veganism: necessary but not sufficient
I recently had the pleasure of writing an article on Viva La Vegan. If you didn’t get a chance to see my post there last week, I am reposting it here. Make sure head over to Viva La Vegan–there is a lot of great stuff going on including an extremely diverse array of articles and a vegan mentorship program.
Veganism is a necessary condition for animal liberation. On a systemic level, there is a possibility that swelling numbers of vegans will allow us to have a critical mass that can drive culture and politics. On an individual level, it is how people take personal responsibility by refusing to be a part of the violence around them. It is a way to queer the food chain and it is the foundation of an animal liberation praxis. It is also, for many, the gateway to activism. Veganism is a must, but it is not enough if saving animals is the end goal.
Some tout veganism as the solution to end mass suffering of nonhuman animals. They say things like, “The world is vegan if you want it.” But that is just not true. The world is vegan only if we actively, systematically, aggressively, and consistently fight for it. If you want to do something to save animals’ lives, you actually need to do something. Veganism is about abstention, not action. The few of us who are vegan are not driving the production of meat down and we are not reinventing culture, we are simply acting according to our basic moral code and abstaining from a practice we know to be wrong.
Yes, being vegan is important and so is vegan outreach and advocacy. It is a vital part of our movement. But the choice to be vegan in and of itself is only a foundation and a gateway to a path of animal liberation.
Celebrity dieters such as Oprah and personable cooks and bakers such as Isa Chandra Moskowitz, have helped spread veganism to new populations and have made it a trendy enterprise. Veganism becoming a trend exposes the idea to more people, which is a wonderful thing. However, we must remember that trends don’t last. While it is better to have someone go veg for some period of time than not at all, veganism as an industry has the potential to overshadow and make us forget veganism as an ethic. Obviously this doesn’t always happen, but examples of it do abound.
On the west coast of the U.S., Veggie Grill is a vegan restaurant chain that is popular and expanding quickly. But you will not find a single piece of animal rights or vegan literature, nor will you see the word vegan mentioned anywhere (except for once on the menu where it says “vegan mayonnaise”). The Facebook page of the owner of Doomie’s, a popular vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles, features him several years ago posing with a dead fish from a fishing excursion and an ear-to-ear grin; clearly he is not concerned with what this is promoting, and he sees no issue with this picture being public while he runs a vegetarian restaurant. Apparently, the message got lost in the pursuit of a niche market. (I emailed him about this photo last week for his explanation, but to date have had no response).
When veganism becomes the end goal, the focus becomes the food not the animals. It becomes tempting for animal advocacy groups and vegans to promote veganism as a type of “cuisine,” rather than as an ethical choice. In this way it is easier to spread veganism, but it does not promote animal liberation. People forget about the animals that are not present in vegan food, just like they forget about the animals that are present in other cuisines. Veganism becomes something that people “go out” to, rather than a way of life or an ethic of justice. This sort of thinking has also lead to the promotion of concepts like “flexitarianism” and “semi-vegetarianism”—diets in which animals still die. Any diet in which animals die are not diets people who care about animals should be promoting.
Veganism, as it is often promoted today, is also heavily invested in the very system of capitalism that is driving animal exploitation in the first place. It supports capital enterprises surrounding food, even meat production. Veganism drives Tofurkey, Gardein, and Tofutti into the marketplace, but it does not drive meat and dairy out.
Animal exploitation enterprises have learned to expand their profits by catering to the vegan population. The factory farming system is driven largely by the fast food economy. Companies such as Chipotle and Kentucky Fried Chicken have developed vegan options and, in doing so, have won the praise and money of vegans. In a stark example of this in 2008, two vegans allowed their wedding to serve as pro-KFC propaganda when they were married at a KFC in Canada to celebrate the addition of vegan options and KFC Canada’s agreement to use controlled atmospheric killing as a slaughter method. Vegans are putting their money into the very companies that are driving animal exploitation in gratitude for the convenience of a vegan option and “nicer” ways to kill animals.
And yes, I get it. Promoting veganism as something even omnivores can do makes it more approachable. Having more vegan options makes veganism more attainable. It means we can now honestly tell people that being vegan is easy and convenient. But this should not be the crux of what we are striving for and it cannot be our end goal. I don’t know a single committed vegan who became vegan because they realized vegan food tastes good, or who would stop being vegan if there weren’t cheese substitutes and options at drive-thrus. People who only go vegan because it is easy will not stay vegan, and they certainly won’t contribute to the real struggles of animal liberation.
People like to cite numbers about how many lives being vegan will save. Some people go to great lengths to quantify this number. And this number does have a point. It can excite people to go veg. It can force people to think about their food consumption in relation to actual lives. But it is only a tool and a symbol. Vegans need to know that these numbers are figurative; no lives are actually saved. The few of us that are vegan are not driving the shift in the number of animals that are killed.
As the number of vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. has slowly climbed, demand for meat production has increased while per capita meat consumption has declined. There is debate as to which is a better measure, but in the end, what matters for me is that the number of animals slaughter has reduced. Why is this not evidence enough for me that veganism is the answer to animal liberation? First, meat consumption is largely tied to finances and US families have not bounced back from the financial crisis and high unemployment. Since demand is higher, the number of animals killed to meet that demand will likely climb again. Second, there are still over nine billion land animals being killed for food every year in the US alone. This is a state of emergency; more needs to be done and veganism alone is clearly not doing it.
When people claim to be animal rights activists based only on the fact that they are vegan, they are engaging in rhetoric to absolve feelings of responsibility to actually act on behalf of animals. Saying you are an animal activist because you refuse to kill animals is like saying you are an anti-rape activist because you refuse to rape people. I am not saying everyone has to be an activist, I just worry when people misconstrue the act of not eating animals—a morally necessary choice to refuse to murder needlessly—as an act of activism that might actually lead to the liberation of animals.
I do not say this to shame people. I say it to push our community to be more critical of what our goals are and how we can achieve them. Someone can be vegan and stop there; that is totally fine and I am happy to have one less murderer wandering the streets. But at the same time it is important to remember that veganism is an exercise of passive abstinence, not active engagement.
If we want to help animals our sights need to move beyond seeming like pleasant and energetic vegans so people will learn by our example not to kill animals. We need to move beyond the ruse that not actively killing an animal actually saves an animal. If we want to help animals we need to challenge oppression, force people to confront their behavior, and be unrelenting in our pursuit of justice. And this takes more than veganism. This takes a revolution and, while what we choose (not) to eat may be an empowering political and ethical statement, it is not a revolution.