Archive for the ‘Vegan Activism’ Category
I want to pick up an idea from my last post and make some critical distinctions. In the post I questioned the logic of fighting for animal welfare without explicitly opposing animal agriculture per se. When I put a variation of this concern to welfare-standards architect Andrew Gunther, he disingenuously responded that “death is not a welfare issue.” To which I wrote: that’s patently ludicrous. It is THE ultimate welfare issue.
Reflecting on the piece, I realized something beyond the simple illogic of Gunther’s response bothered me. Indeed, something about the complete phrase he used— “death is not a welfare issue; quality of life is a welfare issue”—elevated my annoyance to a new level. Why? I think it has something to do with my deeply held belief that any resort to simplistic sloganeering suggests, if not the cover up of an unpleasant reality, then at least intellectual laziness, or something like it. Yes, we seek slogans to simplify, and doing so is often necessary. But we also seek them to distort. And, in my gut, that’s what I think is happening in this case. And it’s not excusable.
Two things to note here. First, I do not disagree per se with organized attempts to promote animal welfare standards. I endorse any move that will improve a farm animal’s full quality of life. But I also have to agree with the larger vision behind the articulation. I must, in other words, understand and support the purity and scope of the underlying motives. If the motive is to improve the lives of animals while doing nothing to promote the complete end of animal agriculture, and if the failure to confront animal agriculture as a whole is obscured in a pithy phrase, I’m hesitant to endorse the effort. In fact I’m prone to lash out. But if the motive is to simultaneously improve welfare standards while working transparently to end the system that makes those standards necessary in the first place, I’m on board. In short: proper framing, scope of vision, motivations—these factors matter. But saying “death is not a welfare issue” denies their importance.
Now, if an individual or organization chooses to take the latter approach—trying to enhance animal welfare while also attempting to end animal agriculture as a whole—the question of logical consistency arguably persists. Readers of Gary Francione get this point about as well as you’d get a hammer to the head. Those who support welfare reforms can quickly end up stretched across his well-grooved chopping block for not conceding the point. And why not, you inconsistent nitwit? How, after all, can you advocate animal abolition and incremental welfare improvements at the same time?! Hard to square that circle. But here in Realityville, the fact remains: it needs to be attempted. So, rather than devise some bullshit slogan, or seek refuge in some la-la land of moral perfection, we’d be much better off declaring “I realize that this might seem contradictory,” owning that apparent inconsistency, and moving ahead as the inherently flawed but essentially good creatures that we are. Again, no slogan required.
My second point is related (and shorter). No matter what role we play in the broad sweep of animal advocacy, we have to shoot straight. If an idea has a weak flank, acknowledge it. If a tactic has a downside, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. If your move backfires, admit it. If your vision is impossibly idealistic, defend it on those grounds. More to the point, I guess, is this: when you make qualified progress—say, by getting farmers to adopt some nominal improvements for animal welfare—don’t declare victory. Because it’s not a victory. It’s a noble and perhaps inevitable duty undertaken in the context of an agrarian mentality we’ve inherited and cannot easily expunge. In my mind there are no victories until we end animal agriculture once and for all–erase that mentality for good. But we’ll never get there if we don’t accept this challenge for what it is and stop using words to obscure inadequate tactics grounded in moral cowardice.
I collaborated on this piece with Kip Anderson, co-director (with Keegan Kuhn) of Cowspiracy.
At this very moment, thousands of environmentalists are marching through the streets of New York. They do so to undertake what environmentalist Bill McKibben calls “the biggest demonstration in the history of the climate movement.” The driving motivation for the first People’s Climate March is a fiercely grassroots message as inspiring as it is true: “movements can shift political power—in fact, little else ever does.”
History demonstrates that McKibben is correct—but with one critical caveat: the movement must be focused on the right targets. It is on this point that today’s march, for all its passion, could lead the environmental movement down a jagged path.
Modern environmentalism assumes that our ecological fall from grace began a century ago with the transition to fossil fuels. This assumption explains the movement’s focus on gas pipelines and university divestment from fossil fuel multinationals. While it’s certainly true that our reliance coal, oil, and gas remains endemic to our current ecological predicament, our original environmental sin is rooted in an older and more fundamental transition: the domestication of animals.
You often hear environmentalists claim that there are too many people on planet Earth–about 7 billion. Well, the industrialization of agriculture has culminated in a global agricultural system that annually domesticates and slaughters an astounding 70 billion land animals. Producing over 300 million tons of meat a year arguably represents the most destructive misallocation of natural resources in all human history, one that contributes disproportionately to the core issues that The People’s Climate March will address: global warming, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.
The most recent research on these issues pretty much ruins your steak dinner. We now know that at least 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to the production of land-based animals. Livestock are the leading cause of methane and nitrous oxide emissions—gasses phenomenally more potent than carbon dioxide. Scientists predict that the livestock sector alone might account for 70 percent of the future greenhouse gas emissions expected to raise the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees. If we allow business as usual to proceed, emissions from agriculture will rise another 80 percent by 2050.
When it comes to biodiversity loss, domesticated critters are equally culpable. No less than 75 percent of the planet’s agricultural land (30 percent of the world’s ice free surface) is used to raise animals for food. To really understand how this allocation endangers natural ecosystems, one need look no further than the Brazilian rainforest, where cattle are the direct cause of 70 percent of deforestation. When the global population hits 9 billion, as it’s predicted to do by 2050, if we all ate a western diet, 70-100% more cropland will be needed for agricultural production.
Then there’s the issue that’s on every environmentalist’s mind these days: water. From the perspective of fresh water, animal agriculture is inherently irresponsible. After all, the water footprint of any domesticated animal-based product is larger than that of any plant with the same nutritional worth. Plant-based food requires 8 times less water to produce than the caloric equivalent of an animal-based food. Our ongoing failure to acknowledge this inefficiency has resulted in feed production that uses 27 percent of irrigation water in the United States. If we do nothing, the water used globally to produce animal feed will double by 2050. This would make today’s water situation look like a period of abundance.
Environmentalists hate this news. To the limited extent that eco-leaders have addressed these concerns, they’ve suggested we eat animals raised under non-industrial conditions. Free range, humane, antibiotic free—that kind of stuff. But for all the positive attention lavished on these so-called “regenerative” or “holistic” systems—systems that liberate animals from confinement and place them on pasture—there’s no evidence that they would work on global scale. Animals being animals, their impact on land, water, and air quality would remain greater than that of plants. After interviewing Allan Savory, the world’s leading proponent of pasture-based animal agriculture, The Guardian’s George Monbiot concluded: ”He makes claims about his techniques which are not only implausible but appear to be scientifically impossible.”
Here’s something that not at all implausible: transitioning to a plant-based diet would have a profoundly positive ecological impact. Eliminating domesticated animals for food would allow us to re-wild hundreds of millions of acres of land currently in production. Research shows that, in the UK, consuming just 50 percent less meat and replacing it with plant-based food would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent. On the level of the individual, the average meat eater would more than halve the carbon footprint of his diet by eliminating meat altogether. This option requires no leap of faith—just a dietary shift. It’s the most accessible option we have. And it happens to be the best.
Despite the preponderance of evidence that a plant-based diet would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve substantial amounts of water, and stem habitat destruction, leading environmental organizations have proven reluctant to advocate such a transition. But if we truly care about the environment, this convenient “we don’t tell people what to do” attitude must change. If the modern environmental movement neglects to recognize the connection between climate change and the billions of animals we raise each year for food, it will wake up to find it has missed the swiftest and most elegant solution at hand while devouring our way into a climate crisis. Today, as we implore global leaders to take action on climate change, let us not forget that the answer to today’s environmental crisis is directly in front us, right on our plates.
Last month I was fortunate be on Our Hen House’s TV program in Brooklyn (that’s not me above, but I appear about 21 minutes in). Mariann and Jasmin asked terrific questions, gave me ample time to answer, and allowed me to present many of the ideas that I develop in The Modern Savage. I think you will be impressed both by the content and quality of production.
Beginning tomorrow, and lasting through August 20, the city of Denver will promote the gratuitous slaughter of animals who were raised with love. On Sunday you can get bison; Monday “sheep is the star”; Tuesday is pig night; Wednesday it’s cow. Every meal will be served at a restaurant that prides itself on morally commmodfying sentient animals who farmers respected while they lived, before selling their bodies for cash. The event is called “Hoofin It” and “farm to table” is the mantra. As The Denver Post reports, “a different hooved animal will be showcased every evening.” Cost of the showcase: $60.
Now, critics of animal agriculture, as well as animal advocates, have become all too familiar with these sort of Orwellian stunts. Essentially, what these events do is obscure systematic suffering under the false guise of humanity in order to serve a range of financial interests and a popular taste for animal flesh. It’s insulting, really. We’re especially accustomed to the oxymoronic–not to mention moronic—sponsorships of these moral carnivals: ethical butchers, humane animal farmers, compassionate carnivores, and the like. It thus may come as a surprise that the sponsor of “Hoofin It” is . . . . The Humane Society of the United States.
As you might imagine, there’s been outrage over this. Why would an organization that works so diligently to reduce the consumption of meat promote the consummation of meat? One letter I received from a Colorado critic of the event explained, “Needless to say, the vegan community in Colorado is quite upset with HSUS’ sponsorship of this event and has notified HSUS of their concern.” Here is what HSUS wrote by way of an explanation:
My thoughts on this response too are many to articulate, and none of them are in sympathy. But in a nutshell it’s safe to say that there’s a fundamental difference between encouraging more humane methods of animal agriculture and throwing a party to celebrate animal slaughter. There’s simply no hoofin it around HSUS’s craven capitulation to compromise on this event. Shame.
(HSUS’s response came from Sarah Barnett. You can reach her here: Sarah Barnett <email@example.com>)
I attended The Seed—”two days of vegan exploration”—in New York City last weekend (I was there not as a speaker but as a talking head in a documentary filmed on the premises). There was a lot a to celebrate.
The line for the event stretched far down Mercer St., in Soho; the crowd was nominally more diverse than most Veg Fests I’ve been to, at least in the conventional measure of diversity; inside, the event had doubled in size from when I’d gone two years earlier; and the structure had improved as well: no more speakers trying to talk in the same room with all the vendors, a distraction for everyone as I recall. Finally, the mood was upbeat and a sense in a better future pervaded the event. All good.
One critical remark I’d make was that (with a couple of exceptions) The Seed did not offer enough for the thinking vegan—that is, the kind of person interested in the philosophical and ethical implications of eating—to sink her teeth into. I make this remark having attended the event for only one day (huge caveat), but my overall impression was that the dominant themes (from the speakers) were about personal health and physical fitness. Cooking demos—which can be great (just witness JL Fields) and are critical for the vegan curious—were ubiquitous alongside talks about how vegans can have muscles. Really big muscles.
Again, I make this observation well-aware that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this choice, especially as the event is geared as an “exploration.” But it’s important to have balance, primarily because people explore for a variety of reasons, many of them headier than we know. If the curious are only exploring to discover new recipes and hopes for a better body and nicer skin, and all you give them are new recipes and a vegan prescription for a better body and nicer skin, then you have not established any sort of baseline for a life-long and permanent decision. At some point, you need to drive home the larger message with something deeper than salad recipes and rippled biceps in order for that to happen.
As I see it, our relationship with the animal world should come first—in fact, animals should come first, or at least ahead of our concerns over our LDL cholesterol levels—while all other factors should play necessary but supporting roles.
But what do I know? As I had a late-afternoon coffee (why is there so much great coffee in New York?!) with a friend who is a vegan academic and teaches classes on animals and activism, I learned that his veganism may not have happened without the help of all the meat replacements and junk food that I had complained about as weighing down the vendors’ tables at the event. (Although I did eat a delicious grilled kale salad and some seed bread with guacamole.) So, as usual, I make my comments well aware that there are many ways for this seed to sprout.
Thing is, speaking for myself, I just left The Seed with my stomach fuller than my head.
After years of this kind of writing, the kind of writing I do here, I’m starting to see my name preceded by “vegan author.” Naturally. I identify as a vegan and thus am happy to embrace the qualification. That said, I don’t really put it out there myself. When people ask for a bio, I send them a description that fails to note that I’m a vegan. I’m wondering what’s up with this hesitancy.
I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that, technically speaking, I’m not a vegan. I ride in vehicles with leather seats when I could opt out. I drive a car and have run over squirrels and birds and snakes and not really cared too much about it. I’m certain I’d have no qualms eating insects and am even more certain that I already have, although inadvertently, eaten insects—just this morning, in fact, on a gorgeous ten-mile run down some winding streets in Maine (several gnats in my craw). Insofar as veganism is living in a way “that does not exploit animals,” according to the Vegan Society, I fail on more accounts than I care to mention. Moreover—key point to note—I could change my actions to reduce that exploitation: but I don’t. Too damn inconvenient.
Another reason that I’m ambivalent about shouting my vegan status from the moutaintops is that I’ve noticed over the years how, for those who aggressively identify as vegan, their veganism is primarily about the depth of their personal loyalty (and the inadequacy of others’) rather than on reducing animal suffering. By giving the habit we hope to prevail a Name, by tattooing it on our arms and celebrating as the numbers joining the club grow, and touting that Name above all else, we forget that social change does not happen when everyone joins in and gets stamped with a V. There’s something possibly cultish-smelling here that, however right it might be, grates against my sense of radical individualism, not to mention that this “us and them” way to see the world seems misguided and alienating to a lot of people.
Here’s something I think about a lot: before I became vegan—or, stopped eating animal products (I recall being impressed with a person) a really charismatic person—asking that his pizza come without cheese or meat. He did this without hesitation in front of a dozen hipster meat eaters. When I asked him why, he said animals were treated terribly to bring food to the plate and he wanted to minimize his role in that suffering. He never said he was a vegan and he never proselytized. At that point in my life, if he had done either, I would have thought “extreme” and ordered the jambon. Instead, he quietly and unknowingly pushed me in the direction of where I am now—a vegan in name, albeit a hesitant one rather comfortable with ambiguity and uncomfortable with a label.
Next week Slow Food USA will host an event called Slow Meat 2014. Allan Savory, the current guru of rotational grazing, will deliver the keynote address. Obscuring the ethics of slaughter behind culinary rhetoric, the event—among other stunts—will “honor” the American bison (the meeting is in Colorado) with an “artistic, narrated breakdown.” Which basically means Slow Foodies will slaughter the bison, butcher him, and discuss their actions with high-minded intentionality. They will not rush.
Ellen Kennelly (a frequent participant at the Pitchfork) and I recently discussed the importance of getting ahead of the media on these issues by attempting to preempt predictably uncritical coverage. Any reporter covering this event, for example, should understand that Allan Savory’s colleagues have seriously questioned his research. They should also know that there are ethical implications to killing a sentient animal for the purposes of entertainment and culinary indulgence. Fast food or slow, these issues should be addressed, or at least fall on the media radar. In an important respect, there’s a reason that thousands of people will gather to witness the slaughter of a bison and not question the act: a lack of knowledge.
To that end, Ellen—who is one of those people who is constantly engaging the public on animal issues in the most tactful and effective manner—wrote the following letter to her acquaintances in the Slow Food club. It’s an invitation to discuss the issues that concern animal advocates. Not fight over. Discuss. She also outlined for me the kind of information we should seek to present to those who attend and write about this event. I think it’s all very smart.
The meeting will happen. Slow Food will go on. The bison will die and be eaten. But that doesn’t mean our outrage can’t exist more publicly, in the mainstream media, rather than merely seething in the confines of our little blogs.
I trust you will share this information far and wide.
My son and I just finished the final episode of Masterchef Junior. It’s a compelling show. I’d even say that—the obvious detriment notwithstanding—it’s a great show. Kids aged 8-13 draw upon a wealth of hidden talent and experience to cook meals that could be featured in any top restaurant in the country. The show offers an important reminder that, when parents back off a bit and let kids loose they can force you to redefine “age appropriate” behavior. Inspired, my son has practically commandeered the kitchen and gone to work. I’m now watching him make a vegan tempura batter. Yum.
Now, to that obvious detriment notwithstanding. The recipes on Masterchef Junior would make a carnivore quiver like a tuning fork. When the judges taste the superlative results emanating from the kids’ kitchen, their reaction is visceral. They lurch forward, brows furrowed, eyes rolling back into their heads. “I want to give you a hug,” one of them might say. Or, “this meal could be a restaurant’s signature dish.” The kids beam.
The suffering behind it all is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. The failure to connect the animal products to the animals was especially clear when the kid who ended up winning the competition—aged 13—cooked a meal that the judges said was the best they’d seen and tasted in four years. It was a veal chop. With that victory, the essence of our culture’s disconnection from the food we eat was affirmed. My son and I could not help but note that the winner won because he cooked a baby cow.
Vegans are increasingly getting involved in all sorts of video projects, many of which are necessarily dark and depressing. A cooking show that featured kids cooking first rate vegan meals, being judged by top vegan chefs, could be a great way to raise awareness, celebrate kids’ interest in plant-based cuisine, and demonstrate that a vegan, too, can melt with pleasure when tasting finely prepared food.
There are few ambitions more audacious than trying to convince someone to change his diet on ethical grounds. Eating is, at its core, an act of personal intimacy and nobody really wants to be instructed on how to be intimate. We like to think we’ve got that one figured out.
This point is one that a lot of animal advocates forget when we present our case with what seems like airtight moral logic, only to then be ignored or scorned by folk who are perfectly happy with their BLT and BBQ, thank you very much.
It drives animal advocates a bit nuts. When we congregate we will often say, somewhat plaintively, “when will people realize what they’re doing to animals? When will change happen?!” Brows furrow. Heads shake in frustration.
The problem with the question, of course, is that it rests on the flawed assumption that humans respond to moral logic with appropriate behavioral change. Not only is this wrong, and not only is the moral logic we espouse rarely as persuasive as we think it is, but the truly daunting fact of the matter is that, in politely asking humanity to stop eating animals, we overlook how eating animals is more than a cultural choice. It’s a biological act rooted in our deepest eco-evolutionary past.
Now, that doesn’t make it right (as readers know I’m well aware). But let’s take this seriously: a couple million years of hunting and gathering, not to mention the adaptation of the human brain to life on the African savannah, makes the carnivore doet a pretty freakin’ tenacious habit
Three aspects of our evolutionary legacy strike me as particularly relevant to the claim that, when it comes to eating animals, the past has a commanding and assuredly long-term hold on the present. In this post, I’ll note just one.
It has to do with the experimental backstory to the human carnivore’s diet. As a species, hominids did not burst on the scene and start eating a standard diet appropriate to their needs.
The standard diet appropriate f0r hominids (and homo sapiens) in the pre-agricultural era was forged through endless and terrifying trial and error. Plants and animals were tested, accepted, rejected. They were savored, flavored, regurgitated. People routinely died because of poor dietary choices. Others thrived.
In other words, an essential part of becoming and being human involved testing the natural world to see what would keep us in the game. A tremendous amount of evolutionary energy was invested in this process, one that, by virtue of hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated assessments of what “works,” made eating at least some meat central to being human.
That fact might run counter to contemporary animal ethics, but it’s a heavy anchor to pull up all at once.
Here is what an orca whale eats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “a wide range of prey, including fish, seals, and big whales such as blue whales.” They also consume herring, cod, squid, and octopus. They are actually the largest known marine mammals to kill and eat other mammals, consuming 375-500 pounds of food a day.
In no way bound to the ethical standards of humans, they are, nonetheless, massive destroyers of sentient life. They have to be in order to live. But they don’t, as it turns out, eat humans. Not because they take pity on us. But because we’re too bony and don’t smell right. Plus, they never see us in the wild. We generally don’t swim in their waters.
I mention these details not as a lead-in into yet another story on SeaWorld, but as an attempt to make sense of Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson’s truly bizarre recent claim that, “I would rather have been born an orca.” Evidently he’s serious. “No kidding,” he writes, “I really would.”
Why would he want to be an orca? Humans, so quick to the pull the trigger on each other, have dismayed Masson so thoroughly—we killed 200 million of our own in the 2oth century–that he wants to join the orca clan because orcas have “killed exactly zero of their kind.” In this respect—the fact that they spare their own—he adores their “gentle lives.” Intended to be a plea for compassion, Masson’s gambit is really an expression of self-preservation and moral exoneration.
First the self-preservation. Masson’s main problem with humans, at least as he articulates it in the article, is that we kill other humans. This intra-species violence is why he wants to jump ship from humanity and join the “gentle” orca community, a species that shreds to death some of the smartest creatures alive and eats their children. Note that Masson doesn’t condemn humans for killing other species, as orcas do (and he would get to do as an orca), but only for killing each other. So the claim, although hardly his intention, ultimately suggests that Masson wants to leave the human world and join the orcas because he’d be safer and maybe live longer.
Being an orca would also let Masson off the ethical hook, allowing him to become a guiltless shredder of ocean animals while garnering respect from Masson-types as peace-lovers for not killing their own (or humans). In his tirade against his own, Masson writes, “There may be no orca heroes, but nor are there orca psychopaths . . .” What Masson fails to acknowledge is that, because there are no orca psychopaths, there are also no orca animal rights activists. There are no orcas who will stand up and say, “stop the slaughter of our octopi brethren!”
So, if Masson were an orca he would a) destroy blue whales while b) bearing none of the ethical responsibility for doing so. As a human, though, he admirably has assumed the burden of responsibility (writing wonderful books on animals), a burden that he would, if his wish came true, toss off as casually as he did this silly article.