Sunday, May 10, 2009
Vegetarianism, the Holocaust and the Myth of Civilization
Lierre Keith’s new book The Vegetarian Myth is generating lots of passionate discussion on vegetarian and vegan blogs and message boards. Here are a couple examples of comments recently posted on the Vegans of Color blog:
“I was just reading about the book elsewhere. I don’t want to buy it though… I don’t want to support the project. I’ll see if I can get it from my library.”
“I would be tempted to review it but not if I had to actually support the book by buying it. And I only say tempted because I really wouldn’t want to give this book any more publicity than it already has.”
These commenters appear interested in reading The Vegetarian Myth, although they seem more inclined to pick up a copy at a library rather than purchasing one. But does borrowing the book from a library mean you won’t be “supporting the project”?
Libraries are more inclined to keep books on their shelves—i.e., not discard them—if they’re getting checked out. And library systems may decide to purchase additional copies of a particular title if they’re getting regular requests from patrons. So, it would seem readers are still “supporting the project” even if they opt to borrow a book from a library ... But I digress.
Whether you “support the project” by purchasing The Vegetarian Myth or indirectly “support the project” by borrowing it from a library or friend, I strongly recommend you read it. For vegetarians and vegans, there’s a good chance you’ll be repulsed by Keith’s return to meat-eating after 20 years of being a vegan. And many vegetarians and vegans may be able to cite studies and sources to counter her arguments, particularly the ones she uses to extol the health benefits and the environmental benefits of eating non-factory-farmed meat and dairy.
But The Vegetarian Myth is a book that addresses a set of related topics about which vegetarians and vegans care so deeply—the food we eat, how it’s produced, and how it affects us—that you’ll likely come away from reading it feeling enriched, so to speak, no matter how empty you think Keith’s argument are or how angry it makes you.
“Dani” of the Vegan Ideal writes:
“Since Keith believes that civilization and vegetarianism are ‘substantially the same,’ the book is fanatically anti-vegetarian. For instance, Keith makes an overzealous and misguided attempt to use the Haber-Bosch process to somehow link vegetarianism to the Holocaust. Should we think this is absurd, Keith tells us that is because we are believing the myth of the vegetarians.”
Keith addresses the Haber-Bosch process and the rise of modern agriculture in the “Political Vegetarians” chapter of the book. (As defined by Keith, political vegetarians believe a plant-based diet for humans is more just and sustainable than one based in part on the consumption of animal-based products.) She writes that two out of five people in the world today are alive because of this process. She backs up this statement by citing Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In his 2006 book, Pollan cites the work of Vaclav Smil, a geographer who wrote a book about Fritz Haber called Enriching the Earth. Pollan writes:
“This is why it may not be hyperbole to claim, as Smil does, that the Haber-Bosch process (Carl Bosch gets the credit for commercializing Haber’s idea) for fixing nitrogen is the most important invention of the twentieth century. He estimate that two out of every five human on earth today would not be alive if not Fritz Haber’s invention. We can easily imagine a world without computers or electricity, Smil points out, but without synthetic fertilizer billions of people would never have been born.”
When humankind acquired the power to “fix” nitrogen, the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel, Pollan writes. The Haber-Bosch process works by combining nitrogen and hydrogen gases under immense heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst. The heat and pressure are supplied by large amounts of electricity, and the hydrogen is supplied mostly by natural gas today.
In The Vegetarian Myth, Keith highlights the link between fossil fuels and modern agriculture, and how it is an unsustainable practice. As Dani of the Vegan Ideal notes, though, Keith goes further by describing Haber’s ties to Germany’s war machine. Keith writes on page 106:
“Haber also developed poison gases, including ammonia, chlorine, and the Holocaust horror of Zyklon B. He oversaw the first gas attack ever on April 22, 1915. This overlap between war and agriculture will only surprise you if you believe the myth of civilization or the myth of the political vegetarians, which end up substantially the same since their genesis is the same: agriculture and its annual monocrops.”
Dani of the Vegan Ideal is correct to assert that Keith “makes an overzealous and misguided attempt to use the Haber-Bosch process to somehow link vegetarianism to the Holocaust.”
I doubt many people would be surprised by Haber’s involvement in both the development of a process that led to modern agriculture and the development of poison gases used in war. Both involved the use of chemistry. Keith’s statement that this overlap would “only surprise you if you believe the myth of civilization or the myth of political vegetarians” reads similar to the guilt-by-association argument used against vegetarians: that Hitler was a vegetarian, a claim that has been debunked many times.
With regard to the links between agriculture and war, Dani of the Vegan Ideal states: “It’s ironic that Keith claims a plant-based system of food production is inherently linked with war, while she proudly promotes an intensive pastoral system of food production when there is an overwhelming amount of anthropological evidence showing an overlap of herding- and war-based cultures.”
Dani of the Vegan Ideal also contends that Keith describes the exploitation of other animals as a “reciprocal relationship” (page 25) rather than as exploitative. “It’s sad that Keith, who comes from an anti-sexual violence background, would make such a repulsive claim,” Dani of the Vegan Ideal writes. “It’s repulsive, because by reframing the exploitation of other animals as a ‘reciprocal relationship’ in defending animal husbandry Keith depoliticizes that exploitation. It shares a twisted logic with patriarchy and the belief that a woman or child cannot be exploited by a husband, father, or other ‘male head of a household.’”
Dani of the Vegan Ideal raises some interesting and persuasive points about The Vegetarian Myth. But that’s because Dani of the Vegan Ideal read the book—albeit in limited preview on Google Books. Taking whatever time you need to read The Vegetarian Myth will be well worth it. In fact, reading the book may have the unintended effect of making you even more committed to the practice and ideals of veganism. -Mark HandShare