Reconsider the Lobster (And the Cow, And the Pig)

Photo credit: Jamie McCaffery on Flickr
Just over a decade ago, David Foster Wallace’s iconic essay “Consider the Lobster” was published in Gourmet magazine. His assignment was rather routine: attend the 56th Annual Maine Lobster Festival, then write about it. However, neither the editors of Gourmet nor the publication’s readers were quite ready to consume what DFW had in store for them. The essay did, in fact, cover the Maine Lobster Festival. Yet Wallace’s description of live boiling lobsters and the ethical issues connected to their consumption were more than enough to catch readers off-guard.

Time goes on, though, and even iconic essays are relegated to the archives. This is especially, and even painfully, true when the author is no longer producing work (RIP DFW). Yet the ethical dilemmas Wallace explores in “Consider the Lobster” are no less relevant today than they were in 2004. It’s high time we reconsider the lobster, as well as the consumption of all animals.

Wallace isn’t shy when pointing out the reason why lobsters are often hailed as “the freshest food there is.” The animal is alive right up until the time a chef plops it in a pot of boiling water, inevitably leading to a slow and painful death. This leads him to ask, “Is it right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” While this question is most definitely valid, I would like to further expand it and challenge: Is it right to kill any sentient creature just for our gustatory pleasure?

Many argue that eating meat is “natural” and even try to put an evolutionary spin on it with the excuse of “that’s what canine teeth are for” (oddly enough, those same people like to ignore science when asked about the health effects of meat consumption). Meat proponents may even argue that eating a plant-based diet is a matter of class, yet fail to recognize that beans are exponentially cheaper and longer-lasting than a pound of beef (or chicken, or pork). For the majority of the western world, eating animals boils (for lack of a better term) down to a choice made in the supermarket aisle or on the restaurant menu. Just as Wallace said, the question is often of our own selfish pleasure.

A point worth considering is the nomenclature associated with the consumption of different types of meat. Seafood such as lobster, shrimp, and catfish are called such whether we see them at the beach or on the plate. Poultry, too, shares this quality as chicken and turkey are the same across the board. However, a different privilege is afforded to mammals. Instead of Susie Homemaker announcing there’s cow for dinner, she refers to it as steak, or beef, or however else she’s fashioned the carcass for her family’s dining experience. Rather than reading pig on the sales flyer, one might see pork loin or bacon. Of course, these names denote various cuts of meat from the animal and therefore affect taste, but they also serve another function. These names distance us from what we’re actually consuming. They allow for emotional detachment. Most importantly, they allow us to avoid the ethical questions which come along with consuming beings so biologically similar to us.

It’s no earth-shattering news that food is intimately connected to national culture. What is commonly consumed in one country may be deemed barbaric in another.

In some Asian countries, eating dog is common. In the United States, it is without a doubt animal cruelty. Recently, California outlawed foie gras, which translates to “fattened liver.” In order to produce this delicacy, a duck or goose is forcibly fed pounds of grain and fat multiple times a day via a pipe shoved down its throat. Its liver subsequently enlarges to ten times its normal size, which, as you can imagine, results in severe mobility issues. On top of that, eating several perverted variations of cow is common in the United States. In the prominently-Hindu country of India, however, cows are considered to be holy animals and absolutely do not belong on the dinner table. The question here is, where does one draw the line? How does one draw the line? What makes one species worth more than another?  

Rather than waste time on questions of worth, it seems far more efficient to consider what we know to be true: all animals feel pain. In his account of the Maine Lobster Festival, David Foster Wallace explains what Dick, the rental car guy, believes: “There’s a part of the brain in people and animals that lets us feel pain, and lobsters’ brains don’t have this part.” Wallace quickly follows this up by saying this statement is wrong in “about eleven different ways,” and he is most certainly right.

We know without a doubt that animals exhibit preferences. When a lobster is submerged in boiling water, it clanks around in the pot, sometimes hooking a claw over the side in a feeble effort to escape. Likewise, cows in slaughterhouses actively avoid being manhandled by workers and dragged to their demise. Chickens in sheds run away from workers who are sent to round them up for slaughter. Pigs squeal in agony after being shocked with stun guns prior to being sent to the scalding tank. When given the choice of being killed or not, it certainly seems like an animal would choose the latter.

This is not just about the animals, either. The effects of meat consumption reach far beyond the relationship between us and what lies on our plates. What we choose to eat affects the environment, and even our fellow humans. In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations flagged the livestock industry one of the chief causes of climate change, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. The industry emits more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation and is the largest sectoral source of water pollutants.

A potentially more alarming impact of the livestock industry is that on other humans. It’s obvious that pigs in a slaughterhouse would prefer not to be rounded up and murdered en masse, yet rarely is consideration given to the worker who must do this in order to earn a living wage. Factory farm workers are routinely exploited for the sake of our “gustatory pleasure” and often endure inhumane treatment from their employers. An estimated 38 percent of workers are undocumented as a result of being lured to the U.S. by company recruiters. Meatpacking is considered the most dangerous factory job based on death-related injuries, and the rate of suicide and domestic abuse is four times higher in counties with slaughterhouses. Workdays are 10+ hours long, pay is less than $25k/year, and workers often forgo bathroom breaks under pressure to work quickly. It’s important to consider the fact that animals aren’t processed by their own devices.

Going meatless sounds drastic to many. Lifelong omnivores may envision hordes of weak flower children, whereas some may simply see a life of restriction and shattered tradition. Truth be told, it is none of these things. It is a series of conscious, ethical choices. It comes as a result of considering not only lobsters, but cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, trees, oceans, people whom you’ll never meet, and people who haven’t been born yet. It is a matter of both personal and public responsibility, and a choice not to cause more harm than necessary. So consider this: What’s stopping you from leading a more conscious life?

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