Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Let’s Consider What We Can Do for Animals Instead of What Animals Can Do for Us

This article also appeared as a guest essay at Ecorazzi.

For several years now I’ve adopted and cared for small rodents (mostly hamsters) from a local humane society shelter. I have photographs of them that I use as desktop backgrounds on my work computer. This often results in questions and friendly remarks from coworkers or other people who walk by and notice the images. One day when I was living with Jennifer, a mouse, and had her photo on my computer screen, I found myself involved in a conversation about her. Given my feelings about animals, one of the initial questions from the gentleman I was talking with struck me as disturbing, even though I assumed he was well intentioned and merely reflecting prevailing cultural attitudes.

“Is she a good pet?” he asked.

In response I did something I probably wouldn’t have done a few years earlier, but would have thought about later and wished I had. I immediately used his question as an opportunity to get him thinking differently about animals by explaining that I looked at the situation with Jennifer as a question of what I could do for her, as opposed to what she could do for me by being, as he put it, “a good pet.” I explained that she was the vulnerable one in the equation. She was bred into captivity and domestication by humans, legally regarded as property (something rather that someone), and dependent on us for her care with no guarantee that she would end up with a guardian who would provide that. What I was conveying was not a complicated concept, and his expression suggested that he understood my point of view even though he likely wasn’t used to thinking about it that way. I went on to talk about how I adopted Jennifer from a shelter, and that I didn’t obtain animals from pet stores because in such places animals are sold as commodities, and doing so also contributes to demand.


I’ve thought about why the animals I’ve adopted might have ended up at the shelter. Some of the hamsters have bitten my fingers with their tiny but sharp incisor teeth. Until they got accustomed to human handling, they tended to squirm strongly and run away. They sometimes chewed small holes in my T-shirts, and that was upsetting if it was a new shirt. None of those things were the animal’s fault of course. They just needed me to accept who they were and focus on their needs. No doubt they were turned in at the shelter because for one or more reasons they didn’t meet someone’s expectations of a “good pet.”

When we look at almost all of the ways we use animals, the question, “What can the animal do for us?” applies. That is the core of exploitation or use. That is the core of domestication. And that is how most of us have been raised to think about animals.

Animals used for food entertain our palate. Animals that we wear keep us warm or satisfy our fashion preferences. Animals we call “pets” are expected to be good, compliant companions. Animals incarcerated in zoos and featured in movies and television are there to entertain us. Animals used in biomedical experiments give us data, most of which is of questionable value, but that we understandably are not willing to obtain from humans.

Generally, we agree that using humans in most of these situations would be morally wrong. (Humans however can consent to acting roles in movies, television shows, and plays, and being subjects in certain kinds of biomedical experiments; animals cannot.) Yet we did exploit humans in some of these ways in the past, and sadly even today human commodification in many forms continues. Human slavery still exists in parts of the world, people are still maimed and murdered for their body parts or because they are deemed to be members of an inferior and despised category, sexual assault remains a major problem, and vulnerable groups are still regarded as expendable or at least ignored with regard to their most basic interests.

These are all forms of discrimination. Discrimination is a process of devaluing the basic interests of other sentient beings based on some irrelevant characteristic, or to put it a little differently, denying one or more groups their rightful place in the moral community. Most of us are familiar with racism or sexism, but when we apply a separate, arbitrary standard to nonhuman animals vs. humans, we are practicing speciesism. And since the animals we exploit share with us the desires to be free from harm and to continue to live, speciesism is wrong for precisely the same reasons that other, more recognized forms of discrimination are wrong.

So instead of asking what animals can do for us, let’s think about what we can do for them. The first and most effective thing we can do as individuals is to go vegan. Think of veganism as the minimum—a moral baseline. Veganism directly reduces demand for animal use. It’s something we can do right now, and it’s consistent with how most of us already think—that it’s wrong to impose unnecessary suffering and death on an animal.

Secondary benefits of veganism are improved health and reduced environmental impact. A vegan diet of whole grains, legumes, a variety of vegetables and fruits, mushrooms, nuts, and seeds, can go a long way in reducing the incidence and severity of the modern degenerative diseases that have become so widespread and have driven up our healthcare costs to the breaking point. From an environmental perspective a vegan requires far less water and land to grow his or her food than a non-vegan, and animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector.

After going vegan, all of us can do our part to educate others and get them to go vegan as well. Exactly how we do that depends on our individual personalities and talents, but everyone can learn basic abolitionist animal rights theory and how to respond to common questions. Each of us can find a way to influence others. And with the power of compounding, if every vegan in the United States converted just one other person each year, we could have a vegan nation in around five years. Do that globally and we can have a vegan world.

Finally, consider adopting or fostering an animal if you have the means to do so. Obviously not everyone has the space or budget for a large dog, but smaller animals down to small rodents or turtles sit in shelters awaiting good homes. Animal domestication is an abhorrent institution that should not be perpetuated. Breeding more animals, whether to fill our dinner plates, stock our zoos and aquariums, for dependent and captive companions, or for any other purpose is all about us, and our selfish desires. It is most certainly not about their needs and interests. However, the animals already here need our care, and given that we domesticated them in the first place, we have a moral obligation to provide it.

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The six principles of the Abolitionist Approach to animal rights may be read here.

Learn how to be vegan here and here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Veganism is a Way We Can Make a Difference

Several years ago I was taking a class at Arizona State University on health behavior change theory. It was part of the curriculum for the Exercise and Wellness undergraduate degree program I was pursuing. One day the professor mentioned that we typically have control over only 16% of the things that affect our lives. He mentioned an earthquake (I believe it was in New Zealand) that was in the news at the time that had resulted in many deaths and serious injuries, as an example of something that the people affected had no control over. I’m not sure where the 16% figure came from, but I understood the general idea he was trying to convey that day in class—that we are born into a complex world with powerful forces to which we must adapt, and in seeking solutions to our problems we tend to focus on the things we really cannot control while neglecting the fewer, but very important things we indeed can control and change.

We live in a world of absurdities, widespread violence, political gridlock, climate change, conflict, and confusion. None of us really understands it, knows how long we’ll live, how long our loved ones will live, or how long our species will endure. All these things create stress that if not properly dealt with leads to unhappiness and poor health.

We long for control over our lives. We seek purpose and meaning. As much as our culture gets in the way, most of us want to do the right thing and make a positive difference in the world. Veganism is a way of living we all can commit to that’s comprehensive, all-encompassing, and sets a beautifully simple moral baseline—that we should not unnecessarily impose pain, suffering, and death on other sentient beings—consistent with existing moral truths almost all of us already accept. It’s part of that 16% of things in our lives over which we have control. Veganism, understood and carried out in accordance with its original meaning as a moral and political rejection of violence, is deeply empowering, liberating, purposeful, and meaningful.

Clearly our largest use of animals by far, the tens-of-billions of land animals and a roughly estimated one-trillion-plus fish and other sea animals that we kill annually, worldwide for food, qualifies as “unnecessary.” Leading nutrition authorities including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics confirm that vegan diets are adequate and healthful for all stages of human life. We hear regularly of the benefits of eating fewer animal products and more plant foods, both to human health and the environment. Compared to diets that include animal products, vegan diets require far less land, water, and energy investment, and result in much less groundwater pollution. Years ago a United Nations report concluded that animal agriculture was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector. Since then, animal agriculture has only grown in size as more people in developing nations adopt Western diet patterns. So even if you don’t care at all about the lives of animals, eating animal products is not only unnecessary, but also bad for your health and environmentally destructive on a large scale.

As comprehensive as veganism is, there is a reason why its core principle is referred to as a “baseline.” Being vegan is the minimum we need to do as individuals. We ought to also consider adopting or fostering homeless animals if we have the means to do so. Animals stuck in shelters are there because of us. We created the institution of domestication (animals bred and raised for our use, e.g. for food or clothing, as pets or biomedical experimentation subjects, etc.). It was a mistake to do so and like any mistake one that should not be perpetuated, yet the domesticated individuals who are already here desperately need our care. Providing that care with the attitude of “what can we do for these animals?” as opposed to the culturally normative “what can these animals do for us?” removes “use/exploitation” from our relationship with animals and in so doing not only benefits animals tremendously, but benefits us as well by providing some of that much sought after meaning, purpose, and positive difference-making in our lives.

The other thing that we need to do beyond being vegan is to educate others. Here again the 16% figure comes into play. Overall we don’t have much control over how other people think about veganism or other issues. But in the case of people close to us, we do. So focus on that. Friends, coworkers, relatives, and spouses may be more likely to listen to someone who they know personally and can relate to. You can serve as an accessible, living example of veganism, helping those around you to start thinking outside the conventional paradigm about animals.

Recognize the areas of your life that you have control over. Indeed, you can make a difference. Please go vegan, adopt or foster an animal if you can, and find ways to share veganism with others around you.

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The six principles of the Abolitionist Approach to animal rights may be read here.

Learn how to be vegan here and here.