Tag Archives: Environment

Why I’m Giving Beyoncé’s Vegan Campaign a Chance

Beyoncé and Jay-Z shocked mainstream news and vegan activists alike when they announced that fans who pledge to go plant-based have a chance to win free tickets to their concerts for life.

Some vegans have not been so enthusiastic about the campaign, citing that veganism “for the health” is not the same as veganism “for the animals,” and that veganism is not something that can be “forced” on others.

Whose Veganism is It Anyway?

To this I would counter that, although some (myself included) may understand veganism to be a matter of anti-speciesism, vegans should hesitate to insist that the Eurocentric interpretation of veganism is the only valid approach.

As a practical matter, a “master frame” of veganism is not especially useful in the context of a diverse audience. Personally, I critique the hegemonic vegan frame which is highly bureaucratized and prioritizes capitalist interests over the interests of effective social change (which I argue inevitably undermines veganism). To be able to criticize hegemonic veganism from this angle, however, is a reflection of my white privilege.

As a white person, I have to concede that other ethnicities will have other priorities. These include the deadly consequences of food deserts and food insecurity as well as the role that “animality” as a social construct has played in the oppression of people of color. These are priorities which have been beautifully outlined by activist scholars such as Dr. Breeze Harper and Aph & Syl Ko.

I concede that “my” veganism will not be the veganism that other folk feel compelled to adopt.

The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Beyoncé definitely does not count as a “vegan” according to this definition. She claims to eat animals’ flesh occasionally since it’s “all about moderation.” I assume her stage outfits make use of real birds’ feathers and cows’ skin as well. Her makeup is probably produced from slaughterhouse renderings and tested on other animals. She could exclude these things quite “possibly” and “practicably.”

But is The Vegan Society’s definition the only definition that matters? More specifically, is it the only definition which should apply to everyone? What about people of color living in a racialized society?

I suggest that the vegan identity is multifaceted and that the terms of engagement must be contextualized.

Cultural Force

In any case, I think it is a stretch to claim that Bey (who is not even a vegan herself) is “forcing” veganism on others. Fans who claim to go vegan (how can their veganism even be verified?) only have a chance to win free tickets, they are not guaranteed free tickets. Attending expensive music concerts is not a requirement, it is only recreational. Nor do Bey or Jay-Z require a complete transition since they also promote reducetarianism or “meatless Mondays.”

As I have uncovered in my research on flexitarian campaigns of this kind, many people already identify as someone who does not eat “that much” meat or dairy, since reducing animal product consumption is seen as a social good (unlike veganism which is interpreted as “extreme”). Importantly, the flexitarian identity does not often correlate with actual behavior change. In some cases, those who identify as flexitarian actually consume more animal products than their non-flexitarian-identifying counterparts.

That said, Bey is using her cultural clout to promote a social good. This is no different from the efforts of white celebrities like Moby, Morrissey, and, if you stretch it, Miley Cyrus. Morrissey reportedly bans all sale of animal flesh at his concerts–is he forcing his fans to be vegetarian?

True, celebrities are rarely trained in social justice activism, and their politics are not always perfect. I also find it uncomfortable that society should rely on celebrities to promote social goods since celebrities, given their extreme wealth, are the very embodiment of social inequality. Yet, Bey is putting her money where her mouth is–she is using her celebrity and privilege to make the world a better place through the channels available to her.

As this essay goes to print, Senator Cory Booker (also a person of color) has just announced his bid for presidency. He is a fierce social justice advocate and a longtime vegan. But he, too, promotes veganism for a wide variety of reasons which do not always center other animals. Would the movement be so quick (and foolhardy) to write off Cory Booker if he were to become our first vegan president? Need the vegan movement even have to wait for a vegan president? Beyoncé is practically American royalty, after all. Her clout arguably exceeds that of Booker’s.

Whether white activists like it or not, celebrity influencers shape the cultural landscape. The vegan identity (unlike the flexitarian identity) is a highly stigmatized one, and social movements will need to normalize its goals before they can be widely adopted. If Queen Bey makes vegan cool, it might not be “for the right reasons” (that is, it might not seek to advance the interests of Nonhuman Animals), but it can have a significant impact on the community she serves.

The Master Frame

Social movement scholars acknowledge that collectives strategically design frames which are hoped to resonate with their audiences. Multiple frames can be at work, but it is sometimes the case that a “master frame” will come to dominate in the movement’s repertoire. The utility of a master frame is its ability to present a strong, united front to the public and policy-makers. The downside is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach can be unrealistic given that audiences (and activists themselves) are not necessarily homogenous. Persuasion is a complicated matter and it sometimes takes many approaches to push a social justice agenda.

The Vegan Society, which formed in 1944 Britain and officially launched the political concept of “veganism” in the West following a protracted debate with The Vegetarian Society, may have prioritized veganism as a matter of anti-speciesism, but, from its very conception, it drew on a diverse framework relating to human health, poverty and famine, war, and individual autonomy. Indeed, The Vegan Society, today, continues a multipronged approach.

As the society moved into the 21st century, it continued to promote veganism, not necessarily as an endeavor to liberate other animals, but as something “normal” and achievable. Its vegan labeling scheme, for instance, was a major campaign in this effort. I have my issues with such an approach given its pro-capitalist leanings and its watering down of the anti-speciesist radical politic, but it is the case nonetheless that the expansion of commercially available vegan products has made veganism easier to perform.

Beyoncé has been dragged before for not meeting the expectations of white activist frames. White feminists, for instance, have criticized her brand of feminism as sexually objectifying and complicit with patriarchy, if not ignored it altogether. Black feminists have responded by reminding the community that there is no one “Feminism” (capital F) but rather many feminisms, and the failure to embrace Black women’s activism reflects white supremacy in the public space.

Because inequality does not stop at the door of social justice movements, activists must consider how inequality can sometimes shape strategy. Who is the “master” in developing the “master frame”? What I am suggesting is that the “master frame” is too frequently racialized in its construction.

Likewise, the need to control the vegan discourse and the very definition of veganism itself is rooted in colonial politics. As European countries pushed their culture onto “inferior” and “ignorant” subjects, they expected full assimilation. There was little patience for adaptation or nuance; it was simply presumed that European cultural values were universal and should be adopted unquestioningly. This is the very definition of cultural domination.

In this vein, it must be remembered that, while non-Western countries have their own histories of plant-based resistance, “Veganism” (capital V) as it is understood and politicized today, is a deeply European concept. White activists must tread carefully when attempting to impose “their” veganism on “others.” Indeed, the vegan movement, dominated as it is by white activists, has been less than welcoming to the veganisms of other cultures. This is problematic if the goal is to expand veganism beyond middle-class white spaces.

Most people go vegan and stay vegan because of their concern for other animals. Bey’s health-centric, flexitarian approach does not alter this research-supported fact. But Bey also has a wider cultural influence and represents a nonwhite consumer base that has been traditionally overlooked by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. I am interested to see if her efforts will contribute to the larger discourse. I am also deeply supportive of women of color who have the “audacity” to be political in a white-dominated cultural landscape. Celebrity persuasion is far from perfect, but it can contribute to the destigmitization of veganism. This cultural normalcy was The Vegan Society’s aim all along.

 


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Readers can learn more about the racial politics 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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How Dawn Saves Wildlife While Killing Other Animals En Masse

Soap and Species Solidarity

Under the banner, “Dawn Saves Wildlife,” Dawn dish soap has for decades been advertised as the weapon of choice for those working to assist free-living animals who have harmed by oil spills.  Commercials which promote this project frequently depict precious little ducklings and squat penguins wiggling clean and free out of a foamy Dawn bath back into nature.

The scheme has become foundational to Dawn’s brand image over the decades.  For instance, these nonhuman survivors are often featured on dish soap bottles, and Dawn also hosts a website specifically designed to promote its work with free-living animals.  In the past, it has donated at least a million dollars toward wildlife rescue efforts.

Dawn soap saves animals in removing deadly oil and chemicals from industrial accidents, the Dawn company saves animals by funding conservation, and the warm-hearted customer saves animals in purchasing Dawn products.

But a critical vegan analysis unravels this corporate greenwashing for what it is: a scheme to increase sales which is based on the systematic oppression of many species, both domesticated and free-living.

What’s in a Bottle?

Most mainstream detergents are based in slaughterhouse renderings. Commercial soaps, Dawn included, are produced from the fat of pigs, cows, chickens, or other species who meet gruesome ends in abattoirs.

Dawn is also a product of Procter & Gamble, a corporation which has maintained its commitment to outdated and violent Nonhuman Animal testing in the face of decades of protest from the Nonhuman Animal rights movement.

Furthermore, commercial detergents like Dawn which are flushed down millions of drains across the United States pose a direct risk to free-living species whose habitats are disrupted by algae blooms, fragrances, anti-bacterial agents, and other additives.

Veganism vs. Greenwashing

Thus, Dawn products are predicated on the torture and killing of all manner of Nonhuman Animals, while the suffering of free-living animals harmed by industrial disasters is cruelly exploited to promote the brand. Dawn’s approach is typical of corporate greenwashing in its attempt to add marketable value by appealing to societal interest sustainability and species solidarity. Ultimately, however, Dawn’s effort is vacuous.

Products that are not vegan and do not work harmoniously with the environment undermine the wellbeing of Nonhuman Animals. Fortunately, vegan alternatives are becoming increasingly easy to find and comparable in cost.  Some folks even make their own washing up liquid to reduce their consumption of plastic. A variety of recipes to accomplish this are freely available online.


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Readers can learn more about critical 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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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. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Peter Singer and the Charity of Western Imperialism

Covert Capitalism and Western Benevolence

A current fad in social justice strategy is the concept of “effective altruism,” made popular in vegan circles by wealthy Princeton University professor and “father” of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, Peter Singer. Singer is involved in a number of outreach efforts designed to rationalize charity, notably “The Life You Can Save” giving project. Effective altruists (who tend to be monied, Western whites) first choose what they believe to be the best and most effective charities in collaboration with nonprofit strategists, and then encourage others to rationally share their wealth by donating to them. By “taking the pledge” to donate a certain percentage of income to charity, those with the means to do so can supposedly alleviate the world’s woes.

This essay argues that, while important, aid is not the answer to injustice.  This position is primarily based on the fact that aid has had a long sordid history in third world countries. Western elites usually only give aid to countries if there is an expectation of a return on their investment, such as creating a dependency on Western products, locking them under Western control with debt, and pressuring them to “free” their markets to Western capital. Some of the disastrous results have included forced sterilization projects, the spread of Western diseases of affluence, the infiltration of polluting and unsustainable industries, the destruction of traditional foodways, and a dependence on the West in general.  In short, aid has been a project of Western imperialism.

Effective For Who?

The fundamental problem with the concept of effective altruism is that it is predicated on elite-designed algorithms and the preferences of capitalists. In other words, how problems are identified, defined, and solved is left up to the very class of persons who benefit from the problems. Inevitably, some of the most vulnerable groups will be overlooked. For instance, Singer’s choice charities are problematic in that none, as of this writing, target Nonhuman Animals. If rational impact maximization truly shapes effective altruism, this omission is suspect. Not only do Nonhuman Animals lead in number of individuals impacted, but their suffering is directly linked to the suffering of humans and the environment.  Targeting the consumption of Nonhuman Animals (an activity that is especially linked to Western culture) would be the most utilitarian solution.

Singer does, however, support Project Healthy Children, a charity that pushes Western-approved foods on African children.  This includes cows’ milk, even though most Africans are lactose intolerant, milk is directly linked to a litany of deadly human diseases, milk production is notoriously destructive to the environment, and milk causes immense suffering for the cows and goats forced to produce it (see Greta Gaard’s research).

Effective altruism also overlooks serious structural problems that impede equality. Instead of demanding justice and disrupting the exploitative practices of corporations and the elites that manage them, it solicits a modest redistribution from a sympathetic few. Consider that Big Pharma could easily relieve victims of malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and other diseases ravaging the third world that effective altruists target.  Instead, the Western-led pharmaceutical industry inflates the prices of the drugs to many times the actual cost in regions where disease congregates.  It also heavily lobbies to protect “intellectual property” and prevent affordable generic alternatives from hitting the market. Introducing checks and balances into the structure of health and medicine could have monumentally positive impacts on the world’s poor, an impact that would far exceed the impact of donations.

Also suspect is Singer’s support for Population Services International, a charity designed to decrease the world’s population, or, more specifically, the population of third world countries. Anti-population groups are often responsible for forced and coerced sterilization projects on vulnerable women in poor regions of the world. Because poor people are a burden to the capitalist system,  “population control” in third world regions has become a top priority of Western governments and aid projects. Millions of women have been psychologically devastated, socially ostracized, violated, hurt, maimed, and killed due to these policies.

Most fundamentally, it is important to recognize that these large populations of poor and vulnerable persons do not emerge from happenstance; they are products of an exploitative global economic system. What Singer’s project overlooks is that the underlying problem here is not a lack of funds, it is the capitalist system that originates social inequalities and chronic destitution.  So long as this system remains in tact, there will always be need for charities and donations. And it will never be enough.

 

The NonProfit Industrial Complex

Lubricating this capitalist/charity system is the manifestation of the nonprofit regime. The nonprofitization of social change has positioned the state and the industries it serves in control over justice efforts, effectively nullifying radical liberatory politics. Notably, the public imagination for protest has been framed as deviant and replaced with the more rational, effective strategy of donating. This is decidedly a very pro-capitalist, neoliberal solution, but neoliberal capitalism has been identified as the root originator of inequality.


“Helping others” is just that: help, not structural change.  Nonprofits, unfortunately, cannot prioritize radical restructuring because such an agenda is off-putting to the conservative foundations that issue their grant money (these foundations were created by wealthy elites who profit from the exploitation of the very oppressed persons nonprofits purport to help). Corporations and the state benefit from radical disempowerment, because radical claimsmaking is a threat to the capitalist agenda.  It disrupts the status-quo that benefits the elite and naturalizes the suffering of the oppressed.

Instead, nonprofits are in the business of social services, doing the work that is made necessary by the capitalist exploitation that the state facilitates but does not “pay” for itself.  Big industries become big by exploiting the poor and benefiting from state allocations. It becomes the responsibility of well-to-do altruists to relieve those damages when the state will not (or cannot). Of course, not everyone can afford to participate in this variation of social change work. As such, with the public convinced that financial participation is the only legitimate means of helping others, they become disempowered. Nonprofits find little use for the time, services, creativity, organizational skills, or leadership that public volunteers can offer. Primarily, they simply desire regular donations.

Furthermore, nonprofits are disproportionately staffed by wealthy, white educated men who invariably harbor privileged worldviews, and this will shape how they frame social problems and their solutions. By allocating charity work to nonprofits, the public forfeits control over social change to elites. This situation is likely to foster considerable bias.

 

Radicalize Your Giving

Donation is not completely useless, as some money does reach communities that can benefit considerably from it. However, for those who are determined to donate (and have the means to do so), it may be advisable to donate to grassroots efforts in areas of need. In doing so, money is placed directly into the hands of those who need it, not nonprofits that must accommodate the interests of elites.

Social change requires the collective effort of thousands, even millions of people. Not all will have the means to donate financially.  When social change is reduced to a series of financial transactions, its tie to social change weakens, but its tie to capitalist expansion is emboldened. Capitalism is full of holes that are regularly plugged with charity and other bailouts. As such, effective altruism is actually rather irrational in sustaining an economic system that necessitates inequality.

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on December 20, 2013.


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

Readers can learn more about the capitalist politics of Nonhuman Animal rights movement 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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