Tag Archives: Science

Veganism and Alternative Facts

The Role of Scientific Claimsmaking in a Rationalized Movementscape

One of the defining features of the 21st-century Nonhuman Animal rights movement is its move to increase rationalization. This is a process that prioritizes efficacy, control, and calculability of operations (Wrenn 2016). It is also especially concerned with fundraising and bureaucratic growth.

The social movement arena is a crowded one, however, and taking this predictable path makes it difficult for organizations to stand out in their effort to attract large grants and donations. One increasingly utilized strategy to get an edge on the competition is to demonstrate the efficacy of that organization’s chosen tactic.

With the lives of so many Nonhuman Animals on the line, investing more resources into learning what tactics are more or less effective is vital. However, social movement organizations often evoke scientific research to support their preexisting strategies and ideologies. Research that demonstrates contrary results may be ignored; research that provides weak results may be overly hyped.

As we know to be true of political debates transpiring in mainstream media, “alternative facts” and “fake news” can easily dominate in the social movement discourse as well. Few activists will be bothered to investigate the truthfulness of the claims being made. Even fewer have the skills necessary to determine the validity or reliability of scientific results. This essay is designed to highlight some issues for activists to consider when determining the usefulness of tactical research.

The Importance of Significance

A widely circulated and celebrated Faunalytics study, “Reduce” Or “Go Veg”? Effects On Meal Choice, exposed diners at a university cafe to two videos. One promoted a flexitarian solution, the other vegetarianism. Afterward, researchers tracked participant meal choices to ascertain if exposure to either film was influential. The findings?

After a reduction advocacy video, 25.8% of participants ordered a meatless meal, versus 18.9% after a vegetarian advocacy video (a marginally significant difference). (p.4)

Significance is key. It is the difference between a measurable correlation between variables (x influencing y) and random occurance (x just happens to actify when y does). The more significant the statistical result, the more confidence we can have in a correlational relationship existing between two variables. In this case, we are interested in the relationship between exposure to a particular message (x) and subsequent meal choice (y).

If the difference between the two messages is “marginally significant,” why not go with the morally consistent one? I believe the findings were misinterpreted in an effort to lend scientific support to outreach behaviors already engaged by nonprofits. These behaviors tend to be individualistic, one-off, and, given their avoidance of animal liberation and vegan language, more appealing to potential funders.

The professionalized movement has a propensity for aggravating vegan stigma, a persistent trend I have uncovered in an extensive content analysis of movement publications. Other researchers have noted blatant underreporting on existing vegan numbers as well.

The Faunalytics study also found that more people reported that they would be willing to reduce their consumption of “meat” than those who indicated they would be willing to eliminate it altogether. But what does this flexitarian claim really mean? The professionalized Nonhuman Animal rights movement has for many years now adopted the “meet people where they are” approach which does little, if anything, to push people past their existing dietary habits. Although vegan and vegetarian consumption is stigmatized behavior, it is also recognized as a social good (a paradox explained by do-gooder derogation). In other words, folks are more likely to report in such a way that puts them in a positive light, even if it is not an accurate representation of their behavior.

What about the actual “marginally significant” behavior change? Having folks immediately order a single meatless meal is not necessarily any better than successfully recruiting fewer vegetarians. Vegetarians and vegans (who, by the way, are more likely to commit when it their consumption is not viewed as a diet but instead becomes part of their identity) will order infinite meatless meals over their lifetime. Theoretically, they will far surpass their flexitarian counterparts in their capacity to reduce harm to other animals.

Spuriousness

It is also important to consider other things that might be influencing behavior (y). Crime rates tend to go up in the summer at the same time ice cream sales rise. Does this mean that ice cream consumption (x) causes crime (y)? No, of course not. There is a spurious relationship between the two which can be pinned on the warm weather which makes ice cream more palatable and crime more enticing (stealing cars, for instance, is less appealing when it is freezing outside). Social science researchers shy away from causation language for this reason (ie. “x causes y“).

There are so many confounding variables in social science research, it can be difficult to assign weight to the results. With regard to the study in question, we might first consider social psychological barriers. Asking people to go vegetarian on the spot is unrealistic; many people need time to process and consider (McDonald 2000). Caught off guard on the way to eat a meal already planned in their head, how many more would change their choice if given more time to contemplate?

For most of us, when we go to a local restaurant for lunch, we are taking time out of the busiest part of our day to visit a place (and a menu) already well known to us. That is, we have made our meal choice before we even arrived. Many folks (myself included) go out to eat with a general idea of what they will be ordering when they arrive to the restaurant. Perhaps you can recall the feeling of arriving a favorite restaurant and your preferred meal choice is sold out, or, you visit a new restaurant for the first time and cannot decide. It can be flustering! Indeed, having to make a choice can sometimes be taxing or anxiety-inducing. This is one reason why people are creatures of habit. It is less cognitively taxing.

Furthermore, a coffee shop is a strange place to conduct a study of this kind, as this is not a typical sort of place one might go for a regular meal. Many of the veg options (such as those offered by the experiment location: eggplant, tofu, etc.) are likely to be unfamiliar to the average pizza, burger, and taco eating university student. Here, the confounding variable might be consumer familiarity with non-flesh foods.

The percieved  accusatory approach may also be problematic. Social psychologist Hank Rothgerber finds, for instance, that participants may double down in their commitment to speciesism when they suspect that they are being expected to abstain. These folks brazenly reported that they planned to eat more Nonhuman Animals.

Sociology would further suggest that group dynamics are relevant here. The Faunalytics study focuses on individual patrons, but the presence of others (or lack thereof) influences how individuals process information and behave. The presentation of veganism as something that is trendy and socially normative is also important for recruitment. This study, in utilizing an experimental design, attempts to isolate action and reaction, but the social world is not so simplistic. 

The Problem of Generalizability

Another recent study on vegan motivation by Trent Grassian (A New Way of Eating: Creating Meat Reducers, Vegetarians and Vegans) is a bit more realistic in capturing real-world behaviors. It did not demonstrate very positive result for the flexitarian approach. The main finding?

Those with the strictest goals (i.e. vegans) were the most likely to be meeting their reduction goals (78%), while meat reducers were the least likely (39%).

While meat reducers were more likely to reduce than not in the first month, the reverse was true afterward, with 54% being temporary reducers at six months, 36% long-term reducers and 10% no longer consuming meat.

Flexitarians also reported that they planned on eating more animal products (such as fish flesh or birds’ eggs) to compensate.

Grassian’s study surveyed participants in various veg pledges hosted by Nonhuman Animal advocacy and veg organizations. He also employed focus groups to allow participants to share  more in-depth explanations.

Triangulation is important in order to account for inevitable shortcomings in various approaches. Interviewees may  not be entirely clear when engaging with a researcher for instance, but additional surveys may improve the study’s validity. Triangulating in this way also improves generalizability, that is, how applicable the results from a study’s sample will be to the general population.

A random sample is also important for achieving generalizability, but this was not accomplished with the Grassian study which studied people who had already signed up for a veg pledge. His respondents were disproportionately white, female, and middle-class, a demographic that is consistent with the larger Nonhuman Animal rights movement, but not very representative of the population.

The Faunalytics study was stronger in this regard as it targeted random cafe customers, but this cafe is located on a Canadian university campus. University students are over-represented in vegan motivational research. They are easily accessible to academics for obvious reasons, but also to activist researchers since university campuses are open to the public, have heavy footfall, and are populated with young people who are more willing to respond to requests for interviews and experimental participation for little or no cost. However, the average university student in the West is not representative of the general population. University students are disproportionately white, middle- and upper-class, urban, and well educated.

Because many vegan organizations actively target university students as their primary audience, this may not be a serious issue. If, however, they wish to reach out to underserved demographics (such as older persons, communities of color, lower income communities, and so on), they will want to be wary. What motivates a white middle-class university student is not necessarily what will motivate the average person.

Given these issues, researchers have an ethical obligation to refrain from making sweeping claims about what works based on one precarious study. This research (and their claims) will influence countless organizations, activists, and Nonhuman Animals.

What to Believe?

Science is notoriously politial. Everyone has an agenda, and funding (or lack thereof) can influence the types of questions asked, the findings, and the interpretation of the findings. In the Trump era, the malleability of science is repeatedly bombasted in an effort to confuse the population and erode its trust in social institutions. We should resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to vegan science.

Instead, activists should be mindful and practice critical thinking. Know where the research is coming from, who conducted it, and what motivates them. Certainly, before any research is put into practical action, social movement actors should investigate the research for themselves.

Works Cited

Anderson, J. 2020. “‘Reduce’ or ‘Go Veg’? Effects on Meal Choice. Faunalytics.

Grassian, T. 2019. A New Way of Eating: Creating Meat Reducers, Vegetarians
and Vegans
. University of Kent.

McDonald, B. 2000. “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It.’ An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.Society & Animals 8 (1): 1-23.

Wrenn, C. 2016. A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. London: Palgrave.

Wrenn, C. 2018. Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism. Society & Animals 26 (4). Online first. DOI: 10.1163/15685306-12341544.


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Moral Licensing

What is Moral Licensing?

In one fascinating psychological study, researchers found that doing a bit of good gives folks the license to do something naughty (Sachdeva et al. 2009). So, for instance, a person may go for a jog and then feel they can reward themselves with a box of donuts. Maybe that person participates in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes to raise awareness to domestic violence and later feel licensed to use pornography later.

When it comes to human relationships with other animals, this moral licensing could have implications for vegan activism. If someone donates to an animal charity, for instance, perhaps they feel they can “treat” themselves to some chickens’ wings later. Researchers would refer to this as a sort of moral self-regulation or licensing.

Limited Evidence

Although it is often the case that consumers will try to suppress any guilt they may feel for complacency in animal suffering by buying cage-free or donating to an animal welfare group, it is not necessarily the case that they will feel compelled to hurt Nonhuman Animals more as a result of acting prosocially.  Indeed, replication studies on moral licensing have not supported the existence of this psychological effect (Blanken et al. 2015).

Instead, cognitive dissonance is more likely at play. Cognitive dissonance occurs when folks become uneasy when confronted with a disconnect between their values and behaviors and then attempt to alleviate that conflict. Nonvegans can either tweak their values or behaviors to achieve psychological equilibrium. It is often the case that consumer values and behaviors shift toward the speciesist. In other words, when confronted with their empathy for other animals, some nonvegans double-down on their nonveganism to ease cognitive dissonance, not to engage in moral self-regulation.

Although moral licensing has little scientific support, it does remind us of the importance of scientific rigor. To be reliable, evidence should be supported by multiple studies. Activists, meanwhile, should investigate the source of scientific findings and determine their veracity before applying them to social movement efforts.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Moral licensing is not strongly supported by research
  • Individuals who practice prosocial behavior toward animals are not likely to “treat” themselves to speciesist practices in exchange

References

Blanken, I., N. van de Ven, and M. Zeelenberg. 2015. “A Meta-Analytic Review of Moral Licensing.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41 (4): 540-558.

Sachdeva, S., R. Iliev, and D. Medin. 2009. “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation.” Psychological Science 20: 523-528.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Alternative Medicine, Vivisection, and Scientific Racism

As I have grown more interested in alternative healing over the years, I have dutifully hit the scientific journals to verify if particular products are actually evidenced to work. This is necessary given that the natural healing industry has been known to make all number of unverified promises with little governmental regulation to protect consumers. It has also come under fire for targeting the especially vulnerable (such as sick, disabled, and older persons).

As is more commonly known, many Nonhuman Animals (like rhinoceroses and tigers) are exploited and killed in the production of alternative medicines in Eastern cultures to fulfill fantastical claims, but lesser attention is given to this same systematic oppression in the West. As it turns out, many romanticized natural cures (like essential oils and even salt rock lamps) are examined in gruesome laboratory tests as companies recognize that such tests can add value and credibility to their products. Thus, products may be labeled “natural” and lobbed at alternative lifestyle communities, but it does not follow that the products’ claims are ethically-sourced.

I think it is safe to say that most consumers fail to consider the possibility that their natural care products were developed through the harming of other animals, and when it does come to their attention, it is assumed that any testing is done out of necessity. The vast majority of vivisection, however, does not relate to life-or-death research, but instead serves the medical-industrial complex and has little utility in determining health consequences for humans.

More than a profit-making venture, however, vivisection also relies on white-centric ideologies. In the case of alternative healing, Western science’s deep distrust of all things Eastern or indigenous spawns much of this oppressive animal testing in an effort to “prove” what marginalized communities have known for generations without having to resort to forcing mice to swim to death (to test the impact of a natural supplement on endurance) or decapitating rats to inspect their brains (to measure the influence of exposure to rock salt lamps).

Scientists refer to these cruel, lethal, and unjust tests as “sacrifice,” as though nonhumans were not being tortured or murdered, but were rather offered up in the service of the greater, necessary good by scientists who have no alternative. As a scientist myself, I am deeply committed to the principles of systematic observation, but I also recognize that Western science’s deep-rooted racism automatically de-legitimates the systematic observation already undertaken by non-white, Eastern, and indigenous communities. Should we commit to institutional inclusivity and start lending credibility and dignity to those marked as “other,” we could have science without the sacrifice.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of science, race, and speciesism 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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Trump Veganism? Research Finds a Highly Intersectional American Vegan Movement

Following the explosion of identity politics that culminated in the shocking 2016 presidential win for Donald Trump, I was curious as to whether these wider cultural trends could be related to the vocal resistance to intersectionality and feminist theory in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, a phenomenon I have dubbed “Trump veganism.” In my article, “Trump Veganism: A Political Survey of American Vegans in the Era of Identity Politics,” published with the peer-reviewed, open-access sociological journal Societies, I surveyed almost 300 American vegans to ascertain their political attitudes and propensity for intersectional awareness and behavior. 

Previous research conducted of vegetarians and animal rights activists from the 1990s and 2000s found this demographic to be particularly left-leaning, and my survey results supported this trend. In fact, this was a very liberal group. The majority were atheist or agnostic, most voted for Hillary, quite a few identified as socialist or anarchist, almost half chose not to report their gender, and about 40% were non-heterosexual. Most respondents were white, under 35, and female-identified.

Yet, there was a streak of conservativism that did give pause. For instance, 14% of respondents either supported Trump or were neutral to his campaign. These conservative vegans participated in slightly fewer social justice movements other than veganism. They were also more likely to be vegan for reasons of personal health, not out of concern for other animals. Even liberal voters demonstrated some level of conservativism when it came to vegan ethics. When asked if they supported the concept of “Nonhumans first,” about half of all respondents agreed.

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement has a bit of a bum rap given its historical legacy of exploiting racist and colonialist tensions to advance its interests. My research supports that, while activists are eager to prioritize the interests of Nonhuman Animals in their campaigning, they are certainly not ignorant of human oppression. Respondents believed that other social justice movements were relevant to speciesism. They were involved with four other social justice movements on average. Respondents also indicated that they did not believe the vegan movement did enough to prioritize diversity, especially women and people of color.

Presuming this sample to be generalizable, Trump veganism can be said to be a marginal position in the American vegan movement. Instead, this demographic is politically intelligent and heavily involved in a variety of social justice efforts. These respondents are certainly not ignorant to the suffering of marginalized humans and its relationship to speciesism.

 


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Readers can learn more about intersectional politics in the 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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Do You Know the Most Common Mistake in Animal Activism?

Effective Animal Advocacy

As a social scientist specializing in social movement theory as it applies to the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I am often dismayed that so many vegan activists consciously dismiss the importance of research in their commitment to prioritizing activism. This likely reflects a general conservative suspicion with science (an ironic attitude given that science is such an important ally to social justice), exacerbation over the critical plight of Nonhuman Animals, or even plain ol’ human stubbornness.

I argue that this “Activism First” skittishness of science constitutes a serious blunder. The liberation of Nonhuman Animals will not come willynilly, through good fortune, or even with dedication and hard work. Tactics must be supported with research and guided by science to ascertain their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the power, politics, and egos of social justice work frequently trump a genuine and necessary interest in what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved. As a researcher in this field who has studied extensively the science of social movements and the politics of anti-speciesism, my biggest piece of advice to vegan activists is to pause a moment and do some assessment.

I am certainly not making a case for elitism. Innovation in tactics should be fostered, and sometimes this will emerge from newcomers and the unstudied. However, it is a strategic failing when the majority of a movement’s activists have zero training in effective activism and few have bothered to read the scientific theory of social movements and social change. This is an enormous, unnecessary, and avoidable disadvantage.

To presume ourselves experts and leaders in social change without also adopting the role of student exemplifies human arrogance, entitlement, and privilege. Activists must be life-long students in order to be effective leaders. If Nonhuman Animals are counting on us, we are obligated to aspire to our best.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.Readers can learn more about the science of effective activism and the importance of research in movement repertoires 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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Study Shows Objectified Women Less Likely to be Activists

PETA Naked Protest

 

A study published in Psychological Science finds that women who self-objectify are less likely to challenge the status quo of gender inequality. These findings could have serious implications for the Nonhuman Animal rights repertoire.

Anti-speciesism activism, in general, supports the notion that women are sexual objects that can be exploited for recruitment and fundraising.  Women (especially young, thin, white women) are repeatedly exposed to movement norms which expect them to take off their clothes and pose in sexually provocative ways “for the animals.” If these norms should begin to internalize and feed self-objectification for female activists, this could seriously disempower the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Young women comprise the movement’s largest demographic and should be nurtured rather than exploited to achieve effective social change.

Women who are objectified and consequently objectify themselves are less likely to affect liberation. As the research suggests, self-objectification is an important impediment to achieving social justice because “objects don’t object.” I have noticed that countermovement activity has attempted to frame vegans as weak, unpatriotic, weird, etc., but I have also noticed that vegan women have been eroticized. This is intentional: sexualizing others disempowers them. When women are reduced to sexual objects, this undercuts their political power and their ability to resonate. When they self-objectify in response to existing in a sexist cultural space, they are even further depoliticized. If the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is actively replicating this process, it could be doing the movement considerable damage (in addition to reinforcing sexism, an ethical problem in of itself).

Read more:

Rachel M. Calogero.  2013.  “Objects Don’t Object:  Evidence that Self-Objectification Disrupts Women’s Social Activism.”  Psychological Science 24(3): 312-8.

Abstract:

Integrating system-justification and objectification theories, the research reported here broadens the scope of prior work on women’s self-objectification to examine its system-justifying function. I investigated the relation of trait and state self-objectification to support for the gender status quo and engagement in gender-based social activism among U.S. college women. Study 1 established that greater trait self-objectification was related to more gender-specific system justification and less engagement in gender-based social activism. The data supported a mediational model in which gender-specific system justification mediated the link between trait self-objectification and social activism. Results from Study 2, in which self-objectification was situationally activated, confirmed the same mediational model. These findings suggest that trait and state self-objectification may be part of a wider pattern of system-justifying behavior that maintains gender inequality and thwarts women’s pursuit of social justice.

Read a summary from The Raw Story here.

 
This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on February 13, 2013.


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Readers can learn more about the dangers of engaging sexism in Nonhuman Animal rights activism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Selling Cancer to Beat Cancer? When Nonvegan Foods Go Pink for Profit

Yoplait Breast Cancer Campaign logoVegan theory acknowledges not only the systematic violence imposed on vulnerable Nonhuman Animals but also the tendency for this oppression to intersect with the suffering of vulnerable humans. One such instance occurs in the pink ribbon “find a cure” campaign.

There is a tendency for companies that peddle carcinogenic products to go pink to increase sales. Caring about cancer is commodified, with the well-being of both women and other animals undermined. For instance, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) was, at one time, donating proceeds from every bucket purchased of deep-fried chicken parts to fund cancer research. That is, KFC encouraged the consumption of chickens to fight cancer, although the consumption of these body parts are known to cause cancer.

In another example, dairy consumption is linked with increased breast cancer occurrence, recurrence, and mortality, but Yoplait brands its yogurt products as cancer friendly with its “Save Lids to Save Lives” marketing scheme:

The goal of Save Lids to Save Lives is to support the millions of people who have been impacted by breast cancer by raising awareness and funding to fight the disease.

If Yoplait’s goal really is to save lives (and not to bandwagon on a serious disease to profit from public fear and sympathy), then Yoplait might consider changing out its animal ingredients.

Instead, Yoplait works to make their carcinogenic product “synonymous” with fighting cancer:

For many, Yoplait has become as synonymous with breast cancer research as we are with yogurt. We are proud that over the last 15 years, our commitment to the cause has resulted in nearly $35 million from all our donation programs. Because of this, programs like Save Lids to Save Lives have given many women the support they need when they need it most. However, we can still do more.

I agree, we can still do more. How? First, there is a need to prioritize prevention over “cures.” Cure research is an extremely profitable enterprise, and for the amount of resources it entails, offers very few beneficial results. Much of this research is conducted through vivisection, a speciesist, archaic, and scientifically unsound approach (which also happens to be an extremely profitable enterprise).

Prevention programs require just a fraction of the billions expended on cure research. Importantly, these programs could aid vulnerable human demographics in avoiding suffering and death. They could also spare billions of Nonhuman Animals exploited to both create these dangerous products and test their toxicity.

Prioritizing cure research and trumpeting more consumption to support it is conducive to corporate interests, but a truly effective strategy for combating cancer would entail a focus on prevention. This must begin with structural support for food choices not shown to be carcinogenic (meaning there will be no place for fried chickens or dairy-based yogurt). For those who also wish to support cancer research, they might consider donating directly to animal-friendly cancer foundations, a much more efficient strategy than collecting yogurt lids.

A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on March 20, 2013.


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Readers can learn more about the intersections of capitalism and speciesism 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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If You Care about Animals, In-Vitro Meat is Not the Answer

In Vitro Meat

Posed as the perfect neoliberal solution to relieving speciesism while protecting markets and consumer desires, a number of non-profits have positioned themselves in support of in vitro research in pursuit of “lab grown meat.” However, I am critical of solutions that seek to address the inherent problems of free market capitalism with yet more free market capitalism.

Consider that in vitro meat, while theoretically sparing millions of nonhumans the torture of agricultural industries, completely overlooks the millions of other nonhumans raised in the food system who are not directly slaughtered for their flesh, as well as those who exist outside the food industry altogether. Indeed, the most glaring shortcoming of the in vitro scheme is that it overlooks speciesist attitudes as problematic in of themselves.

In vitro meat purports to meet the supposedly insatiable public demand for Nonhuman Animal flesh (a demand that is, incidentally, artificially controlled by industry) without the guilty conscience of knowing this consumption requires the killing of Nonhuman Animals or considerable environmental pollution. Yet, only a portion of the nonhumans humans exploit are specifically raised for “meat.” In vitro schemes beg the question as to what will happen to nonhumans who are indirectly killed for flesh when their bodies become unproductive in other industries.

Dairy cattle, veal calves, wool producing sheep, layer hens, and racehorses, for example, all go to slaughter when their bodies become “spent” and they become a burden on the industry. Unless dairy and eggs become obsolete, these animals will still be sent to their deaths regardless of in vitro markets.

And what of “leather” and “fur”? In vitro meat does nothing to reduce the demand for animal flesh used for fashion.

What of rodeos, zoos, and circuses? In vitro is totally unrelated.

And vivisection? Not only does in vitro fail to solve the problem of using Nonhuman Animals as test subjects, but it will inevitably require considerable amounts of pain and death to create in vitro meat.

In a nutshell, the in vitro meat scheme ignores speciesism. It ignores an ideology of oppression. Beyond excluding many other facets of animal exploitation, it also condones the consumption and oppression of Nonhuman Animals as a symbolic matter. To “okay” this behavior, even if it is not directly hurting the select few nonhumans represented, is hugely detrimental to the advancement of Nonhuman Animal rights.

Consider a campaign to reduce sexual harassment and violence against women in which non-profits and activists strategically offer blow up dolls or “real dolls” for men to insult, beat, brutalize, or otherwise have their way with. Surely, some women will directly benefit in having the wrongs usually inflicted upon them now inflicted on their non-sentient representations. But, one must consider the symbolic consequences that will inevitably arise in a society that has normalized objectifying, sexist, and violent attitudes towards women. One could not expect that the position of women would be advanced to any significant extent if representations of women (that are actual objects) are made freely available for the privileged to buy, sell, trade, consume, and dominate. Sexism and violence would (and do) continue against women. This happens because such a strategy only supports women’s subjugated status and aggravates their objectification. A society that symbolically normalizes oppression will facilitate actual oppression. That’s common sense.

 

Finished faces wait to be united with their respective Real Doll bodies. Real Dolls is a San Diego based company that makes hi-end silicone sex dolls. The dolls sell for about $7000 each and can be customized to the clients needs. .

Technology has provided a number of substitutes for women’s bodies, but normalizing this desire to own and abuse women has serious consequences for real women are still hurt at epidemic levels in a misogynistic society.

 

If activists are in the business of combating speciesism, then in vitro meat should not be included on the tactical platter. It’s only meaningful relationship to anti-speciesism is its potential to assuage the human guilt that inevitably arises from the unnecessary consumption of sentients. The core concern, that being the rights owed to Nonhuman Animals, is obscured. Incidentally, in vitro meat schemes also ignore the terrible damage that animal products inflict on the health of vulnerable human communities.

This willful obfuscation is a strong indication that in vitro meat is a manifestation of post-speciesism. Post-speciesism supposes that speciesism is a thing of the past, or is otherwise being attended to. Species difference is thus made irrelevant, and systemic discrimination is made invisible by the fantasy. It is an ideology that works to squelch political opposition and the potential for contentious action.

In vitro meat will reduce some violence against some Nonhuman Animals, but it will allow for many other forms of violence. It reproduces the notion that Nonhuman Animals are “food,” and the institutions slaughtering them as such will not realistically end simply because in vitro becomes available. So long as prejudice and discrimination against other animals remains unchallenged, their exploitation and death will continue indefinitely.

Considering the limited nature of activist time and resources, I suggest instead a structural focus that centers the promotion of veganism. The results will be far more socially rewarding: environmental destruction will be reduced, human health will flourish, and, more importantly, Nonhuman Animals will be afforded the equal consideration they deserve. Relying too heavily on scientific and technological advancements to solve social problems could prove disastrous (though they tend to be friendlier to the capitalist interests of non-profits and their funders). In vitro science is a display of domination and privilege with limited cultural potential for achieving social justice.

 

A version of this essay was originally published on The Examiner on July 17, 2012.


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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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Conserving What Exactly? Anthropocentrism in College Conservation Programs

Men fishing a river with a net University conservation programs often entail lethal Nonhuman Animal testing

 

Jonathan Balcombe, director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, has authored a book that explores the “the inner life of fishes”: What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. I have not yet had the chance to read the book, but having listened to him describe the research involved, Balcombe’s work will be, I think, very important.  His research is indicating that fishes do feel pain and do live emotional lives.  The evidence seems to suggest that fishes are persons:  self aware, pleasure-seeking, sentient beings with intrinsic value and a right to moral consideration.

Research in this area is critical for one all important reason: when science fails to acknowledge sentience, systemic violence can be (and often will be) justified in the pursuit of knowledge. In their fish biology graduate program, for instance, my brother and his classmates were taught that fish sentience is a downright questionable concept. They also routinely stalked, harassed, and killed fishes in the process of data collection. When he shared this with me, I was personally horrified. Why isn’t the public aware of this grisly methodology?

Nonhuman Animal rights activists spend a lot of time protesting the exploitation of other animals used in dissection and vivisection in science and veterinary labs on campuses, but few take much issue with university “conservation” programs. As a student, my brother spent hours in the field “shocking” fishes (placing an electric current in the water so that stunned fishes float to the top for easy “sampling”) to determine their health as a species.  Fishes who are unfortunate enough to be included in this sample are killed in order to determine their age.  A dear friend of mine also works with free-living animals (“wildlife”) and informed me that birds of the wrong species are regularly caught in their “sampling” net.  These birds are often mangled and suffer for hours until the technicians come to check the nets.  Students are instructed to crush the chests of these birds to destroy them.

Assignments, final projects, theses, and dissertations in “wildlife,” “fishery,” and “environmental” programs encourage (or require) students to enter natural spaces and trap, stress, and even kill other animals in the name of research.

Man posing with Sturgeon on a fishing boat Sturgeon “sampling” at Virginia Commonwealth University

At my alma mater Virginia Tech, a black bear study has been ongoing for decades.  Bears are kept captive on campus property for students to measure and monitor.  The program has become so famous in the area, it has come to resemble a zoo exhibition. As with many zoo exhibitions masked as conservation projects, the bear program at Virginia Tech is well positioned to attract revenue through new students and donors.  Perhaps most telling, black bears are considered “game” in Virginia, which suggests to me that this program might serve to protect hunting revenue more than bears. I’m not sure how appealing that narrative would appear on the campus tour.

Man measuring a bear cubA bear cub is “measured” at Virginia Tech

Institutional review boards are maintained at all universities that engage research on humans or nonhumans, but the fact is that a considerable amount of violence is enacted on Nonhuman Animals in the name of science and for the benefit of the university and its faculty and degree-seekers. Conservation rhetoric only serves to green-wash anthroparchal violence. Fishes and bears aren’t just data–they’re sentient individuals.  Keep in mind that there are nonlethal methodologies that can be employed to monitor free-living species. Resistance to alternatives speaks to the anthropocentric, domineering attitudes that are legitimated under the rhetoric of environmental protection. Conservation programs may superficially claim a respect for nonhumans and ecosystems, but the violence enacted on vulnerable bodies in the research process demonstrates that the true lesson is one of human supremacy.

 

The interview with Jonathan Balcombe I have discussed above can be accessed on ARZone.

You can read more about science as an institution of speciesist oppression in A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory(Palgrave 2016).


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on January 9, 2013.

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