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Lierre Keith and the Celebrated Pie Incident

March 21, 2010

I had been wading through Lierre Keith’s anti-vegetarian book The Vegetarian Myth, and taking notes to make a response, when I heard that some vegans had thrown pies in her face as she was trying to give a talk at an anarchist book fair.

Throwing pies in anyone’s face is just flat out wrong. I don’t care if her book is filled with errors, or whether there was cayenne pepper in the pies or not, or whether she is now using this as an opportunity to promote her book and views. It is assault and battery. Any vegan in a position to speak up should denounce this action.

The Animal Liberation Front issued a statement saying "Animal Holocaust Denier Pied at Anarchist Book Fair." In fact, she is not an "animal holocaust denier" as the ALF says; this is obviously wrong. She is a minor author, with a small publisher, speaking to small audiences, trying to promote her rather strange message. (Sort of like me, actually.) She is against factory farms — that’s the one thing on which she and the ALF are agreed.

So what is this all about? I haven’t even finished the book, but here’s my instant review. Her book is really hard for vegans to struggle through. You’ll get angry at the misconceptions and errors of fact — and not just because of what she says, but the way she says it, which comes off (whether deliberately or not) as patronizing and taunting. Others are going through page by page analyzing the book; I think Permavegan is doing the best job; and when I finish, I’ll pitch in with my two cents.

The ALF and vegans generally have completely misunderstood the context of the book. Lierre Keith is not the main intellectual threat to veganism by a long shot. Michael Pollan (whom she quotes at length) uses some of the same arguments and even some of the same sources to argue against vegetarianism. 

Of course, the ALF wouldn’t pie Michael Pollan. Pollan, while skeptical of vegetarianism, is a lot nicer about it — he even grudgingly acknowledges some environmental merits for vegetarianism in a footnote. But more importantly, he is sufficiently famous so that he would be rather difficult to get close to. And if you did manage to deliver the pie in an appropriate fashion, the odds are that you wouldn’t be able to get away with it, as the three pie-throwers apparently were able to do in Keith’s case, at least for the time being.

While Lierre Keith is doing her best to trash veganism, she also is addressing the more broad problem that our civilization is unsustainable. She is really a fairly minor figure among those concerned about peak oil, financial collapse, and radical environmental action.

What she is advocating, even if she got a much larger audience (which she will now have: thanks, ALF!), is really quite peculiar. She thinks that cultivation is destructive, which leads to an obvious question, just how large of a population can we support on a sustainable meat-oriented diet of the type she wants? If someone wanted to actually have a dialogue with her, that’s the first question I would ask. I’m totally guessing, but I would bet that she’d give a figure of less than 10% of our current population. And then my follow-up question: how would you suggest that we get to that point?

We should not just focus on the book’s factual errors, but understand the context of her book and the things she’s got right as well. We do in fact have a serious overpopulation problem: humans, their livestock, and their pets are said to be 98% of the biomass of land-based vertebrates. Biodiversity is crashing, our agricultural system is not sustainable, oil supplies are declining, and funny money is the only thing keeping the system afloat. Throwing pies in people’s faces isn’t going to make all that go away.