By James McWilliams
What allows this blind spot to persist, I would argue, is a palate-serving distortion of environmentalism.
Time to pick on Mother Jones again. Recently, the magazine’s food and
agriculture blogger, a dogged journalist with an inveterate hatred of
factory farming, posted a piece about a class of pesticides that are
evidently killing birds as well as bees. “The Threat to Birds That No One Is
Talking About,” the headline reads, and, to be sure, very few people are in
fact discussing the impact on neonicotinoids on wildlife other than honey
bees. In any case, since we all agree that unnecessarily killing birds is
wrong, this is a story we should be grateful that the Mother brought to our
But wait! It turns out we really don’t all agree that unnecessarily killing birds is wrong. In fact, the very same blogger who brought the bird threat to our attention has suggested, in many other articles, that we kill birds. Chickens, in particular. A lot them. Of course, they must be humanely raised and lovingly pastured and organically fed, but if we can meet those prerequisites it is, in contrast to wild birds, perfectly okay to kill them. In fact, this blogger has put his beliefs into action by raising animals in bucolic bliss on a North Carolina farm and selling their flesh to local consumers.
The writer is Tom Philpott, and his investigations into the many abuses of factory farming, as noted, are first-rate. However, Philpott, in his kill-or-not-to kill dilemma, reflects a common blind-spot shared by many leading critics of the industrial food system. In their world view, spraying a pesticide that kills birds that have lived naturally in the wild is clearly worth our outrage while slicing the neck of bird raised in captivity is, by contrast, just fine.
What allows this blind spot to persist, I would argue, is a palate-serving distortion of environmentalism. In the pesticide case, there’s the sense that it’s unnatural to interfere with nature by dousing the landscape with pesticides so powerful that they kill birds. The death of birds is, in the Mother Jones framework, considered a tragedy not because birds are sentient creatures with intrinsic worth, but because their harm is a manifestation of an arrogant human intervention into natural processes. Killing birds with synthetic substances is, in essence, an environmental foul. Seems fair enough.
But in the pastured chickens case, there’s a competing sense that killing them with our own hands is fine. Indeed, raising animals under “natural” conditions is said to honor the basic tenets of environmentalism–especially in contrast to industrial farming–and, as a result, offers a justifiable reason to slaughter birds. In this instance, the dead birds are a manifestation of a noble environmental intention (and our desire to fulfill some foodie fantasy). It’s as if the nod to nature by placing birds on pasture deems the method “environmental.” But does this add up?
Honor both wild and domesticated birds as deserving complete (rather than partial) moral consideration, and you’ll quickly see that it doesn’t. Not in the least. There’s no meaningful difference, ethically or environmentally, in spraying a pesticide that kills birds and killing the birds yourselves. Likewise, there’s no real difference between the human intervention required to make a pesticide and build a small-scale animal farm. To shroud the contradiction in skewed notions of environmentalism and “all natural” is to ensure that we’ll never achieve the goals that I share with Tom Philpott.