“Oh god, being vegetarian is one thing, but veganism is… so extreme!”
A while back I wrote an article called “Vegetarianism and me” which some of you read.
As the title of this post suggests, things have moved on for me, and this is mostly attributable to learning truths which are – I freely admit – highly inconvenient.
I want us to get Socratic in this post, so that we can question assumptions and premises. I invite you, the reader, to question the assumptions you may hold and look as objectively as possible on what we, as a society, believe; and how much that is down to our being told to believe it, rather than any rational decision on our own part.
The first is the current assumption that being a vegan is somehow bad, or at least unhinged and weird. Like any good rationalist, we have to question the premises of this conclusion, and that’s one of the things I’m aiming to do here.
I was certainly brought up with the unwritten supposition that vegans are at best hippy freaks if not unhinged maniacs, but in our allegedly free society, apparent rational thinking can often have hidden layers. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened, the information age, informed and advanced from the racist, sexist ignorance of the previous generations.
I understand the knee-jerk reaction against vegans – they have the gall to question a practice which society says us is OK. It’s hard to go against something which society says is OK, it takes honesty, and true honesty is rare. What’s more, it takes a willingness to face uncomfortable realities, which is rarer still. In the midst of all this you have the vegans, who have little choice but to see meat/dairy consumers as people without compassion, especially when they laugh about and even celebrate the suffering of our fellow beings. This is why the vegans get so emotional – they don’t understand why they even need to say the things they say, to them it should be a no-brainer and it’s difficult for them to truly come to grips with just how unquestioned and all pervasive the consumption of animal products is. When a meat-eater sees a sausage, they see a sausage. When a vegan sees the same thing they see a world of suffering. This goes some way to explain why the vegans appear so emotionally affected, seemingly over nothing in the eyes of others.
I have to live constantly with this cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I have to believe that my friends are not evil, not cackling maniacs, but on the other the effective funding of cruelty to animals doesn’t seem to bother them, and is almost a joke at times. But I used to eat meat and until very recently, dairy too. So was I evil then? No – just ignorant and unwilling to face the truth. Or, was it simply the fact that I hadn’t really thought about it, coupled with a defaulting acceptance of the status quo and a drifting with the dictates of society?
My contention is this:
If you are a person of any intelligence, a person who still has their compassion intact, despite the best efforts of our culture, and a person who – and this is the key ingredient – is willing to honestly face the truth head on, no matter how hideous it may be, your path to veganism is inevitable and will seem as obvious as your objection to slavery or your abhorrence of genocide.
The structure of our society is built on conceptual beliefs about separation. With each generation this becomes more and more the case, with the gradual separation of communities we become strangers to our neighbours, our clothes are made by anonymous people thousands of miles away, our food is grown in unknown nameless lands along – of course – with our animal products (note the use of this term ‘animal product’ for later). Packaged, sterile and free from the grisly reality of their origins. We get through this with a combination of ignorance, willful ignorance and linguistic deception. We call our non-human sentient beings “animals”, and with that neat label create an additional psychological distance in which anything goes, and indeed, everything does. The origins of this demonstrably false separation between “man and nature” are so basal to our civilisation that to even question it seems itself questionable – this belief is thousands of years old, and pulling this ideological rug from under our feet is no easy task.
In order to follow me on this journey, you need only accept one premise – human beings are themselves animals, unequivocally and demonstrably. Anatomically, genetically and evolutionarily. Homo sapiens from the genus hominidae, the suborder haplorhini, the class mammalia and the phylum chordata.
Fact accepted? Then we may begin…
The Dairy Industry
In my previous post I admitted my own ignorance about the business of extracting milk from cows. I also admitted my ignorance (though vague awareness of) the environmental consequences of meat eating. I want to look at both in this post.
I want to appeal once again to your questioning minds, so come with me on a thought experiment and imagine if the following were reality:
Imagine we are on a parallel earth, an alternative existence. There is a place, in a faraway country that has nothing to do with you. In this place there is an organisation which breeds human women and artificially inseminates them by force so that they produce milk for their babies. When the baby is born to her mother – and in spite of the strong bond of mother to infant – the baby is taken from the mother, locked in a box for a few days and then killed. The mother mourns, pines and weeps. The mother’s milk is extracted on a large steel rack with scores of other mourning mothers. As soon as possible (sooner than naturally intended, with the use of artificial hormones), she’s forcibly impregnated once again. A second baby arrives and suffers the same fate as the first. More mourning, more weeping, more pain, more violation. The process is repeated as often and efficiently as possible. The more she’s impregnated, the more money to be made. Although a woman’s natural life span may be 80 years, this particular woman will not make it past 25. After a short lifetime of misery, she’s so mentally and emotionally exhausted that she just can’t carry on, and her body gives up. She is killed off so that another woman may take her place, and the whole cycle begins again.
I hope we can agree that such a theoretical system is bad. So my question to you is: why is it bad? I’ll leave you to figure out your answer while I present mine (they may be different). With me, the reason it’s bad is the suffering. It’s the suffering for all concerned. It’s the grieving and pain of the mother, the pain for the child, and the violation of her evolutionarily endowed expectation for freedom, the pain of such an existence, the wrenching away of her bonding, the fate of the poor baby, the grief. The inhumanity, the causing of pain for profit. It’s the monetization of life itself. I know mothers, I know babies, I can feel the terror of this situation and that is how I know it’s bad. I can imagine it happening to those around me and therefore I can imagine it happening to anyone with the capacity to feel these things. I can feel the pain. It’s basic empathy. It’s empathy which has evolved in me, and in you.
The mother feels grief and misery because she has evolved to have a strong nurturing bond with her infant, as all mammals have. She feels the pain of being repeatedly impregnated beyond her natural capacity because her central nervous system has evolved to express itself in natural cycles in harmony with the earth – her home – and when these cycles are violated, suffering occurs.
Who would accept this treatment of human animals. Who would allow this? Who would tolerate this? Who would fund this? Who would – even – support this as normal? The answer is we all would – if it were the norm. How do I know? Because we in fact do support this today.
So, what if we simply exchange the mammal Homo Sapiens with another mammal Bos Taurus, the bovine we commonly call cow? Suddenly, this no longer seems wrong. Ask yourself why? It’s because we’re now dealing not with “humans”, but with “animals”. Yet everything we know about evolution, everything we know about mammalian bonding tells us that the suffering that a female human would undergo being repeatedly impregnated and having her infant baby taken from her derives not from some special bond unique to humans, but a bond common to all mammals who carry and care for their young. Just as the human female in our thought experiment would grieve and cry out for her baby, so do dairy cows, who have been known to bellow for days or weeks in grief. So, the question again: why – on any legitimate level – is this immoral for one set of mammals, but moral for another, despite the demonstrable fact that both are suffering from a violation of the same source, that is, the mammalian maternal bond?
If you think that the plight of human mothers and cow mothers is not comparable, I ask you to look again at the reasons for this suffering. Do human females not cry out in agony when their babies are taken away and killed? Do cows not do the same? Yes they do, as would any mammal who has that bond destroyed.
This is a question I had to grapple with and in the end I had to come to this conclusion – I don’t want to be part of this outrage, I don’t want to fund and condone this suffering, I certainly don’t want to support it, and so I won’t. What is more, what happens to the young yet exhausted cows who can go on no more? They are – of course – butchered for meat. That’s her reward for a short life of grief so that humans can drink cows milk (by the way, name one other animal that drinks the milk of another…). So really, the dairy industry is, eventually, the meat industry.
The Meat Industry
Here’s a question: what was so bad about the holocaust of the Jewish people in the 1940s? (If your mind spurts out in protest “I can’t believe he’s making this comparison” then let it spurt, and continue reading.) Seriously, ask yourself the question.
Here’s my answer. For me, it’s the pain, the suffering, the loss of dignity, the inhumanity, the brutality, the sheer scale of the slaughter which derives from this conceptual separation and ideology: man vs rat, ubermensch vs. jew. Six million sentient lives snuffed out with remarkable and agonising efficiency (I could have chosen any other genocide – the many perpetrated by the Soviet Union, or Cambodia, or in South America or Africa in the last several decades, but here in the UK we’ve all seen the footage – this particular atrocity is very present in our cultural consciousness).
At the current rate we are slaughtering fellow sentient beings who – in the large part – live and die in nothing short of a living nightmare at a rate of ten million PER HOUR. More than a holocaust every hour! It’s true that not all animals are treated as badly (more on that later), but with the exponentially increasing market demand the vast, vast majority are and it’s justified by the same mentality of division. The reason why the Nazis were psychologically able to do what they did was because they were not killing human beings – they were killing Jews.
In the same way, we are not killing 10 million living, feeling beings per hour. We are killing 10 million animals, and with the veil of that semantic mirage, everything becomes OK. And so we arrive at the label: animal product. It is disturbingly Orwellian in its deception. It combines the conceptual divide between “humans” and “animals” with the telltale tag of a capitalist system where money reigns supreme, above all other concerns: “product”. It’s the ultimate label of objectification and dehumanisation, the very linguistics of slavery: you’re not “enslaving a human being”, you’re just “buying a product”.
But, I hear you object, “what if we could make all farms in the world humane? I only buy my meat from humane sources. If all the world bought meat like mine, it would all be fine.”
First, I ask you again to reexamine the definition of humane. I recommend actually reading the RSPCA guidelines. For example, the “lying area” for a fully mature sow is 1.5m2. The allocated total living area (sleeping and moving) for a growing, 110kg pig is 0.8m2. That’s it. I invite you to measure out that area on the floor and have a walk around, if you can. And that’s the line from no less than the RSPCA of the United Kingdom, whose proud citizens often boast the highest welfare standards in the world. But I don’t blame the organisation for this – the fact is that the demand for meat is so huge that such institutions have the impossible task of trying to meet the overwhelming demands humanely, which simply cannot be done.
In fact, if you could conceive of the most perfectly humane farm ever and apply it to the entire world, everything would be far, far worse. And this brings me to the environment.
I mentioned in the vegetarian blog post that I had some vague understanding that our livestock agricultural practices were bad for the environment. Boy was I off the mark. Hoooollyyyyy cow! I didn’t look into it because I didn’t want to be distracted from the barbarism of our farming practices, which I thought was reason enough (and I still do). It’s another example of misguided priorities when people talk about “the environment” as an issue. The environment is unique as far as issues go, because if there is no more environment, there are no more issues. We need to stop calling it “the environment” and say what it is: our lives. So, if you’re concerned about the destruction of your “environment”, here are some facts for you:
Worried about global warming?
Concerned about the loss of rainforest, the lungs of the earth?
Concerned about water usage?
Concerned about feeding the world?
We are currently growing enough food to feed 10 billion people. But half of it goes to feeding animals.
Concerned about starving children in Africa?
Concerned about species extinction?
65 million years ago, the dinosaurs – along with many other species – were wiped out by a meteorite causing a huge mass extinction. The earth has never again seen anything like it, until right here, right now. The cause?
So, if you’re the kind of person who recycles, who tries to cut down on water usage, who puts a brick in your cistern, who cycles instead of drives, who puts your food waste into compost, who tries to reduce your carbon footprint, who refills your own water bottle instead of using a plastic cup, but at the same time eats meat… well, I’m afraid I have news for you:
You cannot be an environmentalist and at the same time a meat-eater. The two are utterly incompatible.
The number one cause of the destruction of the environment is animal agriculture. You see, consuming animal products is not a personal choice. It’s not like getting a tattoo or listening to Creed. It affects everyone. It causes untold suffering and what is more it affects all of us because it is environmentally catastrophic. If we could give all our animals a “Good Life” style existence (which we can’t because there’s not enough viable land) it would be so devastatingly destructive to the environment that it would put our current obliteration into stark contrast, and – as it is – our destruction right now is devastating enough. I was going to put this more delicately but this message is far more urgent. I’m standing on a rooftop with a megaphone and this is what I’m yelling:
WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ALMIGHTY SHIT-STORM, UPON WHICH OUR VERY FUTURE DEPENDS, AND THE SINGLE GREATEST CAUSE OF THIS SHIT-STORM IS BILLIONS OF PEOPLE WANTING TO EAT MEAT AND NOT REALISING HOW THAT MEAT IS MADE AND WHAT THE OVERWHELMINGLY DEVASTATING IMPACT ON OUR HOME IS.
In my last post I concentrated on the moral aspect of the ongoing non-human animal Holocaust, and I stand by every sentiment. But for those of you reading who say “I only get my meat from nice farms where they treat the animals humanely”, well I say to you, those places are THE WORST for the environment – taking up far more land and far more water. The best way to minimise the environmental impact of farming is to have the most intensive, cruelest system possible. But even this would be disastrous for the environment.
Put simply, it is just not possible to feed 7 billion people this way.
You can easily feed 7 billion people with a vegan diet, and then some. In fact, at the current rate you could feed 10 billion people.
These are the facts. It’s also true that we could reduce the effects of our environmental destruction extremely rapidly and effectively. With a vegan diet we could comfortably feed the world, and the sudden loss of methane (which is 86 times more destructive than CO2, as well as preventing a substantial cause of global warming), the rapid reduction of land use (livestock agriculture covers 45% of the earth’s total land, and it takes 18 times the land space to feed a meat eater than a vegan), the sudden reduction of water use (540 bathtubs of water for 1 kg of beef), and the regeneration of the rain forest (up to 91% of the Amazon destroyed by animal agriculture). In other words, the single greatest practical and actual hope we have is this one action – changing our diets.
Put all this together, and veganism ceases to be unhinged or deranged but rather becomes the exact opposite. In light of the facts the tables turn and it instead the meat and dairy eater who is unhinged, extreme, brutal and self-destructive in a bizarre act of irrational suicide and deluded lunacy. Veganism in contrast to this becomes moderate, sensible, conservative, rational and – in fact – the only practical solution to the greatest problem which has faced mankind since we were nearly wiped out 70 000 years ago. We live in a world where insanity is the norm and sanity is extreme. This is where we have arrived and this is the standard we have been sold in the name of profit.
But old habits die hard, and because of that, so will we.
The single viable argument against this inevitable conclusion (when faced with the facts) is:
But I really like meat! I want to continue eating it!!
I truly, truly accept that you do, and some lab boffins are working on a solution. But also let’s not forget the cry of the slave owners who at the time of the emancipation said:
But I really really like having slaves…. they’re sooooo cheap!!
You see, at each stage of humanity eventually waking up to the reality of the situation, very few at the time were in a position to face the truth because most were kept in the dark, or kept themselves in the dark knowing that the truth would be too unbearable.
The reality of today is not all that different, except for one thing – we have the internet now. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, only willful ignorance is, and is that really an excuse?
To be honest with you, dear reader, I get a little depressed at writing this post, seeing the reality of the situation before my eyes. Denial is surely a tempting reaction, so I can understand the inevitable glazing over in your eyes, as your mind shuts off:
“Oh well… nothing I can do about it… I’ll just get on with my day. Let’s think about something else… ”
It’s because I’m talking about overturning assumptions and traditions which are thousands of years old. These premises are so tightly woven into our culture it’s hard to let go. The world population in 1815 was only 1 billion, in 1915 just 1.2 billion, in 2016 it’s pushing 7.5 billion people. We’re multiplying faster than our ideas can keep up. In order to survive we must consciously and constantly reevaluate our assumptions, traditions and ideas to keep them in line with the reality we face.
It’s scary to confront this reality, it really is, because as soon as you turn and face the facts, you realise that you’re not only complicit in it, but an active contributor, a member of this lunatic mainstream. Then you have to square that awful circle as the illusory wall dissolves
“I’m a good person, yet I’m directly causing the suffering and death of 10 million sentient beings an hour, a mass extinction unprecedented in 65 million years and the visible and measurable destruction of our environment, aka, our home.”
Once you realise that it is – in fact – suicide on a global scale, it’s so much easier to fall into denial. And I don’t judge anyone for it. I’m sure my friends are good people, but the blue pill is an easy pill to swallow – not so with the red. This is why I say it takes courage to face the truth. We’re undermining a practice which is thousands of years old. But the meat industry a century ago is nothing like today. Our dietary habits are nothing like they were century ago. The production methods and the demands have spurred each other on, in a kind of insane arms race, to absolute breaking point. Technology has increased far more rapidly than culture is able to keep up. In order for culture to catch up, we must face the truth, no matter how painful, no matter how uncomfortable. I urge you to do so.
But those of us willing to face the truth are against insurmountable odds. The indoctrination runs so deep that it is near impossible to penetrate. No amount of evidence, no amount of reason, no amount of sanity seems sufficient to break the spell. Like talking to a creationist, reason and facts fall on deaf ears. The mere question: “why are you a vegan?” illustrates this. It can be rephrased thus: “why are you opposed to cruelty, why are you opposed to suffering, why are you opposed to torture, why are you opposed to the catastrophic destruction of your own home?” Only an indoctrination as deep and all-encompassing as the animal product industry could possibly sustain this level of denial and cognitive dissonance in the face of absolutely overwhelming evidence, reason and – dare I say the word – truth.
The truth hurts, no doubt. The question is:
Can you handle the truth?
Please begin with this documentary, Earthlings (2005). If you will not, or cannot, watch it, ask yourself why. Is it because it’s unpleasant to watch, or because it reveals the direct link between this suffering and your choices?
An easy documentary to follow, but not so easy to swallow, is Cowspiracy, which reveals the extent of the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture.
There are a few things I didn’t include in this post because I didn’t want to get sidetracked. I’ll provide these in the form of a Q&A. N.b. all these are genuine questions/comments which have been presented to me by real intelligent grown-ups with proper jobs.
Q: What about health?
A: Good question – I didn’t include health in this post, because I thought I’d included enough, and it’s another place to get sidetracked. While it’s true that the over-consumption of meat can have a very negative impact on your health, and we are in the middle of a public health crisis via the standardised overuse of antibiotics on almost all meat products, what you do and what risks you put to your health are your business. I stand by anyone’s right to eat themselves into an early grave. From this perspective it’s a personal choice. Of course, as I discuss in this post, the consumption of animal products isn’t a personal choice, because it negatively affects so many animals (both human and non-human) around the world – harming both them and their environment. There are also many claims about the link between meat eating and cancer, though I make no claim about it. There is a documentary called Forks over Knives, though I’ve not seen it myself.
Q: Where do you draw the line – would you eat a mollusk that has little more feeling than a carrot?
A: You’d be surprised how many people think this is a serious question. I don’t eat mollusks but equally I don’t know about their sensory experience. But I don’t need to know. I do – however – know that mammals and birds with highly developed central nervous systems feel pain and suffering for the same reason that we do. They have a central nervous system and can feel. Maybe carrots suffer when we cut them. I don’t know. I’ve no reason to think so. Hang on, how have I been derailed into this ridiculous territory?
Q: But animals eat each other in the wild. So isn’t it natural?
A: The question is not whether animals eat each other – the question is, do animals lock each other up for their entire lives, abuse each other, torture each other, violate each other’s freedom and mass produce each other as a product at a rate of 10 million per hour?
Q: Where do you get your protein?
A: Beans, nuts, green vegetables, root vegetables, lentils, soy, oats, seeds, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, etc. etc.
Q: Would you kill and eat an animal if you were starving?
A: Yes. But I’m not, and neither are you.
Q: Watching a film like Earthlings and then not eating meat is like watching footage of childbirth and being put off having children.
A: I really have been told this. Really! Childbirth, bringer of life, the ultimate act of love, the beginnings of a family and the love parents have for their children is seriously being compared to the wholesale holocaust, abuse, slaughter and terror inflicted on 10 million feeling beings per hour, who have their testicles, beaks, tails hacked off in a grizzly steel factory, who are forced to live out their lives trapped in a pen no larger than their body. Who have their young snatched away from them and their milk stolen and sold. (I’m not making this up, I’ve really had this comparison as a serious objection to my views!)
Q: It’s not that I want to be involved in this suffering, it’s just that I have other things to worry about – Brexit, the treatment of refugees, the suffering of old people, suppression and abuse of minorities, women and homosexuals around the world, starving children everywhere.
A: Yes, but do you fund everything else that worries you? Do you support it with your money? Do you supply that demand? As for starving children everywhere, this is partly the case because we’re giving all their food to animals so we can eat them.
Q: I eat meat, but I’m still an animal-lover.
A: Then you’re not really an animal lover, or you haven’t looked into the sources of your meat.
Q: The problem is that vegans are so self-righteous! It’s my choice to eat meat, and you have to respect that.
A: I admit, there are some deluded vegans out there. But, if you expect vegans to be quiet on this issue, think again. We all speak out against environmental destruction, abuse, war, corruption, sexism, racism, rape, torture and everything else because they are nasty, and we don’t support the “rights” of the perpetrators to do these things. In short, I support your right to swing your arm only up until the point you hit someone in the face. And as a meat and diary eater, you hit a lot of faces, including mine, your own and the faces of all our children.
I myself have been called “militaristic” and “zealous”… as if being strongly opposed to torture and cruelty is a bad thing!
Q: What about fish?
A: I didn’t get onto the wholesale destruction of our marine life via over-fishing, because I thought I had included enough. This may well be the content of another post!