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?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reflection after Calamity

Ballou's Monthly Magazine, May 1866
There is a section of the Little Miami River where I occasionally pick up ‘litter’. Last summer, I was returning from these uniquely sandy banks with the day's haul when my face hit something I couldn't see in the dusk. It was a spider's web. As this is a story about someone else's loss, I'm not very comfortable making it center on me. Nevertheless, my reaction was memorable, and it helped me reflect on how I've changed over time.

Several years ago, I probably would have been upset with the fates for cursing me with such an annoyance. My thoughts or exclamations would have been along the lines of: "Damn it! What the hell is that doing there? Leave me alone". (If I wrote or talked about this event, the home or tool I destroyed would have been called a ‘spider web’. No apostrophe-S to indicate possession and acknowledge the individual involved.)

So what was my instant reaction is this case? "Oh crap. I'm sorry."

Obviously, an apology changed nothing. The expression felt appropriate regardless. In that moment, it wasn't clear how much harm I had caused. I only knew my small inconvenience was incomparable to what I presumed the spider must be experiencing. Thinking about this reminded me that I've undergone a dramatic shift in attitude and awareness. One for which I feel quite fortunate.

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

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Book for Young Speciesists

Not long ago, while visiting my parents, I found nineteen books from my youth that belong to a series published by the National Geographic Society: "Books for Young Explorers". The full series comprises several dozen titles released between the early 1970s and mid 90s. Retailers often list them as appropriate for children aged 4 to 8 years [0]. As examples from my collection demonstrate, most of the books are about nonhuman animals: "Baby Bears and How They Grow" (1986), "Animals and Their Hiding Places" (1986), "Creatures of the Woods" (1985), "Life in Ponds and Streams" (1981), "Strange Animals of Australia" (1981), "Wild Cats" (1981), "Animals that Build Their Homes" (1976), and "The Playful Dolphins" (1976).

The entries in this series I find most intriguing specifically address an aspect of human/nonhuman relations. My set includes "Baby Farm Animals" (1984), "What Happens at the Zoo" (1984), and "Helping Our Animal Friends" (1985). Although each of these is worthy of analysis, this essay focuses on "Saving Our Animal Friends" (SOAF hereafter), which was written by Susan Mcgrath and published in 1986 [1]. SOAF is laden with pictures, and only 19 of the 32 pages contain text. Each page, excluding the final two, has approximately 100 or fewer words.

Notes from Sociology
Why write about a book intended for kids? Early childhood is when most humans first absorb their society's speciesism. We teach them to uncritically accept and defend discrimination based on species and the routine exploitation of nonhuman animals on a massive scale. It's safe to assume that children reading SOAF are already being regularly exposed, as part of their primary socialization, to the speciesist values and norms that deeply permeate society.

Eva Batt Source Materials

"Why Veganism?" (1964)   HTML or PDF
"Confessions of a Very Slow Starter" (1981)   HTML or PDF

These essays by Eva Batt (1908-1989) offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of veganism. Batt, a resident of England, became vegan in 1954, just ten years after the term was coined. She recounted this experience, which involved a face to face encounter with a cow recently robbed of her calf, in "Confessions of a Very Slow Starter". In an earlier piece, "Why Veganism?", she reviewed the history of veganism, offered a definition of the term, and discussed various moral and practical aspects of living as a vegan.

In the years following her ‘slow start’, Batt made major contributions to the spread of veganism. She was a highly active member of the Vegan Society who served fifteen years as chairperson and edited the commodity pages of The Vegan for over two decades. The society published her two cookbooks: "What's Cooking" (1973) and "What Else is Cooking" (1983). Batt was a council member of the American Vegan Society and director of Plamil, which began selling a canned soy milk concentrate in 1965. She also worked with Beauty Without Cruelty, a charitable trust that promoted cosmetics and clothing not derived from or tested on animals. She even owned a shop in Enfield, her hometown, that sold food, clothing, and footwear suited for vegans.

Friday, January 7, 2011


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