Friday, September 17, 2010

Jonathan Safran Foer at NYU

Last night I was lucky enough to get into the Jonathan Safran Foer reading and Q & A for his book Eating Animals, held at NYU's Rosenthal Pavilion, Kimmel Center for University Life. It was hosted by NYU's Creative Writing Department where JSF actually teaches. As a book geek and a vegetarian, I really enjoyed listening to him discuss fiction v. nonfiction and why he wrote a book about vegetarianism and factory farming.

Eating Animals is JSF's third book and first non-fiction piece. Essentially, the book lays out the damages inflicted by factory farming. His previous two books are amazingly beautiful, critically acclaimed novels that you should also look into reading (Everything is Illuminated is one of my favorite books ever). At the event, he discussed how nonfiction writing was very difficult for him and how he found the process very restrictive and taxing. He said that with nonfiction he had to write with a purpose--a specific end goal. This was very unlike the process of writing fiction, for him. He finds fiction writing to be a freeing, open process because he believes fiction can exist just for its own sake. He said he doubts he'll write another nonfiction book again but that he didn't choose this topic or write his book because he's an animal lover or feels it's the most important political topic. JSF was not preachy. He explained that it took him several years before he could commit to a vegetarian diet and that he began working on his book out of curiosity about factory farming. After 3 years of research and writing, JSF published Eating Animals in an attempt to unveil some of the secrecy behind factory farming.

Although I haven't finished reading his book, I enjoyed JSF rational discussion about the destruction caused by the meat industry. Beyond the obvious unethical treatment of animals is another moral dilemma less discussed: factory farming is a massive contributor to global warming. As JSF stated, factory farming has rapidly changed the face of our planet. Not only does it create an insane amount of greenhouse gases but it wastes crops and changes landscapes. There's also the issue of an unhealthy product. The mass production/slaughter of animals, which live and die in inhumane, filthy conditions, often creates toxic meat. Just consider how often we have meat recalled due to some kind of infectious outbreak. The USDA seems conflicted about siding with the consumer or a national industry that makes so much money and stimulates the economy. JSF also raised another great political point: the misconception that vegetarianism and anti-factory farming sentiments are radical or leftist. He argued that it is actually conservative to want to go back to small farming and (beyond political labels) just a matter of health and humaneness to care about the current state of factory farming.

I encourage you all to go buy a copy of Eating Animals. And not because I'm trying to convince you all to become strict vegetarians or because I think it covers the most important political issue. Trust me, I'm not the poster child for vegetarianism or animal rights. I'm also concerned with a vast array of political issues outside this one. I want you to pick up this book because I really believe we should all question the current state of factory farming. We should become better informed of the methods used to provide us meat. We should hold this large, wealthy industry accountable for the effects their methods and products have on our bodies and our planet.

Let me end on two notes, paraphrased from JSF's discussion. Firstly, for most of us urban, middle class citizens becoming a vegetarian is easy. At the very least, it's easy to cut down your meat consumption. We have lots of access to nutritious foods that aren't meat. Vegetables, fruits, and beans are also cheaper than meat and we don't have to go to expensive, organic grocery stores to procure them. It's difficult to always know where your food is coming from (meat or not) but it's pretty easy to just not eat meat (or eat less of it). It's one small, simple way to help our planet. Secondly, the current state of factory farming is an important humanitarian and environmentalist issue that deserves attention just like any other global issue. As Jonathan Safran Foer beautifully stated, caring is a rare commodity that increases the more we use it. So you can continue to care about or be active in fighting other sociopolitical/environmental issues and still find room to educate yourself and concern yourself with the effects of factory farming and the benefits of vegetarianism (or less meat-eating). And I recommend you begin with Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. Trust me, it'll be far better than going to PETA.