Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Posting term papers as blog entries is the height of laziness

If Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaiman are wrong, and the path to hell really is paved with good intentions[1], its worth noting that on our drive to Damnation we have to take a stop in Limboville. Limbo is the waiting place, reserved for those stuck between salvation and damnation, and while not all good intentions lead us into the pit, some certainly lead us round in circles.

Animal liberation, and its most visibly public offshoot, veganism, are two examples. While both are based on admirable intent, all too often they serve to do little more than preserve our status quo, and sometimes provide us with an off-ramp to the abyss.

This may sound harsh, but good criticism usually is. While there are facets of the Liberationist movement that I can whole-heartedly support, there is as much, or more of the movement that I feel bound to condemn.

It is hard to argue against the “goodness” of Liberationist intentions. The movement to secure legal and ethical consideration for animal well-being, to prevent cruelty, suffering, and waste, to reduce environmental damage and increase ecological well-being are all noble aims. The problem lies in that great contradiction called life, wherein even the most carefully aimed bolt occasionally fires wide, wounding without intent. Whereas I agree with the anti-vivisectionist stance of the animal liberation movement, I find that veganism is a bolt fired wide, or, to continue the metaphor, a detour towards heck.

Pragmatism versus Dogmatism

My primary problem with the Liberationist stance is that far too many people have accepted it as a kind of dogma. I have no issue, and I think one would be hard pressed to find any thoughtful person that would have issue, with an individual making the decision to adjure the use of any and all animal products. Personally, I maintain that one of the most basic rights anyone has is the right to control what they put into their own bodies, and what they reject. As a personal choice, I see nothing wrong with veganism, but as I will point out later, as a blanket solution or dogmatic demand, it can become very objectionable, if not subtly dangerous.

By the same logic, a blanket condemnation of vegans or liberationists is equally objectionable, and it is not my intention to condemn individuals but rather to point out those flaws I see within the movement they belong to.

One of my first objections to veganism is simply that I find it terribly impractical. I do not find it impractical because it requires a great deal of time and thought to search through labels to determine what one is really eating, clothing oneself with, or applying to one’s skin. On the contrary, I find it admirable. Rather I find it impractical because veganism claims to be solving the faults of an impractical system from within the confines of said system.

Liberationists decry industrial factory farming of animals, and with good reason. Factory farming is wasteful, cruel, and as a rule very damaging to the environment. But then again, so is the industrial farming of vegetables and other crops. While the vegan decries the terrible quality of life that the factory pullet or veal calf suffers, they rarely spare much thought to the poor people who pick their fruit, raise their cotton, and harvest their vegetables for poverty wages, in harsh conditions, whilst being slowly poisoned by pesticides. Nor do they take into account the amount of pollution spewed into the atmosphere to ensure that fresh fruit and vegetables can be had year-round at the local market.

The problem is not factory farming of animals. The problem is factory farming period. Take away the industrialization, make farming small-scale, decentralized, less mechanized, and local and farming in general becomes less wasteful, cruel, and environmentally damaging.

Yet veganism or at least the “shallow veganism” addressed by Dr. Michael W. Fox in his essay “Deep and Shallow Vegetarianism and Animal Rights” does not differentiate between animal products from vastly different sources, say between free-range poultry and factory-farmed, but instead rejects all animal products. Add in the rejection of animal labor, and veganism begins to work against many of the movements stated aims in regard to the environment and the elimination of word hunger.[2]

Perhaps a hypothetical is in order. Let’s say we have a small family owned farm of perhaps 60 acres in a relatively fertile area with a temperate climate. Now, many a vegan will tell you that this farm could feed a great many more people if planted exclusively in vegetable crops.[3] If that were the case, then the farmer would likely need at least one tractor to till the land, which would cost him in repairs, fuel, and replacement. Even with multi-cropping and other organic methods of pest control, he would likely loose a sizable amount of each harvest to pests, primarily insects, but also deer, rabbits, feral pigs, and other creatures. Even if all the vegetable wastes were composted and returned to the soil, he would likely have to bring in artificial fertilizer after a decade or so, as the soil begins to loose nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphates. After each harvest, the farmer and his family would have a lot of vegetables for sale and for their own use, though they would have to sell most of them to be able to afford clothing, fuel, machinery, fertilizer, and pesticides.

Now take the same farm and introduce a few animals. Start with free-ranging chickens and ducks which help aerate the soil with their scratching, and eat up scraps as well as insects, fertilizing the soil as they go. The birds would also provide eggs, meat, and feathers which could be used to stuff pillows and quilts. Then add a small herd of cattle, perhaps only five head, one bull, two cows, and two oxen. The cows would provide milk, and their manure could greatly offset the farmer’s fertilizer bills. Also, rotating his crops to allow the cows grazing on the fallow fields would greatly increase soil fertility. The calves could provide meat, and one or two male calves could be castrated for oxen, which would replace the farmer’s need for a tractor and expensive polluting fuel. Slaughtering the cattle would also provide the farmer with leather for clothing.

Finally, the addition of a few pigs, fed on household scraps and the gleanings from harvested fields would provide even more food and fertilizer. What’s more, using animal waste produced on the farm to create methane for cooking and running machinery would further reduce the farmer’s costs both in energy bills and fertilizer.

This is not an exhaustive list of the animals a farmer might choose to raise on such a farm. He could have a few goats or sheep, and get milk, meat, wool, and leather in the process. If he grows rice, he can have fish and crustaceans in the paddies. He can also choose to use the meat of some of the pests (up to and including insects, as is the case in many non-western cultures) that are attracted to his crops, rather than poisoning them, or sterilizing them as suggested in Animal Liberation.[4]

Veganism and Cultural Imperialism

Now, there are many places in the world where farms like this exist, mainly in developing countries and isolated rural areas that fall off the map in our increasingly metropolitan world.

And therein lies the second problem with veganism. Despite all of its best intentions, veganism is very much a product of the industrialized urban world complete with meta-narratives of Progress and Consumerism. When Peter Singer discusses farming in Animal Liberation his discourse very nearly rejects the existence of farms like those discussed above. Singer focuses almost entirely on factory farms, both because they obviously provide a more visceral backdrop to his arguments, but also because as a product of an industrialized urban society, that is the kind of farming that he is familiar with and sees as normal. While he points out that that factory farming is a relatively recent invention, he conveniently glosses over that in many if not most parts of the world agriculture still resembles the example above. Singer portrays the idyllic family farm as a mythology, something lost to the past. This betrays a wealth of assumptions and prejudices about the world especially when paired with phrases like “simple country folk”[5] implying intellectual superiority on behalf of the enlighten vegan. Factory farming of animals is taken as a given, an unchangeable aspect of speciesism, just as mechanization is seen as standard. After all, why would a farmer use oxen, horses, or mules to till his land when there are perfectly good tractors to be had? The answer is that very many people could never afford a tractor, let alone the fuel to run it. Dr. Fox explains:

Even if, and hopefully when, we see the end of all factory farms and of an agricultural system in the US that uses some seventy percent of the good land to raise feed primarily for livestock, farm animals -- or some other wild herbivorous species, such as buffalo -- will be needed for the nutrient cycling of grasslands and of crop residues in many ecological farming systems. So-called ''green manure,' where certain plants are grown specifically to be mulched as fertilizer as an alternative to animal manure or chemical fertilizers, cannot be produced in sufficient quantity in arid farming and rangeland areas. Also chickens, ducks, geese, sheep and goats play an important role in insect and weed control in organic orchards, vineyards and other ecologically diverse and integrated farming systems.

Without the draught-power provided by oxen and other animals like water buffalo, third world people would have great difficulty cultivating the land. Peasant farmers cannot afford tractors, which are environmentally and ecologically less acceptable anyway. And without the dried manure from their animals, these peoples would have insufficient fuel to cook their food and boil drinking water, especially in arid and deforested areas. Livestock provide the main, if not the only, financial buffer against famine for the poor when their own crops fail, because they can trade their animals for basic staples such as cassava and grains, or they can kill and eat them.[6]

While Dr. Fox’s “deep veganism” can see the necessity and utility behind animals on farms, the shallow dogmatic vegan view does not take this into account.

The same could be said for food culture. As has oft-times been noted, the last vestige of an immigrant’s culture to fade is their food. They may lose their native language, religion, or clothing, but food culture stays. But food culture is not as important to the vegan movement as food politics. I have lost track of how often I’ve heard vegans say something along the lines of “people have to learn that a meal doesn’t have to include meat”. While that may be true to a person who is raised in a culture without strong food traditions, if one replaces “meat” in the previous statement with the word “rice” and then proclaims this to a gathering of South East Asians, you would be considered culpably culturally insensitive. Likewise, like many raised in a community of “simple country folk” I never had any questions as to where and from what the meat I ate came from, no matter the Anglophonic semantics that in Singer’s view serve to “conceal its origins”[7], and find it slightly insulting that he assumes this would cause me to abhor the food of my childhood. As Peter Gelderloos puts it in “Veganism is a Consumer Activity”:

For all these reasons, vegans can come off as particularly insulting and racially exclusive when they insist that a vegan diet is healthier for everyone (not true, some people are healthier when they eat some meat) or when they propagate the peculiar mathematical view of food that a vegan meal, as a lowest common denominator, is the only dietary option that is inclusive to everyone.

It is also worth noting that the emphasis placed on health by the vegan movement is itself a very western construct. In the affluent west, where starvation and malnutrition seem all but nonexistent, and where obesity and other dietary disorders are rampant, it makes sense that vegans try to sell their ethos on the grounds that it is healthier. But in many places around the globe, where the most pressing concern is simply getting enough to eat, this focus on healthy eating (more often than not defined as being thin) seems insensitive at best, and downright racist at worst.

But it is when shallow veganism is applied to cultures far removed from the industrial world, in places like the steppes of Mongolia, the taiga of northern Eurasia, the Artic, or any small island in the midst of vast oceans that its true potential for cultural imperialism, or what Paul Driessen has taken to calling eco-imperialism, the “forceful imposition of Western environmental values”[8] on indigenous peoples and developing nations, really comes to light.

For example, the vast Eurasian taiga provides little in the way of plant-based foods, and its poor soil and short growing season make agriculture immensely difficult. What’s more, for any large-scale agriculture to take place vast areas of forest would likely be cleared, which can hardly be good for the global environment.

The Sámi and related peoples, living a semi-nomadic lifestyle herding domesticated reindeer have managed to survive in this harsh landscape for centuries, inflicting little in the way of environmental damage in the process. Shallow veganism demands that in order for these people to live moral lives, they must give up this ecologically sound lifestyle, along with all the cultural knowledge and practice tied to reindeer, and instead feed themselves on soy, grains, vegetables, and fruit, not to mention cloth themselves in petroleum based artificial fabrics likely imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away. So in order to free the reindeer from the supposed Sámi cruelty it becomes necessary to disrupt, displace, and likely destroy a culture that has managed to do an admirable job avoiding the sort of environmental damage that the industrialized world is guilty of.

What then of the Sámi, the Inuit, Polynesians, Mongolians, etc? Most they rely on imported food stuffs and give up millennia of cultural traditions to live moral lives? What will they trade for these goods? Will they simply leave their homelands behind (perhaps as eco-resorts for wealthy vegans) and join the masses of humanity already punching the clock in the bulging megalopolises of the world?

Protecting Animals to Death

Speaking of environmental damage, another instance where the good intentions of the Liberationist movement run up against the complexity of the world has to do with invasive species. Very often when a non-native species is introduced to an existing ecosystem, the invasive species can do a great deal of lasting damage. One need only think of the plagues of rabbits and mice in Australia, or the damage done to New Zealand’s bird population after the introduction of the brown rat to realize the terrible damage exotic species can do. Yet, because Liberationists view each individual animal as having the right to live and not suffer (at least not at human hands), campaigns to eradicate feral and exotic animal populations are often met with howls of disapproval, if not sabotage. The only vegan-friendly options then become either the humane capture and separation of the invasive species (a highly expensive and inefficient option,), or the application of some form of sterilizing agent which would be slow, expensive, and likely unsuccessful, and would ironically require a great deal of animal testing to develop. What’s more the practice of liberating non-native species or even unnaturally large numbers of native species into an ecosystem can do immense harm. Such short-sighted actions can often lead the liberationist who just freed 400 mink from a fur farm to wonder where all the songbirds and trout have gone. This conflict between the health of entire ecosystems and the well-being of a particular population of animals, or even individual animals is one that the Liberationist movement must solve. As an article on The Wildlife Society Blog so succinctly put it:

One can perhaps understand concern for the fate of individual non-native animals expressed by animal rights advocates who oppose such control programs. However, such opposition further demonstrates the inherent differences between animal rights and conservation philosophy. Animal rights philosophy gives equal moral status to individuals of both common and rare species and native and non-native species, while the goal of conservation is to conserve populations of threatened or endangered native species, even if it means the lethal control of common or invasive species.

Focused solely on the “rights” of individual animals, animal rights philosophy does not take into account the intricate interdependencies between species in functioning ecological systems. This is a fundamental difference, which makes animal rights and conservation largely incompatible. Animal rights advocates also suggest that nature will take care of itself if we just simply “let it be”, when, in reality, humans have already altered the landscape so much that such laissez faire attitudes can only be described as “benign neglect.” In a world dominated by human influences, wildlife must be managed if it is to survive.

Capitalizing on Good Intentions

As Peter Gelderloos points out it is unlikely that simply boycotting meat will ever lead to the abolition of factory farming. As Gelderloos puts it “The crux of the matter is, veganism is a consumer activity. It is ultimately an attempt to change capitalism and human civilization through the exercise of one’s privileges as a consumer. This is an impossible approach.” Addressing the effectiveness of vegans boycotting meat to truly change the system of factory farming, Gelderloos states that:

I know of no general, unlimited boycott, in the long history of the boycott tactic, that has been able to eliminate an entire industry at the magnitude we’re talking about, nor do I know of any partial victories that suggest it may be possible with improved efforts. Targeted boycotts can be effective, especially when backed by sabotage actions, but when the boycott is not levied against a specific target—a product or company, but against an entire industry and huge class of goods, it simply cannot work. [9]

One could say that veganism, in boycotting the meat produced by industrialized capitalism, is much like the passenger in a car, boycotting the air conditioning because it is wasteful. While as a matter of personal conscience such a boycott is understandable, it fails to address the larger issues.

In Dogma We Trust

This brings me to my final criticism of veganism. While it may work as a personal belief system, in institutional settings it can become dogmatic and authoritarian, becoming in effect a religion as opposed to spirituality. Going back to Gelderloos :

Veganism dismisses personal and emotional considerations by declaring what is acceptable for everyone. This is a religious characteristic. Secondly, veganism takes moral prohibitions that are not logical within nature but only within a specific historical context and universalizes and mystifies them. Thirdly, veganism is missionary.

Or as Fox states:

The ethics of vegetarianism that some people embrace seem to go beyond biological and ecological reality, incorporating the mythic vision of the Peaceable Kingdom where the calf and the lion and the wolf and the lamb lie down together. In this vision, both lion and wolf are implicitly vegetarian. ... A 'deep' vegetarian would not impose his or her values or judgment on other species or cultures without first being biologically informed, and understanding the complex interdependencies in human-nonhuman animal relationships in other cultures and economies… From a deep bioethical perspective, a call for global vegetarianism may do more harm than good to people, animals, and Nature. It is not a panacea for all cultures and contexts.

My personal take on veganism in particular and much of the animal rights movement in general is that not only is it impractical, it is burdened with an internal logic that furthers many of the ills it seeks to cure. It all has to do with what William Cronon in the introduction to Uncommon Ground calls our “profoundly human construction” of nature. The vegan vision of “nature”, or at least of the animal portion of said nature, is an Edenic one, or as Fox puts it, a “Peaceable Kingdom”. It is a world where human interaction with the animal world is seen as detrimental not only to the lives of the animals, but to the moral standing of humans as well. It is part of what I call the hands-off ethos wherein humanity seeks to save the non-human world from ourselves by further separating ourselves from it. It’s the kind of thinking that leads people to protest berry-picking and mushroom hunting, fishing and game hunting in national parks on the grounds that such activities are “spoiling nature” because “we can get that stuff at a supermarket”.[10]

Yet there is a contradiction there as well, as the rights, a profoundly human concept, that vegans seek to grant (or simply recognize) in nonhuman animals in effect domesticates or at least humanizes them all. This from a movement that places the blame for animal cruelty on speciesism, on looking at animals solely in light of what use humans may take from them. It’s a bit like saying one is against racism or cultural imperialism, and then working to make sure minority groups conform to the standards of the ruling class. It seems to me that at the very least, the vegan view point still views animals in light of what is to be gained from them, but that gain is no longer material, but spiritual and political.

And because it is a spiritual and political activity, it can be taken to ridiculous extremes. As Fox points out, and I myself have witnessed, there are those who go so far as to force vegan diets on their carnivorous pets, despite the patent illogic of such a move. What’s more many self-described vegans keep pets, which according to the commandments of the movement is a form of animal servitude and ownership. Now, I have no qualms with pet ownership, after all the two most common companion animals (dogs and cats) have been in a symbiotic relationship with humanity since the late stone ages, but a biological omnivore that forces a carnivorous species to eat an herbivore’s diet should really take a moment to consider his or her actions.

Gelderloos points out another contraction in the vegan ethos when he brings up the “embarrassing heresy of freeganism[11]”. If the vegan ethos is truly concerned with the well-being of animals, then it must be concerned with the well-being of humans as well. We are after all nothing more than relatively hairless apes. But far from making an exception for the use of animal products that would otherwise be thrown away and left to rot, many vegans not only shun such products themselves, but attempt to keep others from them. I am reminded of a time back in 1998 when I helped gather dumpstered food for a chapter of Food Not Bombs (an organization that hands out free food, usually exclusively vegan) in the Olympia area in Washington State. On finding a dumpster full of still-chilled milk only a few hours past its sell-by date, I suggested we use it to make soup, or cheese. The flabbergasted response I received from a fellow dumpster-diver was to the effect that she would “rather see people hungry than drinking the puss-filled products of slavery”, at which point she began to punch holes in the milk jugs.

Finally, it worth noting the oddly self-defeating tendency of many vegans to also belong to organizations or espouse ideals whose stated aims would have the practical effect of making veganism a much more difficult proposition. Opposition to world-trade/globalism would be one such ideal. Without global trade in many food products, in particular soy, rice, and fruit, many areas of the world would not be able to support a healthy vegan diet. Likewise, the demands made by both the Deep Ecology movement and the Social Ecology Movement for “decentralization, small-scale economies, local autonomy, mutual aid, communalism, and tolerance”[12] run afoul of the vegan ethos, at least the shallow one.

Global trade in vegan-friendly products is only possible within a centralized and global trade network, one made up of large economies. Likewise, local autonomy demands that localities be able to meet their needs at the local level, and as discussed before, this often precludes veganism. Finally, the call for mutual aid and tolerance is tricky, given that the vegan ethos demands that one not support any use of non-vegan products, or those who use them.

Local Omnivorism versus Global Veganism

I am an unapologetic omnivore, but not an unethical one. I try to eat local, which currently means products produced in Iceland. I try not to eat factory-farmed meat or eggs, and instead choose to pay a bit extra for free-range eggs and poultry, when I can’t get eggs direct from friends in the countryside. I try to include wild foods in my diet, berries, mushrooms, self-caught fish, and what little in the way of wild greens are on offer.

I try to dress local too, as much as it is possible, making use of Icelandic wool and leather, which I see as a far more sustainable option than petroleum based fleece or imported cotton.

The Local Food movement is in many ways an answer to many of the problems facing the world today, including some of those central to the vegan argument. Small-scale local farming not only encourages free-range techniques, but has the added benefit of increasing diversity in crops and livestock, as instead of being raised on a massive scale whereby it behooves the farmer to alter the environment to suit his crop, the small-scale farmer has to tailor his crops, herds, and flocks to the environment. Likewise, local production for local use brings people in closer contact with the food they eat and the manner in which it is produced. Much of the cruelty that occurs in factory farms, or research labs for that matter, happens because it is out of public sight. With no one to hold the farmers/researchers accountable, they begin to loose sight of just how cruel their actions are. Likewise, to know where one’s food comes from is to reconnect on a very basic level with the land and environment where one lives, an important step in narrowing the man/nature divide.

Finally, the local movement, far from imposing one over-riding standard in diet, dress, and production, encourages not only a diversity of products, technologies, and lifestyles, but a diversity of cultures as well.

If the Liberationist movement and veganism in particular are paving the road to Limboville, then Localism (if I can be so bold to capitalize the term) presents us with another option: We stop paving roads and just stay home.


1. Pratchet, Terry and Neil Gaiman. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes T. Nutter, Witch. New York: Workman Pub, 1990

2. Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. London: PILMCO/Random House, 1995

3. Fox, Dr. Michael W. “Deep and Shallow Vegetarianism and Animal Rights” http://tedeboy.tripod.com/drmichaelwfox/id17.html 20.03.2009

4. Gelderloos, Peter. “Veganism is a Consumer Activity”. http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20080604153638368 19.02.2009

5. Wikipedia. “Eco-Imperialism”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eco-imperialism 10.03.2009

6. Hutchins, Michael. “Removal of Invasive Species Results in Santa Cruz Island Restoration”. http://wildlifeprofessional.org/blog/?cat=19 04.01.2009

7. Cronon, William (ed). Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 1996

8. Bootchin, Murray. “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology”, Socialist Review 88 (1988):11-29. Reprinted in Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[1] And not as they claim with frozen door-to-door salesmen.

[2] It bears pointing out that the cause of world hunger is debatable, with some placing the blame on scarcity, others on unequal distribution, and others on wastefulness, racism, capitalism, etc.

[3] Singer, pg 165

[4] Singer, pg. 223

[5] Singer, pg. 97

[6] Fox, Dr. Michael W. “Deep and Shallow Vegetarianism and Animal Rights”

[7] Singer, pg. 93: The fact that English often has separate words for an animal and for the flesh of that animal can be traced back to the Norman Invasion, when the ruling class (and hence the class that did most of the eating) spoke French while the ruled raised the animals. This is not the case in many, if not most languages, which says something about the cultural baggage Singer unwittingly carries. What’s more, Singer brushes over English’s single word scheme when it comes to the meat of birds, most game, and fish.

[8] Wikipedia: “Eco-Imperialism”

[10] I am paraphrasing an argument here that I had when a mentor of mine and I went mushroom hunting in Itsup National Park during my teens. The hiker who accosted us accused my mentor, a lifelong wilderness buff and environmentalist of “damaging priceless nature just to save a few bucks on mushrooms”.

[11] Defined as “only eating animal products if they are stolen or dumpstered”.

[12] Bootchin, Murray. “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology”