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The Modern Savage
Cover of The Modern Savage
The Modern Savage
Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals
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Just Food author James McWilliams's exploration of the "compassionate carnivore" movement and the paradox of humanity's relationship with animals.


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.

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.

Just Food author James McWilliams's exploration of the "compassionate carnivore" movement and the paradox of humanity's relationship with animals.


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.

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.

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About the Author-
  • JAMES MCWILLIAMS is a writer and historian living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of books on food, animals, and agriculture, including Just Food and A Revolution in Eating. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, Slate, The Atlantic, and a wide variety of other publications.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    November 1, 2014
    McWilliams (History/Texas State Univ.; The Pecan: A History of America's Native Nut, 2013, etc.) takes issue with the locavore movement, which preaches compassionate care of farm animals on nonindustrial farms but slaughters those animals in the end.As a vocal animal rights advocate, the author responds to recent books by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Jonathan Safran Foer, introducing readers to the "omnivore's contradiction"-caring enough about animals raised for meat to offer them a more natural environment in which to live but, of course, ultimately killing them for food. He argues that the food reform movement is based "on an intellectually dishonest foundation" and notes how "[t]houghtful observation strongly suggests that animals exhibit powerful and recognizable emotional responses to a range of experiences." In several chapters, McWilliams transcribes comments and stories from online forums, blogs and posts to further his arguments, quoting others on slaughter and backyard butchery, as well as on raising chicken, beef and pork on small, nonindustrial farms. By all indications, McWilliams did not interview these farmers, and in many cases, he only identifies them by their online names. While small-scale agriculture aspires to give animals a better life, the author points out the occurrence of higher rates of disease than on nonindustrial farms. He critiques many of the claims of small-scale agriculture-e.g., that its animals are healthier, their impact is low, and they are offered a more natural environment and humane treatment. However, the author does not fully condemn small-scale agriculture; rather, he sees it as a necessary steppingstone for many people to eventually cease the eating of animals and adopt a plant-based diet. While McWilliams offers convincing arguments for animal rights, they are undermined by the extensive quotes, which become tiresome and offer little useful context.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    November 15, 2014

    McWilliams (The Politics of the Pasture) argues passionately for empathy toward animals and a radical shift in the way that Americans view eating meat. The author wastes no time laying out his argument, which is pretty straightforward: to kill and consume animals is not tolerable in the modern economy. He contends that the macroanimal slaughter system will continue to mistreat animals even if consumers attempt to buy meats conscientiously, because it will always be the cheaper option. The author is a purist, delving into the subtext of the most outspoken voices criticizing our modern relationship with food. He critiques Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) alike--Foer previously expressed disapproval of Pollan in Eating Animals--as well as Eric Shlosser (Fast Food Nation) for being too tepid. McWilliams stresses that animals are more sentient than we realize: "They may be even more emotionally open to us than our fellow humans, unburdened as animals are by the arts of denial and suppression." Several anecdotes of livestock owners with chickens, cows, and pigs, as well as painful descriptions of slaughtering animals, illustrate this point. VERDICT McWilliams is an expressive and persuasive writer. Unfortunately, his arguments stem predominantly from emotion, rather than reason, and do not persuade compellingly. [See Prepub Alert, 7/21/14.]--Valerie Hamra, Brooklyn

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    January 1, 2015
    The harrowing realities of industrial farming, in which animals are processed as though they were objects instead of sentient beings, have been outed and condemned, revelations that have fostered the more humane, small-scale animal-farm movement. Now historian and agriculture writer McWilliams (The Pecan, 2013) pops the bubble of our belief that these are genuinely compassionate operations. He introduces humane livestock farmers who confess that while they do treat their animals well, they still feel that their work is unethical, especially since many transport their animals to industrial slaughterhouses. As McWilliams stringently details the disappointing and disturbing truth about small-farm operations, he tags the predicament of caring about and for animals, yet killing and eating them, the omnivore's contradiction. McWilliams doesn't deny that conscientious consumers are having a positive impact by choosing humanely produced meat, eggs, and dairy, but it's not enough. We must stop indulging in agricultural fantasies, he writes, and take our compassion for animals and concern for the environment to their logical conclusion. McWilliams' uncompromising call for plant-based food will both rile and rally readers.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2015, American Library Association.)

  • Colorado Springs Independent

    "In The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals, James McWilliams, a historian, makes a philosophical and emotional case for not eating meat at all, and he calls out the locavore movement as built on thoughtless and disingenuous claims...It's hard to argue with the author's points. When it comes to burgers, there are no happy cows."

  • Michelle Kretzer of PETA via IslandPacket.com "McWilliams exposes the pervasive cruelty...and he convincingly presents the only real solution to the problem of industrial animal agriculture: We must stop eating animals."
  • Booklist "McWilliams' uncompromising call for plant-based food will both rile and rally readers."
  • Library Journal "McWilliams is an expressive and persuasive writer."
  • Kirkus Reviews "McWilliams offers convincing arguments for animal rights."
  • Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Ph.D., bestselling author of Dogs Never Lie About Love "I think James McWilliams is far and away the single best writer the vegans have so far produced...One of the most intelligent books I have ever read. His is a powerful voice that will resonate far beyond those interested in animal rights."
  • Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University "McWilliams has issued a powerful challenge to the 'compassionate omnivore' movement. The Modern Savage is a book that everyone concerned about food, animals and the environment should read."
  • Paul Shapiro, vice president, The Humane Society of the United States "James McWilliams ably demonstrates that we've often underestimated the mental lives of farm animals, and that we need to start taking their interests more seriously. He doesn't skirt tough issues nor does he take positions based on what may be popular at the time. Such a moral accounting would lead to a revolution in both how we produce food and what food we eat."
  • Sherry F. Colb, Professor of Law, Cornell University, and author of Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger and Other Questions People Ask Vegans on The Modern Savage "James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound. He explains in plain, accessible, and highly readable language what follows if we reject factory farming as morally reprehensible animal abuse, as most of us do. First, if animals matter morally, then killing them in any context is always wrong when we have a vegan alternative. Second, consumers of "humane" or "sustainable" animal-based foods will be surprised to learn that animal suffering routinely attends local and small-scale animal farming. McWilliams tells a riveting story while building an unassailable argument for veganism as the answer to our well-justified revulsion towards industrialized animal agriculture."
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