Review of “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith
This is an anti-vegan book which will be a difficult book for vegans to read. The text resembles more a stream-of-consciousness monologue than an organized discussion. The author is an ex-vegan, after having been a vegan for 20 years, and blames most of her numerous health problems (skeletal problems of some sort, evidently) and mental problems (depression, anger) on her vegan diet.
But this is an indictment not just of veganism, but of agriculture in general, and indeed our entire civilization, and needs to be read in that context. Obviously as a vegan I don’t go along with the anti-vegan part, but there are also several significant things she has stated accurately. Her book would also have benefited from an editor and an index.
I want to examine the book’s moral context, the author’s treatment of nutrition, and the author’s treatment of agriculture and ecology. Since this is a fairly minor book in the scheme of things (just a notch above “self-published”) I also want to evaluate the significance of the book in the overall scheme of things. (Not to get ahead of the story, but it’s more significant than it initially appears.)
And one final introductory note: I unequivocally condemn attempts to suppress Lierre Keith’s freedom to express her views.
The Moral Context
Most vegetarians or vegans, even those wanting to understand “the point of view of the opposition,” are not going to get past a couple of pages in this book. First, the author adopts a tone which is condescending and hostile, and seems to delight in causing mental anguish to vegans. Second, most informed vegetarians will be able to pick out a mistake or inconsistency here or there pretty quickly, so even if they can’t instantly refute every assertion she makes, they will conclude that this book is not worth bothering with. This is a minor author, with a minor publisher, talking to a minor audience. (Sort of like me, actually.)
However, there’s more to the book than an attack on veganism. There’s also the environmental issues which she addresses, and in my mind this is far more interesting. She is against factory farming — she regards it as cruel and unnecessary, so her book can’t be all bad. The book certainly is not a defense of conventional livestock production, nor even a defense of “happy meat” (animals reared in non-intensive situations). In fact, she is against all agriculture, a fact which may not sink in at first, but which she repeats in definite terms at numerous points throughout the book. “Agriculture has to stop. It’s been a ten thousand year disaster, as all life on earth will tell us if we listen” (p. 255). This is a really radical position, to which I will return.
All food, she argues, requires death; even vegetarians have to kill plants (and sometimes insects and animals) to eat. It’s not so much a food chain, as a food circle; even those at the top of the chain eventually die and are compost for the plants that start the cycle over.
But what about the suffering involved in killing? Although she’s not clear on this point, she evidently thinks that plants are just as important ethically as animals. She details all the way in which plants are like animals. She asks, evidently rhetorically, “At what point are you, vegetarian or carnivore, willing to acknowledge that plants are sentient?” (p. 90)
This view is problematic. Eating animals that have themselves consumed plants kills more plants than just eating the plants directly. But just think about the level of suffering: let’s say you have a live chick, a handful of sprouts, and a blender. Evaluate your reaction as you think about putting the sprouts in the blender; if you are very sensitive, you may have some qualms as you do this. But now evaluate your reaction as you think about putting the chick in the blender. Which causes more suffering, do you think?
Her discussion on nutrition is largely found in the section on “nutritional vegetarians.” She attacks the idea that vegetarianism is healthy.
She generally quotes sources friendly to the Weston Price Foundation point of view. If you look at the endnotes, you can see that she seems to be relying very heavily on a small number of sources for her information. In one case, there are 33 consecutive footnotes referencing Gary Taubes’ book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, with a single interruption; in another case, there are 31 footnotes from Richard Manning’s Against the Grain which are consecutive except for a single interruption. She’s citing secondary sources, so tracking down particular errors is going to be really tiresome, and probably not worth our while. Taubes himself seems to have cited sources dishonestly. It’s probably more effective to go after her sources themselves.
There is no attempt to engage or refute any of the standard vegetarian evidence from, for example, The China Study. She does, incidentally, actually refer to the China study once (the study itself, not the book by T. Colin Campbell), citing it second hand and apparently without realizing that its author was not only a foremost vegetarian advocate but this book is considered by vegetarians to be the latest and greatest defense of nutritional vegetarianism.
This leads me to my next topic, what sort of person is Lierre Keith? Since she has made her personal experience an issue, this is a legitimate subject. It appears that she hung out with some pretty strange vegan characters. She does not seem to be familiar with the literature of people we think of as vegan leaders — people like T. Colin Campbell, Brenda Davis, John McDougall, etc. She does mention John Robbins, but does not attack any particular statement that he makes.
Who does she cite, then, in order to refute? One source is David Wolfe, whose web site styles him as a “Health, Eco, Nutrition, and Natural Beauty Expert,” and features ads for supplements and chocolate. She even describes her encounters with “breathatarians” able to live just on pure air — who turn out, of course, to be frauds. During my 30 years as a vegan, I have encountered some pretty strange vegans and some pretty flaky ideas, but I have never encountered any breathatarians.
So she apparently got through her vegan period without encountering any of the standard nutritional information that even groups like VRG and PETA are handing out (or if she did, she’s not telling us about it). It is, of course, not impossible that her experience and information in these 20 years took her nowhere near this literature. But it is certainly pretty atypical for an otherwise well-informed ex-vegan, who now is moved to write a book on the subject, to be so totally uninformed about the views of her opponents, to be so completely unfamiliar with vegan literature, and to have such consistently bad luck in her choice of vegan companions.
And what exactly caused her health problems? If during her vegan period, she had found a competent vegan doctor or dietitian (or any competent doctor or dietician willing to deal with her veganism), could she have been “saved”? She cites both some sort of skeletal problems (a B-12 deficiency?) and depression (too much sugar?).
O. K., even a doctor would be loathe to diagnose someone through the book they write. But if you are citing your own example as evidence, we need to know what the diagnosis was. She refers to “angry vegans” and attributes this to their diet and tryptophan deficiencies. But of course, without any information about her particular condition or her diet either, she can’t really meaningfully claim that the problems she had have to do with veganism per se, rather than with (say) her faulty application of the dietary principles. We all know there are plenty of vegans out there that are eating really, really unhealthful diets, but this doesn’t make a case against veganism any more than meat-eaters eating really, really unhealthful diets makes a case against meat consumption.
Agriculture and Ecology
The author is really against agriculture, period, because it has sent us into ecologically unsustainable overshoot. “We are a species on [ecological] overshoot, and have been for ten thousand years” (p. 119). “[Jim] Merkel [author of Radical Simplicity] . . . suggests 600 million as a sustainable number [of people]. My guess is his number is way too high” (p. 129).
The current world population is estimated at about 6.8 billion, but let’s round that down to 6 billion. 600 million would be 10% of the current population, and that’s probably “way too high.” So that means that we have to (hopefully, nonviolently) reduce our population by over 90%. Indeed, if you look at the population before the advent of agriculture, which was probably the maximum number that could be supported on a hunter-gatherer type of technology, that was about 3 million. Even at 3 million, there was evidence of increasing conflict between humans over food resources (see The Food Crisis in Prehistory by Mark Nathan Cohen). To get back to that level — assuming that even 3 million hunter-gatherers is sustainable — would mean reducing our population by over 99.9%.
All right, let’s get this straight. You’re going to reduce the human population by 99.9%? Just how do you propose to do this? I’m happy to help out — I’m not having any kids. But even assuming that the entire world agreed to it, I don’t see a realistic way that you could reduce the population by 99.9% or even 90% by nonviolent means without agriculture, at least as an interim measure, for quite a while. And as long as we have agriculture, what would be relatively more sustainable?
And if a hunter-gatherer utopia is her objective, what is this going to look like? Once we’re back to 3 million humans, will there be books? Will there be civilization at all? Based on her other statements, one would assume not. This is not an impossible vision — I think that Derrick Jensen (who enthusiastically endorsed the book) actually foresees something like this happening. But, don’t we need just a few additional details here about what this means? Will there be health care resembling what we have today? Will there be birth control? Will there be industry or making of tools?
In other words, reducing the population to this level provokes a flood of questions that basically have nothing to do with the vegan question at all. If this is really her vision, then vegans are the least of her problems. I would have preferred her to talk, just a bit, about the future world of hunter-gatherers (or whatever) that she envisions. I really wonder if the people endorsing her book (or reviewing it) have really read it, except Derrick Jensen, with whose point of view the book really is consistent.
Should we care about this book?
Now for the final question. How significant is this book? In the context of the public at large, not very significant at all. But most people are still pretty oblivious to the impending financial collapse and energy decline. We need to look at this as a contribution to the debate in the energy descent community. This is where vegans need to start paying attention: as a rule, most vegans are just as ignorant as the general public to peak oil and related issues, other than climate change.
This book echoes a lot of the ideas throughout at least the internet portion of the “Transition” movement (preparing for a low-carbon future). People are bad-mouthing veganism and talking about backyard chickens, goats, and all manner of other livestock. (Fewer people have actually tried this, and I think that these options are going to be less attractive once it becomes apparent what is really involved.) There is talk about “holistic resource management,” meaning livestock management, which will actually increase the number of cattle on the land.
An emphasis on livestock agriculture in the energy descent is just a really unsustainable idea, and I’m not talking about just or even mostly Lierre Keith. This whole area just hasn’t been thought out. People are just putting out plausible-sounding arguments because it allows them to continue their meat-centered diets and still claim to be radical environmentalists.
Livestock grazing is as old as the hills and is the single most destructive form of human activity on earth. (See Akers, A Vegetarian Sourcebook, 1983). Much of the biologically “productive” area on the planet has been degraded or destroyed by livestock agriculture. Look at much of the Sahara Desert, look much of the “desert” in the American southwest — this is a result of overgrazing. Vague and unsupported statements to the effect that “well managed pasture builds soil” or that “we need perennial polycultures” are not going to convince me.
This whole discussion appears to be a way to continue the nutritional status quo (everyone gets to eat meat, and lots of it) under a facade of environmentalism. So while the most interesting feature of Lierre Keith’s new book to me is its radical demand for population reduction, I suspect that its appeal in the energy descent community will mostly be the appeal of continuing our meat consumption behind a “green” facade.
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P. S. There is not one, but two web sites devoted specifically to debunking Lierre Keith’s book on behalf of vegans, which I found after writing my review:
I would also mention the PermaVegan’s blog (Jonathan Maxson) which deals only with the first two chapters, but in considerable detail. (See the March 8 and March 28, 2010 entries.) You can find it here:
(slightly revised December 30)