Flesh-Eating and Human Decimation
Excerpted from Vegetable Diet, New York: Fowlers & Wells, 1848, pp. 263-265
Political economists tell us that the produce of an acre of land in wheat, corn, potatoes, and other vegetables, and in fruits, will sustain animal life sixteen times as long as when the produce of the same acre is converted into flesh, by feeding and fattening animals upon it.
But, if we admit that this estimate is too high, and if the real difference is only eight to one, instead of sixteen to one, the results may perhaps surprise us; and if we have not done it before, may lead us to reflection. Let us see what some of them are.
The people of the United States are believed to eat, upon the average, an amount of animal food equal to one whole meal once a day, and those of Great Britain one in two days. But taking this estimate to be correct, Great Britain, by substituting vegetable for animal food, might sustain forty-nine instead of twenty-one millions of inhabitants, and the United States sixty-six millions instead of twenty; and this, too, in their present comfort, and without clearing up any more new land. Here, then, we are consuming that unnecessarily—if animal food is unnecessary—which would sustain seventy-nine millions of human beings in life, health, and happiness.
Now, if life is a blessing at all—if it is a blessing to twenty-two millions in Great Britain, and twenty millions in the United States—then to add to this population an increase of seventy-nine millions, would be to increase, in the same proportion, the aggregate of human happiness. And if, in addition to this, we admit the very generally received principle, that there is a tendency, from the nature of things, in the population of any country, to keep up with the means of support, we, of Great Britain and America, keep down, at the present moment, by flesh-eating, sixty-three millions of inhabitants.
We do not destroy them, in the full sense of the term, it is true, for they never had an existence. But we prevent their coming into the possession of a joyous and happy existence; and though we have no name for it, is it not a crime? What! No crime for thirty-five millions of people to prevent and preclude the existence of sixty-three millions?
I see no way of avoiding the force of this argument, except by denying the premises on which I have founded my conclusions. But they are far more easily denied than disproved. The probability, after all, is that my estimates are too low, and that the advantages of an exclusively vegetable diet, in a national or political point of view, are even greater than is here represented. I do not deny, that some deduction ought to be made on account of the consumption of fish, which does not prevent the growth or use of vegetable products; but my belief is, that, including them, the animal food we use amounts to a great deal more than one meal a day, or one third of our whole living.
Suppose there was no crime in shutting human beings out of existence by flesh-eating, at the amazing rate I have mentioned— still, is it not, I repeat it, a great national or political loss? Or, will it be said, in its defence, as has been said in defence of war, if not of intemperance and some of the forms of licentiousness, that as the world is, it is a blessing to keep down its population, otherwise it would soon be overstocked? The argument would be as good in one case as in the other; that is, it is not valid in either. The world might be made to sustain, in comfort, even in the present comparatively infant state of the arts and sciences, at least forty or fifty times its present number of inhabitants. It will be time enough a thousand or two thousand years to come, to begin to talk about the danger of the world's being over-peopled; and, above all, to talk about justifying what we know is, in the abstract, very wrong, to prevent a distanced imagined evil; one, in fact, which may not, and probably will not ever exist.