“Has anyone ever seen a clean cow?”

It’s hard to know where to begin to respond to Jeremy Rifkin’s apocalyptic new book, Beyond Beef. You could start with Chesterton’s famous remark on “believing anything,” or some of the paleoconservative ruminations on “Gnosticism.” Perhaps in a time when Oliver Stone’s paranoid (and lucrative) fantasies pass as history and when even critics who know that there is no truth in these genuflect before JFK‘s “power,” we should not be surprised when such establishment organs as Time magazine take Rifkin’s “ideas” seriously. My peculiar circumstances as a naturalist with a background in biology who actually lives in cattle country have perhaps distorted my responses, since I find Beyond Beef to be very nearly hilarious in its mixture of hysteria and warped emphasis.

“Ancient beef-eating myths and dietary practices,” Rifkin argues, “have been used throughout history to maintain male dominance and establish gender and class hierarchies. In the modern age, beef-eating has been used as a tool to forge national identity, advance colonial policies, and even promote racial theory. . . . We will . . . assess the moral and ethical implications that flow from the deconstruction of modern meat.” Cattle, he believes, are “the root of all evil.” “[T]he new Christian cultists transformed the Mithraic bull god into the new symbol of darkness. The god of its adversary became the devil incarnate.” Rifkin continues with a lengthy description from the Council of Toledo that ascribes to the devil “a sulfurous smell,” but ignores the fact that the devil was more likely to be portrayed as a goat (which, were he a country boy, he would know smells worse than any bull and will devastate the land more completely).

But of course we’re not talking logic here but deconstruction, by which anything can mean anything. It soon becomes clear in Rifkin’s book that cows themselves are not the villain (elsewhere, he calls for “partnership with the bovine and, by extension, the other sentient creatures”) but human beings, particularly those “Eurasian herdsmen who became the first real protocapitalists.” Lest you miss the point, he underlines it: “The emergence of the great Western cattle cultures and the emergence of world capitalism are inseparable.” Here we have the book’s thesis in a nutshell: the eating of cattle is responsible for every imagined horror denounced by the politically correct. “In India”—an accredited Good Country—”the cattle complex helped create a static social order,” (With such nonclassist structures as Untouchables and nonsexist ones as suttee, but let that pass.) “In Spain and Britain”—Evil Countries—”the cattle complex helped ignite the fires of colonial expansion, propelling Europe into the New World.”

(Incidentally, Rifkin’s approval of Indian cow culture reveals his poorly concealed animal rights agenda: “At present there are nearly 200 million cows in India . . . Although cattle are the mainstay for much of the economic life of the peasantry, they do not compete with the human population for the arable land . . . the cattle complex that emerged in India managed to strengthen both the sacred and profane aspects of human beings’ relationship to the bovine. . . . In central and western Europe, the Aryan descendants of the steppe people were forced to tread a very different path in their relationship to the bovine, a far more secular course that would lead to world colonization.” [Italics mine.] This argument is especially ingenuous, as he later states that the presence of far fewer cattle on far less abraded range will likely lead to further desertification and to global warming.)

We proceed, of course, to Columbus: “In search of spices to enhance the taste of beef, Columbus found new pastureland for grazing cattle.” No poor person ever enjoyed beef unless he was led to it. “Wealthy landed aristocrats colonized the new lands with cattle,” who were tended by cowboys: “[these] seasonal workers so glorified in literature were the henchmen and handymen of the rich—their cattle warriors on the plains of the New World,” helping to “secure the fortunes of both the Spanish crown and the new landed gentry in the Americas.” Rifkin seems blind even to his own recorded facts; on one page he quotes a Swede who visited England in 1798 and was amazed to find that all Englishmen eat meat at every dinner, oblivious to his immediately previous assertion that “the poor were virtually excluded from a beef-centered diet until well into the last quarter of the nineteenth century, having to settle instead for . . . cheese, milk, butter, and other dairy products.”

Rifkin considers the keeping of pedigreed animals to be racist, and unfairly accuses Charles Darwin of racism. He links the destruction of the Plains Indians to sinister British financial (meaning beef) interests. He creates nonexistent communities of farmers (on the rare occasions that the settlers tried to grow crops in the arid west, they made far graver ecological blunders than cattlemen did) so that they may be extirpated by the Evil Cattle Interests. He virtually ignores the buffalo, whose impact upon the prairie soil was enormous and is still not well understood, except to lament the destruction of “the Indian’s commissary.” He accepts uncritically the neoromantic view of the Plains tribes, ignoring buffalo jumps and paleolithic extinctions. Finally, he predicts the imminent ecological collapse of the American West, and indicts the cattle culture in—what else?—global warm-

Rifkin makes, inevitably, a few good points. We might well eat leaner beef; some of the feed additives routinely fed to cattle on feedlots are horrifying. But it is hard to discern these isolated facts in Rifkin’s jumble of opinions, “factoids,” and sheer lunacy. I have neither the time nor the inclination to refute every one of Rifkin’s assertions. But since one chapter—”Hoofed Locusts”—deals with conservation and biology on the Western range, subjects which I know something about, I will examine it in detail in order to demonstrate his habitual method of argument.

Rifkin begins with a debatable first statement: “Desertification is caused by the overgrazing of livestock; overcultivation of the land; deforestation; and improper irrigation techniques.” There is, to begin with, no such consensus regarding desertification. Climate changes, some of them dating to prehistoric times, certainly play a role. An archaeologist recently told me that aerial photos reveal ancient dunes, stabilized by desert plant cover, in the lower Rio Grande Valley that are five thousand years old; the lower Rio was even more a desert before the beginning of the agrarian era than it is today. Next, “livestock” includes goats, which climb and eat trees, and sheep, not just cattle. Finally, while deforestation is a real problem in the Sahel and holy India, not even the worst critics of grazing (or logging) consider deforestation per se to be a problem in the United States. We have more trees now than at any time since Columbus. Yet Rifkin blithely proceeds (through paragraphs blaming desertification for urbanization) to advance to his primary thesis, which is that cattle have ruined the West. He states that, “Parts of the Great Plains and the Western range are fast becoming a barren desert.” He might be interested to know that every biologist I have talked to (including some that are antigrazing!) in the course of researching a book on these issues thinks that the range has been improving for forty years; some would say for longer than that. He complains about rivers degraded by trampling cattle to the point where they only support chub and squawfish. Does he know that in many cases these species are the natives among whom the trout have been artificially introduced? He quotes a notorious anti-cow polemicist and nonscientist on the decline of prairie chickens. Is he aware that recent evidence suggests that the chickens followed the buffalo, needing “edges” and grazed areas within their habitat? He quotes statistics of animal-rightists on the “shriveling” numbers of pronghorn, elk, and bighorn, which he compares with the “guesstimated” pre-Columbian populations; yet all three species are proliferating, elk almost visibly so. He whines about the fate of feral burros and horses, about “the misguided belief that these small numbers of animals pose a competitive threat to the millions of cattle”; does he know how much more destructive horses are than cattle of the native vegetation, or that burros compete not with cattle but with threatened desert bighorn sheep?

His worries about predator control are, sadly, more accurate. But the only species missing from the southern Plains ecosystem are the wolf and the grizzly bear, and steps are now being taken to restore both. The north kept its grizzly, and there the wolf is coming back on his own. Despite the much-quoted antipredator sentiments of stockmen, most ranchers I know—especially those under the age of fifty—would accept the wolves’ return if they were guaranteed some control over stock-killing individuals. Ironically, books like Rifkin’s only confirm cattlemen’s feeling of being endangered themselves.

Only a culture far removed from the soil, from animals, farming, hunting, birth, and death could produce such warped ideas, or those of the animal rights movement with which they are in sympathy. In a sane world, Budiansky’s The Covenant of the Wild would permanently sink People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and their ilk. Budiansky, a reporter for U.S. News and World Report and a part-time farmer, has no patience with animal rightists, but his purpose in writing is not to argue with them. He wants to show us how domestication was an evolutionary “strategy” by which certain animals, including cows and dogs, used their association with humans to survive the Ice Age. I do not want to slight his subtle and often witty argument; obviously, the “choice” the creatures made was not a conscious one (though it may not have been initially all that conscious on our ancestors’ side, either). One of Budiansky’s most fascinating theses is that, by simply selecting for “tame” behavior, early man encouraged neoteny or retention of juvenile traits into adulthood, which complex of characters immediately gave rise to the diversity that provides the basis for further selection. This particular theory has been tried on Russian fur farms with foxes: simply by selecting from among the tamest individuals, the breeders produced animals with spots, lop ears, and doglike behavior in only twenty years.

As I say, this is a subtle book, and a sane one; it will not likely receive fullpage reviews in Time, nor will farmers and ranchers be likely to quote it in their newsletters. I fear that our society needs more literacy and more connection to the land, while every year it has less of each. Rifkin actually applauds the squeamishness that makes consumers prefer their meat processed and prewrapped as a step on the road to a higher consciousness that finally eschews meat-eating, although in fact it is merely another step toward abstraction, what Rifkin ironically calls “cold evil.” A healthy society would laugh at Rifkin, accept his few good ideas, and give him a pat on the head—just as English society used to treat its cranks. 


[Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, by Jeremy Rifkin (New York: E.P. Button, Inc.) 353 pp., $21.00]

[The Covenant of the Wild, by Stephen Budiansky (New York: William Morrow) 192 pp., $18.00]