Food, Inc

I finally watched Food, Inc today. It’s a start, but I found three facts conspicuously absent:

  1. Most of the monocropped grain we grow is fed to animals. If we ate it directly, we would need much less of it.
  2. Grass fed beef and dairy are so inefficient with land use that they are less sustainable than feedlots.
  3. Killing an animal that doesn’t want to die is not treating it with respect.

Even ancient farming practices, like the ones promoted in Food Inc and by Joel Salatin (and what we have been taught is “natural” since we were children), are cruel to animals. We don’t realize this because culturally it has always been so taboo to talk about the perspective of the animals used for food. Even today we dance around the issue by blaming factory farms. Yet these hellish factories are in fact a natural evolution of the idea that it’s somehow right and just for us to dominate other species for our own pleasure. It’s not.

Entwined

If we were not ourselves involved in routine violence towards a handful of species, we would find it appalling and step in to shield defenseless and innocent animals from harm.

Because our personal behavior is entwined with the violence in an unavoidable way, we may feel threatened when the message of peace is presented without deference to our cultural habits.

The message is not an attack, it’s an opportunity to disentangle ourselves, enjoy our newfound freedom, and empower those around us to do the same.

Why Vegans Lose Debates

Ok, if you look at some of these online debates, the pro-vegan side doesn’t typically lose (though it’s possible that the audience planted themselves to create that result). Nevertheless, they still make mistakes. Here are some of them:

  1. Claiming that the only solution to factory farming is to go vegan. We can make the argument till the cows come home that factory farms are awful, toxic, environmentally damaging and cruel. Few will argue with us. But many will disagree that the only possible solution is animal rights or veganism. That’s not to say that factory farming practices have no place in a debate about veganism. For one thing, veganism certainly offers a neat solution to the factory farming problem. We can also make the argument that without factory farms, there would necessarily be much less meat and dairy and it would be more expensive.
  2. Defending or promoting vegetarianism. Lacto-vegetarianism still has all the ethical, environmental, and health issues that non-vegetarians have, though perhaps to lesser degree. If we promote vegetarianism as a solution, we expose ourselves to being called out on one of these inconsistencies. Promote vegan as the standard, and we are on much firmer ground. We can still applaud and encourage the ideals that compel people to go vegetarian, and even promote vegetarianism as a natural step towards veganism.
  3. Overstating the position. Overstatement hurts the cause and loses debates, because it destroys credibility. Here are some things not to say:
    • 100% vegan is the only way for the environment. It’s true that the planet can’t sustain the level of meat/dairy/fish/eggs that we currently consume. The facts are starkly on the side of veganism. A great example is the proposition that a sustainable amount of animal food per person is about 2 ounces of animal foods per week. That’s almost nothing. But it’s not nothing! It may be true that ultimately a vegan solution is the best way forward for the environment, but in a debate, we’ll get much further by arguing with well established facts — for example, that consumption of meat/dairy/etc products must be drastically cut in order to reach a sustainable level. Similar to the factory farming issue, veganism offers a neat solution for our environmental problems, but the facts do leave a little bit of wiggle room between about 98% and 100% vegan.
    • 100% vegan is best for physical health. John Mackey makes a good move by backing away from this claim in this debate. There is ample scientific evidence for the health benefits of a mostly plant-based, whole foods diet (see here. There is not, however, anything conclusive that says when you go from a 99% vegan diet to a 100% vegan diet, you’re doing yourself a favor. So when we argue that 100% vegans are nutritionally healthier than 99% vegans, we are destroying our credibility.
    • Veganism is ethically pure. Even for vegans there are murky ethical issues. We act with compassion towards the animal kingdom, but what about plants? By some accounts, plants may have the capacity to suffer to some degree. Even a plant-based diet has some impact on the environment, ecosystems for animals, and insects. We aren’t perfect, and it’s crucial that we admit that. This forces us to give the ethical debate a little bit of fuzziness. Eventually it leads us to the fact that just because some harms aren’t avoidable, doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and toss morality out the window. This point is rarely argued with, and really strengthens the vegan position.

One nice tactic for winning a debate is to reduce the claim. By pointing out the ways in which being mostly vegan is beneficial, we get to present all of our best arguments without having the burden of them being 100% black and white. Here are some suggestions:

  1. (ethics/science/evolution) Paint the picture of the evolution of human perspective. Gallileo showed that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. We are continuing this trend by discovering that humans aren’t the center of the ethical universe. Science can’t dictate ethics, but it can certainly show that animals are capable of much of what we consider worthy of ethical consideration; including intelligence, emotion, communication, and perhaps most important, suffering. We know animals suffer, and we know that humans have the choice and ability to reduce this suffering.
  2. (environment) The environmental facts are good enough without being overstated. Just make sure the facts are correct before repeating them. If a hamburger takes as much water as 6 months worth of showers, saying that his impressive enough that there’s no reason to exaggerate it to 12 months.
  3. (health) Point out what studies have shown, namely that a diet consisting of primarily whole, plant-based foods dramatically reduces the incidences of many of our nastiest diseases. Acknowledge that the jury is still out on the space between “mostly vegan” and “all the way vegan”, but it’s also fair to point out that there are many “all the way vegans” who have excellent health.
  4. (personal) Few people actually want to harm animals, given the choice. Most people see themselves as kind, compassionate beings; yet their plates would indicate otherwise. Just point this out, and demonstrate that there is a choice by being a healthy vegan.

10 reasons not to give animals rights

Imagine that it’s before the abolition of slavery, and you are a normal person. One day, you wake up and realize that slavery is immoral. You begin to see everything differently. You feel compelled to speak out, but alas, nobody wants to hear what you have to say. When you raise the issue with others, they dismiss your concerns with one or more of the following 10 reasons.

The following 10 reasons not to abolish slavery are being used around the net by liberty proponents, towards the abolition of government. I found them also to be eerily similar to arguments opposing animal rights.

reason not to abolish slaveryreason to oppose animal rights
Slavery is natural. People differ, and we must expect that those who are superior in a certain way—for example, in intelligence, morality, knowledge, technological prowess, or capacity for fighting—will make themselves the masters of those who are inferior in this regard.Raising animals for food is natural. Species differ, and we must expect that those who are more intelligent, make moral decisions, or are just plain stronger will make themselves masters of the inferior species.
Slavery has always existed.People have been eating animals since ancient history. (Other ancient practices include rape and murder.)
Every society on earth has slavery. The unspoken corollary is that every society must have slavery. The pervasiveness of an institution seems to many people to constitute compelling proof of its necessity.Every society on earth eats animals, therefore every society must continue to eat animals. (Although the premise is debatable, it’s moot because the argument is not valid anyway.)
The slaves are not capable of taking care of themselves.The animals are not capable of taking care of themselves.
Without masters, the slaves will die off. This idea is the preceding one pushed to it’s extreme.Without animal agriculture, the cows/pigs/chickens/sheep/goats/etc. will die off.
Where the common people are free, they are worse off than the slaves.Living on a farm is a better deal for the animals than the alternative. They are fed and sheltered on farms, unlike in the wild.
Getting rid of slavery would occasion great bloodshed and other evils. In the United States many people assumed that the slaveholders would never permit the termination of the slave system without an all-out fight to preserve it.Ceasing to eat animals will cause great economic hardship to the farmers (ok, this one is a stretch, I haven’t really heard anyone argue that there would be “great bloodshed”. Does “I would have to give up cheeseburgers” count?).
Without slavery the former slaves would run amuck, stealing, raping, killing, and generally causing mayhem.Without farms, the animals would run amuck, stealing from suburban gardens, crowding the streets, and generally causing mayhem.
Trying to get rid of slavery is foolishly utopian and impractical; only a fuzzy-headed dreamer would advance such a cockamamie proposal.Veganism is a foolishly idealistic and impractical, misguided attempt at showing compassion. It’s just not realistic.
Forget abolition. A far better plan is to keep the slaves sufficiently well fed, clothed, housed, and occasionally entertained and to take their minds off their exploitation.Forget veganism. A far better plan is to focus on welfare reforms; keep the animals sufficiently well treated, “humanely” confined, exploited, and slaughtered.

Why Animals Matter

People often ask me why I think animals matter, when compared to all of the other problems in the world. World hunger, world peace, economic and political stability—aren’t these things more important than animal rights?

It’s a fair question, and actually a very important one because the answer to this question turned my world upside down when I learned it.

Why is the world so violent? Why can’t we manage to implement solutions on issues of simple justice?

Animals matter precisely because they are deeply integrated into issues such as world hunger and world peace. They matter because our treatment of animals affects our psychological outlook on the world. And they matter because caring about animals and adopting a vegan lifestyle is perhaps one of the most powerful things we can do to change the world for the better.

World Peace

Imagine an idealised future in which humans have learned how to live without physically harming each other. There’s no need for armies, bombs or guns. The people live in peace and prosperity all the world over.

Except at the slaughterhouses. These are places of massive slaying machines, steeped in blood and entrails. People work at the slaughterhouses. They numb themselves to their emotional connection to animals, then come home to our peaceful paradise..?

If something seems wrong with this image, it’s because it’s so farfetched as to be nearly unimaginable. We can’t expect to live in an enlightened peaceful world while we’re still practicing mass slaughter of innocent creatures.

Now turn the example upside down: imagine a vegan future, in which our hearts are so sensitive that we fully reject outright the harming of animals. Could people of this temperament really go to war and kill other people? We can’t rule it out, but it certainly seems less likely.

Dig behind the surface level of burger ads and war propaganda, and you’ll find that our treatment of animals and violence in our culture are so interlinked that it’s nearly unimaginable that we could ever solve one without solving the other.

Happiness


I think most people want to feel inner peace. When we’re at peace with ourselves and the world, we’re content and happy.

I also think most people are kindhearted. In fact, I think the vast majority of people would choose not to harm animals if all other things were equal.

When we eat animals and animal secretions, we create an inner conflict; on the one hand we are kind, compassionate beings who would rather not harm anyone, and yet, there are the bodies of innocent beings on our plate.

Empowerment

Adopting a vegan lifestyle is dramatically empowering. It’s empowering because it’s a radical rejection of violence and coercion towards all beings, of environmental devastation, and it requires no assistance. An individual can decide to make a stand for peace and love, directly, without needing help from any community, government, or corporation. It’s a profound expression of the power of the individual.

And it has resounding effects. Right now, it’s estimated that less than 1% of people in the modern world are ethically committed to a vegan lifestyle. And yet, as a testament to the power of the vegan message, nearly everyone in society knows about us and has given at least some small thought to the perspective.

Imagine a world in which 75% of people are committed, ethical vegans. Restaurants that serve meat are the exception to the rule, and most people think meat eating is strange and disturbing. Wouldn’t that pressure quickly convert the remaining 25%?

At 50% or even 25%, huge pockets of society would be committed to the cause of animals and we would begin to see radical shifts in the public perception of animals and veganism. Each person who commits themselves to veganism can truly have a far-reaching effect, not just for animals, but for humans as well.

Star Trek is vegan

The philosophy of Star Trek is a vegan philosophy.

You don’t see it on the surface, because the characters aren’t vegan. They replicate chicken dishes and shrimp gumbo. But the philosophy is vegan, and if we ever evolved to a Star Trek -like future, we would all be vegan. (Actually I think we’ll all be vegan long before we have interstellar travel, but that’s for another post.)

The Prime Directive

You can’t watch a season of Star Trek without coming across the Prime Directive. Everyone in the Federation (that’s Earth and her allies) is intimately familiar with this central tenet. You could go so far as to say it’s the most important common value held by Federation citizens. While the directive is most explicitly concerned with the dominant species on planets visited by Federation ships, the core ethic is one of general non-interference.

“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

          —Jean-Luc Picard, Symbiosis

The Prime Directive has been further defined this way:

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

Giancarlo Genta, Lonely Minds in the Universe: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Springer, 2007, p. 208.

This attitude is reflected in episode after episode, where the crew takes great lengths to avoid harming or interfering with alien beings. For example, in Nothing Human (Voyager), even though a crewmember’s life is at stake as the alien sucks away her vitality, as many precautions as possible are taken to protect the alien life as well. In Justice (TNG), they even go so far as to risk Wesley Crusher’s life out of respect for the laws and customs of another culture.

Sentience as the litmus test

So what does all this have to do with veganism?

The Prime Directive is mostly focused on not introducing new technologies, or even sometimes just ideas, into developing cultures; it’s not hard to extrapolate from here that enslaving, breeding, and killing an alien race to suit our convenience would constitute a gross violation of their normal cultural evolution. And yet, that’s exactly what we do to the races of pig, cow, and chicken on Earth today.

It’s quite clear that the values of Star Trek require fair treatment of alien species. The question then is only one of which species qualify? And in particular, would nonhuman Earthling animals qualify? What is the test of whether a species qualifies to be treated with respect?

In the Star Trek universe, sentience is bestowed on even the most foreign of species; blobs of goo, giant jellyfish space beings, and computerized intelligence, to name a few.

giant space jellyfish
Odo (blob of goo)


So why not nonhuman animals?

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor [see Louis XIV’s Code Noir]… What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
Bentham, Jeremy (1823). Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (second edition). Chapter 17, footnote.

Most or all of Earth’s animals have that capacity, and as we move towards our idealized futures, we will inevitably be forced to confront and set right our own ethical inconsistencies.

Would you take a stand for meat eating?

It’s very difficult to be a vegan in today’s world; restaurants serve relatively poor vegan cuisine if any, there is social ostracizing to contend with, and mostly, the social structures and habits aren’t there to support this way of life. Few non-vegans would know how to begin purchasing and preparing healthy vegan meals. The social momentum is immense, and going against it takes a lot of dedication.

Now imagine for a moment if the tide were reversed: if 95% of the population was vegan, animal foods were the exception, and there was the usual social pressure to eat like everyone else. There is only one meat option at every third restaurant. Few know how to handle meat safely, or prepare it. Perhaps animal agriculture has fallen out of favor in the government and meat now costs much more (closer reflecting the hidden environmental costs of additional land, water, etc.). Perhaps most importantly, every time you mention that you eat meat you get inundated with questions about why and people telling you that it’s not healthy (regardless of whether it actually is or not).

In that imagined world, how many do you think would take a stand for meat eating?

I think much more of dietary choices are because of “defaults” we have had programmed in from our society. Eventually, even most of the “tough nuts” will crack. I think if you saw 50% of the population being on a mostly plant-based diet, you would then see 80% not long after.

Eating animals — why do people still do it?

Eating animal foods can be incredibly confusing. We see ourselves as kind, caring, even generous people who treat our friends, family, neighbors and pets with love and respect. Yet day in and day out, we are faced with the contradiction which is sitting on our plates: an innocent creature was killed to bring us this meal.

The example of long-term, healthy vegans shines a light on this contradiction like none other. It’s hard to justify the need to eat animals with so many counterexamples out there. Can you really believe that eating animals is good for health when doctors are using a vegan diet to reverse heart disease, reverse diabetes, and slow cancer? When there are hundreds of vegan athletes, many performing better than ever before?

It’s hard to conclude that we eat animals for any reason other than cultural momentum. And I expect that this subtly repressed fact rubs most of us more than we care to admit.