September 28, 2007

Rant: Relative Ease

Posted in environment, rant, vegan, veganism at 2:55 pm by nevavegan

I’m perplexed by the level of hostility I’ve seen in some recent blog comments regarding the connection between eating animals and global warming. It would seem that not only are a lot of self-proclaimed environmentalists unwilling to give up meat, but they’re hostile to the very mention of the idea and want to encourage others to keep putting animal products on the table.

Why should this confuse me? Because it’s so, so illogical. I’m going to try to break down why I find this illogical bit by bit here.

First, it’s not just me, it’s not just PeTA who are saying animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming, it’s the United Nations. Do they have a vegan agenda? Are they out to destroy your fun? No, they’ve never promoted vegetarianism before, they are merely interested in protecting the most vulnerable people on the planet from the ravages of global warming. They did the research, and that’s what they found.

Secondly, some environmentalists have objected to my use of this study by saying it really only talks about beef and pork production and doesn’t study the effects of factory farming of chickens or other birds. Surely, since the study doesn’t say that chickens contribute to global warming, then we can still eat chickens and eggs. Tell you what, come with me back to Harrisonburg, VA where I went to school and tour some intensive farming operations for chickens and eggs, and tell me what you think that does for the environment. Then let’s go to an outdoor stream near a large poultry operation and you can drink that water. I’ll bring a cup. And if you don’t want to drink that water, I have to ask why you’d expect anyone, including wildlife, to drink it.

Global warming is one major harm to the environment, but there are other harms as well including water pollution, overuse of antibiotics and hormones, and so on and so on.

So, ok, the environmentalist counters, factory farms are definitely bad for the environment, but you can’t convince me that it’s bad for the environment if I keep some chickens free-range in my yard and eat their eggs and occasionally slaughter them and eat them. Not only do environmentalists think this is not bad for the environment, but they point out that someone raising a few chickens surely has less environmental impact if they drive little, don’t have kids, and use energy saving devices, than the impact of a vegan who drives a lot, has kids, and throws away a lot of trash. Ok, chicken-obsessed environmentalist, I promise that I won’t argue with you about environmental reasons for veganism if you move to a tiny, energy efficient shack, stop driving, promise not to have kids, and raise a dozen chickens in your yard, Then I’ll only talk to you about the ethics of veganism. But keep in mind that no environmentalist who has ever used this line of debate with me has lived like that. Most eat meat of some kind every day anyway–raising a dozen chickens in your yard might mean eating meat once a month. Most live in urban areas and drive. And besides, the few well-treated, free-ranging, bug-eating chickens in the yard is not a viable solution for our huge population, most of whom live in densely populated urban areas.

Next the environmentalists want to talk to me about how they feel there are other areas we need to improve first before we can worry about what we eat. What about cars, they want to know, do you drive a hybrid?

I don’t drive a hybrid. I’d love to, but a hybrid car is expensive and I don’t make a lot of money. I did move as close as I could to my work to limit my commute though.

But here’s the thing—a hybrid is a very good idea. Like I said, it’s on my dream list, some day, when I save up the money. But veganism is relatively simple. I can do that, right now, today, with really no special equipment, minimal supplies. Sure fresh vegetables can be expensive, but everyone is supposed to already be eating them. Beans, lentils, rice, flour, and so on are all inexpensive. Anyone can start being vegan today. Buying a hybrid car means money and maybe even a significant wait time. Installing solar panels is hard, you’d probably need to hire someone and maybe it’s not even possible to do this where you live. Trying to get the Chinese to control factory emissions, that’s a long-term goal. Changing over to a vegan diet sounded hard before I did it, but really it was pretty easy and painless.

Also, the UN ranked animal agriculture ahead of cars in environmental harm. So if you have something that’s relatively easy to change, and is one of the most harmful things you do, why postpone making that change while concentrating on harder to solve problems that do less harm.

August 17, 2007

We Are Spokes In The Wheel

Posted in rant, veganism, wordy at 7:35 pm by nevavegan

Or Why I Keep Breaking the Golden Rule Every Freakin’ Day

I’ve been pondering the Golden Rule since Bruce Friederich’s post over on Animalblawg where he said in essence that fighting for animal welfare reforms is just extending the Golden Rule across the species barrier.

While I at first bristled at the implication that I’m so speciesist that I can’t extend the Golden Rule across the species barrier, my next realization was worse. There are tons of areas in my life where I simply don’t live up to the Golden Rule, and I had to start thinking about why that might be. The thoughts this stirred up are complicated and troubled. In some spots they make perfect sense to me, and in others I wonder if I’m doing the things I should. But here goes…

Before I delve into other life areas where the Golden Rule isn’t guiding my every action, I had to ask myself if Bruce is right. If I were to apply the Golden Rule to every single campaign, letter to the editor, blog entry, etc. would I be lobbying for welfare reforms to make small improvements in the lives of farm animals. Possibly. But on examining this I have to say that if I were to truly put myself in the position of the animals and ask “what would I want” I come closer, though maybe not as far as the Jerry Vlasak view. The animals would want me to charge the battery egg farms, punch the farmer in the face, and start opening cages.

What holds me back from that action, and why I think that action is not good for the movement as a whole, is complicated enough to warrant a whole entry by itself naturally. So if we just for now take that off the table for later discussion, what’s the next thing? It’s likely Bruce is right and any small improvement to the lives of these animals is significant to them. At the same time I have to understand that the reforms made today won’t affect the animals alive today, instead these reforms might not be instituted until generations of animals later, might be instituted in an uneven manner, some farms may cheat and never institute them at all. Further, for the animals born in later generations that might have more space, we are still talking about unthinkable cruelty, unimaginable crowding. So for those generations born under the welfare reforms we’re pushing through today, we’re still talking about millions of animals born into misery, living their whole lives in misery, and dying in agony.

Just so I’m not sugar-coating anything here.

So looking at that, I still have to say that if I try to imagine what it’s like to be a chicken, and then have a choice between someone giving me one or two extra inches of space now or just fighting for the rights of future chickens… But that’s where it gets tricky, because when I try to put myself in that position the thing that runs through my head more than anything is “please kill me now.” I can’t imagine being in that position and I can’t imagine retaining any will to live under those circumstances. But then I’m bringing my own baggage to it, where I personally fear captivity more than death. So to set my reactions aside. For most if the choice is between a little space and no space? Sure most would choose a little space.

My issue continues to be that if we, the “Animal Rights Advocates” pat farmer Jim on the back and call him a hero for crowding huge numbers of chickens into a dim barn, but on the floor, not in cages, does the general public also think farmer Jim is hero? And if they do think he’s a hero do they see eating the animals he raises and slaughters as their only obligation to helping animals. If they are people who say “Peta is so radical, I could never live up to their standards,” then what are they to think about “Burger King Victory?” Ah, you know the speech, I’ve said it all before.

But then my rambly mind went to other places, other aspects of my life where I’m not adhering to the golden rule and why I came to be this way. In some respects it was purely utilitarian. I was raised to fill other people’s needs and put my own last, and with that kind of upbringing comes this huge guilt that I’m being selfish when I ask for something for myself. But it took really getting to that point where I started to think I really might be consumed by the needs of others to start trying to reconsider some assumptions I’d always held. The first realization was that if I allow myself to be destroyed, whether that destruction is a complete mental breakdown or actual physical death, then I’m useless to everyone, useless to me, useless to the world. So, if I define the choice as being between fading away/falling down and doing nothing, or doing the things I feel are within my reach while preserving my own sanity, one choice seems obviously better for all involved.

This might be easier to understand when we apply it to survivor work, so we can get specific, rather than remaining purely theoretical. We have all heard that old metaphor about the oxygen mask on the plane—put yours on first, then help others, because you can’t help anyone if you’re out cold. In survivor work we sort of have to cling to that idea because so often the women volunteering to help and counsel victims of sexual assault or other forms of violence and abuse have lived through those same experiences themselves. Having been there themselves, they can often provide excellent real world advice, tons of empathy, and a truly understanding ear. But survivors often find old wounds re-opened through doing this work, and they also might be vulnerable to being manipulated or used in various ways.

If we think only in terms of the Golden Rule, we can end up going down some dead ends. When we think of the one survivor in front of us at the moment, we can feel her need for company and comfort. She might express anger she can’t express at others toward us. We do understand those things. If we were in her place we’d want someone who could supply bottomless compassion, without resting or taking care of herself, who could take our rage quietly and make something positive out of it. But we also know that this is about more than this one woman in front of us at the moment, it’s also about all the others before, the others waiting their turn right now, and all the many more who will need help later. So we have to pace ourselves and look after ourselves, even knowing that to the one person begging for more help right now, our distance, our sanity-preserving detachment seems unthinkably cruel and selfish.

However it is a trap to think that we must be everything to everyone. Saving the world is not our task to be shouldered alone, instead it is a shared task for all of us. This is not to say that we should shirk personal responsibility and do nothing because we’re waiting for others to take up the slack. Instead it is an understanding that we are spokes in the wheel that we are slowly moving toward better things. The wheel cannot turn without us, but it can’t turn with our effort only.

So to be better spokes we need to seek out those tasks that are suited to our skills and experience, and try to excel in those areas. We need to keep an eye on the big picture, because we don’t want to be so wrapped up in our own tasks that the wheel starts spinning backwards. At the same time we need to think about being effective in our own way, putting our particular talents to work.

If we are to go back to working with people, not animals, we have to believe in our own work, and believe in the ability of others to do their work. Even when we are faced with the disappointing reality that others can fail us and can fail the most vulnerable out there. But we still struggle with this idea that we do our part: the reporter does her part telling the stories and raising awareness, the educator does her part trying to instill respect and compassion in young people, the advocate does her part accompanying the survivor to hearing… Even the lawyer for the other side is doing her part because it protects all of us to try to have a fair system and make sure the convictions we get are actually for the right people and are just.

To go back to animals, a friend told me a story of going out leafleting with an organization and being told by the organizer that if people rejected taking a “vegetarian starter guide” she should urge them to eat cage-free eggs and free-range meat. The rational of the organizer was that the suffering we’re facing is so vast that if people aren’t open to being vegan we should immediately offer them a much smaller step. But this is working on the assumption that we’re the only ones out there. We’re not and we need to recognize that. We can hand them a leaflet, even if they don’t take it we’ve put the thought in their mind “there are people who care so much about animals that they go stand in the sun all day to ask me not to eat them.” But then they might see a news story, read a book, meet a friendly rescued cow or a thousand other things. We have to hope that us, standing there, leaflet in hand, is just one spoke in the wheel. Though I do recognize that some people just aren’t open to change, but if they’re not then how likely are they to go out of their way for free-range anyway.

If a group like PeTA who already has a reputation for holding the hard line against all forms of animal exploitation praises certain exploiters, sends out press releases, and gives them free advertising for getting slightly better while still torturing and killing countless animals, what’s the message there? It’s because they don’t want to be a spoke, they don’t want to fill that role of continually hitting people with one message. Instead they want to be the whole wheel and be everything to everyone. Which is understandable of course, particularly when we see so many people doing nothing, in fact seeing nothing. But is it effective to try to be the whole wheel? Does it mix the message up? I think so.

May 24, 2007

Tackling Taking Action for Animals

Posted in abolition, Francione, rant, TAFA, vegan at 4:36 pm by nevavegan

Warning: Rant ahead, mind the curves

Something has been brewing in my mind for a while, and the main side effect of that is to make me horribly depressed… Sigh. Mainly this seemed to be something beyond even my ability to blog. That something is HSUS’s conference taking place in July in Washington, DC, called “Taking Action for Animals.”

As opposed to the “other conference,” Farm’s Animal Rights 2007, taking place this summer on the West Coast, in L.A., “Taking Action for Animals” tosses the concept of rights out the window, by eliminating it from the title. The new title implies participants should be active, and it’s somehow about animals, but the rest is left to our imagination.

HSUS decided to co-opt the annual conferences and start their own, claiming at the time the regular conference was giving a platform to speakers who promoted violence and illegal activity. Rather than continuing to participate in that conference, and therefore give a voice to their ideal of legal, non-violent activity, they pulled up stakes and started their own conference.

Unfortunately another side effect of shutting out those supposedly “violent” voices, was also shutting out voices of anyone who had a new or creative vision, anyone who had an issue with the status quo. HSUS had their own platform now and they could deny admission to anyone they chose. Make no mistake, there are many people in the movement who aren’t invited to TAFA, even though they have never promoted any kind of illegal activity. There are others who will be speaking there, who did promote illegal activity in the past, but are now employed by HSUS and who can be counted on to speak only on the HSUS agenda.

I’m not necessarily opposed to people creating their own conferences for their own specialized agendas, after all, everyone has a right. So the first few years of Taking Action for Animals I merely waited to see how it would go, asked my friends who attended for their opinions, and withheld judgment.

What brings this issue up for me now is that Whole Foods is co-sponsoring the conference this year, and a representative of Whole Foods will be speaking there. I don’t know if Whole Foods has any say in who speaks or what topics will be covered. I’d like to know that, but unfortunately I don’t know because HSUS won’t answer my questions in that regard.

Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing replied that essentially it’s a great conference, COK is co-sponsoring as well, and she hopes to see me there. That unfortunately didn’t answer my fundamental questions about the role of Whole Foods in shaping conference content.

Another group that I won’t name, which is also speaking at the conference indicated to me that they were not given any restrictions on content based on Whole Foods participation. Which is great, but the questions I have are still ones which really only can be answered by conference organizers, that is HSUS, not by groups that naturally want to attend and promote their ideas.

Why would it bother me that Whole Foods is participating in the conference? Well that really depends on the unanswered questions. Is Whole Foods going to be promoting the “humane meat” they reap insane profits from? Will they be touting organic cow’s milk, and “artisan cheeses?” Or are they simply going to be handing out vegan food samples and recipes? Because things like that actually matter. Because I feel veganism is the fundamental key to helping animals, and I honestly cannot name another person I know in the movement who doesn’t agree with that.

My husband Sean Day, who has spoken at numerous Animal Rights conferences asked TAFA if he could also speak there, to speak about the dangers of promoting humane meat and to emphasize that in his opinion, the movement toward veganism must be our primary focus. He also intended to criticize Whole Foods “compassion certified meat.” He was told that unfortunately all speakers were already set and it was too late for him to participate. After he was told this, more speakers were added to the conference, and one of those new speakers confirmed to me that he had been asked to speak after Sean had already been told there were no more openings for speakers. It doesn’t surprise me. I knew that HSUS wouldn’t let him speak, because to go in and say that veganism is within reach of everyone, and that it is fundamental to our cause is simply too threatening to HSUS. I just wish they could have been honest and come right out and said they didn’t want him there instead of telling an obvious and easily disproved lie.

So Sean will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Pattrice Jones, whose voice I’ve found so inspirational, will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Gary Francione, who inspires some of us and alternately enrages others, but never fails to engage or get people talking, will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Alex Herschaft of FARM won’t be speaking. Lee Hall, who actually wrote an entire book decrying illegal and/or violent/threatening tactics in animal rights, will not be speaking at the conference which claims it was specifically formed to fight those tendencies.

I don’t necessarily agree with every speaker listed above, but I absolutely feel that the way we form thoughtful and considered views is by hearing many opinions and weighing them against our own ethics and experience. In this manner we come to posses the tools (not final answers, not absolute truths) but the tools, intellectual and persuasive, to help us go back out into that wild world and spread veganism. I absolutely believe I got involved in veganism and animal rights, despite my farming roots and hunting family, because I had the ability to step back from things and ask tough questions and listen to all viewpoints. I was able to hear views contrary to my own and not dismiss them out of hand. Back in the beginning I listened to the anti-animal camp as well, you know. I weighed what I heard against my own heart, read a lot of voices, and found the solutions that worked for me, which made sense here and now. I believe our movement will lose something so vital when we shut out the voices of the thinkers and theorists, just because they might go outside the HSUS box.

And lest HSUS claims that the exclusion of these speakers is to avoid controversy, may I point to one of their keynote speakers last year: Rory Freedman, co-author of the book Skinny Bitch. Now, I’m not going to make this long entry longer by doing a book review of Skinny Bitch, but lets just say it’s certainly not uncontroversial. I participate in the Vegan People forum and I can’t tell you how many times eating disordered young women have joined the forum saying that Skinny Bitch has inspired them to use veganism to lose even more weight. Some feminists I know lament the degrading language the book uses to cajole women into veganism out of shame over their bodies. I believe the authors defend the book saying the foul and degrading language is a “joke” and that the severely calorie restricted diets presented there are meant to help the obese lose weight. Personal mileage may vary, but I’m firmly in the camp that believes veganism should be a celebration of life, health for ourselves and all creatures, and a bastion of safety, not another way to kill or sicken young women in the pursuit of an unrealistic body ideal.

So, um, calling women names if they happen to get chubby, that’s fine, no problem there. Letting Gary Francione say that vegans should not advocate minor animal agriculture reform, but should spend their time promoting veganism, hey, watch out, that’s crazy talk!