Paganism, Vegetarianism, and Sustainability

I just finished reading Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth” and I have to wholeheartedly recommend it as required reading for all humans.   I don’t care what you eat — go out and buy this book!

Yes, Keith’s stated premise is to tear down the mythic pillars upon which the vegetarian philosophy is built and expose it as an unnatural and dangerously unhealthy lifestyle which is complicit with Big Agriculture in the ongoing destruction of the Earth.   Towards this goal she succeeds with a brutal efficiency.

However, despite the name the book is not really about vegetarianism.   This book is a deeply spiritual and scientific exploration of how life on Earth works.  It demonstrates how agriculture is a dead end; a project that has been depleting the resources of the planet faster than they can be renewed for ten thousand years.  Keith lays out the bare naked truth that at least three fourths of all humans on the planet are only here because we are turning fossil fuels into fertilizer into food, and those fossil fuels *will* run out eventually.

Keith at times employs a tone which is likely to turn off many.  Vegetarianism certainly takes the brunt of her polemic, but she also argues for Paganism / Animism over Monotheism, Radicalism over Liberalism, Feminism over Patriarchy, and Egalitarianism over Elitism.  In many ways the book is a political, religious, and social manifesto which will leave many feeling a bit uneasy.

Nevertheless I can guarantee that this book will compel and challenge you to re-think how you perceive the way life works on this planet and how the concept of food fits within.  You may very well end up not entirely persuaded by her recommendations, but you will be changed.

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9 thoughts on “Paganism, Vegetarianism, and Sustainability

  1. “an unnatural and dangerously unhealthy lifestyle”?

    Are you kidding me? =/ I’m normally a fan of your blog, but surely you can see that this is editorializing to suit bias?

    Whenever I see the words “natural” or “unnatural” in regards to humans, alarm bells go off. While I haven’t read this book, I see it is written by a layperson – i.e. someone with no degree or trained study in anthropology, history, or nutritional science. While I am also a layperson in these fields, I recognize that the results of research into these areas is far from concrete at this time, and my eyebrows almost flew to the back of my head when I saw that this is a book masquerading as an authority on human prehistory and the history of agriculture and human ecology. It is absolutely imperative that we approach these subjects with awareness of the limits of our knowledge, to avoid being taken in by fabrications to suit an agenda (or from ignorance of rational inquiry).

    Humans have been vegetarian for millennia, with no harm. Buddhist and Jainist monks have been vegan for centuries if not more. I urge you to research other perspective into these food debates.

    I also urge you to start with this review by a certified R.D. who carefully and honestly reviews nutrition science. (http://www.theveganrd.com/2010/09/review-of-the-vegetarian-myth.html) Yes, she is a vegan, but if you read her posts you can see that Ginny Messina is the first to attack pro-vegan myths to replace them with what we can show empirically. Even better, she is a trained scientist with a good eye for sources and credibility. In this review, she talks about multiple concrete discrepancies and failed citations from “The Vegetarian Myth”. At one point, “The Vegetarian Myth” cites an opinion of Messina’s HUSBAND, which she gleefully points out as wrongly quoted.

    I would never trust a book with such shoddy sources to inform my religious life, so why would I accept it to inform my diet?

    • Hi Meg. I am glad to hear that you are normally a fan of my blog! Thanks very much for commenting.

      I assume that you have not read the book as you do not actually attempt to refute any of Lierre’s points and instead simply attack her directly. Your one completely un-cited assertion, that various monks may have been vegetarian for “centuries”, does not address anything of substance in the book. How does vegetarianism address long term sustainability? How does being in bed with Big Ag help advance environmentalism? How does raping the land for endless acres of annual mono-crops fit within a Pagan outlook? If you are willing to discuss those questions I will be happy to talk to you about them.

      And yes, I wouldn’t normally trust one source for nutritional information, but everything she says aligns to a great degree with everything else I have read about nutrition from other sources, such as Primal Body Primal Mind, Wheat Belly, the Primal Blueprint, and many others.

      • I’m sorry ,but you have definitely misinterpreted at least part of my post! Nowhere did I attack the author – pointing out someone is not trained in the study of history, diet, or anthropology is not an attack, but a statement of fact. I consider it of utmost importance to examine one’s sources and the veracity of their claims to experience and knowledge. While laypeople are capable of being informed, rarely do untrained laypeople produce books or articles which rigorously examine data for bias, experimental error, obfuscation, misinterpretation, and other flaws. In the social sciences, one is taught early to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. We have few if any primary sources for prehistorical humans, which means claims about that period of human history are (and should be) subject to intense scrutiny.

        This is why I reacted very negatively to your review. It is misinformed to label vegetarianism as “unnatural” because we have an exceedingly difficult time deciding what, exactly, IS “natural” for human beings. We are an excellently diverse species (we can barely even *define* the species, in fact, as the numerous rearrangings of the Homo genus can attest), and have practiced all kinds of diets with great success, from the animal-flesh diets of the Inuit to the vegetarian and sometimes-vegan diets of Buddhist and Jainist monks, evidence for which has been dated to at least the 6th-century BCE (2600+ years ago). (Spencer Colin: The Heretic’s Feast. A History of Vegetarianism, London 1993 p. 78-84) (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics vol. 1 p. 231.)

        As for the “dangerously unhealthy” part, I fail to see it. An honest dietician will tell you that a well-rounded, whole-foods diet is critical for health whether animals are part of it or not. The fact is that millions of people are and have been healthy, robust vegetarians (and vegans!), including athletes, children, and pregnant women. (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/vegetariandiet.html) The number is somewhere around 22 million (by my rough calc.) in the United States alone. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/156215/consider-themselves-vegetarians.aspx) I’ve been vegetarian since I could pick what foods to eat, and I’ve grown into a perfectly average-sized adult who donates blood, lifts weights, holds onto muscle mass, and recovers quickly from illness. At my fittest, when I had more time for distance biking and weightlifting, I ate no animal products at all! It’s because I don’t eat bread for every meal – I eat a wide variety of whole foods.

        * * *

        “How does raping the land for endless acres of annual mono-crops fit within a Pagan outlook?”

        That’s quite the loaded question, and I’m definitely not advocating for Big Agra.

        It takes more plants and water to bring livestock to “harvesting” age and size, than it does to simply feed a single human.

        From Cornell University:

        http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full

        “The amount of feed grains used to produce the animal products (milk and eggs) consumed in the lactoovovegetarian diet was about half (450 kg) the amount of feed grains fed to the livestock (816 kg) to produce the animal products consumed in the meat-based diet (Table 1⇑). This is expected because of the relatively large amount of animal products consumed in the meat-based diet (7). ”

        and

        “The average fossil energy input for all the animal protein production systems studied is 25 kcal fossil energy input per 1 kcal of protein produced (Table 2⇑). This energy input is more than 11 times greater than that for grain protein production, which is about 2.2 kcal of fossil energy input per 1 kcal of plant protein produced (Table 4⇓).”

        and

        “Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein (8). Livestock directly uses only 1.3% of the total water used in agriculture. However, when the water required for forage and grain production is included, the water requirements for livestock production dramatically increase.”

        * * *

        Please note that I’m certainly not advocating we all eat grains 24/7. I certainly don’t! The numbers for other types of protein rich plant foods, like beans and seeds, are comparable, though.

        Please also note that I’m not a “Big Agra” supporter. I buy from my local markets and I dream of having my own garden someday. I volunteer taking care of trees in my city. I’m a crunchie hippie at heart with a passion for science, and for realistic and personal problem-solving.

        You and I both are opposed to factory farming. It’s shitty, it’s profane, it’s an abuse of the Earth Mother and of our animal brethren. We can soundly agree that things need to change. I see us as allies against these monocrops, like the rape of the rainforest to plant thousands of acres of soy to feed to cows. These are offenses, they are unjust actions. They offend me to my core. I want to fight this! But I want to fight on the Right Path.

        To me, this means using what weapons I can hold firmly in my mind. Conjecture and dreams, fantasies about the future, they are Vision. Vision without Wisdom is a pipe dream. We have almost 7 BILLION human beings on the planet today. How are we supposed to have a hunter-gatherer society? Wait for the next asteroid? Enforce draconian birth policies? The realistic path to the future, based on what scientific studies and evidence I have read, is one of a primarily plant-based diet as animal flesh farming goes the way of the dodo (rest its gentle spirit). Right now, my state is in the worst drought it has experienced in a hundred years. I think of all the water wasted, wasted as it goes to pigs and cows bred to live and die for human pleasure, water which could be used for diverse, life-giving crops like the three sisters (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Sisters_(agriculture)). I think of my Cuban friend telling me laughingly how the Western meat culture is absurd to him. I think of the possibilities for reducing the suffering of humans and animals by moving meat to the status of luxury or once-in-a-while food, rather than a false necessity.

        Vegetarianism addresses long-term sustainability in ethos and in raw numbers. It informs my Pagan outlook as a member of the biosphere community and as a rational, acting entity.

        • HI Meg. As far as the “unnatural” part goes I think genetics is on Lierre’s side. The human branch of primates diverged from chimps some four *million* years ago and was marked by their reliance on a diet of primarily animal protein and fat. It is therefore fair to say that vegetarianism is “unnatural” from a human perspective.

          Otherwise every bit of “evidence” you cite for vegetarianism falls easily to Lierre’s arguments. You don’t understand top soil, you don’t understand what feeds plants, you don’t understand plant thirst, and you don’t understand the cycle of life which is the basis of the Pagan outlook. Plants require nutrients to grow. Do you have any idea where they get those nutrients from? For ten thousand years we have been depleting the top soil of the planet, and now we rely solely on fossil fuels via the Haber-Bosch process to grow crops. When those fossil fuels run out, what will feed the crops? There is only one answer, as there has been since the dawn of time: animal manure.

          You blame factory farming for your drought but how many wetlands and rivers have been drained for agriculture? And why is it that vegetarians see factory farming as the only possible means for raising meat? Do you begin to grasp the issue now? Plants need nutrients, which are naturally provided by the same ungulates who eat them and turn them into protein and fat which are consumable to carnivores such as ourselves. The only sustainable world is one that adheres to those principles, born of evolution, not to our fantasies.

          • “The human branch of primates diverged from chimps some four *million* years ago and was marked by their reliance on a diet of primarily animal protein and fat. It is therefore fair to say that vegetarianism is “unnatural” from a human perspective.”

            Ancient humans practiced rape and murder as well. Therefore, should those be considered natural and therefore “better”? My example is extreme, but the conclusion is valid – behavior which may or may not have been advantageous 4 million years ago cannot be proposed as automatically better for us than other solutions, especially considering factors like human population today (7 billion vs. a few hundred thousand – a difference of 7×10^9 vs. 2×10^5, many magnitudes of difference).

            ” You don’t understand top soil, you don’t understand what feeds plants, you don’t understand plant thirst, and you don’t understand the cycle of life which is the basis of the Pagan outlook. ”

            You are wrong, and quite presumptuous. I’m sorry I don’t have time to write a book in these comments, but I do have a good understanding of life cycles, plant ecology, and agriculture. I even provided an example of widespread indigenous agriculture which requires minimal to no animal farming, thanks to the nitrogen-fixing properties of legumes. Natural plant death also accounts for a large portion of soil over geologic timescales. (Hi! I study geology, by the way! =)

            “You blame factory farming for your drought but how many wetlands and rivers have been drained for agriculture?”

            No, I do not blame the drought on factory farming. I only mentioned it in passing as another time when water which could be saving lives and the economy is being wasted on unnecessary animal agriculture. Please reread that paragraph, this is NOT what I think. You also completely ignored the significantly large part of my post which scratched the surface of the wastefulness of animal agriculture in terms of plants which are used to sustain it – plants from clearcut forests and enormous mono-crop fields.

            “And why is it that vegetarians see factory farming as the only possible means for raising meat?”

            This is also not what I think. I even explicitly stated that I see myself as an ally against factory farming. I think that the consumption of meat should be much less than what it is today, at its unsustainable levels in the West, and that what animal agriculture exists should be very small-scale and sustainable. Many people in the world eat meat only on special occasions, or once a week. This is reasonable and much more sustainable than the meat-for-every-meal attitude of many Americans.

            “Do you begin to grasp the issue now? Plants need nutrients, which are naturally provided by the same ungulates who eat them and turn them into protein and fat which are consumable to carnivores such as ourselves. The only sustainable world is one that adheres to those principles, born of evolution, not to our fantasies.”

            We are not carnivores. We are omnivores. We have choice and ingenuity on our sides, as well.

          • Saying “I am a carnivore” is like saying “I am constantly constipated because I ONLY eat meat.” (Just bringin’ some levity in here!) =P

  2. ugh, for some reason I wrote both “he” and “she” in reference to the author. Really wish I could edit, as it sounds very confusing.

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