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.