“Our members are pronounced individualists, not easily scared by criticism, and filled with the spirit of pioneers.” – Donald Watson.
Suddenly this pioneer thing is catching on. Whether for health, for climate justice, or for animals, we’re hearing a lot about famous people going vegan. But do they know what they’re really getting into? Will they be able to face the criticism? Let’s see how scary their mission will be, should they choose to accept it.
Every vegan’s heard this criticism, so it’s first on the list:
1. “You’re a vegan? Fine; just don’t push your views on others.”
Yes, we know. People have the legal right to exploit other animals. Humans have spent centuries writing that into laws, regulations, constitutions, and judicial opinions. And most people, for much of our lives, can and do look away from the hurtful traps our laws create. Our capacity for wishing each other “peace on Earth” while allowing ourselves to be treated as consumers of institutionalized violence is remarkable.
But until vegans press the point, are people ever challenged to acknowledge that the hierarchy is a human creation—that we made it up? Anybody involved in any facet of social progress or justice, would, logically, do well to grapple with the question. (We vegans also make great cupcakes.)
2. “Traditional societies hunt; only modern privileges allow for vegan living.”
I’m for hearing people out. After all, none of us, except perhaps a few vegan-organic growers, can claim to essentially do no harm.
I’d also observe that animal use has been important to just about everyone’s culture and family history.
And some people in indigenous communities (homeless people as well) are vegan.
The significance of an elk’s death to an indigenous community is similar, at essence, to the importance of the body of a turkey (complete with its age- and gender-specific stuffing and carving customs, prayers and toasts) in an affluent suburb. Every one of us has a history flowing back through ancestors who, at some critical time, decided that their safety depended on subduing other animals, and our forebears killed off large carnivores en masse. Natural resources managers are still doing it.
We are all in this ethical question together: Is the group of primates known as Homo sapiens entitled to keep killing, or else dominating, selectively breeding, using and consuming the rest of the planet’s inhabitants?
3. “People aren’t all going to go vegan, so why not get them to make some changes?”
What changes are they making? Do their baby steps allow companies to sustain animal agribusinesses through greenwash (or hogwash)? Cartons of organic milk are now adorned with pictures of farmers embracing their cows. And shoppers think they’re doing a good deed, given that these cartons look nothing like the latest undercover video at this or that horrible supplier, and they buy into the humane myth.
The current issue of Rolling Stone reveals “the price we pay for cheap meat.” A professional advocacy spokesperson quoted in the article says investigators of factory handling and slaughter aren’t “trying to end meat or start a panic. But there’s a decent way to raise animals for food, and this is the farthest thing from it.”
Although advocates might hope some readers will consider going vegan because of the hideous corporate animal abuse they saw in the Rolling Stone, here’s what will most likely occur:
- Some readers will donate to the advocacy group they noticed in Rolling Stone.
- Husbandry standards may ultimately change because of the outcry. With dubious effect. After all, regulation has been going on since Upton Sinclair published The Jungle.
- Those “decent” sources of animal products will advertise themselves and profit accordingly.
- Husbandry adjustments will, problematically, be equated with animal advocacy the world over.
Admittedly, the vast scale of animal use can be overwhelming. Anxiety might lead us to ask whether pressing for industry reforms is the best we can do. But whether reforms are granted or not, suffering isn’t reduced when animals are unnecessarily bred or brought into an exploitive system.
Let’s be clear: Vegans wouldn’t disapprove of true husbandry improvements, if and where they might be possible. And in the human-rights sphere, it’s acceptable for serious activists to pursue reforms. For instance, prison abolitionist Angela Davis has stated that reforms are also necessary.
But in the case of animal agribusiness, ordinary food shoppers hold the prison keys. By divesting our kitchens from the system that commodifies other animals, and encouraging others to do so, we exercise direct power to spare animals from being brought into that commodified existence.
4. “Won’t supporting both veganism and industrial concessions help us go further than we would if we said only one is worthwhile?”
The wealthy animal-protection charities will keep working with corporations for concessions no matter what we do. The big charities support the use of animals in human society, as long as some minimum standards of treatment are established. The people who are expected to propose these standards will get hired, and will produce them.
Jobs abound for those who promote state-of-the-art slaughter techniques or roomier sheds, but this will not raise the status of animals. It won’t enable us or free-living animals to survive on this precious planet.
The lure of compromise can be turned around—to start a conversation about why it takes so long for us Homo sapiens to give up our privileges, even the ones that are bad for us and that we could stop indulging in today.
5. “Aren’t vegans anti-social scolds?”
Some might be born contrarians, but most vegans are socially engaged and learning from others every day. We tend to notice the red lights more than the green.
Some of the most helpful people I’ve met out hiking, for example, are vegans. They will speak their minds when necessary; yet they are, I’m glad to report, invariably quick to show to kindness to others of various experiences and opinions. To be vegan is to experience the pleasure of looking after our health, the planet, and every conscious being alive. Sure, there will always be a few people who mischaracterize social movements. Expect resistance, and stay kind.
6. “Your impossible standards are making it worse for animals.”
Ouch. Here’s the heavy artillery that comes out when we ask for accountability from a group that’s bargaining away other animals’ most basic interests. No: vegans make nothing worse for animals. Vegans live as though animal rights were a reality right now, and thereby bring animal rights into existence (enacting the central point of Gandhi’s famous recommendation that we ourselves be the change we wish to see in society).
In fact, just being vegan (not counting the talks, writing, rescuing, and public demonstrations or performances many vegans additionally carry out) makes a significant difference.
In a somewhat less accusatory appeal, some will insist, “If I were one of the animals involved, I would want this [bigger stall, better slaughter method, etc.].” Now, surely it’s fair and logical to say the animals would not want to be slaughtered at all. We know they’d try to avoid being harmed; it’s manifestly obvious. By extension, it seems logical and fair to say on behalf of other animals that they would appreciate vegan campaigning—that is, they’d appreciate our not consuming them. Not agreeing to victimize them in any way. But to suggest that we are speaking for other animals when we compromise their interests (and in reality animals cannot come to the meetings to represent themselves) is troubling.
And as we know, wolves, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and others get killed to protect live animals in sprawling commerce—so we can’t limit the argument to what the given cow or chicken would say. What about the other animals who are pushed out of the way for the less concentrated, more “humane” farming businesses? What would they want?
7. “Our event should be vegan? Oh, right. If you want to be some kind of ivory-tower idealist who makes the movement as small as possible.”
This one might be based on an intuition that excluding people is unwise. Yet insofar as it suggests that vegans aren’t offering a viable movement (or even helpful event planning), it frames vegan values as outlandish—and that’s a kind of exclusion too.
Granted, the advocate usually needs to cultivate allies in advance of suggesting vegan events. But even if you’re on your own, or one of a small group, preparing and passing out delicious desserts goes a long way. Good cooks are rarely mistaken for killjoys. (I’m serious about the cupcakes.)
8. “Vegans harm animals too.”
Right. The gentlest gardener will likely displace some animals. When our homes were constructed, many mice and other small animals lost their spaces. Bike components and book glues are not always vegan; the list is long. It’s sensible to acknowledge this, but it doesn’t mean we all need to continue allowing the selective breeding and training and breaking and buying and selling and eating of animals.
Being vegan means we strive as diligently as possible to avoid harming and manipulating conscious life, and we do the best we can to ensure other living beings are enabled to thrive in their ways.
9. “You just don’t understand business.”
Good try. No one understands business better than those who’ve soberly assessed corporate conduct and figured out that compromises will be rejected or co-opted according to how the shareholders’ return can be maximized.
Nor is it true that higher prices for animal products leads in the direction of animal rights. It leads to people seeing animal products as desirable items, even if fewer animals are sold.
We can’t know how many people are steered away from vegan living if they can obtain “humane” or “local” products (here we might recall our own journeys and the questions we asked: Do fish who swim freely suffer so badly? Is eating eggs better if I look for the free-range brand?).
When we resolve to simply opt out, we help liberate our culture from its psychological ties to animal use. This is entirely practical. On a planet of limited land and water, humanity breeds so many animals into existence as food and usurps so much arable land for animal feed that the free-living animals are pushed to the margins of the land and biodiversity is ruined. But through vegan movements, such as vegan-organic farming, we’re proposing a simpler, more sustainable, decentralized and life-affirming future for human and non-human beings alike.
10. “How popular will your materials be if you insist on promoting them as vegan?”
Just as some people avoid creating a vegan event because they genuinely think people won’t come, some vegan starter guides don’t use the word “vegan” and some people say “veg” or write veg*n—inching the word “vegan” back to a less specific vegetarian idea. Here’s a badge using the globally known vegan sunflower trademark—and imposing an asterisk on it.
It’s an understandable attempt at all-inclusive friendliness for an environmental cause. But applying the term vegan with the “a” blotted out, so that it becomes merely a short form of vegetarian, blurs some key points.
Figures applicable to the United States show that each vegan spares the atmosphere an equivalent of greenhouse gas emitted from 8,100 miles driven annually. Yes, go vegan and it’s like not driving your car more than 8,000 miles each year. Simply changing from some animal products to others won’t do this. Fish production goes right up with the flesh of cows to top the list of highest possible all-around energy uses. And milk products are derived from ruminant animals, who emit high amounts of methane—an especially potent greenhouse gas.
It’s important to prevent veganism from appearing as an optional variation within some apparently more popular position. Respecting the environment—just like respecting ethical principles—means more than cutting out steak and hamburgers. So the simple, powerful word vegan is more important than it’s ever been. It already respects vegetarian ideals: Taken from the first and last letters of the word, it brings vegetarian to its logical conclusion.
Grocers, restaurateurs, and ranchers claiming to sell humane animal products frequently attempt to sponsor rescue-related, vegetarian, and green events. Whole Foods Market has honed this into a major marketing technique. Animal-rights ideas get pushed aside as advocates sit down to business and give concession agreements their full and immediate attention. Then they call attention to their influence, and call the conscientious objector’s holdout stance divisive because, in effect, it’s not the view of the majority of society. Well, let’s face it: People who renounce dominion over other animals are outside the majority. We regard a viable movement for a new ethic as having to resist the majority’s hydraulic pull. We can expect part of our work to involve persuading potential compromisers to commit instead to conscientious objection.
If we are not living according to the vegan principle and imparting to others this same principle, veganism doesn’t exist. Objections will be many, and people will try to dilute the vegan principle and blur the word. Yet our example is generally accepted by the animal-advocacy community as positive, without drawbacks of any sort, except that it’s thought by some to be a slow approach. Although it might be slow, a lot of things are; and respect for animals clearly advances when people “renounce absolutely their traditional and conceited attitude that they had the right to use them to serve their needs.”
11. “It’s just too hard to be vegan.”
Given all that’s going on in climate science and ethics studies, I think we’re swimming with the tide—but yes, we’re swimming faster, and that takes stamina.
Yet I find it is easier for me to be vegan than not. My mind can rest easy at night. I used to be one of the humans who exerted dominion over other animals, but I no longer have to maintain that worldview. I can walk along the streams and through the woods knowing a real peace with other beings. I find it a wonderful relief to understand myself as a simple co-worker in this planet’s life and story.
12. “Come on, how can we possibly get up in the morning, with the human population growing daily by more than 211,000 people, drones flying, governments spying, polar bears drowning, 100 million people people living in the streets, and think this vegan stuff is going to work?”
Good question. The symbolic Doomsday Clock, maintained since 1947 through the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to represent minutes to the midnight of our destruction, weighs threats posed by nuclear weapons, new developments in life sciences, and climate change. It was first set at seven minutes before midnight, and as of this writing is set at five minutes to midnight. The clock can be, and has been, set back in time, too—in response to political decisions humans have made. The message? Human-induced global warming and war are no accidents. Nor are they foisted upon us by nature, fate, or God. They are the results of human decisions. As long as we’re here, we can decide in new ways, and help offer that power to others—balancing our sober discussions with good news, enjoyable walks and teas and great recipes, a sense of generosity and joy in being alive.
Cormac Cullinan, author of the book Wild Law, offers a sound reason to be optimistic about the future of human law and culture. Proposing it’s entirely possible to have ecologically respectful law, Cullinan reminds us of the paradigm shift; the term, as Thomas Kuhn introduced it in the 1960s, means a transformation in the scientific worldview. Consider the Copernican revolution: When it became clear that our planet revolves around the sun, we ceased to be the focal point of creation. What had once seemed obvious and eternal was something else entirely: an error of the past. Humanity’s perspective changed.
Likewise, the vegan principle challenges an old view that we’re central and that everyone and everything revolves, eternally, around us. Environmentalists have discovered how incorrect the all-for-us view is, from a biological perspective. Earthworms and bees and other supposedly insignificant beings are now understood as enormously influential in the bio-community.
Meanwhile, vegan advocates assert that all are entitled to live on their own terms, bees and earthworms included.
Note that the Copernican revolution wasn’t the result of change in increments to the old system. No one was asked to accept that the sun was a little closer to the central point over time. Astronomy charts didn’t show Earth moving gradually outward as new editions were printed. So let’s not say, “Well, OK, start with eggs from hens who were given more room.” No quest for a “decent way to raise animals for food” is necessary when each of us, and everyone we meet, has the power to commit to vegan principles right now. There is a bright-line psychological difference, and not a continuum, between accepting human dominion and rejecting it.
Vegans reject human dominion. It’s a radical idea; a paradigm shift is radical by definition. It will not happen overnight, and it will be met with resistance (Galileo’s books were banned, and the great scientist was placed under house arrest for having accepted the position of Copernicus, which was deemed contrary to biblical authority). But the cultural shift, once the new paradigm is presented and acknowledged, is unstoppable.
We don’t know the tipping point; it could be a small number of people who are working on a problem now, and the next generation could be the one for which everything falls into place. And that’s good. By most indications, we have little time to spare.
Question marks: Oberazzi, on Flickr. Bee photographed by Steb1, published on Flickr. The source of information on food miles and emissions for this article is the study of greenhouse gas emissions by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews,“Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” – 42 Environmental Science Technology, at 3508-13 (2008). High impacts of fish commerce was noted by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin (2006). Thanks to Victoria Hart for the term authentic vegan.