There are those who produce energy and those who consume it. Plants are energy producers. They are known as autotrophs because they are nutritionally autonomous, requiring only sunlight, air, water, and minerals. Self-feeding, they don’t have to kill for living (with the rare exception of carnivorous plants, such as the Venus flytrap). And then there are the rest of us. Animals of any kind—mammals, birds, insects, fish, and us humans—consume others, we are heterotrophs (hetero meaning “other”). That’s our existential hell: to live we have to kill, and there’s no way around it (at least not yet).

This dynamic is too natural to be an issue of ethics. Nature is beyond ethics. Ultimately, I see heterotrophic eating not as a matter of ethics, but as an existential predicament: we’re trapped in a death-propagating cycle. But—and this is going to sound like science fiction—we don’t have to stay on this circuit of existential hell. We can evolve. In our dim, distant origins, we share a lineage with plant life. This opens the door to the possibility that we can, at least in theory, also learn to produce energy. We can learn (or relearn) how to photosynthesize (see related post, Metabolic Independence).

In the meantime, I leave you with a call for ahimsa—not with a call for nonharm or nonviolence (at this point, that’s only possible for plants, not for animals), but with a call for harm reduction. Kill (to eat) only as much as you need, and do it with compassion and gratitude, whether you are of the meat-eating or plant-eating persuasion.

Let me close this with the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti:

“A person is not virtuous because he doesn’t eat meat, nor is he any less virtuous because he does.” (1977, 166)

A person is virtuous because he or she is conscious of others. And wherever there is consciousness of others, there tends to dwell compassion.

Adapted from Reinventing the Meal





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    Last reviewed: 17 Sep 2012

APA Reference
Somov, P. (2012). Heterotroph’s Dilemma. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2015, from


Select books by Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.:
Mindful Emotional Eating Reinventing the Meal
Present Perfect
Eating the Moment

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