Spreading the Seed Experience

» June 17th, 2012

This is a freshly written version of the talking points of my introduction for my Seed Experience lecture today in the Big Apple. (That sentence may have been the syntactically worse sentence I’ve ever written.) The event was fun. But the stage was in the center of a large room packed with vendors and I felt my words being drowned out by the din of background conversations. I know, I know: get over it. Anyway, lots of great conversations afterwards. Lots of vegans doing heroic good work. Lots of hope for a better future.

I was recently asked by a reporter to help her with a story about the hordes of environmentalists turning vegan for environmental reasons. Say what? Whenever I’m approached this way I always make a go of turning the reporter’s cock-eyed story idea into my own story idea. Thus I was adamant: it was the other way around. Vegans are leaving veganism for environmentalism. And the reason? The sustainable food movement is on the prowl, assuring many vegans that they can fulfill their environmental and humanitarian interests while eating “humanely raised” animal products. Spend a bit more, they’re saying, and salve your guilt in the balm of agricultural pornography. Well, how convenient.

This trend, for anyone promoting veganism, is a truly terrifying development not to be taken lightly. We are witnesses to a prime historical moment. Forty years of investigative work into the horrors of factory farming has driven home the point that these sadistic operations are evil to the core. We must boycott them. We must condemn them. For the first time, we’re systematically questioning the entire premise of how we eat. Right-thinking consumers despise industrially produced animals, and we’re ready to Act Now. Good for us. This is our time. This is our moment.  And it’s about to be wasted.

The threat comes from that wing of the sustainable food movement that tells us it’s “all good” so long as we eat humanely raised animal products. This directive can mean any number of things: eat local, do-it-yourself, know your farmer—all such options offer a path to righteousness. Such a message, moreover, is not just delivered, it’s served on a silver platter of brilliant rhetoric by beautiful people trying to do what’s right, just, and respectable.

Look closely, though, and you’ll see that its substance is worse than pointless: it’s counter-productive. We cannot say we care about animals and care about genuine reform and then make a little video telling people where to buy chicken. Vegans need a better alternative than this. We need a movement that chooses principles over pragmatics. There is no way to pragmatically change the industrial food system and eliminate the suffering it harbors. This must be done radically, with principle, and tolerant of only the most careful compromises. We have to strike at the roots. That ultimately means removing animals from agriculture.

Ethical veganism is the alternative to the alternative. It’s a genuine and principled option. It’s a truly radical answer to the plague of industrial agriculture. It insists that we don’t eat animals; it lays out an ethical justification for that insistence; and, in so doing, it turns industry into a house of cards. If you want to end industrial food as we know it, go vegan. In many ways, my message and my work is that simple. Because as long as it’s a-okay to eat animals, we’ll have factory farming. And it will dominate.

The “humanely raised” folks, in promoting humane animal products, try to beat devil at his own game with his own rules.  You can’t do this.  You can’t take on an industry that depends on the production of animal products by promoting the consumption of animal products. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Alas, it happens to be winning. Vegans are currently losing this tug of war against the sustainable foodies, and it’s not because we’re protein deficient. No. It’s that our message is just harder to sell. We’re fewer in number. It doesn’t appeal to self-interest. It isn’t designed to assuage our guilt by spending more on animals needlessly killed for our precious palates. It requires real rather than symbolic change. Our task is more momentous.

We have battles ahead of us. Confronted with the logic of veganism, people say all kinds of crazy things. They say, look at my teeth.  They say, we’ve always done it. They say meat tastes good. They say, and this is best: death is but one day. These, of course, are not arguments. Veganism crushes these claims because veganism is not only activism, it’s activism with intellectual heft and ethical consistency.  We should stop holding back. Pull harder.

Within the vegan movement there are those who tear down and those who build up. Both are incredibly valuable. Today, for the next 40 minutes, we’ll be pulling down an edifice of lies that justify a world of suffering for animals who deserve better than to be exploited and eaten in a sick effort to make ourselves feel righteous.

10 Responses to Spreading the Seed Experience

  1. Louisa says:

    You’re absolutely right, James ~ the ethical argument is hard to sell, and it doesn’t appeal to people’s self interest. This is what does: Health. And according to Donna Maurer’s research from her book, “Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment” the primary reason why MOST people become vegetarian is for health reasons. Once they have started to eliminate meat products and are not so invested in an animal-based diet, they then become more interested in the ethical reasons. This is a well-researched book written by a sociologist. Give it a read if you’re open to a more effective approach that has the potential to save a lot of animals a lot faster. The health benefits are not based on opinion or rationalization – it’s indisputable science. http://www.amazon.com/Vegetarianism-Movement-Moment-Donna-Maurer/dp/156639936X

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I think the ethical argument is hard to sell because the public is still unaware of the depth of nonhuman experience; and since the media is largely sponsored by corporations that sell animal products, it doesn’t permit the truth.

      I’m sure some who choose vegetarianism for their health then become interested in the ethical reasons, but at this point, I don’t know if this is something we can count on.

      If I may ask in advance, does Donna Mauer cover the percent of health vegetarians who develop ethical concerns; how long they remain vegetarians; and what percent become vegans?

      I appreciate your clarification.

      • Louisa says:

        Hi Ellie, I don’t think she provides the statistics that you’re looking for, however, she does state that 85% of vegetarians are NOT primarily motivated by a concern for animal rights. She also writes that, “Because most vegetarians’ initial motivation is their own personal health and they tend to become more committed to animal rights issues only gradually over time, organizational leaders and longtime vegetarians often share views in common with animal rights activists that newcomers do not.” She also says that those who become vegetarian for health reasons are most likely to revert to meat-eating unless they eventually adopt the ethical argument. She said that it’s the ethical reasons that sustain vegetarians’ commitment to their diet, and at that point they’re more likely to move toward a vegan diet.

        • Ellie Maldonado says:

          Hi Louisa, thank you for clarifying that. I guess we look at this from our own frame of reference. My reasons for being vegetarian were not about health, so it was hard for me to see that health would be the motivating factor for most people, as Donna Mauer explains.

          But I’m not surprised that those who became vegetarian for health reasons were likely to revert to meat-eating. It’s like being vegetarian to lose weight, or to imitate celebrities — absent ethical considerations, it’s just a fad.

          So if most vegetarians don’t consider farm animals, then along with introducing them to ethical reasons, it seems we need to work on learning why this is so, and then changing it. That we can make a significant difference if we can do that for 10% of the population is certainly encouraging :-)

  2. Jo Tyler says:

    Hear, hear! So many gems in this piece…thank you James!

  3. Ellie Maldonado says:

    Thank you, James! I wish I had known you were in the Big Apple today, as I might have been able to see your lecture.

  4. Nadine says:

    Thank you for posting this.
    What do we do about the people who really truly don’t seem to care? They don’t care about ethics, logic or the environment or even feelings. They just totally disconnect. I think one of the real challenges veganism faces is to bring awareness to people who are like this. I have yet to read or hear of a way to reach them.

  5. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I agree, and though it won’t be easy with newspapers like the NY Times and welfare organizations promoting “ethical meat”, to say nothing of being bombarded with constant advertising for animal products, we can’t give up.

  6. Gena says:

    I so wish I’d been at The Seed, day 2, to hear you, James. I’m really sad that I wasn’t. Great post, too.

    As for Foer, I agree that a huge amount of the movement’s desire to turn him into a spokesperson (even though he was always evasive on the topic of veganism) was the longing for strong leadership. I think it’s also the need for validation: see! a celeb does it! This tends to get under my skin; on the one hand, I know that celebrity spokespeople are really powerful in inspiring folks to explore the lifestyle; on the other hand, I wish they weren’t, because that’s thin grounds of conviction for a new vegan to stand upon (and celebs do change their positions, as Foer demonstrates!).

  7. Natalie Reeves says:

    I agree with you that the space at the Seed conf. was not ideal for speakers, but your message was loud, clear & inspirational despite the annoying background chatter. In addition to the great overview of your talk in this blog, I particularly liked your analysis of the typical DIY slaughter sites/blogs.

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