Rhubarb. Icthyology. Ethics.
Max Elder might tell you that he does all that’s easy about activism and academia and none of the hard stuff. However, when he isn’t being self-deprecating, he will admit that he works in philanthropy and that he studies and writes on animal ethics. He is a board member of Thinking Animals United and is a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
Did you grow up in a vegetarian household or was that a Max Elder specific choice?
I did not grow up in a vegetarian or vegan household.
How did the plant-based movement come onto your radar then?
It was not until Freshman year at Kenyon College, in an Intro to Logic class in the Philosophy department. All the students had to go through a set of logic questions in which someone made a claim—generally somewhat of an outlandish claim—and we had to evaluate the claim logically and come up with a reason for why the claim was either valid or invalid.
Of course, one of the philosophical arguments used for this exercise was about the ethics of eating meat, a classic argument for vegetarianism; I took it home, and read through it, and tried to think about why it was invalid, and just couldn’t do it.
I came up with all these reasons for which the argument might be invalid, but they were all faulty logic—or appeals to tradition, or to religious beliefs, or to Aristotelian views of nature that seemed antiquated, these pre-Darwinian notions. So I could come up with lots of reasons why the argument might not make sense, but none of them jived with what I thought was the worldview of the 21st century.
You come to the plant-based movement from an animal rights perspective, but in your work and your writing, you focus specifically on fish. What is the origin of that particular interest and what compels you to write in this space?
It’s not a sexy origin story, unfortunately. I was studying at Oxford and a professor of mine was an editor of a journal, and he asked me to write an article for the journal. At first I didn’t think that I had anything novel to say. Period. But then later in the dining hall, I had just mentioned this and just finished explaining that I didn’t think I had anything novel to say, when I got into an argument with the person sitting next to me about pescetarianism.
She was eating fish, and she was arguing that fish don’t feel pain and making all these other claims that I thought were incorrect, rationally and scientifically etc. And she said, “Ok well, I would like to see that research. I would like read that journal paper, if it exists.” And I said, “Okay, well then I will write it.”
And then after starting to do research and writing that journal paper, I realized that very few people in the world were thinking about this topic in a systematic way. There were a handful of scientists at universities across the world that were actually doing research in fish pain, but [almost] no one was reading that research. The few people that were reading that research weren’t thinking about it in a holistic way—about the implications of the scientific underpinnings to guide human behavior. It seemed like a huge gap, and then, once I started thinking deeply about it, I just fell down the rabbit hole.
Do you study fish because you feel like it’s one of the biggest problems or just because it’s one of the most explorable problems?
For both environmental reasons and for moral reasons, I am convinced that it is, in fact, one of the biggest problems. Fish have not been and are not viewed in the same way as terrestrial animals are viewed. The fact that fish haven’t been valued in the same way poses a lot of serious issues, one of which is that (unlike farm animals for consumption) we really don’t know how many fish are killed in the world annually. Although different governmental agencies track those numbers, they all have their own methodological flaws. For example, none of them accounts for bycatch.
And for those who don’t know, can you explain what bycatch is and what the numbers look like around that?
Yeah, it’s sad. Bycatch is when you’re fishing in the wild and you catch a nontarget species. In other words, you’re fishing for bluefin tuna, or you’re fishing for shrimp, and you end up catching a whole lot of other sea life, primarily because of the method by which you are fishing.
In the United States, at least, shrimp is the most consumed seafood. And shrimp is also one of the most unsustainable types of seafood—particularly in terms of bycatch. Shrimp are really really small, and to catch shrimp, we have to use big nets with tiny holes. Therefore we also catch everything bigger than the shrimp.
Generally for every one pound of shrimp, we catch about nine pounds of other species. Most of this bycatch is dead on arrival—it takes hours to fill these huge nets, and it’s tremendous pressure. And if the bycatch isn’t dead, it’s severely wounded. Not to mention that there are regulations around industrial fishing, so people who have permits to shrimp, cannot legally take other species. They can’t even use the bycatch. And they wouldn’t want to use it. They want to fish for shrimp. They have limited space in the boat.
Not to split hairs—but just because I’m curious—what do you consider to be the functional moral distinction among land animals, fish, bees, and bivalves? I know that you are fine with eating honey; you’re fine with eating oysters and mussels. There are some vegans who fall down hard on the other side of that line, so where did you make that distinction?
On some level there is no agreed upon definition of vegan. I have a plant-based diet for moral reasons, and those moral reasons lie in the fact that we should be reducing unnecessary animal suffering. Packed in that then is a question about which animals can suffer.
There are plenty of reasons to conclude that mammals feel pain. There’s great evidence for birds feeling pain, and I think that similar evidence indicates that fish can feel pain. But at some point a line has to be drawn—for example, I don’t think that plants feel pain—and so the difficult question is where that line falls. There are biologically necessary conditions: you need to have nerves; you need to have some sort of processing system, like a brain; and then—the trickiest necessary condition—you need consciousness.
Nerves, and nervous systems, and even a brain are not sufficient for suffering; the necessary condition (that I think insects lack and bivalves lack) is consciousness. Semantically it becomes thorny here, because “pain and suffering” are conflated. Strictly speaking, The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as a conscious experience with two parts: a sensory element and an element of emotional feeling or suffering. The heart of this problem falls between the differences of these two elements: the sensory and the emotional. In my opinion, it’s only morally relevant when that initial sensory pain rises to the level of consciousness that causes emotional suffering. For example, when I touch a burning cast iron on my stove, my hand responds immediately by pulling back—
—in the spinal cord—
—yeah, in the spinal cord. To anyone else looking at me in that split second, they would think that I’m suffering. But the first immediate moment of sensory response to a noxious stimulus is not morally relevant, because I haven’t consciously felt it. The morally relevant aspect of that experience is when I become conscious of that noxious stimulus and how it is hurting me, which happens almost immediately after. So quickly that it’s hard for us to notice the difference between the two. But even we, as humans, respond to noxious stimuli before they cause us to suffer emotionally.
We call that a reflex.
Plants respond to noxious stimuli; computers can be programmed to do this; the fire alarm in my apartment responds to noxious stimuli. Insects and bivalves respond to noxious stimuli, but I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that those responses are sufficient for moral consideration. I don’t know exactly where the line is, but I have an educated guess. When there is a lack of scientific consensus, generally I think we ought to use the precautionary principle to ensure we minimize the amount of potential harm we are causing with our actions.
Many people view dietary choices as a personal matter that you should keep to yourself. Can you speak to the ways that this is a social choice and a political choice?
What’s unique about dietary decisions is that everyone makes them, and everyone makes them multiple times a day.
Unlike other decisions that might be political or environmental or religious, this is an action that we all take, and it turns out that this action—particularly in modern times—is not considered critically. We don’t fully understand or even grapple with the inputs: energy, water, grain, even animal inputs.
Government subsidies artificially affect the supply chain and what people eat. What gets subsidized has nothing to do with what we should eat, but has everything to do with political incentives that don’t inherently have the environment, or our health, or animal welfare considerations at the forefront of those decisions. The true cost of our food is never reflected in what we pay for it, and—because of various loopholes, lax regulations (or lack thereof), and subsidies—this is more so the case with meat than other foods.
And then there’s this whole other political aspect. What I’m really interested in is this very fundamental, underlying notion of what it means to be a consumer, and what it means to consume flesh, and what it means to consume a body.
One of the best, most influential books that I’ve ever read is a book called The Sexual Politics of Meat by a woman named Carol Adams. The subtitle is: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.
Adams parallels the ways meat consumption is advertised and has historically been sold as a hyper masculine endeavor and how—perhaps controversially—women’s bodies have been consumed by men, as pieces of meat, in the same way that animal bodies have been consumed.
There is a history of sexist and, tangentially, homophobic oppression in the act of meat consumption. This happens in various linguistic ways and social ways, but most persuasively perhaps are the ways that it manifests in advertising, and historically meat producers have advertised their meat in pretty egregious ways.
So anyway, there is a very interesting and not often discussed sexual politics that is involved, and it is real. If you were to categorize the average vegetarian or vegan like you would categorize the average democrat or republican in terms of identity politics, they are overwhelmingly LGBTQ compared to the population. They are also overwhelmingly female. And that can’t just be a coincidence; there is a reason for it, and there are many theories behind that. One of the more convincing ones is that there is this entrenched, socially constructed view that men are strong, and strong men kill things and eat them.
As someone who doesn’t prescribe to that heteronormative view of the world, it’s easier for me with my perspective and sexual orientation to not fall prey to those sorts of advertising ploys or social pressures. But it is, nevertheless, ubiquitous in advertising and in society in general. So the decision not to eat meat is political on many levels, both on a meta—the ways in which food systems are designed—but also as a very micro individual level of identity politics. Having a plant-based diet is a daily political decision by some to fight against what people see as a deeply entrenched, heteronormative, and oppressive view of the world.
What is the best thing that New York has to offer a plant-based eater?
New York has lots of wonderful things to offer plant-based people. One is obviously plant-based restaurants, and there are plenty of them. Two is lots of people who have plant-based diets. Overwhelming, vegans live in urban areas, but there are lots of vegans in New York in particular.
Three is a lot of very interesting plant-based organizations and academic programs: NYU’s Animal Studies Initiative is terrific. They do a lot of work around food systems and veganism. New Harvest is an incredible non profit accelerating breakthroughs in cellular agriculture, e.g. trying to develop a post-animal bio-economy. To sum it up: very cool nonprofits, very cool academic institutions, very cool people, very cool restaurants, all of which are very conducive to living a plant-based life.
Who are the most exciting, and influential vegan chefs on your radar.
Oh no...I really don’t know enough. I went to an event with Jay Astafa catering, and it was delicious. But I don’t know enough vegan chefs to answer that in any authoritative way.
When you go to the farmers’ market, what do you return home with on a perfect day?
On the best day: beets, mushrooms, and rhubarb. And we always get shallots at the farmers’ market. They have delicious shallots.
I know you scored some rhubarb at the farmers’ market this weekend. What did you make with it this go-around?
We made a vegan almond rhubarb cake, and we have rhubarb to spare! Which might become cocktails. Two weeks ago we made these rhubarb cocktails that involved muddled rhubarb. And we also cooked down the rhubarb to make the syrup for the cocktail.
What food brings you the most joy?
I love avocado. Avocado for breakfast. Avocado for lunch. Avocado for dinner. Avocado by itself. Avocado on things. Avocado in things.
Things in avocado…
I think I eat too much avocado.
But this is the season for it! Ok, last query: What is the biggest potential disruptor of the American food system, and what do you think is the ethical food movement’s most promising tool for change at this point?
Those are big questions...so I think technology by far has the biggest potential to be a disruptor, and there are plenty of technologies that are already being used or will be used to do really crazy things. There are all sorts of innovations in urban farming and vertical farming. And then of course, I think that culture technologies have true potential.
Cultured technologies involve growing animal (and non-animal) cells in a culture rather than in an animals. The golden snitch of these technologies is the cell-line that can be grown indefinitely. We’re not there yet, but the idea is that you could grow eggs without chickens. You could grow burgers without cows or fish sticks without fish. That, I think, will certainly be part of the future of food if not the future of food and will certainly change the game when it comes to animals used for consumption.
One of the most promising tools for change of the ethical food movement is actually virtual reality. A great animal rights organization called Animal Equality has filmed slaughter houses and built virtual worlds that you can explore with a virtual reality headset. This has a lot of potential, because it has historically been very difficult for the public to understand what's going on inside of slaughterhouses due to Ag-Gag laws and other restrictions, not to mention the fact that most slaughterhouses are in the middle of nowhere. Studies have shown that the most effective way to convince people to become vegetarian or vegan is to show them how animals are treated in slaughterhouses. This is why Michael Pollan has famously said—and I paraphrase—“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarian.” I would argue that we would all be vegan, but Michael Pollan is a wuss.
Virtual reality headsets have been called, “the ultimate empathy machines.” Animal Equality has had some success travelling around college campuses with these. They’re basically letting people enter slaughterhouses and letting people see how animals are killed. All that to say, I think virtual reality is going to connect people to the sources of their food in a way that people have never been connected before.
In some regard, this will revolutionize the dining experience: there will be cool new restaurants that are all about virtual or augmented reality. On the other hand, when it comes to animals production and the ethical food movement, I think it’s going to give a lot of those slaughterhouses glass walls.