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Meat, Culture, and Climate

In his autobiography, Gandhi relates what he calls a “tragedy.” When he was a teenager, his best friend wanted to accustom him to eating meat. Gandhi’s family belonged to the Vaishnava Hindu tradition in which vegetarianism is the rule. How to violate a custom all the more accepted in that Gandhi’s parents – to whom he was utterly devoted – never imagined moving away from it for a second? “We’re a weak people because we don’t eat meat,” his friend told him. “The English are able to dominate us because they’re meat-eaters.” Gandhi, who at that time felt puny and was already animated, even though he was not yet conscious of it, by a fierce desire for his country’s independence, consequently forced himself to eat meat for a while. He was to liberate himself rather easily from that dependency, so essential was the question of diet – to which he was to give a spiritual dimension far surpassing the health issue – to become for him.
 
What does this story tell us, the week when Claude Levi-Strauss’s death reminds us of the imperative necessity of looking at other cultures to understand our own? That what we eat is not a metabolic act, but first of all, a cultural artifact. In other words, that the infinite variety of ways to feed oneself is nothing other than a reflection of the infinite variety of cultures. Gandhi shows that effectively by contrasting the customs of an Imperial England with those of a still-subjugated India.
 
Must we, out of respect for all life, abstain from eating meat as the Hindus do? At the very least, we could remind ourselves of the practices of those Native American peoples who apologize to the animal they hunt for taking its life. Or, at the very least, we could recall that still-familiar French peasant culture which established friendly connections between people and animals, borne witness to by the thread running from the “Roman de Renard” to Marcel Ayme’s stories.
 
But what is our culture, our agri-culture, today? It gorges by the millions of tons on the products of immense meat factories where the specific animal is no longer hardly anything but raw material. By denying animals all dignity, our culture flaunts its contempt for the world outside itself, and not only for the natural world.
 
But let’s return to a consideration more in accord with the spirit of the times. According to the FAO report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” published in 2006, livestock farms are the source of 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 18 percent! Almost a fifth. To fight climate change, we need not only to use our bicycles, but also to eat much less meat. Yes, it’s less exciting than planting windmills and nuclear power plants all over the place. And – horror! – it doesn’t create any monetary profit. But it does produce a more reliable result.
 
Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.


This article was originally published on Truthout.


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