I really like Grandin’s writing and advocacy and so does just about everybody, so I found it hard at first to allow myself the indulgence of being annoyed by what she had to say.
By the end I was in fact pretty aggravated, and it’s partly because a major theme in her comments reflects an attitude that I think does a lot of damage, that is shared among quite a few people who work with technology or in scientific research.
What I was not annoyed by was her extremely insistent refusal to discuss vaccine skepticism and the claims of anti-vaccine crusaders about autism. I completely accepted her clear refusal to talk about it, and the interviewer, David Marchese, comes off like a big asshole for not just backing off and leaving it alone—he badgers Grandin throughout the interview about it.
My problem came later in the conversation, and it has to do with how Grandin thinks about solving problems in relationship to what she thinks of as “politics”.
The first hint of the issue comes in response to talking about her work on building humane slaughterhouses. Marchese asks her, ok, but what about the people who are worried about the “negative ecological impacts” of raising livestock? Her answer is completely valid, which is that grazing, if done correctly, can improve soil health and sequester carbon. But also that you could figure out the ingredient in seaweed that reduces methane emissions in cow farts and feed them that. And also that plant-based burgers have their own ingredients that have supply chains and put stresses on land and might be unsustainable.
I’m thinking as I read to the end of that answer: this feels weirdly evasive. If you’re going to tackle the question of sustainability of present human diets, you have to kind of back up a bit and build some baseline assumptions, some ground-floor values or principles, or at least show that you understand that’s part of thinking it all through. Everything she said is true in its way but underneath it all her answers are being driven by an unspoken tendentious constant: beef must go on! As an eater of beef, I’m good with that, but my first approach to the question of “should I be allowed to eat beef” is not “well, technically if you do it right cattle help the soil and there’s a way to get the methane in their farts lower and hey! your plantburgers are probably unsustainable too”. I start from principles like “because I want to”, “because other people want to”, “because there isn’t any simple way to just wave a hand and stop people wanting beef or making money from herding cattle”. Then it’s also “because trying to ban or forbid something by law or policy is generally a mistake.” Somewhere further downstream there are questions like “just how much damage is this desire of mine, shared by others, doing to the world”, “just how much of that damage is a result of the peculiar or specific nature of cows themselves, and how much is a result of the way that contemporary capitalism structures the production of food?” and finally, yes, “can cattle be raised in less damaging ways”. Whenever that question finally comes up, it has to come up in a more exploratory way, where beef as a food is being compared with all other meat, where the costs of manufacturing whatever it is in red seaweed that reduces methane emissions from cows are just as pertinent as the costs of making plant-based burgers.
In other words, if I’m going to talk about my eating of beef in a way that potentially leads to the conclusion I should eat less of it or none of it, I want everything in that conversation to be looked at closely. The scientists who studied red seaweed in cattle feed note at the very beginning of their piece in The Conversation that “most options” for reducing methane emissions from cows “like more digestible feed or adding more fat are not cost-effective”. That’s a “hold up, let’s talk” moment. You mean there are other ways to reduce cow methane? And the problem is that those ways would make beef or dairy too expensive? “Too expensive” isn’t a property of the universe or a natural law. It’s not like we just came up against the speed of light. What happens if raising cattle for meat and dairy becomes more expensive? Well, it means that you can’t have a super-cheap hamburger in a fast-food restaurant. Which means some people making a living raising cattle for the super-cheap hamburger can’t make their living that way. Do we have to have super-cheap hamburgers in fast food restaurants? Would people starve without them? No, they wouldn’t.
What this comes down to is basically politics or maybe philosophy: that the people who are presently making a living from beef and the people who basically expect to eat beef very very cheaply are being held in place as necessary constants whereas “reducing enteric methane from cows” is being framed as an option that can only be pursued if research can identify a cheap and sustainable way to do it. But hang on—if you could reduce the methane tomorrow and thus triple the price of beef or more, well, what’s the problem? There’s no trespass against anybody’s rights here. I like to eat venison too but I’m not outraged that it’s expensive and difficult to find. If beef were more expensive, people would very likely eat it much less. Some ranchers would have to find another living. Talking about those changes is not a technical problem, it’s a political one.
This is why I got so irritated with Grandin in this interview.
Because only a short while later, when asked about her politics, she says, “I’m not getting into politics”. The interviewer follows up by saying “politics touches everything, what does it mean to have a ‘no politics’ policy?” Grandin replies: “Because politics interferes with the stuff I care about”.
She continues, “It’s all gobbledygook, because they’re not talking about how you’re actually going to fix something. Like when they had the power failures in Texas, they just talked gobbledygook. My approach to that—and I know a lot about equipment—is I would visit each of those power plants and find out exactly what froze. I wouldn’t be fighting over who owns them, because I only have one goal: I don’t want that mess to happen again. But I don’t want to talk to suits”.
This becomes a persistent theme in the interview from that point on. She wants measurements. Something real and concrete. Doable things. Not vague things, not politics. Not philosophical things. Only stuff we know works.
And it’s clear that for her this is not just this is the way I think and work, so I stick to what is best for me. It’s that vague things, political things, philosophical things, “verbal thinking”, are wrong for everybody. This is not about complementarity in problem-solving, about the idea that every mind brings something different and useful to the table. This is “fuck you if you’re a suit, if you think politically, if you want to talk about social justice in ways that aren’t about simple technical solutions”.
Ok, in that same fuck-you spirit, let me put it this way. You want to keep the power plants in Texas from freezing again? You have to understand and engage the politics that made them vulnerable in the first place. This is not some abstract, vague, suit-driven gobbledygook of no technical relevance to the problem at hand. Going down there and finding the salt-of-the-earth maintenance guy and getting the machines that will fix the problem (which, by the way, is kind of insulting to the maintenance guy, because Grandin is implying that he was just sitting around with his thumb up his ass until someone like her might come along and say ‘hey how about we use a machine and fix the freezing’?) doesn’t actually fix the problem. The problem is not a problem in the rest of the power infrastructure in this country because everybody else has adopted technical standards that prevent it because politics. Politics is technical in this case. It’s real and material.
It’s that way for most of the things in our world. The beef industry is not a natural object that was just found one day in the middle of Nebraska. It was created in particular ways because of political decisions and collective action.
Politics, culture, ways of thinking, things we can’t see directly, they’re all real. They matter. They cause problems and solve problems. I am completely content if someone like Temple Grandin says, “Not my strong suit, I leave that to others”. I’m equally fine leaving a whole host of interventions and investigations to others, because my mind doesn’t work along the lines that they require. But great problem-solving in a pluralistic and democratic society means complementarity, it means we join together in assemblies where we acknowledge the value of the way other people think. No matter how we think, though, we don’t get to insist that only the reality that we readily apprehend and prefer to work with actually matters. Especially if we want to solve concrete problems in doable ways, as Temple Grandin professes to want us to do.