Starting Over

» October 11th, 2014

The more I learn about contemporary agriculture of all forms the more I’m convinced that the decision to avoid eating animals is a limited response to the myriad problems of modern farming. I’m in no way suggesting that eating exclusively plants should be abandoned as a strategy of reform. But I am saying that, in and of itself, its promises are modest at best. We need a new perspective on the issue, one that thinks bigger about agriculture’s future.

Begin with the common vegan claim that a vegan diet does not harm animals. This claim, which typically means to say that vegans do not intentionally harm domesticated or hunted animals, overlooks the fact that untold numbers of sentient little creatures—I’m excluding insects here (more on them soon)—are sliced and diced and crushed to harvest our plant-based diet. It also overlooks the fact that vegetable farmers rarely suffer larger animals—say, deer—from cutting into their profits. Lead injections are par for the course on the happy veggie farm, as are insecticides (even organic) that harm more than insects.

As much as we would like to sidestep this issue, vegans cannot declare themselves free from harm and tuck into their tofu. In fact, there may be cases in which raising and killing and eating one large farm animal, instead of clearing the land to raise kale and kill vermin, is—at least in utilitarian terms—less harmful to the animal world. I’m not at all saying eating domesticated animals is a choice we should make, but I am noting that there are arguments to be made that it could reduce animal suffering. That’s tough medicine to take, but we need to at least swallow it.

Many of you have no doubt heard some version or other of this objection. I think it needs to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken it, if for no other reason than the fact that it nudges us towards a radically new way to conceptualize food and the human-animal relationship. Again—I’m not going to any way suggest eating domesticated of hunted creatures. Instead, I’m going to ask you to think in a more radical way about animals, food, and agriculture; more radical than just saying no to eating critters.

It’s comforting and relatively easy to give up animal products and declare our hands clean. But they’re only clean in the way that the person who fails to pull the switch to kill one person instead of five in the famous trolley experiment has clean hands. As it now stands, anyone who eats has animal blood on her hands. So if deciding to give up animal products is not enough, or only a symbolic gesture in light of the problem’s severity, what are we supposed to do? What are our options.

We must be advocates, of course. But we have to maximize our advocacy. I would argue that advocating a plant-based diet is meaningless if it’s not complemented by an equal, if not stronger, advocacy for climate controlled agriculture. That is, vegans who think they are helping animals by not eating them would be much more effective if they enjoined veganism with advocacy for a farming future that could realistically eliminate all animal harm. Growing food indoors, where condition are carefully monitored, is quite possible if we’re willing to give up row crops and eat a diversity of whole plants.

As agriculture now stands, we cannot assume that not eating animals alone would necessarily reduce animal suffering. Expanding acreage in kale would expand the acreage where squirrels and bunnies and mice and birds and deer are also killed. Move agriculture inside—that is, radically rethink and advocate and invest in a new form of agriculture—and the game really changes in a way that improves the lives of animals, not to mention that of humans who, having decided not to channel our resources into domesticated animals can start cultivating the thousands of nutrient dense crops we now neglect

I would even suggest—tentatively—that this agricultural future could include room for eating animals at the margins, where the ethics of killing sentient animals intentionally don’t apply. I’ve written extensively about roadkill as a viable dietary supplement and I’m as eager as ever to support that option. I’ve also written about eating insects and, although not as convinced, I feel fairly sure that this could be an acceptable dietary choice in a future agricultural system that did minimal harm to animals, humans, and the environment. We should, in essence, eat like bonobos.

These ideas are at the core of a book proposal I’m now writing on rethinking the meaning and form of agriculture for a sustainable future. Be assured: raising and hunting animals for the purposes of consumption are not part of that future. Eating animals might be. Vegan activism has a role, but not nearly as essential a role as a new way of advocating for farming, one that would be best for the animal world and the environment.

Humans have been practicing agriculture for less than a 10th of our contemporary existence. Who’s to say we got it right the first time? It’s time to start over. Not eating animals raised or killed for food should be a starting point. But it’s not the be all and end all of a future that’s based on just food. To advocate for veganism as a singular path to justice for animals in agriculture is misguided. There so much more involved.

 

 

 

57 Responses to Starting Over

  1. John T. Maher says:

    This really has the potential to be the coolest thing ever in Eating Plants and has made hanging on through thick and thin worth it. Tim Morton at Rice might have something to say about this. I am hoping to see visionary ideas for spatial ecologies of place, such as disused office towers converted to vertical fungus and mushroom farms. Let us leave behind the hulking carcasses of useless phenomenology and metaphysics and construct a new ecosophical order based upon materialism and a respect for life. Our historian has traversed the road from writing about history to projecting a better history and it is one I will savor reading.

  2. Veda Stram says:

    I very much appreciate the “thinking” your writings provoke in me. I’ve called myself a vegan for over 25 years. For me veganism is a lot about food AND it’s about lots more. It’s about the clothes I wear, the toothpaste, shampoo, dish soap, etc. I use. Vivisection is not vegan. Product testing on animals is not vegan. Fur Wool Leather Silk industries are not vegan. Animal abusements are not vegan. Religious animal sacrifices or traditions are not vegan. Dissection is not vegan. Hunting, trapping, rounding up and confining or killing wild animals are not vegan. So “food” is just a part of this new way of life for humans that we call vegans. Just sayin’…

  3. Kim says:

    Eating animals will never be a part of veganism for me. You lost me on that comment.

    • James says:

      Kim,
      Could you elaborate? What is it about road kill and eating insects that you find morally objectionable?
      I’m not saying there aren’t strong answers to my questions, but I just don’t know them and would be grateful to understand the reasoning behind your comment.
      Thanks.
      James

      • Steven van Staden says:

        I can’t help feeling the same as Kim. I couldn’t eat an animal any more than I could eat a human, even if they weren’t intentionally killed for eating. As for insects, when I owned a swimming pool I spent more time recuing insects from the water than I did swimming. I can’t help feeling there must be a better way to farm for our stomachs that at least reduces harm to insects. As someone said above, we can’t live without harming insects and sometimes animals accidentally, but we can surely reduce harming them in our food production. I hope my feelings and thoughts are not so ridiculous that I’m making anyone ‘cringe’ as I apparently did John with my last comment.

        • unethical_vegan says:

          many vegan foods are grown with *unecessary* animal products and/or rendered animal corpses. these “vegan” foods demonstrably contribute more to cruelty and exploitation than road kill or freegan meat.

          “we can’t live without harming insects and sometimes animals accidentally, but we can surely reduce harming them in our food production”

          please provide a single example of a vegan advocacy campaign/group that seeks to reduce indirect insect harm.

  4. Karen Harris says:

    Interesting, and especially to me in the moment as I have been thinking about a particular ethical issue that is related. I have asked myself, which is worse to wear – silk or cotton? Silk is “grown” under a controlled environment in which no other creatures suffer, except the larvae of silkworms. Scientists seem to concur that in this state, larvae are not sentient and do not feel pain.
    (I know, we have heard this before.)
    As you state in your post, all kinds of harm is done to sentient creatures in the production of crops, cotton very high on the list of one of the worst offenders. Pesticides cause untold harm to insects, small creatures and the larger animals who consume them, to say nothing of working the soil itself.
    The production of silk, to be at all financially viable, necessarily involves the killing of millions of silk worms. The animals killed in the production of cotton (most cotton is not organic, and there are problems with that!) are collateral damage, so to speak. We do not intend to do harm, but it happens as a result of cultivation of cotton. So here is my question: Which is the more ethical cloth, silk or cotton? What role does intentionality play here in terms of culpability?
    Just wondering what your take on this would be?
    We know that every lifestyle involves harm to animals and insects – some of it intentional, much of it pretty much out of our control.

  5. Fireweed says:

    Of course eating only plants is not an end point for vegans, because veganism is not a diet. As a philosophy of harm reduction (we are not free from impacting the lives of other animals, as consciously as we must try to avoid causing unnecessary harm) it is a social justice movement and therefor necessarily intersectional for many of us.

    So yes, this includes being aware of all the ways that our food procurement impacts on the lives of animals, the global environment, and other people besides ourselves. Choosing not to eat or otherwise exploit other beings out of respect and consideration that their bodies belong to them is an appropriate starting point….certainly the centre of my own vegan ven diagram.

    I hope you will consider the efficacy of veganic agriculture in your next treatise James. Minimal tillage is significant to many stockfree growing operations, and as you know, eating animals that are grain fed only doubles the impact on field critters, it doesn’t reduce it. See link below for a comparative look on this topic…I believe I’ve shared this on your page in the past). Grass fed cows, for example, are not less destructive of wildlife if you add in predator control, and their impact on said grasslands (there are plenty of critiques on the Savory method…I’ll add a sample link below)

    While I concur that indoor growing has its merits (use of vertical space, rooftops, even underground, proximity to urban consumers, the potential for greater maximization of water use, nutrient recycling) all life still originates from the sun…we are ‘nature’ dependent…our energy is always going to originate ‘out doors’. And to that end, regardless of what other practises the future holds in store, we must never abandon care for the land – feeding the soil (not the plant) is the hallmark of all out door organic growing and links us to the complexity of the natural world in ways no hydroponic operation, for example, can possibly mimmic. Of course there are huge challenges…peak phosphorus among them.

    But I hold out far more faith in the planting of trees for the future – for food forests and restoration ecology that has been shown to encourage the return of wildlife, revive aquifers, and connect people to the natural world – than I do for technology to protect us from the ravages of climate change, and corporate control of food production. Of course multiple approaches (like biodiversity) are required. I see veganism as a guiding force in such a vision, in no way disconnected from the bigger picture of truly ‘sustainable agriculture’.

    Numbers: http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc/

    “More on Savory, livestock and climate change” : http://terrastendo.net/2014/08/23/more-on-savory-livestock-and-climate-change/

    Sadhana Forest: http://sadhanaforest.org/en/

    • Gardener says:

      The challenge in peak phosphorus isn’t in figuring out what to do, its doing it. A local company has developed a process that removes about 90% of phosphorus from wastewater, in a form(struvite, “crystal green”) that makes an excellent slow release fertilizer. Now installed on several facilities in N.A.. Would stretch current supply to several thousand years. ab

  6. Rucio says:

    One quibble, re: ‘Expanding acreage in kale would expand the acreage where squirrels and bunnies and mice and birds and deer are also killed.’ Switching land use from feeding animals to feeding humans would drastically reduce the acreage used for such agriculture, not increase it.

    • Karen Dawn says:

      Thanks for that Rucio. While the idea of growing vegetables in such a way as to minimize harm is a great one to consider in order to make veganism even less harmful, I think perhaps the piece could have noted more clearly that under current agricultural systems feeding a vegan utilizes far less land than feeding a meat eater, because many pounds of grain are grown in order to produce a single pound of beef.

      • James says:

        Of course if we stopped eating domesticated animals, which we should, we would have to grow more vegetable matter to compensate for those calories. If you are concerned about minimizing land expansion, insects are the best option.

        • Rucio says:

          Again, eating “farm” animals requires first growing tons of food for THEIR growth. The land required to replace them in our diet is a small fraction of that already used to grow plants for the animals. I thought this was well known.

          • Mountain says:

            Just like wild animals, farm animals do not require that food be grown for them.

          • Rucio says:

            Hay, soy, corn? Come on. Even free-range guru Joel Salatin requires tons of corn and soy feed for his “natural” system to work.

      • unethical_vegan says:

        Many cereal crops are poor sources of protein so it might make sense to convert these foods to protein via insect farming. Moreover, insects can be grown via agricultural byproducts. Termites and grubs, for example, can digest cellulose, lignins and other complex polysacharides that are not human food sources. Termites, in particular, are quite tasty.

        • Karen Dawn says:

          I recommend that anybody who views cereal crops as “poor sources of protein” when compared to animal protein, read The China Study or check out, on Netflix, the fun and informative film Forks Over Knives. I suspect most people reading this blog are familiar with both and don’t think that we desperately need to be pursuing more animal protein in our diets, regardless of ethics.

          • unethical_vegan says:

            i’ve eaten a strict vegan diet for almost 30 years. if you think my comment had anything to do with the myth of protein combining promoted by lappe you are mistaken. having lived in the 3rd world i can also assure you that children and adults who subsist largely on cereal grains do indeed suffer nutritional deficiencies.

        • Mountain says:

          Cereal crops are poor sources of protein, but fungi are pretty good sources of protein. They also do a great job of breaking down organic material (such as wood) that is inedible to humans and most other animals. Of course, as neither plants nor animals, I don’t know if they are more or less likely to be sentient than insects.

          • unethical_and_speciesist_vegan says:

            i suspect that in the not too distant future fermentation via engineered fungal organisms will be an important source of food and “raw materials”.

            qourn is a mostly non-vegan example of this potential.

  7. Benny Malone says:

    I think many of us arrive at the position that ‘veganism is not the end point or the most we can do; rather, it is the least we can do’ due to realising the practical difficulties of implementing an entirely cruelty free lifestyle as our very existence causes harm. 1) .http://uvearchives.wordpress.com/2009/02/20/veganism-as-a-minimum-standard-of-decency/ I think when the harms are contrasted veganism is a necessary starting point to begin to begin redressing the harm inflicted through animal exploitation. Most of us when going vegan have done it because we progressively eliminated support for animal exploitation, like Occam’s razor we cut out what was unnecessary suffering, but it is an ongoing process. I think of it like Neurath’s boat – “We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.” 2) http://uvearchives.wordpress.com/2008/01/01/contrasting-harms-vegan-agriculture-versus-animal-agriculture/ These arguments show why it is important veganism is framed as anti-exploitation mainly and that it is not the end point but part of a wider effort for animal liberation.

  8. Stephane says:

    I’ve been advocating for veganic farming and gardening for more than a decade now, and I totally agree with James concerning the vegan diet not being the end point.

    But I’m quite critic toward the idea of growing inside. I’ve been urban farming for many years on a balcony, and I love it, but in no way could inside or off-land farming suffice to feed the world. Calorie dense foods and large quantity of food need space (potatoes, wheat, legumes). It’s easy to think about growing lettuce inside and other complementary food, but forget growing enough staple food.

    Growing inside to avoid suffering is just incoherent and nearsighted. All the resource material to build those growing building have a tremendous environmental impact (ie mining, factories to make growing equipments). Those buildings occupy land, so they destroy an area of land and exclude wild animals, compared to an outside veganic garden where bees, birds and a whole lot of soil organism are free to live, even though some might get accidentally killed.

    How about pollination? Natural pollinators are essentials and are the best.
    What about the crop residues? They need to be composted, not burried in landfills.
    And how about fertilization? Synthetic fertilizers have energy intense (nitrogen) or would become scare (phosphorous). And human could never know exactly what each plant fully need better than the plant itself. Plants interact with the soil microorganism to get what they need when the need it. How about the quality of the food produce?

    Human must be part of the cycle, part of natural ecosystems, not isolated in an anthropocentric artificial technological dependent building or city.

    The real solutions, even for vegans, are to diversify our farming system and to change our food choices.

    For the farming system, stop raising animals, diversify with legumes, cereals, vegetables, but also fruits bearing tree and bushes, nuts trees, fungiculture (mushroom growing); and grow without chemicals.

    For our diet, stop eating animal products, eat more seasonally and locally to avoid to much transportation, choose food that have less environmental and animal impact.

    As vegans, the problem is not just where to food comes from, but also where will it goes after we bought it. Food waste is a huge problem. Could we free some land if less food was wasted? By filling garbage dump with food waste, we emit methane and pollute underground water. Then, what about our human wastes, the vegan food we ate? The only real solution would be to bring back that fertility to agricultural land. Otherwise, the cycle of nutrients is broken.

    James, if you write a book, please dig into those two references :

    The book “How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts…”. Especially the Appendix 2 available online http://www.amazon.com/Grow-More-Vegetables-Eighth-Edition/dp/160774189X

    The other reference would be to get into Elain Ingham scientific work. Soil microbiologist expert, she demonstrates the necessity of a living soil to get free of chemicals and “conventional” farming thinking : http://www.elaineingham.com/

    • Mountain says:

      “Food waste is a huge problem.”

      True, but it’s also a solution. By bringing food waste back to the farm, instead of to the landfill, the nutrients in food waste become resources in the soil instead of pollutants in the air or in the water. By giving animals access to the food waste that has been brought back to the farm, you get those nutrients back into the soil much faster.

  9. Karen Dawn says:

    Since when is an insect not an animal? Insects have language and complex social systems. They live in family groups, to which they return when separated. Those who study them notice that different members of the same species have notably different personalities. I was concerned by (though perhaps just confused by — perhaps I misunderstood) the suggestion that eating insects might be okay “in a future agricultural system that did minimal harm to animals, humans, and the environment.”

    • James says:

      Karen,
      Could you please share with me the peer reviewed science showing that insects have unique personalities? I’m eager to learn more. Of course, some insects live only a week under natural conditions, so it wouldn’t be much time for a personality to develop. Also, if you drive, you would have to stop because you are killing thousands of these insect personalities, right? Does your convenience trump the insects’ right to their lives? If you stop driving I’ll stop advocating insect consumption.
      James

  10. Karen Dawn says:

    “Could you please share with me the peer reviewed science showing that insects have unique personalities?” I guess that is sarcasm (please forgive me if I have misjudged you there) as I don’t think there are peer reviewed papers on the issue of insect — or cow, sheep or turkey — personalities. The evidence for all of the above is generally anecdotal. If “I’m eager to learn more” wasn’t sarcastic then you’ll probably enjoy the New York Times article in which Charles Siebert interviews Jason Watters, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who tells Siebert about the personalities of the water striders he has studied. You’ll find it at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/22/magazine/22animal.html

    • James says:

      There was no sarcasm at all in my response. I promise. There’s an abundance of evidence that farm animals are subjects of a life, to quote Tom Regan. I’m simply wondering if there’s similar evidence for insects. You claim, by way of an anecdotal article, that water striders have a personality. We might project one on them in their 2 months of life, but that hardly means that it’s true. There’s no point muddling through trying to end animal agriculture by claiming that all animals have “personalities.” You undermine your cause, especially if you keep driving that car. . .

      • Rucio says:

        According to James’ increasingly petulant replies, it would be OK to eat all animals since plant agriculture causes the death of so many anyway.

        • unethical_vegan says:

          I don’t see what is petulant about asking people to explain the ethical basis for avoiding insect consumption (especially since many vegan foods kill staggering numbers of insects indirectly).

          • Rucio says:

            It’s petulant because James is the one who needs to explain the ethical basis for not including insects in a vegan ethic. Instead he attempted to turn the table rather than address the real question raised.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      A NYT journalist is not a scientist and the NYT is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence in that piece that different behvioral responses in water striders have anything to do with sentience.

      • Karen Dawn says:

        Unethical_vegan, you and James should go into business together, building straw men that you can knock down. Far from suggesting that the NYT was a peer related journal I specifically wrote that I didn’t think their were peer related journal papers on the issue of insect personalities. I offered the article as anecdotal evidence. Nor did I suggest that the NYT journalist was a scientist, I pointed to the responses, in the article, from a behavioral ecologist.
        You are welcome to your belief that the different behavioral responses have nothing to do with sentience. Others who read the piece, which I linked to above, might see it differently. I recommend that people read it.

        • James says:

          Karen,
          Do you know exactly what a “straw man” argument is? You keep using the term to object to points with which you object but my hunch is that you are using it incorrectly.
          JM

          • Karen Dawn says:

            James, might it be just a tiny bit condescending to suggest that I don’t know the meaning of a term I have used repeatedly? Again, if I have misjudged you, if there was nothing at all condescending in it, please forgive me. Yes, I know what the term means, or I wouldn’t use it. I will share, for others, the wiki definition, which is repetitive but clear:
            “A straw man is a common type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on the misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument.[1] To be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument.
            The so-called typical ‘attacking a straw man’ argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition by covertly replacing it with a different proposition (i.e., “stand up a straw man”) and then to refute or defeat that false argument (“knock down a straw man”) instead of the original proposition.[2][3]
            This technique has been used throughout history in polemical debate, particularly in arguments about highly charged emotional issues where a fiery, entertaining ‘battle’ and the defeat of an ‘enemy’ may be more valued than critical thinking or understanding both sides of the issue.”
            While of course readers on this page are not entirely ignorant of my arguments, I don’t expect them to remember each one. So when unethical_vegan responds to a comment I made a few days earlier, by telling me that the NYT is not a peer reviewed journal, folks may think that I had perhaps suggested it was one. Or if they read your writing to me “There’s no point muddling through trying to end animal agriculture by claiming that all animals have ‘personalities’” they might think that I was indeed suggesting that we should end all agriculture based on that premise.

        • unethical_vegan says:

          >You are welcome to your belief that the different behavioral responses have nothing to do with sentience.

          You do realize that plants can have can have different behavioral responses to environmental stimuli. Heck even single celled bacteria have been shown to be capable of associative learning.

          http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080508/full/news.2007.360.html

          Stimulus response is not sentience!

          • Karen Dawn says:

            Yes, I do realize. : )
            And while you may be utterly certain as to a plant’s inability to experience pain, I am less certain, but am not yet ready to make the leap to fruitarianism, which may be the most ethical way to eat.
            I had not known that about bacteria but will check out the article — fascinating.
            We cannot know whether a larvae’s response indicates pain. But in the comments section of James’s follow up blog I have posted a few paragraphs from my own book, Thanking the Monkey, which summarize the chapter on bees from Steve Wise’s book, Drawing the Line, which in turn summarizes papers that were published in scientific journals that describe what it is close to impossible to view as other than conscious learning and decision making by bees. I think it is unlikely that being fully conscious they are unable to experience pain. (Of course it is possible, but so are unicorns.) And given the kind of evidence we have regarding bees, this whole discussion seems to me to have an awful ring of Descartes, who assured people that the shrieking by dogs that he had nailed to boards in his laboratory was just an automatic response to stimuli, because the dogs couldn’t really be suffering because they did not have souls. To him it was lack of souls, to you it is lack of pain receptors or nervous systems identical to ours, that is supposedly the proof that we should not believe our eyes and ears and accept a being’s attempts to flee as evidence of sentience and pain.

          • Karen Dawn says:

            I am going to correct myself, regarding what I wrote earlier (which may actually appear right below here rather than above). I wrote “I think it is unlikely that being fully conscious they are unable to experience pain. (Of course it is possible, but so are unicorns.)” Actually, given the experiments in which they learn and unlearn and relearn to associate colors with the taste of nectar, and thus obviously have the sense of taste, I really don’t think it is possible, by any normal use of that word, that they experience taste but not pain — I think you’d have to be jumping through some extraordinary hoops to suggest that.

  11. Karen Dawn says:

    Who’s trying to end agriculture by claiming that all animals have personalities? That’s a straw man. I was just objecting to the idea that insects aren’t animals, and that we should be eating as bonobos eat, as if insects just don’t matter. What works for a bonobo might work for me nutritionally but not ethically.

    • James says:

      Please, then, make an ethical case for insects. I’ll give you as much space here as you need. And if you succeed in making that case, I’ll can assume you’ll stop driving your car, right? Again, driving is a convenience, not a necessity. So if you place a convenience ahead of insects’ right to bodily integrity, that would be unethical. No straw men here at all.

      • Rucio says:

        Yes, straw man. Or actually, just plain changing the subject. You’re trying to argue about driving habits instead of addressing the simple fact that you do not consider insects to be on a par with other animals. In fact, in your concern for achieving the least harm to animals, you seem to be trying to redefine “animal” to not include insects at all.

  12. Katrina says:

    Switching to tree crops is one possibility of an alternative agriculture that doesn’t require tilling, and would probably then be much less harmful to the climate and creatures who reside in the climate. Have you read “Restoration Agriculture” by Mark Shepard?

  13. Karen Dawn says:

    By your reasoning, anybody who flies in a plane, knowing that planes often kill birds, might as well advocate the breeding and eating of birds. I think it is a big leap to go from being willing to engage in a behavior that it is likely to kill some animals, to calling for breeding those animals to be eaten. Is it inconsistent or hypocritical to claim to be concerned about the lives of insects while continuing to drive? Of course. Show me a man who claims to live without inconsistency or hypocrisy and I’ll show you one with no self knowledge. There is always a continuum, however, we all draw different lines. Mine says driving is okay, for me, and eating animals bred to be killed is not. As insects are animals, in asking me to make the ethical case for them (I assume you mean for not breeding and killing them to be eaten) you are asking me to make the ethical case for veganism. I spent many chapters of a whole book doing that, so I won’t do it here — I think most of your readers are familiar with the ethical case for veganism anyway — but thanks for the offer.

    • James says:

      The plane analogy doesn’t work as well I’d like. Yes, planes kill birds. But the numbers of planes in the air vis-a-vis the number of birds, in addition to our knowledge of avian migration patterns, dramatically lessons the prospect of hitting them with a plane. Your analogy also fails to consider that humans who fly have a vested interest in lowering plane-bird collisions and thus have taken steps to do that. Not so with insects and cars.

      As for the continuum response, I don’t buy it, if for no other reason that an ethic that makes exceptions based on convenience is an ethic that guts its own rationale for existing. It makes more sense to concede that insects don’t feel pain and thus can be exploited like plants–for which there is abundant evidence–rather than grant them moral consideration and continue to engage in convenient behaviors that slaughter them and then utter some platitude about self-knowledge and hypocrisy to exonerate your addiction (and mine) to convenience.

      I’m just trying to make life easier for you, Karen.

      • Ingrid says:

        In terms of birds killed by the aviation industry, it’s true that efforts are made to minimize birds strikes with planes, but many of those efforts involve mass killings of birds like European Starlings. In fact, SeaTac airport near where I live, is not the norm among airports in modeling a non-lethal raptor deterrence program to prevent strikes with hawks. Most airports employ lethal means. With insects and cars, I highly doubt many people take steps to minimize strikes. But, with plummeting populations of Monarchs and other pollinators, it may not be long before similar measures are taken on behalf of insects, for entirely different reasons. The “splatometer” study in the UK was one such effort to determine our impact on insects while driving.

  14. Karen Dawn says:

    As unpleasant as it is to argue with you, I would hate anybody else reading this to take your word for there being abundant evidence that insects don’t feel pain. A bit of Googling will show them that there is significant evidence that insects do feel pain — for example experiments showing larvae recoiling from hot pins — and an abundance of scientists telling us that despite such evidence, insects couldn’t be feeling pain because they don’t don’t have the pain receptors that we have. It is a shaky argument given that a stroke victim, losing part of her brain and the functions that pertain to that part, can regain those functions as the body manages to control them via different means. What system gets used for what purpose is not set in stone. Insects not having our nervous system is hardly proof that they don’t feel pain, given they behave as if they do.
    And yes, I will continue to drive even though I value the lives of insects, just as I will continue to spend money on some luxuries while saying I value the lives of human beings starving in other countries, who might be fed on what I spend at Starbucks. What you might see as a platitude (how freely you let the insults flow) attempting to exonerate my addiction to convenience, I see as an acceptance of human nature — probably of all nature, not only human.

  15. Bruce says:

    James, do you really believe that one cannot believe that killing insects is ethically problematic while also driving, because driving is a luxury (I am pretty sure you said precisely that that)? That makes intuitive sense, but I think that you will not continue to hold that view, if you think a bit more about it.

    This article by Peter Singer is instructive:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/05/magazine/the-singer-solution-to-world-poverty.html

    I assume, James, that you would agree with me that causing humans to suffer is wrong. I imagine that you give a significant amount of money to charity, because of that belief.

    But as Singer makes very clear (which Karen nodded toward in her comment), if you EVER do anything for pleasure (ever see a movie, ever go out to eat, ever take a vacation, ever buy a car or piece of clothing you don’t need) you are putting your convenience ahead of others not starving to death, dying of malaria, etc. This is in a human rights context where we know their suffering is absolutely real and as powerful as our own.

    And yet we all do that, of course. So you are no more pure by denying insects any moral worth than someone who values insects. Everything we do is compromise.

    BTW, check out the chapter on bees in Steve Wise’s book, Drawing the Line. It’s pretty amazing.

    I don’t know about insect consciousness, but I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt. And as Karen notes, there is quite a bit of scientific support for the idea that insects feel pain; the fact that they don’t feel pain like humans do does not mean they don’t feel pain, of course.

    Cheers,

    Bruce

    • James says:

      Bruce,
      I know that Singer article and I like it, but I do not fully agree with it. All may be compromise, as you say, but there are different forms of compromise. Some come with the perception of dirty hands, some don’t. This “dirty hands” perception matters–and it matters morally (this is a debatable premise, I admit, but I’m sticking with it). When I drive to the movies and find my grill splattered with precious insects, and I’ve been shown that insects are sentient, my hands are dirty. I have to now quit driving. By contrast, when I buy a shirt or go out to eat at a vegan restaurant, I can hedge. I can tell myself (perhaps justifiably) that I’m creating jobs that allow people to live fuller lives, make money that they might give away to charitable causes, etc. Now, if I saw Bangladeshi kids being abused in the making of my shirt, my hands would be dirty and I’d have to seek other options. Frankly, I have no idea who made the shirt I’m now wearing, so my hands are currently clean (sure, I could go searching for an answer, but come on . . .). But if some annoying activist complicated my life by showing me the abuse in every fiber of my handsome oxford, I would change. Does this make sense? Singer’s argument tends too easily toward justifying doing nothing (hell, it’s all a compromise). I take a different tact. I like the idea of doing something when you see that something needs to be done. Show me, prove to me, there is insect suffering–not reactions to stimuli, but suffering, and I’ll stop driving (and writing such controversial posts!).
      Cheers to you,
      James

  16. J2 says:

    I’m curious to know how consciousness is being defined, given certain comments here.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      Many vegans avoid thinking about sentience or self-awareness. If a termite (south african delicacy), sea-squirt (a korean delicacy), or oyster (delicacy pretty much everywhere) is not sentient then suddenly the ethical logic for deontic veganism crumbles.

  17. Veda Stram says:

    “You put a baby in a crib with an apple and a rabbit. If it eats the rabbit and plays with the apple, I’ll buy you a new car.” People DO naturally choose good over evil…

  18. Veda Stram says:

    As HUMANS we are an invasive species. Give it up. Insects, bugs, cows, sheep “feelings or sentience.” STOP talking about this. If we breathe, have a heart beat, walk, drive, bike, eat, shit, we humans DO invade the world. The best we can do is PURPOSELY CHOOSE TO NOT eat somebody’s body parts, secretions, skins, etc. and PROVIDE inspiration, education, HOPE to get people to STOP USING animals! GO VEGAN! and THEN get involved in these “discussions” or not. For now…Just stop eating “them”!

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