How Effective is the Vegan Lecture? Exam Scores Tell a Horrifying Story

How Many Animals Killed?

Can you estimate how many animals are killed for food in the United States each year?

In 2015, I added this innocuous extra credit question at the end of an exam in my Introduction to Sociology course. Since we had discussed violence against animals in class, students had been assigned readings on the topic, and it was explicitly listed in the study guide, I expected that most students would guess in the ballpark of several billion. Instead, many were reporting numbers in the several millions, or even several thousands. The lowest guess was just 2,000.

I was so utterly astonished by the exam results, I was compelled to repeat the question on future exams. I have shared my findings in an open-access article with the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food. Over the course of seven semesters, I eventually presented the question to nearly 200 students. All students (presuming they did not skip class) had been exposed to an 80 minute lecture on human/nonhuman relationships. This lecture clearly stated the FAO statistics on the numbers of animals killed in the United States (about 10 billion). I even made sure to linger on the sheer magnitude of individuals killed.

Results

Sixty-six percent of the class significantly underestimated the number of animals killed, and only 29% offered a reasonable estimate of between several billion and trillion (I clarified in lecture that FAO statistics do not include aquatic life). About 1 in 5 students were not even confident enough to hazard even a guess. Because 2% of students grossly overestimated the number of animals killed, the class average was skewed. However, the median response was in the millions. The bottom 10% of student responses averaged just 24,667. About that many chickens are killed every one and a half minutes in the United States (or 9 billion annually).

Predictably, students who scored A’s and B’s were more likely to guess an appropriate number. This suggests that students with good classroom behavior and study hygiene are more likely to retain information (at least up to the exam date). There was no significant correlation with gender.

Low Food Literacy

Low food literacy is well-documented across developing countries by food justice organizations, states, and industries which work to manipulate consumer decisions and public nutrition. Sociologically speaking, the systematic killing of other animals has been effectively removed from our social sensibility. Most consumers only relate to other animals as packaged products and menu items. Psychologically speaking, people employ a number of cognitive barriers to avoid uncomfortable knowledge.

The reasons for low food literacy are many, but the results presented here are especially sobering. Afterall, these are college-educated adults who have been trained to think critically and are exposed to current events, global trends, and multiculturalism. These are also college students who had been specifically exposed to information about nonhuman experiences in the food system. This suggests to me an inherent limitation to lecture as a means of lasting knowledge transmission.

Are Lectures Effective?

My suspicion is that, as Sociology 101 is a survey course, I am obligated to cover a large variety of sociological theories, concepts, and trends. I am not able to frequently return to each and every concept to aid with retention–that privilege is granted to key theories and paradigms. For vegan lecturers outside of academia, these results suggest that one-off lectures may not be sufficient to persuade. However, in research I conducted in 2017, I did find that a significant number of respondents became vegan after having watched a film or read a book on the topic.

There are a number of methodological shortcomings to this research. For one, my Introduction to Sociology course is aimed at first-year students, meaning that many respondents were still finding their academic footing. Second, I offered no control group. The estimates provided by my experimental group were so very low, however, I would find it hard to believe that a control group would have done much worse in having not been exposed to lecture.

I also did not conduct a post-test to measure if the knowledge was retained beyond the exam. After the exam, I went over the extra credit results with the class. When I explained how numbers so low could not possibly be accurate given that several thousand nonhumans are killed just to sustain the university cafeteria each semester, many students laughed and nodded. I would be curious to know if this debriefing had any effect on knowledge retention.

Readers can access the entire article here.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Why Food Justice is a Feminist Issue

In an interview with Alternet’sHere’s Why Our Food Systems are a Central Feminist Issue,” I was asked to elaborate on women’s contributions to critical food justice and how current sexual politics inhibit or even invisiblize women’s contributions today.

Both the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and the environmental movement, I note, were established by women who strategically employed stereotypes about women’s proper role in nurturing and caring. This strategy was necessary to gain access to the public sphere in an era in which women were expected to remain inside the home and well outside of politics.

Unfortunately, this feminization persists in modern food justice efforts. Sociological and psychological research supports that environmental and vegan campaigns and products are less likely to find male support simply due to this feminization. This gender divide translates into a serious barrier to success given that men’s recognition is necessary for a movement to gain legitimacy in a patriarchal society.

Rather than celebrate women’s contributions to anti-speciesist efforts, the vegan movement has opted to elevate men in campaigning and leadership. This, to me, is indicative of intersectional failure. Patriarchal bargains are unlikely to liberate Nonhuman Animals given the historical relationship between sexism and speciesism:

… the fact that men have to be involved to bring legitimacy to a cause demonstrates that we still haven’t come to terms with the underlying ideological roots to oppression.

Readers can access the entire interview here.

 


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Readers can learn more about feminism and veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The “Deserted Island” Vegan Scenario is a Reality for Millions

What’s in a Meme?

When presented with veganism, nonvegans may be understandably curious about the limitations of vegan principles in real-world scenarios and conflicts (“Would you swat a mosquito?”). Sometimes, however, nonvegans present fantastical scenarios to truly test these limits. Perhaps one of the most frequent scenarios employed by nonvegans asks vegans how they might survive if they found themselves on a deserted island.

Top half of meme pictures an island in the ocean and reads, "Next time someone asks you...'What if you were stranded on a desert island, and all there was to eat was animals, would you eat them?"; Bottom half of meme pictures a bounty of fruits and vegetables in a market stall and reads, "Ask them...'What if you lived in civilization where there is an abundance of food of all kinds, would you choose to kill animals for no reason?'"

This particular thought activity makes little sense on its surface. After all, how many of us are likely to find ourselves on a deserted island adrift in the ocean? For that matter, folks in real-world survival situations have been known to engage in all manner of morally questionable behaviors. This includes everything from killing and eating dogs to killing and eating humans. The point is that we may understandably make exceptions to our ethics when we are under extreme circumstances.

Being presented with this variant of the “what if” scenario is something of a rite of passage for many vegans. Accordingly, the vegan community has reclaimed the trope for a laugh.

Picture of a man and a pig on an island; reads: "Then the inevitable happened to Paul"Image from Vegan Chowhound

Real-life Deserted Islands

Although these memes are well-meaning, they provide an interesting example of white and middle-class privilege in vegan claimsmaking. As has been argued by Dr. Breeze Harper, mainstream vegan discourse too often defaults to a post-racial, “colorblind,” or classless approach to outreach efforts. This approach overlooks important demographic differences regarding the applicability or appropriateness of vegan proscriptions for change.

Picture of a distressed woman; reads "I want to go vegan but I keep getting stranded on deserted islands"

In a world still bound by a legacy of colonialism and racism, “deserted islands” of oppressed communities abound. It is a fact that millions of folks in developed and developing countries do live in emergency situations. Food deserts, which disproportionately impact poor persons and people of color, are real-life “deserted island” scenarios. Those living in food deserts experience structural inequalities that make healthy and ethical food choices nearly impossible.

The hypothetical “deserted island” scenario is meant test the limits of veganism. If one was to find themselves so isolated and limited in resources, would one, lacking any alternative, consider eating something (or someone) that compromised one’s scruples? Yet, for a large section of the human population, this is no thought experiment. Food security is a real-life, on-going, unrelenting emergency.

Subsequently, in order to realize a vegan world, activists must contend with capitalist exploitation, structural inequality, and environmental racism. Those living in society’s”desert islands” do not have the same access and resources as privileged folks living on the “mainland.” Rather than interrogate those who are trapped on figurative islands, activists should support efforts to increase access and affordability.

 

A version of this essay was originally published on December 7, 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of overpopulation in vegan rhetoric in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Can Veganism Save the World? This is Hope

Although human relationships with the environment grow increasingly of interest to the scientific community, this same community resists a serious consideration of the role that Nonhuman Animals play in human ecology. In the green discourse, Nonhuman Animals are either objectified or ignored altogether.

As such, the critical exploration of human-nonhuman relationships in the context of climate change and environmental justice is largely relegated to activist scholars. One such researcher is Will Anderson, who’s This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology presents the first comprehensive book in which Nonhuman Animals are included in the discussion as meaningful agents. Arguably, Anderson’s work acts an environmentally-focused version of Singer’s Animal Liberation. Its central thesis is that environmentalism makes no sense so long as humans persist in their systematic violence against Nonhuman Animals.

“Managing” Nature and Other Animals

The bulk of environmental literature speaks of Nonhuman Animals, not as individuals, but as abstract species categories. When individuals are lost from consideration, any number of injustices can be enacted upon them in the name of “conservation.” This includes “hunting” and lethal “wildlife management.”

In This Is Hope, readers learn how “hunters” artificially remove individuals from the environment to the effect of tampering with evolution. “Hunting” ensures that genes are systematically eliminated from populations in ways that would not otherwise occur naturally. This surely occurs when “hunters” target males, specifically those with larger bodies or more impressive antlers.

Subsequently, humans intentionally create fragile ecosystems that will require human management. The projects of “humane washing” and “green washing” are leveraged by animal exploiters and apologists to justify this forced management. As a result, continued exploitation is abetted while the more ethical (and logical) vegan solution goes ignored.

Environmental Injustice for Other Animals

Anderson’s book offers an extensive overview of how Nonhuman Animals, both domesticated and free-living, are impacted by human activity. This predominately occurs through a process of otherization. The division currently existent between humans and other animals is, as he indicates, socially constructed by humans.

His approach to this thesis is personal. Anderson shares many of his own interactions with various Nonhuman Animal communities and environmental groups to support his claims. Readers learn how Nonhuman Animals matter to the environmental discourse through case studies, research reviews, scientific evaluations of sentience, and the emotional power of anecdotal stories.

There is a discussion of the complexities involved in human and nonhuman oppression. Poverty, ecocide, misogyny, speciesism and other oppressions, he insists, are all interrelated. He also touches on the complexities involved with navigating violence against Nonhuman Animals among indigenous populations.

A fundamental issue of environmental justice for other animals is what Anderson refers to as “neo-predation.” Human predation on Nonhuman Animals is exacerbated because it is based on the increasing human population and its increasing consumption. In simply taking up space, creating noise pollution, laying roads and structural barriers, and introducing invasive species (like cows and crops), humans inflict wide-reaching damage.

A Vegan Ecology

Many significant obstacles to creating a vegan ecology exist. For one, environmentalists are wary to adopt veganism for fear of appearing too sentimental. This problem is one that is faced by many feminized social movements. The nonprofit industrial complex also seems to be at work, since so many professionalized, funding-dependent NGOs dominate the arena of conservation. They are evidenced to stifle radical discourse.

According to Anderson, differing cultural beliefs regarding the environment and Nonhuman Animals means that change-makers have no agreed upon goals. This, in turn, makes collaboration difficult. The nonprofit industry’s hyperfocus on membership and financial support is another complicating factor. “Hunters,” being important funders, enjoy the protection of their interests and a silencing of anti-speciesist ideas. Likewise, professionalized groups generally skirt association with veganism to avoid seeming unreasonable. Finally, the wealth of counter-claimsmaking promulgated by “fur,” “fishing,” and “wildlife management” industries also inhibits progress.

Points to Consider

Empathy

Anderson’s thesis is predicated on his case for the critical importance of “empathy.” However, “empathy” strategies could overshadow the material strategies necessary to truly protect and respect other animals. I would suggest that the logic of social justice and rights may be more effective or should at least be incorporated.

Empathy, while foundational to social justice efforts, could actually maintain human superiority if not buttressed. For instance, feminists do not argue that women deserve recognition and protection only because men should empathize with them. Instead, most feminists insist that women matter because they are sentient beings in their own right who deserve to be free of violence. For some two hundred years, women have rallied to codify this recognition in law and culture. Empathy is important in motivating concern, but I would hesitate to build a theory of social justice on wavering emotional states.

Carnism

Second, Anderson liberally draws on the language of “carnism “coined by Dr. Melanie Joy to describe neo-predation and anthropocentric human ecology. As I have argued elsewhere, “carnism” is a corruption of the more inclusive accurate term “speciesism.” Carnism refers specifically to consuming Nonhuman Animals for food, but a truly vegan approach would recognize that violence against animals entails much more than what humans eat. Animal liberation also extends to what humans wear, how they entertain themselves, and how they exploit other animals for labor, science, and so forth.

Overpopulation

Third, Anderson runs into problems with his focus on human population. He mostly discusses human population growth in the abstract sense, yet it is developing countries where this growth is specifically occurring. Population has largely stagnated or even declined in the West, where individuals have greater wealth and access to social services. Thus, those who politicize human population should be careful to consider just which groups of people are under scrutiny. It is usually the world’s poor and disadvantaged.

People of the Third World bear little responsibility for the destruction and occupation of nature. That responsibility is placed squarely with privileged Western populations. Anderson acknowledges global social inequalities throughout the text, but he, unfortunately, fails to do so in the context of population discussion. Population growth needs to be stopped and reversed, he insists, but exactly how this plan will be implemented goes unexamined. In reality, anti-population growth initiatives violently target poor brown peoples, specifically vulnerable women.

Privilege of Place and Movement

Anderson also suggests that people living in areas in which food must be transported at high cost or in areas that require large amounts of energy for heating and cooling should consider moving. Yet, this is an option generally only available to the socially privileged.

Indeed, a similar shortcoming arises when Anderson suggests that all populations of the world are “uniquely responsible” for the environmental crisis: “There are no exceptions” (303):

Rich and poor, indefensible over-consumers and low-scale consumers, all are drawn into the fray because we each have our varying degrees of impact that require responses. (304)

However, the majority of the world’s human population is so incredibly impoverished that its most pressing responsibility lies in basic survival. Furthermore, Anderson’s narrative of shared responsibility overlooks centuries of Western domination that has manifested this dramatic inequality. Anderson calls for change-makers to adopt “humanity” as their primary identity over nationality, ethnicity, or tribal identification. But, this position overlooks serious social and global hierarchies.

Hope

Although This is Hope repeats many problematic tropes endemic to the vegan movement’s failure to think intersectionally, its merit lies in its faith in change. Veganism, Anderson insists, is the most important means to diminish social inequality and suffering in human and nonhuman societies. For this reason, it remains a vital text in climate change resistance strategies.

A version of this essay was originally published in 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of overpopulation in vegan rhetoric in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Veganism “At All Costs” Costs Animals

As my academic interests have turned to intersections of human and nonhuman inequality, I’ve come to recognize that many entanglements of oppression operate unchallenged within social justice spaces themselves. Unfortunately, the Nonhuman Animal rights/vegan movement presents a rich case study for sexism, racism, sizism, and classism. It also perfectly demonstrates the callous engagement of victim-blaming to protect this violence.

Once confronted with criticisms intramovement violence, many activists react by doubling down on discriminatory attitudes. Others simply ignore the problem altogether. Acknowledging intersectional failure is too often framed as “bad for the cause,” “drama,” or “attention-seeking.” This reaction is almost predictable given that the movement is dominated by those occupying positions of gender, race, body, or class privilege. Subsequently, the notion that veganism should be promoted at all costs, regardless of who it hurts, emerges as the movement mantra.

Violence in anti-speciesism efforts is a political problem. For one, it silences and intimidates existing activists. Silenced and intimidated activists are hardly effective ones. This violence also works to repel newcomers from participating. The strategy of pushing veganism at all costs while ignoring violence in the ranks means that new recruits will enter the movement only to bounce right back out. Worse, they may become victims, too. There is an imperative for activists to get their own house in order before welcoming new participants if the goal is to retain and sustain new vegans. It is even more important if the goal is to undermine violence rather than replicate it.

In The Revolution Starts at Home, activists across the social justice spectrum have observed that accusations of “creating drama” are employed so as to avoid airing a movement’s “dirty laundry.” This strategy is indicative of victim-blaming. By blaming the victim for the structural problems the victim identifies, the activist community attempts to redirect guilt and culpability. For instance, should they point out problems of racism, they are likely to be accused of racism themselves for the audacity of bringing up race in a society that is supposedly post-racial. Women who critique sexist patterns in the movement may be accused of hurting Nonhuman Animals with their selfishness. Victims are made to feel illogical, unreasonable, and insincere as a result. This is, curiously, a defense strategy that vegans themselves face when confronting nonvegans. The irony, however, is lost.

As a tactical matter, oppression cannot be undermined within a social movement community with willed ignorance.  As a philosophical matter, it is simply counterintuitive to proclaim that violence against animals should be combatted “at all costs” while simultaneously failing to address the more accessible suffering of human animals within the community. If the anti-speciesism movement cannot be a safe space for activists, it cannot be a powerful force. Instead, it only contributes to the culture of violence so abhorred by vegans.

The expectation is that presenting a false front of unity and cheerfulness will be more enticing to newcomers. But, again, ignoring the problem does not eliminate the problem. New activists lured under false pretenses are not likely to remain in the long term.

A version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on December 4, 2013.


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The Problem with Milk Not Jails

Food Justice and Prison Abolition

The American prison system threatens not only urban communities but extends into rural areas as well. The food justice movement has become increasingly aware of this association and has aligned with other collectives focused on prison abolition. Strategies often entail combatting incarceration by providing employment and economic growth. They hope to accomplish this by reconnecting the community with value-added food production and mindful consumption.

New York-based collective Milk Not Jails is one such initiative. Small farming in the United States has become less and less profitable, while, in contrast, the exploding private prison industry offers many tantalizing opportunities for profit. Milk Not Jails posits that the decline of animal agriculture has encouraged impoverished rural areas to switch from the mass incarceration of Nonhuman Animals to the mass incarceration of people of color. Subsequently, it advocates that communities switch out prisons with more dairies as a measure of resistance. It also engages in heavy community outreach to increase the demand for dairy and sustain the model.

Intersectional Failure

As with many anthropocentric food justice campaigns, Milk Not Jails exhibits a limited intersectional perspective. While Milk Not Jails hopes to alleviate the systematic exploitation of vulnerable lower class communities and communities of color, it does so by bolstering the systematic exploitation of vulnerable nonhumans.

Intersectional failure is a term that legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw applies to situations in which activists prioritize relatively privileged groups in social justice campaigns. Her work, for instance, has examined how the Black Lives Matter movement prioritizes men of color, giving scant attention or leadership opportunities to women of color.

Social movement theory supports Crenshaw’s concerns. Researchers have observed that a lack of intersectional awareness and poor coalition-building decrease a movement’s ability to resonate, gather resources, and reach goals.

Dairy and Environmental Inequality

Milk Not Jails exemplifies this intersectional failure in several ways. First, dairy production (and any Nonhuman Animal production for that matter) is not sustainable. Even localized farming practices create large amounts of waste and pollution. Nonhuman Animals made “livestock” consume massive amounts of water and grain, regardless if they lived on small farms or factory farms.

Climate change is the inevitable result of these farming practices. Indeed, the United Nations has identified animal agriculture as the leading contributor to greenhouse gas, surpassing even that created by transportation. Climate change is an injustice to all of Earth’s inhabitants, but it disproportionately harms vulnerables in the Third World.

Domestically, Nonhuman Animal agricultural operations are usually located in areas of poverty. They disproportionately impact poor whites and people of color who do not have the political power to resist stinky, polluting, dangerous agricultural facilities. Milk Not Jails may be only aggravating this environmental injustice.

Dairy and Colonial Conquest

Second, diets based in Nonhuman Animal products are rooted in a colonialist history. Sociologists have observed that colonial expansion was largely fueled by the desire to expand animal agriculture. This refers not only to the expansion of production but also the expansion of consumption. The traditional diets of many colonized people (such as those living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) are plant-based. As colonized peoples were absorbed into settler cultures, their traditional diets were undermined and replaced by Western dietary expectations.

As a result, people of color living in the West today suffer the ill effects of animal products dumped on their communities at artificially low prices under the guise of healthfulness. Dairy is especially suspect, as most people of color are lactose intolerant. Biologically, people of European descent are more likely to exhibit the genetic glitch that allows them to consume the breastmilk of another species far past the age of weaning. Given its roots in white settler culture, dairy is promoted as “normal” and “natural” even though most humans cannot safely consume it.

Dairy and Class Oppression

Third, the consumption of dairy (and other Nonhuman Animal products) is directly linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, gout, obesity, and a litany of other serious, life-threatening illnesses. Diet related diseases already disproportionately impact poor persons and communities of color.

Dairy and Species Oppression

Fourth, dairies are themselves prisons. From a vegan perspective, Milk Not Jails truly advocates Nonhuman Jails Not Human Jails. Farmers forcibly impregnate young cows repeatedly in order to produce breastmilk for human consumption. These mothers, still babies themselves, must endure the intense grief and anxiety of separation from their children. Calves are most frequently removed within the first 24 hours and fed on formula so that all of mother’s milk can be redirected to humans.

Today’s cows, due to genetic manipulation, produce about ten times the amount of breastmilk they otherwise would. As a result, about 1 in 4 dairy cows suffers mastitis, a painful infection of the udder.

Although cows live about two decades without human intervention, their bodies become so worn out from dairy production that most are deemed “spent” and sent to slaughter before they reach the age of six. Many of them are too sick and disabled to walk to their death. These victims are termed “downers” and are often pushed to slaughter with forklifts.

Female calves are doomed to the same fate as their mothers. Male calves are jailed in veal crates. Veal facilities typically imprison babies in isolation and darkness. Their diet and movement are restricted to ensure that their muscles remain anemic, underdeveloped, and “tender” for the consumer. Consequently, many babies are too weak to walk to slaughter. Many go lose their sight, wits, and lives before their execution.

Milk Not Jails hopes to bring justice to vulnerable communities. By relying on nonhuman breastmilk to achieve that goal, it demonstrates a critical instersectional failure. By promoting dairy, activists are inadvertently promoting the continued oppression of people of color, peoples of the Third World, lower class persons, and nonhuman persons.

 

A version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 23, 2013.


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Readers can learn more about intersections of gender, race, and class in vegan politics in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Should Vegans Have Children?

When it comes to vegans having children, it seems like everybody has an opinion. However, public commentators on the politics of vegan procreation are disproportionately men. This suggests to me that the critique of vegan parenthood may be bound by the patriarchal sexual politics of vegan activism.

As I have published elsewhere, women’s bodies are systematically objectified and exploited for vegan protest in two ways. First, female activists are utilized in degrading protests that highlight their lower status and sexual availability. Secondly, female consumers are targeted and derided as the primary contributors to violence against animals. The disparagement of procreation, I suspect, simply acts as another channel for men’s suppression of female autonomy.

What is Anti-Natalism?

Vegan anti-natalists may oppose procreation on two fronts. First, having children is seen to be morally problematic given the inability for children to consent to be born. This approach also presumes that life inherently entails great suffering at the individual level. Second, anti-natalists argue that it is unfair and unethical to burden the planet further with resource-needy human beings. Although the first argument–that life entails suffering–persists in vegan circles, it is primarily the latter argument–that humans should not burden the earth by multiplying–that predominates in the discourse.

As I explore in my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights, overpopulation rhetoric frequently operates as code for stereotypical thinking and discriminatory actions against women, specifically poor women of color living in the Third World. Most Western vegans think about overpopulation in “other” countries as abstracted and distant. But women in the movement are reachable and preachable. Subsequently, it is exceedingly common for male movement leaders to chastise their female audiences for considering procreation. Although men certainly exist in activist communities, too, about 80% of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is female-identified. Its leaders are disproportionately male. Thus, the procreation discourse is, by default, mostly men talking to mostly women.

Vegan Sexual Politics

This essay is not intended to delve into the morality of having children. Instead, I want to highlight the explicitly gendered nature of the procreation debate. Although the vegan movement touts bodily autonomy for Nonhuman Animals, it strangely avoids granting the same principle to women. Consequently, women are chastised for wanting to procreate. It is this patriarchal denial of bodily autonomy which I suspect undergirds the vegan anti-natalist position. After all, many men in the radical wing of the movement also chastise women for wanting to abort (which they frame as violence against a vulnerable body).

Although veganism is a movement for animal autonomy, within the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, men maintain institutional and interpersonal control over women’s bodies. Men, who predominate as leaders and influencers, are largely responsible for dictating what is considered appropriate protest behavior. Their anti-natalism rhetoric is simply an extension of this patriarchal control. It also exemplifies men’s perceived expertise on issues not related to or only indirectly related them. Most fundamentally, it demonstrates a patriarchal entitlement to women’s behavior and discourse.

What about Adoption?

Sometimes, vegan anti-natalist opinion leaders tout adoption as an alternative (just as vegans promote adopting dogs and cats rather than purpose-breeding them for companionship). Adoption, of course, is a prosocial behavior and should be embraced and celebrated. Yet, there is an element of objectification in adoption discourse and practice. Adoption is presented as a sort of savior behavior. The adopter class is valorized, while the adoptee class is subjugated and reified.

Furthermore, the exploitative nature of adoption industries is well documented. Many families are forcibly or coercively separated so that corporations and charities can obtain the requisite number of adoptable children. In many social realms, adoption is a highly lucrative industry.

Finally, adoption is a privilege. It is not a form of parenthood that is equally accessible to all. Parenting requires considerable financial investment. The relative poverty experienced by many adults in the 21st century makes adoption untenable. Parenting also entails considerable physical and psychological investment. The capability of meeting these requirements varies considerably.

To procreate? To adopt? These are relevant philosophical questions that social justice movements rightly contemplate. However, the gendered structure in which this discourse takes place must be examined.

 

A version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 23, 2013.


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Readers can learn more about the vegan politics of procreation and gender in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Solving Moral Conflicts in a Non-Vegan World

In “How to Help When It Hurts?” my friend and colleague Cheryl Abbate considers an ethical conundrum often facing vegan activists, advocates, and rescuers who feel responsible for the well-being of Nonhuman Animals in adverse conditions with conflicting needs. In cases of genuine moral conflict, she suggests an application of the guardianship principle to assist with decisionmaking.

By way of an example, obligate carnivores like lions who are rescued from circuses and zoos deserve a chance to thrive in sanctuaries, but their ability to thrive is predicated upon harm inflicted against other animals who must be killed for their food. Rather than support systematic violence against cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals whose bodies are purchased as food for sanctuary inmates, Abbate suggests that sanctuaries, as guardians, might take up “hunting” (a euphemism for the killing of free-living animals).

There are a number of key flaws with this application of the guardianship principle. First, although Abbate frames a sanctuary’s decision to “hunt” as a case-by-case decision, that free-living animals (specifically deers) are considered a tappable resource indicates that their status is not much higher than that of traditionally farmed animals. Abbate counters that deers, unlike rescued carnivores and farmed animals, have a higher quality of life having lived free from human oppression. Their being slated for death suggests otherwise. Worse, they are being made to pay the dearest price for humanity’s moral wrongs. If humans are responsible for the injustice suffered by carnivorous refugees, why would human flesh not be offered in retribution?

Deer communities, incidentally, are regularly harmed by humans, too. Humans “manage” their populations, constrict their movements and migrations with boundaries and barriers, and terrorize them with automobiles and pollution. Although this life is pitted as superior given the relative freedom that deers experience, Abbate contradictorily banks on the difficulties of life in the wild (poor weather, hunger, disease, and overpopulation) as justification for sacrificing deers. This justification, however, brings up some troubling assumptions about right-to-life for ill or disabled bodies. It also harkens on a colonialist politic in assuming that demographics coded as inferior must be “managed” by “guardians.”

Obviously, solving moral conflicts such as these is no easy task, but complicating the issue is the tendency for advocates, philosophers, and consumers to constrain themselves to individual-level thinking. Sociology recognizes that oppression stems from a society’s economic mode of production. In this case, it is capitalism’s reliance on animal bodies that has created the oppressive behaviors and attitudes facing circus refugees, farmed animals, and free-living species. The problem, in other words, is much bigger than unethical or irresponsible individual choices. Only through a vegan restructuring of society will painful moral conflicts be eliminated. Whether or not sanctuaries rely on farmed animals as foodstuffs is beside the point; as long as human society is built on speciesism, farmed animals will continue to be killed en masse.

The assumption that consumers control the path of production is a misleading, if predominant, belief that has its roots in the nonprofit logic of the animal rights movement. It is actually industry and the state which control production such that sanctuaries turning to hunting are not likely to reduce the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses. Great quantities of animal products are now produced, and these quantities only increase by the year as markets deepen and expand. Consumer boycott has not been shown to be an effective means of reducing animal fatalities given state and industry control. Veganism’s political power lies in its ability to shift public consciousness and challenge the legitimacy of industries and the state, not in actually reducing the number of individuals killed in production. There must be cultural support for veganism and a political reconfiguring before the numbers begin to drop.

Little Tyke

So how to manage the conflict in lieu of a vegan world? Given the limited capability of consumer boycott in a society in which consumers have very little control, using the bodies of farmed animals who are being killed at high volumes regardless of vegan protest may be an acceptable short-term solution. The vast quantity of edible animal products which go to waste might be repurposed for sanctuaries as well. Universities, for instance, often host food recovery programs to systematize the redistribution of leftover food to the needy. Sanctuaries might also develop such a program.

That said, efforts should be invested in obtaining (or even developing) healthful and tasty plant-based or at least partially-plant based menus for carnivorous refugees. Indeed, veterinary research supports that large cats (such as the hypothetical lion used in Abbate’s thought experiment) can survive healthfully on a vegan diet. There is also the famous case of Little Tyke, a lioness raised on a farm who refused to eat flesh. She lived the whole of her life on a plant-based diet by her own choosing.

Whatever the short-term solution, it is necessary that change-makers begin to conceptualize social problems as systemic. This will entail a move away from individualized solutions that wrongfully pit sanctuaries and consumers as responsible for violence against animals. Individualistic thinking renders invisible the state, industries, and the structures the two have created to normalize and reproduce speciesism.

My full response was published with the Animal Studies Journal and may be read here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about vegan economies and the politics of consumption in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Is This What Vegan Looks Like?

In the June 2018 issue of Women’s Health UK, I was interviewed on the prevailing stereotype of angry vegans that has dominated British media in recent months. In the article, I clarify that, although most animal rights activists and vegans are women, patriarchal norms endemic to society and social movements push men (especially hegemonic ones) to the spotlight. It’s not an especially fair portrayal and neither is it representative:

Whereas women, who are well aware that their emotionality will be framed as “hysterical,” tend to focus more on mediation, education and community-building. It’s tragic that long-standing peaceful leaders in the vegan movement are suddenly being held accountable for the actions of an extreme few.

Readers can access the entire interview here.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of gender in the animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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What is Intersectionality?

Mainstream theories of social inequality frequently compartmentalize experiences, but inequality rarely works that way in real life. Instead, individuals are comprised of many different identities at once, and these identities will interact with one another in unique ways.

Furthermore, multiple systems and institutions are simultaneously at work in a given society. So, for instance, simply focusing on race as an identity and white supremacy as an institution ignores the fact that race will be experienced differently by people with different genders, ages, sexualities, abilities, and nationalities.

This schema is known as intersectionality, and it is a concept that emerges out of Black feminist thought.

In animal studies, vegan feminists employ this framework to argue that one’s life chances will be shaped, not just by one’s race, class, or gender, but also by their species. Vegan feminists also recognize the influence of an additional system….human supremacy.

For animals, we want to be thinking about how historical constructions of race, class, gender, and other identities shape how animals are thought about and how they are treated. Female-bodied animals, for example, are more likely to be exploited in the food industry given their ability to produce breastmilk, eggs, and babies. In another example, some animals that are associated with communities of color, like pit bulls, are more susceptible to punitive and often lethal breed restriction policies.

Meanwhile, for human justice theorists, it will be important to recognize how human oppression is always shaped by processes of species inequality. For instance, women and people of color have historically been animalized, and this animalization is inseparable from the oppression they face today.

Given that species, class, race, gender, and other identity categories are all historically constructed using similar mechanisms (such as animalization, objectification, sexualization, depersonalization, denaming, and so on), it is important to apply an intersectional perspective to achieve a more accurate understanding of oppression for nonhuman animals and humans alike.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of vegan feminism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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