October 10, 2007

Bad, Wrong, and Vegan

Posted in vegan, veganism at 5:20 pm by nevavegan

Bad, Wrong, and Vegan

Like I said yesterday, I’m having trouble trusting my words at the moment. Those of you who know me, know that I have a lot on my plate at the moment and it’s making it hard to be the blogger I’d like to be. So forgive me if I misspeak here.

More than a decade ago I moved into a group house in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, before that neighborhood was so trendy and yuppified. I was grateful for a place to live, with seemingly nice roommates. So I decided to cook a meal for all of them. I didn’t make very much money but I wanted to do something nice for my roommates.

Unfortunately sometime during that meal one roommate, a guy, decided to play quiz the vegan. Somehow this wound up with him extracting from me the information that six or so years prior to that meal I had done something that really wasn’t good for animals. I admitted that I had done this thing and also said that I deeply regretted it and considered it a terrible mistake. At the same time I reflected that in an odd way, doing something wrong had been the thing that probably set me on the path toward veganism.

My roommate was incensed. He pounded his fist on the table. He yelled that I was a hypocrite and in his opinion I might as well give up being vegan because I was a sham. He then yelled that I could never make up for what I’d done and he despised me. This after eating my food and drinking my wine, but there it was.

I was deeply hurt. Not because I didn’t know the wrongness of my prior actions and not that I didn’t live with constant regret. But I was hurt because I thought I was doing something nice, feeding everyone a home cooked meal, and I felt I was paid back in a confrontation that was mean, unfair, which more or less ruined the evening for everyone, and given the fist pounding and the significant size difference between myself and this guy, felt fairly physically intimidating to me.

The other roommates had looked uncomfortable and then positively ill and then drifted away as the confrontation continued. A friend who dropped by for the food but didn’t live there looked uneasy, his eyes got huge, he kept opening his mouth as if to say something, then stopped and just drank more wine instead.

What was my terrible crime? Years before, my boyfriend at the time had given me a gift of a baby rabbit purchased at a pet store, and I, even knowing pet stores are terribly wrong, and it’s wrong to financially support them, fell in love with the rabbit. I was nineteen and a vegetarian. I was old enough to know better. I knew everything wrong with the whole thing and yet I did it anyway. I organized no great protest of the pet store. We did not return and demand our money back. Yes, I know there’s everything in the world wrong with that story, but that’s what happened.

Happily he did no try to pry further back into my life to learn I had previously gone fishing, eaten animals my father had killed, eaten rabbits my father had killed, eaten animals I had raised and loved, worn fur trim, worn leather, carried a purse made out of crocodile that I’d found in storage in my parents’ house. I can’t even imagine how much fist-banging would have been involved then. I don’t think I can possibly list anything and everything I did wrong. I generally say of all of this that I was very young and just didn’t know better and had been raised to accept all of these things. But I’m not sure age is the relevant factor. Most of us live our lives one way, the way we are taught, until something transformative happens at some point and opens us up to empathy and compassion. And opening up to those things can really be ego-crushing because to change requires admitting something was wrong in the first place. So many people find that kind of examination incredibly painful and try to avoid facing it.

In any case I managed to eventually work out my differences with that roommate and we ended up getting along. Not that I condone fist-banging ever.

The H Word: Hypocrite

I tend to think we’re all hypocrites, some less than others, but still we all have our issues. It’s not just that I’ve done things in the past that weren’t good to animals. I really value being good to people and not acting in an underhanded, passive aggressive way. In fact I wrote an article about how damaging gossip is. Yet, I’ve caught myself gossiping. The thing is that doing better and being better is a work in progress. It’s easy to fall back on bad habits and it’s generally difficult to break them. Shocking as it sounds, I find it easier to be vegan, because at this point it’s largely habit for me, than I find it to always be empathetic to people who don’t present themselves well, for example people whose mental illnesses make them disruptive, angry and aggressive. In cases like that I often have to take a deep breath, step back, and remind myself that nobody chooses to carry around those kinds of burdens.

Does the fact that it doesn’t always come perfectly naturally to me mean it’s hopeless and not worth pursuing? I really don’t think so, because if nothing else, the effort I put in matters to me and matters to those immediately around me. And also I hope for the cumulative effect of many people putting effort into kindness and compassion.

We all screw up. We all fall down. We all make mistakes. But the belief that we have to be perfect all the time is paralyzing. If we believe we must be perfect at everything we do, then it can be an excuse to do nothing. It means we can’t experiment, learn, and grow.

To go back to the idea of being a nice person, we can recognize that we have failed in the past, and might fail again, but still acknowledge that it’s important to keep trying. Knowing that we can’t be perfect isn’t a carte blanche to be as awful as we’re capable of being. Instead, it’s an incentive to keep trying and to also be able to apologize for the mistakes we make along the way. Likewise with veganism. Most of us weren’t born vegan, we might have even done very non-vegan things in the past. We might screw up tomorrow and accidentally eat something that isn’t vegan. But we’re going for the balance here. We want to keep trying to do our best and not let the mistakes paralyze and disempower us. Mistakes are also learning experiences, when we mess up once we know to look out for that problem next time.

Also, what does hypocrite mean? It refers to a person who holds one value, but behaves in a way that is opposite to that value. So, Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite to own slaves while calling slavery immoral. Many of us looking at history are deeply disappointed by his personal failings and participation in one of history’s truly great wrongs. However his own participation in a deeply immoral system doesn’t mean he was wrong to call slavery unethical. The message was still valid, even delivered by a deeply flawed human being.

So the call to prove our own lives free of hypocrisy before we can talk about anything, much less veganism, is another red herring. Most of us don’t fall in the Thomas Jefferson category either in the extent of our influence nor in the depth of our hypocrisy. However, we can make mistakes but still have valid concerns and a valuable message.

“Just one drop and I’m falling apart again”

If the bad actions of my younger self, or my occasional laziness, gossip, grumpy mood, whatever, today are the worst things I ever do in my life, I suppose we’ll all be pretty lucky. The gift of wrestling my former self and making changes in my life is that I know in a very real sense that I can be wrong. I can be wrong, I can be stubborn, I can be mean and selfish. Since I know this possible I can try harder to avoid it. But if I fall down and screw up, I’ll get back up and try harder.

I once knew a guy who went to 12-step. He’d been sober five years and then one night had a dessert that had been spiked with some liquor. Since he’d fallen off the wagon anyway he went ahead and had a few beers, and then a few more the next night. Later he said he’d given up on the whole idea of 12-step, he liked drinking and it was too hard going to all those meetings and always watching what he did. I’m hardly in a position to judge who has a drinking problem and who doesn’t, but I do know that sobriety had been important to this person, both due to actions of his own while drinking that he regretted and a family history of alcoholism. But he felt if he couldn’t be perfect and spotless he’d just toss in the towel.

But veganism, compassion, kindness, trying to do better for the environment, etc. aren’t necessarily things anyone should chuck out the window due to one mistake, particularly a mistake from lack of information or a moment of inattentiveness. But I’m consistently amazed at how many people (despite voicing their own strong opinions) think that before I can express an opinion on veganism I must prove my complete blamelessness in every aspect of my life.

I’d love to be perfect and it’s never going to happen, which doesn’t mean I can’t try to be “better.” It just means I’m a flawed person in a flawed world and sometimes even my best isn’t going to perfect. Other times all the choices available to me are bad in some way and it’s so hard to find the one that’s least harmful. Still we have to muddle through somehow and keep hoping the balance falls in the good.

You’re Not Making A Difference

Many people lately, vegans and non-vegans alike, have told me that my being vegan really makes no difference. It spares only a small number of animals, and maybe not even those animals as others are “eating my share.” Further, they say, veganism will never catch on with large numbers of people, so therefore veganism doesn’t really make a difference.

I think that my being vegan makes a difference in the fact that I’m a living example that someone who didn’t come from an animal-friendly environment can be vegan. I show that vegans can eat well, hold normal jobs, need not be socially isolated, and can have a sense of humor, and so on. Being vegan shows other that veganism is possible.

Likewise, buying a hybrid car really doesn’t accomplish that much, individually. Instead, people hope that by buying into hybrids they encourage more to be made, that others start driving them, and that more and more people will use them. Because one hybrid, not a big difference, you’re hoping lots of people do it.

My earlier point was that hybrids are not accessible to many. I’d love one, but I can’t afford one. Many people are also faced with similar financial constraints. But anyone can be vegan. It doesn’t require special equipment or a down payment, and foods can be as simple or as gourmet as one chooses.

But there it is: if you’re the only person recycling are you accomplishing much? Maybe not. But if you’re the first in your community to recycle, but you teach others, push for curbside recycling, find ways to make it easy, or even hold neighborhood recycling days and make it a social event, then maybe that’s something.

None of us do so much all by ourselves, but we teach others and spread the message.

There is the other aspect too. When my father commented that I wasn’t accomplishing anything with animal rescue because I’d found and saved so many animals, but still the homeless, abandoned, starved, and sick animals kept coming, he entirely missed the point. It might not send huge ripples through the entire world, but to each animal I save it means everything.


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.

September 21, 2007

Human Concerns Are Also Reasons for Veganism

Posted in environment, vegan, veganism at 5:36 pm by nevavegan

Sometimes people will tell me that they think veganism is a good idea, but they’re more concerned with helping people. Of course I’m concerned with helping people too, and have volunteered and donated through the years to many human causes as well.

But I resent the idea that veganism is all about helping animals at the expense of people. Instead I see it as holistic, an approach to life that helps animals and people.

When I first became vegan I was motivated by concern over animal cruelty, animal use, and the environment. But I also made the change because I believe that it’s easier for us to feed the world when we concentrate on a plant-based diet. With an unprecedented human population we need to start thinking seriously about how we utilize our food and water resources.

I was in late elementary school when we were bombarded by TV images of a famine in Ethiopia. There are few things sadder to witness than footage of starving babies, who are so innocent and helpless. When I saw these images I thought famine must be a huge problem that’s almost impossible to solve. Then I learned how simple the needs of these people were. They wanted grain, any grain would do. Wheat or corn would be nice, but hominy grits could keep them alive. They wanted dried beans, and they needed clean water. How could people be dying of hunger when it would take so little to save them?

Yet, year after year the location may have changed, but we still saw babies starving, or lying dead next to their emaciated mothers. We saw lines of starving people marching away from their homes, sometimes trying to carry others who were too weak to walk, sometimes forced to abandon loved ones because they themselves were too weak to help them. We saw the people who lived so simply that they hardly harmed the environment at all destroyed by starvation while people in the US struggled with an epidemic of obesity.

I later learned that while people starved worldwide, the US feeds most of the grain and soybeans we grow to livestock to fatten them up, and because we want to eat more animals than we have grazing lands to feed them. We use much of our clean water to water these animals and to periodically clean out their housing. In addition many people lack access to clean water because the water is being polluted with animal waste from farming or ranching.

Even more shocking, our government subsidizes meat with our tax money to keep it cheap, while people elsewhere starve, while even some children in the US go hungry, and while so many people in our country lack basic health care. So the poor can afford burgers, but they can’t afford greens or dental care. This sadly means that we don’t see the true price of animal products, but we pay these intensive farmers to pollute and over-consume resources.

Growing up in a sparsely populated area, where our chickens pecked at bugs and spent all day outdoors, and cows from neighboring farms sometimes went feral and hid in our woods, I never knew what it took to create the huge amounts of meat Americans ate. It was a stunning revelation. I thought that if we continued to grow grain and soy in the same amounts as before, but ate it ourselves and exported the remainder (rather than feeding it to farm animals) nobody would ever have to starve again.

Of course as I got older and made friends with people who’d survived the Ethiopian famine, I learned more about political systems and came to understand that world hunger is a more complex problem, often fueled by war and political unrest. Still I think cutting down on the wasteful process of feeding most of our plant-based foods to animals bred for food is a big step in the right direction. We need both, more available food and a more peaceful world. One of those things I hope to affect primarily via the voting booth and letter writing, but the other I support every day through what I choose to put on my plate.

Also, let’s not forget that the environmental crisis is about to become a human crisis as well. Changing climate will produce more famines world wide. Rising ocean waters threaten unique human cultures. The poorest people in the world will bear the brunt of global warming, but none of us will be immune from it. When the UN says that animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming, and we know global warming is already killing people across the world, we have an obligation to change.

September 14, 2007

A Word from the Self-Righteous Morally Superior Dogmatic Fundamentalist

Posted in vegan, veganism at 2:27 pm by nevavegan

I’ve been following a thread on the Animal Person blog (Mary Martin) about whether vegans condsider themselves morally superior to non-vegans. Then there is the secondary question of: if we do consider ourselves morally superior, are we judging people on subjective matters (analogous to judging members or other relgions) or are we basing this in some kind of solid area, like ethics or science.

What a sticky mess to step into! But I’ll give you my take.

I wouldn’t be vegan if I didn’t think it was better for the animals, better for the environment, and better for human survival, kindness and culture. I don’t find it very hard to be vegan, but why would I put any effort in if I didn’t think it was the best choice available to me?

Do I think that makes me morally superior? That’s harder. I work with and am related to and friends with a whole bunch of non-vegans. I know they are kind and caring people. I know they help others. I know they think and read and debate and engage with the culture of ideas around them. And nearly all of them hold practically the same ethics I do. They are almost all deeply troubled by our relationship with animals and the unprecedented exploitation of animals, and all the new Frankenstein-like ways we make animals suffer in our culture.

Nearly all of them are in fact more upset than I am by this stuff, because I read about it and keep up with it, and most of my friends who eat meat will turn off the tv if something comes on about cruelty to animals. If I try to show them an article on factory farming they’ll say they can’t face it or they’ll be crying all day. But the downside of hiding from the information, since they won’t watch it or read it, and have never seen it firsthand, is that I think it takes the urgency out of the equation for them. Not seeing it allows them to believe we should treat animals better, but without feeling compelled to make an immediate change in their own lives.

Most of them are also deeply concerned about the environment too.

They care, they have ethics. The difference is that I keep trying to act on my ethics and my friends, for whatever reason aren’t there yet. Maybe they are still turning stuff over in their heads, maybe they’ll announce they’re going vegan next year, maybe they never will. But I do think we have the same values.

When it comes down to someone who just really has no capacity for empathy and tortures and kills animals and just doesn’t care? Yes, I would think I’m morally superior to them, at least right now. I know it’s unpopular to say such things and I’m not supposed to judge others, but if I’m really honest about it, that is how I feel. I hope that those people will change of course, but I’m not holding my breath.

Am I basing this on solid ground, or is it all about religious differences? I personally think it’s solid. I think our study of animals has demonstrated that non-human animals are more like us than we ever imagined. They have emotions, they are more intelligent than we ever gave them credit for, and they suffer and feel pain in the same ways that we do. The evidence is overwhelming that veganism helps the environment, which in turn saves the lives of disadvantaged humans all across the globe who are at the mercy of the climate. Again, I think most people care about animals and care about the environment and want to help other people. It’s not that I live in some ivory tower thinking I’m better than everyone else. I did everything wrong that you can think of, then I woke up one day and decided to start making changes for the greater good. Anyone can do it.

September 6, 2007


Posted in philosophizin, vegan, veganism at 3:07 pm by nevavegan

Recently Animalblawg wrote about vegevangelism, that is the effort to spread veganism the way religious people spread their particular beliefs, through “testifying,” revivals, and ready-made support systems for the new comers.

In many ways the analogy is apt, as Animalblawg pointed out, many people are already deeply uncomfortable with how our culture treats animals and the environment. Lots of people want to do better, but they’re not sure how or are intimidated by the process.

I’ve been thinking lately about community and building community and also who benefits from and who suffers when community breaks down. I guess I’ve been thinking about these things because 1) Gary over at Animal Writings has been posting up a storm about ways to bridge our differences within the Vegan/AR movement, and 2) because I participate in a vegan on-line forum where I see and hear about some of the isolation many new vegans face and also observe the hostility some vegans direct toward other vegans.

Then I read Pattrice Jones’ AfterShock and she told me there’s not enough time for me to build bridges, I need to start being the bridge.

Ok, so I know I just went off on like fifty tangents here, but trust me they’re all connected and then some.

When I was out leafleting on Thursday it occurred to me that I am a vegevangilist. I was smiling at everyone and it wasn’t a fake thing. I love being vegan and I think it does so much good, and I see so much good in everyone walking past, that I’m just thrilled to be out there sharing something that means so much to me with them. I know that sounds totally corny, and it’s not like I’m consciously thinking that the whole time or anything. It’s just that I didn’t have to plaster a smile on my face because I just saw all these beautiful people walking past me on a beautiful day and it seemed like such a wonderful privilege to ask them to take a few moments and think about the animals.

At the same time I’m not sure I’m much of a vegevangelist, because I’m not really a great public speaker or anything, so aside from leafleting, this blog, and feeding people cake I’m not really getting out there and testifying so to speak. And I have to realize there are some ways that I’m maybe not the ideal spokesperson for veganism, because I hope I’m decent at outreach, but I’m not a movie star or anything like that. I just hope somehow the people who listen to movie stars get that message and the people who aren’t impressed by movie stars see that ordinary people like me are vegan and doing just fine.

In those moments I am being the bridge too—I’m putting myself out there trying to be the connection, not just form a connection. It’s small but it is about bridge building in some respects.

Which brings me to Gary’s thoughts on trying to resolve differences in the Animal Rights/Vegan community and find common ground. It’s a great idea naturally, because I’d love get along with absolutely everyone. But, I’m older and more realistic now than I used to be. I feel that some of us just aren’t going to agree no matter what. And that’s actually a good thing because it shows that veganism isn’t some cult where we all chant and lock-step with each other, but it’s a dynamic living approach to making the world a better place and each of us have our own interpretation of what that means. So we might not always agree; we might not even like each other, but nobody can accuse us of employing brainwashing, because if we did, we’d all be on the same page.

I’m reluctant to be the bridge with other activists because I’ve been burned before too. Which is maybe a whole different entry for a whole different time. It’s just that with time and energy at a premium I’m not willing anymore to put myself on the line, or spend hours spilling my guts if I’m pretty sure from the outset that the other person has no intention of hearing anything I’m saying. There’s no reaching compromise if the only outcome acceptable to the other side is for me to either agree with them completely or be quiet and get lost. So why would I waste my time?

However, I’m trying to tell myself whenever I encounter another animal rights/vegan activist who is insulting, rude, untruthful, or whatever else rubs me the wrong way, that this is actually a positive. It demonstrates that people don’t have to be super-empaths, or peace and love types to be vegan. All you need to be vegan is ethics and/or compassion when it comes to thinking about animals, there are no other prerequisites at all. So anyone, polite or rude, from a close family or a shattered home, gregarious or painfully shy, loud and obnoxious or total wallflower, anyone can become vegan and stick with it and find it meaningful enough to want to share with others.

That said, one thing struck me about the part of AfterShock where Pattrice advocated organizing groups on a collective model with shared power and real listening, with value placed on each individual member. She contrasted this with the typical organization which is set up like the spokes of a wheel, with all power and decision making concentrated at the center. I wrote previously of M. Scott Peck’s theories on building community in church groups and how he said that those with considerable power prior to the formation of true community often resist the painful process of community building. This is because true community divests prior leaders of the power they hold when community is absent and they alone are the glue holding everyone together.

We’ve probably all worked (if only for a little while) at companies where the corporate atmosphere tended to divide rather than unite employees. Some company founders make this decision consciously because they fear the collective power of their workers if they were to unite. In other places it’s less of a decision, and more a culture that develops over time because the leaders are uncomfortable sharing power, not welcoming of new ideas, and adhere to old ideas regarding workplace hierarchy.

The most obvious example is that some workplaces actually have policies against workers discussing their salaries with each other. When this culture is enforced it allows the company to pay workers as little as possible and employees rarely complain because they don’t know their co-workers are paid more. However, when the rules are broken and salaries revealed the results can be devastating. I once worked in a place where all the women were paid considerably less than the men, and even men with only a high school diploma were being paid more than women with degrees in positions of responsibility. In the short term this benefited the corporation as they gained the skills and hard work of women on the cheap. However, when the women found out it caused great disillusionment and bitterness, and even deep scars in some of the women who had never encountered such blatant devaluation and discrimination before. So the consequences were not easily repaired.

I’m using the analogy of a workplace when I’m talking about the activist community as a whole because it fits in some ways. We’re a bunch of different people with different ideas, values, and approaches thrown together by one common cause. Leaders function like bosses in many ways, though for people like me, they don’t hold power over my paycheck. There is all kinds of jostling for status and money going on too. So it seems to me that we can work on making communication better, and we can work on building bridges, but there are some out there who have pretty compelling reasons to resist that effort.

But as I said before, were we all agreeing all the time that might be a little frightening. As is, nobody can accuse us of being “pod people.” So a healthy dose of individualism and independent thought could be a good thing.

It would be nice though, if as Animalblawg advocates we could unite enough to form support systems for new vegans and wanna-be vegans to ease their transition and mentor them along. Worth thinking about at least.

August 3, 2007

Small Family Farms Are Better?

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism at 2:13 am by nevavegan

I read the Animal Welfare Institute’s statement about the inclusion of farmers (only farmers who raise and slaughter animals incidentally, no farmers of organic veggies were invited) in the Taking Action for Animals Conference.

Though I was thrilled to hear that in addition to concern for animal welfare AWI also opposes “counterproductive marketing techniques” for animal exploiters, I’m still not sure I understand what they’re saying with that.

As the Tribe of Heart essay pointed out, we’re on the brink of a major environmental catastrophe and animal agriculture is one of the primary culprits. Do small family farms offer us a way to keep eating animals but be better for the environment? In a word, no.

The reason why small family farms are better for the immediate environment is that they have fewer animals. IE you’d rather live next door to Joe Bob and his 10 cows than right beside Cows, Inc and their feedlot of a thousand or more cows. Fewer animals in one spot means fewer greenhouse gases emitted and less feces and urine going into the water supply. There would be less smell and less use of antibiotics to fight the rampant often resistant diseases that flourish in these settings

That’s good news, right? It’s good news maybe, but it’s incomplete news.

Joe Bob’s cows cost more to produce and he sells them at a premium to places like Whole Foods that promote “humane meat.” Animal welfare organizations encourage people to buy their chunks of cow flesh from Whole Foods or other stores that sell “compassionate” animal products. But this remains the realm of people who are better off, who have the extra money to buy these premium products. Everyone else is still buying from Cows, Inc, and Pigs, Inc., and Chickens, Inc., etc. So while these “free range” animal products are a symbolic gesture of concern for animals they make little difference for the vast majority of the animals tortured and killed so we can eat their bodies.

Does this mean that we need to do more to promote Joe Bob so he can sell more cows? What about legislating Cows, Inc to improve the conditions there?

None of these solutions will work because we aren’t addressing the demand side of this equation. Even if it were ok for Joe Bob to breed, raise, and ultimately slaughter cows to feed wealthy people, there just isn’t space in the world to graze all the cows people want to buy and eat. Would the 25 million cows slaughtered each year in the US cause less environmental damage if they were never put into feed lots? Where would we put 25 million cows? In your backyard?

There is no way that 25 million cows (not to mention all those raised and slaughtered abroad) could not have an environmental impact. So the only way to address these issues is to not buy the flesh of cows so fewer cows will be bred into existence. The only thing that can eliminate factory farming is massive conversion to vegan diets because there is no way enough animals can be raised “free range” to meet the overwhelming demand for animal flesh. There is not enough grazing land for that many “grass fed” cows, not enough happy farms with red barns for all those chickens to see sunlight and hunt for bugs. There is not enough space or resources, so it makes sense to try to chip away at this from the demand side of the equation.

Can we work with “humane” farmers and small family farms to further this goal? To improve things a little at a time?

No. Very simply our goals are at opposition. We say that we accept that some people will never become vegan so we must compromise. But let’s imagine that despite whatever compromises we make we are far more wildly successful at converting people to veganism than we ever imagined. That would put these people out of business, so we are at cross-purposes.

In addition I think that large gains in the number of vegans would hit these “humane farmers” harder than factory farms, as the people willing to spend more and go to special stores for “humane” products are generally the ones who care and might be receptive to the idea of veganism. No wonder these farmers would like to ally themselves with us and get our endorsement for their animal flesh. They want that “humane” seal of approval, they want us in the animal rights/environmental community to tell the people who listen us that people can eat this type of meat and still do the right thing. The question I have more trouble with is why we’re so eager to join forces with them.

Small family farmers like to talk about the close relationship, love and caring, that they share with the animals they raise and slaughter for profit. If I learned anything from reading Frederick Douglas it’s that even the best intentions become perverted when one human being owns another. When economic systems depend on the exploitation of others anyone entering into that system can become a monster, no matter how much they thought they cared before their livelihood depended on not caring.

These people may say that they care about their animals, they may even believe they care about them. But they still slaughter them at young ages and purposefully breed animals into this world only for the purpose of killing them.

Because I grew up in an agricultural setting I’ve seen things that defy explanation. I’ve seen a woman cry because foxes got into her yard and killed some of her chickens, only to turn around a few weeks later and chop the heads off the surviving chickens. I’ve seen a man mourn the loss of his hunting dog as if the dog were a person and then purposefully drown an entire litter of puppies because he was unable to sell them. I’ve seen the idealized “small family farmer” openly beating and kicking animals that weren’t cooperating. Sure it’s better than factory farms still, but don’t confuse what is going on here with true compassion.

This push to promote and work with small farmers and “humane” farmers is a wrong turn for the movement.

July 31, 2007

Please read "Project for the New American Carnivore"

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism at 5:03 pm by nevavegan

James LaVeck and Jenny Stein have written a long, intelligent, well-reasoned piece regarding some changes in the animal rights movement as evidenced by the speaker list from TAFA, the conference which took place this last weekend. The essay is entitled “The Project for the New American Carnivore” and compares the domination of the movement by welfare issues to the neo-con takeover of our country’s government among other apt observations.

Please take a moment (or a little longer) and read this excellent essay.

July 30, 2007

Dairy Farmers in the American Heartland

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism at 1:11 pm by nevavegan

I have a really good friend who often argues with me that if everyone went vegan a lot of “Americans” would be out of work. And she isn’t the only one who says this—many people believe that taking compassion into account when we fill our plates somehow means less compassion toward our human neighbors.

I for one never really bought this argument. For one thing I’ve never been so optimistic as to think that I’d start my vegan blog and then suddenly a few days later nobody would be buying cow’s milk. But I also believe that people currently employed in industries that exploit animals could slowly but surely find work in the expanding industries replacing animal exploitation. Soy milk and veggie burgers, anyone?

But yesterday the Washington Post ran an interesting article showing a little spoken of trend in animal agriculture today. The United States is actually importing people from other nations to supply us with the steady stream of animal products consumers demand. This article covered the tensions and growing pollution in one community as Dutch dairy farmers set up huge operations in the US. We also know that many people working on battery farms for eggs or in slaughterhouses are illegal immigrants.

I’m not anti-immigrant by any means, but I believe that these trends show that rather than keeping our citizens working and productive, this huge push for more and cheaper animal products is actually just increasing a demand for cheap labor and asks immigrants to do work that many citizens are no longer willing to do.

So the next time someone accusing you of trying to put American family farmers out of business just because you order a soy latte, ask them how many of their friends currently work in animal agriculture. Remind them that the mythic small family farm is just that, a myth. Remind them that to produce all these animal products they thoughtlessly gobble we’re importing people as well as animals.

Then point them to this article and show them how dairy farming rather than keeping “Americans” employed is pushing them out of their communities and polluting their water and soil. I wonder if anyone making the “jobs before animals” argument really knows much about how our animal exploiting industries operate.

July 27, 2007

Culture and Tradition Again

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism, violence at 7:16 pm by nevavegan

How many times have all of us working to help animals heard someone excuse inexcusable behavior because they feel that animal abuse is “part of their culture” or a family tradition?

I wrote about this before in Tradition Vs. Veganism, and again a couple days ago I touched on it by noting again that my family participated in cock fighting, a practice most people find abhorrent today.

Although culture and tradition provide comfort and identity to many people, they can also hold us back when we fail to ever question those traditions. Did my ancestors enjoy cock fights? Possibly, but remember this was also the era of public hangings. People would pack a picnic and go watch another human being die a slow agonizing death. This was a time when my great grandfather changed his name and purposefully covered up his origins because he thought his real name and his real ethnic identity would prevent him from running a successful business. Side shows flourished back then as people paid money to stare at and make fun of the disabled and ill. We’ve turned our backs on many of these old “traditions” so why not re-examine other traditions as well?

Most of us come from backgrounds where some traditions were beautiful and others were terrible. Though we rarely think of child abuse as “tradition” in many families it is taught, preserved, and passed down generation to generation the same as if it were a style of dress, or a way of praying. Likewise animal use and abuse can be a bad habit or a flawed belief as much as a tradition.

Would most of us go around kicking puppies simply because a family member had previously kicked puppies? Probably not. We would recognize that as a personal failing on that relative’s part. But we cling to things that are equally cruel because we attach an arbitrary meaning to them. Turkeys suffer terribly during their short lives, and are slaughtered under terrible conditions, yet we feel this is necessary so we can put the traditional turkey on the Thanksgiving Day table. We still go to the circus to watch enslaved elephants controlled through fear and pain perform for our amusement because “Dad used to take me as a kid.” What we need to recognize is that we have a lot more options and a lot more information than our ancestors had—we can still take our kids to a show, and there are lots of shows that don’t use animals; we can still eat a wonderful, delicious meal together without the turkey because we have so many other foods available now.

Another funny little note on Thanksgiving is that turkey and pumpkin are the two traditional foods that most people insist on for the holiday, citing that these were foods from the first Thanksgiving. There is some dispute about that story. But when we look at the other foods served, we see a lot of foods that would not have been present, like rolls and stuffing made with wheat flour, green bean casserole, many dishes containing sugar or cheese, and other ingredients that would not have been present at the first Thanksgiving. So the traditional foods are a little arbitrary.

So many times I’ve heard people lament the effect their traditional cooking has had on their health. A friend of mine from Jamaica said that she had gained a lot of weight and developed a pre-diabetic condition from eating her traditional “comfort foods” like meat pastries. Fearful she might lose her eyesight, she had to find ways to eat foods she had not been fed at home, like salads, for the sake of her health. But she found she could still honor her heritage with fruit, which had always been a part of her family meals, she just had to give up the breaded and fried items. She could also still enjoy traditional stews, but she decided to add veggies and leave out the fatty meat she used to enjoy. I can sympathize—my family apparently never ate a vegetable except one that was cooked in lard, so many of us had to learn new ways to look at food!

If we can give up traditional foods because our health demands it, we can also give up or adapt traditional foods because we want to be kinder to animals and the planet. After all it’s not just our own health that’s affected by what we eat. That was another reason my friend decided to change her diet. She remembered all the beautiful birds of her home in Jamaica and feared that climate change and pollution would drive them into extinction.

Another way we can view traditional cruelty and our decision to depart from it is by asking ourselves what our ancestors would have wanted. Veganism would have been an alien concept to most of them naturally, but all of them wanted a better and more peaceful life for us. In my family I’ve had an ancestor or more than one in every single US war, starting before we were even the US, with the American Revolution. My ancestor who fought in the revolution was a Quaker and thus must have had terrible reservations about going to war. But he wanted to fight that war with the hope that his children and their children could be free from war.

That’s not how it worked out sadly, but we keep in mind that our ancestors who fought wars, slaughtered animals, fought animals, or even stole for a living all wanted better for the future generations. They hardened their hearts hoping we would not have to. If we could talk to them today they probably wouldn’t totally get each and every decision we’ve made, but they would want us to live in peace and take care of the planet and each other. (We’ll forget for the moment that random ancestor who would hate you for not covering your hair in public, or the one that didn’t want you mixing with people of other religions, or the one that would say “You never been to prison? What you think you better’n’ me?” or the one who went on some murderous rampage before being shot down. We’ll just leave those disastrous chapters of family history shut for the time being.)

When we do cruel things just because our forbearers did, we are not really honoring their memories. Instead we are merely repeating their mistakes.

July 26, 2007

Taste Better: Obesity Is Contagious

Posted in news, vegan, veganism at 6:59 pm by nevavegan

A new study has come out telling us that obesity in contagious, not physically contagious, but we’re more likely to gain weight when our friends and family do. This might also tell us something about how our friends and family can discourage veganism and actually punish people for trying to change their diet and lifestyle. We’d hope veganism would be contagious, but I fear it’s more likely that the diet of the majority of the peer group would be enforced on other members of the group.

I know that when I first decided to become vegetarian my family and my friends were very opposed to the idea. They tempted me with meat based foods and also ridiculed my efforts. When I became vegan my mother went so far as to put cheese over all of the vegetables (even though I’d cleaned and cut and prepared them) so that there would be nothing I could eat as a vegan. They were certainly fighting my efforts to break away from the pack. I know other people who have similar stories of resistance from their friends and family. Other people didn’t face such blatant sabotage but found themselves feeling left out as their friends stopped inviting them places (“we were all going for ice cream and you’re vegan now”) or felt picked on as others constantly made little jokes about their diet.

When we look at all of this, no wonder people can be a little reluctant to jump on the vegan bandwagon, and no wonder so many people abandon veganism after a while.

I’m a firm believer now in speaking honestly and openly. Instead of sulking because your friend said something derogatory about veganism, maybe you should say in a nice way “you know that actually hurts my feelings. This is important to me and it hurts to think that my friends are making fun of me for it.” Or in the case of being left out of the ice cream run one could say “I’d still like the company even if I don’t eat ice cream, besides I think that place has some fruit based sorbet.” Sometimes our friends need reassurance too, that even though we’re making a major change we still do care about them.

In families control over food can become a primary battleground naturally, as food has come to represent almost everything else other than nutrition in our culture. Food represents tradition, and so efforts to change that tradition can be met with much opposition from other family members. Feeding family members and spouse foods they like represents love to many people, and so when one family member tries to change the types of food being served, it might be seen not as an effort to save animals, but as a diminishment of affection. Further the sharing of food still means companionship and it’s amazing how hurt people can get when loved ones don’t eat the same foods together.

All these are reasons why eating habits, particularly the poor ones that contribute to contagious obesity, can be so hard to break away from.

There are times where some of this can cross the line into abusive behavior though. Anyone that consistently belittles your beliefs or insults you isn’t a friend. Family should be there to support us and encourage us as we learn and grow, not to make us feel terrible for doing something we believe in.

Another reason obesity might be contagious is that people might feel better about eating foods they know are bad for them if a friend does it too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these exact words from a friend “Dessert? I really shouldn’t… Oh, are you going to have some? I’ll get some if you do.” Gobbling candy bars in the middle of the night might strike us as disordered eating, but if you’re just having a piece of cake with a friend then that’s totally normal. I’ve seen this happen with people “cheating” on veganism as well “Sue ate one of the cookies, so I just tried one too.”

The upside of this study though is that it demonstrates that having vegan friends can probably help us stay vegan, just as having healthy friends might inspire us to be a little healthier. I also always think it’s helpful to understand some of the hidden motivators behind our eating habits. I know so many people who feel like their eating controls them, not the other way around. But if they have information about the social pressures surrounding eating it might lead to more thoughtful eating. And hopefully more thoughtful eating can lead to more vegan eating. Anyway the hope would be to move from an internal dialogue that says “must eat cookie now” to one that says “I feel like I want a cookie, but that could be only because Sue is eating one. I think I’ll wait and try to make a better decision.”

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