The Ethical Carnivore is a vital exploration of the current global food paradigm and its consequences, both systemic and personal.
In one of his many rambling monologues, Walt, the protagonist of Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche, proposes that most people in the United States would be vegetarian if they could only eat animals they had killed themselves. In The Ethical Carnivore, journalist Louise Gray accepts the challenge, agreeing to only consume meat from animals she personally slaughtered. As the title suggests, Gray intends a genuine experiment at discovering a better, more morally-defensible way for twenty-first century people to eat meat. In achieving this ultimate purpose, the book fails for reasons of impracticality. But The Ethical Carnivore is a vital exploration of the current global food paradigm and its consequences, both systemic and personal.
Only a few generations ago, the idea of eating meat at every meal would have been ludicrous to all but the wealthiest individuals. Meat consumption and economic prosperity are linked; in every cultural context across the planet, as economic growth spurs increases in income and flexible spending, people eat more meat. Humans today eat more meat than ever before and the trend-line is pointed ever upwards as enormous population centers—China, Pakistan, and Indonesia, for example—gain prosperity. To foster economic growth, unwittingly also catalyzing greater meat consumption, more and more of the world’s population is urban. So a concomitant to more meat eating is an increased distance—both physical and cultural—between humans and their food; city-dwellers do not encounter livestock, do not see slaughterhouses and are unlikely to meet a butcher or farmer. Meat production is outsourced and most people only know their meat as a sterile packaged good in the supermarket.
This alienation is the central issue Gray addresses in The Ethical Carnivore. She is an urbanite Scottish journalist, but she ardently believes that a connection with the countryside will lead to more positive environmental and animal rights values. If people were to again understand livestock, they would eat less meat and source it more responsibly. If they were to do that, greenhouse gas emissions would decrease, since meat farming is the leading cause of emissions. Just as importantly, more ethical sourcing of meat would have social and cultural value as well by rewarding producers who do it the right way, connecting urban folk to their food and protecting historically and culturally significant ways of life threatened by modernity’s disregard for where food originates.
In the book, she tours abattoirs (what the UK calls slaughterhouses), visits farms, chats with gamekeepers, trawls on fishing vessels and totes a firearm on hunting expeditions. The Ethical Carnivore is part cultural celebration, part environmental activism and part performative journalism on a grand scale. In its finest moments, it truly highlights the richest and best aspects of what it means to be human: shared sociocultural heritage, a sense of specific space to which one is attached by some ineffable bond of history and memory and the cultural depth gained in profoundly knowing one’s food. The most spellbinding passage in the book details the slaughter and butchering of pigs: the guilt of executing the animals, the frenetic work of preparing a carcass to age overnight, the genuine labor of rendering a dead, hanging animal into recognizable food items, the exhilaration of feeling connected to one’s food, the stench of the blood and innards and, finally, the primordial sense that what is happening is good, right, just and authentically human. Gray here churns up a nostalgia for a life most have never known.
Taken together, The Ethical Carnivore is an engaging book, albeit with a notable flaw. This shortcoming is the forced and unnecessary narrative arc. The book markets itself as a personal tribulation: Gray eating only what she kills for a whole year. Throughout, then, the author inserts pages-long tangents about her own transformations, her rigorous toughening-up, building to a climax signaling…well, honestly, it is not too clear what. Without denying Gray her feelings that she changed for the better while writing the book, her own evolution is the least interesting subject about which she writes. Her investigations into agriculture, game management and the catastrophes of overfishing are much more engaging and socially-efficacious. The pathos in the book comes from her careful and hilarious observation of chicken social behavior (read my bio below!) and her respectful homage to the wonder of the salmon lifecycle. Yet, she continuously breaks the spell of her own excellent writing and painstaking sleuthing to return to the predictable story of her evolution. For instance, her visceral, horrified response to the killing room at an abattoir is off-putting precisely because it is a rhetorically naked move to establish a nadir from which she can rise. To emphasize this point further, the one time that her personal musings capture the reader is when she discusses the pride of sharing a pheasant she shot with her friends—and that passage presents a social, cultural and environmental message as much as one of self-transformation.
The most powerful message of The Ethical Carnivore for a U.S. reader has little to do with the book itself or with Gray. Rather, it is the marked contrast between Britain’s perspective on agriculture, the environment and the social and cultural implications of both eating and not eating meat and the perspective of people in the United States on these questions. The British, at least in Gray’s rendering, are conscious consumers who despise the animal rights violations, pollution and human health hazards of industrial farming. They understand the value of preserving small-scale agriculture, because it maintains an ancient native way of life, keeps the countryside looking bucolic and familiar and ensures quality food for the whole population. She shows the passion and reason on both sides of the fierce debate over hunting. In the U.S., however, most consumers have no idea where their meat is produced and seem unbothered by their ignorance. Small farms are regularly destroyed both by impersonal market forces and the all-too-personal avarice of massive enterprises. There is no thought that agriculture should be preserved or that it has social or cultural value. Gray’s book could not have been written in the United States. Of course, if it had, it would only need a couple of paragraphs, as one can walk into a Walmart in Montana, buy a rifle, cartridges and a hunting license, creep into the local forest, shoot an elk and thereby procure a years’ supply of self-slaughtered meat.