Monday, September 30, 2013

A Vegan World

What do abolitionists mean when we speak of a future vegan world? First of all, we are talking about changing the world that we have created for ourselves. Our world includes humans and the animals that we have forced into domestication, including those that we use for food, clothing, companionship, entertainment, and biomedical experimentation; but not the wild animals existing outside of our sphere of domination such as the carnivores that need to eat other animals to survive.

Just as murder, rape, and other forms of violent assault against humans continue to occur even though virtually all of us consider such things to be morally wrong, in a vegan world there would still exist instances of animal exploitation. However, the vast majority of people would consider speciesism—much like racism is today—a scourge, and veganism would be a social norm. The legal system would no longer recognize the property status of animals, and harm to any sentient being would be treated similarly regardless of the victim’s species.

Animals would no longer be recognized as resources for our benefit, but rather as persons with self-interests, inherent value, and basic rights. Animal sanctuaries where nonhuman refugees displaced from their natural habitats could live out their lives with minimal interference would exist for as long as they were needed, but institutions that exploit animals for their entertainment value such as pets, animal actors, zoos, marine parks, and aquariums, would not. Animal domestication, similar to how human domestication is regarded today, would no longer be acceptable, and we would no longer be perpetuating it by breeding animals for any purpose.

A vegan world will require a major paradigm shift, with societal attitudes changing first, followed by changes in the legal systems once there exists a sufficient political base to support that. Given that most people already accept the premise that it’s wrong to impose unnecessary pain, suffering, and death on an animal, we are closer to a vegan world than many may think. Increasing awareness of animal agriculture’s damaging effects on human and environmental health will force many changes. However, the more important challenges are to acknowledge that animal exploitation, in all of its many manifestations, is a form of violence, and to then bring our behavior in line with our core beliefs. But we won’t get there without a collective sense of self-efficacy—a durable belief on the part of enough of us that a vegan world can be achieved. We also won’t get there if we don’t change our focus to challenging animal use and killing, rather than continuing to spin our wheels by talking about “humane” treatment of animals that we shouldn’t be bringing into our world and exploiting in the first place.

The world is vegan! If you want it.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why Abolitionism is an Inherently Optimistic Approach Essential to the Emergence of a Vegan World

A key difference between abolitionists, who focus on the abolition of animal exploitation, versus welfarists, who focus on treatment through the furthering of animal welfare measures, is where we fall on the optimism-pessimism spectrum. Abolitionists are optimists in the sense that our goal of a vegan world is driven by the belief that it can be achieved. Most welfarists on the other hand—assuming that the majority of them would welcome a vegan world—are pessimists regarding its emergence. In countless instances over many years, animal advocates who embrace the welfarists campaigns of groups like PETA and the Human Society of the United States (HSUS), have expressed to me their belief that most people will never go vegan, and therefore we must direct our time and energy toward making animal exploitation more “humane.” There are several problems with this position.

First, animal exploitation and the speciesism that forms its foundation are social justice issues that can only be fixed through an approach that seeks their eradication. For instance, had movements seeking to improve the lives of females taken the position that most people would never accept the concept of equal rights for women, and instead focused on making existing discriminatory practices less objectionable, it is unlikely today that females would have as many opportunities to participate in high school and colligate sports, or to enter traditionally male dominated professions. If movements seeking to improve the lives of members of the LGBT community had taken the position that marriage equality was an unrealistic goal and instead settled for civil unions that provide far fewer benefits, we would not today be looking at a growing number of states where marriage equality is legal. Nor would we be seeing rapidly evolving social attitudes in which even many of the critics of nationwide marriage equality are acknowledging its inevitability. History shows us that major changes in attitudes do occur, and that while the process can be frustratingly slow with pauses and setbacks, progressive social change is all but certain. However, it is always dependent on optimistic individuals with a vision, working towards goals that are radical for their time, who fervently believe that they can be achieved.

Second, the welfarist starting-point position that most people will never go vegan, leads to other positions and campaigns that indeed make it more likely that will be the case. While there are many problems with the welfarist model, which I discussed in detail in this previous post, it is the “happy” animal products phenomenon that best illustrates this point. Animal products marketed as being better for animals, in fact have the opposite effect by encouraging continued consumption. The interests of the animals whose body parts or secretions end up in the grocery store with labeling proclaiming “cage free,” “certified humane raised,” or something similar, are never more than minimally recognized or addressed, and that will continue to be the case as long as animals are considered property. As mere property or commodities, animals always lose out to the economic interests of producers. The “happy” animal product marketing schemes are designed to perpetuate animal consumption by making consumers feel more comfortable about continuing to do that. And they achieve this by effectively keeping the focus on treatment and away from discussions about the more fundamental issue, which is given what we know today about animal sentience, human nutrition, and the devastating environmental effects of animal agriculture, why so many of us are still exploiting animals to begin with.

This leads to my third point, which is that whatever the misleading “happy” animal product marketing campaigns may claim, there is no such thing as “humane” or “compassionate” exploitation. If a serial killer took measures to reduce the suffering of his victims before he killed them, no rational person would describe him as “humane” or “compassionate.” Nor would we settle for programs designed to make serial killing “nicer” or “kinder.” Yet we are blinded by convenience and tradition to the very same kind of injustice in instances where the victims are nonhumans.

In summary, we have historical evidence that major social change can and does occur, the pessimistic welfarist approach that focuses on our treatment of animals rather than challenging our use of them and promoting veganism, gets us nowhere, and however cleverly it’s marketed, there is no way that animal exploitation can be made “humane.”

Abolitionism takes a direct path toward a vegan world by focusing on convincing more people to become vegans. Polling done by Harris Interactive for the Vegetarian Resource Group shows that the number of self-identified vegans in the United States rose from 1% of the population in 2009 to 2.5% in 2012—a 150% increase in just three years. Even considering sampling errors (not all self-identified vegans are true vegans), and the fact that three years is not a sufficient period of time to predict a long-term trend, the figure is very encouraging. As each new vegan convinces others to go vegan, and as those they have convinced in turn convince others, and as environmental and global food supply pressures intensify, it is likely that the rate of increase will rise over time.

Probably much sooner than even most abolitionists can imagine, we will have a vegan world. I’m optimistic.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Horse Slaughter is Horrible, but so is all Animal Exploitation

There has been a burst of activity in social media and the blogosphere among animal advocates and those who just have a special affinity for horses in the hours since it was announced that the USDA had approved the opening of the first horse slaughtering facility in the United States since the 2011 expiration of a five-year-old ban. Commercial horse slaughter has not occurred in the U.S. since 2006, though horses have been exported to slaughtering plants in neighboring Mexico and Canada during the intervening years, and surely will continue to be due to demand.

Many of the posts and tweets have implied either subtly or not that horse slaughter is especially horrible. I could not agree more that horse slaughter is horrible, but equally horrible is the slaughter of billions of cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and other animals that occurs at our hands every year for trivial reasons.

We are conditioned to insert animals into a moral hierarchy, with horses, dogs, and cats closer to the top, rodents and fish near the bottom, and other land animals somewhere in between. But moral hierarchy is wrong precisely because it is a moral hierarchy—a mechanism that arbitrarily assigns higher value to the interests of some over those of others. It is a cultural construct in which animals move up or down the hierarchal ladder based on the cultural norms of a given society at a given moment in its history. Just as ranking the importance of humans by using race or gender is understood by most of us to be wrong, it is similarly wrong to do so using species.

Our world largely runs on supply and demand and we wouldn’t be discussing domestic horse slaughter if not for our continued demand for horses. Minus that demand, we would not be breeding more of them in the first place.

We look harshly upon foreigners who enjoy horsemeat, furthering our underlying xenophobia and false feelings of moral superiority, while failing to recognize the harm we are doing here at home when we patronize horse-drawn carriages, equestrian shows, or horse races. These are all forms of exploitation that treat horses as just another one of our resources. None of them are benign. All of them are abhorrent and contribute to the overall demand.

All animals have self-interests. They all value their lives just like we do and have value that is independent of how we may think about them individually or as members of a particular species. Abolitionist veganism rejects moral hierarchy and species favoritism, and treats similar situations in similar ways.

Please go vegan. It is the moral and political commitment to nonviolence that protects the environment, promotes human health, respects the interests of other sentient species, and as I truly believe will someday be evident, puts us on the right side of history.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

You Need Not Turn Over Any Rocks

Animal exploitation is so pervasive in our culture that you need not turn over any rocks to see it; in fact you can't seem to get away from it. During my run early this morning I ran past a large group of goats grazing in a grassy field surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Accompanying them was a dog. Both the dog and the goats are victims of domestication. They are someone's property, their lives are controlled, and they are forever dependent on humans. The dog is exploited for her ability to watch over the goats and chase or scare away predators. The goats are exploited for whatever horrible purposes they are used for. Everyone inside that fence is valued more for what they can do for us than for who they are as individuals.

Later this morning while stretching at the gym, I overheard a man on the mat next to me saying into his cell phone: "She wants to go to SeaWorld. I think we can find a coupon." We detain animals in zoos, aquatic parks, and aquariums where we strip them of their personhood, manage their lives in unnatural settings, put them on display, and profit off them, merely because we find them entertaining.

A coffee shop was my next stop. While paying for my coffee and bagel, I couldn't help notice the tubs of cream cheese neatly stacked in the refrigerated display case next to me. The dairy industry involves such terrible violence that those containers might as well have been smeared with blood.

I see animal exploitation everywhere I turn, and honestly, it sickens me. But I always remind myself that the discomfort I feel is trivial compared to what the nonhuman animals we exploit have to go through.

If you haven’t already done so, please recognize that animals have an interest in their lives just as humans do. Please reject violence and go vegan.