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The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals Hardcover – January 6, 2015
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“In The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals, James McWilliams, a historian, makes a philosophical and emotional case for not eating meat at all, and he calls out the locavore movement as built on thoughtless and disingenuous claims...It's hard to argue with the author's points. When it comes to burgers, there are no happy cows.” ―Colorado Springs Independent
“McWilliams exposes the pervasive cruelty...and he convincingly presents the only real solution to the problem of industrial animal agriculture: We must stop eating animals.” ―Michelle Kretzer of PETA via IslandPacket.com
“McWilliams' uncompromising call for plant-based food will both rile and rally readers.” ―Booklist
“McWilliams is an expressive and persuasive writer.” ―Library Journal
“McWilliams offers convincing arguments for animal rights.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“The book offers a thought-provoking critique of popular, often unquestioned, meat production methods.” ―Science News
“I think James McWilliams is far and away the single best writer the vegans have so far produced…One of the most intelligent books I have ever read. His is a powerful voice that will resonate far beyond those interested in animal rights.” ―Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Ph.D., bestselling author of Dogs Never Lie About Love
“McWilliams has issued a powerful challenge to the 'compassionate omnivore' movement. The Modern Savage is a book that everyone concerned about food, animals and the environment should read.” ―Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University
“James McWilliams ably demonstrates that we've often underestimated the mental lives of farm animals, and that we need to start taking their interests more seriously. He doesn't skirt tough issues nor does he take positions based on what may be popular at the time. Such a moral accounting would lead to a revolution in both how we produce food and what food we eat.” ―Paul Shapiro, vice president, The Humane Society of the United States
“James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound. He explains in plain, accessible, and highly readable language what follows if we reject factory farming as morally reprehensible animal abuse, as most of us do. First, if animals matter morally, then killing them in any context is always wrong when we have a vegan alternative. Second, consumers of "humane" or "sustainable" animal-based foods will be surprised to learn that animal suffering routinely attends local and small-scale animal farming. McWilliams tells a riveting story while building an unassailable argument for veganism as the answer to our well-justified revulsion towards industrialized animal agriculture.” ―Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law, Cornell University, and author of Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger and Other Questions People Ask Vegans on The Modern Savage
About the Author
JAMES MCWILLIAMS is a writer and historian living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of five previous books on food, animals, and agriculture, including Just Food and A Revolution in Eating. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's Slate, The Atlantic, and a wide variety of other publications.
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The author spends more time examining 'green farms' and 'happy meat' than he does the now infamous factory farms.
The first third or quarter of the book focuses on the very basic arguments for veganism. Animals are sentient and deserve moral consideration beyond us just not making them fight in the ring: We shouldn't make them suffer even for our gustatory pleasure. Me being vegan and having my confirmation bias, I agreed with the arguments, having heard most of them before, repeatedly. He also went on to examine the contradiction and dilemma in being an omnivore and an animal lover. However, if an omnivore were to pick this up, I know a short list of long excuses they would have to make. Not the least of which, another reviewer made, appealing to the nirvanna fallacy, saying the author himself probably partakes in decisions that harms animals accidentally [which is completely different from the deliberate decision to kill for palette pleasure]
The next third or so of the book covers not factory farms but instead omnivores who have taken matters in their own hands. This part of the book, admittedly is largely anecdote because this is the more emotional appeal of the books, however the ease by which you can find these stories are troubling. Not wanting to give up the pleasure of animal flesh, they seek a number of alternatives: backyard slaughter, 'mom and pop farms', happy meat, green meat, grass fed cows, the list goes on and on. Anything to ease a guilty conscious, Have our steaks and eat it too. However, in only a small handful of stories that are a mere google search away, the author reveals two glaring problems: Firstly, and perhaps most and importantly, many are still guilty and are horrified by the process of killing animals. They still go through with it, botching the slaughter even worse than the most substandard slaughterhouse could. Almost universally, there is a report of pangs of guilt which they try to reconcile in the process of eating the animal which would be alive if it wasn't for their [what they admit to be] trivial desire. Secondly, mom and pops farms have similar problems in slaughter but perhaps more importantly, mom and pop farms, unlike the myth they promote, don't care about the well being of their animals. With blogs and forums from the internet the story is universal: They don't care about the well being of the animal. One poster on a forum about raising chickens says: "It's not a hobby, we're not vets. The bottom line is money." Another story that shares that theme is repeated tales of wild animals breaking into chicken coops and killing them all. And, a large numbers of farmers aren't so much upset by the death as the cost they have put into their now useless chickens, with the additional economic fee of repairing a chicken coop. There are also a number of chickens that are perpetually ill because of certain conditions that arise in small farms. The story becomes clear: Even on the "best" of alternative farms, animals suffer, sometimes even worse than in factory farms.
The final third of the book is the reason I'd recommend it. It covers a very important question: is there 'green' meat? Is it at all possible, if we all draw back our demand for meat drastically and create peak conditions for farms to have meat that isn't environmentally wasteful at best or toxic at worst? The short answer is no. Here, it's difficult to give every number possible, because there are a variety of tries at 'green' farming. The best example given was one farmer who managed to [allegedly] grow one cow per acre of grass. The next best grass farmer takes far, far more. He describes once going to a rancher that fed his cows only grass and the author asked how many acres per cow. The rancher responded 50 and the author was sure he was joking -- he wasn't. This is also ignoring that even the best grass feed can't last. Almost all grass farmers admit to having to use fodder eventually. The author explains that, even in the best, most ideal circumstances, we'd still have to feed them fodder, give them much clean water while many in the world go thirsty, as well the fuels put into slaughter, transport, so on, so forth.
The final third of the book puts to rest any possibility of calling yourself an environmentalist and eating meat. Even the most eco friendly beef would put a strain on precious resources.
Whenever I read a book with going vegan as the main pitch the question I ask is: Would I give this to my omnivorous friends? The answer to this one is no. But not because the book is bad. Simply put, not much time was spent on the ethics of eating animals by itself, so much as countering the people that seek alternatives to being vegan and loving animals.
However, I would recommend this book to fence sitters and other vegans. The numbers given on 'green farming' are crucial, as well as the stories of 'alternative' farms.
I'd like to close this review with a quote from my favorite author -- who is neither vegan nor vegetarian.
David Foster Wallace is a brilliant writer and always looked for a new spin on seemingly mundane topics. So when given the task of writing an article for Gourmet magazine on the Maine Lobster Festival, he found the interests in the animal rights angle and closed his essay with the message most animal activists try to convey but fail even with a whole book, certainly not a small article.
"The truth is that if you, the [Maine Lobster] Festival attendee, [with its worlds largest lobster pot,] permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.
Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero's entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme--and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient."
-David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster