I’ve been decreasing the amount of red meat I consume for years, with my consumption basically reaching zero over the past year. Reflecting on a thought-provoking Princeton University lecture series on Food, Ethics, and the Environment, and an aside on the “size of animal souls” in Douglas Hofstadter’s fascinating book I am a Strange Loop, I decided to make it official and swear it off altogether, including all mammal meat, red or not.

It took a confluence of three factors to bring me to the decision to deliberately curb my carnivorous habits beyond the already internalized social norms (such as abstaining from domestic animals), so I thought I’d take a moment to record my reasoning.

1. Health

I had begun decreasing my consumption of red meat primarily for health reasons. While I was swayed by the research associating its intake with with heart disease and cancer, it was probably more an attempt to restrict caloric intake to lose fat than disease prevention that drove my earliest restrictions. However delicious my standby favorites of patty melt and Reuben sandwiches tasted, they were loaded with calories that were edging me toward obesity. Combined with the increased health risks, I moderated my consumption more than a decade ago and shifted to a greater proportion of leaner meat dishes.

2. Environment

Increasing environmental awareness led to a second decrease in red meat consumption. Transportation, housing, and food choices comprise about equally 70-80% of our individual environmental impact (EIPRO, 2003). Among food choices, the most land, water, & energy efficient, lowest environmental impact diet is clearly vegan, with red meat eating on the opposite end of the scale. Within meat consumption, water use, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions fall into a clear continuum, with beef, fish, pork, lamb taking 2-20X the energy to raise per calorie provided than eggs, dairy products, and poultry. The spread of energy efficiency is an order of magnitude greater when compared with pure plant foods (Eshel & Martin, 2005).

While I believe that a truly sustainable agriculture does include animal husbandry (ruminants turn marginal “unproductive” grasslands into human-usable calories and fertilize the fields to boot), the fossil-fuel intensive, corn-fed, antibiotic & hormone abusing, methane-belching, toxic manure heap, factory farm Meatrix we have created is clearly unsustainable, with the raising of large mammals solely for the purpose of meat consumption topping the list of offending practices.

3. Ethics

The final factor precipitating my decision to remove mammal meat from my diet is the ethical qualm I have developed regarding eating higher animals. On the one hand, as an evolved omnivore, I consider meat eating natural. On the other hand, I recognize that not everything natural is best. While I have not deliberated deeply the moral status of animals, a few salient points stand out from casual consideration. First, it appears to me that all animals have developed enough nervous systems to be capable of suffering. Second, some animals have more developed nervous systems than others.

The first point is of significance only insofar as animals suffer in the process of coming to my plate and to the extent that one considers suffering bad. On the latter point, I side with the Buddha. From what I’ve learned of factory farms, especially the lives of pigs and poultry, who live their entire lives in cages too small to turn around in, I believe significant suffering is involved. That’s not necessarily an indictment of eating meat, but clearly an condemnation of our current factory farm system, and one that has prompted me to switch to cage-free eggs and hope for a systemic turn to what Michael Pollan has clumsily termed “humanocarnivorism“.

The second point is more crucial to the fundamental question of whether it’s morally acceptable to eat meat at all. To my mind, the issues are complex and the questions often disturbing. After all, what makes it acceptable to eat a pig but not a dog or a cat? They’re all domesticated. The pig is thought to be as intelligent as the dog and some people do keep them for pets. What’s the dividing line beyond arbitrary social convention? I’m not sure.

For myself, I’ve decided to draw a new dividing line at the class mammalia. I’m not convinced that meat is murder. (If I were starving, I’d certainly consume a cow or any other mammal to survive, but I don’t see the likelihood of having to realize that value judgment.) However, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of eating higher animals simply for taste, because I see in them a gradation of moral standing less than the personhood of humans but greater than neurologically lesser developed animals. The value imbued in these creatures lies in the increasing interiority, the inner space of self-aware experience, described by philosopher Ken Wilber, which I see as coextensive with the inherent increasing value-in-the-world Robert Pirsig ascribes to evolutionary advancement.

I sense a slippery slope in this reasoning, so I don’t know that this dividing line will stop at a moratorium on mammals, but for now I’ll say so long to burgers & bacon and limit myself to edible aquatic animals and those delicious descendants of dinosaurs, chickens & turkeys. (Does than make me a dinosaurivore … ?)