The Vegan Behind The Wheel

» August 23rd, 2015

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.

34 Responses to The Vegan Behind The Wheel

  1. Annie Leymarie says:

    Driving – as well as eating meat and dairy – also harms and kills non-human as well as human animals by contributing greenhouse gas emissions that speed up climate change, already causing havoc in several parts of the planet and getting worse every day. But so does using a computer and most activities of a Western lifestyle. But on the continuum of harm in that respect, meat (especially from beef and lamb) and dairy are particularly harmful: livestock farming causes more GHG emissions than all of transport put together.

    • I was never tempted to take Philosophy 101 as an elective in college, imagining a toga to be “much too freeing to my anatomy.” Now a vegan, and indeed a vegangelist, I regret missing out on a foundation of ethical argument. A lot of what you’ve been talking about, JMcW, are arguments for people to acknowledge that animals should have the right not to be bitten, chewed and swallowed. While ethics is important, you’ve pointed out that the argument has already been made to human society…and rejected. People are just too self-interested. So given that man’s best animal friend is in fact NOT canis familiaris but homo sapien, what about a scientific appeal to suggesting a species-wide dietary shift to plants? It was a long slog to ethically convince people that slavery is “wrong” (requiring a civil war to end it in your country) whereas the combination of health science and social science used to change the numbers of smokers in the country illustrates that when there’s labcoats on your side the public grudgingly listens. Granted, the UN’s food and health branches stressing the desperate need for our diets to be based on plants has gone largely ignored, and our lobby-fearful governments won’t identify animal agriculture as an unrepentant destroyer of soil and oceans; even environmental NGOs leave this sector unmolested, as illustrated in the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. But Big Ag are using EXACTLY the same playbook that Big Tobacco used, so it stands to reason that they CAN fall in the same way. But where are the champions, willing to point out to humans that their big brain, the ultimate survival organ for the alpha species, is being subverted by mere taste buds in the destruction of their own health and habitat? What if the survival of “the world as we know it” requires not subverting human selfishness in favor of animal rights, but amplifying the human self-interest so we can overcome environmental destruction by animal agriculture? I’d hate to be arguing over road kill and oysters while the utilitarian suffering of billions of human and non-human animal is secured.

  2. Sabrina says:

    I support this post. As a purposefully non-driving vegan

  3. Sabrina says:

    Eliminate the last partial sentence. I was going to say more but changed my mind.

  4. Tawny Flechtner says:

    I just finished reading “Can an Animal Have Rights and Still Be Dinner?” and I have a question.

    Let me preface by saying that I’ve been struggling with what I’m okay with eating and what I’m not okay with eating a ton lately. I’ve always identified as an animal lover, and it’s getting harder and harder for me to feel good about eating them. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking and am currently abstaining from mammals and certain other creatures that have been proven to possess intelligence.

    This morning I went out to breakfast with the fam and ordered a “vegetarian benedict,” while my kids and husband all ordered dishes with breakfast meats. Now, there’s some leftover bacon in the fridge (that I know the kids are never going to want anything to do with again) and I really, really want to eat it. If I don’t, it’ll likely go in the trash.

    Do I eat the bacon?!

    • James says:

      I’d say that, given the opportunity you have to set an example for your family, you should, if only for the message delivered, refuse to eat the bacon and, instead, let them know your reasons for not ordering it in the first place. The equation changes, I think, if we’re talking about dumpster diving, whereby not only has the meat already been tossed, but it was ordered by folk you have no ability to influence. Just my off the cuff thought.

      • Tawny Flechtner says:

        Thanks:) I appreciate your thoughts on this. I feel kind of alone in even caring about this stuff a lot of the time.

        • Mary Finelli says:

          Unless you need the bacon as a matter of survival, reject it wherever you may find it, including in dumpsters -it’s terrible for you any way- and instead be a model of veganism for others to emulate. You are likely to influence far more people to strive to be vegan than you will influence people to dumpster dive.

  5. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    Agreed as always and thank you for the phrase ‘continuum of harm’ which reminds us all that everything is on a continuum of one variety or another and it is our individual responsibility to endeavor to discover where we place ourselves on that spectrum as experience allows. I’m re-reading the DURANTS ‘Lessons of History’ – such a worthy endeavor as we make these choices and live by them. Life is ever more complex and truly daunting and we need all the wisdom that comes our way in order to navigate it!

  6. Melissa Maedgen says:

    It’s an interesting question and a good one to ask and for us all to think about. It is clear there is a continuum and perfection (no harm to animals) is impossible to achieve. So it’s all about minimizing.

    But I gotta say, I don’t think the average driver kills an animal per year (as cited in your example). I’ve been driving 33 years and have never hit an animal. OK, I’ve probably run over a caterpillar here and there. I’m not a real high-mileage driver. Over the past few years, I’ve put 5,000 miles per year on my truck, including two long trips each year of 1,000+ miles, so my day-to-day driving is under 3,000 miles per year. I’d like to reduce that even more, but the area where I live is not bike or pedestrian friendly, and there is no public transportation nearby. It is my goal in the next couple years to move to a place where I can use a bike for much of my transportation, supplemented with walking, public transportation, and only occasion driving. Better for the environment, better for my own health, and less chance of harming an animal as well.

  7. Rudy Friesen says:

    I like the idea of a continuum of people with regard to harming animals. The closer we move to not harming animals the better, but I really doubt that we can live our lives without doing any harm to non-human animals. The whole issue of driving has been a part of my thinking for some time now. It is not only the issue of road kill, but also the issue of what happens when roads are built. How many animals are killed in the construction of roadways? How many animals are killed in the construction of all the buildings that we humans feel that we need? How many animals are killed in other types of transportation such as airplanes, boats and railroads? Human civilization takes a tremendous toll on the existence of non-human animals. That is why I think that simple living is certainly an important part of any strategy of living that seeks to reduce animal suffering.

  8. Rebecca August says:

    I’m confused about your classification of animals. According to another of your posts, we are apparently supposed to ignore the fact that insects are animals and eat them in order to mitigate harm to other animals. But in this instance, you are counting insects as animals when we kill them while driving?

    • James says:

      That’s a fair point, and one I thought about as a I wrote. My reading of the evidence leads to exclude insects from sentient animals, but most of my readers seem to want to include them as sentient, so I felt it important to note that insects are killed by drivers.

      • So in your view, butterflies, ants, flies, beetles, bees, wasps etc. are insentient, insensate beings who do not experience themselves proprioceptively or in relation to one another or their environment? They have no experiential component? They are the same in regard to sentience and awareness as my keyboard? Please clarify.

      • Would you be as comfortable pulling the wings off a fly and the legs off a grasshopper as in cutting off the limb of a tree?

  9. Karen Harris says:

    I think that you are leaving out one very big factor here, and that is the issue of colluding in the commodification of sentient beings.
    For me, the basis of my veganism is that animals are persons and not commodities. In other words, they do not come into this world in order to be used by me. As a visual artist whose work is about the role of animals in contemporary culture, I visit places like zoos, animal auctions, rodeos, etc., in order to document them. This weekend I went to my local 4-H county fair in Delaware County,NY. There I saw sentient beings selling for a few dollars a pound. I overheard comments such as “she was delicious” referring to a pig who was purchased the previous year. The announcer assured the buyers that all of the animals deserved a place in their freezer.
    Surely, hitting an insect on your windshield is not on a continuum with a world view that never questions the commodification of these individuals who are subjects of a life in every sense.
    Obviously, we all participate in animal and human abuse just by being alive. I do think, however, that equating one form of abuse with another by even suggesting that they exist on the same continnum is just not valid, and does not serve the animals well.

  10. James says:

    On what basis would hitting a deer with a car and slaughtering a cow not be on the same continuum of suffering? Granted, one is intentional, one is not; one is direct commodification, the other is not. But–to my point–both are avoidable, which, from the animal’s perspective, is all that really matters.

    • Karen Harris says:

      On the following basis. For example, if I intentionally kidnap, torture, abuse and then kill a young boy or girl, is that on the same continuum as inadvertently hitting and killing a child who runs in front of my car unexpectedly. I think not!
      Also, as an aside, as a vegan for well over 20 years I have never thought of my choice to avoid eating, wearing, or participating in the use of animals for research or entertainment as particularly easy or low hanging fruit. If it was truly so easy, why do so many people who are vegans return to eating animals? Not because they have rethought their ethics, it simply becomes inconvenient.

      • James says:

        Well, the analogy works better, I think, if you breed the young human boy or girl rather than kidnap, and also if you lived in a world in which it was perfectly normal to breed, torture and kill boys and girls. Under those more analogous circumstances, the parallel you draw falls apart. Giving up meat is, for most of us, much easier than giving up a car, hence comparatively low hanging fruit.

        • Karen Harris says:

          In my universe intentionality is critical. Agree to disagree.
          But to focus on your issue with driving for a moment – isn’t it true that a great many humans are also killed and maimed as a result of auto accidents.
          In that sense, when we drive we are risking the lives of both animals and humans alike. There is an equality of status there.

  11. Doug says:

    James, I posted some observations about your “natural death” scenario on your previous post. I’d very much like to see your response. Thanks.

  12. soren says:

    “But driving? For obvious reasons, driving is much, much harder to avoid.”

    What exactly are these obvious reasons? Giving up my car-dependency had a huge positive impact on my lifestyle (and health).

  13. Michael Goldberg says:

    Thanks for this column. I have thought about this and it bothers me. I do take the Bart but there are many times that I need to drive to get where I’m going. I hope that being vegan saves many more lives than are killed by my driving. I’m certainly not perfect. The system that raises animals and kills them for food and other items is so horrendous and so huge that if we could shut it down it would be so great for animals. I don’t know what to do about this driving problem but I do know I will be thinking about it and trying to drive as little as possible. Thanks again.

  14. Mary Finelli says:

    Driving also harms animals by the production of gasoline, pollution, etc. However, if we really were trying to do the least harm to others we should probably live a subsistence lifestyle somewhere off of the grid. How much good could we do then, though? How many people would we positively influence? How much positive change would we bring about?

    It should be a matter of balance. Try to do the most good, least harm. To obsess over minimizing one’s impact on the world while it is being plundered full steam ahead is not the best way to counter it. We each should try to determine how we can do the most good, least harm, which will depend on one’s individual circumstances. Transportation is just one factor.

  15. excellent. i think the vegan label is much more arbitrary than most of us are prepared to think. this arbitrariness means that we should be open for other people who may not entirely be vegan but may be doing other things. being vegan myself, i like to think that vegan is not the be all and end all of everything…

  16. Kirk Nelson says:

    Joining the conversation a little late here but wanted to add a few thoughts. I agree with comments made by Ray Kowalchuk (that the environmental destruction being wrought by animal agriculture amplifies the urgency to combat animal ag and that if obsessing over the philosophical purity issues related to driving distracts us from that goal, the result may be worse), Karen Harris (that the accidental killing of animals by driving should not be placed on the same continuum as the systematic and intentional abuse, torture, and killing of animals for unnecessary food), Michael Goldberg (“The system that raises animals and kills them for food and other items is so horrendous and so huge that if we could shut it down it would be so great for animals”), and Mary Finelli (“To obsess over minimizing one’s impact on the world while it is being plundered full steam ahead is not the best way to counter it”).

    James – I agree with you that overusing the vegan label can be counterproductive, but still the fact remains that having people become vegan (as commonly understood) is the best way to help animals on the planet. So it’s essentially a messaging issue. How can we best get people to stop eating and wearing animals (maybe the environmental argument can be part of it, as suggested by Ray)? Yes, we should all try to minimize driving as much as possible, but eliminating it is really not possible for a lot of people (A LOT more impossible than not eating a thanksgiving turkey once a year). For example, what about the single mom who has to drive 30 miles to a job to get the money she needs to support her kids (plus the driving trips to their medical appointments…most people probably don’t live close enough to walk or bike to their doctor’s office all the time…plus when your child is an infant, getting the care they need without a car would be very difficult). It seems that the only way to ensure philosophical purity and not harm any animals is to be a hermit with no kids.

    • James says:

      Thank you, Kirk. My primary point is that there’s a continuum of sacrifices we can make to help animals, some of them easier than others. Accordingly, there’s also a continuum of harm that we cause as individuals. The point is not self-erasure, but–as almost everyone in this forum notes–to maximize our sacrifices and minimize our harm. Because that project will obviously mean different things to different people, I’m not sure that the term “vegan”–as it is usually applied–is particularly useful.

      • Kirk Nelson says:

        OK, I guess in the context of individual sacrifices that one may be able to make, the continuum concept makes some sense. However, with regard to the magnitude and character of the animal suffering and death being caused, I feel that animal ag and driving are in two different categories. True, there is much driving that is simply for pleasures that could be avoided. However, a lot of people’s driving is for beneficial reasons (as noted in my post). And the benefits of driving don’t just extend to humans. Modern transportation makes it possible for a lot more people to be “vegan” (i.e., not eat or wear animals) than in pre-modern times. In sum, you can point to many good (and arguably even necessary) things that come from driving (tradeoffs are involved but at least there is some good), but there is nothing good that comes from animal ag.

    • Michael Goldberg says:

      I think the word vegan is a problem and should be retired. Many people think vegan is a diet and don’t understand that it’s a way of life that focuses on not hurting or killing animals. I usually don’t talk about vegan anymore. Putting the focus on animals instead is how I approach my activism. A recent Gallup poll indicated that the majority of people in the U.S. care about farm animals. If we can get people to understand that killing a pig or cow is the same as killing a dog or cat, hopefully they will understand that eating meat is killing animals who deserve to live – just like us.

  17. Ruth Goldberg says:

    Intention is very important. Also, humans are unintentionally killed on the roads by cars, either as pedestrians or in vehicles.

    • soren says:

      Animals killed unintentionally suffer just like those killed intentionally. Moreover, from my decidedly welfarist point of view, the animals killed on our roads die slower and more painful deaths (in aggregate) than animals killed in slaughterhouses. From my vegan perspective a roadway death is (in aggregate) less vegan than a slaughterhouse death.

  18. soren says:

    The humane society estimated that ~370 million vertebrates are killed in the USA on roads each year (this estimate did not include insects and very small animals). This estimate was made in the 60s and clearly, today, there are far more roads and far more drivers. Moreover, recent studies suggest that road car-nage is likely still being underestimated. For example, extrapolation from a recent study suggests that hundreds of millions of birds are likely killed via road traffic in the USA:

    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.

    9.2% of all American households are car free (15% in my city).

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