An Ethic of Food = An Ethic of Care

May 2, 2016

“A movement toward ethically responsible eating is a means of directly subverting the industries of capitalism that perpetuate injustices upon humans and nonhumans alike.  Choosing to opt out of the conditioned mode of unconscious eating is a position of ecological activism.”

Third Spaces

I recently read an intriguing article — “Process Theology and Food” by Leana Rosen and Jay McDaniel — that discusses the concept of “third spaces,” or liminal spaces that allow the cohabitation of seemingly conflicting worldviews, religions, ideologies, etc.  Rosen and McDaniel explain that sharing a meal can act as a third space, creating a trans-religious ground upon which people with moral differences can open to one other and even internalize aspects of the so-called “Other.”  Perhaps it is simply sharing mealtime in conviviality, as Rosen and McDaniel offer in their piece, that cultivates this place of merging and tolerance: “People can agree or disagree on doctrines and moral codes, but they can still eat together, and in the very eating they establish relationships of trust, and sometimes even joy, which become springboards for mutual care.”

While I love this idea, and agree that sharing food can certainly dissolve boundaries and unify, it seems to me that the two parties, say an atheist and a Christian, must acknowledge some sort of trans-religious ethic or belief about the meal in order for the third space to work its magic.  For a meal of food that does not represent a transparent ethic of care and awareness, should likely not be (and perhaps cannot be) the foundation upon which the third space is constellated.

In other words, while a global multiplicity of philosophical, spiritual, and cultural beliefs is both natural and healthy, I want to stress the importance — within the third space — of some universal agreement(s) upon which this diversity may intercommunicate and thrive.  And in this case of sharing a meal, an ethical agreement regarding food is essential.

An Ethic of Food

One of the main reasons that I decided to create this blog was to explore an ethic of food comprehensive enough to include the well-being of humans, non-humans, and the biosphere at large.

When considering a largely uncontested universal value to lay the foundation of an ethic of food, compassion or “mutual care,” comes to mind.  Despite disagreements among the various cultural and religious belief systems of modern times, most support compassion as a primary virtue.  Of course, there is no certainty that this ideal will become an applied reality.  Compassion is tricky — it must first be experience to be believed.  While all human beings are likely born with some innate sense of empathy, the cultural conditioning that most Westerners receive today all too often substitutes a spiritual container of compassion for the values of capitalism (e.g. competition, greed, power, and individualism).  The inherent disposition for care is carved out and filled with an incessant drive for needless success and progress.

“The world doesn’t need more ‘successful people.’ The world desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”  ~Dalai Lama~

When compassion is lost to a myopic capitalist vision of endless growth, it becomes easy to accept practices that objectify nonhuman animals for the sake of business and convenience.  When funneled into an economic system that values profit above all else, what are they beyond commercial goods and commodities?

I have a rather sad story that reflects the influence of capitalism and its subsequent affect on compassion in the modern Western psyche.  For a year and a half, I frequented Tilden Regional Park just north of Berkeley, CA.  The trail heads began just beyond a nature center that sat adjacent to a small farm, aptly called, “Little Farm”.  Before a long hike, I would visit the animals: cows, goats, pigs, chickens, and ducks, spending time with them and trying to understand their situation.  Sure, they’re much better off than livestock in a factory farm, but I couldn’t help wondering if they were happy in their fabricated role as pseudo-farm spectacles for the entertainment of the human onlooker.  Innocuously confined at a glance, but how did they feel about their cages and pens?

What arrested my attention, however, was not so much the state of the farm but the behavior of the onlookers.  As I gazed curiously at a large sow grazing the cement for remnants of fallen grain, I heard a startling call from across the pen, “Hey! Get over here, you big piece of bacon!”  My head swung in a flurry to the source of this rather scowling remark.  A little boy, no more than eight years old, feverishly beckoned the sow to come to him at once.  I was astounded.  The first thought this child had of the animal was of her objectified status as a piece of bacon for eating, not as a living being with thoughts, emotions, sensations, and a family…

The child, of course, cannot be blamed in this case, as he is simply reflecting a modern worldview of anthropocentrism and existential alienation that has largely forgotten the inherent beauty of not only ourselves but of nonhuman beings and life in general.  This disconnection from life is supported by (and perhaps grounded in) a dearth in spiritually compassionate narratives that situate ourselves and our animal brothers and sisters in a caring cosmos.  By and large the main story that guides modern civilization is one of neoliberal capitalism, which provides little in the way of morality or a compassionate acknowledgment of other beings and our inextricable connection with them.

Without this awareness, it is no surprise that we often treat life with such unconsciousness carelessness.

Moral Obligation & Ecological Harmony

Holding respectfully the array of diverse worldviews, we need to agree upon a fundamental ethic of care that extends beyond oneself to other humans, to plants and animals, and to the planet.  The applicability of this unifying ethic of care is so obviously possible in our shared relationship with the foods we choose to consume.  We can start caring for the earthlings of this planet immediately by changing how we relate to food… We can share meals grounded in an ethic of care that allow the magical merging state of the third space to open around us.

Once you become aware of the massive impact our food choices have on nearly every aspect of life on Earth, it becomes irrefutably clear that we desperately need a revitalized moral conscience when it comes to our eating habits.  Because nourishment by food is shared by not just all humans, but literally all beings of life, I believe that a solid ethic of food could be both revolutionary and unifying, creating a foundation for a third space that holds a diversity of belief systems.  A movement toward ethically responsible eating is a means of directly subverting the industries of capitalism that perpetuate injustices upon humans and nonhumans alike.  Choosing to opt out of the conditioned mode of unconscious eating is a position of ecological activism.

And how might we bring some semblance of moral obligation into our daily food choices?  Too much of how we eat is driven by addiction, unconscious patterning, or an inaccessibility to proper food education (a reality that necessitates the support of under-served and marginalized populations of the planet — check out my post “Food & Privilege” to read more).  The planet and its endless panoply of interweaving streams of life are not considered in our day to day food choices.  The sloth, on the other hand, need not consider moral obligation, as he lives in ecological harmony — in the enmeshment of the third space — embodying an innate respect and symbiotic reciprocity for his planetary environment.  Harmony.  Perhaps as beings of this world we have a moral obligation to ecological harmony.

“We can share meals grounded in an ethic of care that allow the magical merging state of the third space to open around us.”

Next time you sit down for a meal, consider the beings (animal or plant) that went into the food you are about to consume.  Imagine the lives they led, their families, and how they may have left this world to end up on your plate.  Consider all the combined processes that were necessary for this meal to exist and their subsequent impact upon the health of the planet.  Is it just another unconscious decision, or is it a meal ethically grounded in compassion with the capacity to foster a third space, honoring, supporting, and encouraging the diversity of life.



“Why I’m a Pro-Intersectional Animal Advocate by Casey Taft, PhD”

April 22, 2016

You can be hard-pressed to find a blog about veganism — or food in general — exploring anything beyond recipes… beyond the simple, sensory pleasures of food.  We’ve become rather infatuated with food at a superficial level, one that often does not see beyond the tastes and presentation.  But what sorts of complexities lie just underneath the sensory veneer?  What lives and stories are contained within the foods we eat?

My last post spoke to how food (and its availability) can shape our social identities.  So, I started searching around for more on this topic, for more who are interested in the deeper layers of food, identity, society, and power.  I stumbled upon a fascinating piece from Vegan Publishers

Vegan Publishers
 that addresses these relationships while also including a compassionate awareness of animals.

The post is an excerpt taken from the publisher’s founder Casey Taft’s book Motivational Methods for Animal Advocacy: A Clinical Psychology Perspective  and explores the intersectionality of seemingly disparate, yet equally oppressed, demographics, explaining the ways in which oppressed populations (including nonhuman animals) share a similar core reality: “At the root of speciesism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homo- and trans-antagonism, and other “isms” is the notion that some individuals are “lesser” than others.”

In order to address one level of oppression, we must address them all.

If you are at all interested in animal advocacy and diving deeper into the interconnected reality of oppression, I highly recommend reading in full Casey Taft’s blog post “Why I’m a Pro-Intersectional Animal Advocate by Casey Taft, PhD”



Food & Privilege

April 13, 2016

The last week and half since my first post has been full of both positive affirmations and humbling reminders of my own blind-spots regarding the very topics I want to discuss.  On that account, before I begin, I want to thank all who shared feedback in a constructive manner — I have taken your words to heart and am illuminated by your awareness, insight, and care.

While the denigrating effects of animal agriculture on our precious planet are undeniable, it is important to understand the intricacies of the problem and how a complex modern culture with a spectrum of advantages and disadvantages might consciously respond.   So, with the next few posts, I hope to acknowledge a collection of truths that arose this past week in conversation with family and friends.

“Food choices are influenced and constrained by cultural values and are an important part of the construction and maintenance of social identity. In that sense, food has never merely been about the simple act of pleasurable consumption—food is history, it is culturally transmitted, it is identity. Food is power.”

Excerpt taken from:

As a white American male, I need to be highly aware of my personal privilege in a world crippled by severe social, racial, gender, and sexual inequality.  The systemic injustices that pervade modern civilization are corrosive to the unity of humanity as a species of life, and I perpetuate this division by not recognizing my own privilege and by not speaking the whole truth about, in this case, food.  The freedom, or lack there of, regarding food options can be either empowering or dis-empowering — a reality that is often ignored in modern society.

The truth is that veganism — or a plant-based diet — is not possible (or at least incredibly difficult) for a large portion of not just the U.S. but the entire world.  Touting an “ism” in such a way can be dangerous, further polarizing an already disjointed culture of food and hindering the cultivation of a paradigm of conscious eating — the very thing I want to support!

For those who are oppressed based on race and socio-economic status often live in areas with very few options for food or proper education that might help residents make better choices.  The economic system perpetuates this mass inequality, contributing to concentrations of food accessibility in affluent areas and vast “food deserts” in impoverished ones.  In fact, some studies report that only 8% of African Americans live near one or more grocery stores compared to 31% of White Americans.  Aside from obvious health-related consequences, this statistic quantitatively reflects who is valued in society and who is not.  In other words, quality and availability of food contributes to the constitution of one’s social identity.

Yesterday, a friend of mine shared his experience of life in rural Michigan.  For many in these areas, the local fried chicken joint and liquor store are the primary sources of sustenance… In fact, for First Nations citizens living on reservations throughout the United States, this is all too often the case.  I have witnessed first hand the abysmal reality of food in the reservations of Northern Wisconsin: convenience stores allocating the equivalent of a refrigerator shelf to rotting produce.  The effects of colonialism remain like hardened ripples from the original shockwave— a force that stripped peoples of their land, subsequently damaging their relationship to and knowledge about food in their bio-region(s), their homes.  In turn, the identity of indigenous humans has suffered in accordance with this severance from sustenance.  When one’s relationship to food is taken away, their power and identity go with it.

All of this suggests that the “responsibility” of healthy eating does not rest solely on the individual, despite what our governments and medical institutions promulgate on the daily.  How can one make an educated decision regarding food, taking into account other humans, animals, and the planet when these institutions evade responsibility and deny any accountability to the subjugated reality of so many under-served citizens?  It becomes insensitive and careless to suggest that these citizens follow a vegan diet.  A dearth in available food choices coupled with a lack of education maintained by a system of greed and power does not support a lifestyle of healthy eating, let alone full conversion to a plant-based diet.

Veganism is supposed to be a philosophy of care and compassion.  But if the existing structures of power are not acknowledged, questioned, and engaged, then spreading an ideal of conscious, plant-based eating that requires a special context (i.e. wealth, accessibility of options, and food education) likely available to the privileged alone is simply another embodiment of the same dominating force that it pretends to subvert.

Considering the global impact of our food choices, I do strongly support the drastic reduction, and perhaps near elimination, of meat, dairy, and eggs for the benefit of our bodies and the planet; however, the influence of systemic injustice on the availability of making this decision cannot be ignored.  I hope to address this serious issue in future posts, bringing to light both the benefits of a plant-based diet as well as the hurdles standing in the way of this option being made available to those who are interested but live in under-resourced, underprivileged areas.  If food is power, than it is about time that food be returned to the people…





Plan(e)t-Based Alchemy

March 24, 2016

Alchemists of old were spirit seekers, mad scientists experimenting ways to purify prima materia — to distill divinity from within the crude matter of the physical world.  The Philosopher’s Stone, they called it.  The search for God within nature.  Though seemingly material in its complexion, the foundation of this practice was essentially spiritual, reflecting within it the plight to purify the human soul.  The encrypted, and rather mystical, nature of alchemy’s linguistics allow for this translation.  Perhaps the entire enterprise itself was a materially symbolic ritual: the raw matter of Earth as tools emblematic of the transmutation and ultimate evolution of body, mind, and spirit…

Today the practice is largely lost, though its influence continues to shape the psycho-spiritual field of modern society.  It is within the containment of this alchemical metaphor that I am compelled to explore the ethical, ecological, and psycho-spiritual implications of the human diet.  That’s right, food.  Of the many things in this world that need purifying, food and our relationship to it is certainly high on the list.

In the same way that C. G. Jung resurrected alchemy’s concepts and linguistics through his mytho-psychological inquiry,  I also want to play with the narrative, exchanging some of the components for those representing how we eat and consequently relate to the planet.  My interest is not entirely different from the original alchemists, but imagine we substitute our foods in place of alchemy’s heavy metals; instead of glass tubes, boilers, and laboratory tools, we wield knives, forks, pots, pans, and our bodily vessels.  Imagine the transformative potential of recognizing the spiritual nature within food and what sorts of implications this might have on our bodies, minds, and the planet.  Maybe tuning ourselves through conscious eating is a lost key to deeper spiritual awareness and divine communion.

In a time of planetary crisis, may we ask ourselves these questions: What are the ecological implications of the foods we eat?  In what way is food the interface through which the human body meets and is inextricably connected to the planet body?  How is our relationship with food holographic, reflecting within it our relationship with the entire cosmos?   Can we all be plan(e)t alchemists, transforming and purifying our bodies with food for the betterment of not just humanity but for all of life, the Earth, and beyond?

So, why the emphasis on plants?  Well, here it is: this is a vegan blog.  

While a case may be made for the evolutionary importance of meat in early human survival and subsequent brain development  — an argument suggesting that a shift to an omnivorous diet may have catalyzed the emergence of reflective consciousness — our primate ancestors were incontrovertibly herbivorous (cannibalistic on occasion, yes, but only out of necessity) and therefore the modern human is more than capable of not only surviving but thriving on a plant-based diet.

“Of the many things in this world that need purifying, food and our relationship to it is certainly high on the list.”

But why, you ask?  We love our meat, dairy, and eggs.  Why give them up?  Consider this: Big-Ag and Animal Factory Farming, the corporate juggernauts currently dominating the global population’s access to food — the nourishment that fuels our life force — are ruthless industries culpable for the negligent and truly horrendous treatment of domesticated animals and our precious ecosystems.  Animal Agriculture on its own is now the primary cause of ocean dead zones, habitat destruction, desertification, deforestation, and global warming, accounting for more than half of all carbon and methane emissions (see a comprehensive list here).  The resulting ecological devastation is not up for debate, it is fact.  And perhaps modern civilization’s most tragic blindspot regarding food production: the absolutely inexcusable cruelty to animals, without which there would be no culture of heavy meat eating.  Prison-like cages, chemical/antibiotic injections, intentional physical and emotional abuse, brutal slaughtering practices; the list goes on…

Aside from animal rights campaigns, why aren’t we talking about this?!

Well I suppose some are, advocating for more “ethical” and “humane” practices of animal food production, e.g., pasture raised, grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, etc.  But now we’re back to the question of planetary sustainability, because if even a modest percentage of meat eaters in the world switched to “humane” animal products, there wouldn’t be enough land on the Earth to accommodate the transition, creating an entirely new ethical dilemma.  More importantly, is there any moral justification in raising an animal for the sole purpose of killing her for food?  Sure carnivorousness is an essential reality for some animals, but a cheetah doesn’t imprison an antelope for her entire life prior to making her a meal.

A final and noteworthy consideration regarding the adoption of a plant-based diet are the health related associations.  More and more research evidence is pouring out in favor of ditching meat, dairy, and eggs for better cholesterol levels, diminished risk of heart disease and diabetes, stronger bones, healthier skin, fluid digestion, etc. (see T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, as well as the research of Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, and Dr. Neal Barnard).  But even beyond the body, what might the effects of true physical health have on our spiritual awareness (see Gabriel Cousen’s Spiritual Nutrition and Conscious Eating)?  I appreciate the image of a human being as divine, cosmic antenna.  What sort of reception are we capable of picking up if we purify our bodies and minds with nourishing and ethically responsible food choices?

So, what is holding us back from a healthier diet and overall lifestyle?  A combination of outdated/limited research on nutrition, pleasure-seeking, convenience-at-all-costs attitudes, and an overall apathy for life stand in the way.  Generally speaking, the reigning reductionist, anthropocentric paradigm.  We must opt for a more holistic, compassionate, and inclusive worldview; one that recognizes the spiritual essence within the sacrament of food as life, inviting a revivified consciousness that respects the processes (including the people, animals, and ecosystems within) through which the raw materials and lifeforms of Earth become our bodies and beyond.  In short: honoring the divine transaction that occurs when a life is necessarily lost and assimilated in service of more life — an awareness critical to many indigenous spiritualities across the world.  By elucidating spirit in this way, our behaviors and attitudes toward not only food but all of life can and will change…

While it is true that that animal foods (meat, dairy, and eggs) embody this same divine consciousness, the means through which they are produced are appalling and clearly acts of violence, negligence, and aggrandized hedonism, indicating a profound forgetfulness of life’s inherent sacredness.  And with a proper recognition and honoring of death largely absent in Western society, a ritual-minded attitude toward the production of food is virtually non-existent, leaving the death of billions and billions of animal lives a year unacknowledged.  If in a very real way “you are what we eat,” then I am deflated when imagining the implications of consuming food produced through this spiritually vacuous process…

“Can we all be plan(e)t alchemists, transforming and purifying our bodies with food for the betterment of not just ourselves but for all of life, the planet, and beyond?”

Perhaps our language is partly to blame.  “Manufacture,” “produce,” “consume.”  These are strong and active words that elicit and perpetuate a mentality of manipulation and power-over.  What if we were to prepare, share, and receive food as nourishment into our bodies?  How might this affect our dietary choices or our relationship to the lives necessarily lost, the beings (whether plant or animal) sacrificed in service of nourishing our bodies?  I am urged to share my thoughts and feelings concerning such provocative and seemingly threatening topics from a yin perspective of receptivity and awareness, opting for a transition to more appropriate language.  Because the truth of the matter is this: humanity has placed a blind-eye upon food, from the initial process of production/preparation to its subsequent assimilation into the body; and even deeper, to the comprehensive reality of receiving food as Earth’s holy sacrament.  The consequences have been ecologically devastating, terminally dangerous to our health, and ethically and spiritually negligent.

Yet, I still believe without question that humanity’s innate disposition is to eventually organize in such a way as to invite the health and transformation of body, mind, and spirit.  The foods we choose to prepare and receive are instrumental in re-enchanting the sacredness of sustenance while reflecting back to the Earth that which she has so graciously provided for us.  With an awareness of the consciousness within all things, we can have an engaged relationship with the foods we take into our bodies — one of physical vitality, spiritual clarity, and ethical reciprocity.  Throughout this inquiry, I want always to remember criticism as a tool, and that hopeful optimism is my primary drive.

With plan(e)t alchemy as metaphorical container for this transformative process of acknowledging, receiving, evolving, and becoming the divine within life and ourselves, we will explore together the interconnected realms of food, planet, psyche, and spirit.  Some of the unanswered questions and unpacked comments posed above will find further elaboration in future posts, so I invite you to return weekly, post comments, and please join the conversation!



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