Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Ethical Arrogance of Vegetarianism and other Scolding Insights from Pleistocene Living

One of my first, perhaps not so bright, solutions to Irish environmental problems was to relocate all the peoples of Ireland west of the Shannon River, and restrict access to that rewilding environment only to those with a Bowie knife and a willingness to hunt for their food.  Not long after this musing of mine, a small clan of Irish broadcasters spent time in Connemara roughing it, and claimed, to national outrage, that they had slaughtered a lamb to survive (it is referred to in Ireland as the Lambo incident).  However, the idea that our abandoning, ten thousand years ago, of the primitive hunter-gatherer (H-G) lifestyle was unfortunate for ourselves and for the environment has been perennially part of environmental mainstream thought (versions run from at least Rousseau to David Abram).  The arguments were most forcefully articulated by the late Paul Shepard, an environmental writer and professor.  In this post I give a sketch of his argument on behalf of a renewal of the Pleistocene human in which he claims that that “secret person is undamaged in each of us and may be called forth by the most ordinary acts of life.”[1]

In his preface to The Only World We’ve Got a collection published in 1996, the year Paul Shepard died, we get a succinct overview of where this interdisciplinary environmental thinker’s work brought him.[2]  Or rather one might quip “to when” his thought brought him, for he was infamously nostalgic for Pleistocene times, dismissing the achievements of agriculture tartly in essays entitled Ten Thousand Years of Crisis, The Domesticators and so forth.  

I present a simple overview of Shepard’s work, reserving more extensive comment and critique for a later post.  I will however prefigure that critique by commenting that the degree to which one becomes more sanguine about our present moment and less convinced of the delights of Pleistocene living, thus diminishing the comparative tension between these two periods, the less one might incline towards wanting to going home to the Pleistocene, to paraphrase the thrust of his posthumously published book of essays. 

In summing up his life’s work Shepard remarked that all his adult life had been “marked by an allusion to the past”.  The reasons why were not, he confessed, clear to him, though this may have been, he conceded, because of “two kinds of inquietude”. One was a lament for the loss of the wild; the second was associated with his growing sense of his “distant ancestry”, meant in the sense of the legacy of our biological evolution.  There is a stark contrast between the catastrophes of the 20th Century and the three million years of the Pleistocene where “humankind was few in numbers, sensitive to the seasons and other life, humble in attitude towards the earth, and comfortable as one species among many.”  Assuming this to be the case, then the problems of overpopulation, alienation from nature, pollution, and biodiversity loss are all contemporary, that is, post agricultural, inventions.  Just as importantly for Shepard though, is the contention that the social milieu of the Pleistocene human community was more conducive to a healthy humanity.  Healthy social arrangements were “shaped by a life of hunting and gathering”, by the primordial human life-style of the Pleistocene; a lifestyle now abandoned by most of us.  This abandonment of our original lifestyle has reverberations for humans living today.  Our biology, Shepard assured us, is not a “tyranny” even though we are, he claimed, “whatever our DNA – in response to our environment – makes us.”

Our heritage as Pleistocene omnivores has consequences he claimed, and we still have the alimentary system to prove it.  To cultivate dietary habits, such as vegetarianism, that contravenes our hereditary omnivory is “a special form of arrogance masquerading as ethics”.  The killing of an animal, or a plant for that matter, requires, indeed cultivates, “the perception, acknowledgement, and finally, embrace of the hard truth as part of an affirmation of life.” 

Championing the Pleistocene life-style hits two snags Shepard conceded.  Firstly, it smacks of universalism, as he was informed by none other than Margaret Mead.  Apparently, like many of us would, Shepard dreamed about the perfect retort for years after his dressing down on this point by Mead.  So years later he says admitted that not all hunter-gathers are living the dream – Shepard acknowledged that there is variation in competencies and in the welfare of individual hunter-gathers.  But he reckons that the level of misery in modern cities, and the depredations of industrialism on the environment are comparatively worse.  His, it seems, was a statistical argument rather than one of universalism.

The second difficulty for Shepard (at least in his evaluation) is the reminder that no matter how much one touts the Pleistocene model “you can’t go back.”  The point worried him.  Again the retort came after a number of years: the Pleistocene model he said is not, in fact, a going back at all.  Our ancient genes have traveled into the Holocene (or is it now the Anthropocene?) with us.  Shepard was “ultimately asking that people change not their genes but their society, in order to harmonize with the inheritance they already have.”  For those of us that might find something attractive in this, the problem is how to do it.

The other pole of Shepard work is his trenchant criticism of the rise of agriculture.  And of course to criticize agriculture is to criticize civilization and ultimately urbanism.  Traditionally the story runs from the H-G lifestyle -> agriculture -> civilization -> cities, and has been related as a progressive tale.  The reality is the opposite said Shepard.  Agriculture was a disaster.  Shepard provides the litany of accusations.  Disastrous for individuals (quality of life deteriorated), and disastrous for human groups (we “graduated from homicide to war”; from hunger to population starvation).  Under agriculture we are more homogenous, subject to epidemics, and power went from group-centered decision making to empire. 

A foundational claim in Shepard’s work is that economies create their own mode of perceiving reality.  If annual crops are the basis of your economy you have an “amputated perspective on the future.”  The domestication of animals, that processes by which we made our animals pals dimwits, made dimwits of us all.  And with all of this comes the uncertainty of an agricultural civilization – will crops thrive, will the weather cooperate?  Our exorbitant happiness in the harvest and our consternation in failure makes a parent of the world that surrounds us (cruel or nourishing “Mother Nature”).  Apparently, this is not a healthy thing!  Shepard claimed it infantilized human thought.  Lest we fall victim to the myth of the “happy yeoman”, Shepard decried the patriarchal nature of herding societies where women are reduced to objects of ownership.

The legacies of agriculture are a set of viewpoints that are already so trenchant that they feel inevitable, although they are still in their infancy (10,000 years compared with the hundreds of thousands in the Pleistocene).  First, agriculture suggests the necessity of control: control of crops, of disease, of water etc.  And control maketh enemies of us all – to control nature is to see the beings of nature as adversaries.  Agriculture also suggests to us the premise of “limited good”, by which he meant that with domestication comes a sense of “the given world as insufficient for the wants and needs of people.”  Finally, agriculture brings with it the “myth of history”: the sense that change and time are “inextricably linear”.  Thus hunter-gatherer times are behind us; sealed off and independent.  “History”, Shepard says, “denies the earth as our true home and regards nonhuman life as incidental to human destiny.”  Significant crimes indeed if he is right.

Despite all of this – our disconnection in an agricultural and civilized economy – Shepard reminded us that “our spontaneous sense of connectedness to nonhuman life – itself positive and not fearful – should make us feel at home on the earth.”  He invited us on a “journey beneath the veneer of civilization” which would bring us a “recollection of a good birth, a rich plant and animal environment, the reception of food as a gift rather than as a product.”  The Pleistocene human lurking within us may recall “how to dance the animal, know the strengths of clan membership and the profound claims and liberation of daily rites of thanksgiving”.  Now that is a consoling thought.

[1] Shepard, Paul (1996) A Paul Shepard Reader: The Only World We’ve Got Sierra Club Book, p xx
[2] Shepard, ix-xx.


  1. Several thoughts (from an arrogant vegetarian-- or maybe it's just the heat): (1) Mr Shepard, in his early writings, seems to be evoking the noble savage (a big no no, no?) (2) Omnivores—can, not must, eat meat (3) Maybe Shepard could have use an article by Holling or Berkes, introducing him to SESs —and I'd ask him, What is ecologically possible today, given the social constraints, and vice versa? (4) Yesterday you said "Shepard was “ultimately asking that people change not their genes but their society, in order to harmonize with the inheritance they already have.” For those of us that might find something attractive in this, the problem is how to do it." Continuing to follow the evolution bent, I ask- will what works for you work for me? Variation is the cornerstone of LIFE! (Dude woah.). (5) If we are dependent on good weather for the success of crops, aren’t we also dependent on good weather and successful crops for the availability of animals? If the argument is statistical, it seems to me that plants are a simpler, more efficient, more intimate use of the earth's resources?

  2. Of course it not hard to see "noble savage" themes at play here, but its a rhetorical pin puncturing an awfully big balloon. We does not need to be too much of a romantic (and Shepard was a professional romantic) to accept some of the reevaluation of H-G stuff over the past couple of generations. Some of those studies at least seem to confirm that omnivory on a wide variety of plants and animals is statistically pretty reliable. (Yesterday's example of Irish pastorists on the neolithic bears out your point, but he is not, of course, talking about pastoralism, he is concerned with H-G nomadism)

    Variation is the cornerstone of life, but to recall Ford, you can have any color car you like as long as its black. Where's the choice in a world of Murdochs?

    Don't get me wrong; I am as you know an urban ecologist, and I would currently dead from a malfunctioning heart valve back in the day, but I think our challenge may be to see where Shepardism is coming from (not in my humble only a matter of noble savagism) and then see what we can do with this.

    After all, Shepard ends up saying that he was kindof stumped by the "what next" question.