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Horizon: Should I Eat Meat?

August 29, 2014

I was fascinated if a shade horrified by Horizon‘s “Should I Eat Meat?” presented by Michael Mosley, airing last week. I was certainly unsurprised to find they made a point of Mosley’s own carnivorousness early in the program, since having not done so would have made viewers think he was one of those filthy vegetarians, hell-bent on converting us all with compassion and reason, those most evil of wizard’s tricks.

I knew instantly that vegetarianism, and certainly veganism, would be mysteriously absent from this discussion; it’s still out of the question that every one of us should forgo animal products. The entire documentary is given over to ways around our current habits; damage limitation, in dribs and drabs, that allow us to desperately cling to modes of being that are proven more certainly, with every passing year, to be unsustainable. Instead, we must work hard to normalise the dystopia forming under our noses, kept alive with a series of half-truths and weak concessions.

Even those who spoke of vegetarianism dared not say the word. That’s how afraid our society is of it. Or perhaps they did say it, but the film editors were afraid of it, or afraid their viewers’ would be, so cut it out. Problematic in itself; all this circular fear about others’ concerns makes a subject taboo well after anyone objects to its discussion. But then again, who wants to hear about the disgusting abomination of vegetarianism, on a nice little program about imprisonment and death?

Horizon managed to make vegetarianism a sideshow, some eccentricity that is quite besides the point, even though all the signs point towards it being exactly the point. This was a documentary for self-professed carnivores (even Mosley used the term, though I’m sure he knew it was entirely the wrong one). It is a program for people who are not considering vegetarianism, and of whom it is thought, could not consider vegetarianism.

But then, what is the point of the program? Anyone who decides to act on the information received from this episode should see that they can do nothing, except stop eating meat. We have come to a point where the concept – and the roundabout ways in which is it expressed – is so distant, it is less threatening than the word “vegetarian” itself, even though it is the understanding of the concept, and what it means for our planet, that cries for action, not the word.

It says something when Mosley, a man who says that he likes to imagine the cattle he’s eating are free range, can look upon a giant great plug built into the side of a living steer, and express barely more than polite interest. To me, this shows a definite marriage to Frankenstein science, attaching intrusive bits and pieces to living creatures, no doubt to our gain and not to theirs. The idea was to track the process of methane production. The conclusion Horizon drew from this was that digesting grass in a cow’s gut makes methane, so our livestock cows should stop eating grass.

Cows should stop eating grass. That’s their sane and scientific suggestion. [They did make another one later, about moderation, which is also misguided.] Cows should stop eating the food their digestive system has evolved to eat. Cows should stop eating the plant that exists to be eaten by every grazing animal, that exists in abundance and has to be eaten, else the whole ecosystem would collapse. Cows should stop eating this thing which we tore down forests to make more room for, wrecking the environment quite as much as methane.

We let this stuff, inedible to us, grow everywhere – specifically so we could live off the animals that live off it. And now the best alternative is apparently to stop feeding them that, and feed them plants that are perfectly fit for humans, such as soy or corn, even though much of the world goes hungry as the land gets filled up, raising animals for years on end so they can become the luxury products that overfed rich societies have convinced themselves are essentials. Despite the title of the Horizon episode, only at the end did did some bright spark put up her hand and tentatively suggest that we eat the corn and cut out the middle man.

No, the premise and conclusion of this documentary was never actually going to be “stop eating meat, it’s bad for the planet.” There are too much vested interests, too much fear around the idea of never eating steak again. I’ve seen grown men break into sweat the mere mention of such a catastrophe. The premise and conclusion was always going to be: “Watch this space! Science will save you!”

Few people wish to change themselves and take responsibility. The Horizon series seems to have dedicated itself to telling us not to worry our heads too much about all the evident and increasing problems of the world; we needn’t take responsibility, because capitalism and innovation beyond the comprehension of us plebs will fix the problem. The elephant in the room has declined to mention that these had a great hand in creating the problem in the first place.

I believe in innovation and I love eco-technology. But not when its apparent aim is to provide an undeserved good night’s sleep to an apathetic public, passing the buck because their lives are hard enough, thank you very much, and it’s up to these bright young things in the lab to solve the world’s problems. The problem is, labbies can’t do it alone. What can ten scattered and differently motivated geniuses do that could combat the laziness of several billion? They are facing a vast army of indifference, that most potently insipid of all responses.

There are other ways of thinking which are better than, or at least vital compliments to, eco-technology. Technology is fly paper, there to reduce a vast problem as much as it can to make this place seemingly liveable to those lucky enough to be set up nearest the paper. It is not a permanent, fix-all solution and is very often not the most effective one. To weed out the pests, you have to find the source; the most effective method is consciousness raising, the encouragement of social responsibility.

Putting the plug in the cow is, to my eyes, the ultimate symbol of how automatic it has become for us to reach for new, pioneering, expensive technology in order to solve problems that already have very simple, but to some mouths, distasteful, solutions – all because we are so infernally convinced that going back to the old way (by, say, eating less meat) is a backward step. We never give credit to our ancestors that they may have understood certain things we have forgotten, perhaps because they could see a smaller and therefore sharper picture; or at the very least, that their comparative ignorance made them less destructive beings overall.

More, it proves that we don’t think of animals as animals, but as tools. Argument goes: the steer wasn’t bothered by its plug, so it doesn’t matter that it was put in. I don’t know how much the steer was bothered, but I say it is not relevant, because it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference how bothered he was; we have a tendency to assume first and act in accordance.

Had the steer been bothered, the scientists would scarcely have considered abandoning the project – they would have tweaked the device, or tweaked the steer himself with whatever substance they could find to keep him calm. He doesn’t understand the importance of science, you see. That renders his objections – objections which any unsuspecting human would certainly have if a scientist opened up a valve in their stomach without their consent while they were under anaesthesia – of no consequence.

Mosley talks about green beef. In simple terms, he concludes that cattle lots create more meat in less time, so are the greener option. Odd, that having come to this conclusion, Mosley should then tell us that trees are cut down to make room for these animals and their food. Cutting down trees is clearly not green, and they are not cut down in order to make pasture land. No grass is grown there. Crops for feeding cattle are grown there instead, as cattle lot animals are fed on crops, not grass. The advantage of grass land is that the cow can live off the very same space on which it stands; apart from not using a resource that cows are best suited to use (grass), we are, by feeding them crops, using up far more land. Since a third of the planet is given over to animal agriculture (Horizon tells us twice), it seems obvious that there is chronic misuse of land going on here, and deforestation has reached an untenable level.

Mosley would also insist on talking about “eco-friendly carnivores”. It seems bullheaded to the point of absurdity that, after systematically proving that every eco-friendly adjustment to agriculture is not enough to solve the problem, no one should think to point our that animal agriculture is the problem. “Ethical carnivore” is a misnomer, too; the concept exists because of the assumption that no one can give up meat, so not trying must be perfectly acceptable. Yet, all the evidence from this very carefully constructed sit-on-the-fence documentary still manages to show, unequivocally and apparently against its own will, that there is no such thing. The Emperor is naked, and he fails to notice even as he examines his own goose pimples.

And throughout, this irritating notion that environmental = ethical circulates. In fact, all Horizon has done is prove how mutually exclusive these two things are; the more eco-friendly, the less ethical in terms of animal treatment. It is another sign of thinking about the issue entirely in terms of its affect on humans, or conceptually, on the planet and its yet unborn inhabitants. Those living as non-human are only important if they happen to be living in the trees we’re cutting down; as if it is the cows’ fault that we have taken their ancestors out of the wild and bred them into domesticity, where our care for them extends only in so far as they serve our stomachs.

Human desire makes the concept of sustainability idealistic, not attainable. I observe that, where meat is available, it is taken, almost without exception. People’s only limitation is how much they can get away with, in terms of money and health. The richer we get, the more we can afford and the more we will take. Horizon constantly makes documentaries on food and health; one of its conclusions was that, via various technological and medical interventions, we can negate the serious effects of diets containing too much fat. If we did that, then the environmental problem would become even greater; not even health concerns would stop the world’s richest eating meat constantly.

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From → Animal Rights

One Comment
  1. Beefcake permalink

    Really annoying that you’ve assumed the reader has watched the programme. I havent, you could have kept me here rather than me putting your site on my blocked list, simply by explaining what you are referring to, so a giant plug built into a steer …… to do what?…… Not knowing makes your article irritating not interesting or thought provoking, & I cant be the only person who didnt watch the show but would still apreciate an overview/review/opninion can I?

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