The Ethical Carnivore (Louise Gray)

How much meat do you think you eat, in a day, week or month?  More importantly, are you comfortable with that?  When you think about your eating habits, do you have any concerns about them (beyond cutting out more junk food)?  This book will make you think about these questions, among many others.

I was really excited to get an advance reader copy of this book, since the synopsis sounded very interesting to me.  It was released last week, but with the hubbub of my wife’s birthday and Thanksgiving, I just got around to finishing it today.  It is brilliant.

A while back, perhaps ten years ago, my wife and I mostly abstained from meat for a year or two.  We did that for health reasons, for moral reasons, and because handling and cooking meat are two pretty gross things.  That said, when my wife developed severe anemia, it was simpler for us to just start eating meat again than worry about her iron levels.  Easy come, easy go.  So I’m not oblivious to some of the arguments made in this book, and I have already thought through some of the questions that arose for me while I was reading it.  That said, it’s still a masterpiece that Ms. Gray has written, and in its lyrical beauty I think it’s reached me in a way that most manifestos do not.

Is the author’s point “You shouldn’t eat meat”?  Or “You’re a monster if you do”?  Far from it.  What she set out to accomplish was twofold: First, for the period of time it took her to write the book, which ended up being a year or two, she was determined to only eat meat she had killed herself.  Second, she would endeavor to learn about food in greater depth, in order to disrupt the divorce between us and our supply chains.

Have you ever thought about how insulated we are from our food?  We go to the grocery store and buy neatly packaged, brightly colored items that we bring home and make into delicious meals.  But we don’t know the things that that food goes through to get to the store.  We have so little connection to the people and processes involved along the way, and as the world becomes populated with so many more human beings, those supply chains become more and more complex and convoluted.

This is a complicated book, though eminently readable.  Gray very specifically doesn’t argue that you should not eat meat.  She believes that you should eat LESS meat, rather, and this is a viewpoint that I’m feeling more and more passionate about as I let the book percolate in my brain.  It’s an easy argument to make that factory farming is an endeavor that often leads to environmental damage, and that the resources our meat consumes, globally, are wasteful.  At the same time, it is pleasurable to eat meat, for most of us.  We feel happy when we put a piece of bacon in our mouths.  There is some internal instinct to consume the flesh of other animals.  Ignoring that instinct in favor of strict vegetarianism or veganism is, to me, unnatural. Not unnatural in the sense of being wrong, just unnatural in the truest sense of the word: not natural.

I’m not intending to insult my vegetarian and vegan friends and family, mind you.  Far from it–I admire those who have the willpower to stay away from meat.  But I don’t think it’s the way humans are built.  I would argue that there are all kinds of natural impulses that most of us abstain from: I’ve been married to my wife for eighteen years, instead of periodically choosing a different mate, and I’ve never ever murdered one of my terrible bosses (just to name a couple possibilities).  Just because it’s unnatural doesn’t mean that it isn’t noble, or isn’t the right choice to make.

What the author does, in this excellent read, is go out with fisherman and take part in a catch.  She goes hunting for pheasant, and rabbit, and deer.  She goes to slaughterhouses, and witnesses the ways that chicken, pigs, and cows are all farmed and killed.  Through her journey, she doesn’t start to find meat repugnant or find herself convinced that meat-eaters are barbaric.  Rather, she comes to treasure and respect the connection she feels with the animals she has interacted with on this journey.  The meat tastes better when you recognize that it’s not just a package in a store, in other words.

The book will teach you a great deal about pigs, and cows, and fish, and various birds, and chickens.  You’ll probably learn more about food labeling policy in the UK than you want to (that’s where the author is from, after all).  You’ll be alternately fascinated and repelled by her descriptions of some of the things inside animals that you usually don’t think about.  But why should we allow our privilege to separate us from these things?  Just because I don’t want to acknowledge how cows are slaughtered doesn’t meant that they AREN’T slaughtered, and it further complicates things that steak tastes delicious.  Some of her descriptions of animals (both before their death and afterward) are beautiful, and they are universally respectful.  Gray reveres the animals she is killing (even though she is choosing to end their lives).  That is a wonderfully complex examination of morality, and I can’t honestly recall reading a book that was more nuanced than this one in quite some time.

Being part of a food chain is a natural thing.  The danger comes when the top of that food chain scoops up and destroys the rest of the chain in its insatiable hunger.  We need to care about the practices that happen with some food producers (though certainly not all).  It matters that the vast majority of soybeans grown in the world each year are used to feed our chickens, cows, and pigs, not ourselves.  It matters that we are vastly overfishing the seas, and using much of our catch to feed to other fish, the factory-farmed ones that we actually want to eat.  It matters that many breeds of chicken can no longer stand up under the weight of their disproportionate breasts for long, so they sometimes fall down and get nitrogen burns on their legs and bodies from their piled-up feces.  Those are all bad things, things caused not only by our consumption of meat but also by our choice to not think about where our food comes from and how it is produced.  There are multiple choices, you see: the choice to eat meat or not, and the choice to educate yourself about your food or not.

I choose to eat meat.  Having read this book, I have also opted to make better choices about how often to eat it.  That isn’t just out of laziness (even though it IS easier to be a carnivore than not).  I feel that it’s possible to be an ethical carnivore, which is the same decision Gray makes in her book.  If we all ate less meat, some pretty dramatic environmental changes could be brought about in our world.  You don’t have to choose to live without bacon forever, just maybe not eat it at every (or most) meal(s).  And maybe you should figure out a local source of it.  Or a source you trust, at any rate.

Every day, as we move through the world, we have a whole lot of choices to make.  Ethical dilemmas are never cut and dried, by definition.  Louise Gray has convinced me that I don’t have to make a rigid choice never to eat meat again, and yet still feel as though I am making an ethical choice for myself.  I’d recommend that you read this book, too.  It has given me quite a lot to think about.  After I post this review, I plan to go into the kitchen and dig out my old vegetarian cookbooks.  Honestly, I also plan to eat a turkey sandwich while I’m picking out vegetarian recipes.  But that’s okay with me, because choices are complicated.  Read this book, and maybe it’ll help you clarify some of your choices as well.  Like the author, I choose to be an ethical carnivore.

Go here to buy your own copy from Amazon.

2 thoughts on “The Ethical Carnivore (Louise Gray)

  1. Dear Matt,
    You kindly said my book is nuanced, well, it is very nice to good to read a nuanced review! I really appreciate how you managed to get both sides of my book – that we should eat less meat – but need’t give it up altogether! That is one of the reasons I wrote the book, because I was frustrated by the black and white arguments – either you had to be a vegan who ate no meat at all or a carnivore who loved meat and refuse to criticise the industry. I felt that most of us are somewhere in the middle. We enjoy meat but question where it comes from and want to make decisions that do not damage the rest of the world. I hope I have managed to address those people’s concerns in my book – by the look of your review, it looks like I have! That is a very good feeling so I hope you enjoy your turkey sandwich AND the meal from vegetarian cook book…
    Very best

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! I, too, find myself somewhere in the middle (but far more in the middle than I was before reading your book). I loved it.


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