Germany has gone and done the seemingly impossible. Its Ministry of the Environment has banned meat.
Barbara Hendricks, Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety under German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, has banned meat at official environmental ministry functions.
Hendricks cites the environmental degradation associated with meat consumption as cause for the ban, and she has ordered only vegetarian fare to be served at official, catered events hosted by the German ministry of the environment.
While most vegans are rejoicing at this news (I know we are) the backlash coming from Merkel’s opposition as well as from the general public typifies our societal misunderstanding of freedom, rights, privilege, and personal choice.
The UK’s Telegraph says, “A rival minister has accused her of ‘nanny-statism’ and trying to force vegetarianism on people ‘by the back door’.”
The Telegraph continues, noting that Hendricks’s move to enforce vegetarian diets at ministry events represents “evidence the centre-left SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany] will interfere in citizens’ private lives on ideological grounds.”
But what are the actual “ideological grounds” the German SPD decided to ban meat at their environmental functions?
An email from the environmental ministry to staffers explains, “we want to set a good example for climate protection, because vegetarian food is more climate-friendly than meat and fish.”
Immediately, critics of the meat ban leap to the conclusion that a governmental restriction of meat at certain governmental events most definitely equates to civilian restriction of rights.
And here’s where it gets tricky.
To believe that a government decision to ban meat (at certain governmental functions—staffers can still eat meat in the canteen) equates to the eventual restriction of citizens’ rights of any kind requires three alleged truths to be held simultaneously:
One, that citizens have a right to eat whatever (and whomever) they want despite scientific evidence that our food choices harm the animals, the planet, and people on the planet.
Two, that our food choices are indeed personal, affecting no one else, or at least not much.
And three, that if our food choice does affect others in some capacity, that cost is worth the benefit of eating that food, and we have a right to exact that cost despite evidence to the contrary.
Some critics of the meat ban (in the comments of news articles) go so far as to say that the SPD is presenting symptoms of fascism.
We see this fear of the threat of fascism evinced by the all too common anti-vegan rhetorical phrase, “forcing your beliefs on me.”
Christian Schmidt, minister of food and agriculture and a Christian Democrat, complains, “I’m not having this Veggie Day through the back door. Instead of nanny-stateism and ideology, I believe in diversity and freedom of choice.”
But what if we as a society have confused our privilege—to eat meat, to eat dairy, to kill animals, to ruin earth’s climate for future generations—with actual rights?
How can something that causes so much harm actually be considered a right? 60 billion animals are killed annually, and that doesn’t even include the water-born animals such as fishes and sharks stolen from the ocean. By one calculation, that’s nearly 6 million living beings killed per hour of every day of the year. There simply is no other way to define this destruction than industrialized carnage on a global scale.
When we ask others, or suggest to others, or eventually prevent others with a meat ban, from participating in non-essential acts (such as consuming meat at government functions), we run aground on the rocky shores of something much mightier, much more aggressive, pervasive, and resilient than “rights”—and that is privilege.
In a candid yet friendly heart to heart about “forcing beliefs on others,” vegan, writer, and social justice advocate Christopher-Sebastian McJetters considers abolitionists fighting slavery in the 19th century and the modern day ethics of eating animals. McJetters writes,
We should take a sober look at the kind of aggressions that are being perpetrated against non-humans. Their exploitation is so complete that it’s nearly invisible. Yes, they are our food. But they are also our wool sweaters, our leather shoes, our shampoo, our streets, our electronics, and even our home décor. Can we honestly say that it is our personal choice to take away the agency and sovereignty of someone else while simultaneously saying that American slavery was wrong? If holding up a mirror to expose our complicity in structural inequality toward non-humans is forcing beliefs, then so too did abolitionists force their beliefs on Americans to end the exploitation of black people.
Because nearly every person McJetters asks to consider human slavery balks and eagerly distances themselves from any association with the ‘peculiar institution,’ nearly every person he speaks to equally as eagerly aligns themselves with the abolitionists. But, McJetters explains, abolitionists “forced” their beliefs on Americans precisely so the exploitation of black people could end.
People crying against a violation of their right to eat meat fail to see that discontinuing an ethically problematic behavior (meat consumption) is not a restriction of freedom or denial of rights.
Instead, the meat ban recognizes said behavior as an unnecessary privilege that must be removed to balance the scales. A violation of rights, for example, would be denying staffers in the German government access to food, water, or break time.
No one is losing anything per se with this meat ban, except their ability to choose ethically unsound foods at certain government functions in Germany. Any of the German staffers could choose to eat meat at the canteen, bring their own meat, or eat meat at a street vendor directly before or after any of the events wherein meat is banned.
And that’s why for some, the meat ban is not really enough at all; as, like a burr in our britches, it’s enough to annoy but not to incite global change. It does, however, set an example and suggest a precedent that other governments—or anyone who serves food at their institutions—would do well to adopt.
When we weigh the cons of meat consumption—rampant carbon dioxide emissions, industrialized animal abuse, and environmental degradation that threatens people living in developing nations and people of lower economic status more than anyone—banning meat at a few German governmental functions does pretty much diddly squat.
But—it is a profound gesture that is much needed in greater concentration and frequency.
We should be banning meat at all government functions in every nation, banning meat subsidies in every nation, banning meat in schools in every nation, banning meat at concerts in every nation—for a start.
And then while we’re at it, we should be banning dairy, eggs, and honey consumption in all those same places.
And just for good measure, let’s recognize that speciesism—which allows most humans to believe they have the privilege to enslave animals and use them against their will—along with racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and any other -ism or -phobia we can imagine, as Aph Ko explains, are not separate forms of oppression that merely intersect, but instead, layers of the same oppression rooted in Eurocentric (white) ideology of compartmentalization and hierarchy.
We live in a society where our most inconsequential whims and preferences are viewed as rights (meat eating) instead of recognized as societal norms or privilege, and where our most fundamental needs for actual rights, representation, and validation in our global human community is viewed as “extra” or only for certain groups of people.
While the German government may have taken steps to ban certain damaging privileges (meat eating) at some of their events, they certainly have not violated anyone’s freedom or rights.
Germany, you may be celebrated for your currywurst, Schweineschnitzel, and kaltes Buffets, but you’re on the right track.