The Modern Savage / James McWilliams

Title: The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals

Author: James McWilliams

Genre: Nonfiction

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, January 6th 2015

Pages: 30451J8isIn+TL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Synopsis: In the last four decades, food reformers have revealed the ecological and ethical problems of eating animals raised in industrial settings, turning what was once the boutique concern of radical eco-freaks into a mainstream movement. Although animal products are often labeled “cage free,” “free range,” and “humanely raised,” can we trust these goods to be safe, sound, or ethical?

In The Modern Savage, renowned writer, historian, and animal advocate James McWilliams pushes back against the questionable moral standards of a largely omnivorous world and explores the “alternative to the alternative”—not eating domesticated animals at all. In poignant, powerful, and persuasive prose, McWilliams reveals the scope of the cruelty that takes place even on the smallest and—supposedly—most humane animal farms. In a world increasingly aware of animals’ intelligence and the range of their emotions, McWilliams advocates for the only truly moral, sustainable choice—a diet without meat, dairy, or other animal products.

McWilliams’s The Modern Savage is a riveting expose of an industry that has typically hidden behind a veil of morality, and a compelling account of how to live a more economical, environmental, and ethical life.


To the next person who asks me why I’m vegan: this book is the answer. McWilliams’ The Modern Savage attempts to expose the cruelty that prevails on small, non-industrial, “humane” farms much in the way that Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation exposed the cruelty that prevails on factory farms. The first third of the book discusses our emotional disconnect to the animals we raise for food, how it is okay to eat pigs and chickens, but the thought of killing household pets like cats or dogs is forbidden. Why is it okay to eat some animals and not others? He moves on from that quickly to get to the root of his argument: the stigma of people who reject to idea of factory farming and adopt a lifestyle of eating animal products that are raised the right way: outdoors, locally, organically, and by small-scale family farmers. This is something McWilliams calls the “omnivore’s contradiction.”

This is the part of the book that make the most impact on me. A large passage walks us through the process of an industrial slaughterhouse, a process that most nonindustrial raised animals end up going through despite their more pampered living conditions. It only comes to show that paying more for “organic” just to feel better about death still leads to death, and often a horrible one at that. 

The rest of the book focuses on details of nonindustrial farming that is sure to raise some eyebrows. McWilliams’ walks us through the process of backyard butchery, the false portrayal of the small animal farm as a peaceful, happy place, and the truth that any form of animal exploitation harbors considerable suffering for all those involved. 

Towards the end of the book, I felt that McWilliams pulls away from his original clear-cut argument that animals just shouldn’t be eaten. Period. He finishes the last few pages with this statement: “Although I’ve spent much of this book illuminating the hidden problems of nonindustrial animal agriculture, I’ve occasionally hit the brakes and noted that the small-scale systems, for all their problems, are still better for animals than the factory farm …. As much as I would like to simply plant my flag and declare an end of eating domesticated and hunted animals, and conclude the discussion, my experience as an advocate for animals has (through some hard knocks) taught me that most people undergo behavioral changes in gradual stages rather than heroic leaps …. The nonindustrial operations profiled in the book provide some (realistic options). They are hardly ideal, but in the short term they offer a nominally better life for animals and a nominally better choice for humans.”

This contradiction immediately sent me thinking about the beginning of the book. What he was leaving the reader with went against everything he had spent the last 224 pages arguing for. 

Despite this sudden change of heart at the very end of the book, McWilliams lays down a solid foundation for anyone wishing to learn the truth about nonindustrial farming. His writing is easy to understand and the book is set up in a format that easily covers his wide span of topics.

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