Archive for the ‘Vegan Activism’ Category
In response to my last post, several readers have pointed out the prevalence of animal products in everyday consumer goods, as well as our myriad indirect associations with animal exploitation. My response? Aside from “thank you,”
This reality you have duly highlighted, after all, only further supports the larger case that I’m making with the beef-fat-fuel example.*
And that case is this: given the ubiquity of animal products in the world around us, as well as the numerous ways in which our voluntary activities harm/kill animals, veganism as currently understood is less a clear moral baseline line than a circumscribed choice to avoid animal products in relatively easy and accessible contexts.
Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t avoid those animal products in those relatively easy situations, or that we shouldn’t strive to do so in the harder cases as well. It’s only to say that if we engage in actions such as driving or flying—things we could give up but won’t because it would seriously put a crimp in our life—we are, technically speaking, violating the spirit of vegan.
Now, one could say that the point here isn’t to be perfect but to do the best we can, always striving to be better, always recognizing the challenges posed by reality, always working toward the ideal. Well, amen to that!
But we have to recognize that this kind of approach to ameliorative social change closely associates veganism with religious belief, and that association makes it harder for vegan advocates to impose their agenda on others. (Plus, I think what vegans want—a recognition of the fundamental moral standing of sentient animals—-transcends religion.)
In any case, just to clarify: it seems as if some readers are under the impression that I’m looking for an excuse to throw off the gloves of morality, gleefully poke holes in veganism, and eat meat. Not so.
So not so.
I’m just asking questions about the term vegan itself, the term that we use to make sense of our moral regard for sentient animals, and question whether or not there is a better way to encapsulate the vegan ideology, a way that is more inclusive, less alienating, less cultish-seeming, and more tolerant of various personal processes.
That’s all that’s happening here.
*Which, in a basic way, is different than say leather seats on an airplane, or animal products in tires, in the sense that a plane is not reupholstered every time it takes off, and the tires on a bike are rarely changed, whereas fuel is an ongoing resource demand. I think this is a matter of degree with qualitative implications.
Fact: driving a car kills animals.
This killing is not necessarily intentional. But, because we know that killing insects, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, birds, and so on is inevitable, the killing cannot be called completely unintentional either. Driving is the collateral damage of getting from point A to point B, a reluctant form of animal sacrifice we allow in order to take journeys that add immensely to the quality of human life.
I have noted elsewhere that driving presents the vegan with a conundrum, and this proposition has been met considerable resistance. So allow me to think out loud on this.
I believe driving presents a conundrum because vegans aim to avoid exploiting animals whenever they possibly can. The decisions to not eat them, wear them, or exploit them for research or entertainment offer the most obvious ways of fulfilling this larger mission. Vegans I know do these things admirably well and, without doubt, they are making the world a better place for animals.
But the avoidance of eating, wearing, or exploiting animals for research or entertainment is veganism’s low hanging fruit. It’s relatively easy, or at least something most of us can realistically do right now and right away. The fact that only about 1-3 percent of Americans do it is sort of distressing, but still, it can be done with little preparation or alteration to one’s way of life.
But driving? For obvious reasons, driving is much, much harder to avoid. But let’s face it: it can be avoided. Many people, in fact, radically alter their lives to avoid driving. I can sit here and assure you that I will not do this. But, fact is, I could. Fact is, my consideration of animal welfare does not extend far enough for me to make that sacrifice. Any vegan who drives must, I would venture, have to agree with this difficult admission.
The common response to this conundrum has been to stretch the definition of veganism to include the idea of doing what’s “pragmatically possible.” Not eating animals is pragmatically possible, it is said. To stop driving is not.
This move, however, doesn’t really work, if for no other reason than the fact that “pragmatic” introduces a big gray area hiding a slippery slope. Giving up driving might not be pragmatic for you, but for the next person, giving up the chicken soup that grandma makes every Christmas Eve isn’t pragmatic, either. Being ostracized from your family over not eating a meal that is going to be made either way is not pragmatic. Pragmatism, in essence, is inherently relative. Nobody can place limits on what it is.
To the extent that driving forces vegans into a reliance on pragmatism, it forces us to acknowledge that, in reality, a less clear distinction separates the vegan from the non-vegan than is popularly thought. For example, a vegan who does not eat meat but drives every day will kill more animals than the non-vegan who never drives but eats grandma’s chicken once a year to preserve familial harmony.
That’s a tough thing to acknowledge. But we must. So, perhaps instead of thinking about the world as comprised of vegan and non-vegans, we might consider thinking about the world as full of people who exist on a continuum of causing harm to animals. The closer we move toward not harming animals, the better. But the fact is, even those who aim to radically reduce their impact on animal suffering—by not eating, wearing, or exploiting animals for entertainment and research—still harm animals through decisions that they can avoid but don’t.
Trying to cover up that reality with the label “vegan” may do nothing to help the animals we harm.
If you are a vegan, I have a modest proposal for you: Would you ever consider trying to make an ethical argument for eating animals? I mean, seriously try?
Most vegans I know would dismiss such a task out of hand, usually because it runs counter to a deeply ingrained belief system within which identities are intimately tied. But, uncomfortable as it might be, I think it’s an important exercise to undertake. Interrogating our creeds keeps us better attuned to guiding ideals. It keeps our thoughts alive and free from petrification. It challenges our ideals in a way that keeps us and the vegan movement intellectually honest and accommodating of unexplored non-vegan option that, alas, might turn out to be good for animals. Perhaps even better than veganism.
Let me tell you a true story. It’s one that makes this issue a personal one for me. Last year I was invited to contribute an essay (for free) to this volume. I worked rather hard on this essay, despite having a number of other competing (and paying) assignments to complete. In this essay, I noted that veganism, while a diet we should certainly pursue, had conceptual flaws that remained unresolved. I filed the piece. Bio and pic were requested. The essay is here.
And it is only here. It is not in the book. The publisher (Vegan Publishers) rejected it (the editor appalling asked me if “there’s another piece you’re working on” that might work better? Gah!). It rejected my piece not on the grounds of the essay being intellectually weak—no counter-critique was ever offered, despite repeated requests. Instead, the essay was rejected on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the book’s theme—which, if you read it, is an uncritical, painfully celebratory, endorsement of veganism. In any case, it was at this moment that I began to recognize the insidious anti-intellectualism at the core of the vegan movement.
Beyond my own outrage, here’s what was so monumentally stupid about the publisher’s decision: the only people currently reading this book (it’s about #900,000 on Amazon, so it’s not many) are committed vegans who are having their unexamined assumptions confirmed. How can the vegan movement reach beyond vegans? Here’s a tip: be self-critical. Highlight your weaknesses. Doing so is plausible, alleviates doubts of cultism, and it’s honest. Hence my opening question.
Okay, I’m done with the sour grapes, but a series I’m writing at Pacific Standard is doing what I asked at the start of this post. Here is installment #1: come back at me with everything you got.
I desperately want to be proven wrong.
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.