West Winfield, NY. If we accept that there has been moral progress, however imperfect and impermanent it may prove, a question naturally arises. What are we doing now that our descendants will judge most harshly? We are certain in our damning of the past, but what present reality would we all consider awful if not for collective myopia? On an episode of his excellent podcast from last month, Robert Wright raises this question, and then proceeds to answer it. He does not cite the Gini Coefficient, violence domestic or international, or the persistence of grinding poverty. Instead, he claims it is eating animals that will horrify future generations.

Unfortunately, this is a good bet. Unlike wealth and war, which are complicated and possessed of such powerful political constituencies that they are likely to remain contentious forever, the practice of eating animals is at once ubiquitous and remarkably undefended. There are plenty of public arguments for vegetarianism, with Jonathan Safran Foer in the Times being a relatively benign example, and ideologically funded reporting in The Guardian being something a little more troubling. But scouring the pages of mainstream newspapers and magazines turns up few full-throated affirmations of robust omnivory, especially now that Michael Pollan has shifted to covering psychedelics more or less full time.

Animal agriculture, we hear over and over, is horrific for the environment and horrific for the livestock involved. It is responsible for climate change, and it causes immense suffering. There’s drought in California, a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and rising levels of carbon, all of which are laid at the hoofs of the cattle that are packed cheek to rump in feedlots. Yet most of us can’t or won’t change our ways. There may be a general sense that beef is horrible, but there is a literal sense that steak is delicious.

Here a peculiar story gets told. Lab-grown meat, it goes, will soon become available. The market will then work its magic, making it ever more widespread and inexpensive. Someday, whether five or fifty years from now, the synthetic version will become cheaper than the real thing, at which point shifting entirely from beef grown in cows to “beef” grown in vats will be a tradeoff with huge benefits and virtually no costs. Who would choose to eat flesh which requires animals to suffer and the world to burn when every store has a case full of synthetic protein that neatly sidesteps such concerns?

The environmental question is the easier to answer, since any sober look at the numbers reveals that emissions are quite complicated and that simply reducing meat consumption is far from a panacea. (The root of the problem, it appears to me, has more to do with the mining and burning of fossil fuels than with agriculture, which is just one of many ancillary concerns.) Further, farming is too varied and complex to be discussed as a single thing. Agriculture can degrade soils, but it can also build them, and properly deployed it may even help mitigate climate change. As Jason Peters said in a related discussion, there is good farming and there is bad farming, and what we need is more of the former.

The harder point is suffering. A food system that requires creatures to be born into short lives of discomfort and boredom followed by death in a slaughterhouse, just to provide the transitory pleasure of a cheap meal, is unconscionable. And this does describe most livestock production in America. But it does not follow that livestock should entirely cease to be; it is an odd plot that would save cows by precipitating their extinction.

Notably absent from most discussions of the cows’ fate is the cows’ voice, which, given their laconic nature, is understandable. While cows may not directly speak for themselves, like all animals their manner of being in the world nevertheless has something to say. It’s worth considering what best suits them, particularly if the point of moral progress is actually a better world, rather than the alleviation of a vague, unexamined feeling of guilt.

In his famous treatment of consciousness and the limits of knowledge Thomas Nagel chooses the bat for examination because, while it is an animal that most of us would agree has subjective experience, it is as alien as any mammal can be: flying, insectivorous, reliant on echolocation, hibernating, and just so utterly not human. We may strongly suspect that it is like something to be a bat, but it would be a tremendous leap to claim to have experiential understanding of that something in any but the most circumspect sense. While cows are more familiar, and thus considerably easier to anthropomorphize, there’s no real reason to believe our subjective realities are much more commensurate with theirs than those of a bat.

A cow living the bovine good life will spend more than half of its hours—not just waking hours, but total hours—eating, either consuming feed directly or chewing cud. The balance consists mostly of sleeping or resting. Seasonal activities like breeding and calving briefly complicate this simple schedule, but processing immense volumes of plant matter is overwhelmingly the thing that a cow does. While humans can survive on hotdogs, hummus, or any number of other foods, so long as the calories they contain are sufficiently concentrated, the entire physiology of cows and most of their behaviors facilitate the consumption of forage.

Bolting a few slices of bacon and a couple eggs before heading to work does not grant any real understanding of what it would be like to hoover up thirty pounds of orchardgrass, systematically regurgitate and chew the entire mass, repeat the whole process a couple more times with maybe a nap in between, and then lie down for a brief sleep before repeating it all the next day. And the significant thing is that a cow looks completely content doing this, and will choose to do it even if given the option to look at a screen instead. If it is too big a leap to extrapolate from eating as a human to eating as a cow, then comparing a human state like contentment or happiness to whatever a cow feels as it sticks its muzzle deep into a fresh sward also calls for an admission of considerable uncertainty. But a cow on clover gives every appearance that there is nowhere else in the world it would rather be.

The immediacy of a cow’s life is of a kind with that of most (though perhaps not all) non-human animals. While a cow can clearly experience distress, the physical component of which most likely bears some resemblance to how I experience it, there are important distinctions. A cow must be put in a position to suffer, while I need nothing but my own wondrous mind to achieve a remarkable degree of agitation. I wake up in the darkest hour of the night to ruminate on matters like neglected tax forms and the possibility of non-existence. A cow also wakes up in the darkest hour of the night to ruminate, but it is on grass.

The question is whether there is an inherent value in a cow’s totally present, emphatically different existence. Even if its life ends in a slaughterhouse, is it better for a properly raised cow to have existed than not? I believe that it is, and I suspect many people, including many people horrified by factory farming, would agree with me. There is a sound utilitarian case that a good life and quick, painless death for an animal without any sense of its own futurity is within ethical bounds. But this is only one component of the reason I believe a world with cows is better than one without them. A full account, however, is harder to articulate.

The difficulty has to do with the move from the particular to the general. Something as critical as a beat to a heart goes missing in any abstraction from a specific lived reality. A clear example is a list of the characteristics of falling in love compared to the experience of all existence reorienting around an embodied person in possession of a unique spirit. And at the outset it’s at least possible to gesture towards a racing heart, simpering preoccupation, and all the common tropes of early romantic intoxication. The gulf between description and life only widens with maturity; words about blushing ardor have little to say about a marriage that has been knocked around by life and deepened in its commitments as a result, or, to take a milder case, a friendship that has managed to change and strengthen over years. Such partnerships, narrative and relational, can only be built through living. Their value as a critical substrate of meaning arises from unique circumstance, the intersection of two subjectivities within the bounds of a shared reality. Perhaps others are more creative, but I cannot figure out how to chart their worth on some hedonic spectrum.

If friendship is an invitation to the most human part of life, raising cows (as well as quite a lot of other things beyond the scope of this essay) is an invitation to all the glorious other parts. Though cows bring none of the messy mirroring of human expression that comes with having a dog, they are incomplete without people. The peculiar magic of domestic livestock is that they can and must live their lives in proximity to humans but do not seem to care much about us. They can be at once without fear and remarkably indifferent.

Most of us spend much of our time in built environments in which human dominion is close to absolute, where unplanned life gets a toehold only by exploiting error, like lambsquarters sprouting from a crack in the pavement, or a mouse in the cavity of a wall. The truly wild is something apart. Yellowstone viewed from a car or a day hike in the Catskills are both, I don’t doubt, salutary, but they place us in a largely receptive posture while making nature something to be discretely consumed, positioning the woods as a movie with exceptional visuals to make up for the lazy plotting. Cows put the lie to this artificial division. They must live on the land and in a place, and in doing so they change it: their hooves turn goldenrod to grass, their browsing draws a sharp, head-height line across the forest’s edge, their manure makes everything grow better. Though they take these actions, they take them in conjunction with their human keepers. To raise cows is to be implicated in the creation of a landscape.

The porousness of life becomes hard to avoid when the effects of fence placements etch deeper on the ground with each passing year, when the immediate act of moving a herd to fresh pasture becomes an act of inscription. Yet the truly inescapable part remains the lived movement itself. The cows low and jostle in anticipation, impatient for their next meal. They swish their tails and toss back streaks of saliva to chase flies from their backs. When the fence is reeled open they stream through in a tight bunch and then disperse, heads fixedly down as they begin the day’s eating. This shared experience invites an imaginative and empathetic extension of value to cows being cows in large part because they are not human.

It is an invitation to a broader context, one which does not revolve around me. I may acknowledge that there is a whole world unfolding all the time, but I truly know it when I watch a cow circle a mouthful of foliage with its tongue and neatly tear it off, or upon startling a bobolink from the tuft of grass in which it has built a nest. I am sharing a place with other creatures, but each of our experiences is radically different and yet not so different that I cannot catch a sense of their perspective, however imperfect my imagining of it, a sense of the overwhelming everything that is not myself. There is in such encounters a communion, unmediated in its reality, with the world. Cows remain unknowable, and they also become strangely knowable.

I’m trying to evoke, however briefly and incompletely, a world of things, places, and creatures finding coherence not in their atomized selves but in relation to each other. Fundamental to being human is a perspective limited to individual experience while also being inexorably drawn out by a visceral awareness of other subjectivities. It is both imaginative and pragmatic, rooted in the unique requirements of time and place, and it has at most a tangential association with cold, utilitarian moral bean counting. It is an everyday sublimity, an awesomeness in the biblical sense, an intuition that there is a deep and unfolding enchantment coursing through the world, available for discovery.

From this perspective there are two points of particular interest about the idea that lab-grown meat is the best way to deliver animals from suffering. If there’s anything to my suggestions that domestic relationships can be an integral part of a rich, full life, it should not be preferable to consign them to destruction than to ensure they are properly arranged. Industrial agriculture and particularly the factory farming of animals is a betrayal of a promise, but that is not a good reason to repudiate so fulfilling a symbiosis as domestication. Supplanting the real thing with lab-grown meat would provide a fractured moral coherence rather than integrity.

This moral progress also has a form quite distinct from previous shifts. Changing conditions are often a precondition of changing moral standards. There can be no wealth redistribution until wealth has been created, and the franchise cannot be extended to the many until the vote has been established for the few. While previous advances have had some amount of material improvement underpinning them, they have largely been expressions of shifting sentiment as the driver of social change. But in the imagined future of lab-grown meat, it is purely the development of technology that drives the adoption of a new moral norm.

The triumph of lab-grown meat would not be a changing of hearts and minds or even the slightly less noble work of changing palates. Instead, it would be an entirely unseen trade of one sort of production for another. In this vision of the future the only difference most people would see would be a lower price and a different label on the package of burgers. It would require not even a pretense of sacrifice. Which is to say, this vision confuses technological with moral progress. It is pure techno-utopianism.

So I imagine my great-great-great-grandchildren in a small room with filtered air and a single window looking out on nothing in particular. In one of the few moments they depart from the incomprehensibly engaging virtual worlds in which they spend down their time, they will perhaps exchange a few words about the past while a puck of compounded protein heats in the oven. “Capitulating to Emperor Bezos may not have been ideal. And it is unfortunate our ancestors had to drop so many bombs in so many distant lands,” they will say. “But it’s the cheeseburgers that can’t be forgiven.”

Photo courtesy of Garth Brown.

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  1. Garth, you already “figured out a good way to write”. Superb article that blends the imaginative and pragmatic, applying both sensitivity and humor (the latter is now becoming rarer as media focus more on the former). Thanks for inspiring empathic reflection and encouraging us to think outside the box of techno-utopianism.

  2. I have just read this article for a second time, what an excellent perspective on the relationship of humans to animals and nature! Respect and care for the quality of the lives animals live should be natural to us as we are animals ourselves. We are the most complicated part of an ecosystem that could work perfectly if we were willing to sacrifice more for others, animals and humans.

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