The bad takes on COVID wend across the political continuum into the more recognizable left. Superficially more grounded anatomies of the crisis have leapt atop the backs of the dead animals and broken landscapes that did indeed help produce the pandemic. But in a classic riding trick, the acrobatics suddenly switches mounts mid-ride to characteristically Eurocentric hobbyhorses from which to herald imperium-old edicts on how to live, eat, and die.
Should we eat meat, with source livestock an apparent driver in the emergence of deadly pathogens ? Documentarian Astra Taylor, environmental historian Troy Vettese, and political scientist Jan Dutkiewicz—TVD, for brevity’s sake—answer in the negative : “Individually, we must stop eating animal products. Collectively, we must transform the global food system and work toward ending animal agriculture and rewilding much of the world.” With anthropogenic global warming already taking carbon dioxide levels through the roof, meat was already an easy target. It’s a synecdoche for effete gluttony, the emblem of a global class divide, an easy piece of fat—and protein—to trim from wealthier consumption baskets, and a neat way to merge individual ethical consumption and world ecology.
The anti-meat crusade has apparently received an unintended and misused push from recent ecological and epidemiological work on the likely origins of the pandemic. These analyses traced how the interaction across confined animal feeding operations, monoculture doppelgangers, fading forests, and antimicrobial marination has produced a petri dish of new diseases. Out of this combination, one virus after another easily jumps from animal populations to humans.
Pre-pandemic, TVD fellow travelers rejected such political ecology, which in their psychologizing dismissal “often romanticizes what are seen as anti-modern subsistence livelihoods on the margins of global capitalism.” But now, given the obvious realities on the ground, a pandemic strain that hopscotched from bat caves on the other side of the world into the lungs of urban workers they champion, the ecomodernists (again to no reputational damage given their golden tickets) have turned to folding in the analyses they previously characterized in the most scurrilous terms as if they approved all along.
Such systems—these incubators for viruses, huge biological emitters of CO2 and methane, rampant deforesters, and living beings suffering amid the cruelty of enclosed industrial animal camps—merge into a pithy command from TVD : No, don’t eat meat. The team suggests we plow “public-directed investment” into “both plant-based meat alternatives and cellular agriculture,” or, in other words, lab meat, a product that so far exists primarily among venture capitalists, a few labs, and red-washed ad copy lauding it as a socialist wonder food from Keynesian Green New Deal cookshops.
Key questions are greased over, restricting, as sociologist Andy Murray describes, the very discourse lab meat proponents claim they wish to open up. Who is this “we,” for one, and even, what is meat ? Veganism and animal rights, to which one needn’t object as ethoses on their face, are reflexively deployed here to conflate objects and processes. There is no thing, meat, that has uniformly negative ecological, social, or epidemiological consequences. Meat only has in common that it comes from living creatures, and animals, just like people, can only be fundamentally understood in relation to the material environments within which they live, are loved and cared for, or maltreated and abused, and, in the case of most food animals, killed.
The question of “Should we eat meat?,” therefore, appears very different among different sets of “we” and the different relations “we” have with such animals.
There are millions who might bridle at, or whose lives would be simply upturned and devastated by, enforceable commands that they simply cease meat production and consumption. Tunisian camel herders in the semi-arid steppes of the Jerid who rely on herding for day-to-day survival, or Bedouins in the northern Gaza Strip, have not been consulted about how they feel about an order from the Global North—in this case from Harvard and Johns Hopkins direct—to stop eating meat or engaging in the meat trade. Nor, in the other direction, have these researchers asked if such meat is substantively identical to the confined feedlots they rightly condemn.[…]
A herd of examples stampedes to the horizon, but the point on that front is clear enough. Advocating intervening in the Global South and blithely demanding adopting capitalist technology in the name of a socialist Half-Earth, as does Vettese, who orders that it “must be from pasture that an eco-austere world will derive the land needed” for tree planting, is a form of “natural geo-engineering,” developed according to specific values, specific devaluations, and pathological externalizations. These are not the no-brainers their advocates presume. Compulsory veganism and lab meat, endorsed by prominent social democrat Green New Dealers, among them UPenn sociology prof Daniel Aldana Cohen, consents to the brute confiscation and erasure of peasant and pastoral particularisms in the name of “universal” ideals : rewilding Earth upon the bones of supposedly atavistic peoples poor and brown.