More on “Persons” and the Politics of Killing Animals: My Response to Derrick Jensen

             Derrick Jensen has circulated a public letter in response to my earlier critique of Lierre Keith and carno-locavorism on ZNET (see Jensen’s blog, http://paleosister.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/an-open-letter-to-upping-the-anti-by-derrick-jensen/). Here is my response, which I am also posting to “Upping the Anti.”


          It is not enough for Derrick Jensen to disagree with me, he must also call me a liar, imply that I am a racist, charge me with intellectual dishonesty, make fun of my last name because a typo in the manuscript of a different version of my essay, published elsewhere, accidentally misspelled his, and finally abuse the editors of this fine journal as “reactionaries” who need a “stern” talking to by an “elder writer.”  Whatever else Jensen’s letter is intended to demonstrate, it reveals more than we might want to know about the man and his character.


          Jensen spills a lot of toner ink about the responsibility of editors to fact check every claim by the authors they publish. But that’s a lot of hooey, and he knows it. There is no editorial staff on any journal anywhere in the world who check every fact in every story. If there were any inaccuracies in my original essay (and indeed I will confess to two of them shortly), the fault lies exclusively with me, not with the editors. In fact, the editors of UTA, while “young” (a term of condescension in Jensen’s hands) do a superb, careful job working on a shoe-string budget. They are a great bunch of folks, and they do not deserve the personal insults Jensen flings at them.


          Before responding directly to Jensen, I should say that when I first agreed to write a review essay of Lierre Keith’s Vegetarian Myth I did so with some reluctance. Keith’s atrocious and unscholarly book frankly did not seem worth the trouble. No one, I thought, could possibly take such a book seriously. Subsequent events have shown how very wrong I was. That my little essay should bring down the wrath of Jensen (“an author with twenty books out,” as he modestly reminds us) shows that something serious may be at stake after all. Moreover, reading Jensen’s letter and glancing through his own writings, I see that I have been barking up the wrong tree anyway. Lierre Keith is merely Frankenstein’s monster, a paler imitation of Jensen himself. Better to have at the doctor himself.


          Jensen begins his rambling note with Herculean efforts to pick nits. Let me grant him two of them. In retrospect, first, I should have made it clear that when I described Keith “singing joyously as she kills her farm animals with her own bare hands” I was being facetious. I thought it was reasonably clear from the absurdity of the image that I was using literary license. If not, however, I apologize. In truth, I have no idea how Keith kills her farm animals. But I don’t think it matters for my argument. On page 271 of Keith’s book, she writes, “I have looked my food in the eye. I have raised some of it myself, loved it when it was small and defenseless. I have learned to kill. And I’ve learned to say my own grace.” It is therefore difficult to credit Jensen’s claim that Keith “has never killed any farm animals by any means whatsoever.” Certainly, Keith gives us the impression that she kills her captive animals herself, up close and personal. However,  whether Keith simply misleads us into thinking she found the stomach to kill, someone certainly kills her animals when they have outlived their usefulness as exploitable commodities for Keith, as for other gentlewoman animal farmers. A motif throughout the book is the beauty and necessity of killing. (As Keith says more than once, “for someone to live, someone else has to die.”)


          As for my second textual error:  apparently, the cows I referred to as belonging to Keith belonged to someone else. I am deeply ashamed. However, whether Keith has owned cows or not is entirely irrelevant to the questions raised in my essay. It is no less irrelevant whether or not the cows I referenced in the text were “Heirloom” cows. So-called Heirloom cows are essentially high-priced commodities raised primarily for slaughter. The idea of Heirloom and Heritage “breeds” is to reintroduce genetic diversity into commercial livestock, as a makeweight for the genetic monoculture that characterizes today’s meat industry. Producing them requires forcible artificial insemination of cows. Unwanted male cows (they are considered a “surplus” no one wants) are killed or sold into the veal industry. Heritage animals are in almost every case killed for their meat. And as in other arenas of animal exploitation, an undertow of violence and sadism afflicts this wing too of the “sustainable” animal agriculture movement. As the manager of marketing and communications of the American Livestock Breeding Conservancy joked, “‘We have to eat them to save them.’”[1] (Cf. the advertisement campaign this month by Legal Seafoods, the biggest corporate killer of marine life in North America, ostensibly demonstrating to the public its supposed interest in “sustainable” fishing with this ad copy: “Save the crab. Save it to show that every creature is sacred, no matter how small. Or just save it so that we can chop it up into tasty little crab cakes.”)


          So my larger point still stands:  whether such animals die slowly, from the blow of a pole ax (which Jensen reassures us is “rarely used”—unlike the gaff, a pole ax used at sea, where marine animals are stabbed through the eyes or gills to be hauled, dying in excruciating pain, aboard ships), or die after having their throats cut and being skinned alive (a commonplace in today’s slaughterhouses), or from a captive bolt gun (much of the time the animal is wounded but not killed), is immaterial. The point is that sensitive, intelligent beings with full emotional lives are being brutally killed in the thousands of millions, and there is no defensible reason whatsoever for any of it.


          To the main business of Jensen’s own arguments:  first, Jensen reiterates Keith’s point that mass organized human killing of other animals (1) is natural and (2) is no different from harvesting wheat or picking apples off a tree. In reality, Jensen is merely reiterating a point which he himself made first elsewhere, and which Keith later simply appropriated from her intellectual mentor (welcome to the Keith-Jensen echo chamber). Be that as it may, Jensen completely sets aside the central argument of my essay, which was that power functions by naturalizing violence and hierarchy. Instead, he argues that “it would be hard to argue that killing other animals isn’t natural, since in years of study I’ve encountered precisely one and only one vegetarian…indigenous human culture out of literally thousands.”   Leaving aside the fact that numerous human cultures and subcultures have in fact lived primarily on vegetarian diets for years and even centuries at a time, either out of necessity (during times when animal flesh was scarce) or by choice (Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and so on, some of whom adopted vegetarian and vegan lifestyles over a thousand years ago), Jensen simply blunders into the same, naive naturalistic fallacy that Keith succumbs to. One wonders whether Jensen even read my critique of Keith at all. For in it, I pointed out the obvious fallacy of the belief that because a cultural practice is or has been widely or even universally practiced, it must therefore be both “natural” (meaning innate and part of our biological rather than social equippage) and morally right. By that logic, male domination and violence against women must be natural and right, since all of the cultures Jensen has studied were patriarchal. Rape and war too can be found in every culture, or virtually every culture, in the world, past and present. Are they therefore natural and right?


          Jensen next writes that he would “hate to try to argue that the Tolowa Indians, on whose land I now live, and who lived here for at least 12500 years, and did so completely sustainably, and who were and are a people of the salmon, were not living as fully integrated members of their natural community, and doing so by participating in the ongoing … cycles of life and death.”  As readers will know from his other works, Jensen is mighty big on salmon. It used to be cod. (In A Language Older than Words, Jensen describes a vivid dream he had in which he brutally killed a deep water fish. In the dream, a man comes to him and says, “It’s cod.”  Jensen later writes:  “I awoke perplexed, and then realized he meant for me to eat it, take it in. That is what we all must do.”  While not quite the Lady of the Lake throwing Arthur a sword, Jensen’s prophetic dream states seem no less dubious a basis for asserting claims of political right. See Monty Python’s treatment of Arthur’s claim to sovereignty over Britain in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Whatever Jensen’s fish du jour, the trouble with this sort of romanticism of indigenous peoples is that it leads those who espouse it into a thicket of moral relativism from which there can be no return.


          Jensen implies that it is “racism” to question the wisdom of the Tolowa (which, anyway, I didn’t); but if so, then it must also be racist to question the agricultural practices of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia and the Americas on grounds that their agricultural practices led in many cases to ecological disaster, as both Jensen and Keith do. However, it is a painful but necessary truth that while indigenous cultures were often ingenious and wise, they were also sometimes (even at the same time) extremely violent, superstitious, and prone to destroying or degrading their natural surroundings. But then, the same can and should be said of every human people and culture, including our own. So I will say it:  native peoples are human beings, and over the eons they too have suffered their own rare combination of vices and virtues like everyone else. That is part of the human condition, and Jensen would do well to open himself up to it. Some native peoples murdered and ate humans in other communities. Some engaged in nauseating spectacles of mass killing and torture, of humans and nonhumans alike. The fact that they killed on a much smaller scale than we have managed to accomplish with the technics available to us in industrialized capitalist society is worth noting, but that fact alone need not render us insensible to the possibility that they too made mistakes. Moral relativism is itself an artifact of modernity.


          But as I say, if it is “racist” to question the practices of non-Europeans, then Jensen has to explain himself to Jensen for his dismissal of the record of sustainable agricultural practices in the Tai Lake area of ancient China. In this connection, Jensen’s indignation over my use of the 1997 Ellis and Wang article about Tai Lake seems to come out of left field. Having apparently only skimmed that article’s abstract online, he somehow misses or ignores the point I was trying to make, which is that indigenous farmers in that region were able to sustainably grow crops for nearly a thousand years, without destroying the soil. Jensen implies that in 1997 Ellis and Wang were sanguine about the use of artificial fertilizers in the region. On the contrary, in their article—the one Jensen apparently still hasn’t read–they express concern about unsustainably rapid population growth and the shift to petroleum-based fertilizers:  “Human populations are now nearly twice their traditional maximum, and the region remains one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions thanks in part to heavy fertilizer applications that have changed nitrogen from a limiting nutrient to a potential source of pollution.”  To be sure, the authors could and should have rung the alarm bells more loudly (as natural scientists, they write in the restrained idiom of their discipline). Nonetheless, their meaning is clear:  the Communist state has driven the ecosystem to its absolute limits and substituted a polluting nitrogen source for a traditionally limiting one. (“Though massive nutrient subsidies have overcome the nitrogen limitation of traditional agriculture, this does not mean that other limits do not apply,” they warn.) 


          It is therefore hard to know why Jensen is trotting out all this data showing that the Tai Lake region is now an ecological disaster. Who said it wasn’t?  Jensen writes that “[s]uch pollution problems are now widespread in China after three decades of unbridled economic growth.”  Yes, that is so. But the authors of the 1997 study were not talking about the last three decades, they were talking about a period that lasted from roughly 950 C.E. to 1950 C.E. That’s not forever, and it’s not even the longest reasonably successful ancient experiment with sustainable agriculture, but it’s a pretty good run anyway. Perhaps we have something to learn from the experience of these Chinese peasants….But no. Before we can inquire into all that Jensen has jumped up waving his arms about the nightmare that is Tai Lake today. However, the unspeakable degradation of the Tai Lake region is an artifact precisely of non-sustainable practices that began after the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Why then does Jensen saddle me and the editors for allegedly defending the ruinous agricultural and environmental policies of Mao’s and Deng’s China?  Here is Jensen:  “And this is the example he uses for sustainability? This is an example you publish as an example of sustainability?  Why did the editors of Upping the Anti not bother to do this basic fact checking?”  For someone who claims that the editors of UTA are irresponsible reactionaries for failing to check their contributors’ facts, Jensen is astonishingly cavalier about the textual details.


          But then, Jensen also misrepresents my arguments with astonishing thoroughness. He says that I claimed that Lierre Keith denies sentience to animals, which I didn’t. And he says that I claimed “that Lierre fails to show that agriculture leads to ‘biocide,’ and ignores both her and the world’s plentiful examples of how and where this has happened,” etc. In fact I fully conceded that point by Keith and explained why it was important and true. Here is what I wrote: 


Keith writes movingly of the toll that modern mechanized agriculture takes on local ecosystems and on the myriad animal species who live in them. Agriculture ruins rivers through salinization, dumps nitrogen run-off into the sea, rips the nutrients out of the soil, poisons or displaces millions of birds, mammals, fish, and reptiles, and turns once thriving ecosystems into desert wastelands. Corporate agriculture is indeed a ‘war’ on the earth, one akin to ‘ethnic cleansing’….Keith is right that the current system of monocrop agriculture, which relies on unsustainable and ecologically fatal infusions of petrochemicals, is broken.


Where I do diverge from Keith and Jensen is their unequivocal conviction that all agriculture is doomed. They are right that many the agricultural practices of many ancient peoples proved ecologically ruinous. But not all of them.[2]   At any rate, if I wanted to follow Jensen’s example I would turn around and call him a “liar.”  But name-calling isn’t to the point, and anyway I don’t really think that dishonesty is Jensen’s problem. The truth is sadder than that. Jensen is so identified with Keith and her positions that he couldn’t even be bothered to read my article before dashing off his intemperate letter to UTA. With an air of noblesse oblige, Jensen the Patient, Jensen the Wise, Jensen the Mentor to Young and Reckless Editors, assures us that while he “didn’t have time for this nonsense…I made time to lay out these errors and to show you what an editor is supposed to do because I care about truth.”  In fact, what he did was to cherry-pick some points at random and dress them up as straw targets to knock down. That is certainly his prerogative, but if he wants my advice he should think twice before tossing around cinder blocks inside his majestic glass house, twenty published books or not.


          Let’s finally move on to the main bones of contention (pun intended). As I took pains to show, Lierre Keith explicitly and repeatedly conflates animals and plants, and dying with killing, in her book. In his reply, Jensen merely reiterates Keith’s ontological conflations, writing that “all eating requires death.”  Yes, it does, which is why I said so in my original essay. However, what I also said was that the fact that everything dies, or even that in living we sometimes hurt others or inadvertently cause other beings to die, cannot be a moral defense for intentionally killing or causing suffering to conscious beings. Examined closely, Jensen’s “all eating requires death” reduces to a tautology, something along the lines of “life is life,” which is true but philosophically uninteresting. We might just as well say that human society also “requires” death, because if people didn’t die, there would be no place to put new human beings. But to acknowledge that “for some to live some must die” would be no justification for killing them. In any event, while I acknowledged in my essay that agriculture, even sustainable agriculture, does lead to “collateral” mortality in nonhuman beings, I also pointed out that the animal killing apparatus kills many, many times more of those beings, both directly and intentionally (billions of animals viciously confined and manipulated and then killed each year to meet the irrational and growing demand for flesh) and indirectly, through its monopolization of the land (since more than 75% of agricultural land today is used to grow crops for animals to eat so that we can kill and eat them).


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