Thursday, June 26, 2014

Does it Matter if Vegan Cheese is Terrible?

The writers and editors at HuffPost Taste are apparently "in favor of veganism". They aren't, you know, vegan, but they do occasionally write pieces on the topic. The latest, by Alison Spiegel, is titled "Taste Test: Friends Don't Let Friends Eat Vegan Cheese". It evaluates seven vegan cheeses and concludes that they are "a crime no one should commit".

I haven't tried the varieties sampled by HuffPost, but I have definitely eaten unpleasant vegan cheese. This is an area poised for growth. The market ten years from now will look much different, just as current offerings are better than those of the past. Many people happen to enjoy Daiya Shreds, which only recently became widely available. In the past two years several vegan cheese cookbooks have been published. They contain original ideas not yet incorporated within commercial products [0]. Spiegel says she "still has hope" for vegan cheese, and I think that is wise.

But I'm not here to defend vegan cheese. It doesn't interest me very much, partly because I don't miss dairy cheese. Beyond that, I'm disturbed by any attempt to imitate a nonvegan product. Why would anyone want to replicate the sensory experience of something derived from suffering and death? The answer, of course, is that we find comfort and joy in the familiar and traditional. Unfortunately, most of us weren't raised vegan. Perhaps this explains why I pour plant milks on my cereal. I'm thankful they don't taste like cows' milk, but there would certainly be a market for those that do.

It would be nice to leave behind all vestiges of the nonhumans as food paradigm — to stop pursuing the perfect vegan cheddar and develop our appreciation of the countless other culinary possibilities offered by fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts. I worry that we suggest, or start to believe, that the vegan revolution hinges on people tinkering away in kitchens or labs, rather than people educating everyone they can about their moral responsibility.

But is it wrong to eat vegan meats and cheeses? I don't think so. They are often expensive and unhealthy, but they can definitely be helpful, especially during someone's transition to veganism. The vegan pioneer Leslie Cross (1914-1979) founded Plamil, which began selling a soy milk concentrate in 1965. He believed a suitable plant milk would eliminate a hurdle on some people's path to veganism [1]:

What is needed [...] is acceptance of the idea that animal emancipation is a desirable aim. If a sufficient number of people experienced such a mental conversion, then the skills and ingenuity of men could be used to develop alternatives to those products of animal origin which the majority of men undoubtedly believe to be essential to their well-being. These products — a completely satisfactory non-animal milk is an example — are necessary if the universal practical application of the ideal is to be achieved. For men and women are not all alike and there are many for whom the practical obstacles must at present seem insurmountable. We cannot shut our eyes to the undoubted fact that to such people such obstacles are real and not imaginary.

Substitutes for nonvegan products have come a long way since the time of Cross. Yet new vegans can't just switch to indistinguishable imitations of their favorite exploitive things. And, because the replicators and holodecks of Star Trek aren't on the horizon, this will be the case for decades to come.

Those who loved visiting the zoo will have to try a park instead. Those who enjoyed wearing silk ties will have to buy ties made of other fibers. Those who loved dairy cheese will have to find other things to eat. This might include vegan cheese, but our palates simply can't be satisfied in the exact same ways. Food can be a source of tremendous pleasure for vegans, but personal adjustments are required.

I suspect many of the thousands of ‘likes’ bestowed upon this HuffPost article are from nonvegans titillated by what appears to be a dig at veganism. ‘See! Veganism is super difficult and best reserved for weirdos. Let's share a laugh at their misfortune!’

This kind of reaction should be expected so long as most animal groups and advocates don't discuss veganism as a moral obligation. Spiegel puts it in the category of "dietary or allergy restriction". Most readers have no context for understanding this taste test, which assumes dairy is the norm and vegans are denied the indulgence for some unknown or unimportant reason.

Here is the missing element: Vegans are compelled by the immorality of nonhuman exploitation. Most of us don't consider dairy products to be food. We don't want to eat them; we can't eat them.

Appealing substitutes for nonvegan things do make veganism more approachable for some. But, ultimately, we have everything we need to be happy and healthy right now. We should all be expected to avoid nonhuman exploitation — regardless of when new products might hit the market.

So does it matter if vegan cheese is terrible? Sort of. Ideally it would be incredible, but we need not put the vegan movement on hold. If someone is vegan for moral reasons, they won't be perturbed by the claim that some vegan cheeses taste like "pencil erasers and grandma's corked homemade wine".

Postscript — February 2015

"[T]here are a plethora of vegan cheeses available on the market and vegans have discovered how to veganize every cheese-laden dish on the planet. There's life after cheese, I promise. It's called vegan cheese and it has all of the taste and none of the suffering." — Ed Coffin in 2014, from an article published by The Huffington Post [2]

I understand the impulse behind these claims. It would be helpful if we could tell people that when they select food their choice is between X (derived from suffering and death) that tastes like Y... or Z (derived from plants) that also tastes like Y. Because they both taste like Y, you might as well select Z (eat vegan)!

In truth, your choice is between X (derived from suffering and death) that tastes like Y... or Z (derived from plants) that tastes like V. You should choose Z because it's the right thing to do. Z doesn't taste exactly like X, so you will have to adjust your palate and expectations.

By way of analogy, we aren't in a position of offering people a choice between two glasses of water that taste the exact same but have different origins: one is distilled river water and the other is distilled tears from tortured toddlers. It's more like we are offering a choice between distilled river water with a squeeze of lemon and distilled tears from tortured toddlers. Morally, of course, the choice is clear. But there is definitely a difference in taste that some will find disagreeable (at least at first).

We shouldn't lead nascent vegans to believe they can have the exact same sensory experiences as their nonvegan selves. They can't. Plants offer nearly endless culinary potential, but they can't be made to replicate the flesh and secretions of nonhuman animals. In many cases they can be made to approximate nonvegan foods, but there are usually noticeable differences in taste, texture, and/or smell.

Let's keep it honest and always focus people on the moral issue: unnecessarily exploiting nonhuman animals is wrong. New vegans can eat awesome food, but it will be different than what they are accustomed to. And even if vegans could only eat bland and boring food, we would still be morally obligated to be vegan.

[0] Search Amazon for "vegan cheese". Food bloggers are also contributing recipes.

[1] Leslie Cross. "The Surge of Freedom" (1954 article)

[2] Ed Coffin. "Ten Things Every Vegan Is Sick of Hearing" (2014 article)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

This Vegan's Daydreams

Sometimes I imagine a better future: Where we don't make millions of nonhuman animals suffer and die every single day. Where we don't treat cows, chickens, fishes, pigs, bees, and goats like they are things we can use and kill at our discretion. Where we view every sentient being as a unique individual who values his or her life. Where we never breed or capture someone so they can be our property. Where we feed and clothe ourselves with plants, minerals, and synthetics. Where we entertain ourselves without confining alligators in zoos, forcing horses to race, or watching dolphins perform tricks.

Somehow I need this. Perhaps because I believe almost anything I envision is possible. If you think that's exceedingly weird, please disregard it. You will find that what I've outlined is by no means unrealistic or utopian. In fact, it's thoroughly modest: A nicer place both for animals who aren't human, and for those who are. An improved natural environment for everyone, and healthier bodies for us. Less exploitation and violence endured by nonhumans, and more peace in our hearts.

Someday this will be true. But it won't happen overnight or be handed to us by the government. Society's thinking regarding animals who aren't human must change — one person at a time. Are there obstacles to overcome? Certainly. Our exploitive behavior is supported by seductive forces like pleasure, convenience, and tradition. But there has never been a more fertile time to plant the seeds of justice. For one, it's indisputable that over 99.9% of the suffering and death we inflict on nonhuman animals is unnecessary. Secondly, most of us already strongly empathize with cats, dogs, or members of another nonhuman species. Finally, thanks to resources like the internet and the increased popularity of veganism, rejecting exploitation has never been easier. Be encouraged by these facts. Become a vegan! If you have the time and inclination, patiently and creatively educate others.

Someone reading this believes veganism won't change anything. Remember that each vegan automatically sends two powerful messages to those around them: nonhuman exploitation is wrong, and it's something you can live without. Each vegan also lowers demand for exploitive products and increases demand for the alternatives. But suppose the world only gets more violent from here on out. While that would be awful, it would have zero affect on our moral obligation to be vegan. We simply can't justify unnecessarily using and killing sentient beings. So consider which side of history you want to be on, but, most importantly, consider doing the right thing.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Change the World: Become a Vegan

This year billions of unique individuals have needlessly suffered and died (sadly, millions will be killed in the few remaining days). Next year won't be much different, but it won't always be this way. We are going to change the world. You and I are going to be vegans for the rest of our lives, and we are going to change the world. It's a beautiful thing.

Confronted with an ongoing atrocity, what are we to do? We could ignore it and let the next person or next generation claim responsibility. We could eat cheese and ice cream made with cows' milk. We could adorn skin and hair (‘leather’ and ‘wool’). We could use animals who aren't human in countless other ways. After all, no one is going to stop us. Society welcomes and encourages our participation in their exploitation.

Or we could say no. We could become vegans. If we don't, who will?

You might believe veganism won't change anything. Does a lone vegan affect the number of animals who suffer and die? In a few cases, the decision to be vegan does directly forestall exploitation. For instance, a vegan won't join a fishing expedition or place an order for purebred puppies. But, as a general matter, the answer is no. If a consumer stops buying chickens' eggs from the grocery store, a ‘layer hen’ won't be released to a peaceful sanctuary life; one less chicken won't be bred into a life of servitude.

Although a single human not eating eggs won't cause fewer chickens to be exploited, millions of people making that choice will. So, collectively, vegans do affect supply by lowering demand. As veganism spreads, our effect becomes even greater.

Vegans also create change by setting an example for others. By publicly refusing to participate in immoral institutions, they act as representatives of the exploited (who are often absent by virtue of being dead). They show that living without nonhuman exploitation is possible and, in all likelihood, won't result in ignominy or ruin health.

Many choose to amplify their impact by actively educating others about the what, why, and how of veganism. The forms this can take are limited only by imagination: developing artwork, distributing literature, teaching someone how to cook, having conversations with friends, giving presentations to strangers, and more. The importance of education can never be overstated. A society will never be peaceful and just while its members seek out products and activities that require innocent animals to be subjugated and murdered.

But suppose a particular vegan in no way affects supply, sets an example, or educates others. They are still doing the right thing. Imagine a scenario involving humans: Several thousand people across the world regularly pay to see live internet video of women being raped and tortured. Dave receives an email inviting him to view these events, but he chooses not to participate. You probably agree with me that Dave's decision is morally obligatory — even though the women will still be exploited and none of the viewers will notice his absence.

There is never a bad time to start doing the right thing. Of course, the best time is now. The days you haven't been vegan are gone, and you can't have them back. Forget them. They belong to the past. Make today, tomorrow, and every day after the priority. They are yours.

But remember, you won't be taking this path alone. Others are on it with you, and many of them are willing to help you. Personally, I would love to address any thoughts or questions you might have: nathan {@}

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Animals Who Aren't Human: ‘Nonhuman’ or ‘Other’

Are humans animals? Is the term nonhuman problematic? How should the phrase other animals be used? Continue reading to learn what this hominid thinks.

You and I are animals. We are also vertebrates, mammals, and primates. These facts are often masked by our language. In common usage ‘animals’ only refers to animals who aren't human [0]. So if you were asked to name a favorite animal, ‘humans’ would be considered a very strange, perhaps nonsensical, response.

Language indicating that humans are animals isn't just taxonomically accurate. It also challenges an aspect of speciesism: people not admitting they are animals or not feeling comfortable with the fact. These learned behaviors have a rational basis. Denying kinship with an oppressed group makes it easier to rationalize their plight.

This problem of humans being excluded from the term animals has existed for centuries. Obsolete solutions include ‘sub-human animals’ and ‘lower animals’:

I believe I have something else in common with sub-humans — my hyper-sensitivity. I am convinced that animals are more sensitive than humans, and that the reason people do not know this is simply because they are not sensitive enough to feel that it is so. — Margaret Thorne in 1974 [1]

[A] belief that in years to come there will be a recognition of the brotherhood between man and man, nation and nation, human and sub-human, which will transform a state of semi-savagery as we have it, into one of civilization, when there will be no barbarity such as warfare, or the robbery of the poor by the rich, or the ill-usage of the lower animals by mankind. — Henry Salt in 1939 [2]

Ernst Haeckel's (1834-1919) Tree of Life [3]
Both terms identify humans as animals but describe animals who aren't human as ‘sub’ and ‘lower’. This arbitrarily creates a hierarchy of value or importance. Not surprisingly, humans get the top spot. The good news is that modern ‘animal advocates’ don't label animals who aren't human in these ways. So how do they address the issue?

Most, despite knowing that humans are animals, always speak and write of humans and animals as two unrelated categories. In other words, their ‘animals’ means animals who aren't human. A small percentage of advocates use ‘nonhuman animals’ or ‘other animals’ — by far the most popular alternatives — intermittently with the conventional ‘animals’. Why not consistently? Some argue that accurate language can be clumsy, confusing, or annoying. I'm sympathetic to these concerns but rarely swayed by them [4]. Like very few advocates, I almost never use ‘animals’ to mean animals who aren't human.

Rather than discuss the importance of alternative language, the remainder of this essay evaluates the meaning and suitability of the terms currently in use. I argue that ‘nonhuman animals’ always and unmistakably refers to animals who aren't human. ‘Other animals’ only refers to animals who aren't human in some situations. It has a wide range of possible meanings, so the phrase should be used with care. This essay was sparked by reading a statement by David Nibert, professor at Wittenberg University [5]:

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Leslie Cross Source Materials

"Out of the Dust of War" (1974)   HTML or PDF
"Why Plamil?" (1973)   HTML or PDF
"More About Milk" (1967)   HTML or PDF
"The Vegan Story" (1955)   HTML or PDF
"The Surge of Freedom" (1954)   HTML or PDF
"The New Constitution" (1951)   HTML or PDF
"Veganism Defined" (1951)   HTML or PDF
"In Search of Veganism—2" (1949)   HTML or PDF
"In Search of Veganism—1" (1949)   HTML or PDF
"Man and Nature" (1948)   HTML or PDF

[In] order to produce a dairy cow, heart-rending cruelty, and not merely exploitation, is a necessity. Milk and its derivatives are products of pain, suffering, and abominable interference with the law of love. — Leslie Cross in 1943, from a letter printed in The Vegetarian Messenger [0]

While we must admit that changes in world dietary habits cannot take place overnight, the long term view must surely be that we wish to bring practice more and more into line with what we inwardly know to be worthy of man’s better nature. If as we claim, we are a more noble creation than the animals, then we cannot avoid the logic of noblesse oblige. The most stringent test of the character of a man is how he acts toward those over whom he possesses power, and here the animals present us with an absolutely acid test. Surely we diminish ourselves by using our power over them merely to satisfy our own self-interested desires? — Leslie Cross in 1967, from a letter printed in Humanist [1]

1972 Plamil advertisement [2]

These writings add color to the history of veganism. Leslie Cross (1914-1979) was a resident of England who became vegan in 1942, two years before the term was coined. In July 1943 The Vegetarian Messenger, then magazine of the Vegetarian Society, printed a letter from Cross condemning the consumption of cows' milk [3]. This sparked a correspondence that ensued for many months and culminated in Donald Watson asking vegetarians interested in avoiding dairy to write him. Over 50 responses were received and in August 1944 he and Elsie Shrigley petitioned the Vegetarian Society to allow an official non-dairy faction. Their request was refused, and Watson went on to form the Vegan Society in November 1944.

Due in considerable part to Cross, by 1951 this group was explicitly rejecting all nonhuman exploitation, not just flesh and secretions. Watson considered Cross a "great friend" and said he "must be put in the records" as an "outstanding" and "faithful" contributor to the cause of veganism [4]. To address a practical hurdle on some people's path to veganism, Cross founded the Plantmilk Society in 1956. After five years this effort gave rise to Plamil, a company that in 1965 began selling a canned soy milk concentrate in London shops.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Doing the Right Thing: No Pride, No Shame

From Low's music video for "Shame"

I'm rarely introspective about the fact that I'm a vegan. If you have been vegan for a while, you'll understand when I say that it becomes ‘second nature’. Kind of like breathing and blinking — it's automatic more often than not. Anyway, if I did ponder my veganism, my thoughts would go something like...

Of course I'm a vegan. It's the right thing to do. Even if I never do anything else about the exploitation of animals who aren't human, I'll always be vegan. I owe them at least that much.

What wouldn't cross my mind is that veganism makes me super awesome and worthy of praise or adoration. It doesn't. So I'm not prideful about being a vegan. It's not a source of pleasure in my life. Thankfully, I do have moments of happiness. You know: sunny spring days, spicy cauliflower curries, J Dilla instrumentals, and so on. But veganism, by itself, doesn't bring me joy or contentment.

The word pride has a few different meanings. In an effort to preempt confusion, I'll discuss some understandable uses of ‘pride’ that are related to veganism:

1) Being vegan generally involves violating some of society's norms and discarding some of its values. Simply put, veganism runs counter to expectations and beliefs we are taught from an early age. It's also true that most new vegans must adjust or abandon a few traditions shared with family, friends, and other groups. In light of these social realities, I can accept intermittent feelings of pride, which are mild and short-lived, during the first year or so following one's decision to become vegan.

2) It's possible, although quite unlikely, that deviating from society's expectations and beliefs concerning nonhuman animals could lead someone to face discrimination (perhaps in the form of bullying). In such scenarios, the term pride could be used as an expression of one's dignity and entitlement to respect.

3) The popular assumption is that a complete and tasty meal requires nonhumans' flesh and secretions. Many new vegans go through a process of discovering unfamiliar cuisines and expanding their cooking repertoire. It makes sense that some people will feel a touch of pride after creating a moist and delicious cake, or savory soup, with only plant-derived ingredients.

What I'm not comfortable with is anyone being perpetually prideful about their veganism. There are at least a couple reasons why. First, avoiding nonhuman exploitation is a basic component of a morally decent life. Second, veganism should primarily be about the injustice endured by nonhumans, not how it makes us feel or improves our lives.

Would I be similarly troubled if we were discussing human oppression? Certainly. Does it sound off to say, ‘I'm proud that I never rape and murder people’, or ‘I take pride in not using racist and homophobic slurs’? I think so. We don't exploit and discriminate against humans because it's wrong. We don't expect credit, and we aren't self-congratulatory. Why should our attitude toward nonhumans be any different?

When interacting with others, I hope to convey my confidence in the morality and importance of being vegan. But this isn't pride shinning through. It's a lack of shame about fulfilling my minimal obligation to nonhuman animals and a belief that others should do the same. In years past, I would endeavor to keep my ‘personal choice’ from others. Now it's clear to me that whether or not purple is my favorite color is personal. (But, in the spirit of being candid, I'll say that purple is one of the best colors!) Participating in the slavery and death inflicted on billions of sentient beings is anything but personal. Rejecting such an odious system is nothing we should be embarrassed about or reluctant to share.

We must abolish nonhuman exploitation. Embrace your responsibility — become a vegan.

Friday, April 22, 2011

‘Vegan’ ≠ ‘Vegan’ ≠ ‘Vegan’

Why is there no consensus about the definition of ‘vegan’? Are abolitionists using the term differently than Vegan Outreach? What role does utilitarianism play in that group's positions? Continue reading to learn what this hominid thinks.

Activism and theory are inseparable. Gary Francione wrote about this recently, and I'm glad he did. Regrettably, many ‘animal people’ aren't interested in theory. Although I was once among their ranks, I have learned that ignoring theory doesn't alter the role it plays. All activism stems from a set of ideas about what is true and appropriate. These ideas can be your own, in that you understand them, or someone else's, if you follow a group's program without much thought.

While I admire the impulse to ‘just get active’, things aren't that simple. Fortunately, they aren't much more complex. Some reading and thinking are required, but it's not as if every activist needs to earn a fancy degree at an elite college.

We must first acknowledge that the ‘animal movement’ is not united, either by an ultimate goal or by activist tactics. There are currently several distinct camps of advocates working independently. For example, ‘welfarists’ envision a future where we exploit nonhuman animals ‘humanely’. This camp, which has existed for over two hundred years, pursues legal regulations of exploitive industries. In recent decades, ‘new welfarists’ have used this tactic to achieve different goals. Many hope regulation will significantly reduce the number of nonhumans we use and kill. Their concern is often limited to specific animal species or forms of exploitation. Other new welfarists believe regulation is needed to eliminate all exploitation of sentient nonhumans. Their long-term vision is shared by abolitionists, a camp opposed to regulation on both moral and practical grounds.

My position, as an abolitionist, is that all sentient beings have at least one right: not to be treated as property. In the words of Francione, recognizing this right demands that we, as a society, "stop our institutionalized exploitation of nonhuman animals; cease bringing domesticated nonhumans into existence; and stop killing non-domesticated animals and destroying their habitat" [0].

To move society in this direction, abolitionists focus on a simple message: become a vegan. This is because veganism involves avoiding all forms of nonhuman exploitation in our daily lives. It encompasses our decisions about food, clothing, entertainment, and more. Abolitionists view veganism as the moral baseline of any effort to rectify human/nonhuman relations. In other words, because using and killing nonhuman animals is wrong, veganism is obligatory. Activists should be vegan and deliver an unequivocal vegan message to the public.

Not everyone supports this use of the term vegan. For instance, the group Vegan Outreach (VO intermittently hereafter) doesn't base its work on rights theory. Matt Ball and Jack Norris, who formed VO in the early 1990s, have been adherents to utilitarian theory for over a decade. This shows up in everything their group does today — from its pamphlets and newsletters, to its definition of ‘vegan’. The guidance VO associates with this term has very little in common with that of the abolitionists.

As the title of this essay suggests, ‘vegan’ is not used with much consistency. A wide range of definitions is offered by dictionaries, the news media, animal advocates, and other sources. It can be a confusing scene for both new and long-term advocates. This helps me understand the temptation to ask, as many have: if both Vegan Outreach and the abolitionists promote veganism, why aren't they united?