On not Eating Animals: Q&A with Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer is a novelist, a father, a concerned citizen. He is not an animal rights activist. That was my conclusion upon finishing his new book, Eating Animals, and it was his emphatic emphasis when we spoke last week. “I didn’t write this book as anything other than a father who wanted to know how best to raise my son,” he says.
With that in mind, I have to give Foer’s book – and his intensive, dogged research that spanned three years, thousands of miles and hundreds of pages – more credit than criticism. Eating Animals is described in early reviews as “academically rigorous” and “philosophical.” But it isn’t, when compared to literature that offers straight-forward, concisely argued explanations of animal rights. The book is also not a 300-page vegan mantra, despite what Natalie Portman might have you think: he’s transitioning to veganism, but Foer himself still eats dairy products. Which is difficult to understand, given the first-person encounters with animal agriculture he experienced during his research.
Foer, like any novelist, sets out to tell us a story: this one is about him, his family, and how their experiences and dinner plates are paralleled across the country. His book is beautifully written and undeniably well-researched: Foer traveled to animal sanctuaries and factory farms, spoke to animal advocates and ardent omnivores, and then tried to patch it all together. Which means he doesn’t exactly come out with many answers – but there’s enough vivid recounting here to (I hope) turn the stomachs of many a reader.
I can only hope that those readers don’t stop at Eating Animals. It is not, and was not intended to be, a definitive guide to the issues surrounding animal advocacy and animal rights. Safran offers sad truths, poignant descriptions and interesting interviews – he does not offer an exploration of animal rights that will yield a well-informed, lifelong commitment to veganism. When he does touch on the truths underlying deeper questions, though, Foer comes close:
We treat animals as we do because we want to and can. (Does anyone really wish to deny this anymore?) The myth of consent is perhaps the story of meat, and much comes down to whether this story, when we are realistic, is plausible.
This book is all over the news lately, and I think I might be the only journalist whose critique of Foer is not that he went too far – but that he didn’t go far enough. I closed this book wishing it had been an all-out bid for veganism. But that’s not what Foer intended. So, for the steps he doesn’t cover, please see here. And for more from Foer, please read on.
Eating Animals offers a decided take-down of animal agriculture, and the consumption of animal products. But throughout, you refer to yourself as a ‘vegetarian’ – I think the word ‘vegan’ is used maybe twice. I’m wondering if that was a conscious decision, a matter of syntax, or something else?
The book is called Eating Animals, not Eating Animal Products. I took on a lot, and I wanted to keep the scope as narrow as I could to keep some thread running through it. The topic is already so big, and the book is certainly not as comprehensive as I would like it to be. But personally, when I went into writing the book, I was vegetarian. Through research and writing, that transition to veganism started. Even now, I still sometimes eat dairy and eggs – never at restaurants, but at home, from a farmer I know, maybe.
But the stance in your book seems to firmly draw the line on how we conceive of animals. How do you reconcile a non-vegan lifestyle with knowing what you do now about consuming animals and ‘animal products’?
Personally, I know that veganism is what I want to do. It makes the most sense to me. But, on a more general note, I think it’s important to remember that knowing is different than feeling. Reason plays a large part in how we consume, but it’s not everything. There are some very good, kind, upstanding people I know, who are aware of the facts, but who eat meat. That’s what makes this so complicated: how we consume overlaps with so many parts of our lives.
Still, my basic stance on the issue is, I’d say, forgiving – but still quite firm. I am transitioning to veganism, and I don’t like, run home and eat 1,000 eggs or something.
So much of your book touches on the economic implications of consumption – supporting meat and dairy industries, for example, or factory farms, with our dollars. Where do you draw the line? Something like buying a vegan meal at a non-vegan restaurant – you’re eating vegan food, but there’s still a murky financial exchange there.
I don’t think there’s a clear-cut, clean way to draw the line on these questions. And I think that’s part of the problem: people are turned off when issues are turned into black-and-white, all-or-nothing. Because this isn’t: it’s complicated, and nobody always gets it right. Nobody.
I guess sometimes I think you can get a smaller thing wrong but a larger thing right. Like, you eat at a non-vegan restaurant, but at the same time, you strengthen friendships with your dinner companions and maybe start a few conversations about your decision to avoid animal products.
You did three years of research on the book, so I assume you encountered every approach to animal advocacy out there. But I noticed a glaring absence – abolitionist animal rights doesn’t come up, even though activists who align themselves with those ideas are a growing presence.
I was just trying to record my own thoughts – as a father, not as an activist or an expert. I have tremendous respect for what those people are doing. Tremendous. I have no idea whether they respect me, and I’m inclined to suspect they don’t.
Your book will no doubt be a big seller. But do you think it will actually spur change?
Changes will take place, there’s no doubt. Whether because of my book or not. There are a lot of straws, and one day there will be enough to break the camel’s back. That’s a terrible analogy, but I guess I hope I can add a few straws.
Demographics are shifting. Around 18 percent of college students self-identify as vegetarians. In ten years, that 18 percent will be our politicians, writers, great thinkers. I think vegetarianism is becoming an aspirational identity: more people identify as vegetarians than actually are, as opposed to a decade ago, when more people were vegetarian than identified as such. People want to do the right thing.