January 17th, 2011

_Meat_, Simon Fairlie

Another NetGalley selection, published by Chelsea Green (a publisher I have generally positive feelings about).

Subtitled: A Benign Extravagance

I was initially put off by the citation style, which is actually footnotes. In the kindle version I have (which may differ from what you get when you order it from Amazon, since mine was through NetGalley), the footnotes just show up in the middle of the text occasionally. It's surprisingly easy to get used to, however, and weirdly more appealing than end notes once I did get used to it.

Despite the research and the footnotes, this is no monograph. The prose style is informal and friendly: Fairlie invites us into his life as a mixed farmer (one who keeps livestock and grows crops), and his thinking on what has been percolating around the margins of thinking about food. Fairlie takes a tour (and the reader is along for the ride, really, as he is doing this in an effort to make sense of the world, rather than, omg, I got a book contract and now I have to do something really insane for a year to Make A Point about the wastefulness or whatever of Our Modern Lifestyles) of stockfree sustainable agriculture, with its rotations and green manures. He contemplates "grass farmers" and "carbon cowboys" and whether poor people engaging in traditional agriculture on small plots with few if any inputs can really be held accountable for all the greenhouse gas production that certain governmental and UN agencies might suggest they should be, as part of a mission to intensify land use.

Fairlie is upfront about the world he wants to see more of (he does not like city living, he likes small farms with people spread out on the countryside), so it is tempting throughout the book to think that he's sort of picked the right numbers to crunch to help support the world he'd like to see. But the numbers he crunches often make it very clear that other people are being misleading, without necessarily pointing exclusively in the direction he'd like to go.

Envisioning a future world of energy descent inspired a lot of his thinking, and he's a whole lot more believable on this topic than others I have read. If nothing else, I don't find myself reading Fairlie and thinking, gosh, if you really think that lifestyle is Hell On Earth and Not Worth Living, you've clearly decided there's only been a couple generations of human life (and only a fraction of the places within that time frame) worth being alive for. Fairlie doesn't look at horses and see a substitute for cars and fossil fueled tractors. Fairlie looks at horses (and oxen, and humans) and sees muscles, and contemplates what those muscles need and what they can do and what kind of world can be built using them. It's an important distinction and one worth making.

Could I find niggly little details that I wish Fairlie had more thoroughly explored? Sure! I'd probably start with the home heating discussion, but honestly, I'm pretty sure Fairlie thought about everything I might have wanted him to talk about and decided that (a) you can't make a book arbitrarily long and expect people to make it all the way through and worse, (b) people are tetchy about having The Right Temperature.

Fairlie spends a substantial amount of time on vegetarian and vegan farming and the implications if spread through the UK. He also spends a lot of time on permaculture, trying to understand why a farmstyle which really makes a lot of sense to include animals in often winds up connected to veganism. I loved all of it (up to and including the backhand at canola oil as being "arguably edible"). In some ways, Fairlie is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of Loving the Pig.

Absolutely worth your time. I read it with many interruptions, because I kept needing to think every little bit. This is a Good Thing.