Wednesday, December 23, 2009

THE WORLD IS VEGAN! If you want it.


In 1969 John Lennon and Yoko Ono leased billboards in eleven major cities around the world. One of those billboards wrapped around a building in New York’s Times Square. All of them read:

WAR IS OVER!
IF YOU WANT IT
Happy Christmas from John and Yoko

That message deployed forty years ago this month was part of a larger campaign that included posters, leaflets, newspaper advertisements, and radio spots; all intended to bring awareness to the fact that the Vietnam War could be ended and peace could prevail, if only individuals stopped waiting complacently for large corporate and government institutions or other forces to act, and simply decided that they wanted it.

Professor Gary Francione has proposed that we use this same message of self empowerment and individual responsibility to promote veganism. His idea centers on a virtual billboard, disseminated across the worldwide web, to all populated corners of our planet, in every written language, with the simple message:

THE WORLD IS VEGAN!
If you want it.


Such a campaign, in our modern interconnected global village, has the potential to reach far more people, in far more places, and far more quickly than John and Yoko’s antiwar campaign did.

Francione intends to use this virtual billboard to educate people about nonviolence, speciesism, animal exploitation, the personhood of animals, and very importantly, our ability as individuals to make the choices that will reduce demand for animal use and ultimately bring about a peaceful vegan world.

Francione’s website page for this campaign—complete with links to various HTML-based banners in multiple languages—is available here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Monetary Cost of Being Vegan

At a party I attended recently, the subject of veganism was being discussed among a group of guests sitting outside on the patio. One of them mentioned that after becoming a vegan, she found that it was significantly more expensive. Specifically, she was referring to being a healthy vegan, eating mostly organically grown food and using various liquid and powdered nutritional supplement formulas. What I found most remarkable was that she was smoking a cigarette while expressing serious concern about being able to afford a healthy diet.

I don’t agree that a vegan diet is necessarily more expensive than a diet that includes animal products. My personal experience is that vegan diets are somewhat less costly than diets that include animal products. For instance, dry beans, lentils, and split peas, are significantly cheaper than cheese, or cuts of flesh from land or sea animals. Soymilk varies in price by brand and retail store, but is often comparable to the price of cow milk. However, reliance on highly processed and prepared foods, including meat analogs and ice cream alternatives—things I eat only occasionally—can quickly drive up the cost of a vegan diet. If you don’t know how to cook, learning to do so can save considerable money while improving the healthfulness of your meals.

Vegan nutritional supplements are generally more expensive than their non-vegan equivalents. But a vegan-formulated multivitamin with B-12 and perhaps a separate calcium and vitamin D-2 supplement would probably suffice for most people. In my opinion, most of the nutritional supplements on store shelves are a waste of money. Some claim to supply antioxidants, but a properly designed vegan diet with its abundance of plant foods, already provides significantly more of these beneficial compounds than a non-vegan diet. Some other supplements may feature ingredients for which there is no proven benefit. For example, even though humans didn’t evolve to eat grass, many consumers have been persuaded by clever marketing to drink wheat grass juice or take it as a supplement. It’s rich chlorophyll content is often touted, though marketers fail to inform consumers that the chemical crucial to photosynthesis in plants, plays no known role in human nutrition. Even if it did, we obtain ample amounts (at considerably less expense) from green leafy vegetables.

It’s true that eating healthfully is more costly than merely obtaining calories in their cheapest available forms. But this is true for both vegan and non-vegan diets. In the 2008 documentary film Food Inc., the topic of government food subsidies is examined. In the US, commodity crops such as corn and soybeans that are largely used for animal feed or to produce high-fructose-corn-syrup (HFCS), are heavily subsidized by the federal government. As a result, the price of meat, dairy, and eggs is kept lower than it would otherwise be. This is even the case now with some fish, since an increasing number are raised in aquaculture farms where they’re fed a diet of grain and seeds. Cheap HFCS goes into countless foods from prepared pasta sauce to soft drinks and cookies. A diet of corn chips and soda pop is an inexpensive way to meet one’s daily caloric requirements, but is terribly unhealthy. Steadily increasing health care costs are largely driven by an increase in obesity related diseases, fueled by the junk we’re eating. As part of a comprehensive approach to health care reform, food subsidies should be redirected towards fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption.

I’ve found that vegan personal care and household cleaning products are usually more expensive than non-vegan versions. But what I save on food mostly offsets the extra cost. My clothing expenses are roughly the same as before I was a vegan.

Individuals who are considering becoming vegans, need not worry that it’s less affordable. If anything, the specific health benefits from vegan diets, coupled with less damage to the environment, yield reduced long-term personal and societal costs. But the government needs to do its part by no longer subsidizing unhealthy food, and by requiring that the price of all goods and services reflect their true cost of damage to the environment and human health.

So go vegan today! Not only is it not difficult and won’t break your budget, it’s better for your health and better for the environment. Most importantly, it’s a personal commitment to building a better world based on peace, nondiscrimination, and nonviolence.

Finally, if you’re still smoking like that perplexing woman at the party, please quit. Smoking is a waste of money and harmful to your health and the health of those around you. Considering that it’s an addictive substance that kills and injures people as a result of its intended use, one could easily make the case that it’s not consistent with veganism.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

How the Concept of Instinct Shapes Our Attitudes About Nonhumans

Instinct is defined as patterns of behavior or specific skills in an animal exhibited in response to environmental stimuli, that are innate, largely unalterable, and not involving reason or conscious thinking. While the basic concept of instinct may have validity, its arbitrary application is clearly speciesist. Very few behavior patterns and virtually no skills exhibited by humans are attributed to instinct. In stark contrast, much of the behavior and skill sets exhibited by nonhumans are assumed to be instinctual. For example, nobody would think that there is no reasoning or thought process involved when humans build houses. We don’t consider this to be merely instinctual behavior. But dictionary definitions of “instinct” frequently cite examples of birds building nests. Nest building represents a relatively complex behavior. We don’t really know what’s going on inside the mind of a bird constructing a nest. While it’s possible that instinct is the initiating force behind her behavior, I highly doubt that there’s no active thinking or reasoning processes going on.

When we arbitrarily choose to explain complex animal behavior as instinct, only when nonhumans are involved, we are being speciesist. Attributing the behavior of nonhumans to instinct has the effect of minimizing their capabilities and accomplishments, reducing them to unthinking machines, denying their sentience and personhood, and justifying our own feelings of superiority and our continued exploitation of them.

To the extent that instinct is something that in fact exists, as opposed to a social construct that serves to advance an “us versus them” mindset, it should be impartially studied and rationally discussed. But it should never be used as a tool to justify oppression, discrimination, and violence towards other animals.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why I Need Some New Vegan Message Tee Shirts that Simply Say “vegan”


It’s crucial for the spread of veganism that vegans be visible, and that they bring attention to their veganism in appropriate ways that foster polite and informative discussions. Most importantly veganism should never be depicted as difficult or extreme, or as anything less than a moral and political commitment to non-violent living.

One way of being visible is to wear vegan message tee shirts. I have two such shirts and am planning to purchase a couple more in the near future. I liked both shirts very much when I ordered them a couple years ago, but since then as my thinking about animal rights and veganism has evolved, I’ve come to see them differently.

One of the shirts has the word “vegan,” followed by this dictionary definition of the term: ‘vê·gən\ (noun): a person who abstains from consuming or using animal-derived foods or products, including meat, dairy, eggs, fur, leather, wool, etc. While this definition is technically correct, I have a couple of problems with it.

First, it’s incomplete by failing to describe veganism as a moral and political commitment to non-violence. One thing that needs to be clearly understood is that non-violence is the basis of veganism.

Secondly, the word “abstains” may imply to many people that being a vegan requires substantial sacrifice or deprivation. But as a vegan, I don’t feel that I’m abstaining from anything. Sure there were some things I initially missed. But the food I eat and drink is still tasty, and the few changes I needed to make to my clothing, footwear and other products I use in no way reduced their quality. While I still frequently wear this shirt in public, I don’t like it as much as I used to.

The other shirt has the message “PROUD TO BE A VEGAN.” I no longer like this shirt and no longer wear it outside the house. Veganism represents the minimum standard required to fulfill our moral obligations to other sentient beings. It’s not something heroic or above and beyond what should be expected of the individual, any more so than not littering, not being a racist, or not being rude. These are all examples of basic standards of decency, or what we owe each other every day. They are not things to be proud of, nor are they things that warrant more attention paid to the individuals carrying them out than to the issue itself.

There’s one vegan message item of mine that I really do like. It’s a coffee mug that I used at my last office job that has the single word “vegan.” It’s a great conversation starter. Often short and simple messages work the best.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Many Problems with Animal Welfare

Animal advocates pursue two distinctly different approaches. Animal welfare (or welfarism) seeks to improve the treatment of animals through the regulation of institutional suppliers. Abolition, on the other hand, seeks to end the use of animals by reducing demand. This is achieved by educating people about veganism.
Traditionally, those who pursue the animal welfare approach seek only to improve animal treatment, and are not concerned with the fact that animals are being exploited, or that animals are considered to be mere property or commodities. In his 1996 book Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, law professor and animal rights theorist Gary L. Francione used the term “new welfarism” to describe the idea that the animal welfare approach can lead to abolition. New welfarism adherents claim that their approach is the most effective (and perhaps the only) way of achieving abolition.
Among other things, I’ll explain here why abolition cannot be achieved through the animal welfare approach, why animal welfare and abolition are fundamentally incompatible, and why I believe the idea—frequently put forward by new welfarists—that we should support all forms of animal advocacy, is wrong.

Animal Welfare Doesn’t Target the Property Status of Animals

Nonhuman animals are property, both legally and in terms of how most of us perceive them. Our cultural conditioning has imposed arbitrary boundaries along which we recognize or deny personhood to other species. Generally, companion animals such as dogs and cats fare better, while the vast majority of animal species, including most obviously the ones that we eat and wear, are subject to far more harm. But even the nonhumans who we grant the status of personhood, are still considered property in the eyes of the law. Property rights—strongly valued by our economic and political traditions—severely limit animal welfare reforms to those measures that don’t impose significant and enduring costs to producers and ultimate consumers. It is for this reason that genuine welfare reform cannot take place while animals are still considered property. As property, animals will always be valued more for how useful they are to us as commodities, than for their intrinsic worth as sentient individuals.
Animal welfare, with its focus on how animals are treated, and its disregard of the idea that animals should not be exploited in the first place, does nothing to steer people away from viewing nonhumans as property. Further regulation of treatment ends up strengthening the property status of animals in the same way that Jim Crow laws in the southern US a half-century ago had the effect of legitimizing and strengthening existing racist attitudes. These laws mandated “separate but equal” public facilities such as drinking fountains, swimming pools, and schools, for black Americans. But in reality, those separate facilities were inferior. Regulating racism ends up strengthening racism, just like regulating speciesism ends up strengthening speciesism. The abolitionist approach would instead focus on eliminating the root of the problem, be it racism or speciesism.

Supply Versus Demand

Animal welfare focuses on supply rather than demand. As experience with the never ending “war on drugs” has shown, attacking sources of supply is ineffective at curtailing the use of illegal substances. It stands to reason that such an approach would be even more ineffective at reducing the use of products such as animal flesh, secretions, or skin, for which there are no legal consequences for sale or possession. Not until there are fundamental changes in attitudes on the part of a sizable number of individuals, will there be sufficient political will to impose major legislative bans or restrictions on suppliers. When a strong and sustained demand exists for something, someone will inevitably supply it. On the other hand, suppliers won’t produce things that are no longer in demand. Abolition, through thoughtful, non-violent, vegan education, directly reduces demand. Abolition recognizes that change begins with the individual.

Animal Welfare Makes People Feel More Comfortable About Exploiting Animals

Perhaps the most significant problem with animal welfare campaigns from a practical standpoint is that they make people feel more comfortable about continuing to exploit animals. Ballot measures such as last year’s Proposition 2 in California that set minimum space requirements for egg-laying chickens and a few other animals raised for food, were marketed as major steps forward for animals. The big animal protection organizations that sponsor these measures spend large sums of money to get them on the ballot and to ensure their passage; money that could have been better spent doing vegan education. In fact Proposition 2 affords relatively little benefits to animals. The measure is riddled with loopholes, and includes a very long lead-time during which producers can continue operations as usual. It’s very likely that producers would have eventually adopted the new standards anyway due to cost savings from improved long-term efficiencies. Generally, the standards imposed by these kinds of welfare reform measures are economically beneficial to producers once initial capital expenditures have been paid for. As long as animals remain property, any improvements to their treatment beyond what can be achieved at minimal or no cost to producers and consumers, is largely illusionary.
If you fail to educate people about why it’s wrong to enslave and kill or otherwise exploit animals (however well they may be treated in the process) for reasons that are not only unnecessary but downright trivial, while you simultaneously expose them to marketing hype for “certified improved” animal products from “happy” animals, it’s not likely that many of them will decide to reduce their use of animals, let alone become vegans. Also, it’s not far-fetched to assume that marketing for things like “free-range” eggs or organic milk may persuade some uninformed vegans to become ex-vegans, or that some vegetarians might be persuaded by pro family-farm propaganda to return to flesh consumption.

Animal Welfare Promotes Moral Inconsistency and Confusion

Animal welfare is morally problematic in a number ways. For one thing, the approach suggests that it’s morally acceptable to exploit animals as long as we treat them well. This is a very disturbing and confusing concept that elevates the importance of treatment, while trivializing the act of killing.
Some animal welfare adherents believe that we should focus on welfare instead of abolition because realistically animal exploitation will never be eliminated. Therefore we should push for more “humane” ways of exploiting them, they contend. But no rationally thinking person would agree that it would be acceptable to murder a human as long as the perpetrator treated him well beforehand. If you believe that murder is morally wrong, common sense and logic would have you spending your time and effort on reducing the incidence of murder, even if you believe that murder will never be completely eliminated from society, rather than focusing on persuading murderers to treat their victims better prior to killing them. If you believe that killing and eating animals is morally wrong, common sense and logic would have you spending your time and effort on persuading others to become vegans, even if you believe that animal exploitation will never be completely eradicated, rather than focusing on getting producers to torture animals in new, “better” ways that may or may not make any meaningful difference in levels of suffering. Simply put, regulating something that is fundamentally wrong to begin with, is a fundamentally wrong approach.
Another way that animal welfare is morally problematic is the frequent use by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of sexist campaigns that portray women as objects. For multiple reasons, PETA’s objectification of a historically subjugated group (women) in its numerous “get naked” campaigns is a terrible way to bring attention to the objectification of another historically subjugated group (nonhumans). First, these kinds of campaigns imply that it’s okay to look at women as mere objects. Objectification robs those who it’s directed at of their essential personhood, making people feel more justified in exploiting them. It is part of the problem, and should never be part of the solution. Second, they do nothing to point out how all forms of oppression and exploitation are related. Third, they distract people’s attention away from the issue of animal protection. Finally, these campaigns along with other ridiculous PETA attention-grabbing antics and stunts make animal activists look like idiots while trivializing the serious issue of violence against animals.

The Problem of Single-Issue Campaigns

The big animal welfare groups are largely centered around single-issue campaigns that either focus on reforming the exploitive practices of a specific industry such as chicken egg or pig flesh production, or eliminating an exploitive industry such as dog racing or rodeos.
Because these campaigns are carefully selected to appeal to the largest number of potential donors, they often focus on the plight of animal species such as dolphins, dogs, or seals that we perceive as cute or adorable due to our cultural biases. By narrowly focusing on a particular species or a particular use, the idea is conveyed that harm to some kinds of animals (the “cute” ones) represents a greater wrong than harm to other kinds of animals (those that we find less attractive and/or perceive less commonality with). We all struggle with personal biases when relating to other people, but I think most of us understand that people who we perceive as less attractive and/or who have less in common with us are just as deserving of the right not to be subjected to unnecessary pain, suffering, and death, as people who we find to be more attractive and/or have more in common with. Particularly, as is most often the case, when such campaigns fail to place the situation in the context of the larger overall problem of animal exploitation, speciesism is reinforced.
Single-issue campaigns focus lots of resources on peripheral aspects of animal exploitation while failing to address the root of the problem, which is speciesism. They fail to explain why all forms of animal exploitation are wrong. They fail to focus on what is by far the largest aspect of animal exploitation: 56 billion animals (not including countless fish and other marine animals) killed worldwide every year for food. And they fail to call for veganism as the solution.

Welfare Supporters Frequently Call Abolitionists “Divisive” or “Elitist”

I’ve encountered many animal advocates who shy away from constructive debate of welfare verses abolition, mix up and confuse the terms “animal rights” and “animal welfare,” insist that we should support all types of animal advocacy efforts, and that we should remain united. People who disagree with these opinions are often called “divisive” and even “elitist.”
But just as liberals and conservatives have distinctly different views on many issues, so do welfarists and abolitionists. We see these issues very differently, believe in different things, and are headed in different directions. We cannot remain united because we have never been united in the first place.
With limited time and resources, it doesn’t make sense to support approaches to animal protection that don’t work, let alone those that are counterproductive. As Gary L. Francione has pointed out, “We have had animal welfare laws for 200 years now … [yet] we are now exploiting more animals in more horrific ways than at any time in human history.”
It also doesn’t make sense to avoid intellectual debate about philosophy and methodology. Sharing and debating ideas is crucial to identifying the most effective approach to the furthering of animal rights and other social justice issues.
Characterizing the abolitionist approach as “elitist” is merely an attempt to close off debate and summarily deny its standing as a valid animal rights approach. What can be more accurately characterized as elitist are the ideas frequently put forth by welfare groups that the public isn’t intelligent enough to understand veganism, that the concept of veganism as the moral baseline is extreme, and that stupid antics and sexual exploitation are necessary components of educational campaigns.

Conclusion

Animal welfare is a deeply flawed approach that leads people down a morally muddled and circuitous path. In contrast, the very simple and straightforward abolitionist approach deals directly with the root of the problem through vegan education. Those who understand abolition and veganism, see animal exploitation, speciesism, and other forms of discrimination as interconnected parts of the overall problem of violence in society. Veganism is not a set of rules or restrictions. Nor is it just a diet or lifestyle. It is a basic prerequisite for anyone who wishes to start caring seriously about animals, including humans. It is a moral and political commitment to non-violence. Furthermore, veganism is easy, both in its understandability and its day-to-day implementation.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Violence Against Animals Extends Beyond the Slaughterhouse

In this short video recorded in a French slaughterhouse, two cows are standing in a chute, about to enter one at a time an area where they will be stunned and then killed. A worker using an electric prod directs the first cow through the entrance door, which quickly closes behind her. A moment later, when the second cow hears the cries of the first cow, she realizes that her life is in imminent danger.
What is exhibited next is behavior that’s no different than one would expect from a dog, cat, or human, facing a similar dire situation. She is obviously fearful as she makes frantic attempts to get away.
Closing our eyes to her behavior in order to justify our enjoyment of animal products is no different than ignoring the interests and self-worth of a dog, cat, or human for the purposes of our own selfish enjoyment. Using criteria such as physical appearance and species to justify harming a nonhuman is exactly like using race, gender, or any number of other irrelevant characteristics to justify harming another human.
Anyone who thinks that this violence begins and ends at the slaughterhouse should consider that the cows in this video and billions of other sentient animals would never be put in these kinds of situations if it were not for the demand for animal products from a great many individual consumers. The violence starts with each of us. We are directly responsible for it. Ending it can only happen when individuals understand and acknowledge their complicity, and commit themselves to no longer demanding products based on the exploitation of animals.



Monday, July 27, 2009

Misconceptions About Vegan Nutrition Are Common, Even Among Vegans

The other evening I was introducing myself to some new people at a monthly dining event I host for a local vegan group. This particular night, 30 of us dined at a relatively new vegan restaurant called Loving Hut, part of an expanding global chain. Loving Hut has quickly become a favorite location for our group because the place is bright and clean, the food is very good, and of course everything on the menu is vegan.

One of the purposes of the group is to serve as a resource for people who are interested in veganism, but have not yet made the commitment. I think many vegans, including myself, can relate to how establishing a friendship with one or more vegans was instrumental in their decision to go vegan. Whether they simply served as a role model; or were helpful in offering advice about meal planning, grocery shopping, where to find non-leather shoes, the best books, pamphlets, and websites about the topic; having the support of vegan friends was easier than going it alone in a non-vegan world.

It continues to surprise me however, how much misinformation there is about vegan nutrition, even among vegans and vegetarians. When I initially spoke to one of the new group members at our dinner event, the topic of our conversation quickly turned to nutrition, specifically protein. She told me that as a vegan who didn’t consume much soy, she was convinced that she could not possibly be getting enough protein, even though she appeared healthy and suffered no deficiency symptoms. I asked her if she had ever analyzed her diet and actually added up the grams of protein in the different foods she was consuming in the course of a typical day. She responded that she had, and that she fell below the recommended 50 grams for a woman of her size. I then explained how a vegan eating a reasonably varied diet containing sufficient calories to maintain a healthy weight, would almost surely consume more than enough protein.

Thinking about this later on, I suspect she failed to factor in the protein content of some of the foods in her diet that many people don’t consider to be protein sources. Just about all whole foods except for most fruits, have significant amounts of protein, and all of these sources—small and large—contribute to the daily total.

Out of curiosity I added up the protein and calorie contents of some protein-containing vegan foods, and this is what I found:

In this example 63.4 grams of protein has been obtained from foods containing just 1,490 calories. This is less than a full day’s food intake for a woman of her size, yet she would have already consumed plenty of protein without eating much soy. Among the foods on my list, only the pumpkin pie contains soy (in the form of silken tofu).

Recommended daily intakes have a comfortable excess factored in to accommodate individual variations in protein requirements. Individuals engaging in intense strength or endurance exercise have somewhat higher protein needs that in almost all cases are easily met with the additional food consumed to meet their increased caloric requirements. The vast majority of people purchasing protein supplements are wasting their money.

I hope this was helpful in explaining away the most common myth about vegan nutrition. For further information, I recommend this excellent book I read a few years ago: Becoming Vegan—The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet, by Brenda Davis, R.D. and Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Making Discrimination Against Gays More “Humane” and its Similarity to Animal Welfare Group’s “Humane” Farming and Slaughter Campaigns

President Obama should be forthrightly pressuring Congress to repeal the US military’s discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" rule that requires the dismissal of service members who are openly gay. Instead, his Defense Secretary Robert Gates is examining ways to modify the policy so that it may be selectively enforced.

Gates said recently that he wants the flexibility, lacking in the rule as it’s currently written, to allow people who may have been outed against their will by a vengeful individual or a jilted lover, to continue to serve. The Secretary referred to such changes as making the policy “more humane.”

Clearly the policy is discriminatory. It applies only to gays, while straight service members are not subject to dismissal for revealing their sexual orientation. Working to “fix” the rule rather than doing away with it perpetuates and reinforces the second-class status of gay service members. Applying the policy more “fairly,” makes discrimination against gays in the military appear less objectionable at first glance. But the idea that the policy can be modified, reworded, or otherwise tinkered with to make it “more humane” is ridiculous.

By its very nature discrimination is not humane to begin with. In all of its many forms, it represents the devaluing of others simply because they are different. Consequently it’s a mistake to focus on trying to change what amounts to an inherently bad policy, rather than on efforts to get rid of it.

Strikingly similar is the promotion by big animal welfare groups such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States of the crazy idea of "humane" exploitation of nonhuman animals. At best animal welfare regulation makes enslavement and killing slightly less horrific—analogous to laying plush carpeting in the hallway leading to the death chamber. But spotlighting small improvements to treatment diverts attention away from the real problem of continued enslavement, torture, and killing. As a result, conscientious consumers unexposed to abolitionist thinking, are easily sucked in by marketing campaigns for “humane” animal products, and only occasionally give consideration to the one and only solution: the nonviolent and nondiscriminatory choice of going vegan.

Both of these cases lead to the logical conclusion that modifying and regulating discrimination is no substitute for abolishing it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Confusing Case of Michael Vick

With his release earlier this week from federal prison, the animal abuse case involving former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has returned to the news. Vick was convicted in 2007 of running an interstate dog fighting operation.

From the beginning, this case and its media coverage has been steeped in hypocrisy.

Vick grew up in a subculture where dog fighting was accepted. While this is by no means justification for his actions, it’s an explanation. In the larger culture it’s considered acceptable to eat animals—to the tune of 53 billion land animals (plus an unknown number of marine animals) killed each year worldwide for their flesh and secretions.

What Vick did was clearly wrong, but morally no different from what most people do every day. Like the dogs that Vick trained to fight, animals raised for food suffer terribly so that people may be entertained. There is no more need for humans to eat animals than there is for humans to watch dogfights. Either way animals are needlessly exploited and harmed. What really matters is not how they are harmed, but that they are harmed.

The National Football League (NFL) quickly suspended Vick without pay following his conviction on the federal charges. His various corporate endorsement deals were either not renewed or were suspended, as additional ugly details about the situation surfaced throughout 2007. Clearly these corporations were trying to appear conscientious to their consumer bases. But the NFL accepts advertising from firms whose operations revolve around the exploitation of animals. Hot dogs, ice cream, and other animal products are sold in the stadiums during the football games. One of Vick’s sponsors was Kraft Foods, a huge marketer of animal-based foods. He also had a deal with Nike, until it was suspended amidst all the bad publicity. Nike sells shoes made with leather, and is on record for egregious worker exploitation.

In an earlier blog post I wrote about how our culture’s deeply entrenched speciesism has most of us valuing the lives of dogs far more than the lives of chickens, cows, or pigs. That’s why so many people who think nothing about routinely carving up “food animals,” are outraged with what Vick did.

We’re brainwashed into valuing dolphins over tuna, primates over rodents. To some extent this is understandable. Whether we’re selecting among different animal species or different subgroups within the human population, we tend to have an affinity bias in favor of particular categories of beings who we have personal relationships with (dogs, cats, and human family members), or who we perceive to be more similar to us (other primates verses rodents, people of the same ethnicity verses those of a different ethnicity). But the ability to suffer (sentience) transcends all these categories. That’s why discrimination is wrong.

It may not be possible, or even necessary to eliminate all of our biases. But we need to recognize and understand them, then direct our actions accordingly to eliminate avoidable harm.

If Vick wishes to redeem himself, he ought to start by going vegan and educating others why being a vegan is the best way each of us can help animals. Simply denouncing dog fighting and becoming a spokesperson for yet another single-issue animal welfare campaign that fails to shine light on the connection with the far more widespread problem of animals tortured and killed for food, will inevitably result in the fortification of existing speciesist thinking.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Decades Later, Astronauts Still Trying to Feel Good About Nonhumans Forcibly Strapped into Capsules and Shot into Space

When I transitioned to an abolitionist a couple years ago, my eyes were opened to the speciesism and associated contradictions that I now see at every turn. So when I recently came across the article Astronauts Pay Respects to “Space Chimps” on CNN.com, I felt compelled to come up with an alternate or translated title that made sense to me.

The news story is about two retired American astronauts—Scott Carpenter who orbited the Earth in 1962 as a member of NASA’s original Mercury Seven, and Bob Crippen who piloted the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981—who last week visited a nonprofit sanctuary in Florida that serves as the permanent home for rescued chimpanzees, including many who once served as research and test subjects for the space agency and the US Air Force.

In the early days of the space programs, nonhuman animals were used in projects to assess the impact of space flight on living bodies. Ground-based experiments eventually culminated in actual test flights into space. In 1957 a dog named Laika became the first animal to venture into outer space when the Soviet Union launched her as the sole occupant of Sputnik 2. Tragically she was also the first person to die in space. A malfunction in the spacecraft’s thermal control system is believed to have been the cause of her death from overheating a few hours into the flight.

It was only after a chimpanzee named Ham—one of several known as “space chimps”—returned successfully to Earth after a suborbital flight in a NASA Mercury capsule, that Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American human to venture into space in 1961, also in a Mercury capsule.

“We’re paying them back for their service.” Carpenter said as they utilized golf carts to tour—with reporters and camera crews—the sprawling 200-acre grounds where 150 chimpanzees reside on a series of islands.

"There were a lot of unknowns back in the '50s about how the human body would react to space and some real bad concerns that you might die," Crippen added. "And these guys opened that up to at least give people confidence that it was okay to go put Al Shepard and the guys up for the first time."

There are two problems with these remarks. First, while it’s very fortunate that this sanctuary is available for these previously caged chimpanzees that cannot survive in the wild, to live out the rest their lives, I would not characterize the situation as “paying them back for their service.” I think of service as something that is voluntary and meaningful on the part of the individuals involved. The space flight experiences of Ham and Carpenter could not be more different. Carpenter, Crippen, Shepard, and all other human astronauts and cosmonauts choose their destiny; while Ham, Laika, and the other nonhuman research and test subjects did not. I would instead describe the situation as paying restitution to individuals who had been wrongfully imprisoned and unjustly experimented upon over several decades.

Secondly, while acknowledging that nonhumans exhibit sufficient physical commonality with humans to “… give people confidence that it was okay to go put Al Shepard and the guys up for the first time," Crippen conveniently overlooks their cognitive commonality in order to morally justify launching them into space ahead of the willing astronauts, to investigate those “… real bad concerns that you might die.”

This is just one of innumerable examples of people rationalizing the exploitation, oppression, and devaluing of others based on some irrelevant characteristic. In the case of the “space chimps” half-a-century ago, that characteristic happened to be species. But essentially the same thing is occurring when we base our discrimination on race, age, religion, sexual orientation, or any number of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with self-awareness and the desire to avoid suffering and death.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How About “Animal Agriculture Flu?”

As the outbreak of swine flu continues to infect growing numbers of humans across the globe, certain animal agriculture groups, fearing a drop in pork sales, are lobbying for a new name for the virus.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department has the conflicting dual roles of promoting and regulating the industry, said Tuesday: “there are a lot of hardworking families whose livelihood depends on us conveying this message of safety...and we want to reinforce the fact that we’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure that our hog industry is sound and safe and to make sure that consumers in this country and around the world know that American products are safe.”

Vilsack and his department now calls swine flu “H1N1 flu virus.”

It’s a common practice to name flu viruses after the species they are first discovered in. In the case of today’s swine flu, it was first found in domesticated pigs. As of tonight both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization continue to use the term “swine flu.”

The high level of attention to this virus is due to the belief by health officials that most people have no immunity to it, and the concern that it may behave like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed an estimated 20 to 100 million people worldwide. We are overdue for a serious pandemic, they believe. Though some infectious disease experts claim the current swine flu resembles typical seasonal flu in its effects, and that its seriousness is being overstated.

Vilsack is correct in his assertion that consumers can’t contract swine flu from eating pig flesh, but he’s ignoring the larger picture. Continuing to consume animal products—as Vilsack would have us do—will only result in the perpetuation of the animal agriculture industry, which is where these kinds of viruses originate and incubate.

Rather than simply taking precautions like frequent hand washing, covering our coughs, and avoiding close contact with infected people to avoid contracting and transmitting the current swine flu, being truly proactive means reducing the likelihood of future pandemics by not eating animal products.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Fish are Crops?



As you watch this report first shown on this evening’s NBC Nightly News, you learn that the dramatic plunge in the ocean’s fish population is only a problem because there are fewer fish for humans to kill and eat, that aquaculture (commercial fish farming)—done in an environmentally correct way—is the answer, and that fish are a crop!

“We only grow one crop of fish at a time on a farm, and we have crop rotation,” Nell Halse of Cooke Aquaculture proudly tells the reporter.

Drenched with speciesism and commodification, the report includes such phrases as “supply of fish,” “breeding,” and “grown domestically.” Clearly lacking is any mention of fish as individuals, or the very rational idea of no longer eating fish.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cesar Chavez

Today is the birthday of Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993). The founder and president of the United Farm Workers of America was also a civil rights leader, an environmentalist, and an animal rights advocate.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Chavez was committed to the principles of non-violence. He believed that positive social change required the enduring sacrifice of many people peacefully and thoughtfully working together for a common cause. In addition to leading countless nonviolent demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts, Chavez fasted to bring attention to the working and living conditions of migrant farm workers, and other vital issues of social and environmental justice. He saw veganism as an essential element of a nonviolent life, and he urged others to respect animals by not eating them.

In 1992 the organization In Defense of Animals awarded Chavez its Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contribution to human and animal rights. Chavez said in his acceptance speech: “We need in a special way to work twice as hard, to make all people understand that animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves. And that the basis for peace is respecting all creatures. That’s the basis for peace.

“And we cannot hope to have peace until we respect everyone—respect ourselves and respect animals and all living things ...

“We cannot defend or be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them, exploiting them in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food.”

What is particularly special about Cesar Chavez was his recognition that the exploitation of people, animals, and the environment are all forms of violence, and all interconnected. That is what he was trying to teach us.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

White House Vegetable Garden

Ground was broken last week on an organic vegetable garden on the south lawn of the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama led a group of students from a nearby elementary school as they created the 102-square-meter plot that will consist of raised beds planted with over fifty varieties of fruits and vegetables, including berries, tubers, legumes, greens, and herbs. One item that won’t be grown is beets. President Obama reportedly can’t stand them.

“I want to make sure our family as well as the staff and all the people that come to the White House and eat our food, get access to really fresh vegetables and fruits,” Obama told the fifth-grade students.

It will be the first such garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt started a “victory garden” during World War II.

The Obama’s hope that the garden sets a positive example and encourages people to improve their food choices for the benefit of their own health and the health of the environment.

Vegetable gardening saves money, it puts people back in touch with the earth, and creates a healthier, more sustainable, more diverse, and more decentralized food supply.

Hopefully this garden will start a trend. At a time of increasing awareness of the environmental costs of transporting food long distances, and when people in the US and elsewhere are working fewer hours and taking home less money, growing some of your own food makes more sense than ever. News of the Obama garden and the desire to reduce my grocery bill, motivated me this week to plant some seeds in my own vegetable garden, which had sat dormant for several years. My garden is much smaller, but will include beets.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarianism Makes No Sense

Vegetarians who don’t eat animal flesh, but do include eggs and dairy in their diets, are known as lacto-ovo-vegetarians. They represent the largest of the several categories of vegetarians, which also includes lacto-vegetarians who consume dairy but not eggs, ovo-vegetarians who consume eggs but not dairy, and vegans who consume no animal products and also avoid other uses of animals, such as for clothing, shoes, furnishings, etc.

I have sometimes seen vegans described as eating only foods from the Plantae (Plant) kingdom. However this is technically not true in accordance with the most widely accepted biological taxonomic system. Plants certainly represent the vast majority of what a typical vegan eats in terms of both volume and caloric value. But vegans also may eat mushrooms, yeasts, and various molds found in such foods as soy tempeh and miso; all of which are members of the Fungi kingdom. Microscopic organisms found in cultured soy and in most other foods that haven’t been recently cooked at high temperatures, are members of the Eubacteria kingdom.

From the perspective of the abolitionist vegan, one who recognizes animals as sentient beings and denies the moral legitimacy of animals as property, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism is no different morally than a diet that includes meat. Animals used for their milk and eggs are considered property in exactly the same context as animals used for their flesh. In both cases, the vast majority of these animals experience a lifetime of slavery followed by untimely death at the slaughterhouse. While the average lacto-ovo-vegetarian most likely eats a smaller overall quantity of animal products than the average meat eater, resulting in less net animal use and harm, the remaining animal use in the form of dairy and/or egg consumption is still wrong, and is still morally unjustifiable.

From the perspective of the vegetarian who accepts the use of animals short of killing them, eating dairy and/or eggs is flawed logic. In the modern system of production the dairy cows and egg laying birds are ultimately killed when their continued existence ceases to be profitable for the producer. Eating dairy and eggs directly supports that killing.

From the perspective of someone who adheres to the welfarist position—that it is acceptable to own and use animals as long as their treatment conforms to some set of minimum guidelines, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism may have made some sense in a long-gone era prior to the factory farm practices that have arisen in response to the huge global demand for dairy and eggs. It certainly doesn’t make sense now. Some of the worst cruelty takes place in the production of dairy and eggs. While labels such as “free-range,” “cage-free,” or “organic” may in some cases represent slightly less cruelty; plenty of cruelty remains. So-called “humane farming” practices have more to do with marketing and making consumers feel more comfortable about continuing to eat animal products, than protecting the interests of animals.

From the perspective of an informed person who is concerned about the environment, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian’s contribution to water consumption/pollution and greenhouse gas emissions—while substantially less than the typical meat eater—remains significantly larger than it would be if they became a vegan.

Finally, from the perspective of an informed person motivated by health concerns, not eating meat due to it’s high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat, concentrated pesticide residues, and lack of dietary fiber and phytochemicals, makes a lot of sense; but so would also avoiding dairy and eggs for the very same reasons. Nutritionally there is little difference between meat, dairy, and eggs. They are all forms of animal tissue.

Conclusion: Differentiating between meat, dairy, and eggs appears in all of the above cases to be arbitrary. From multiple perspectives lacto-ovo-vegetarianism makes no sense, while veganism makes plenty of sense.