Monthly Archives: April 2012

Freedom’s New Frontier: A Guide to Animal Rights

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.  I have intentionally left the links in this article directed to Gentle World’s marvelous website.

This article will be the last post on this blog.  For various reasons, I have decided to turn my attention to other projects.
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The movement for animal rights is perhaps one of the most misunderstood social phenomena of the 21st century. Despite the sincere efforts of an increasing number of individuals willing to speak up on behalf of the animals who suffer at the hands of humans, our cause continues to be misconstrued, misrepresented, and maligned. Admittedly, the blame for this lies partially with the movement itself, or at least with certain organizations and individuals perceived to be at the helm, who seem to create their own PR nightmares, or to be so off course that one sometimes wonders if they could actually be working for the other side.

This may come as a surprise to some, but for those of us who view animal rights as the most pressing social justice issue of our time, the antics of the large organizations are often as embarrassing as they are hurtful to the animals they purport to serve. Sadly, these groups have a monopoly on not only the available funding, but subsequently, to a large degree, the hearts and minds of those watching and listening, making it painfully obvious why the animal rights movement has gained such a poor reputation.

Meanwhile, in 2012, while many of our society’s advances progress ever more rapidly, our behavior toward animals is more objectionable than ever. Despite the emergence and growth of an entire industry devoted to providing excellent alternatives to virtually everything we obtain from animal exploitation, the number of animals enslaved and killed every year is greater than at any time in history.

Even to those of us who are deeply involved with animal rights and vegan education, a brief look at the math veritably boggles the mind.

Every year around the world, for no purpose other than providing food alone (food which is not only inappropriate for human physiology, but actually contributes significantly to many of the most significant global health crises), approximately 56 billion nonhuman animals (land) are intentionally bred, raised, and killed.

This entirely unnatural population of living beings not only causes our planet to strain under the weight of so many individuals, each requiring food, water and land that could otherwise be used much more efficiently, but also produces so much pollution and waste that the planet simply cannot recycle it fast enough.

The number of 56 billion does not even include those animals who live in water*, or those who are killed for other reasons, such as for clothing, experimentation or “sport”. In the US alone, we kill 10 billion land animals for food every year; far more than the entire current human population.

At this rate of killing, the number of deaths is greater in five days than the deaths we’ve inflicted on humans in all wars and all genocides in recorded human history (approximately 619 million). Even if every non-vegan cut their current animal product consumption by 90%, it would take us only about 41 days to kill as many sentient nonhumans as we’ve killed humans in recorded history.
  • It is hard to find accurate figures with regard to the number of fishes and other aquatic animals who are killed by humans every year. However, a conservative estimate would likely be around 100 billion, making the total number of animals killed for food at least three times as much (156 billion annually).

How did we come to this? It’s obvious that the situation has been made much worse by the disastrous combination of continually increasing human population growth, technological advancements, industrial capacity, and economic demand during the 20th century and continuing into the 21st. However, all of this is occurring on top of a deep social and cultural prejudice against sentient nonhuman beings that is exacerbated by the fact that we humans are frighteningly indulgent of our destructive habits; willing to persistently put our frivolous desires above the indisputable needs and rights of those we oppress.

To animal advocates faced with the harsh reality of this situation, it is abundantly clear that we have an enormous amount of work to do in order to shift society’s current paradigm from one of unimaginable and extreme violence to one of relatively peaceful sanity. Shifting away from the common belief that other animals are renewable resources – objects, insentient ‘things’, and economic commodities fit to be owned as property – will lead to a new perception that recognizes other animals as the conscious, feeling, innocent individuals they are.

Following is a collection of articles written for those who are interested in understanding what this movement for animal rights is all about, as well as for those who are trying to figure out how to most effectively inform public opinion. We hope that these will offer some inspiration and clarity, so that together, we will be able to elevate the collective consciousness, bringing about a paradigm that will one day grant animals freedom from persecution and slaughter. And that is a freedom one surely cannot deny they deserve.

Veganism is not a fringe philosophy – it is a moral baseline that is consistent with beliefs that most of us already hold. Veganism is a simple matter of refraining from participating in unnecessary and harmful use of sentient beings. As most people are naturally opposed to unnecessary violence, becoming and staying vegan is not a matter of changing any of our basic moral beliefs. It simply requires us to be willing to change the habits we have developed that prevent us from living according to our principles.

As surely as the abolitionists of the past knew that no man or woman should be the property of any other, the abolitionists of today know that the legal property status of animals stands in the way of their ever receiving any meaningful rights or protection, let alone being granted the freedom to live according to their own needs and desires.

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… 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?

There is something very unjust about the fact that we delegate the most obscene work of our society to a select few who are emotionally hardened enough to carry it out, only to later denigrate them for their disconnection from their natural sense of empathy. When thinking about it honestly, most of us would be hard-pressed to find it in ourselves to slaughter an animal – or to rip off her skin, or slice open her body to remove the entrails, or butcher her flesh into supermarket-sized pieces… And yet, we continue to ask others to do it for us, while most people refuse to even watch these things on video or hear others describe them.

Speciesism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices rely on a morally irrelevant criterion (in this case, species) as the basis on which to deny the interests of an individual belonging to a different ‘group’, even if those interests are more significant than one’s own. As such, speciesism is simply a different form of the same underlying wrong at the foundation of all prejudices. It really doesn’t matter which morally irrelevant criteria we base our prejudice on – sex, race, skin color, age, sexual orientation, species – it is ethically wrong to use such arbitrary criteria to deny the rights of others.

Animal advocacy organizations work side by side with the animal industry in developing and promoting “humane” labels for animal foods. Not only does this sort of “product development” consulting provide invaluable public relations assistance for these companies, but it also effectively gives these products the “animal people” stamp of approval when they reach the consumer. Although these programs may appear on the surface to offer greater protection for animals, it is painfully clear that they are designed as an (albeit very clever) PR campaign to increase sales, by making consumers feel better about using animal products. These labels, which include Certified Humane Raised & Handled, Humane Choice, Freedom Food and the Whole Foods 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards, could quite reasonably be viewed as the ultimate betrayal from the perspective of the victims.

 

Because animals are property and economic commodities, we have a wide divergence of social acceptability regarding the treatment of animals.  On one hand, the law permits extreme cruelty for the most trivial of economic benefits, as long as the end use is socially acceptable.  On the other hand, most people would be horrified to see a dog – especially their own dog – endure what animals raised for food or used in experiments endure. Single Issue Campaigns reinforce these irrational dichotomies by singling out specific uses of animals as though they are worse than others. When we campaign to eliminate one branch, such as the fur or seal-clubbing industries, while ignoring other branches, such as the leather, egg, and dairy industries, we send a message to the public that certain forms of exploitation are worse than others.
Not only do such colossal government handouts artificially affect supply, these subsidies also lower the prices of animal products, which would be close to three times as high without subsidies. Considering the exorbitant costs of animal agriculture to the environment; and the costs of saturated fat, cholesterol, and excess sodium to human health, a responsible government would tax, not subsidize, animal products, even if the rights of animals were not an issue.

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.

“I found the minds of the people strangely indifferent to the subject of slavery. Their prejudices were invincible—stronger, if possible, than those of the slaveholders. Objections were started on every hand; apologies for the abominable system constantly saluted my ears; obstacles were industriously piled up in my path… What was yet more discouraging, my best friends—without an exception—besought me to give up the enterprise! It was not my duty (they argued) to spend my time, and talents, and services, where persecution, reproach and poverty were the only certain reward. My scheme was visionary—fanatical—unattainable… But opposition served only to increase my ardor, and confirm my purpose.”

~ William Lloyd Garrison (July 14, 1830)

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Opposition Confirms My Purpose

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 February 29, 2012 on Care2.
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“I found the minds of the people strangely indifferent to the subject of slavery. Their prejudices were invincible—stronger, if possible, than those of the slaveholders. Objections were started on every hand; apologies for the abominable system constantly saluted my ears; obstacles were industriously piled up in my path… What was yet more discouraging, my best friends—without an exception—besought me to give up the enterprise! It was not my duty (they argued) to spend my time, and talents, and services, where persecution, reproach and poverty were the only certain reward. My scheme was visionary—fanatical—unattainable… But opposition served only to increase my ardor, and confirm my purpose.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison (July 14, 1830)

 

We live in a world where the vast majority of people consider it perfectly acceptable to oppress and exploit other animals, despite the fact that we have no moral justification for doing so. Every year in the United States, approximately ten billion land animals are killed, after being intentionally bred and enslaved, all for human gain. Worldwide, the numbers equal approximately 56 billion annually. When we count animals who live in water, there are tens or hundreds of billions more every year.

 

All of these animals are as innocent as children, but we treat them as though being born as a member of a different species is a crime worthy of life in prison, often accompanied by torture, ending with the death penalty. In fact, for the vast majority of them, the lives they are forced to live are so unbearable that premature death – itself a severe harm – might conceivably serve as some kind of merciful release from a life of physical, psychological and emotional suffering.

 

Widespread veganism is the only hope these nonhuman beings have for emancipation from their brief, brutal existence. Such a fundamental change in our society will only be brought about by a radical moral paradigm shift similar to those which resulted in the abolition of human chattel slavery and the voting rights of women.

 

Moral paradigm shifts, however, do not cause themselves. They are caused by small groups of people within society – always considered “radical” in their own time – who persistently educate others over decades about why change is necessary. Indeed, William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator, a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, in 1831, and it wasn’t until after 34 years and the bloodiest war on United States soil* that slavery was finally abolished in 1865. Similarly, the women’s suffrage movement’s first well-known spokesperson was John Stuart Mill in 1865, but women were not permitted to vote until 1918 in the United Kingdom, and 1920 in the United States.

 

* Note that William Lloyd Garrison, the authors of this article, and the abolitionist approach to animal rights reject violence, and support only non-violent education and reasoned dialogue as a means to social justice, regardless of the cause.

 

In their efforts to educate and to engage in civil disobedience in the name of noble causes, abolitionists and suffragists endured ridicule, anger, imprisonment, and death threats, both from the establishment itself, and also from counter-movements made up of citizens with an interest in maintaining the current situation.

 

Nobody minded a quiet abolitionist or suffragist. Respecting “everyone’s personal choice” with deferent silence was deemed “moderate and respectable” by those vested in the status quo. Challenging the injustice with moral education was called “self-righteous,” “offensive,” “extremist,” and “off-putting.”

 

Take, for example, the following quote from 1847, in which human slavery proponent Joseph W. Lesesne criticizes anti-slavery advocates and the abolitionist movement:

 

“[The abolitionists’] conduct has been most atrocious. No language is strong enough to denounce it. The shameless impudence with which they have trampled the Constitution under their feet, and their mean and despicable contrivances to deprive us of our Slave property ought to be held up to the scorn of the whole Union.”

 

The more direct and unequivocal an advocate’s position, the more resistance he or she encountered.

 

And so it is with vegans today. Despite the fact that we stand so clearly on the side of justice for all sentient beings, we can expect to encounter resistance most of the time. As strong vegan educators and advocates, we can expect to be dismissed, ignored, misrepresented, and to be subjected to whatever treatment those opposing us believe would be most effective at discouraging our efforts. Recognizing and accepting this situation for what it is, and realizing that other successful social justice movements faced similar resistance and criticism over spans of decades, can help us persist in our efforts over decades as well.

 

Aside from simply being on the justifiable side of a cause, a major reason that social justice movements of the past succeeded was persistence. Realizing that even the most effective vegan advocacy will take decades, rather than months or years, to have its intended goals achieved can give us the perspective we need to ultimately succeed by avoiding the burnout that comes with obsessive activity, unrealistic expectations, and a short-sighted focus on short-term results. We should recognize that it might sometimes be beneficial to take a break and recharge our batteries,  and that, alongside our personal advocacy, it’s important that we also strive for physical, mental and emotional health, so that we can be as effective as possible in our efforts to educate and inspire others.

 

So let us relentlessly persist in the struggle for justice at a pace we can maintain for as long as is necessary. Let us not measure our progress in insignificant welfare “victories”, which, during the short time they last, only serve to perpetuate the exploitation paradigm and make consumers feel better about their purchases of animal products. Let us instead measure progress in terms of the increasing number of ethical vegans, the decreases in animal product consumption, the increases in vegan alternatives, and the gradual transformation of the collective consciousness, which, only 65 years ago, didn’t even have a word to describe someone as being ‘vegan’.

 

Over time, the irrepressible power of justice will prevail, as we overcome the shameful prejudice and despicable discrimination that attempts to justify and maintain the moral status of animals as economic property and tradable commodities. Until that day comes, let whatever opposition comes our way serve only to increase our ardor, and confirm our purpose.

 

Drawing on the wisdom of another of the great voices of the anti-slavery movement of the 1800s, Frederick Douglass,

 

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

 

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