After showing up on the Our Hen House podcast last month, I also managed to sneak in (okay, not really) a feature article on how growing up on food stamps has influenced my thinking and activism as a vegan. Check it out!
I had the privilege to meet Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan of Our Hen House during the most recent Vegan Night Out festivities. While they took local media by storm with a first, and then a second television news interview (one of which was a debate with the Virginia Farm Bureau), I had the chance to chat with them about various and sundry topics…and then to appear on their weekly podcast. Check it out:
It has been nearly 70 years since Donald Watson and others launched the Vegan Society, proclaiming to the world a radical idea: that humans had no right to use animals in any way, for any reason. Since then, many seminal thinkers and works have argued the case for animal rights. Peter Singer published Animal Liberation nearly 40 years ago, and we have for decades had available the works of theorists such as Tom Regan and Gary Francione. Through their work, and the work of countless “grassroots” activists of many forms, “animal rights” has become a term of general knowledge—though its connotations can vary drastically depending on the speaker and audience!
In recent years, and especially within recent months, people in the animal rights movement have begun to reflect publicly on the movement itself, assessing principles, practices, and future efforts. Of particular import in this reflection is the question of what kind of use of animals is acceptable…or is any use not acceptable at all?
This question has rippled through animal advocacy in all its forms, leading many to wonder if there are not two animal-focused movements (often being referred to as “abolitionist” and “welfarist,” depending on how the question is answered).
Lee Hall’s book On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth tackles this question head on, exploring the real message of animal rights theory and how it should be applied to animals. Through her training as a lawyer and an experienced advocate, Hall looks at the modern animal rights movement and finds some key instances in which it lacks consistency and, as a result, can be counterproductive to its own goals.
It is clear that Hall’s book is (at least primarily) addressed to other animal advocates and would-be advocates. This comes up throughout, be it in her concern to refine the usage of terms, to the proper (consistent) application of rights theory, to how to respond to various issues and campaigns, to workshops on “finding your animal rights theory” (262), to tips for creating effective vegan pamphlets.
Given her intended audience, it makes sense that she asks fundamental questions about how we, as advocates for animals, are working to end completely a millennia-old system of human domination. As Hall puts it, “The deepest and most comprehensive question for our social movement is why and how modern human society has developed through patterns of domination; and the greatest challenge we face is imagining humanity without the master role” (93).
To begin this process of re-imagination, Hall makes a key distinction between domesticated animals and “free-living” (wild) animals. She argues that “rights” are only truly applicable to the latter, because domesticated animals are inextricably tied to human control and dominion; without human interference (husbandry), these animals would not (and could not) even exist, so they can never be liberated from a system of domination (34). As a result, “animal rights” is meaningful as a term (and a movement) only insofar as autonomy is protected or augmented (191). That is, as she emphasizes repeatedly, the true pursuit of rights for free-living animals is granting them the right to be left alone.
In contrast, “Rights for purpose-bred animals would be, according to a sound theory of animal rights, a contradiction in terms” (105), and pushing for reforms of their conditions actually undermines the effort for true abolition from human enslavement. This is because husbandry reforms both perpetuate a system of domination and help corporations to continue getting public support for their commodification of animals for profit, by instilling the false idea that the animals are treated “humanely.”
Addressing, as she does, animal advocates, Hall picks out inconsistencies and theoretical shortcomings of both ends of the animal rights spectrum. On the one end, she criticizes people like Peter Singer who condone “humane” farming based on the idea that the animals do not suffer, since this is both unjust (continuing the use of animals as property) and unsustainable on large scales (because of expense and resource-usage) (62).
Meanwhile, abolitionists arguing for total animal liberation, according to Hall, often fail to recognize adequately the crucial distinction between free-living and domesticated animals, and so do not promote the rights of free-living animals over the abuses suffered by domesticated animals (83). As a result, in her estimation, they can end up drawing too much attention to abuses and conditions in which animals are used, not promoting the rights of free-living animals to be left alone as the best case for social reform.
To bring all of this theoretical discussion “down to Earth,” Hall weaves into her argument many recommendations for how to engage in consistent, effective advocacy for the rights of animals to live autonomously.
One important part of this effort is to combine animal rights with environmental laws. There is dire need for this twofold approach because humans have destroyed so much habitat, making it harder and harder for wild animals truly to live free. Ironically, Hall points out, domesticated animals are inextricably tied to this environmental devastation—be it through their need for pasture and feed, protection from predators, or for other resources (though, of course, the only blame lies squarely with the humans breeding, raising, and consuming them). Thus, the majority of our efforts should be in the promotion and protection of free-living animals and their habitats. These should be our ideals and the focus of legal reforms, Hall claims.
While pursuing rights for free-living animals, the proper response to the conditions of domesticated animals is not attempts at husbandry reforms or stopgap welfare regulations. Instead, advocates must promote a consistent vegan paradigm, which decreases (and ultimately would eliminate) the demand for domesticated animal products and so for animals who, in their very existence, are objects of exploitation. Instead of backing some new reform effort, then, advocates should put their energy into building the ranks of vegans—and building support networks that keep them vegan.
Lee Hall’s On Their Own Terms was a profoundly thought-provoking book for me, coming at a time in which I have wondered whether or not the time has passed for animal advocates of differing philosophies to have a truly meaningful conversation. Hall’s intellectual integrity, and her willingness to stick with her principles to their logical ends no matter how unpalatable to some human readers they may be, is refreshing to say the least—and desperately needed at this moment, when consistency in animal advocacy (and even veganism) cannot be taken for granted.
“Animal rights” for Hall is not so much a matter of laws and regulations, but of the right to be left alone on all levels. I agree with Hall completely on this, though I am not yet convinced that domesticated animals could not benefit from legal protections as part of a clear argument for abolition. Although they are inherently dependent beings, they are still individuals, and focusing too much on their dependency can obscure, to varying degrees, this fact, and the care and respect that we still owe them. I am not sure that the law would not be a useful tool in this aspect of a vegan campaign, though I understand how there is the risk of backfiring, as Hall argues.
The fact that I am asking myself these questions, and grappling with how my own advocacy may or may not further the movement for animal liberation, speaks to the efficacy of Hall’s argument. After all, Hall’s goal in On Their Own Terms is to make us do this sort of self-reflection as we seek to turn theory into practice, philosophy into activism. And her book is valuable for helping us to recognize that in a truly just world, animals would never need to come under the rule of human law in the first place. And that is what a vegan paradigm must aspire to…and never forget.
Image credit: Brent Rostad (own work), via Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.
Notice I said vegan, not vegetarian. Besides continuing some of the most awful forms of animal exploitation through dairy and eggs, vegetarianism simply is not enough. Not even close. Dairy cows and egg-laying hens create plenty of environmental problems, besides their own serious ethical problems.
We know that transportation and inefficient buildings contribute massive amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And, unless you watch too much Fox News, you also know that all those greenhouse gases are warming our planet and having many weird, worrisome, and ultimately destructive consequences. But animal agriculture is a huge player in the greenhouse-gas game as well.
A report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization from 2006 laid out some disturbing facts. The report, ominously titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, stated that livestock contributed 18% of total greenhouse gases, putting it above transportation as a net contributor. That 18% of total annual human-caused pollutants consisted of 9% of carbon dioxide, 37% of methane (which is about 20 times as potent as CO2), and 65% of nitrous oxide (which is 300 times as potent as CO2). So that 18% may look pretty benign…but when you break it down, it is kind of terrifying.
I know that these specific numbers can be controversial, so I will not dwell on them…or ask you to be convinced entirely by them. But let me give you a few very real examples of how animal agriculture affects animals, humans, and the planet.
The reasons for the urgency of going vegan to fight climate change are numerous but fall into a few general categories.
In factory farms, which are modern industrial farms with lots of animals generally in confined spaces, animals frequently suffer from respiratory infections and other illnesses due to the poor air quality. Not to mention that the human workers suffer along with them, with approximately 70% of factory-farm workers contracting acute bronchitis.
Just as animal agriculture breeds hot, toxic air, so too does it harm water quality—and quantity. Farmed animals account for as much as half of water used in the U.S., and the Environmental Protection Agency has reported that waste from factory farms pollutes more water sources than any other industries combined. The toxins from animal waste are in part responsible for the dead zone where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, just to name one example.
All those animals worsen the air, worsen and slurp up the water, and also “consume” vast amounts of land. The USDA says that farmed animals use up 80% of agricultural land in this country; worldwide, they take up 30% of the Earth’s surface and 33% of its farmable land. Equally alarming, millions of acres of rainforest are burned to open up pasture for livestock—seven football-fields worth of land every minute. So in order to raise more livestock, we cut down trees and strip away nutrient-dense soil, making the land virtually worthless in short order.
Those billions of animals also have to eat. And eat they do…but in alarming ways. See, in our modern industrial version of husbandry, we feed roughly 70% of the grains grown here (including corn, soy, wheat, and rice) to livestock. Listen to that number again: 70%. Of plant foods that could be eaten by humans. But humans can eat farmed animals, so no need to worry, right? Think again. Animals are horribly inefficient protein sources. For every pound of flesh or secretion, three to ten pounds of grain are fed to farmed animals. So we are practically throwing away tons and tons of perfectly nutritious food. We would do better just to eat the grains ourselves—and send the excess (which there would be lots of) to starving populations around the globe, who are also going to be the biggest losers in the climate-change game. I have heard that the current amount of food grown in the world could feed as many as 10 billion people, if not diverted to farm animals and if we were better about waste.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Sure, industrialized factory farming is bad. I get that. No problem. But I always buy grass-fed beef, and cage-free eggs, so all the animals who give me food are happy and healthy, not eco-terrors.” This sort of thinking is widespread today, especially with the rise of locavorism, the foodie movement, and prominent “humane” animal-farmers, like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms to name the most famous.
Unfortunately, it is wrong. Yes, animals raised on small-scale family farms have different experiences than those raised in factory farms. But these“humanely raised” animals also still harm the environment in a variety of ways. Most significantly, those grass-fed cattle may be more “natural,” but they also produce around twice as much greenhouse gas as their grain-fed counterparts and require much more land. And just because an animal product is local does not make it better for the environment. Because the production of animal foods, not their transportation, consumes the most fossil fuels and creates the most greenhouse gases, you do better for the environment by going vegan than by eating a 100-mile (or less) diet. And, of course, these “happy” farmed animals still suffer from most of the same practices you find on factory farms.
The saddest part of all is that this comes down to human choice. We are not, whatever Dr. Atkins and Paula Deen and the time-travelers from the Paleolithic Era might have told you, required to eat meat or any other animal product. Not a one. Millions of years of evolution left us as omnivores, not obligate carnivores. We can live perfectly healthy, happy, active lives without ever consuming a single ounce of animal protein. People have been doing it for years. I have been vegan for over 14 years, and I am a newbie compared to some other prominent vegans, who did it before the movement became a trend and before you could find vegan-friendly foods in your local grocery store. You can choose what you eat. Yes, you can.
And if you really care about the Earth, you must. You can bike, you can recycle, you can light up your life with CFLs, but unless you go vegan you are not doing enough.
Not only is it about the statistics, and the data, and the science. Those are readily available and overwhelmingly damning of animal agriculture. But it is also about the vision and model that we who care about the planet want to set for our global society, and for our local community as well. I believe that we humans cannot be stewards or saviors, but instead must recognize our place with all the other creatures in the biosphere. We must recognize and celebrate our interconnections and interdependencies, not try to master nature with our technologies and our hubris. That, as our wisest myths and stories tell us, is always a recipe for disaster. And the Earth is showing it to us right now.
– James E. McWilliams, “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/the-myth-of-sustainable-meat.html?ref=opinion. (Also see his blog, http://eatingplantsdotorg.wordpress.com/.)