March 03, 2010

A Response to PSU’s “Eating Animals” Rountable

March 3, 2010 - Symposium co-chairs Claire Cummings and Ben Mitzner have authored a blog post (on the official ENVS blog) on their experiences at a recent conference at Portland State.

March 3, 2010

We, the Lewis & Clark College Environmental Symposium lead chairs, thought it would be worthwhile to attend Portland State University’s Eating Animals Roundtable Discussion so as to research related school sponsored discussions regarding food and to gain insight for the content and tone we want to set for our upcoming symposium “Following the Food Chain.” We left the event jarred by the discussion and discourse that transpired which has led to the following charged response. We recognize that this is a strongly opinionated article and we hope that in taking such a critically firm stance we will light the fire of controversial debate for our own symposium.

The Eating Animals Roundtable Discussion was intended to be a, “lively discussion of what is increasingly being recognized as one of the most vexing set of issues of our time” (Portland Center for Public Humanities). It was meant to be a forum in which panelists and audience members could discuss and contemplate the nature of eating animals and our role as animals that eat. Unfortunately, this event was anything BUT a roundtable discussion. Discussion is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as, “[the] consideration of a question in open and usually informal debate.” Eating Animals was certainly informal yet seriously lacked the diversity of debate characteristic of an intellectual panel. Speakers Camas Davis, Kathy Hessler, and Ramona Ilea represented a variety of perspectives. Camas the ethical butcher, Kathy the animal lawyer, and Ramona the foodie philosopher should have all butted heads throughout the two hour long roundtable, and still the event felt more like a kumbaya, hand-holding, vegan indoctrination presentation. Where was the controversy, the scrutiny, the questioning? Well, let us back up a moment, there were questions…there was a whole hour dedicated to audience questions…but the questions did not probe, pry or press with substance or style suited for the setting.

This PSU event had groundbreaking potential to hit on ideas we commonly accept and take for granted. Why do we eat meat? Are we a part of the Darwinian food chain and if so, is eating meat merely a nutritious necessity? As carnivores, do we stand above and removed from the rest of the animal kingdom to be deemed an exceptional breed? How do morality, justice, and ethics apply to our dinner plate? When considering these ideals, can the solution be found along the grocery aisle or must the solution go beyond the consumer to grander and greater decisions. THESE are the questions we wish we had heard. We did not need to hear about Joe Schmoe from the back row’s life saga as a vegan. We did not want to hear about how it makes Cindy Lou in the front row cry at night to think about the beakless baby chickens. These were supposed to be debate-oriented questions, not emotional appeals for vegetarianism. There is nothing constructive or effective in approaching these issues in that manner. To be honest, we all blew it. We brought together three fascinating panelists with wonderfully different specialties. We had over an hour in which we could have picked their brains, gained perspective, and formulated knowledgeable opinions yet we spent that time blabbing and pointing fingers. In particular, the arguments of Camas Davis were simply ignored and discredited by some of the most outspoken members of the vegetarian audience. Little meaningful discussion was raised since those who asked questions came forth with pre-conceptions and self-praise that defined the event in a one-sided fashion.


Despite how disappointed we were with the ineffectiveness of the roundtable, we did gain a lot of valuable insight as to qualities and practices we want to replicate (or steer clear of) when producing the 13th Annual Symposium on Environmental Affairs “Following the Food Chain.” Most importantly, we have vowed (for the sake of both panelists and audience members alike) to ensure that questions raised actually end in question marks. In addition, the event allowed us to get in contact with some of the panelists involved; Kathy Hessler has already been helpful in providing provocative ideas worth debating in our panels. Lastly, we believe Camas Davis’ Portland Meat Collective is a great example of an alternative food movement in the Portland area that is trying to change the way our food system operates. In an attempt to remove meat consumers from the snare of the American meat industry, she proposes a local “relational” economy in which meat eaters have an emotional relationship with the animals that produce their meat and dairy. It is just a shame that people, even in Portland, cannot look past their own engrained beliefs and recognize that such an attempt to go against the status quo is valuable, even if it means meat is still part of the daily diet.


We encourage any comments or questions so please feel free to contact us (Claire Cummings and Ben Mitzner) at and