To Save the World

Editor’s note: people with various diets are involved in Deep Green Resistance. Critical analysis of agriculture is central to our understanding.

By Lierre Keith

Start with a sixteen-year-old girl. She has a conscience, a brain, and two eyes. Her planet is being drawn and quartered, species by species. She knows it even while the adults around her play shell games with carbon trade schemes and ethanol. She’s also found information that leaves her sickened in her soul, the torment of animals that merges sadism with economic rationality to become the US food supply. Their suffering is both detailed and institution- ally distant, and both of those descriptors hold their own horrors.
A friend of mine talks about “the thing that breaks and is never repaired.” Anyone who has faced the truth about willful or socially- sanctioned cruelty knows that experience: in slavery, historic and con- temporary; in the endless sexual sadism of rape, battering, pornography; in the Holocaust and other genocides. You’re never the same after some knowledge gets through with you. But our sixteen-year-old has courage and commitment, and now she wants to do what’s right.

The vegetarians have a complete plan for her. It’s simple. You can create justice for animals, for impoverished humans, and for the earth if you eat grains and beans. That simplicity is part of its appeal, partly because humans have a tendency to like easy rules. But it also speaks to our desire for beauty, that with one act so much that’s wrong can be set right: our health, our compassion, our planet.

The problem is they’re wrong, not in their attempts to save the world, but in their solution. The moral valuing of justice over power, care over cruelty and biophilia over anthropocentrism is a shift in values that must occur if we are to save this planet. I didn’t call this book The Vegetarian Lie. I called it The Vegetarian Myth for a reason. It’s not a lie that animals are sentient beings currently being tortured for our food. It’s not a lie that the rich nations are siphoning off the life of the planet for literally oceans full of endless, empty plastic junk. It’s not a lie that most people refuse to face the systems of domination— their brute scale—that are destroying us and the earth.

But the vegetarians’ solution is a myth based on ignorance, an ignorance as encompassing as any of those dominating systems. Civilization, the life of cities, has broken our identification with the living land and broken the land itself. “The plow is the … the world’s most feared wrecking ball,” writes Steven Stoll. For ten thousand years, the six centers of civilization have waged war against our only home, waged it mostly with axes and plows. Those are weapons, not tools. Never mind reparations or repair: no peace is possible until we lay them down.

Those six centers were each driven by a tight cohort of creatures, at the center of which stand an annual plant or two. And humans have been so useful to corn and rice and potatoes, clever enough to conquer perennial polycultures as vast as forests, as tough as prairies, but not smart enough to see we’ve been destroying the world. The cohort has often included infectious diseases, diseases like smallpox and measles that jumped the species barrier from domesticated animals to humans. Humans who stood in the way of civilization’s hunger have been eradicated by the millions through civilization’s microbes, the first clear-cut preparing the way for the plow.

This is the ignorance where the vegetarian myth dead ends. Life must kill and we are all made possible by the dead body of another. It’s not killing that’s domination: it’s agriculture. The foods the vegetarians say will save us are the foods that destroy the world. The vegetarian attempt to remove humans from a paradigmatical pinnacle is commendable. And it’s crucial. We will never take our true place, one sibling amongst millions, sharing a common journey from carbon to consciousness, sacred and hungry, then back to carbon, without firmly and forever rejecting human dominion.

But in order to save the world we must know it, and the veg- etarians don’t, not any more than the rest of the civilized, especially the industrially so. Hens driven insane in battery cages are visible to vegetarians; both morally and politically that insistent sight is needed. What are invisible are all the other animals that agriculture has driven extinct. Entire continents have been skinned alive, yet that act goes unnoticed to vegetarians, despite the scale. How do they not see it? The answer is they don’t know to look for it. We are all so used to a devastated landscape, covered in asphalt and the same small handful of suburban plants, a biotic coup of its own. The whole east coast should be one slow sigh of wetland, interspersed with marsh meadows and old growth forest. It’s all gone, replaced by a McMonocrop of houses, shackles of asphalt, the brutal weight of cities.

Where the water goes shy, the trees should thin to savanna and prairie, although even there the wetlands should cradle the rivers. But there’s nothing left. The deltas and swamps, bison and black terns, have been turned into soy and wheat and corn. The capitalists say we should turn those into animal units; the vegetarians say we should dump them near the starving; I say we should stop growing them and let the world come back to life. Then we can take our place again, that place that the vegetarians claim to want, our place as participants.

We can dominate or we can participate but there is no way out. That’s what no one is telling that sixteen-year-old. The earth is liter- ally dying for wetlands and forests, rivers and prairies. And if humans would simply step aside, the world would do the work of repairing itself. But that repair involves death. It means letting the beavers eat the trees, letting the wolves eat the beavers, letting the soil eat us all. It means taking down every last dam and letting the salmon come home to lay their eggs and be eaten, and in the eating become the forest. This is the world as it should be, resiliently nourishing itself, the gift both given and received. No one is going to tell that sixteen- year-old girl the truth, because there’s no one left in her world who knows it.

Letting the beavers come back will mean that wetlands may well cover one-third of the land in places. Those wetlands can’t coexist with our roads and suburbs and agriculture. So where does your loyalty lie? Ask yourself that question as if you really mean it. Those wetlands would also feed us forever. To bring the wolves back would require a similar and massive contracture of human activity: they need land, wild land, sturdy with functioning forests and grasslands, not broken by cars, gouged into subdivisions, and coerced into mono- crops. You can’t have it both ways, vegetarians. If you want to save this world, including its animals, you can’t keep destroying it. And your food destroys it.

If you want rules about what to eat, I can give you some principles. They’re slightly more complicated than “Meat Is Murder,” but then the living world is complex, and beholding it should leave us all aching with awe. So start with topsoil, the beginning place. Remember, one million creatures per tablespoon. It’s alive, and it will protect itself if we stop assaulting it. It protects itself with perennial poly- cultures, with lots and lots of plants intertwining their roots, adding carbonaceous leaves, and working together with mycelium, bacteria, protozoa, making a new organism between them, the mycorrhiza that talks and nourishes and directs.

Defend the soil with your life, reader: there is no other organism that can touch the intelligence of what goes on beneath your feet.

So here are the questions you should ask, a new form of grace to say over your food. Does this food build or destroy topsoil? Does it use only ambient sun and rainfall, or does it require fossil soil, fossil fuel, fossil water, and drained wetlands, damaged rivers? Could you walk to where it grows, or does it come to you on a path slick with petroleum?

Everything falls into place with those three questions. Those annual monocrops lose on all three counts, unless you live in Nebraska, where it “only” fails the first two. Animal rights philosopher Peter Singer argues that you should only eat animal products if you can see their origin with your own eyes. While I agree with the impulse—to end the denial and ignorance that protect factory farming—this demand has to be much bigger: you should know where every bite of your food comes from. We need to end the denial and ignorance that protect agriculture. The worldview that gives any and all plant foods an automatic pass is profoundly blind to how those very foods devour living communities. Go look at Nebraska, where the native prairie is 98 percent gone. Even if you’ve never seen an Audubon bighorn or a swift fox, you must surely miss them.

We’ve all built this living world of gift and need, birth and return. To repair this planet, we must take our sustenance as part of those relationships instead of destroying them. We can pull the forest down or we can eat the deer that live there. We can rip up the grass or we can eat the bison that should stretch across the plains. We can dam the rivers or we can eat the fish that could feed us forever. We can turn biologic processes into commodities until the soil is salt and dust, or we can take our place as another hungering member of an ancient tribe, the tribe of carbon. All flesh is grass, wrote someone named Isaiah in a book I don’t usually quote. In Hebrew, the word translated as “flesh” is basar, meaning meat, something one eats. Isaiah understood what is no longer physically visible to us, living at the end of the world: we are all a part of one another, made from grass, become meat.

“But food requires destruction,” a vegan argued with me, in an e-mail exchange that went exactly nowhere. That is the final myth you must face, vegetarians. Because the food I am proposing, the food of our ancestors, whose paleolithic hearts and souls we still inhabit, does not require destruction. At this moment it would in fact require repair and restitution: the forests and grasslands mended, conquered territory ceded back to the earth for her wetlands. Steven Stoll sums up agriculture: “Humans became parasites of the soil.” It’s your food that has brought us to the end of the world.

My food builds topsoil. I’ve watched it happen. The mixture of grasses and trees, cousins in their own right, provides for the animals, who in their turn maintain and nourish by their simple biological functions of eating and excreting. On Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm— the mecca of sustainable food production—organic matter has increased from 1.5 percent in 1961 to 8 percent today. The average right now in the US is 2-3 percent. In case you don’t understand, let me explain. A 6.5 percent increase in organic matter isn’t a fact for ink and paper: it’s a song for the angels to sing. Remember that pine forest that built one-sixteenth of an inch of soil in fifty years? Cue those angels again: Salatin’s rotating mixture of animals on pasture is building one inch of soil annually.

Peter Bane did some calculations. He estimates that there are a hundred million agricultural acres in the US similar enough to the Salatins’ to count: “about 2/3 of the area east of the Dakotas, roughly from Omaha and Topeka east to the Atlantic and south to the Gulf of Mexico.” Right now, that land is mostly planted to corn and soy. But returned to permanent cover, it would sequester 2.2 billion tons of carbon every year. Bane writes:

That’s equal to present gross US atmospheric releases, not counting the net reduction from the carbon sinks of existing forests and soils … Without expanding farm acreage or removing any existing forests, and even before undertaking changes in consumer lifestyle, reduction in traffic, and increases in industrial and transport fuel efficiencies, which are absolutely imperative, the US could become a net carbon sink by changing cultivating practices and marketing on a million farms. In fact, we could create 5 million new jobs in farming if the land were used as efficiently as the Salatins use theirs.

Understand: agriculture was the beginning of global warming. Ten thousand years of destroying the carbon sinks of perennial polycultures has added almost as much carbon to the atmosphere as industrialization (see Figure 5, opposite), an indictment that you, vegetarians, need to answer. No one has told you this before, but that is what your food—those oh so eco-peaceful grains and beans—has done. Remember the ghost acres and the ghost slaves? What you’re eating in those grains and beans is ghost meat, down to the bare bones of whole species. There is no reconciling civilization and its foods with the needs of our living planet.

To save the world, we must first stop destroying it. Cast your eyes down when you pray, not in fear of some god above, but in recognition: our only hope is in the soil, and in the trees, grasses, and wetlands that are its children and its protectors both.

“And why are we not doing this now?” is the clarion call Bane ends with. For a lot of reasons, most of them having to do with power. But a new populism could spring from this need, a serious political movement combining environmentalists, farm activists, animal rights groups, feminists, indigenous people, anti-globalization and relocalization efforts—all of us who are desperate for a new, and living, world.

That’s the real reason I’ve written this book. The earth, our only home, needs that movement, and she needs it now. The only just economy is a local economy; the only sustainable economy is a local economy. Come at it from whichever angle matches your passion, the answers nest around the same central theme: humans have to draw their sustenance from where they live, without destroying that place.

That means that first we must know that place. I can’t give you a list of what to eat because I don’t know what can live where you do. I can only give you the principles I’ve already laid out. Then you’ll have to ask questions. How much rain falls where you are? What’s the terrain, the temperature, the soil? Dairy cattle, for instance, do great things where I live in cold, wet New England. I wouldn’t suggest them in dry New Mexico.

Understand my point. Farming—the growing of annual mono- crops—will never be sustainable. Our only chance is a judicious and humble human participation in perennial polycultures. We can do that poorly, as demonstrated in the overgrazing due to population pressures that is currently turning grasslands to desert the world over. Or we can do it well, like the Fulani of Africa, with a largely unbroken line reaching back to a pre-human time four million years ago.

How much can we change the landscape before participation becomes destruction? Especially when our impact may not be visible for a thousand years? Should we, for instance, use fire? Fire will drive out some species, both plant and animal, and encourage others. Where I live, sugar maples are iconic. Yet five hundred years ago, they wouldn’t have been here, or not many of them. The burning practices of Native Americans kept the forest here shifted toward fire-resistant and mast-bearing trees. That information was a shock
to my system: don’t mess with my maple trees. But Brian Donahue makes the point that as long as there has been a forest in New Eng- land, there have been humans living in it. We belong here, too, if we would just behave like it. The pristine forest free of human influence has never existed here, so is it the ideal we should be aiming for?

If so, that ideal must presuppose a devastated landscape some- where else and an interstate highway system to transport the foods produced out of it. None of this can last: not the devastation, the fossil fuel, the distance. We need to eat where we live and our food must be part of the repair of our home.

Let’s look at an example. Do dairy cows belong in New Eng- land? In the here and now, as I make my personal and political decisions about breakfast, are cows on the side of good or do they need to be hauled up Mount Doom?

Dairy cattle were brought over from Europe four hundred years ago. Does that rule them out automatically? But if you dig deeper into the past, there were once thirty-three more genera of large mammals on this continent, relatives of horses, cows, elephants, giraffes— and not that long ago, a mere 12,000 years. Their absence has left evolutionary widows, trees like honey locust and osage orange that are in decline because they need large herbivores to help them.9 In that sense, horses and cows were perhaps reintroduced with the spread of Europeans. So dig deeper still. Are these new animals similar enough to the ones that are gone, or do their divergences make them destructive assailants on the land base? There were, for instance, once equids here, but they had cloven hooves and no upper teeth. The result of the solid hooves and incisors is “ecological havoc.”10 The feral horses from Europe destroy desert seeps and springs, smother spawning gravel with silt, and strip grasslands to bare dirt. The most in-depth analysis of nineteen study sites found severe damage to “soils, rodents, reptiles, ants, and plants.” That damage puts species from desert tortoises to the endangered Lahontan cutthroats at risk.

There are clearly brittle landscapes too fragile for cows—especially for dairy cows—as well. Most of the west is more suited to the animals that were already there—buffalo, pronghorns, elk—and that’s what the people there should be eating. So that’s a directive: restore the prairie, long grass and short, and the drylands, and return their animal cohorts. Then think long and hard about other megafauna and their place on this continent. Do the grasslands and savannas want them back, or their relatives that still survive? What about the honey locust and osage orange, who need their large seeds to be di- gested and carried by large herbivores? Is their dying simply evolution at work? If we humans reintroduce some creature that might fulfill that function and restore the range of those trees, is that also evolu- tion? Or is that interference?

And I still need to decide about breakfast.

Cattle on pasture in my climate can easily be sustainable. Joel Salatin is certainly proving that. The model is sound and the climate and rainfall are suitable. But pasture isn’t the natural landscape of New England. Forests, wetlands, and marsh meadows are. The Europeans’ cows first grazed in those meadows and forests. As the beaver were eradicated, the wetlands and marsh meadows disappeared. Meanwhile, in Europe, experimentation with plant admixtures improved the sustainability of pastures dramatically. How does turning some forest land into pasture compare with the habitat shift of burning? Both of these are activities that, done well, will build topsoil and provide for human sustenance essentially forever. So how much impact are we allowed to have? The entire rainforest is a human project. Small patches are burned by the indigenous like the Lacandon Mayan, and then planted in a secession of eighty different crops, including the vines, shrubs, and trees that will take over when the plot has been abandoned—though “abandoned” is not really an accurate description, as the plot will be revisited in a twenty-year rotation, and will meanwhile produce food, fiber, and building materials, as well as a home for the wild animals that serve as protein.

Which brings me to my point. It wasn’t pasture that brought down the northeast forest. It was coal. As long as the human economy was based on wood in this cold climate, people more or less took care of the forest, because they needed it. Coal was what reduced the forest to simply one more commodity, and the land that forests grew on was more profitably used for wool breeds of sheep. What will happen as the price of oil first climbs past what the average household can pay, then past the effort worth retrieving it from the ground? Will New England be cleared from the Atlantic Ocean to the Housatonic River as people freeze to death? Or will the rural areas and private woodlot owners be able to hang onto their parts of this young forest, knowing that without it they, too, will soon freeze? Will we be facing a war not over Middle Eastern oilfields, but over trees in the Berkshires?

And I still need to decide about breakfast.

I can raise these issues, but maybe I can’t answer the questions.
I know that whatever we’re eating has to build soil, and if it doesn’t, it has to be struck forever from the human menu. It has to be part of a self-replicating community, where life and death are inseparable in the process of nourishment. Everyone has to give back, through the labor of their life functions, and then through the nutrients stored in their bodies. Our food can’t be based on fossil fuel, for nitrogen or energy. Nor can it use fossil water, or indeed any water that empties a river.

Dairy cows, where I live, meet those criteria and more. But is the change in species composition wrought by human-set fire on the acceptable side of the line while the change required for pasture placed in the unacceptable column? Then what we will eat instead will be deer and moose. Both of those, along with bison, migrated here from Eurasia not too long ago, maybe 12,000 years. They filled in niches left empty by the megafaunal extinctions. They’re Eurasian trans- plants, too. Do you see how complicated this gets?

And I still need my breakfast.

In the end, I do have my own answers to offer, of course, but they involve a bit more than drinking soy milk. Agriculture has to stop. It’s been a ten thousand year disaster, as life on earth will tell us if we listen. Writes William Catton:

The breakthrough we called industrialization was fundamentally unlike earlier ones. It did not just take over for human use another portion of the web that had previously supported other forms of life. Instead, it went underground to extract carrying capacity supplements from a finite and depletable fund …

As discussed earlier, I think the beginning of the fossil fuel age does mark a new level of human destructiveness, but he’s wrong in his characterization of agriculture as simply taking over more ecological niches. Agriculture is extractive: soil is depletable and “peak soil” was ten thousand years ago, on the day before agriculture began. We’ve been on the down curve ever since.

So agriculture has to stop. It’s about to run out anyway—of soil, of water, of ecosystems—but it would go easier on us all if we faced that collectively, and then developed cultural constraints that would stop us from ever doing it again.

Where I live, the wetlands need to return to cover the land in a soft, slow blanket of water. They will be a home for a lush multitude of species, many of which—waterfowl, moose, fish—could feed us. The rivers need to be undammed. And the suburbs and the roads need to be abandoned. I have no great solutions for how to make that economically feasible: I sincerely doubt it’s possible. I only know it has to happen, no matter how much we resist.


This is an excerpt from “To Save the World” in the book The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. Click here to order directly from the author.