Book Review: The Shotgun Conservationist by Brant MacDuff

Book Review: The Shotgun Conservationist by Brant MacDuff

With a compelling hook and a strong plug in the Audubon magazine, The Shotgun Conservationist had my attention immediately. In it, conservation advocate and writer Brant MacDuff set out to prove to all skeptics that hunters are valuable members of the conservation movement. At least, that is what I take his core argument to have been. And if that’s the case, I think he did a pretty swell job at it although I would have already agreed with you. Anyone who studies wildlife conservation can tell you that hunting programs raise a fair bit of money for habitat protection, and that hunters are one of many groups of people invested in keeping our wildlife numbers healthy. However, the cover tries to sensationalize the argument by wording it a different way in the subtitle: “Why Environmentalists Should Love Hunting”. I think this was more marketing than anything, but it sets this biased and uneven book up for failure by over-promising. Yes, I am an environmentalist. No, I do not love hunting. And whenever it felt like MacDuff was trying to change my mind on that, it came across as smarmy and reductive rather than convincing.

That’s a very critical way to start this review, so let me say for the record that MacDuff has an excellent voice and I’d happily read more from him in the future. The personal stories were often interesting and this is a perspective worth sharing: a young left-leaning hunter trying to explain their views on meat and food systems. Unfortunately it often gets mired in the same problems that young left-leaning people get mired in when arguing touchy subjects: needless judginess against those who feel differently than you do, drilling down too much on specific arguments and just glossing over nuance or poor optics.

Rarely do we get any actual description of the killing done. This is something that I was hoping to get out of the book, because my core problem with hunting is the act of killing a living being. I don’t like squishing bugs, so I certainly don’t like shooting deer. Hearing how somebody comes to accept that experience with ease is something I’d need to hear to be convinced. But instead we get a lot more focus on the creature’s meat, i.e. what you get after the shot is fired, I suppose because it makes for easier reading. MacDuff is right about most of what he says: local meat is better for the environment than factory farmed meat, and being a hunter means putting some of your money into the protection of nature. But these are pragmatic and incomplete arguments. They work if you’re explaining why hunting is necessary, they don’t work to make it seem like something we should love so much as something we should accept.

Early in the book, MacDuff goes on a little rant about a young couple who are stunned to see a cooked chicken with all the parts (face, etc) still visible and attached. To the author, this is fundamentally hypocritical: if you’re willing to eat the flesh of a dead animal, you should be willing to confront the reality of the creature that it was. If you can’t, so he claims, you’re hiding from the realities of meat to make yourself feel better. This little anecdote taps into a core thesis of the book: if you don’t like hunting but you do eat meat, you’re just skirting responsibility for the deaths of animals. I’ve grappled with this a lot. In a way, it’s the most effective argument of the book in terms of the impact it had on my thinking. I’m not sure I agree with all the ways in which this thesis is used in the book, but I have no real argument against its core. One problem: the logical endpoint of the argument isn’t hunting, it’s vegetarianism.

MacDuff himself tried to go off meat at a young age but failed, citing common excuses about how their parents would cook meat anyway. As an adult, they’ve simply said they love eating meat and feel that plant-based alternatives are worse for the environment anyway. This is where the book started to get a little frustrating for me. The author routinely cites environmental “superiority” when convenient, but never in questioning their own habits. He says that he doesn’t want children anyway, but also feels happy to know that not having children is one of the best things we can do for our ecological footprint. He says that hunting his own meat allows him to avoid the supply chain pollution and land-and-water-wasting ways of major farming. He routinely tells us that we have to vote with our wallets and spend money on sustainable foods. But he admits that his vegetarianism failed not due to a belief in local food systems, but due to convenience and personal interest. As an adult, he seems to feel no desire to reassess his consumption of meat and regularly talks about the wasted resources of plant-based alternatives. All of this logic is retroactive: MacDuff wanted to eat meat, and then found ways to justify it. They know very well that changes in diet are not possible for everybody, and talks at length about the affordability of superstore meats, but never misses an opportunity to frame his own desires as being a moral high ground.

Make no mistake, hunting became a desire for him. Posing for a picture with a deer skull, MacDuff wrote about their affinity for meat, slaughtering, etc., in ways I simply can’t relate to. Yes, I eat meat that is hunted or farmed by somebody and then butchered and processed and shipped and cooked. But it feels dishonest for MacDuff to frame his own path as a possible one for me when his entrance into hunting had just as much to do with a curiosity I lack as it did with a desire to eat better. If I’m a hypocrite, the hypocrisy lies in my eating of meat at all.

MacDuff is correct through a lot of this text but a lot of the important persuasive material could have been in a single chapter. I’m sure hearing about hunting’s roots in conservation will be interesting and positive for a lot of people, and if this book makes people feel more welcome to try hunting out I think that’s great. But the cover promised a love for hunting and I haven’t budged an inch. I already knew most of the relevant facts shared here, and MacDuff’s description of hunting (especially in opposition to non-consumptive nature lovers like birders) came across as needlessly tribalistic and petty. I’ve gone to Audubon meetings full of nature lovers that are giving their time and money towards preserving wildlife. I don’t need to be lectured on how non-hunters fail to contribute to their outdoor hobbies.

Should I stop eating meat altogether? Probably. But there’s a core philosophical disconnect here. I don’t believe that the ends justify the means when it comes to “voting with our dinner plates” in late stage capitalism. Not to get all “no ethical consumption” to get around my own contradictions, but Brant MacDuff consumes plenty of industrial animal products in his day to day life. Trying to limit these is good, trying to eat local is good, but I see it as a gradual “do the best you can” sort of sliding scale rather than a stark line that everyone stands on one end of. In that regard, hunting is a positive but not an answer. And killing is something I don’t think I’ll ever be ok with. My food will always require suffering to be harvested, even if I’m a vegetarian, but just because I don’t want to shoot a gun, or just because a couple was shocked by a chicken’s face on their plate, does not imply a moral failure. A failure of our food systems, sure. A failure of our government, sure. But it is reductive to frame this specific individual choice as having deep ethical implications in a vacuum. Because again, this isn’t a book about eating better. It’s a book about shooting deer. I don’t think people who shoot deer are evil. But if people think I’m evil because I don’t, I just don’t see a middle ground we can reach.

This book failed when it limited its own scope for a strong hook. Focusing entirely on a deep loyalty for the hunting community, MacDuff skips over the questions of why we struggle with animal death and right into his own personal feelings and wishes. In doing so, it missed the mark for me. I hope it helps people. I think MacDuff is a charming writer, and I think hunting is a nuanced issue. But this was a slog of a read.