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Agenda for a New America
The Politics of Vegetarianism
By: Vasu Murti
Chapter 12 - Historical Comparisons
According to Howard Lyman, former Senior lobbyist for the National Farmers Union, "Family farmers are victims of public policy that gives preference to feeding animals over feeding people. This has encouraged the cheap grain policy of this nation and has made the beef cartel the biggest hog at the trough."
The Bible contains numerous examples of conflict situations that are directly attributable to the practice of raising livestock, including contested water rights, bitter competition for grazing areas, and friction between agriculturalists and nomadic herdsmen. The more settled agricultural communities deeply resented the intrusion of nomadic tribes with their large herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. These animals were considered a menace. Aside from the threat to the crops themselves, large herds of livestock caused much damage to the general quality of the land as a result of over grazing.
It was ostensibly for this reason that the Philistines, whose primary agricultural pursuits were corn and orchards, sought to discourage nomadic herdsmen from using their territory by filling in many of the wells in the surrounding area. One of the earliest accounts of strife among the herdsmen themselves is found in the story of Lot and Abram:
"And Lot also, which went with Abram, had flocks, and herds, and tents. And the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together; for their substance was great, so that they could not dwell together. And there was a strife between the herdmen of Abram's cattle and the herdmen of Lot's cattle." (Genesis 13:5-7)
Abram moved Westward to a region known as Canaan, while Lot journeyed to the east, finally settling in Sodom. Such peaceful agreements, however, were not always possible. There are several references in the Bible to clashes between the Israelites and Midianites. The Midianites were wealthy Bedouin traders who owned large numbers of livestock, as did the Israelites, who brought their herds with them when they left Egypt.
Livestock require vast areas of land for grazing. They also need water, which has never been abundant in that region of the world. The strain thus placed on the land's resources is mentioned in Judges 6:4: "And they encamped against them, and destroyed the increase of the earth."
The depletion of resources created by the people arid livestock moving into this territory is described in Judges 6:5 by a singularly appropriate simile: "For they came up with their cattle and their tents, and they came as grasshoppers." Another passage informs us that after a particularly vicious battle with the Midianites the Israelites augmented their herds with the livestock of their slain captives. This included 675,000 sheep and more than 72,000 beeves.
A strikingly frank reference to the casual relationship between flesh eating and war, in terms of land use, is found in Deuteronomy 12:20: "When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy border, as he hath promised thee, and thou shalt say, 'I will eat flesh,' because thy soul longeth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, whatsoever thy soul lusteth after." (See also Numbers 31:32-33)
A similar straightforward reference to the relationship between flesh eating and war can be found in Plato's Republic. In a dialogue with Glaucon, Socrates extols the peace and happiness what come to people eating a vegetarian diet: "And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them."
Glaucon remains skeptical that people would be satisfied with such fare. He asserts that people will desire the "ordinary conveniences of life," including animal flesh. Socrates then proceeds to stock the once ideal state with swineherds, huntsmen, and "cattle in great number." The dialogue continues:
"...and there will be animal's of many other kinds, if people eat them?"
"And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before? "
"And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?"
"Then a slice of our neighbor's land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?"
"That, Socrates, will be inevitable."
"And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?"
"Most certainly," Glaucon replies.
Critics of Plato, reading the rest of the Republic, have complained that what Plato gives us is a militaristic or proto-fascist state, with censorship and a rigidly controlled economy. Plato would hardly disagree with these critics; what they have overlooked is that the state which he describes is not his idea--it is merely a consequence of Glaucon's requirements which Socrates himself disavows. Greed for meat, among other things, produced the character of the second state Plato describes.
The history of the European spice trade would seem to suggest that there is indeed a relationship between war and large-scale consumer demand for foods not required by what Plato refers to as "natural want." Spices were of vital importance to meat preparation before the process of mechanical refrigeration was developed in the 20th century, meat was usually preserved by the process of salting. Using various combinations of spices to offset the saltiness of meat, thus making it palatable, became a popular practice in medieval Europe.
The demand for spices was a significant factor in European colonial endeavors. Competition intensified, contributing to the exacerbation of serious disputes that already existed among various European nations. Efforts in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Dutch, Portuguese, English and French to expand their spice trade resulted in warfare, as well as the subjugation of native peoples by these imperialist powers.
Shepherds have traditionally been depicted in both art and religious and secular literature as a peaceable lot. However, there were inevitable disputes between farmers and shepherds over territorial rights. This Situation was aggravated by the fact that sheep posed an even greater threat to the land than cattle because they clipped grass closer to the ground, sometimes tearing it out by the roots. The Spanish sheepowner's guild known as the Mesta dominated Spain's political affairs for several centuries (AD 1200-1500) and was the source of much internal strife within that country.
The Mesta's sheep not only destroyed pastureland by overgrazing but were also allowed to rampage through cultivated fields. The peasant farmers could hardly expect the monarchy to rectify this injustice since sheep raising dominated medieval Spanish commerce and was the government's principal source of revenue during this period.
There was considerable animosity among shepherds, cattlemen and crop farmers in 19th-century America. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged more people to settle in the West. The very nature of livestock raising in the United States at that time required vast areas of land for grazing and moving the animals along designated trails to their final destinations. Hence the proliferation of farming communities became a serious threat to the livestock industry. This situation became worse when the farmers put up barbed-wire fences, a practice that began in the 1880s.
Aside from the conflict between livestock herders and farmers, there were bitter feuds between cattlemen and sheepmen, including such conflicts as the "Tonto Basin War" in Arizona, the "Holbrook War" in Montana, the "Blue Mountain War" in Colorado and the "Big Horn Basin Feud" in Montana.
Go on to Chapter 13 - Strategic
Return to The Politics of Vegetarianism Table of Contents
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