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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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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.
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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.
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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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Speciesism and Veganism: Transcending Politics and Religion

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 November 10, 2011 on Care2.
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Although this may come as a surprise to some, there are ethical vegans across the political spectrum and in every major religion. Veganism transcends politics and religion because it is based on the simple matter of rejecting a particular form of prejudice: speciesism.

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.

Despite the cultural evolution that has brought humanity a long way from the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality of prehistoric times, the world today remains profoundly speciesist. The extreme prejudice of our cultural speciesism reaches far beyond disregarding an individual’s right to avoid persecution. It extends as far as absolute indifference to the right to be free from unjust imprisonment, mental and emotional torment, extreme physical violence in the form of mutilations and the infliction of injury and death. Owned as chattel property, with no laws to protect their most fundamental rights, those who are not human are condemned to a life with no protection against the brutal and unremitting oppression from those who control their world: Us.

Animal exploitation is perfectly legal and socially acceptable everywhere in the world, despite the emergence of satisfactory alternatives to virtually all uses (not to mention those yet to be developed, once our society rejects our current speciesist practices). Although there is a growing movement drawing attention to the many brutal rights violations routinely carried out against nonhumans being used for human gain, we continue to confine, injure and kill animals of all kinds, maintaining unnecessary, antiquated exploitative practices for food production, research, fashion, and even entertainment.

The ubiquitous nature of this extreme cultural prejudice explains why speciesism (and the proper moral response to it: veganism) is unrelated to political leaning. Although social justice movements generally arise from the left, there are some political conservatives who are principled vegans, while some on the political left, sadly, continue to scoff at issues of animal rights. In fact, it is remarkable that the vast majority of those on the political left choose to remain uninformed and to deliberately ignore these glaring justice issues, including their own participation in practices that would be rightly abhorred by anyone in touch with their conscience.

As it is with politics, so it is with religion. Christians were strongly divided over human chattel slavery in antebellum America, with slavery proponents using Bible quotes to defend their “God given” right to own slaves. Opponents of slavery used different Bible quotes to point out that slavery was condemned by God. And so it is with regard to animal rights today. Those on both sides of the issue use quotes from religious texts either to justify unnecessary killing, or to validate the vegan ethic of nonviolence.

Eastern religions are no exception. Many of today’s Buddhists attempt to justify animal use, unnecessary killing, and speciesism by pointing to loopholes in the various contradictory writings about the Buddha’s teaching of universal compassion for all sentient beings. Other Buddhists choose instead to practice and promote veganism as the rational response to the essential Buddhist teaching of nonviolence. Presumably, having been liberated from their own speciesism, vegan Buddhists are able to see through such prejudiced rationalizations, and recognize the higher authority in the truth the Buddha was apparently trying to impart to his students.

(In other words, if the Buddha wasn’t a vegan, as some people claim, then he wasn’t living up to his own teachings, which state very clearly that reverence for sentient life is a fundamental principle of a spiritual existence.)

In any case, it is clear that politics and religion are irrelevant to rejecting our common prejudice against fellow sentient beings. Regardless of whether we are conservative, liberal, leftist, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or fall under any other category, we have the choice to acknowledge and reject the underlying cultural speciesism that we have all been conditioned to accept.

In fact, one might say that a deep-seated awareness of the essential rights and needs held by all sentient beings is the common ground that we every one of us shares.

Despite our many differences and divergences, underneath religion, politics, worldviews, interests, personalities, shape, size, sex, color, and even species, underneath it all, every single one of us is made from flesh and blood. Or, as the Buddha himself is said to have taught:

“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”

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Taxpayers Fund Animal Cruelty and Environmental Devastation

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 October 10, 2011 on Care2.
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“A new report finds that $62 of every $100 that U.S. farmers earn comes from one level of government or another.  In 2009, that added up to a staggering $180.8-billion (U.S.).”

As explained in Animal Cruelty: Who is to Blame?, the atrocities of animal slavery are essentially consumer-generated. What this means is that not only are consumers responsible for the brutality that is inflicted on our behalf, we also have the power to actually put an end to widespread animal cruelty by refusing to purchase products and services that involve exploitation in any form.

But many people may not be aware of how much taxpayers are indirectly, but overwhelmingly, helping to fund this excessive and corrupt business in another way: government assistance. When you begin to investigate the huge excesses and waste associated with large-scale animal farming, it becomes clear that assistance from the government is an essential factor in helping this industry to stay afloat.
Because industry and investors are primarily business people, who are focused on making money by fulfilling demand for specific products, they would ordinarily be indifferent to whether they are selling apples or animal products. There are, however, two strong economic factors which cause industry to nurture the demand for animal products, and, on the flip side, resist efforts to promote vegan living.

The first economic factor is the highly profitable excesses of animal agriculture. Animals consume (in plant foods) multiple times the protein that they provide. Depending on confinement and feed factors, cows require 9 to 13 times as much protein as they provide; pigs 5 or 6 times; and chickens twice as much. This means that most of the crops grown in huge monocultures, such as soy and corn, are sold to animal agriculture.

When you add the extra transportation, harvesters, and fuel to the high demand for crops fed to animals, along with the other resources required to raise, transport, and slaughter animals (and refrigerate them afterward), it’s easy to see why multiple large industries have a strong interest in the continued existence and growth of animal agriculture (and why socially responsible consumers should reject it outright, even without taking into account the deplorable rights violations to the individuals in question).  With its extreme waste and inefficiency, animal agriculture makes all agriculture many times larger than it would otherwise need to be to feed its human consumers.

But how is it possible that such waste and excess should actually pay-off financially? The answer is that the animal industry (including the huge monoculture crops that feed it), is supported by tens of billions of dollars in annual farm subsidies and other government handouts that make it highly profitable to produce animal-based foods over plant-based foods. A recent article from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine explains the extreme inconsistency between government nutrition guidelines and the subsidies they provide to suppliers.

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.

This is tremendously important because, according to the economic principle of “demand elasticity”*, the demand for animal products would likely decline to nearly half of its current level if the government simply stopped providing subsidies, since this would cause prices to rise closer to their natural level of 2.6 times current (subsidized) prices. If animal products were taxed to compensate for their disastrous effects on the environment and human health, prices would rise to multiple times current rates, dropping the quantity demanded to a small fraction of its current level – a boon for the environment, human health, and most important, the individual animals whose lives are discarded like one more waste product of this obscene business.

* In economic terms, “demand elasticity” indicates the percentage change in quantity demanded in response to a one percent change in price. (Animal products likely have an average demand elasticity of -0.7, ranging from -0.01 to -1.7).

In addition to subsidies, the animal industry receives various other government handouts which contribute to the deceptively low prices of animal products. These extra “sweeteners” are in the form of extremely low costs for grazing animals on public land, and the purchase of surplus animal products for government activities such as the National School Lunch Program.

Given these huge economic gravy trains enticing Big Food to push animal products as relentlessly as Big Tobacco used to push cigarettes, it is no wonder they do so with such zeal. These powerful special interests are unlikely to be attracted to the strong market potential for environmentally-sustainable, healthy, and ethical vegan food. Indeed, we can expect them to use every trick in the book to thwart efforts to move consumers in such a direction.

A large proportion of animal advocacy hours are currently dedicated to targeting the animal industry and the government with demands for greater social responsibility and tougher legislation. However, not only is it obvious that this approach is heavily flawed when examined according to the principles of demand and supply, but when you remember that Big Food – along with Big Oil and other huge corporate interests – control the government itself (including tax and subsidy policy makers), it becomes clear that we cannot influence such a powerful and heavily entrenched industry on any large scale – either directly or through government policy.

But again, there is one way in which we do have power over them. If we target our advocacy toward the consumers of animal products, by helping people to understand how and why to become vegan, we can actually help to shift demand toward vegan products and away from animal products and the extreme misery that they cause.

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Animal Cruelty: Who is to Blame?

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.
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For many of us who are aware of the multitude of ways that animals suffer at the hands of humans around the world, this ubiquitous cruelty is the most pressing social justice issue of them all. From declawing to debeaking, ear clipping to tail docking, the suffering that human beings inflict on animals being used for food, clothing, research, ‘pets’ and entertainment appears to know no bounds, and the many brutal ways in which we force animals to succumb to our desires appear to be limited only by the scope of our imaginations.

But why does all this cruelty take place? And what can we do about this horrifying brutality as individuals? It’s easy to point the finger at the direct perpetrators of animal cruelty as being villains who need to be brought to justice. It’s much harder – and yet much more significant – to turn that critical eye inward and ask oneself, ‘What am I doing to contribute to this?’ But it is only by asking that question that the path toward emancipation from barbaric injustice becomes clear.

The vast majority of the time, money and effort of animal welfare organizations goes toward trying to develop new laws and regulations to address the many separate issues relating to animal cruelty, while at the same time trying to force the industry to adhere to those currently in place.  As explained in Are Anti-Cruelty Campaigns Really Effective?, these efforts consistently fail to create any significant improvement for animals.

Behind these campaigns lies a hidden assumption that the animal industry is responsible for animal cruelty. But is this assumption warranted? Isn’t industry simply a middle agent put in place to do the dirty deeds requested by consumers of animal products? Although it’s true that the animal industry is an eager and aggressive middle agent, its role is only that of middle agent. As such, while institutionalized exploiters certainly have a lot to answer for, it is consumers who are primarily responsible for animal cruelty through their purchases of animal products.

Many people will likely respond that their concern is not with the rights of animals not to be enslaved and killed, but with the excessive brutality in the animal industry; gratuitous violence for instance, and the cruelty that is inflicted on animals along the way to being slaughtered and butchered – debeaking,  dehorning, detoeing, mulesing, castration, tail docking, etc. But as long as our society continues to treat animals as property and economic commodities, our legal system will continue to accept such mutilations as a necessary evil on the way to providing goods and services to a human population largely indifferent to what is hidden behind remote sheds and slaughterhouses.

In any case, even if we did find some way to eliminate every single practice involving physical mutilation, it’s impossible to make slavery and murder anything other than slavery and murder. We can slap fancy labels on the products of animal misery and market them as ‘humanely-raised’, ‘animal compassionate’, ‘ethically-produced’ or ‘guilt-free’, but needless killing is needless killing, and no amount of regulation can change that.

It is understandable that individual stories of horrific suffering make people want to seek out the perpetrators, bring them to justice, and protect potential victims from experiencing the same treatment. But pointing the finger at institutional exploiters ignores the most significant issue – that no matter what the suppliers do along the way, consumption of animal products ultimately requires taking animals’ lives.

How can we expect morally decent behavior from the people we ask to carry out the task of breeding, confining and ultimately killing and butchering the animals we choose to enslave and eat? These are innocent beings who most people would rather caress and embrace than hurt and kill.

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.

But our distaste toward being involved in such violent acts isn’t something that should be squelched and suppressed, as Michael Pollan or Julie Powell would have us believe. No – we should be grateful for the revulsion we feel when we imagine what happens to animals in between being born and being on our plates. Our horror is a sane reaction to practices that are nothing short of horrifying.

We cannot separate ourselves from depravity simply because we have found a way to tuck the dirty deeds out of sight – behind the walls of slaughterhouses and other obscure buildings. And all the disconnection and indifference in the world cannot change the fact that it is impossible to distinguish the immorality of a Pollan-style DIY approach from the immorality of any other act of unnecessary violence.

In any court of law, those who are complicit in a crime are considered to be responsible along with those who carry it out.

As expressed so eloquently by Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

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Filed under animal rights, animal welfare, care2

Are Anti-Cruelty Campaigns Really Effective?

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 August 24, 2011 on Care2.
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“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Economy (Chapter 1-E)

For many activists confronting widespread animal exploitation and related cruelty – from food, to clothing, to experimentation and entertainment – it can sometimes appear as though there are so many issues to focus attention on that the situation becomes overwhelming.

When advocates are unclear about the best way to address these countless concerns, many choose to focus on one issue, such as eliminating battery cages or gestation crates. Others try to spend their advocacy hours doing “a bit of everything”.

As explained in Making a Killing with Animal Welfare Reform, campaigns against specific practices of animal exploitation are lucrative for animal welfare groups, bringing in tens of millions of dollars into their coffers annually for acting as the large, non-profit “regulators” of industry.  Such campaigns are known among animal advocates as single issue campaigns, or “SICs.”

When you combine the financial motivation of large animal welfare groups and the besieged feeling animal advocates often experience from trying to tackle so many different issues, the result is the current dominant culture of the animal advocacy movement, where the efforts of countless individuals are scattered across countless different single-issue campaigns.

It certainly seems that such division amongst animal advocates must work strongly in the favor of the animal industry and the current cultural paradigm of speciesism.  By contrast, a united front of widespread public education focused on why and how to become vegan would address the root of the exploitation problem by challenging not only all of our uses of animals, but our society’s decidedly speciesist attitude in and of itself.

To illustrate the point, it’s helpful to consider the analogy of a tree. The animal exploitation tree can be divided into several sections, including the roots, trunk, and branches.

          The roots of the tree – mostly hidden underground – represent our society’s underlying speciesism; the cultural prejudice against all animals (other than humans) that makes it possible for us to ignore the basic needs of others in favor of our own trivial desires. Speciesism, like racism, sexism, and other oppressive cultural prejudices, ignores morally relevant characteristics (such as the fundamental interests of the oppressed or exploited), in favor of morally irrelevant characteristics (such as membership of a species, race, sex, and so on).  When we eliminate speciesism (individually or as a group), we respect the interests of individual members of other species sufficiently to take those interests into account with our own, and everyone else’s interests. The behavioral result of such respect is veganism – avoiding animal products and uses in our lives as much as is reasonably possible.

       The base of the tree trunk – located just above the surface of the soil, and the foundation for the rest of the tree’s growth – represents the property status of animals; the legal structure which makes it socially legitimate for us to treat other sentient beings as economic commodities. (As explained in Legal Slavery in the 21st Century, this legal status effectively keeps welfare reforms limited to those that optimize the economic efficiency of a socially accepted use, regardless of how cruel certain practices are.)


       The lower trunk of the tree, where the largest branches begin, can be understood to represent our uses of animals for food, as the food industry accounts for the vast majority of all animal exploitation. Growing out of this section of the trunk are the tree’s most substantial limbs – those that represent the production of dairy, eggs, and meat (including fish) – each of which leads to many smaller branches representing the specific rights violations associated with these industries, such as intensive confinement and the horrific physical mutilations that occur in all three. Other smaller branches that originate in the ‘food’ section of the tree could be seen to represent less common practices such as the force-feeding of geese to produce foie-gras.

         As we travel further up the tree, past the most sizeable branches of the food industry, the medium-sized branches represent the other major industries of animal use – experimentation, clothing, and entertainment. Growing out of these major branches are many smaller ones. For instance, the limb that represents animal-based clothing branches off into fur production (which branches off again into issues such as seal clubbing, fur farming, wild trapping, etc.) The entertainment industry branches off into (amongst many other issues) sport hunting, which branches off again into canned hunting and hunting of endangered animals. Another off-shoot from the parent limb of entertainment is the use of animals in circuses, which then branches off into the issue of using bullhooks on elephants.

        At the very edges of the animal exploitation tree, there exists a layer of ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ branches, which represent specific practices that are not economically optimal for industry to continue. These practices include keeping sows in gestation crates, and killing chickens by electrocution (as opposed to Controlled Atmosphere Killing, which is celebrated by industry and advocates alike as being much more economically-efficient).

         Since the practices associated with animal exploitation exist solely to fulfill demand, consumers and users are the lifeblood of every aspect of the tree. Creating demand for these products and services can be compared to giving the tree water and fertilizer. Reducing demand with an increasing vegan population denies the tree of exploitation its essential nutrients, without which it will surely wither and eventually die.

When we view the paradigm of animal exploitation in this manner, it becomes clear that the fatal problem with SICs is that they focus on the outer periphery, while ignoring not only the trunk and main branches, but the roots themselves, which are continually working to deliver vital nutrients to every part of the tree.

Pruning Makes a Tree Grow Stronger

As a practical matter, SICs are focused primarily on clipping either small or ‘dead’ branches off the tree, obviously making the tree healthier. Even when animal welfare groups attempt to cut off a medium-sized branch, such as seal clubbing or fur production, they find that the tree is easily healthy enough to continue thriving despite the loss of a live (i.e. profitable) branch. If a part of the branch is cut or prevented from growing (as was the case with fur production in the 1990s) the tree is still big and strong enough that – down the line – such branches can actually come back with renewed strength (as the case has been with fur production since the early 2000s). Attempting to prune the tree not only fails to harm the tree in the long run, but actually helps it to thrive.

Branches Grow Back

In our global economy, another fatal problem with SICs is that, even if they were to succeed in cutting off small or middle-sized branches, new branches can grow in other areas to replace the branches that were cut. For example, if we eliminate horse slaughter in the United States (cutting a middle-sized branch); industry will simply ship horses to Mexico and slaughter them there (new replacement branch).  As long as demand exists, supply and any profitable practices based on demand will shift to other jurisdictions as required.

Trimming Branches Helps the Roots to Thrive

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.

SICs 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 of the tree, 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. The tremendously popular “Say No to Fur” campaign is a classic example. This particular campaign sends the confusing and false message that fur is somehow worse than other animal-based fabric such as leather, which is just as brutal in its production, yet much more widely used.

SICs could avoid this problem by calling for veganism and an end to all animal use, but we almost never see a strong vegan message attached to SICs.

The Vegan Solution: Uprooting and Eliminating the Tree
The animal exploitation tree exists solely because of consumers of animal products.  Consumers and users are the lifeblood of every aspect of the tree. When we go vegan, we remove our contribution to the tree’s health. When we inform others about why and how to become vegan, we help others eliminate their contribution to the tree’s health. When we call attention to our society’s speciesism, we dig up parts of the tree’s root system and expose them to the light of day – eliminating one more source of nutrition for the branches.

As more and more of us join in being vegan and encouraging and helping others to be vegan, the tree’s health will steadily diminish, causing the outer branches to naturally die off, until eventually the entire tree – and with it, the extreme cruelty it necessarily inflicts on the innocent – will no longer be able to survive.

Rather than contributing to the efforts of thousands in “hacking at the branches” of the tree (while at the same time nourishing it by consuming and using animal products and services), we ought to “strike at the root” by embracing veganism and encouraging others to do the same.

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Making a Killing with Animal Welfare Reform

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 August 8, 2011 on Care2.
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“When it comes to animal care policies and processes, count on us to lead the way. In fact, we’re recognized by the world’s foremost experts in animal well-being as setting the standard for America’s pork industry – and we’re applying those same best practices to our global operations.”

~ Smithfield Foods: “Raising the Bar in Animal Care” (Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest pork producer and processor, and kills almost 30 million pigs every year)

During the past 200 years, animal exploitation – from backyard breeders to “factory farms” to circuses – has been steeped in the animal welfare paradigm. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to find any large corporation using animals or selling animal products that does not boast of either their own high standards of animal welfare, or the high expectations they have of their suppliers. In short, the animal industry actually promotes animal welfare, and that is largely because the animal welfare model overwhelmingly benefits industry – not only by providing guidelines which help producers to adopt a more effective business model, but also by assuring consumers that it is possible to breed, raise, exploit, and slaughter animals in an ethical way.

But what are considered “high standards” in animal welfare? High standards generally allow for any well-established industry practice that helps producers to exploit animals in an economically optimal manner, no matter how cruel, harmful, or painful. That is, any cruelty that promotes economically efficient use is acceptable (such as branding, castration, forced insemination, dehorning, detoeing, debeaking, mulesing, tail docking, teeth clipping, forced molting, and more); but cruelty above and beyond that which promotes economically efficient exploitation is considered to be a violation of industry’s “high” welfare standards. In other words, kicking and beating your animals because you enjoy doing so is not okay. Dehorning and castrating your animals without anesthetic because it makes them easier to manage is okay. This definition of “high standards” in animal welfare explains why industry can legitimately make such ludicrous claims in the face of cruelty so severe that most of us refuse to even look at it.

When prominent animal welfare organizations like PETA and HSUS propose animal welfare reforms, such as a move toward “controlled atmosphere killing” or the elimination of cages and gestation crates, their campaigns involve appealing to industry to recognize the long-term economic benefits of investing the capital necessary to make such changes. Such economic benefits include healthier animals who are less stressed, fewer worker injuries, less carcass damage, and greater consumer confidence that animals are treated “humanely.” And sure enough, such economic benefits obviously carry weight, as we can see by the fact that large factory farms like those owned by Smithfield Foods are “leading the way” in phasing out gestation crates over several years in all sow “farms” owned by the company. Think they’re doing this out of concern for the pigs? Think again.

From msnbc.com:

“Smithfield is making the change because customers ‘have told us they feel group housing is a more animal-friendly form of sow housing,’ … Smithfield is still determining the cost of the changeover but does not expect it to dramatically affect prices for its pork products because the expense will be spread out over 10 years and will be offset by production efficiencies,’ Dennis Treacy – vice president for environmental and corporate affairs said… He stressed that the decision to change was based on what makes sense for the business.”

This statement confirms that phasing out crates will make it easier for Smithfield Foods to conduct and grow their operations. And what are their operations? Confining and slaughtering animals – by the millions. Not an activity in which you would expect animal activists to be collaborating, right? And yet, rather than using the same time and resources to promote vegan living, animal advocacy organizations spent over $1.6 million and countless volunteer hours on the campaign to convince Smithfield foods to adopt this more economically-efficient business model.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, animal advocacy organizations also 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.

The partnership between animal welfare groups and industry to promote economically efficient animal exploitation is considered a “win-win-win” not only for both sides of the partnership, but for consumers as well. Consumers are assured that they can be excused for their indulgences in the products of animal misery, due to these so-called “higher standards” of welfare, and welfare groups win by receiving tens of millions of donation dollars annually for acting as the industry “regulators” and the developers of these ridiculous labels.

But the biggest winners, by far, are the animal exploiters themselves, who not only receive consulting advice by “welfare experts” and prominent animal activists, but are also given awards and special endorsement from advocacy groups. The payoff they receive in increased consumer confidence must have them laughing all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, the most basic rights of an increasing number of animals are still being sold out to fulfill the trivial desires of those who insist on consuming and using the products that come from their bodies.

Almost everyone agrees that animals ought not to suffer any more pain or harm than is “necessary”, and that no one should inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on another. But what is considered “necessary” has historically and legally meant whatever is necessary to optimize the economic efficiency of any socially-accepted use of animals. It is still the case – as it always will be as long as animals are property and economic commodities – that animal welfare standards permit any cruelty, no matter how severe, as long as it results in optimizing economic efficiency.

But times and circumstances are changing, and so are attitudes toward the meaning of the word “necessary”. Today, an increasing number of people are becoming aware that almost all of our uses of animals are for nothing more than our pleasure, amusement, or convenience – the habitual consumption of animal-based foods; the custom of wearing animal-based fabrics; the tradition of watching animals participate in trivial (and very harmful) activities such as racing or performing. None of these uses can be considered necessary according to any coherent definition of the word necessary.

As more people become aware of how beneficial the dietary aspects of veganism are for our health and the environment, and recognize that being vegan is simply a matter of basic justice, veganism will be recognized more and more widely as nothing less than an ethical imperative and a moral baseline. Certainly, there will always be those who refuse to acknowledge the fact that our uses of animals require the violation of the most basic of rights, regardless of the scale on which these practices are carried out. But the abolition of animal slavery is nothing less than the most important social justice issue of our time. When this fact becomes widely recognized… whose side will you be on?

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Filed under animal welfare, care2

Legal Slavery in the 21st Century

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World– a non-profit educational 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 the transition.This article was originally published July 24, 2011 on Care2.
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While animal welfare has been a concern of many civilizations throughout world history, its beginnings in modern Western civilization can be traced back to early 19th century Britain with the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and the establishment of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. Since then, there have been thousands of animal welfare organizations created, countless attempts and billions of dollars spent to pass laws and regulations to protect nonhuman animals from “unnecessary cruelty.” In 1975, act-utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer rejuvenated the 150 year-old animal welfare movement with his book Animal Liberation, which contrasts the stark, and often extreme differences between animal welfare prohibitions against “unnecessary” or “gratuitous” cruelty and the harsh realities of routine, systematic, needless cruelty inflicted on tens of billions of animals annually in agriculture, and millions of animals in experimentation, entertainment, and fashion. Animal Liberation was a call to take animal welfare– the regulation of industrialized animal exploitation — seriously.In the 35 years that have passed since Animal Liberation was published, organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have sought to diminish this huge gap between animal welfare goals and the reality of “unnecessary and gratuitous” cruelty so ubiquitous in our use of nonhuman animals. Their approach combines campaigns for various welfare measures with attempts to encourage the reduction of animal product consumption. Thus far, the results of these efforts have been devastating. From 1975 to 2007, the consumption of meat in the United States has increased from 178 to 222 pounds per person; an increase of 25%. During these years, no significant new welfare laws have been implemented, much less enforced, and there are countless videos and eyewitness accounts of routine violations of existing laws. We torture and kill more animals in more horrific ways than ever in human history.

The Problem: Animals as Property and Commodities

Nonhuman animals are legal property and economic commodities. As a matter of both legal theory and practice, owners of property are protected by property rights, which are among the strongest of rights in Anglo-American law; while the nonhuman animals owned as economic commodities are ostensibly protected by welfare laws, which are routinely violated and rarely enforced.In his 1995 book Animals, Property, and the Law, legal scholar and philosopher Gary Francione calls this approach to animal protection legal welfarism, of which Francione identifies four “basic and interrelated components.” (APL, p.26)• Legal welfarism maintains that animals are property.• Such property status justifies the treatment of animals exclusively as means to human ends.• Animal use is deemed “necessary” whenever that use is part of a generally accepted social institution.• “Cruelty” is defined exclusively as use that either frustrates, or fails to facilitate, animal exploitation.Because nonhuman animals are not only human property, but also economic commodities, cost-efficiency in raising and slaughtering them (by the billions) is considered one of the most important factors when determining which practices facilitate exploitation. That is to say, if an industry practice, no matter how cruel, reduces the costs of production, such a practice is fully allowed and protected by the legal property rights of owners.The upshot of legal welfarism is that we weigh even the slightest economic interests of owners, which we protect with powerful rights, against the crucial interests of nonhuman animals, which are protected with no rights. Considering the enormously competitive economic pressure to deliver the least expensive animal products to an ever-increasing public demand, it is no wonder that our society’s legal welfarism approach to animal protection has failed miserably to protect nonhuman animals from extreme cruelty. And it’s no wonder that the animal welfare movement has been unable to create any meaningful change.

The Solution: Being Honest about the Meaning of “Necessary”

There is only one way to reduce the vast quantity and severity of the cruelty inflicted on animals by human hand, and that is to change our concept of the word “necessary.” In direct opposition to the definition outlined by legal welfarism, this far more honest definition rejects the idea that we need to exploit animals at all, given the alternatives to animal use in all areas, not to mention the benefits of the dietary aspects of veganism for our health and the environment. This crucial foundation – the willingness to accept the fact that we have no need to use animals at all – facilitates a whole new understanding, causing us to:

• reject the property status of animals and therefore reject the traditional moral status of animals as “things” or economic commodities,

• see animals as persons within the moral community,

• demand personal veganism as the moral baseline of any movement that purports to take the interests of animals seriously.

Nonhuman animals are just like the vast majority of us in every morally relevant way. And even in morally irrelevant differences — such as conceptual intelligence — they surpass infants and many mentally disabled humans. As anyone who has been around animals a lot can confirm, they are capable of experiencing terrifying fear, excruciating pain, extreme loneliness, tedious boredom, frustration, pleasure, joy, delight, curiosity, satisfaction, comfort, friendship, and apparently even love.

While it’s true that nonhumans may lack the ability to imagine the concept of death as understood by an adult human of average intelligence, it’s painfully obvious that they have an overwhelming interest in continuing to live, and to live a satisfying life. This is made clear not only by the evidence of their sentience and emotional lives, but by the way that they struggle desperately to avoid death and remain alive, often even being willing to gnaw off their own limbs to escape from a trap.

It is our speciesism that causes us to ignore in nonhuman persons those very characteristics that give rise to the most basic rights of all human persons, including infants and the mentally disabled. Speciesism is an exclusionary prejudice virtually identical to racism and sexism that denies the importance of morally relevant characteristics in order to oppress others. The only way to break free from such speciesism is to take the crucial interests of animals seriously and embrace veganism as a moral imperative.

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.

Embracing veganism is simply the logical response to understanding the fundamental truth that no sentient being – human or not — should be used solely as a means to the pleasure, comfort or convenience of someone else.

Widespread veganism is the only way for animals to achieve basic rights protecting their most crucial interests, and the only way to put an end to the legally-sanctioned slavery that is the foundation of industrialized animal exploitation.

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