Monthly Archives: February 2012

Creative, Non-Violent Vegan Advocacy (A Beginner’s Guide)

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published January 31, 2012 on Care2.

During the past few years, the call to reduce our consumption of animal products has grown tremendously. There is a great deal of diversity amongst the individuals and organizations behind this appeal, as well as in the reasons and benefits they point to, and most of them are not vegan. However, there is one thing they have in common, and that is that they are all making it easier for people to be vegan for life. Indeed, the movement away from animal use is shaping up to possibly be the most significant social phenomenon of the 21st century.

Vegan recipe blogs, which illustrate innovative techniques for preparing a huge range of delicious, satisfying meals and treats, have proliferated into the hundreds, if not thousands. Both the number and the variety of vegan food items are increasing annually in restaurants and supermarkets.  New vegan businesses are opening every year, and thriving more than ever, including cafes, bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, clothing and apparel stores, online boutiques, and even retreat centers and B&Bs.

Professional dietitians, in increasing numbers, are helping to guide consumers through the sea of books, blogs, articles and DVDs to learn how to achieve vibrant health on naturally wholesome vegan diets, as well as making it easier than ever to avoid the poor nutritional choices that frequently result in the “ex-vegan” phenomenon.

Note: Some may be surprised to find this out, but it is becoming more and more well-known that all nutrients required by the human body can be obtained from non-animal sources, including plenty of protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and fatty acids such as Omega and DHA oils. If there were any nutritional deficiencies in well-planned vegan diets, the mainstream American Dietetic Association, American Medical Association, and similar science-based organizations would be broadcasting them far and wide.

For those of us who are committed to ethical veganism, it is essential to derive all our nutrients from non-animal  sources. Although there are those who claim to have experienced nutritional deficiencies caused by a plant-based diet, it seems ever more likely – in light of the information we now have access to – that these individuals may not have been sufficiently informed about vegan whole foods nutrition and the many options for nutritional supplementation, including the huge range of whole-food supplements that are becoming increasingly accessible for all of us in the developed world.

As the devastating environmental effects of animal agriculture become increasingly apparent, environmentalists are speaking out about the industry’s blatant offenses against the global ecosystem, such as deforestation for grazing, the cultivation of vast feed crop monocultures, extremely high emissions of carbon and other warming gases such as methane, the careless squandering of oil, water and other finite natural resources, and the pollution of our air, water and soil – all while this filthy industry is artificially propped up by tens of billions of dollars in government welfare funding.

With the growing popularity of social media, the educational resources shared by dedicated advocates are making it easier for the previously uninformed to bear witness to institutionalized cruelty that is not only perfectly legal, but so horrific that most of us turn away in distress, unwilling to endure with our eyes what innocent others are forced to endure with their bodies.

And a growing number of abolitionist vegans are explaining and demonstrating the simple fact that unless we shift the paradigm to fully include these sentient beings in our moral community by embracing veganism and rejecting the property status of animals, there will be no end to the socially-acceptable barbarism which allows us to treat beings as innocent as our children as economic commodity units.

The Internet, while still dominated by large corporate interests, has comparatively democratized the ability of grassroots advocates to share information. Blogs, forums, and social media sites have opened up communication lines for rational dialogue among everyday people at a rate of growth unprecedented since the invention of the printing press.

In the past, some individuals may have felt tempted or even obligated to tap into the wide reach of large organizations that soak up the majority of the funding available for animal advocacy by appealing to mainstream values with a message promoting animal welfare or vegetarianism. But now, individuals who are genuinely concerned with fundamental issues of animal rights are able to make their voices heard independently.

Given the burgeoning opportunities, advocates can pick and choose what methods and media suit their talents, personalities, preferences, and geographic locations. If you’re a gregarious extrovert in the city or suburbs who loves to chat with people on the street, you might do well setting up tables at festivals or street stalls with cupcakes or finger foods.

If you’re confident about your ability to prepare amazing food, you might enjoy holding a vegan cooking demonstration in your own home or elsewhere, or hosting vegan dinners or potlucks with a suggestion to guests that they bring a friend who’s interested in learning more about veganism.

Or, if you’re an introvert who would rather cross the street than engage with people you don’t know, blogging, vlogging, and social media advocacy would likely be your preferred venue. (Those of us who live in rural areas also usually find it easier and far more effective to use the opportunities offered by the Web for our advocacy.) Not confident in your writing ability? No problem – perhaps you can team up with another advocate who inspires you, and help them to be more productive by doing research or writing outlines that they can polish up into an engaging article for publication. Maybe you’re better at editing than writing; you might be able to find someone who’s in need of assistance with that. Collaboration (with someone whose approach appeals to you) can be a great way to achieve more and reach out further.

Note: There are some activists who insist that face-to-face outreach is somehow superior to online communication. However (in the absence of comprehensive studies), is there any reason to think offline or online advocacy is more effective than the other? It seems that the strengths of online are the weaknesses of offline, and vice versa, but neither seems to be more effective than the alternative.  Offline, face-to-face advocacy can often be more personable and forthcoming than online due to the subtle nature of nonverbal communication (not to mention the unquestionable power that mouth-watering vegan food has over the skeptical consumer harboring imaginary fears of sensory deprivation as a result of eliminating animal products). But online advocacy – which works around the clock, everyday, for all those who understand the language – can reach many more people, oftentimes by a few orders of magnitude.

More important than the venue or media used in advocacy, however, is the quality of the content. Excellent vegan food, a powerful vegan message, and friendliness and charisma will obviously do much better while tabling at a festival than bland or unappealing food, a message of compromise, and mediocrity, aggression or a judgmental attitude. And good photography, terrific vegan recipes, and well-researched, convincing writing will do better online – all other factors being equal – than content of lesser quality.

Finally, quality entails knowing what not to promote. Encouraging the purchase of animal products purported to be produced under ‘ethical’ conditions (free-range, cage-free, humanely-raised, grass-fed, organic, etc.) serves only to reinforce the common, traditional belief that it is morally acceptable to use other animals as resources for human consumption.

The same can be said for the confused and confusing message generated by the promotion of a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which ignores the violence inherent in the production of milk and eggs (not to mention the barbarism involved in the manufacture of other animal-based products including clothing and toiletries), as though these equally brutal industries should somehow be exempt from the moral examination undertaken by those who view meat production to be an intolerable form of injustice.

The fact is that none of us needs any animal products in our lives. We exploit animals and consume the products of their bodies because of pleasure, amusement, convenience, and blind tradition – all trivial reasons to rationalize the brutality of unnecessary exploitation.  Sadly, no matter what we say or how well we say it, the fact is that most people won’t go vegan simply upon hearing our message. However, as vegan advocates, veganism is the message we should exclusively and unequivocally promote.  Anything less – promoting vegetarianism, or the consumption of ‘humane’ animal products – betrays the fundamental truth that brings us to veganism in the first place: the understanding that we must bring an end to all exploitation if we are to move beyond the pandemic of violence that underlies our current cultural paradigm.

It is not unusual for animal advocates to be deeply troubled and frustrated by the state of our society and its hardened attitude toward animals who are not human. But social change, while often slow, is also unpredictable, subject to tipping points, paradigm shifts, and peaceful revolutions in attitudes and behavior. As someone who advocates unequivocally for widespread veganism, don’t forget that you are among the gentle, strong, and independent-minded pioneers of a growing, positive, and peaceful movement to protect our environment, improve public health, and most important, to eventually end the social acceptability of violence and injustice inflicted on the innocent.

With a little effort, courage, creativity, and the willingness to share what we’ve learned with patience, persistence, and understanding, we can all help others to understand the significance of this essential change we are trying to bring to fruition.

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A Matter of Life and Death

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published December 31, 2011 on Care2.

In recent years, the debate about the welfare of animals has centralized around specific cases of egregious suffering, with a strong focus on certain practices and procedures perceived to cause extreme harm, including intensive confinement, bodily mutilations, and physical and psychological torture.

This focus on specific welfare violations has led to an interesting phenomenon: The public’s attention has been sidetracked from the primary issue involved with economic exploitation of sentient beings, which is the commodification of their very lives.

In other words, the current direction of the debate has obscured from view the fundamental question of whether it is unethical, or morally indefensible, to take the life of another sentient being for any reason other than self-defense or compassion toward an individual who is severely suffering from a terminal illness or fatal injury.

This is the reason that the animal industry now markets itself as a stronghold of ‘ethical death and dismemberment‘. In this new territory of animal slavery double-speak, consumers are actually expected to believe the ever-more-frequent and increasingly perverse accounts of ‘happy farming‘; the proliferation of animal exploitation sites where the victims are so content with their circumstances that they happily offer the products of their bodies, then go gladly to their deaths at the side of kindly oppressors whom they trust unconditionally.

But doesn’t this absurd marketing scheme fundamentally betray something that is firmly secured inside each one of us – the knowledge that other animals, just like human animals, care about their lives and don’t want to die?

With the exception (for some people) of the violence of war, and the execution of violent criminals who are deemed to be morally incorrigible, the vast majority of us agree that it is unquestionably wrong to unnecessarily kill a member of our own species (except in genuine instances of euthanasia, which is a highly sensitive issue and remains illegal throughout most of the world).

We consider killing humans to be wrong regardless of the individual’s cognitive abilities, moral capacity, mental health, sex, race, nationality, age or sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter whether the person in question is terminally suffering from dementia, psychologically ill, severely retarded or a productive genius – we believe it to be seriously wrong in all cases. If we consider any given case to be particularly egregious, it is often due to the individual’s vulnerability, not to any mental or moral characteristics he or she may possess.

By stark contrast, the majority of us act as if there is absolutely nothing wrong with unnecessarily killing a member of certain other species of sentient beings. But what rational basis do we have for such a discrepancy in our perception? What quality is found in all and only humans that could possibly point to the conclusion that the lives of other animals are unimportant?

Intelligence or moral capacity as a criterion would make the lives of millions of humans (such as certain individuals suffering from dementia, those who are mentally disabled, and infants) equally expendable. Among human and nonhuman animals, traits such as intelligence and moral capacity exist on an overlapping continuum, making any line-drawing in this regard arbitrary.

But even if there was a distinct cutoff with regard to some criterion such as intelligence or moral capacity, would it matter when it comes to an interest in continued existence and not being killed unnecessarily?  When we stop and think about it, such a distinction wouldn’t matter in the least. This is because, just as eyes are sufficient for an interest in continuing to see, and ears are sufficient for an interest in continuing to hear, so sentience alone – the ability to experience one’s life – is sufficient for an interest in continued existence.

It has been suggested by some that a concept of death, plans for the future, or an interest in some form of ongoing activity is necessary for an interest in continuing to live. But again, if this were the case, as explained above, many humans would not have an interest in continued existence either.

Note: An analogy to a legal contract is helpful to explain why sentience alone, rather than any conception of the future, is the necessary and sufficient criterion.  Legal contracts are often complex and contain unfamiliar terms and meanings to people who are not lawyers.  Suggesting that an individual must conceptually understand the future in order to have an interest in future existence is analogous to suggesting that a party to a contract must conceptually understand a harmful clause in order to be harmed by the clause.  But we know that we can be harmed by clauses in legal contracts that we didn’t understand when signing the contract.  Similarly, it is obvious that sentient nonhumans (just like sentient humans of limited mental capacity) can be harmed by killing even if they don’t have an understanding of their future or their death as an abstract, conceptual matter.

In fact, wouldn’t it be fair to say that untimely death at the hands of another is, with the possible exception of severe torture, the ultimate infliction of harm? Even a quick and genuinely painless death deprives an individual of the chance to experience his or her life, in any capacity, ever again. It stands to reason then, that if we believe animals other than humans ought to be protected from being harmed unnecessarily, they ought to be protected from being killed unnecessarily. Since our society’s reasons for using animals are based on custom and convenience, and are, in fact, all unnecessary, we have no grounds on which to justify the continuation of such archaic and barbaric practices.

It is straightforward to see that if death is harmful to sentient humans, regardless of intelligence or other capacities, then it must also be harmful to sentient nonhumans, regardless of their intelligence or other capacities. When people who consider human lives and deaths to be important are willing to dismiss the importance of the lives and deaths of nonhuman animals, they are making an arbitrary distinction based on a speciesist prejudice, in the same way racists or sexists arbitrarily dismiss the important interests of minority groups or women.

When we make a sincere and honest effort to place ourselves in the position of another sentient being, it is very easy to see why we should respect their lives, regardless of their species or any other characteristics they possess. Like us, they want to be happy, healthy, free from harm, and to enjoy the most precious thing they have: life itself.

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