Reflections on Meat a Benign Extravagance, by Simon Fairlie
Reading "Meat, a Benign Extravagance" is a bit like being forced to sit with a pub bore for several hours, not being able to get a word in edgeways. Quite a lot of what is said is interesting, but the repetitions and the ranting tone make it a bit of a struggle to get through. It's worth the effort though to reach the nuggets of anti-vegan vitriol in chapter 15.
First off, I'll flag up this article, referred to in 'New Scientist' magazine, which claims: "There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. ... Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias." 'Meat, a Benign Extravagance' is a good example of this. Simon Fairlie uses various arguments to justify eating what he starts out defining as "a luxury" (p12) but later describes as "your birthright" (p39) i.e. meat. His points about diet, efficiency and the environment could easily be challenged. I could also focus on his limited understanding of agroforestry, nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs, myccorhizal fungi, biochar and anaerobic digestion, but here I will focus on his anti-vegan agenda and the way that he tries to bring the reader into his "us" camp, where vegans = "them." It's also worth looking at his assumptions about, and opinions of, animals. Both positions are a reflection of "the prevailing bias" which he wishes to maintain.
Fairlie's assumptions about / opnion of veganism
* Vegan food is boring and unpalatable "There is value in meat and dairy produce because they add variety to what might otherwise be a boring diet." (p21) "meatstock or scraps increases palatability" (p23).
* Veganism is worthy but unrealistic "a vegan diet, laudable though it may be for' the individual, is neither sensible not attainable for society as a whole." (p42) Vegans deserve a "reward for their forebearance". (p283)
* Vegans tend to live in cities "When I have asked vegans what they think Britain would look like if it went vegan, I have several times received the reply: 'Oh! I've never really thought about that.' ... If some vegans have never really thought about this matter, it is probably because they live in the city, and have never had to think about land use at all." (p212)
* Vegans are detached from nature and their ideology derives merely from being squeamish or "uncomfortable" "Could it be that people who feel uncomfortable about eating meat don't like to take too close a look at wild animals because they don't like what they see?" (p214). "Efficient mechanized vegan farmers, supplying food for millions, would be less inclined to share land with nature." (p219) Vegans create a "rift between humanity and nature, which I suspect would arise as a result of the refusal to eat meat." (p220)
* Vegans want to kill animals but they can't "The smell of bacon may not awaken murderous feelings in the breast of vegetarian gardeners, but the sight of all their pea seedlings being ripped out by pigeons often does. And nothing causes sleepless nights for conscience-striken vegans so much as the sound of rats scuttling in the cavities of their walls. (p217)
* Vegans want to eat meat but they can't Nut cutlets gave vegetarians "the opportunity to sink their teeth into something at least analogous to flesh." He refers to the "secret longings of some vegans for Chicken Nobs" (p228) and says, "The vegan mission" is to "find a substitute for meat." (p237)
* Veganism doesn't fit in with permaculture Veganism doesn't offer anything to permaculture and is "parasitic" (p246) to it.
* Random stuff "This undiscriminating approach towards trees and tree-planting is shared by all sorts of persuasions. But it is prevalent amongst vegans and not uncommon among adherents of permaculture." (p242)
But my favourite one is from the end of chapter 15 where he attempts a bizarre switch, trying to turn meat eaters into nature lovers who care about animals, and vegans into powerful players who need watching lest they succeed in imposing their twisted will onto the masses:
"Those of us who value the natural world, and more especially our relation with members of the animal kingdom, both wild and domestic, would do well to keep an eye on the vegan agenda, for it may not turn out to be quite as meek, disinterested and innocuous as it might seem." (p231)
Given Fairlie's low opinion of vegans (as nature-hating masochists who want to take over the world, but don't even know the best kinds of tree to plant), it's surprising that he actually includes a quote from one. But it is qualified as follows: "I tumbled upon this, from Paul Appleby, which is sensible enough to be worth quoting at some length." (p213) At no other point in the book does he question whether what someone else is saying might be 'sensible' or not. And Appleby's words are only "sensible enough" - well, he is vegan!
And that interesting word, "sensible", comes up again. Next because someone agrees with him that there should be a "measured amount of meat-eating" (p216) and again when he's talking about permaculture and veganism: He claims to be surprised that vegans would be interested in permaculture since it takes natural ecosystems as the starting point: "You might think at this point that any sensible vegan would decide: 'Permaculture is not for me'" because vegans would create, "an agricultural economy which eschewed animals". (p243)
Fairlie's assumption about / opinions of animals
* Animals like working for us "Despite the fact that she is dealing with such fibrous material, the cow does this both willingly and surprisingly efficiently." (p30)
* Eating meat is natural and exciting "The relentless diet of full English beakfast and meat and two veg ... takes away much of the excitement that can be derived from ... frying up the liver from the pig you have just slaughtered." (p39)
* Animals are there for us "that is partly what what animals are for: to ensure there is always a surplus of grains." (p106) "Man" is "the supreme predator" (p216).
* Animals are just like machines working for us "Besides being heaters animals are also automobiles." (p140) "A flock of sheep or a herd of cows in a well-designed farming system is the most energy-efficient compost-making machine yet devised." (p142)
Later on, Fairlie changes his tack. At this point he doesn't need to prove that animals are functioning efficient machines, but that livestock farmers have a superior natural connection to the lives they own.
"A mixed farming system provides a more natural landscape than pure arable farming, is less mechanised, and gives humans greater contact with nature. ... [vegans] remove an entire order of creation from the system. Moreover, it is the order which is closest to humanity, which gallops and gives birth and suckles, which feels pain and anger and joy. Farmers talk to their animals and give names to them ... What vegetable farmer ever gave a name to a cabbage?" (p222)
The fact that vegetable farmers don't name their produce doesn't prove a disconnection from nature, just that livestock farmers are in some kind of denial about the true relationship they have with the animals they care for, whose babies they remove, whose eggs and milk they take and whom they kill and eat. But Fairlie's caring farmer angle doesn't last long, a few sentences later, he's back to describing animals in functional terms: cats are "companion animals whose original purpose was to eat pests and unwanted meat." (p222)
So for any vegans who are thinking about reading this book, you have been warned! I'm figuring Fairlie feels he can take this tone because vegans are a tiny minority of the population. It's also made life quite easy for him because he merely had to regurgitate the myths of the "prevailing bias" rather than challenge his thinking about our relationship with animals. And if you're an animal (a non-human one), congratulations for mastering the skill of reading - you might want to read something else.