The Other Veganism: An Alumni Response

Editor’s note: Anthony Wenndt ’15 majored in Biology and Russian at Grinnell and had an interdisciplinary concentration in Global Development Studies. He currently lives in Ithaca, New York, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology at Cornell University.

 

A recent article by Sarina Farb petitions for food justice, suggesting that “The exploitation, domination, and use of non-human animals for human desires” is a “largely invisible injustice in society.” The author, obviously justified in their concern, goes on to say that “[some vegans on campus] feel like we are witnessing something akin to a legal and socially accepted stoning that no one else seems to see.”

Of course, this is a discussion of non-human animal rights. Farb is a leader of the active student organization Advancing Animal Compassion Together, and is transparent about their perspective of food justice and the critical importance of respect for animals in securing a healthy and sustainable food system. However, I found the article to be a bit unsettling because this call for animal rights awareness, while an important perspective to be raised, is the rationale for veganism too often portrayed in our society and in fact makes up the bulk of the vegan stereotype. The purpose of my testimony herein is to offer another perspective, one that situates the rights of non-human animals into a larger discussion of injustice that isn’t always represented in a vegan’s “elevator speech.”

Farb rightly describes veganism as social movement. Veganism is certainly a statement of activism in most cases, but the radical animal rights component tends to fill most of the activist space. Farb writes, “It is impossible to ever produce animal products without exploitation, since the products are literally made from the bodies of oppressed individuals.” Near the end of the piece, they plead: “So please, think of the animals, who are individuals that don’t want to die or be ripped from family members, before you eat bacon or ice cream.” Statements like these perpetuate and radicalize the animal rights dogma of veganism. Again, I don’t wish to question the validity of Farb’s argument, as it is valid, indeed. Animals do feel, and do deserve to be treated with justice and compassion. But I feel it is critical that we think of food justice not only as an animal right, but also as a global, systemic right to which all organisms, communities, and environments on this planet are entitled. I’m arguing that the push for humane treatment of animals is situated in a larger ecology of planet-scale interactions—an argument that commands a dramatic reconsideration of Farb’s notion of justice.

Ecology is about interplay. It is about respecting the biological compulsions that carry us through life, and about living at the mercy of those things that threaten to compromise our homeostasis. Humans are programmed for meat consumption; our very biology over the course of evolutionary time has shaped us into chasers, killers, biters, and chewers. In much the same way as a wolf is designed to hunt fawns, so am I designed to outwit and overcome animal prey. This is evidenced in my long human legs, my large human brain, and my sharp human incisors. This is a natural reality, which I’m sure comes as no surprise even to animal rights activists.

Thus, to refrain from consuming animals “for reasons of culture, convenience, and palate pleasure” is inherently contradictory to our biology. Just like any organism, I—as Homo sapiens—am rightfully committed to honoring my culture, utilizing paths of least resistance, and consuming the foodstuffs that are not only nutritious and available, but also satisfying. I am not arguing that animal rights don’t matter, but I think that this mindset alone fails to differentiate between human nature, livestock agriculture, and the indiscriminate abuse of animals. It isn’t fair to suggest that just because animals “don’t want to die or be ripped from family members,” it is excusable to ignore the biological fact that humans can (and perhaps should) consume meat as food. Let’s face it, nobody—neither animal nor human—wants to be prey, or to be displaced, including the fawn in the wolf’s jaws (an interaction that one might just consider a part of nature). Aren’t we, too, a part of nature?

At this juncture you’re probably thinking, “I thought you were vegan?”

I am. Bear with me.

It’s necessary to distinguish the system of abusive animal production (which, indeed, strips animals of their own biological rights in many cases) from the “sentience argument” (or as I like to call it, the “cows are cute” argument) that forbids meat consumption only because animals feel and die in the process. In my opinion, the real “meaty” issue regarding the livestock industry is not that animals are reared to be killed. I could make arguments about comparative animal consciousness and cultural significance, but I won’t go into it. Long story short, there is nothing inherently wrong—as far as I am concerned—with the act of a human killing an animal for food.

On the other hand, as Farb mentioned as well, there is something intensely and violently wrong with the way livestock agriculture is controlled in this country and in much of the developed world. Animals are not meant to be packed in insufferable and suffocating confinement buildings by the hundreds. Energy is not meant to be wasted powering these structures. Grain (and the land and water required to grow it) is not meant to be grown en masse as an inefficient and under-nourishing feed source. Manure is not meant to be trucked out of farms by the ton, only to release loads of greenhouse gases into our already-volatile atmosphere. Our groundwater sources should not be drained to fuel this consumptive industry, which serves only to pollute our waterways in return. The list goes on. These and countless others—including abhorrent animal rights abuses—are the injustices that disturb our ecology and tarnish the idea of meat consumption in the United States, and they are why I have chosen a vegan lifestyle.

That being said, I want to give credit to the farmers, organizers, and consumers that are demanding a sustainable agricultural revolution. Farb states that “meat, dairy, and eggs all inherently involve exploitation and harm regardless of how sustainable and ‘humanely’ they were raised and killed.” I feel that this statement must be interpreted with caution, because for a concerned society to get the idea that sustainability and humane treatment “inherently” don’t matter in animal production would spell disaster to the marked and important progresses in favor of environmental security and animal rights which are in the works or have already been achieved in the livestock industry. There is no foreseeable end to animal agriculture. It is wholly entangled in our global culture as contemporary Homo sapiens. Thus, it is critical that we take personal actions not only to reduce our own “footprint” (i.e. eat no/less meat until the system is fixed) but also that we take action ourselves to fix the system by promoting and incentivizing sustainability in food production.

It is my sincerest hope that the animal rights argument for veganism, which has dominated the vegan stereotype and shaped society’s perceptions of our collective vegan morality, can be situated in this grander ecological narrative whereby injustice is defined by deviations from nature, and not only by ascribing rights to non-human animals.

4 Comments

  1. Anthony you are an excellent writer. At various points in my life I shared many of your sentiments. As an “animal loving” teenager, I came to recognize that the mammals I took pleasure in stabbing with my fork, had just as much of, “a self” as those whose lives I often tried to save – and as MYself. I stopped eating them. This was the 1970s. I had never heard the word, “vegan” and I still ate other creatures. By the time I graduated with a degree in microbiology, I had physically dissected so many non-human bodies and been encouraged in myriad ways to become desensitized to exploitation of other beings for supposed human benefit, that, “Survival of the fittest” became a moral justification to me. I was fully enculturated into the hierarchical and exploitative paradigm that enabled every human caused tragedy in history to occur.

    You say we should define injustice by, “… deviations from nature.” How does this square with the fact that in competition for resources, nature’s examples justify killing the defeated, weak, vulnerable, and “imperfectly” born? There is considerable evidence that paleolithic humans were natural murderers and rapists. Because humans in modern conditions can thrive without murdering or raping (or eating animals) should we not do so?

    If all 7 billion humans on the planet ate the quantities of meat and dairy Westerners now eat – but it was all produced via farming practices you approve, we’d still be doomed. Bangladesh, the Marshal Islands and others would still go under water, forcing mass migrations that would dwarf the Syrian tragedy. We don’t even have enough land before the oceans rise to accomplish such a pipedream. Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions per unit of pastured meat are GREATER because such animals grow more slowly – taking longer to reach slaughter size.

    Your reference to yourself as, “vegan,” given what you advocate, betrays your lack of understanding of the term’s origins and clear definition. Veganism does not fit with an ecology-based lens, biased by unexamined human privilege. Your perspective is a tool we can use to feel at peace with the violence we see those around us embracing, but has nothing to do with veganism, which is an ethic of compassion, that if widely embraced has the capacity to transform human civilization. The Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, The African Slave Trade, The Trail of Tears, Internment of Japanese Americans…every one of these happened because large numbers of otherwise good, caring people bought into the narrative of their day, that enabled them to NOT SEE things that were clearly inconsistent with values that they already claimed to espouse. Veganism is the tool by which we can evolve to realize the full potential of our humanity.

    We’ve all been injured by civilization’s exploitative and hierarchical view of the natural world. Like an abused child who defends her parent’s behavior because that is all she has ever known – we’ve bought into the violence. Veganism is our invitation to heal.

    • Anthony Wenndt

      April 9, 2016 at 8:15 AM

      JoAnn, thank you for your comments. I certainly understand and appreciate your perspective on the issue, and think there is true merit in what you are arguing. However, I wildly disagree with you on some key points, which I wouldn’t like to get into here in any depth. I was particularly struck by your statement, “Your reference to yourself as, ‘vegan,’ given what you advocate, betrays your lack of understanding of the term’s origins and clear definition.”

      Let’s be clear: I am indeed aware of the term’s origins, and the powerful history of the movement as “an ethic of compassion.” Where we disagree is in the latter part, “…and clear definition.” It seems our morals are similar, but our respective definitions of veganism are quite divergent (and there’s nothing wrong with that! There is no “right” definition of veganism as far as I’m concerned). While you might have a “clear definition” of veganism in your mind, perhaps a definition aligned with the historical ethic of the movement, it is my firm opinion that the notion of veganism has itself evolved into a dynamic and richly-diverse set of philosophical narratives that span a range of activist motivations. Thus I won’t buy your claim that “veganism does not fit with an ecology-based lens,” because in my world the two are inextricably linked.

      Nor do I fully agree with your propagandist idea that veganism is “our invitation to heal” from civilization’s domination over the natural world. You’ve said, “If all 7 billion humans on the planet ate the quantities of meat and dairy Westerners now eat – but it was all produced via farming practices you approve, we’d still be doomed.” First of all: your statement is 100% true, and I cannot dispute it. But the critical piece is NOT the “farming practices I approve of” but about the first part, the degree of consumption. A function of vegan activism is that it can inspire critical thought and positive behavioral change. The point is that I DON’T want “all 7 billion humans” to eat what “Westerners now eat.” Rather, I want the West’s consumption habits to change to we can transcend this toxic animal production system globally in favor of an integrative food system that is ecologically-sound and culturally-appropriate.

      I’m happy to engage with you in more depth about our divergent ideals, but I want to iterate again (as was the major theme of my article) that I do consider the argument for compassion and animal rights certainly an important (and historical!) aspect of our vegan morality. My ecological argument is not throwing out these tried and true narratives of engaged vegan activism around the humane treatment of non-human animals. Rather, it is integrating them into a larger conversation geared toward accommodating the urgency of planet-smart activism in this day and age.

      • Anthony:

        I appreciate your thoughtful reply, but it doesn’t appear to me that our morals are similar on this issue. While I applaud the fact that in your personal choices you are not intentionally harming animals, I find it disturbing that you might encourage violence against other beings if it fit into a narrative that you liked, and especially that you would consider this consistent with veganism.

        You can change the meaning of, “nonviolence,” and “exploitation,” at the same time that you reinterpret the meaning of the word “vegan,” for yourself. However, the reason, as you put it…” the radical animal rights component tends to fill most of the activist space..” is because Donald Watson and his small group in 1944, created this new word, “vegan” while working to end humanity’s exploitation of other beings, to embody their efforts and to define themselves.

        I have been so inspired by Watson and feel such solidarity with his group of visionary, progressive individuals, that whenever I hear people misconstrue Watson’s intent in defining veganism, I feel compelled to speak up as I did here.

        Please take the time to learn more about Watson he was amazing:

        http://www.candidhominid.com/p/vegan-history.html
        http://www.foodsforlife.org.uk/people/Donald-Watson-Vegan/Donald-Watson.html
        http://gentleworld.org/remembering-donald-watson-vegan-pioneer/
        http://vegnews.com/articles/page.do?pageId=2475&catId=1

        As a side note — when Watson and his friends created, “vegan,” CAFO’s did not exist, and per capita meat and dairy consumption were a fraction of today. Veganism was a response to the very type of animal farming that I think you are endorsing. The issue is not “treatment” but “USE.” There simply is nothing humane about violently ending someone’s life against their wishes, nor exploiting an individual as an “object.” for another’s use.

        In Peace,
        JoAnn

  2. Victoria Hart

    April 9, 2016 at 2:47 AM

    Your response article brought to mind the following presentations from James LaVeck and Harold Brown, who, like you, also live in Ithaca, NY. (At least I think they do; perhaps you know them?) I hope you and your readers will take the time to check out their videos — and one companion essay — at the links below.

    James Laveck’s 4-part video presentation and companion essay at:
    http://www.humanemyth.org/letsnotgiveup.htm

    “Farmer” Harold Brown’s video interview at:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhKqfmhyljQ&nohtml5=False

    One more thing, Anthony:
    You wrote that humans are “programmed for meat consumption”. Not everyone would agree with your opinion. For instance, Milton Mills, M.D. asks the question, “Are Humans Designed To Eat Meat?” in this entertaining , educational video, below. Don’t miss it!

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