should we have for dinner? But by the end it becomes clear the entire book is rooted in the unstated assumption that industrialization was a grave mistake. So the book is more specifically an answer to the question What is the best pre-industrial meal available in our post-industrial world? The answer, unsurprisingly, turns out to be pretty much exactly what it would have been before industrialization.

It is this certainty in industrialization as the root cause of most modern dietary problems that makes the book so compelling to continue reading. It wasn’t until nearly the end that I realized that such obvious food issues as health, economic class, geography, and aesthetics would not be addressed in any more depth than their relation to industrialization. By then I had already invested too much under the assumption other topics would be covered to stop reading. And I wouldn’t have stopped reading anyway, as Michael Pollan is a captivating story-teller, even when the moral of his story is entirely disagreeable.

It is because the book was written so well that I was so disappointed that the topic turned out to be deceptively narrow in scope. I think this paradox is most clearly demonstrated in the section on vegetarianism, the only in the book that significantly strayed from the central theme of industrialization, presumably because it would be absurd to write a book around thoughtful eating and not cover vegetarianism in much depth. This was the most interesting section for me, not only because I am vegetarian. I have been vegetarian for over ten years and this section presented arguments both for and against vegetarianism that I had never considered.

Which made it all the more disappointing that it ended with a conclusion suggesting that vegetarianism only makes sense as a means of avoiding the industrial food supply. This was where it became clear to me that industrialization was not simply the context in which Pollan chose to consider food, but rather food was the context in which he chose to consider industrialization. One can imagine him pitching his publisher a book on industrialization, and the publisher responding with “why don’t you write about food instead?” The child of those two is The Omnivore’s Dilemna, which while enjoyable, left me wishing to read either of the hypothetical books.

To beat a dead horse (an act Pollan apparently deems palatable so long as it happens outside an industrial economy), I’d like to note where the anti-industrialization bias creeps outside the context of food. In the section on mushroom hunting, he makes a very convincing argument that mushrooms can’t be reliably described over email or even over the phone. The argument in favor face-to-face communication is so good that it’s difficult to see why it should be restricted to mushrooms. Surely I can also understand driving a car infinitely better by talking to someone familiar with it than by reading about it in a driver’s education manual. After all, if someone doesn’t really know how to drive a car, he should be as dead as someone who doesn’t really know how to identify a poisonous mushroom.

So industrialization has diminished food and communication, or so says this book published, distributed, and sold in the industrial economy. And it has also diminished government (the USDA is subservient to industry), medicine (modern science is so untrustworthy regarding diet that Pollan doesn’t even bother telling the reader how the health care establishment would answer the question of what we should eat), and, well, everything really. It’s not even that I find many of these anti-industrialization ideas particularly disagreeable. I personally distrust modern medicine, for example, apparently with good reason. So I would be very interested to read about an alternative world view. But none is offered here. The book details problems of an industrialized food supply, but no real solutions.

Pollan admits that we live in an industrialized world, so his ideal non-industrialized diet is at best only feasible for a small minority of omnivores. But he stops there. If you’re in that small minority, The Omnivore’s Dilemna gives you a pretty good idea of what you should have for dinner. If you’re not, you only get a pretty good idea of what would be good for dinner if you were. The book ends with a chapter titled The Perfect Meal, which (no surprise) is one most removed from industrializations, one hunted and gathered by the eater himself:

This is not the way I want to eat every day. 
 But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. 
 we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

If you’d enjoy a book to help you imagine this, as I did, The Omnivore’s Dilemna is well worth reading. But before doing so, know that if you’d rather, you know, eat a good dinner than imagine it (as I would), you may find the book falls a bit short of expectations.

 

A few days ago, I got a new laptop from work. It’s a MacBook Pro, and I really like it. I’ve moved all of my old files and applications over from my old laptop, checked that everything is working okay, installed Parallels to use for testing in Internet Explorer, and played Minesweeper in Windows XP. With all of those important tasks out of the way, I started playing with a new application that came on the new laptop: Comic Life.

As the name suggests, Comic Life makes it easy to make comic strips. It’s a lot of fun to use, and my first completed comic, previously destined to be an article with far too many words and too few pictures, is below.

Comic: Protein: page 1 Comic: Protein: page 2

This was inspired by an article on Don to Earth (and many conversations I’ve had about protein). The photo is from pedrosimoes7 on Flickr.