This is a long “thinking out loud” post and so I apologise but also want to say at the outset that I am a work in progress and just finding my way along; so I’m happy to engage in constructive discussion.
Sometimes I am embarrassed to admit that it was “Skinny Bastard” (The male version of “Skinny Bitch“) that tipped the balance for me. It is rampant vegan propaganda, it is emotive, it repeatedly uses a mere handful of original scientific sources, and it relies on shock tactics but … it was enough to provoke me to respond to some nagging thoughts in the back of my mind.
I think the most significant change came when I was empowered to challenge the myth that humans NEED animal products in order to thrive. I had enough good ammunition for this from three years at university, studying anthropology and particularly specialising in behavioural ecology – but I had never really worked it through. If I didn’t need meat then the only arguments in favour of it were that it tasted nice and (as I’ll discuss shortly) what we think of as “delicious” is culturally constructed.
The first and easy step was to stop eating meat. For this, I was convinced initially by the environmental arguments and secondly by the animal welfare perspective and the health implications. I had already reduced meat consumption deliberately in light of the recognition that our western habits of meat-eating once or twice a day are simply unsustainable in global terms. Giving up meat is a “no-brainer”.
It is easy to give up meat and it is enormously enjoyable to rediscover the joy of vegetables in their own right. The only awkwardness was dealing with the social fallout of changing from someone who would eat anything to being the fussy one when giving and receiving hospitality or eating out.
Initially, I determined to be vegetarian at home but when receiving hospitality, to allow gratitude to triumph and to eat whatever people were kind enough to prepare for me. However, a vegetarian friend gently suggested that this was ethically inconsistent and that abstaining from meat at all times was an opportunity to “witness” to my moral principles. Fair point. So now I was the fussy one and proud of it.
I quickly surmised that all the arguments in favour of abstaining from meat also held for dairy as well. I have had quite a bee in my bonnet about it ever since as my “Milk Monday” posts will make clear. At the end of the day, dairy products are not kind to animals, the environment or our bodies. It is clear to me that the only morally consistent way someone can be vegetarian but continue to consume dairy is (once again) because of taste. I know a few vegetarians who simply do not eat meat because they don’t like the taste of it. That’s fine, but if there is an ethical dimension to the choice then I don’t see how it is consistent to eat dairy which is just as dependent on slaughter and exploitation and just as damaging to the environment as meat. In fact, as Gary L. Francione points out (rightly I reckon) that there is more animal suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak.
So dairy was off the menu, too. At this stage I had not given much thought to eggs and didn’t want to go there just yet, relying on them for nutritional reasons and not yet having got used to cooking differently.
At this stage it was interesting to note some of the responses:
What do you do for protein?
Well, we don’t need as much protein as we think we do. 50-60 grams a day is enough and we can get that from a variety of nuts pulses, grains, vegetables and fungi.
What about Calcium?
Firstly it is not a matter of forcing as much calcium down our throats as possible, there are other factors that affect the absorption of calcium and particularly the need for vitamin D and magnesium. Secondly, there are plentiful non-dairy sources of calcium, like brown bread and green vegetables.
What about B vitamins?
Again these can be sourced from judicious use of green vegetables, fruit, yeast extracts and so on in the diet but I do take a supplement and some of the soya products I use are fortified.
What about humanely reared and slaughtered animals and “happy” milk?
These responses are getting into more interesting territory. Is there such a thing as “humane slaughter”. I think there might be. Roadkill might be a good example of this. The animal doesn’t see it coming and death is hopefully instantaneous. It is possible to sneak up on a hog and stun it before bleeding it, sure, but unless I saw the animal die I can’t be sure; and all the meat available to me comes from a process that happens behind closed doors. I cannot guarantee that just because the packet says it had a nice life and died happy that this is true.
There are different sorts of Happy Milk, too. The bottom line is that in order to consume milk we have to take from a cow what was intended for its calf and we at least need to rely on it to produce enough for us as well as the calf. From where I am standing, all this seems to be quite bizarre considering that milk is a luxury and not a necessity. Nobody would suckle from a cow, but this is what we do, albeit in a clinically removed way. I suggested that it would make more sense if supermarkets sold human milk but who is going to agree that that is a good idea?
Why don’t you eat, say, wild caught fish?
Good question. The person who asks this has seen that there are environmental implications for farmed or trawled fish, “but surely a salmon that has been hunted with a fair chance of escaping the hook is okay?” Now the question comes down to an animal’s capacity to suffer and a human’s moral right to inflict that suffering. It was pondering this question that lead me to take another step toward veganism.
I concluded that there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that birds, mammals and fish are sentient beings with a capacity to suffer. I have also thought long and hard about my right to be complicit in the infliction of pain and distress in any form. I have concluded that it is not acceptable, and it could in fact be dangerous to our collective conscience as a race.
In conversation, I keep coming back to the fact that consuming animal products is a choice based on taste rather than necessity. To abstain from them is not to make a great sacrifice at all but to embrace an integrated and wholistic way of life that is non-violent and ethically consistent. We are addicted to animal products and that can change. Honestly, food actually “tastes” better this way – in the broadest sense of the word. Show me an aubergine or a pile of lentils and a steak and ask me which one “tastes” better and there is no competition. For some, purely on the level of chemical pleasure, the steak might taste better, but surely there is more to the flavour of something than that? When we elevate the stimulation of the senses above morality we are on shaky ground.
This is what is at the front of my mind when people in conversation try to ascertain under what circumstances I might be prepared to consume animal products. There is a sense that they are trying to find a way for me or them to escape from the ethical ban and find an acceptable way to maintain the addiction. That is honestly what it feels like to me. Whichever way I look at it I can’t escape the conviction that the aubergine is a wholesome, joyful and virtuous thing and the steak and cheese have nothing to commend them. I don’t need rescuing from an austere self-imposed diet I just want other people to be set free.
More recently I have stumbled across a new sort of human, a growing global movement with a compelling vision of a vegan world in the future.
Abolitionists are part of a movement that draws inspiration from those who campaigned to end slavery in bygone times. They emphasise the personhood of animals and challenge our “speciesist” ideals. At the same time, their critique goes deeper, challenging any form of oppression from a non-violent platform. In years to come, they believe we will look back on our exploitation of animals in the same way that we now regard slavery. Abolitionists are highly critical of “welfarists” who they regard as enemies of the true and fundamental ethical shift that needs to take place. The welfarists are just soothing our consciences without tackling the moral problem. I can’t do all the arguments justice here but encourage the curious to explore.
Check out the Abolitionist Approach Commentary Podcast, for instance.
I am really grateful to the abolitionists for the debate they are opening up and the ways they have helped me to think through my own ethical choices. However, I am not quite ready to go all-in there.
From a pragmatic point of view, I would like to know what the plan is for humanity to transition away from dependence (psychological and otherwise) on animal products. Here I think some kind of “step-down” process would be necessary. We have created this monster and it needs to be dismantled carefully otherwise we have herds of dairy cows turned out to die. Transitioning to small-scale localised agriculture practicing as humanely as possible in respect of animals may be a way to go? From an educational point of view, too, welfarist organisations such as Peta and Animal Aid have helped me to progress in my thinking and have awakened my conscience rather than merely soothing it.
I guess that is why I want to keep exploring dairy issues on Milk Mondays by keeping the debate open and exploratory, rather than coming down hard on one side.
Gary L. Francione who is a primary architect of the abolitionist approach seems like quite a reasonable guy who wants to really have conversations with people and help them think. But some of his disciples come across as a bit shrill in their attacks. I can understand, because sometimes I want to shout at people to think about their choices and want to aggressively dismantle their thinking. I have not made any progress by being attacked but through having the opportunity for dialogue without feeling judged.
What about the Inuit?
Is there an abolitionist answer for ethnic groups who have good reason to depend on animals for survival because of where they live? It is difficult to see how their way of life could be suddenly altered without causing more suffering.
Ultimately, I think I am on a subtly different track from the abolitionists while very much appreciating their contribution. At the end of the day, it is us, not the animals, who are thinking about these issues and have the power to do something about them. That is a reflection of the fact that humans are uniquely placed in a position of responsibility and stewardship in relation to the rest of creation. I think this is not coincident but divine design. It is out of that sense of responsibility that I am making my choices. That makes me speciesist because I think humans are special – it’s what we do with that specialness that matters.
Scripture begins and ends with a vision of a vegan world. Originally, humankind lives harmoniously in a garden, eating fruit and lording it over creation without a hint of exploitation. Ultimately, even the lion eats grass in a new creation and nothing hurts or harms on God’s holy mountain. I think that is the creator’s ultimate intention. That’s my dream, too. Being vegan gives me a taste of a time yet to come and is part of making it a reality now.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,” says Yahweh. (Isaiah 65:25 – WEB)
A couple of thoughtful and provocative blogs:
Veganism: A Truth Whose Time Has Come – M Butterflies Katz
The Vegan Solution – Angel Flinn
- A Pescatarian’s Identity Crisis and Her Vegan Tofu Recipe (eatdrinkbetter.com)
- Dietary tribes — who eats what (eatocracy.cnn.com)
- Cooking Shows and Food Blogs Embrace a Vegetarian Thanksgiving (animals.change.org)