Is a Vegan Humanity Possible?

Life on Earth is getting stranger. When the vegans started out in 1944, they noticed that our population, even then, weighed heavily on the planet. In seventy years, we’ve gone from two to seven billion human beings, with the number of animals bred into existence to feed many of these people—the land animals alone!—numbering in the many tens of billions.

The easy thing to do is be pragmatic and figure other animals are losing their habitat forever as fast as we can grab it, that we are incorrigible domesticators, and that life is everywhere commodified, so the best we can do, given that other animals are always going to be in some sort of relationship with us, is to be as easy as possible on all the other animals we control.

And yet I feel sure a world with room for animal rights is a world that’s still possible. Our dominion will be overthrown at some point anyway. Should we exhaust our planet, the force of life will rearrange itself accordingly.

The question for us, then, is whether we want to swim with the tide—with conscious awareness. Whether we grasp that we—scared little primates with big weapons, as Harold Brown has called us—are not in charge of this planet; whether we acknowledge that our lives unfold within a bio-community; whether we value, and will strive to increase, our capacity to respect other communities on this Earth.

Animal law generally misses these questions. It’s become part of North American social and educational life, with the model often involving pressure for courts to recognize, as animal law professors tend to put it, other animals’ true value and special place in our homes. But to me the radical hope was expressed when law professor Catharine MacKinnon (in the 2004 essay “Of Mice and Men: A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights”) called for a new way of understanding animal advocacy, observing that the primary model of animal rights to date “misses animals on their own terms.”

Vegans have risen to the occasion and refused to be consumers of animal commodities. This general opting-out is the broad base for dissolving the for-sale status of other animals, and (because being vegan isn’t just about what we don’t want) letting them thrive on their own terms in untamed spaces.

Consider the free-roaming horses. They, at least in the United States, are continually rounded up and auctioned off. Some have been trained as border guards, others for display in circus-like shows. Some have been sent to die. Many animal advocates are focused on closing horse-slaughtering plants. From the vegan perspective, confronting slaughter makes sense—but only as part of a broader, autonomy-seeking perspective.

Nor is the answer to impose birth control on free-roaming horses while cattle ranches expand.

There is a law—the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971—that set out to let free-roaming horses and burros do just that: roam free. It hasn’t worked out. What horse advocates need, I believe, is to link to a vegan ethic: the permanent boycott of flesh and dairy products so animal agribusiness doesn’t push these horses and burros off the land.

An enormous segment of the human economy is based on taking habitat out from under other animals, yet each one of us has the power to change this structure. What’s more, we all know and constantly encounter other people with this same potential. People can and do respond to reasoned optimism.

May we stay mindful of the ideal and strive for it, so that wolves, coyotes, horses, bison, deer, elk and moose may freely roam their habitats. So that bears flourish, bees flourish, and horses live freely on Chincoteague, Assateague, the western ranges…Nova Scotia and the Nemaiah Valley. So that no one is calling for roundups, because the products of cattle ranching are no longer in demand. So that jaguars, pronghorn, and nectar bats, humans as well, have the right to move across the face of the earth. So that Earth’s CO₂ balance is restored, its wildlands are recovering, its air and its waters are clean and clear. So that pesticides are things of the past and the only lethal traps, snares, birdcages, guns, fishing poles and spurs left in the world are in antique stores.

Love and liberation,