by Lee Hall and Daniel Hammer
The last edition of The Vegan featured an article by campaigner Matt Ball, which argued that it may be time to redefine what it means to be vegan. We disagree, arguing that, as currently defined, veganism provides us with a moral baseline from which to change the world.
“If the vegan ideal of non-exploitation were generally adopted it would be the greatest peaceful revolution ever known,” Donald Watson once said, “abolishing vast industries and establishing new ones” in the better interest of human and nonhuman animals alike.
Thus, one by one, each person who aspires to the vegan ethic makes a revolutionary change. Seen in day-to-day terms, this means avoiding commodities derived wholly or partly from animals and promoting in their place peaceful products.
In memory of Donald the media noted the pioneering activist's boundless inspiration “for those seeking a lifestyle totally free from animal products for the benefit of people, animals and the environment.” The BBC News conveyed the simplicity and the seriousness of the commitment:
“A vegan, therefore, eats a plant-based diet free from all animal products including milk, eggs and honey.”
While that simple, clear idea has had a continuous influence and presence since 1944, we've seen a recent emergence of arguments positing that the ends would justify redefining “vegan.” We've heard the vegan lifestyle called a “tool” for opposing the “horrors of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses, ” and it has been suggested that our attention to detail when buying products may make us seem overly pedantic, discouraging others from becoming vegan.
Why would anyone suggest that label-reading makes us tedious and joyless? The Vegan Society's sunflower symbol delights us and we are made more joyful with every new product that wears it. And why would vegans and animal rights advocates recommend that we accept the idea of humane animal products or else be relegated to the category of joyless purists? Joy is hardly expanded when the word “pure” is considered a dirty word.
Admittedly, the vast scale of animal use can be overwhelming. Staggering statistics and violent language underscore the severity of the suffering it all contains. Anxiety, driven by the thought that animal consumption won't end in our lifetimes, might lead us to ask whether pressing for industry reforms might be better than nothing. Vegan advocacy, however, was not developed to measure degrees of suffering nor is it doing nothing! Regardless of the harshness involved, exploiting other conscious beings is a wrongful dismissal of their interests; in that sense animal-use industries are simply irredeemable and best avoided. If we don't convey that point, who will?
If not now, when?
Suffering isn't reduced when animals are unnecessarily bred or brought into a system of abuse, even if they fill bigger cages or face less painful slaughter. And we really have no way of counting the people who buy purportedly less cruel animal products, putting off veganism.
We might recall our own journeys and the questions we asked: Do fish who swim freely suffer so badly? Is eating eggs really a problem if I look for the free-range brand? As vegans, we represent the small but growing percentage of people who know that those questions are beside the point.
A MORAL BASELINE
When we became vegans, we simply declined to support the exploitation of animals. Instead of allowing the abstract idea of reducing suffering to guide our ethic, we made a commitment to respect a moral baseline. Once we accepted that baseline, the journey became one of affirming life, learning about the importance of a plant-based diet to a just and ecologically sane economy. Refreshed by this understanding, we direct our energies to where they're needed - not into enhancing profitdriven enterprises, but into empowering others in our community to liberate themselves from their dependence on what animal industries are selling.
No wonder Donald Watson saw the ideal of non-exploitation as having revolutionary potential. Not satisfied to refine, or even assess, the system of- rulemaking applied by industries, he saw the term vegan as representing the beginning and the conclusion of vegetarian. Vegetarianism, taken to its logical conclusion, is no dreary proposition but a daily celebration of life.
Taking the vegan life seriously is, then, a matter of respect for life itself. Now that we've embraced it, our role is to get on with “abolishing vast industries and establishing new ones.” Like Donald Watson, we've ceased to believe in the romantic ideal of animals gambolling on the family farm.
From both an animal rights and an environmental perspective, after all, the constant tendency of animal agribusiness to usurp more and more space is an alarming sign. Instead of arguing for bigger cages or more pasture, we're ready for a holistic understanding of our role in creating a genuinely better society.
It's a practical vegan who sticks to moral principles. On a planet of limited land and water, humanity breeds so many animals into existence as food that the free-living animals are pushed to the margins of the land. But through vegan movements, such as vegan organic farming, we're showing the way to a viable future for human and nonhuman animals alike.
These movements value and protect wild lands by highlighting the benefits of direct nutrition and the merits of treading gently on the territory we share with the rest of the earth's inhabitants. The single most important daily change we can make, if we're going to stop deforestation and climate change before it stops us, would be to adopt a plant-based diet. Carrying the principled message that society must transcend animal use rather than refine it, vegan activists are as vital in the practical sense as in the ethical sense. For the vegan revolutionary, the ends and the means are one.
Lee Hall has taught animal rights as well as immigration and refugee law and serves as legal director for Friends of Animals, a non-profit international animal advocacy organization in New York. Daniel Hammer has spoken publicly on ecofeminism, hunting, and dairy issues, and serves as Staff Writer for Friends of Animals. www.friendsofanimals.org
[The above article was originally published in The Vegan, Spring 2006, for The Vegan Society]