Bloomsbury Food Library - The environmental argument
Vegetarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed
Vegetarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed

Kerry Walters

Kerry Walters is William Bittinger Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College, PA, USA, where he also co-founded the Peace and Justice Studies program. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications

Continuum, 2012


Content type:

Book chapter

Related Content

The environmental argument

DOI: 10.5040/9781350044920-ch-006
Page Range: 117–136

Raising cattle in huge feedlots, consolidating dairy farms into confinement units with 1,000–10,000 cows, consolidating swine and poultry production into huge confinement units, [is] a frontal assault on the environment, with massive groundwater and air pollution problems.


If healthy ecosystems are of value . . ., one has a moral reason to avoid needlessly impairing the health of any ecosystem.


North Carolina’s Onslow County is home to Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine Corps base in the eastern United States. The nearly 250 square mile facility is the Atlantic seaboard county’s single largest source of income. Cash crops like tobacco bring in another $18 million to the county each year, but the largest revenue generator other than Camp Lejeune is a thriving factory farm industry. Onslow is dotted with dozens of huge chicken and turkey sheds, cattle feedlots, and hog farms, all of which earn nearly $85 million annually. Its hog production is ranked eighth in a state which has hundreds of hog farmers (Onslow County 2010).

In June 1995, Oceanview Farms, one of the county’s largest hog producers, housed over 10,000 beasts in 11 giant sheds. The urine and feces excreted by the animals were trapped in an eight acre waste “lagoon,” a term to which many environmentalists object. “A lagoon is something a beautiful girl swims in on Fantasy Island, [not a] cesspool,” observes one of them (New York Times 1995). The artificial lagoon, bounded on all sides by earthen dykes, held 25 million gallons of putrefying liquid excrement pooled 12 feet deep and exuding a nauseating stench smelled for miles.

It started raining in Onslow County on Sunday, June 18. By Wednesday, over 3 inches had fallen, flooding creeks and tributaries. The steady downpour weakened the walls containing Oceanview Farms’ cesspool, and on June 21, a 30-feet segment of it crumbled away, releasing a flood of “knee-deep, red soupy” filth that emptied the entire reservoir, drowned tobacco and soybean fields, woodlands, and roads, and eventually flowed into two tributaries of the New River. As one farmer whose crops were destroyed by the flood remarked, “It came through the woods. You could see the dark stuff. It made me sick. I thought, ‘Oh, there goes our crops’ ” (New York Times 1995).

Engineers scrambled to repair the dyke, but the damage had already been done. In addition to the destruction of crops and the health risks posed by the 25 million gallons of bacteria-laden muck that coated hundreds of acres, the nitrogen-rich hog waste started suffocating fish in the New River as soon as it hit the water.[1] All told, upwards of 15 million fish perished, the breeding areas of half of all mid-East Coast fish species were decimated, and over 300,000 acres of coastal wetlands were contaminated. Shellfish remained toxic for years afterward (Robbins 2011, p. 242).

North Carolina’s hog farms house 7 million animals at any given time. By way of comparison, the state’s human population is only 6.5 million. The hogs produce four times as much waste as the state’s people. All of it is pooled in open reservoirs, and has a pathogen count that is 10–100 times greater than human sewage (National Resources Defense Council 1998). Even short of disastrous spills like Oceanview’s, the waste produced by factory-farmed hogs in North Carolina is an environmental hazard. Add to it the total waste produced by the billions of farm animals raised and slaughtered each year in the United States alone, and the potential risk and actual harm done to the environment is staggering. Moreover, the thousands of tons of animal manure produced each day is only one of several environmental hazards posed by consumer demand for meat. Land integrity, wildlife and forests, cleanliness and availability of water, and even weather patterns are all affected by the factory-farmed production of food animals.

One of the arguments for vegetarianism focuses on the environmental consequences of meat-eating. Its central claim is that the natural resources damaged by factory farming ought to be valued by us, either for themselves or for the sake of their importance to human well-being, and that consequently the adoption of a meatless diet, given the way in which meat is currently produced, is at least a prudential and perhaps even a moral obligation. In this chapter, we’ll examine the various ways in which this argument is defended by environmental vegetarians.

Meat-eating and environmental degradation

The ecological disaster caused by the sewage flood at Oceanview Farms spotlights an especially troublesome environmental cost of meat-eating: the hundreds of millions of tons of manure and urine excreted each year by factory-farmed animals. It builds up much faster than it can possibly be used as fertilizer, which was the traditional way of handling manure before the advent of factory farms. Given the high concentrations of bacteria such as E. coli in much of it—despite the huge doses of antibiotics regularly given to food animals—it’s not especially desirable to use any of it as fertilizer anyway. So much of it, like the pig waste at Oceanview, gets “lagooned.”

To appreciate the sheer bulk of waste produced by food animals in the United States alone, something which the average consumer rarely thinks about, just recall from Chapter 1 the huge numbers of animals we eat each year. We devour eight to ten billion chickens. That’s more than the human population of the entire world. We eat 300 million turkeys, just a smidgeon under the country’s human population. We also eat 100 million hogs and upwards of 40 million beef cattle.

All of these animals are generously fed so that they’ll bulk up quickly, and they excrete proportionately. An average 1,100 pound steer produces 47 pounds of manure every 24 hours. Worldwide, beef and dairy cattle produce one billion tons of manure annually. A 60,000-hen egg battery, not an untypical size, produces 82 tons of manure in a single week. In the Delmarva Peninsula, a thumb of land bordered on the west by the Chesapeake Bay and on the east by the Delaware River, Delaware Bay, and Atlantic Ocean, 600 million chickens are raised annually, producing more manure than a city of four million people does (Singer and Mason 2006, pp. 29–30). In a mere seven days, two thousand pigs drop 27 tons of manure and 32 tons of urine. (Recall that there were five times that many beasts at Oceanview.) All told, food animals excrete slightly over 2 billion tons of hard and wet manure each year, equivalent to ten times the amount of human waste produced in the same period. That’s four times the combined weight of the world’s human population, or 20 tons of manure for every household in America. Bad as that sounds, the Union of Concerned Scientists thinks there’s even worse news. According to it, “We have strict laws governing the disposal of human waste, but the regulations are lax, or often nonexistent, for animal waste” (Robbins 2011, p. 243).

The absence of strict oversight for the mountains of animal waste—an absence actively encouraged by lobbyists for the meat and poultry industries[2]—contributes hugely to the pollution of both land and water. Waste held in storage lagoons leaches into the ground, and manure too generously spread over pastures and fields, ostensibly to fertilize them but actually to get rid of some of the tons of muck laying about, turns into soluble compounds of ammonia and nitrate which wash into wells, groundwater, streams, and rivers. Once the manure hits living water, it accelerates the growth of algae, the algae deoxygenate the water, and aquatic life perishes. Thanks in large part to chicken waste from the Delmarva Peninsula and manure fertilizing along Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake Bay has been inundated for years with phosphorus and nitrogen runoff that’s seriously damaged its aquatic life capacity. South of Louisiana, in the Gulf of Mexico, a 7,000 square mile dead zone is the result of deoxygenation caused in large part by animal waste runoff. Nor are factory-farmed land animals the only contributors to manure pollution. Densely populated industrial fish cages also befoul the waters. Caged salmon off the coast of Scotland contaminate coastal waters with waste equivalent to that produced by 8 million people. The human population of Scotland is just a bit over five million (New Internationalist 2000).

Manure pollution isn’t the only way that water resources are depleted by the millions of animals we eat. Meat production is the single most significant user of water in the United States. A full 80 percent of the country’s water consumption is traceable to animal food crops or direct consumption by the animals themselves (Hill 1996, p. 112). Nearly half of it is used for cattle (Robbins 2011, p. 238). The thousands of acres of soy and corn grown annually to feed animals must be irrigated, and this also takes immense quantities of water. In the western United States, one of the main sources of water for both irrigation and cattle is the Ogallala Aquifer, an immense underground lake that stretches from South Dakota to Texas. Each year, the aquifer loses 13 trillion tons of water, most of which is used to produce beef. Geologists worry that at the present rate of consumption, the aquifer will be dry before the end of this century. Wells that feed into it throughout Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, northwest Texas, and New Mexico are already at risk.

In her classic book Diet for a Hungry Planet, Frances Moore Lappe (1991) famously calculated that it takes as much water to bring a steer to maturity as would float a battleship. More specifically, about 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef.[3] That’s 15 times the amount needed to produce 1 pound of wheat, rice, or barley. Put another way, more water goes into a quarter-pound hamburger than the average human drinks directly in four years.

Water pollution and depletion are inevitable when food animals are factory farmed. But land suffers as well. The meat industry is dependent on industrial agriculture to grow the immense quantities of soy, corn, and other crops needed to bring animals to maturity. Industrial agriculture, dependent in turn on artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides to produce high yields and thus meet expectations, douses the soil with chemicals. It doesn’t take too many growing seasons for the chemical-drenched earth to lose texture as well as topsoil. Topsoil accumulates slowly. It takes between 200 and 1,000 years, depending on region and climatic conditions, for the earth to produce one inch of the stuff. But in the United States, topsoil is blowing away at a rate of an inch every 16 years (Hill 1996, pp. 108–9). Seven billion tons of it, the equivalent of nearly 60,000 pounds per person, are lost every year, enough to cover the entire state of Connecticut. The amount of topsoil lost each year in Iowa alone is enough to fill 165,000 Mississippi River barges (Robbins 2011, p. 241).

Over half the total land mass (including mountains) in the continental United States is used for the production of meat and dairy products. A full 70 percent of land in the American West, 525 million acres, is used to graze young cattle before they’re shipped off to factory farm feeding lots. That’s two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho.

The irony is that the more arable land we use, the more arable land we need. Topsoil loss and soil degradation steadily decrease the productivity of American farm land. According to USDA calculations, the agricultural capacity of the continental United States has dropped by 70 percent in the last two hundred years. Even grazing land is jeopardized by the thousands of hard-hoofed beasts that trample plants and compact the soil, making it harder for the ground to absorb rain water and retain topsoil. One acre of wilderness is turned into industrial farmland every 5 seconds in the United States. For every acre of forest lost to roads, shopping centers, and houses, seven more become feed lots and animal cropland (Hill 1996, p. 108). As long as we continue feeding on factory-farmed beasts, we’ll also feed on the soil.

The grazing and feeding of beef cattle tends to be the most voracious devourer of land. Central and South America have been particularly ravaged by the worldwide appetite, especially North American, for beef. Much of the beef eaten in the United States is imported from Costa Rica, Columbia, Brazil, and Argentina. Cattle grazing and the cultivation of cattle grain has slashed and burned away Latin American forestland at an alarming rate. Since 1960, over 25 percent of it has been cleared for cattle. Costa Rica has sacrificed 80 percent of its virgin forests. Mexico has lost 27 million acres of woodland. African forests are likewise toppling before the world’s appetite for beef. In East Africa, over 50 percent of the land is now devoted to cattle (Hill 1996, p. 108). In all these areas, the environmental consequences typical of massive cattle grazing and animal crop cultivation follow: compacted grazing land, depleted soil nutrients, and loss of topsoil. And the sacrifice simply seems wildly disproportionate to the harvest. To get just one fast food hamburger harvested from Latin American beef, 55 square feet of tropical rainforest must be slashed and burned (Denslow and Padoch 1988, p. 69).

It’s apparent that arable land, forests, and water are damaged by meat-eating. But recently environmentalists have begun to appreciate the danger that factory farming poses to the very atmosphere itself. The vast deforestation in Latin America and parts of Africa that’s driven by cattle production contributes to rising levels of carbon dioxide, one of the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect. Moreover, the huge quantities of methane expelled by livestock, especially cattle, is another major contributor. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the world’s livestock are responsible for up to one-quarter of the globe’s human-caused or anthropogenic methane emissions (Halweil 1998), and methane is 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The atmospheric danger posed by animal methane is so grave that the Union of Concerned Scientists claim that driving vehicles with poor gas mileage and eating beef are two of the most damaging things US citizens do to the atmosphere (Brower and Leon 1999).

And speaking of gas-guzzling vehicles: because factory farms rely so heavily on industrial agriculture, eating meat—especially beef—indirectly encourages the use of huge quantities of carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels needed to run mega-planters, cultivators, and harvesters, as well as to transport crops from the fields to distributors. So much fossil fuel is required that the Worldwatch Institute claims that the feed grown for food animals “might as well be a petroleum byproduct” (Robbins 2011, p. 267). Additionally, the most common form of the nitrogen fertilizers used on livestock corn is ammonium nitrate, a fossil fuel product which contributes to the greenhouse effect. About one-quarter of all the ammonium nitrate used in the United States finds its way to cattle cornfields (Ryan and Durning 1997, p. 55).

Does the environment have moral standing?

Despite the protestations of special interest groups working for the meat industry, the facts on the ground are clear enough: large-scale factory farming of food animals is bad for the environment. It devastates rain forests, erodes topsoil, tramples grazing lands, depletes aquifers, pollutes streams, rivers, lakes, bays, and portions of oceans, kills flora and fauna, and is a strong player in the creation of greenhouse gases. The elimination of factory farms wouldn’t, of course, spell an end to environmental degradation. But it would certainly slow it down.

Given this, many vegetarians adopt a meatless diet for prudential reasons. They see befouling one’s own nest as an irrational lifestyle, and consequently make a conscious decision to wean themselves from a particular type of behavior—meat-eating—that contributes hugely to the unbalancing of ecological stability. One way of justifying this prudential choice is by arguing that human self-interest entails indirect duties to the environment.

Recall that in Chapter 4, we examined the contractarian model of rights which maintained that humans may have indirect duties to at least some animals. The only creatures capable of possessing rights are those who can freely and intelligently enter into contractual arrangements with similar creatures—so “creatures” in this context, is of course limited to humans. The agreement or contract between them spells out reciprocal rights and duties. Only humans, then, possess rights, and it’s only to humans that we can be said to have direct duties. But if the contract mandates respect for private property, for example, we may have an obligation not to harm the animals belonging to other humans. This, as we saw, constitutes an indirect duty to the animals themselves. We refrain from violating them, but only out of respect for their human owners.[4]

One of the more common arguments for granting moral standing to the environment proceeds along similar lines. Defended by authors such as Blackstone (1972), Gewirth (2001), and O’Neill (1997), the argument contends that even though we owe no direct duties to the natural world, we are morally obliged to look out for the well-being of fellow humans. The stronger version of this duty obliges us to strive actively for their physical and psychological flourishing. The minimal version calls on us to at least refrain from engaging in private or public actions that would interfere with their well-being.

Now, the health of the ecosystem is something that affects all humans for good or ill. To the extent that our actions are capable of deteriorating its health and thus potentially harming the well-being of our fellow humans, we’re obliged at least to refrain from any environmentally damaging behavior which we can reasonably forgo without causing undue immediate harm to ourselves. Thus we have an indirect duty to the natural environment not to degrade it, a duty that arises only because of our direct duties to humans. The vegetarian who embraces this way of thinking concludes that factory farming damages the environment, and so behavior like meat-eating which encourages factory farming ought to be forgone if doing so doesn’t entail undue harm to humans. Those people who rely upon the factory farm system for meat but who can easily acquire both nutrition and gustatory pleasure from a meatless diet are morally obliged to become vegetarians.

But many other vegetarians—and nonvegetarians as well, for that matter—are concerned about environmental degradation for reasons other than prudent self-interest. They sense, even if only vaguely, that there are additional grounds for cherishing and protecting ecological integrity. For them, the natural world possesses a kind of value that establishes claims against us for our moral consideration. Exactly what that value is, and precisely what our obligations to protect it are, remain perplexing questions that generate much discussion and much disagreement. But many vegetarians who are concerned about the environment tend to endorse one or more of a number of arguments that try to establish the moral standing of the natural world. What most of these arguments have in common is a set of assumptions nicely spelled out by philosopher Peter Wenz. “Healthy ecosystems are of value, the value of an ecosystem is positively related to its degree of health, and at least part of this value is independent of the interests of human and other sentient beings.” Wenz believes that if one accepts the independent value of ecosystems, then one must likewise “accept the prescription to become a vegetarian” (Wenz 1999, p. 190). But he admits that the sticking point is in showing that the ecosystems do have independent value. So let’s turn to four arguments that try to justify the claim.

Ecofeminist and social ecology arguments

A couple of distinct but related arguments that defend the claim that the environment possesses value are offered by ecofeminists on the one hand and social ecologists on the other. In the last chapter, we saw that the ecofeminist attitude towards the natural environment is that it, like historically oppressed groups such as women, peoples of color, and animals, has been victimized by patriarchal domination structures. The rescue of nature from its status as a mere repository of raw material goes hand in hand with the liberation of women, peoples of color, and animals because it helps to erode patriarchal hegemony. But ethical models based on universal and abstract norms of justice and rights won’t do because they merely duplicate the dualistic assumptions and adversarial attitude embedded in patriarchy. Much more effective is the nurturance of caring relationships which allow the genuine value of that which is cared for to reveal itself. Just as it’s essential to allow the embodied being of an animal to speak for itself and to value the disclosure for what it is rather than trying to force human categories such as rights and duties upon it, so it’s also important to allow the natural world to be what it is, valuing it for its beauty, intricacy, and even occasional ferocity rather than reducing it to a ready-to-hand repository of raw material. Adopting this kind of attitude to nature necessarily entails recognizing its value and refraining from inflicting harm upon it, not merely for our sake, but out of respect for it as well. And for an ecofeminist vegetarian, that means refraining from a diet that not only encourages the abuse of animals but the degradation of the natural world.

Social ecology, especially as defended by Murray Bookchin (Bookchin 1982; Bookchin and Foreman 1991), agrees with the ecofeminist assumption that there’s a strong relationship between social oppression and the abuse of the environment. But Bookchin’s target isn’t patriarchal structures so much as the capitalist ethos that values the natural world only insofar as its resources can be manipulated as exchangeable commodities. Along with ecofeminists, social ecologists argue that this commodification creates hierarchies of power which guarantee the exploitation of peoples and things that occupy subordinate positions. In the capitalist hierarchy, the natural world is always subordinate, and so always exploitable as commodifiable raw material.

Bookchin argues that breaking the hierarchies of oppression requires a shift in perspective that recognizes humans as embedded within nature rather than distinct from it. Members of an ecosystem are interrelated and mutually dependent on one another. No single individual or species is of more value than another. The capitalist-generated gaps between humans and nature on the one hand and between dominant and subordinate humans on the other can be seen for the socially constructed artificialities they are once the nonhierarchical character of the natural world is appreciated. A social ecology vegetarian, then, can easily see factory farming as the widespread commodification of animals, an economic exploitation which in turn both accepts and reinforces the assumption that nature is properly subordinate to human will. One way of rebelling against the exploitation and affirming the claim that no member of an ecosystem is more valuable than another is by adopting a meatless diet.

The land ethic

Some critics (especially deep ecologists, whose position we’ll examine shortly) maintain that both ecofeminism and social ecology approach the environment from an anthrocentric perspective. They charge that proponents of either model take the oppression of humans as the lens through which they then examine the human abuse of nature, and adopt modes of human liberation (from patriarchal, dualistic domination structures in the one case and capitalist exploitation in the other) as templates for establishing proper relationships with animals and the natural world. These critics conclude that ecofeminists and social ecologists, despite their claims of moving away from traditional moral analysis, are more conventional than they think.

One model that grants moral standing to the environment that is much less human-centered is the well-known “land ethic” defended by environmentalist Aldo Leopold. For Leopold, the land isn’t simply “dirt.” It’s the source of energy that flows through plants and animals and maintains the delicate balance necessary for a healthy environment. The land, therefore, is the necessary condition for the flourishing of ecosystems, and as such ought to be valued rather than treated as mere resource. As Leopold famously writes, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold 1966, p. 262). Leopold was no vegetarian himself (and in fact was an advocate of game hunting). But he didn’t live (he died in 1948) to witness the full-fledged emergence of factory farming. Had he observed the way food animals have come to be produced in the United States, it’s likely he would’ve seen factory farms as destructive of the biotic community he believed deserved moral standing.

Debate over both interpretation and correctness of Leopold’s land ethic is lively. Many philosophers accuse him of unwarrantedly jumping from description to prescription, from a statement of fact—that the land is essential to the health of the biotic community—to a statement of value—that there is a moral obligation to protect its “integrity, stability, and beauty.” Such a move is called the “naturalistic fallacy.” It’s not entirely clear that moving from fact to value is a fallacy, although many philosophers, following David Hume, have believed it is. What basis other than facts about the world might we have for inferring value? Certainly the arguments for vegetarianism based on animal welfare move from description—sentient creatures fail to flourish when they endure physical or psychological suffering—to prescription—sentient creatures ought not to have unnecessary suffering inflicted on them.

Even if one takes the naturalistic fallacy seriously, it may not mean that Leopold’s model is destroyed. J. Baird Callicott (1989) argues, for example, that Leopold is best read as encouraging us to interpret our feelings of affection for the environment as noteworthy moral intuitions. We value and wish to protect a beautiful work of art because it moves us. Why not a similar response to the beauty of the biotic community? Under this reading, Leopold’s land ethic is a reminder that our feelings can have moral significance and ought not to be dismissed as mere emotionality or sentimentality. Affection for the land bridges the gap between fact and value.

But another defender of Leopold’s land ethic (Johnson 1993) worries that Callicott’s argument doesn’t bridge the gap at all. Many people feel no more affection for the land than they do for animals. For them, it’s absurd to suggest that inanimate objects, even beautiful works of art, somehow deserve moral consideration just because we like them. But if we suppose that something can have interests which are essential to its flourishing even if it isn’t consciously aware of those interests, and if we have moral obligations to facilitate or at least not impede interests essential to flourishing (which we certainly do in the case, for example, of human infants), and if finally we agree with Leopold that it’s in the interest of the biotic community not to have its integrity disrupted, then it makes perfect sense to bestow moral standing on the environment. So if the factory farming system violates biotic integrity, then vegetarianism seems an appropriate, and at least in some contexts an obligatory, response.[5]

Deep ecology

The least anthrocentric argument for the bestowal of moral standing on the environment (although Leopold’s land ethic runs a close second) is known as “deep ecology.” Pioneered by philosopher and environmentalist Arne Naess (1973, 1993, 2008), deep ecology (or “ecosophy,” as it’s sometimes called) takes the position that traditional ways of thinking about ethics are inadequate when it comes to the environment.[6] “Shallow” ecology is content with hanging onto the conventional assumption that humans comprise a superior and privileged class of beings in the natural world whose interests always trump the environment’s. “Deep” ecology, on the other hand, argues that humans have no more ecological value than any other member of the biotic community. Consequently, we need to develop a new type of moral consciousness about our place in the natural world.

In accordance with this radical equalization, deep ecologists contend that all life possesses value, regardless of its usefulness to humans, and that human interference with the diversity of life forms, except in situations of dire need or emergency, is morally unwarranted. Public policies and moral norms that respect the well-being of all members of the biotic community should be adopted. Human overpopulation, for example, is a threat to the ecological integrity of the planet which calls for a drastic reduction in reproduction patterns. The notion that “bigger is better,” which the Western world especially has adopted as the recipe for growth, needs to be replaced with a commitment to “small is beautiful” sustainability (Schumacher 1999). But above all, a radical revisioning of what it means to be a human member of the biosphere is needed. At the very least, such a rethinking demotes humans from the morally privileged position we’ve historically assigned ourselves and encourages as deep an identification with the rest of nature as possible.

Deep ecology has been criticized on the grounds that it tends to be vague when it comes to handling conflicts between different life forms. If all life is valuable, does this mean that all life deserves equal treatment? If so, then we are amiss in attacking bacteria with antibiotics, a position that on the surface seems absurd. If not, are we forced back to a traditional sliding scale assignation of value to different life forms, with humans at the top, which deep ecologists condemn? It’s simply not clear. As we’ll see in Chapter 8, these are questions that can also be asked of Albert Schweitzer’s reverence for life ethic.

It’s not the case that deep ecology entails vegetarianism, since it doesn’t necessarily forbid the killing of animals. Some species are naturally predatory, and the integrity of the ecosystem in which they’re situated depends on their keeping the populations on which they prey from overreproducing. Similarly, the hunting of animals by humans, so long as the hunting is done sustainably rather than wantonly and for food rather than mere sport, is likewise compatible with deep ecology’s moral regard for the environment. But it’s obvious that factory farming falls outside any morally acceptable predation cycle. The practice not only reflects the hubris that humans are morally superior to animals, since we would roundly condemn treating humans in the way we treat factory-farmed food animals; it also wreaks havoc upon the natural environment, thereby disrespecting the value of other flora and fauna species. If the food which one eats comes from factory farms, then, deep ecology’s moral recommendation would be to abstain from meat at the personal level and to work toward raising ecological sensibilities at the public one.


In addition to the specific criticisms of the various arguments for granting the natural world moral standing that we’ve already examined, some environmentalists argue that vegetarianism is potentially destructive to the environment, reflecting as it does a naïve worldview completely out of touch with the actual world of nature “red in tooth and claw.”

In Chapter 4, we saw philosopher Steven Davis (2003) challenge Tom Regan’s defense of animal rights by claiming that the cultivation of food crops for human consumption inflicts more damage on the environment than the cultivation of pasture lands for large grazing food animals. His argument was that clearing land and planting crops disrupts the natural habitats of scores of animal and plant species, and the actual harvesting of the crops kills hundreds of individual animals and plants. A much more environment friendly policy would be to leave the land untilled and suitable for domesticated animals such as cattle or sheep. Eating them would result in fewer deaths and less degradation of the environment.

J. Baird Callicott, a defender of Leopold’s land ethic, agrees with Davis but takes the environmental argument against vegetarianism even further.[7] He contends that “a vegetarian human population” isn’t merely damaging to the environment, but would likely be “ecologically catastrophic” (Callicott 1989, p. 35). Callicott’s argument focuses on a cycle of destructive events he thinks a global vegetarian diet could set in motion. While acknowledging that worldwide vegetarianism will most likely increase the food resources available to humans, he warns that

[t]he human population would probably, as past trends overwhelmingly suggest, expand in accordance with the potential thus afforded. The new result would be fewer nonhuman beings and more human beings who, of course, have requirements of life far more elaborate than even those of domestic animals, requirements which would tax other “natural resources” (trees for shelter, minerals mined at the expense of topsoil and its vegetation, etc.) more than under present circumstances. (Callicott 1989, pp. 34–5)

Callicott recognizes that the average vegetarian’s diet is less burdensome on the environment than the omnivore’s, and he believes that humans have a moral obligation to reduce their negative impact on the biotic community as much as they reasonably can. His point, however, is that what seems morally acceptable for individuals or small groups of individuals may morph into something destructive of the very environment it seeks to protect if adopted as public policy. At the very least, this calls into question the alleged ethical superiority of a vegetarian diet over one that includes meat.

The arguments offered by Davis and Callicott are reasonable, but neither has gone unanswered by vegetarians concerned with the environmental impact of meat-eating. In order for Davis’ challenge to the planting and harvesting of human food crops to stick, it would be necessary to demonstrate that doing so inflicts more harm upon the environment than the cultivation of monocultural crops, mainly corn and soy, fed to food animals. There’s little doubt that ecosystems are nearly always adversely affected when land is cultivated. But given the necessity to cultivate land if humans are to be fed, the question then becomes what sort of cultivation does the least damage. Given the fact that most plant protein fails to transfer proportionately to food animals when they ingest it, thus obliging farmers to grow huge quantities of corn and soy to produce small quantities of meat, a good case can be made that less land could feed more people if the “middle-men”—animals—were dropped. According to one estimate (Francione 2000, p. 15), the typical omnivore’s diet in the United States requires the use of 3.5 acres of cropland per year, whereas a vegetarian diet needs only one-fifth of an acre. Thus cultivating food crops for people is, all things considered, less burdensome on the environment (Auxter 1999).

Peter Wenz responds to Callicott’s Malthusian antivegetarian warning of overpopulation and ecological disaster by arguing that the real culprit is overpopulation, not diet. Unlike Callicott, Wenz sees no reason to suppose that overpopulation and a vegetarian diet are necessarily connected. He reasons that human populations which are ecologically minded enough to give up meat for the sake of the environment aren’t likely to “apply the money they save on food to the birth and rearing of a child they would not otherwise have” (Wenz 1999, p. 198). Birthing extra children imposes both a personal and an ecological burden that, in this context, is simply “psychologically implausible.”

A stronger objection to Callicott’s position is Wenz’s claim that the same argument Callicott makes against vegetarianism can be made against any lifestyle if the population increases. If human beings overreproduce, “all roads . . . lead to perdition” regardless of how or what they eat. Consequently, Callicott’s case is underdetermined.

Whether people were vegetarians or omnivores, whether industry were powered by solar energy or nuclear energy, whether there were disarmament or a continued arms race, population increase would destroy the biosphere. The danger of ecological disaster would, therefore, not serve to favor any one course of action over its opposite, and so would not favor either an omnivorous or a vegetarian diet over the other. (Wenz 1999, p. 199)

It’s worth mentioning that neither Davis nor Callicott support the factory farm system. Since Davis defends eating large pasture-grazing ruminants as a strategy for saving the lives of a far greater number of plants and small animals, it’s not likely that he would endorse the unnecessary slaughter of billions and billions of factory-farmed animals, much less the environmental impact of doing so. Callicott explicitly condemns factory farming, arguing that the “transmogrification” of flora through intensive farming is just as unacceptable from the perspective of the land ethic as is the “transmogrification” of animals though the factory farming of them. He still refuses to endorse widespread vegetarianism. But he opines that “[t]he important thing, I would think, is not to eat vegetables as opposed to animal flesh, but to resist factory farming in all its manifestations, including especially its liberal application of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers to maximize the production of vegetable crops,” whether the crops are raised as food for animals or humans (Callicott 1989, pp. 35–6).

A different sort of objection to environmental vegetarianism is the claim that it’s hopelessly out of touch with both nature as it actually operates and what’s most beneficial for both humans and animals. Environmental ethicist Holmes Rolston[8], for example, confesses that he’s “not sure a vegetarian even understands the way the world is built.” Meat-eating humans “know their ecology and natural history in a way that vegetarians do not.” They, unlike vegetarians, participate “in the logic and biology of [their] ecosystem” (Hettinger 2004, pp. 294–5).

The ecosystem’s “logic and biology” that Rolston thinks vegetarians ignore is that the weak eat the strong. Sacrifice is part of the warp and woof of the natural world. Predation in nature is not only an incontestable fact, it’s also one that benefits animals—including humans, whom evolution has placed at the top of the food chain. Without the additional protein provided by meat, claims Rolston, humans would never have developed into the intellectually sophisticated creatures we are. Indeed, it’s not even obvious that the species would’ve survived. By eating meat—especially meat acquired by hunting—we reaffirm our essentially carnivorous, predatory nature. Rolston for one is unapologetic about his embrace of what he sees as a legacy of predation. “Nature is bloody,” he declares, “the top trophic rungs are always raptors, cats, wolves, hunters, and I’m one of those, and unashamed of it” (Hettinger 2004, p. 297).

Nett Hettinger agrees. Predation, he claims, “should be understood holistically as the process of advancement and flourishing of life that it is.” Granted, “from the perspective of the prey who loses, predation does appear evil” (Hettinger 2004, p. 298). But examined in the context of the biotic community, the death of the prey is balanced out by the sustenance of the predator. The problem that vegetarians make is in sentimentally focusing on the good of the individual rather than the good of the biosphere. But doing so “is in serious tension with a healthy respect for the sometimes violent, painful, and life-sacrificing processes of nature” (p. 296).

Both Rolston and Hettinger fret that even though environmental vegetarians claim to renounce meat because they value the biotic community, their condemnation of animal killing actually shows them to hate the natural world because of its ubiquitous predation. This creates a dilemma which vegetarians are unable to navigate. Either they must morally condemn natural predation, or they must concede that it’s either ecologically good or at least one of those facts of life that’s morally neutral. If they prefer the first option, they’re obliged to protect prey animals from predators, a duty which, as we saw in Chapter 4, seems both morally counterintuitive and practically impossible,[9] as well as answer to the charge that they hate nature. But if they choose the second option, consistency requires them to accept human predation as likewise ecologically beneficial or at least morally neutral.

Environmentally concerned vegetarians remain unimpressed by these criticisms. Instead, they express bewilderment, as philosopher Jennifer Everett puts it, that Rolston, Hettinger, and similar minded individuals should see an incompatibility with environmentalism and vegetarianism. “[V]egetarians, like environmentalists, seek a new moral relationship between humans and extra-human animals. In place of exploitation, cruelty, and indifference toward other species . . ., we envision a future in which humanity recognizes and honors the inherent worth of all creatures.” If vegetarians refuse to look at animals as “lunch meat,” it’s because they are convinced that “human dominance over the rest of nature is not only imprudent but also morally wrong” (Everett 2004, p. 305). How could this be anti-environmentalist?

More specifically, Everett and others argue that no morally relevant analogy can be drawn between animal and human predation. Consequently, it’s not at all inconsistent to condemn the latter but not the former. Carnivorous predators in the wild must eat meat to survive. They just can’t flourish on a vegetable diet. Humans, on the other hand, don’t require meat, being perfectly able from a biological (not to mention psychological and cultural) point of view to thrive without meat. Additionally, because humans are moral agents, it’s reasonable to expect more of them than we do from animals, who are, after all, only moral patients. Simply because wolves kill and eat cattle is no license for humans doing so, as we saw when we examined the Benjamin Franklin argument in Chapter 4. Finally, except in the case of hunting, the typical “prey” of a human isn’t a wild animal but instead a domesticated one whose factory-farmed life is probably more brutal than anything a wild animal experiences.

Hettinger and Rolston might respond to Everett’s claim that humans don’t need animal flesh to survive by arguing that we’re still hardwired, by virtue of our evolutionary development, to eat meat. But as we’ll see in the next chapter, this is a flimsy justification for meat-eating.

From the environment to humans

One thing is incontestable: given the way in which the vast bulk of the meat we eat is produced, an omnivorous diet is bad for the environment. But as we’ve seen, the precise nature of our obligations to the environment is open to question. Some contend that prudence is the only check upon our treatment of nature. Others argue from a number of perspectives for the bestowal of moral standing on the environment. None of these attempts to defend moral consideration of the biosphere is without its conceptual and practical difficulties, and some environmentalists who otherwise endorse one or the other of them deny that vegetarianism is a necessary corollary. Even stronger, some environmentalists argue that environmentalism and vegetarianism are incompatible.

In light of this uncertainty, even those vegetarians who see their choice of diet as part of a larger concern for the welfare of the environment may well be perplexed about exactly what their moral obligations to the biosphere are. It’s not simply that there are philosophical difficulties in attributing moral standing to land, water, and the atmosphere. It’s also difficult to wrap one’s imagination around so great a departure from the traditional way of thinking of what is in and what is outside of the moral community. In the next chapter, we turn to more familiar ground by examining unapologetically human-centered arguments for vegetarianism.

[1] By way of comparison, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill was 12 million gallons.

[2] The meat industries consistently maintain, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, that the factory farm production of animals is environmentally friendly. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, for example, claims that “Essentially all livestock and poultry manure winds up as a natural fertilizer on the land . . . without polluting water supplies” (Robbins 2011, p. 247).

[3] True to form, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association disputes this figure, arguing that one pound of beef requires only 441 gallons of water (Robbins 2011, p. 237). But all disinterested researchers agree that the Association is low-balling.

[4] Recall from Chapter 4 that at least one contractarian (Rowlands 2009) offers an alternative understanding of the moral relationship between animals and humans.

[5] This argument is similar to the one Bernard Rollin’s (2006) offers (Chapter 4) in defense of moral consideration of animals.

[6] Devall and Sessions (1985) offer insightful commentary on Naess’ deep ecology.

[7] Callicott subsequently tempers his argument. See Callicott (1989, pp. 49–59).

[8] For Holmes’ complete argument, see Holmes (1988). The passages quoted in the text are from personal correspondence between Holmes and Hettinger.

[9] Philosopher Steve Sapontzis, an advocate of ethical vegetarianism, doesn’t shrink from the claim that his position entails an ethical obligation to do something about predation. We are morally obliged, he argues, “to prevent predation whenever we can do so without occasioning as much or more unjustified suffering than the predation would create” (Sapontzis 1987, p. 247). Peter Singer, on the other hand, isn’t so sure. “We may regret that this is the way the world is,” he writes, “but it makes no sense to hold nonhuman animals morally responsible” (Singer 2009, p. 232).