We all know the typical face of right-wing gun nuttery, from the local camo-clad yahoos in a pickup with a gun rack and jacklights all the way to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, who blamed the Sandy Hook school massacre on violent films and video games and called for armed officers in every school.
But there’s a new gun nut in town. Once upon a time you could find him wandering gentrifying neighborhoods in skinny jeans and a retro T-shirt carrying an armload of vinyl in one arm and pushing a fixed-gear bike with the other. But lately he’s traded his turntable for a firearm, and slung over his shoulder is a 12-gauge birdgun or a scoped 30-06 hunting rifle, with loose shells spilling out of his coat pockets.
Hunting is suddenly fashionable. But what is remarkable is that this increased interest is coming not from people on the political right, but from those who usually identify with the progressive left. And it is threatening to undermine the gun control lobby from within at a time when the U.S. is having the most serious conversation about the issue in decades.
The hipster hunter trend has been quietly building for a few years. In 2011, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would only eat meat from animals he had personally slaughtered. He said his motivation was both ethical and environmental — to understand where his food came from, and to consume as much of the animals that he kills as possible. Similarly, in a column for Slate published last December, a writer named Emma Morris extolled what she sees as the progressive virtues of hunting. She argued that shooting wild animals for food is more ecologically sound than buying industrially raised meat, and more ethically “honest” than outsourcing the killing of the animal to a slaughterhouse employee.
Finally, The Vancouver Sun recently carried a feature about the phenomenon. Again, the story’s hip young subjects talked about the twin benefits of ethical honesty and environmental sustainability.
It is important to realize that this is not one of those random countercultural hiccups that arise from time to time, like planking or the raw coconut craze of 2011. Instead, it is the deep internal logic of contemporary foodie culture working itself out. There is a self-radicalizing dynamic built into the values of the burgeoning locavore movement, and over the past decade, food-focused moral one-upmanship has shifted from the virtues of organic to local, then to artisanal food, while the DIY imperative quickly evolved from casually making your own charcuterie to taking pig-butchering classes to raising your own urban chickens.
And once you’ve bought in, it is a short and entirely logical step to the conclusion that both ethics and environmentalism demand that you hunt, kill and dress any meat you choose to eat.
Which means if you’re a sincere and consistent locavore, and you want to eat meat, you need to learn to shoot a gun.
The problem is, neither of the main arguments in favor of shooting what you eat have been carefully thought out.
Emma Morris argues that killing an animal yourself seems more ethically honest. But why is that the case? After all, every one of us benefits from people being willing to do, for money, things we can’t or won’t do ourselves, either out of lack of ability, principled objections or simple squeamishness. There is no obvious moral objection to outsourcing things we want done to those willing to do it, from housework to coal mining to national defense. Why should food production be any different?
As for the argument that hunting is more environmentally sustainable, the claim does have superficial plausibility. Surely it is better, after all, to kill and eat a deer after it has spent its life roaming free and eating clover than to chow down on a steak cut from an industrially fed and slaughtered cow.
The problem is there are simply not enough wild animals to go around. Hunters killed about 6 million deer in North America last year. Meanwhile, 38 million cattle were slaughtered. Since you get five times as much meat from a cow as you do from a deer, to substitute industrially raised beef for wild venison would require a deer harvest in the range of 190 million deer.
That can’t happen, of course, since there are only about 32 million deer in all of North America. But what is so strange about the locavore movement is how much it aims to reverse the single most important factor in the development of civilization, namely, the specialization of skills and the division of labor. The new mantra is to do everything yourself, regardless of time, talent, skill, or inclination.
A handy tip for determining the validity of a moral injunction is to ask yourself, “What if everybody did that?” And it is surely problematic that fully implementing the “sustainable” locavore agenda would result in the extermination of the wild deer population at the hands of a foodie horde.
There’s nothing wrong with the DIY ethos when it is pursued casually or recreationally, and in many ways, doing something for yourself that could be done cheaper and better through outsourcing or automation is the very definition of a hobby.
But locavores don’t see themselves in those terms. Rather, the movement presents itself as a morally progressive and ecologically sustainable way of life that, properly implemented, will reform capitalism, agriculture and the environment.
If anything, the locavore culture ties into an utterly reactionary worldview, seeking to drag society back to the 19th century. But more critically, it is — to put it mildly — a bit of a problem for the gun control lobby that a significant percentage of self-styled progressives are pushing a moral program that requires a massive increase in gun ownership among the very people it ought to be able to count on as its core constituency.
The upshot is, you can believe in local food, or you can believe in gun control. But you almost certainly cannot believe in both.
Andrew Potter is the author of The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, out now in paperback from McLelland & Stewart.
This story first appeared in the April 19 issue of the Ottawa Citizen.