Veganism as Religious Practice

francis

It would be an understandable mistake for those who know me to interpret the title of this post as the lead-in to a renunciation of veganism (such recantations have become something of an internet genre) for my relationship with religion has been largely hostile. But this isn’t a renunciation nor is “religious practice” intended as a slur or a trivialization. Indeed, understanding veganism as a religious practice may be a quite compelling rationale for persisting with an unusual lifestyle.

Consider that the most commonplace justification for (ethical) veganism, as far as I can tell, is that by refusing to purchase and consume the remains of animals one is reducing the demand for such products. In turn, lower demand purportedly means that fewer animals will be raised and sent to slaughter. My decision to be vegan saves lives—so the story goes.

But this rationale does not necessarily withstand scrutiny. The market signal sent by one person’s decision to purchase tempeh rather than turkey is too weak to effect the total number of animals killed. It’s not a drop in the bucket, it’s less than that. The economic system is not so fine grained as to register your every move and then subtly adjust an imperceptible amount. Unfortunately, an angel doesn’t get its wings and a chicken is not set free when you decide to go vegan.

Philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau effectively makes this point in his 1994 paper “Vegetarianism, Causation, and Ethical Theory” explaining that “philosophers writing about vegetarianism have often shifted subtly from an evaluation of the practices of current factory farming, to the existence of a requirement to refrain from purchasing and eating meat. These are separable issues.” More recently Robert Bass has addressed the problem in front of Yale University’s Animal Ethics Study Group. In 2014 Bass gave a talk titled “What Can One Person Do? Causal Impotence and Dietary Choice.” It should be noted that neither Shafer-Landau nor Bass conclude that eating animal products is morally acceptable, they simply do not offer the same simplistic rationale that is offered by most activists and large animal organizations.

Recognizing this economic fact leaves one searching for a less simplistic reason for his or her decision to maintain a vegan diet. I am tentatively suggesting the possibility that veganism may be appropriately construed as a religious practice and is therefore done both to reflect to others and remind oneself of values that are deemed to be of the utmost important.

Interestingly, this loosely parallels why Jewish people may opt for a kosher diet. In Judaism, God’s laws fall into three categories. Laws regarding diet are categorized as chukim, that is they are laws which seemingly lack a straightforward or self-evident rationale (such as the self-evident value in maintaining a prohibition on the murder of human beings) but rather are observed simply because God commands them (or perhaps based on faith that God’s commands have their own logic even if it’s not self-evident). It reflects one’s devotion outwardly and acts as a reminder for oneself.

It could be said that this has the somewhat unsettling result that veganism is, at best, only indirectly beneficial for nonhuman animals. But this objection reverses the order of things; it confuses cause and effect. It was the recognition that veganism is only indirectly beneficial that prompted this line of thought.

As an aside, understanding veganism in this way has—for better or worse—caused me to be less critical of those who are not vegan and be open to seeing them as capable of making meaningful contributions toward animal liberation. This may be the inevitable result of taking a more honest and more humble assessment of one’s own efforts.

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Pearce and Predation: The Intersection of Veganism and Transhumanism

“The final dream of civilization is that everything will be controlled, organized, categorized; all wildness and spontaneity will be eradicated.”
-Miles Olson, Unlearn, Rewild

“Why confine the civilising process to a single ethnic group or species?”
-David Pearce

A recent interview with vegan and transhumanist David Pearce serves to illustrate the difficulty posed by predation for vegans and/or anyone concerned about the well-being of nonhuman animals. Predation is a Rorschach test and how one responds to it can inform their whole outlook on wild nature. Does predation mean that nature is necessarily and overwhelmingly a place of suffering and death (”red in tooth and claw”)? Alternatively, might the suffering associated with predation be offset by nature’s virtues?

Pearce understands veganism as a means to reduce suffering. But Pearce’s ultimate aspiration is not merely to reduce suffering but to eliminate suffering altogether. Predation is a significant source of suffering that would obviously need to be addressed for Pearce’s vision to be realized. Pearce says:

“I tentatively predict that the world’s last unpleasant experience in our forward light-cone will be a precisely datable event — perhaps some micro-pain in an obscure marine invertebrate a few centuries hence.” 

To realize this goal, Pearce is open to both phased extinctions and genetic reprogramming of carnivores. In the interview he says:

“I’m not personally convinced that we need such predatory species to survive.”

It is important to pause here. Pearce is saying that there may be no reason to be troubled by species extinction and that, in some cases at least, extinction might be a worthwhile goal to pursue. We don’t need lions or tigers and if they are only going to hurt other animals then they might as well disappear. Note that while such a view may seem strange, it is not necessarily inconsistent with Pearce’s veganism; Pearce would presumably view it as the logical extension of his veganism.

If predators are to be kept around:

“the carnivorous members of tomorrow’s wildlife parks will need to be genetically and behaviourally tweaked — with neurochips, GPS tracking and abundance of other high-tech safeguards to prevent accidents.”

He speaks of “wildlife parks” because at this point there will seemingly be no wilderness and consequently no free-living animals. Domestication will have reached its zenith. Animals that remain will effectively be zoo exhibits; they will exist at the discretion of human beings and in a form determined by human beings. He explains that:

“Within the next few decades, every cubic metre of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control.”

Surveillance, micro-management, and control. These are the values of civilization and Pearce wonders: why limit the civilizing process to one species? The values of civilization aspire toward universal application.tiger collar

Note: David Pearce’s website–The Hedonistic Imperative–can be found at http://www.hedweb.com/

 

Veganism’s Industrial Infrastructure

“I feel that the technology problem is the source of Animal and Earth degradation. If there was no industry and computer tech, even if everyone hunted and ate Animals, 99% of the Animal abuse and murder that exists today would be gone!”
-ALF prisoner Walter Bond, May 2014*

What if the very infrastructure necessary for widespread veganism is itself a threat to the well-being of nonhuman animals? Might the best of all possible worlds be a less-than-vegan world?

Industrial infrastructure may make veganism possible for a wider range of people than it would otherwise be and yet it almost necessarily will claim the lives of a great number animals. The factories producing tofurky jerky and soy ice cream will be located on land that was once habitat; parking lots will replace forests. Refrigerated trucks transporting fresh produce will require a massive interstate system and will foul the air that all life—human and nonhuman—depends on.

If we think of veganism as more than a diet—as many will quite fairly insist upon—the problem grows more severe. Synthetic materials for vegan clothing often rely on fossil fuels and we thus have a need for drilling, refinement, global shipping, and the whole climate changing operation that we currently live (and die) with.  Every step of the way is going to degrade and cut short the lives of animals.

Many, including Peter Singer and PETA, have put their hopes of widespread veganism in the prospect of in vitro meat and yet to accept this is to accept vivisection. There are also hopes for lab grown leather and lab grown cow’s milk which on the surface eliminate animal suffering but are deeply intertwined with the industrial system that is antithetical to animal flourishing.

The mainstream animal rights movement—like mainstream society generally—anticipates technology solving the problems that concern them rather than amplifying problems. This expectation is an article of faith and therefore unthreatened by existing evidence. A much younger Wayne Pacelle is quoted in Ted Kerasote’s book Bloodties as saying:

“I…believe in interstate transfer of food items. I believe in providing that food to people in other regions where it cannot be locally produced. My ethic is not a local food production ethic. It’s an interlocal, interstate, and perhaps an international system of food distribution to allow people to tread lightly on the planet, and it should be a food production system that is as energy efficient as possible, and hopefully one day it will be an energy-based system that’s not based on fossil fuels.” (255)

Pacelle is endorsing a global food system and with it mass society; he can only hope that “one day” the problems associated with such a system will be overcome in some currently inconceivable way. Transitioning from fossil fuels, to say wind or solar, is still going require intense environmental degradation including the mining of rare earth metals.

Closer to the present, vegan author James McWilliams has written and article titled “The Future is in Plastics, Son: Technology and Veganism” in which he argues:

 “should vegans want a future in which the world’s population has a steady access to wide diversity of plant-based foods, it will require…an expansion of food miles and advanced plant biotechnology”

I would agree with this point but where I see domestication and industrialization as the most basic threats to animals, McWilliams evidently sees them as exciting paths forward.

Does this mean the veganism is a mistake?

My belief is that for myself, and people who are similarly situated, veganism remains morally obligatory. I feel it is the most defensible option in my particular time and place. The mistake would be extrapolating from one’s own particular time and place to the universal claim that veganism is obligatory to all people and at all times. Ethical vegans, that is vegans motivated by concern for animals as opposed to simply health concerns or celebrity endorsements, tend to extrapolate in this fashion—possibly making exceptions for those notorious desert-island castaways that are so frequently posited in discussions of veganism.

Exceptions are also sometimes made for indigenous communities with food cultures that are not vegan but this is less often a principled exception than it is a strategic, face-saving concession granted for the purpose of avoiding an even more difficult conversation.

But in any case, it does not seem that veganism will be possible for all people in all bioregions given a minimally disruptive level of technological development. To push for greater levels of development may be to spread veganism but simultaneously harm animals.

Praxis

To safeguard animals from the systematic aggression and encroachment of humanity we need to dismantle existing industrial infrastructure, sabotage ongoing projects, and prevent future development.  Paradoxically, these vitally important actions may make veganism less feasible than it currently is for many people. But veganism is a means to an end; the end is animal liberation. As is so often the case, the means sometimes get confused for the end.  The means may vary even while the goal remains unchanged.

Veganism is potentially appealing because it is an intellectually easy answer; it forgoes nuance in favor of clearly defined lines. Clearly defined lines are helpful especially when nuance is apt to generate confusion or mask self-interest but occasionally those lines need to be reassessed. Veganism is not always possible, not always necessary, and never sufficient.

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*Private communication via email. May 13, 2014. Shared with permission.

 

 

A World Without Domesticated Animals: Veganism’s Endpoint

“There was a time—until very recently in the scheme of things—when there were no wild animals, because every animal was wild; and humans were few.” –Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

After my recent post on Rod Coronado, it occurred to me that part of the reason that Coronado is not universally embraced by the animal rights movement is that his efforts have largely been on behalf of wild animals and that the interests of wild animals are not given a significant amount of attention by those in the AR movement. Consequently, efforts on behalf of wild animals do not count for as much within the movement.

The fate of domesticated animals clearly dominates within the movement with anti-hunting campaigns probably being the most notable exception. Yet I would suspect that hunting is generally not the greatest threat to wild animals; I would suspect that parking lots, shopping malls, subdivisions, and agriculture represent significantly greater threats.

At first glance, this emphasis on domesticated animals (and animals raised for food even moreso) may appear to make sense.  Domesticated animals certainly appear to be the primary victims of human exploitation.  Every aspect of their lives from birth to death is dictated by human interests.  The very fact that they are domesticated means that they have been manipulated in profound ways; ways that are generally to their detriment such as by being bred to gain weight at an incredible pace or to have aesthetic features that score well in dog shows but may inhibit natural functions such as breathing. In contrast, wild animals clearly do not face the same degree of confinement, do not have their food so severely adulterated, and can seemingly live in the social arrangements natural for their species.  Furthermore, much of the harm suffered by wild animals—such as predation—does not appear to be at the hands of humans and therefore may not motivate human intervention.

But the over-emphasis on domesticated animals is problematic in part because, at least from my perspective, one goal of the animals rights movement needs to be a world without domesticated animals…that is a world with no cats, no dogs, no cows, no chickens, no mail order catalogs full of genetically manipulated mice available for purchase.  This is part of the vision that should not be shyed away from even if it is counterintuitive or unpalatable to the general population. Despite the slogans printed on t-shirts, the lives of animals are not saved by your decision to go vegan.  When somone adopts a vegan diet, there is no truck that transports a fixed number of animals from factory farm to idyllic sanctuary. The decision to go vegan, at best, saves animals from the fate of ever being born (which is no small thing given that, at present, domesticated animals are born into an “eternal Treblinka”).

Ignoring wild animals creates a situation where people participate in the movement with no long term goal other than perhaps universal veganism or an end to a particular variety of exploitation.  And the tactics adopted may be counterproductive.  Tactics need to be consistent with or at least not contrary to a world without domesticated animals.  Furthermore, an explicitly anti-domestication position also creates the possibility for much-needed alliances with radical environmentalists, green anarchists, and those engaged in indigenous struggles.

“[T]he driving back of the human species to pre-invasion boundaries,” as Ronnie Lee says, needs to be a priority.  This means that as a defensive measure, habitat preservation needs to be a priority and, as an offensive measure, human claimed terrain needs to be returned to the animals who once occupied it.  Too often, matters of habitat preservation are left  for environmentalists to address on their own as if an animal could be severed from her environment without being harmed in the process.  The current activist division of labor that puts individual animals (primarily domesticated animals) within the sphere of the animal rights movement and habitat preservation (and species level interests) within the sphere of environmentalists is dysfunctional.

As a final point, I would extend the idea of no domesticated animals even further–probably leaving the AR movement at this point–and suggest that the vision to pursue is one where even humans are no longer domesticated animals but are once again themselves wild.

 

 

 

Is There No Room for Rod Coronado in the Animal Rights Movement? The Problem with Veganism as the Moral Baseline

It is almost difficult to believe that the accomplishments of Rod Coronado can all be attributed to a single person with abilities not too different than our own; in this way he has demonstrated what is possible.  It does not take superhero powers to sink a whaling ship, light a match, or set an animal free from a cage.  It does, of course, take a fair amount of bravery to put one’s beliefs into action but that is well within our abilities.

Rod Coronado has dealt serious body blows to the whaling industry, the fur industry, and the animal experimentation industry.  Animals who seemed destined to spend their lives in locked cages only to meet violent deaths were set free by a stranger who arrived in the night, risked—and ultimately—sacrificed his freedom to give them a chance to be free.  The mind reels at what an animal be must be thinking and feeling as a cage door is opened by a stranger, her torment is over, and she escapes into the night.

 Having been released from prison and now off of probation, Rod Coronado is once again defending animals.  With the profile he has created for himself and the scrutiny he will forever be operating under, his tactics, at this point, are exclusively within the confines of the law.  Coronado is currently engaged in a speaking tour aimed at building momentum amongst the grassroots to stop wolf hunting in states where it is currently legal.

But is He Vegan?

But there is a lingering question about Rod Coronado that many animal rights activists can’t help but worry about: Is Rod Coronado currently vegan?  In 2006, he told the LA Weekly that he was not vegan at that time; he was also not vegan during his time as a fugitive. On the current speaking tour, Coronado was asked  by Jon Hochschartner if he was currently vegan and Coronado said he was not. (I was not present at that talk at Skidmore College but did see Coronado speak in Eugene, Oregon where the question was not raised.) The question has also been raised and vigorously debated in various online venues. Comrade Black conducted an interview with Coronado for Profane Existence regarding the current speaking tour and was criticized for not explicitly asking if Coronado is vegan.

The question then becomes what to  make of this fact: Rod Coronado is not vegan.  One who strictly adheres to the notion of “veganism as a moral baseline” would necessarily have to condemn Coronado. [1] [2] Such condemnations run the risk of dismissing what Coronado has done, and continues to do, for animals.  It may prioritize his consumer choices over and above the fact that his actions for animals have indisputably saved lives and served as inspiration for others to perform similar actions; and it is not an abstract set of animals that Coronado has “saved” but particular individuals. 

The “veganism as a moral baseline” idea is most commonly used to demarcate “us” and “them”; it goes beyond the claim that veganism is praiseworthy or even morally obligatory and posits the veganism is the litmus test for credibility and participation within the movement.  Deviating from a vegan diet (or perhaps more accurately a vegan lifestyle) cannot be compensated for with other actions.  If Coronado is not vegan, then he can and must be dismissed; his actions on behalf of animals are essentially irrelavent in this discussion.  Theoretically he could have delivered a knock-out blow to the fur industry and we could be living a in a world free of fur farms and his non-vegan diet would nonetheless mean that he was not one of “us” (animal advocates  in good standing) but essentially still one of “them” (animal exploiters).

This not only seems bizarre to me but also depressingly self-defeating.  Is there genuinely no room in the animal rights movement for Rod Coronado?

Excommunicating Ex-Vegans?

To be clear, I would fault Coronado for consuming animal products but could not deny that he is fighting more passionately for the world I want to see than I am.  The animal rights movement need not excommunicate someone for deviating from veganism; at some point we came to feel as though we must but we really do not have turn people away like this.  At the same time, letting go of the “veganism as the moral baseline” idea does not mean we should stop promoting veganism.  Veganism can be zealously promoted while simultaneously accepting the support and the participation of nonvegans and ex-vegans in an animal rights movement.  We may see wider acceptable of veganism if people are allowed to participate and share what is in their heart before they have radically altered their diet.

“Veganism as the moral baseline” may simply create an unnecessarily high barrier to entry into the animal rights movement.  As Dylan Powell recently wrote “An issue…that should have a broad focus gets presented through a very specific and normative lens and typically one that is very demanding”.  The demandingness likel y satisfies our ego but may do so at the expense of the overall movement.  Furthermore, it is an idiosyncratic demandingness: foregoing dairy creamer is perhaps demanding in some sense but liberating animals from cages and risking imprisonment is demanding in a whole different way.  Perhaps both are morally obligatory but the former is expected according to the “veganism is the moral baseline” catechism while literal liberation is not even consistently lauded (as it happens, many of “veganism as the moral baseline” adherents would would likely condemn such an act as violence).

A Movement Without Allies

The full threat that Rod Coronado has represented is his commitment to earth liberation, animal liberation, and indigenous resistance.   The ability of someone like Rod Coronado to unite these movements is a real danger to industries that exploit the earth and its animal constituents.  As he explained in the Profane Existence interview, “animals and nature…are ground up by the same machines” and so opportunities for solidarity between these movements are everywhere.

Yet “veganism as the moral baseline” dogma effectively eliminates the possibility of the animal rights movement building meaningful alliances with other social justice movements even ones as closely related to its aims as earth liberation and indigenous resistance. 

The animal liberation movement has proven itself quite skilled in finding enemies but given the industrial scale of the atrocities compared with the meagerness of our resources, we would be wise to start looking for friends.

Conclusion: Rod as Reductio

In the end, it is my claim that any movement dedicated to animal rights and/or animal liberation, that does not have room for someone like Rod Coronado is seriously flawed to the point of being almost incoherent and self-defeatingly insular. The example of Rod Coronado serves as a reductio ad absurdum argument against the “veganism as the moral basline” position.  If Rod Coronado is not for animal liberation, then no one is.

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NOTE: Future dates on Rod Coronado’s speaking tour include:

  • Thursday March 20th Oakland CA. 7PM at The Holdout: 2313 San Pablo Avenue, near 23rd ST.
  • Friday March 21st San Francisco CA. 7pm at The Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics: 518 Valencia Street, near 16th Street BART.
  • Saturday March 22nd Animal Liberation Forum in Long Beach CA at 12pm.
  • Sunday March 23rd Animal Advocacy Museum in Pasadena CA. at 6pm.
  • Monday March 24th Fresno State University at 6pm, building TBA. 
  • Thursday March 27th Humboldt State University.
Rod Coronado at Strong Hearts Cafe in Syracuse, NY (www.strongheartscafe.com)

Rod Coronado at Strong Hearts Cafe in Syracuse, NY (www.strongheartscafe.com)