Have we got it all wrong?
We vegans get so high and mighty about our lifestyle, and our cause. Is there a chance that we are a bit misguided? Maybe it’s a little silly to combat animal cruelty by abstaining from granola with honey in it. Bear with me here. You can probably guess what conclusion I’ll come to, given where this blog is being posted. But I think it’s worth it to take another look at ourselves and figure out if we’re making the best choices, or if there are other movements out there that have just as much merit.
A goal of mine since going vegan has been to show others how normal, sensible, and easy it is. A plant-based lifestyle makes perfect sense to me, and it has never been about being punk, being different, or a looking cool. I do have some counter-cultural leanings, but that is not my motivation for making solid ethical choices every day. I consider myself a thinking man. I do my share of finger-pointing, but I believe we should all take responsibility for our consumer choices. If there’s a big floating island of plastic in the Pacific, we shouldn’t just whine and say this government or that corporation should clean it up- we should each make an effort to use less plastic and put it in the right bin when it’s useful life has passed. Same thing for veganism. While we need to do everything we can to make the system better, we can’t just go on consuming animal products and hope Big Food comes to its senses. Our food system is a big steaming mess. My personal solution is to opt out whenever I can: buy organic, local, and independent, and avoid animal products altogether. That feels good to me. It feels like the right thing to do. But maybe it’s not the only route?
People are finding out about factory farms. They are hearing about cheap processed food, diseases of affluence, animal cruelty, and pollution. As a result, I think the vegan movement is growing. But perhaps even bigger is the movement for “ethical” food production. The local and natural movements are motivated by some of the same things that drive vegans, but they feel that their way is better. Some of the more enlightened consumers feel that we need to support the small ethical food companies as a way to combat the broken food system. So they go for the pastured eggs, the local organic milk, the humanely-raised beef. OK, I’m twitching a bit right now trying to write about this stuff objectively- maybe I can’t. Anyway, I get their point of view: gestation crates are effed up, so buy from ranchers that don’t use them. Make those ethical meat producers prosper so that they can grow and compete with the evil factory farms. Through the “happy meat” eater’s eyes, we vegans probably look like stubborn radicals who are making things worse by not supporting these angelic small animal farms. Is this the case? Pretend somehow that you don’t care about the morals of creating animals for a short existence so that we can enjoy them as food. Ignore all the stuff about resource consumption, health issues, and personal food preference. The ethical meat/egg/dairy movement is making things better… isn’t it? Or is it just a sad attempt to justify our centuries of mistreatment of animals?
Alright, enough devil’s advocate shit. Here’s what I think. We have no good reason to be eating the things made of animals, or the things that come out of their holes, anymore. I do still struggle with the ethical food movements. They are a recognition of (some of) the problems, and they are a step in the right direction. But to me, they are just a band-aid. Slap a catch-phrase or “humanely-raised” logo on it, and you feel better about buying it. It allows you to stop thinking, and just trust the marketing department of your favorite natural food conglomerate. I honestly think that is the difference between vegans and ethical animal-food buyers: the point at which they stop thinking and feel OK about their purchase. Ethical meaters (that’s what I’m gonna call them) hear about battery cages and think, “ooh, I don’t want to support that,“ or “wow, my vegan friends will think I’m a jerk if I eat that breakfast taco.” So they make the slightly better choice: “It’s ok- they’re cage-free eggs,” or “I buy the good kind.” At this point, their vegan friend politely smiles and nods, or if they are less tactful, launch into the reasons their friend is an idiot (I don’t suggest the latter).
We need to be patient with the ethical meaters, though. I am becoming a big fan of the idea of activism through living a better life. I have heard Jonathan Safran Foer, Alicia Silverstone, and Nathan Runkle (of Mercy for Animals) say basically the same thing: be a happy, healthy vegan. Don’t judge, lecture, or be angry at your loved ones for not seeing things the way you do. Just be the smiling person with surprising energy and love for life. Eventually people will come to you and ask questions. This may seem like inactive activism, but I honestly think it works. Of course, you can always do some advocacy on the side (leafleting, demos, or whatever), but in day-to-day life I prefer to avoid bringing up my veganism. Unless somebody asks, of course.
At some point veganism will be considered mainstream. That will be a great day. But we will only delay it if people see us all as angry radicals. I can say that going vegan has made me a happier and healthier person. Ethical meatists may be able to claim the same thing, but the reality is that a well-planned plant-based diet will always be healthier and better for the world than any that includes animal products. If we live it, they will come.
There are so many problems with even the nicest family farms. I know, those nice farmers would be so offended to hear that. I’m sure there are people out there trying to do right. But as Jonathan Safran Foer put it in Eating Animals, it is time to recognize that we have no good reason to be eating meat, except that we can and we want to. Can any ethical meatist deny that?