Getting Started – Keeping Going, Part One: Should I be Vegan?

I went back and reread the first post I put up on this blog, called Getting Started (30 July).  When I started on this journey, I wasn’t sure going vegan was the right thing to do, but I wanted to find out if I should. Yet, I found myself strongly resistant to doing the necessary research. It is difficult to be objective about something like consuming animal products while activity engaged in the activity you are trying to critique. I decided to ‘go vegan’ for a year and then make a decision.

I started this blog about a month or so into the process of transitioning to vegan. A process I am still in. My diet, to the best of my knowledge, is now animal-free, and that is the choice I intend to make regardless of what everyone else is doing or what is available. I would rather skip a meal, come across as an ‘ungrateful’ guest or be the ‘difficult’ customer (with my questions) than consume animals.  There are still ‘food’ (so called) additives I need to learn more about, but for the most part I am going with when in doubt, say no or try to learn more so that I can make an informed decision.

In the New Year, my plan is to move onto other products I buy.  I need to look more closely at things like shampoos and soaps, and find alternatives where necessary.

I still have some things that include leather and wool.  Rather than be wasteful, I have decided to continue to use these things until they need replacing.

**I also want to extend changes to the human costs of the products I buy – no slavery, buy local when possible and choose the least exploitative option, and the environmental costs – smallest footprint possible for both waste and production.

In my first post, I specified two questions I wanted to explore answers for:

  • Should I be vegan?
  • How would I live as vegan in a society so clearly set up not to be vegan?
Not to make this about us or anything, but probably you should.
Not to make this about us or anything, but probably you should.

Should I Be Vegan?

Yes. Without any qualification – absolutely yes. I would never have guessed how quickly I would reach this answer. I had assumed it would take me a lot longer than this to figure it out.

bridal-veil-fall-52449_1280The environmental reasons alone are compelling enough. Animal agriculture is unbelievably wasteful of resources and is a major contributor to climate change and habitat destruction.

I may only be one person, but the more ‘only one persons’ join this movement the more likely it is that we may be able to avert the worst case scenarios.  In theory, the environmental problems created by animal agriculture should be some of the simplest to address (infrastructure and investment does not rely on the development of new technology or research). We don’t have to rely on governments to reluctantly create policy and enforce regulations (though it would be easier if they did!!). We don’t have to wait for most corporations to magically develop a conscience and start valuing something else besides profit. If consumers switch to a plant-based diet retailers, restaurants, wholesalers, suppliers, manufacturers and producers will also switch. If consumers refuse to buy animal skins (unless absolutely necessary) or products tested on animals, companies will restructure their business practices in response.  If it becomes more difficult (and more expensive) to source animal by-products for things like filler, binding agents, pet food, fuel or fertilizer, business will be motivated to find alternatives.

A factory dairy farm in Germany.  Animal abuse like this requires our cooperation as consumers. We are complicit.
A factory dairy farm in Germany. Animal abuse like this requires our cooperation as consumers. We are complicit.

The argument that a plant-based lifestyle or vegan approach to consumption (even within a capitalist framework) will ‘destroy’ the economy is nonsense. It is a narrative perpetuated by people who either lack imagination or are invested in the economy not changing. Consumer trends are constantly changing and business is always working to keep out in front of and to competitively influence consumer demand. You only have to look at the electronic and technology industries now compared with thirty years ago. Particular sectors of the economy like video rental shops or typesetters do go out of business, but capitalism marches on unabated in response to wide ranging changes in consumer habits. In the same way, if consumers stop drinking cows’ milk, there will be fewer dairy farms and more nut or bean growers.

[I don’t want to imply that this shift by itself will solve the global environmental crisis or that there are not serious structural problems of inequality and over consumption built into our current economic system, but just to knock over the paper-thin argument that we have to keep abusing animals or capitalism and society will implode.]

Turning this ‘ship’ – our capitalist, industrial economic system – around in time to avoid a complete loss of habitat and the ability of our ecosystem to support us and any species left, feels overwhelmingly impossible. Especially since our economic and political systems are so heavily supported by deeply entrenched cultural practices and identities that involve the use and abuse of animals for our convenience or pleasure. Behaviour that is based on the assumption that we are entitled to do this because we are ‘humans’ and they are just ‘animals’.  As a species we have formed emotional, psychological and even physiological attachments to animal consumption that we reinforce through cultural narratives of our ‘right’ to exploit others no matter how trivial the purpose – it tastes nice, it looks pretty, I want it, the priest told me to, etc.

 [(cc) Dave Young, 2007]
[(cc) Dave Young, 2007]
Going vegan is also an ethical choice. Modern farming practices that involve animals are horrendous. Farm animals are sentient beings capable of experiencing emotions like fear and attachment; they are biological organisms with nervous systems who can experience pain and physical suffering. On factory farms animals are treated as just another part of the machinery used to manufacture a product. Would you tolerate your cat or dog being treated like a farmed pig or cow?

It is also unethical to use the amounts of water and land necessary to produce crops to feed animals that we then turn into food when millions around the world go hungry.  We could feed all humans on the planet with less land and less water if we stopped eating animals.  It is not ‘fate’ that millions of people go hungry and lack safe drinking water.  It is a collective choice we have made through the ideological and economic systems we set up and maintain.

Free-range farming is not a viable solution because it is not only environmentally destructive on any larger scale, it is also unethical.  In dairy and egg production only female animals have value. Male animals are by-products either thrown away as waste or slaughtered and rendered down into other products like fertilizer, pet food, gelatine, veal, fat etc.  Female animals are still physically and emotionally abused (just a little less horrifically than in the factory system) and in most cases the moment these animals are no longer productive they are slaughtered at the very same facilities as factory animals.

My conclusion is that I definitely should go as vegan as I possibly can. Firstly, it is my obligation as a member of this tiny ecosystem we call planet Earth (the only ecosystem capable of supporting a life form such as myself) and as a member of the species currently hell bent on destroying this ecosystem for themselves and all other species on the planet. Secondly, it is unethical to support a system that routinely abuses and harms beings capable of feeling physical and emotional pain.  If someone has a nervous system they will experience pain.  If a mammal is separated from offspring or other family members she has an emotional attachment to she will suffer.  If you deliberately breed a species for specific traits (like overdeveloped muscle mass), but ignore other traits that cause pain and suffering this is unethical.  It is also unethical to deny other members of our own species the basic necessitates for sustaining life like food, water, autonomy or land/shelter when we could easily provide these things with almost no cost to ourselves.  Animal agriculture, especially as it is currently practiced, is an unsustainable resource sink.          .

I am still trying to figure out where I stand in relation to the idea that veganism should be a moral baseline.  I find myself arguing with this, and am trying to sort through all the implications of this approach.  I am, however, completely on board with the moral precept that animals should not be used or bred for trivial reasons like their flesh or breast milk tastes nice, it’s fun to shoot them, or I like wearing leather, fur and wool when there are plenty of other alternatives to tantalise our taste buds, entertain us or wear.  But what about mice breed for testing to learn more about cancer, or pets that are loved and cared for, or seeing-eye dogs for the blind? These are not trivial reasons. At what point do the needs of our own species take precedence over those of other species?

And, as an added bonus, it turns out, that if done right, a plant-based diet is a very healthy way to eat.

lamb-292512_1280

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8 thoughts on “Getting Started – Keeping Going, Part One: Should I be Vegan?”

  1. Interesting blog. I enjoyed reading of your considered practice. As to animal testing, there are a range of testing techniques that don’t use animals (they go on bacterial responses) and animal testing does not always translate well to humans. In many cases, if a drug seems promising, and effective, it is often possible to offer it to humans, especially those with terminal diseases. Many would rather take a chance on a new not-fully-tested treatment than the certainty of death without it.

    I don’t consider homing refugees from domestication to be a problem for vegans. Cats, dogs and other “companion” type animals fit that category, as long as they are not bought, or “bred” for you. Of course, when I say “bought” I mean support of pet stores. I do not mean the fees one pays in a shelter. And it is important to cut the cycle of breeding, so desexing is essential. After that, it comes down to attitude. Is the companion animal seen as a companion, or as property? One is vegan, the other not. If we do choose to shelter a refugee from domestication, it is also important to be clear, that we are giving sanctuary, and we are capable of providing what they need. We don’t use “rescued” chickens as personal egg supplies. We don’t “rescue” horses because we like to ride.

    Again, interesting blog. Good luck. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for the feedback. 🙂 Animal testing and their use in scientific research is something I know very little about. It is on my list of issues to investigate further, but for the moment I am focusing on things that I have direct control over like what I eat or spend money on. I don’t use cosmetics, never have. I do use soap, shampoo and toothpaste. I use several cleaners etc. around the house and garden that I need to inventory and investigate further. The ones that I can I already use brands that are plant-based and biodegradable – out of concern for what ends up in our river (the one we use for drinking water and irrigation). This will be my task for the new year. We have pets – two cats from the RSPCA and a dog we brought from a breeder. If up to me I wouldn’t keep animals, but they are very important for my partner.

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  2. Something I realised I didn’t mention. As vegans we are sometimes faced with things like the fact that most drugs are, and have been, tested on animals. It’s something we can’t avoid if we want access to drugs. We can recognise that it is not OK, and yet still decide that the consequences of not using drugs are too personally extreme.

    For me, this comes under the realm of having little effective choice. Agriculture kills animals, (worms, insects, etc) alienates wild land (destroying habitat), and creates other problems for our fellow animals. But we need to eat. For me, this sort of thing falls under the class of things I cannot do anything about. I can eat organic food from my own garden, and still, fellow animals will be affected (some negatively, some positively, since some eat my plants, or eat the insects on my plants). But I am not prepared to do without agriculture. In the same way, I’m not prepared to do without medication. I’ll try preventive medicine, and take the least harmful alternatives I can find, but not do without it.

    The main thing is intention. If we eliminate intentional harm from our actions (something we can do completely), and also do whatever we can to eliminate unintentional harm (something we can never do completely), I’d say we’re acting ethically.

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    1. I really like this quote. I think is sums up the most common sense issue of how to make vegan choices in a way that is practical and liveable.
      “Being vegan isn’t about being perfect, and it’s not about being pure. You do not get a certification of 100% purity when you become vegan. Being vegan is about intention. It’s about doing the best we can to not cause harm when it’s practical and possible and it’s not always practical and possible.” Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

      What is “practical and possible” is going to be potentially different for each person. However, what I see a lot of when I read comments online is people using other people’s limited circumstances as an excuse not to examine their own behaviour and choices. I like the ideal of intention. My intention is to lower my environmental footprint and do the least harm possible with the resources and information I have available to me. I have a list of issues and behaviours that I am working on – a changing list as I learn more and experience more.

      Thanks for your thoughts and perspective.

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  3. It’s really interesting – and inspiring – how much you changed over the course of a year!

    As far as pets – I can’t imagine life without them. I grew up with companion animals and they’re the reason I went veg and then vegan in the first place. They are all rescues and certainly wouldn’t be able to survive on their own. They are considered family members. I agree with veganethos … is a pet considered a companion, or just property. There’s a world of difference between the two.

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    1. Thanks. I am also surprised how much my thinking and perspective has changed. Or, I think maybe I gave myself the opportunity to look at things I had been avoiding more honestly. By stopping certain behaviours I am able to look at things more objectively and see that they are at least unethical. Accepting the principle that other beings should not be used or abused for trivial, egotistical reasons is something I have always believed, but the decision to go vegan has enabled me to confront that more directly in relation to my own life and behaviour.

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  4. When I switched to vegan, I read a very interesting book called Why We Should Go Vegan by Magnus Vinding. It’s quite new so not out of date and I found it really helpful. 🙂 I pick it up every now and again because it made me think of things differently and I feel even more positive about my lifestyle change.

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    1. Thanks for the book rec. Looks really useful. A similar type of book I read was Eat Like You Care. It presents the simple idea that if we believe that we should not cause harm for trivial reasons then the only morally consistent thing to do is go vegan. The book then swiftly dismantles excuse or attempt at an argument against this idea. I kept trying to find a loop hole or good argument against it. There wasn’t one! It is a brilliant book, short, easy to read and very well argued. Highly recommend it, especially for people who want to argue with you. “Here read page 17 – that should tell you why you are wrong”.

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