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Dissing Cousins: The Dysfunctional Disparity between Vegetarianism and Environmentalism

By Dr. Steve Best

8/13/08

posted on external link Thomas Paine's Corner, Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Currently, it is estimated that in the US "somewhere between two percent and five percent of the nation's eaters classify themselves as vegetarians, of that number perhaps five percent are strict vegans" (Koerner 2007). Although "vegetarians" renounce animal flesh, they consume animal fluids (milk and milk-derivates such as cheese, yogurt, butter, and ice cream) and/or eggs. The vegetarian tribe is divided into "lacto-ovo" vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs, "lacto-vegetarians" who eat dairy but no eggs, and "ovo-vegetarians" who eat eggs but no dairy. Some describe themselves as "vegetarians" who eat fish ("pescetarians") or chicken ("pollo-vegetarians") or both ("pesco-pollo vegetarians"). In truth, these oxymoronic hybridists are carnivores whose pretense to vegetarianism depends on the double fallacy of equating "meat" with "red meat" and conflating sentient beings (e.g., chicken and fish) with nonsentient things (plants).

But vegetarianism itself has been criticized as inadequate and inconsistent by a more radical approach known as "veganism" (pronounced "vee-gun-ism). For every reason vegetarians renounce meat-eating, vegans find it necessary also to repudiate dairy, cheese, eggs, and honey; clothing items such as fur, leather, wool, and silk; and animal-tested products including shampoo, cosmetics, and, drugs. Vegans believe that vegetarians only partially – and therefore inconsistently -- break from a health-destroying, violent, and ecocidal system. For, like meat and the livestock industry, dairy and egg products are toxic and disease-promoting; milk cows, birds in battery cages, and veal calves are confined and killed for "lacto-ovo" consumption; and dairy and egg farms pollute the air and water. Thus, vegan pioneer Donald Watson (1910-2005) disparaged vegetarianism as "but a half-way house between flesh eating and a truly humane, civilised diet" (1944). As with vegetarianism there are sub-categories of veganism, including fruitarianism, raw food veganism, and freeganism (a minimal consumption lifestyle).

"Vegetarianism" (which I will use here to include veganism) has a long and rich history as old as Western society itself (see Berry 1998, Iacobbo and Iacobbo 2004, Spencer 2002, Walters and Portmess 1999 and 2001, Spencer 2004, Tristram 2007, and Phelps 2007. As a health-promoting diet and an ethic rooted in compassion for all living beings (ahimsa), vegetarianism emerged over three thousand years ago as a philosophy and practice of the ancient religions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. From this matrix, vegetarianism migrated into Western society through the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras (ca 496-552 BCE), whose vegetarianism and animal protectionist ethics spread throughout the ancient world and resurfaced in the seventeenth century (indeed, until 1847, those who abstained from meat were called "Pythagoreans"). At the dawn of modernity, vegetarianism became increasingly influential throughout European society, such that radicals deployed its non-violent and egalitarian outlook as a critical weapon against class rule and Western barbarism and prominent medical figures espoused it as ideal for health and morality as well (Stuart 2007).

Deep Vegetarianism, Radical Holism, and the Omnicidal Juggernaut of Corporate Agriculture

In the turn to the twentieth century, however, the influence of vegetarianism in the US began to wane as the livestock industry became increasingly powerful and meat became an affordable staple for working-class families (Rifkin 1992). Amidst a culture believing that meat promotes strength and vegetarianism encourages weakness, a dramatic revival, growth, and broadening of vegetarianism began in 1971, with the publication of Francis Moore Lappe's book, Diet for a Small Planet. In this and subsequent books (1977, 1998, 2003), Lappe described a corporate-controlled, industrialized, factory-farmed system of animal agriculture that was inefficient, wasteful, cruel, and destructive to every facet of the environment. The global livestock industry was, as well, a vehicle of Western imperialism that displaced millions of people from the land, destroyed independent farmers, exacerbated poverty and inequality, and aggravated world hunger by diverting resources into producing feed rather than food. To this destructive, unethical, unjust, and unsustainable system of agriculture, Lappe contrasted a vegetarian mode of farming that produced maximum output with minimum input; that promoted health, rights, justice, and democracy; and that was environmentally sound and sustainable.

Lappe's work -- along with Peter Singer's Animal Liberation (1975), Singer and Jim Mason's Animal Factories (1990 [1980]), and John Robbins' Diet for a New America (1998 [1987]) -- vividly portrayed the human, animal, and environmental costs of the global meat culture and inspired the vegetarian environmentalism movement. The panoramic outlook advanced here fused issues of health, animal rights, social justice, world hunger, violence, globalization, and environmentalism into a holistic theory unrivalled in depth, comprehensiveness, and awareness of the multidimensional crisis – health, moral, social, and environmental – facing humanity. Since these theorists' pioneering lead, a number of significant books have documented the central role of the livestock industry in the devastation of the social and natural worlds (see Mason and Singer 1990 [1980], Jacobs 1992, Rifkin 1992, Hill 1996, Robbins 2001, Lyman 2001, and Jacobson 2006). Beginning in the 1990s, vegetarian environmentalists described how the livestock industry was the principle cause of the most serious threat confronting humanity: global warming.

By 2000, growing alarm over the human, animal, and environmental toll of the global meat, dairy, and egg industries percolated into scientific sectors, international government bodies, and – in a bewilderingly slow and hesitant way – some mainstream environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. Throughout 400 startling pages, a landmark 2006 United Nations report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," identified the livestock industry "as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global" (Steinfeld et. al. 2006). The data compiled in this report and countless thousands of corroborating studies leave little room for doubt in identifying the livestock industry as the main planetary threat. The number of farmed animals in the world has quadrupled in the last 50 years, putting an incredible strain on air, land, and sea. Livestock uses 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the earth's entire land surface (Steinfeld et. al. 2006). Crops grown for animal feed rather than human food consume 87 percent of the nation's fresh water, 90 percent of the soy crop, 80 percent of its corn, and 50 percent of all grains (Vesterby and Krupa 1997, Pimentel 1997). Compared to a vegetarian diet, meat production demands 7 times more land (Leckie 2007), 8 times more fossil fuel energy (Pimenel 1997), and ten times as many crops (Cornel University Science News, 1997, Robbins 1998 and 2001, Horrigan et. al. 2002). In this grotesquely irrational, inefficient, indirect system of carnivorous consumption, 41 million tons of plant protein for cows returns a paltry 7 million tons of protein for humans (Pimentel 1997).

Not only inefficient and wasteful, the livestock industry is a key cause of air pollution, soil erosion, and desertification, and the main source of water pollution. Agriculture produces two-thirds of the ammonia gases that produce acid rain. US farms generate 130 times as much excrement as the nation's entire population (Worldwatch Institute 1998). Factory farm effluvia – a toxic brew of manure, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and fertilizers -- poison water supplies, decimate fish populations, degrade coral reefs, and have generated over 150 oxygen-starved "dead zones" in the oceans (Larsen 2004).

Moreover, 70 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been slashed and burned to graze cattle and much of the remainder goes to producing feed. In addition to being a principle cause of forest destruction and species extinction, the livestock industry is the primary cause of global warming (Steinfeld et. al. 2006). Meat, dairy, and egg industries emit 18 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, 37 percent of the methane gas (20 times stronger a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide), and 65 percent of nitrous oxide gases (300 times more potent than carbon dioxide). The UN report concluded that the livestock industry produced more greenhouse gases than the world's transportation systems combined (Steinfeld et. al. 2006).

The Missing Piece to the Puzzle

These alarming facts clearly demonstrate the importance of vegetarianism and animal rights for environmentalism and the urgency of finding the common ground for a triangular alliance. Yet rather than uniting in the war to prevent massive die-offs, catastrophic breakdown, and irreversible climate change, vegetarian and environmental camps divided, torn apart by deep differences in philosophy and lifestyle (see Motavalli 2002, Sapontzis 2004). Both camps break with the domineering and dualistic mindset of anthropocentrism, but whereas vegetarians and animal rights advocates reject its mirror image in speciesism, environmentalists cling to speciesist ethics that privilege human interests and frame animals as resources for human use.

Environmentalists promote the need for a new "ecological consciousness" and "land ethic," but rarely if ever champion vegetarianism and a new ethic to govern our relation with other species. Whereas vegetarians identify themselves as environmentalists, few environmentalists embrace vegetarianism. At stake are competing views on animal rights, whether or not hunting and meat-eating are ethical and compatible with environmental values, and how to balance the values of individuals and ecosystems.

Thrill Kill Cult

Ethical vegetarians shift the criterion for having rights from rationality to the far broader characteristic of sentience, such that a necessary and sufficient condition of having rights is the capacity to experience pleasure and pain (Singer 1975, Regan 1983). Given the fundamental moral axiom that it is wrong to cause injury, suffering, or death to another individual unless there is a compelling reason to do so, ethical vegetarians argue that -- except in very rare cases such as self-defense or "subsistence" hunting -- we never have adequate reason to harm animals. This is true not only for exploiting animals for "sport," "entertainment," and fur, but also killing them for food.

Many environmentalists opposed to industrial agriculture agree that factory farming is cruel and unethical, but nonetheless assert that animals raised on small "family" farms without intensive confinement and manipulation is acceptable and good. Their justifications for raising animals for slaughter include the argument that animals would not live at all if not bred for food, that they live a satisfying and worthy life on non-industrial farms, that killing and consuming others is a natural fact of life, and that animals exist to serve the interests of human beings. This position turns on a "welfare" rather than "rights" position (see Regan 2004), such that the moral wrong is in causing animals severe or unnecessary suffering (such as on factory farms) rather than exploiting them for human purposes. On the welfare view, slaughtering animals for food is ethical, so long as it is done "humanely" – a concept ethical vegetarians dismiss as Orwellian doublespeak, insisting that there is nothing "humane" about violent killing.

Whereas vegetarians view hunting as unnecessary and therefore unjustifiable killing, environmentalists support hunting as a recreational lifestyle. Indeed, they argue that hunting has positive ecological benefits by stabilizing game populations such as deer that would otherwise overpopulate (Lott 2007, Miniter 2007). Vegetarians respond that hunting in fact is the prime cause of deer overpopulation, and argue that hunters' predilection to kill large healthy males over weaker individuals and females disrupts ecological and evolutionary dynamics (Pickover 2005). Unlike the animal rights ethic, which defends the rights of sentient individuals as inviolable, environmentalism is a holistic ethic that values ecosystems and species populations over individuals. Whereas many environmentalists champion Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" (1970) as the most comprehensive embrace of the biotic community (Callicott 1993), animal rights philosopher Tom Regan (1983) denounced it as "environmental fascism" that sacrifices the individual to the whole. Others still worked to reconcile these contrasting positions (Jamieson 1997).

While some environmentalists might agree with vegetarians that factory farming is cruel, they support obtaining meat from non-commercial wild sources through "sustainable" hunting and fishing. Moreover, environmentalists argue that small-scale, organic farming is "humane" and beneficial for the environment (Eisenstein 2002, Pollan 2007). Whereas low value land – such as prairie and steppe regions – is unsuited for plants, it can be used to graze cows and sheep and thereby improves land efficiency and productivity (Science Daily 2007, Land 2007). Rebutting vegetarians who boast the ecological virtues of a plant-based diet, environmentalists point out that a frugal organic farmer who consumes modest amounts of meat from his own cows can leave a lighter "ecological footprint" than a vegetarian who drives a Hummer, is a frequent flyer, and buys produce from global rather than local sources.

Such a scenario could indeed be true, but vegetarians respond that they have not taken an innocent life to satisfy their need to eat and they resent the glib and clichéd responses by environmentalists concerning the value of an animal's life. As the world has yet recognize a global ecological crisis spiraling out of control (Agence-France Presse 2007), vegetarians rightly argue that environmentalists have been slow to grasp the disastrous impact of meat consumption. Vegetarians point out that environmentalists have not explained how their vision of a global network of small farms can satisfy the competitive need for profits (Collin 2003), let alone the surging demand for meat -- especially in the world's most populous nations, China and India – and a burgeoning population projected to double to 12 billion by 2050 (Worldwatch Institute 1998, Steinfeld et. al. 2006, Freston 2007). Moreover, they argue, environmentalists' uncritical praise for "organic farming" as the alternative to factory farming confuses hype for reality and increasingly is yet another form of mass production and killing of animals (Cienfuegos 2004, Davis 2007, PETA).

Now or Never

In sum, environmentalists' work on behalf wilderness preservation benefits animals and ecological holism is a necessary broadening of ethics beyond the "sentientism" of ethical vegetarianism. Animal rights campaigns to protect species are crucial for sustaining ecological systems, and vegetarians promote a comprehensive vision for a new world. These are fertile grounds for alliance politics, and yet there are deep if not incommensurable differences over the ethics of meat-eating and hunting, a sentientist ethic opposed to a land ethic, and the value of ecosystems and populations contrasted to the rights of individual animals. While it remains to be seen whether these differences can be negotiated in favor of a strategic alliance, but it is certain that productive working relationships among the vegetarian, animal rights, and environmental communities would give humanity more of a fighting chance to confront the greatest challenge it has ever faced.

Vegetarianism is not a panacea for ever-worsening social and environmental crises, but it is a crucial part of major changes that people -- in the developed worlds above all -- must make. These include reducing their population numbers and consumption levels and shifting from industrial to local agriculture, from chemically-intensive to organic farming, and from fossil-fuel to alternative energy. Yet the shift from a meat-based to a vegetarian or plant-based diet would benefit not only the environment in every facet, but also endangered species, billions of animals suffering in factory farms and slaughterhouses, farmers displaced from their land, and billions of people suffering from diseases of excess (in the developed world) and of lack (in the undeveloped world).

Moving from a carnocentric diet is especially important in the US, whose citizens consume 260 pounds of meat per year, more than any other nation. The mountain of meat quaffed by glutinous Americans is 1.5 times the industrial world average, three times the East Asian average, and 40 times the average in Bangladesh. Some researchers are optimistic that even small reduction in meat consumption by enough people in the US and other Western nations could have a significant regenerative impact on the earth. Leo Horrigan of the Center for a Livable Future writes: "One personal act that can have a profound impact on these [environmental] issues is reducing meat consumption... Considering [the tonnage Americans consume] even modest reductions in meat consumption … would substantially reduce the burden on our natural resources."

If true, small changes can have large consequences if enough people accept the responsibility and take the initiative. Vegetarians can considerably lighten their ecological footprint by going vegan; vegans can always waste, consume, and pollute less; and both should be active in social movements rather than being lifestyle environmentalists trying to heal the planet one tofuburger at a time. And if environmentalists are not changing their ideas, lifestyles, policies, platforms, and priorities to address the issues engaged head-on by the vegetarian communities, I cannot think of a more momentous failure in their professed calling to defend the earth.

Award-winning writer, noted speaker, public intellectual, and seasoned activist, Steven Best engages the issues of the day such as animal rights, ecological crisis, biotechnology, liberation politics, terrorism, mass media, globalization, and capitalist domination. Best has published 10 books, over 100 articles and reviews, spoken in over a dozen countries, interviewed with media throughout the world, appeared in numerous documentaries, and was voted by VegNews as one of the nations "25 Most Fascinating Vegetarians." He has come under fire for his uncompromising advocacy of "total liberation" (humans, animals, and the earth) and has been banned from the UK for the power of his thoughts. From the US to Norway, from Sweden to France, from Germany to South Africa, Best shows what philosophy means in a world in crisis.


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To further your sociopolitical education, strengthen your connection with the radical community, and deepen your participation in forming an egalitarian, just, ecological, non-speciesist and democratic society, visit the Transformative Studies Institute at http://transformativestudies.org/ and the Institute for Critical Animal Studies at http://www.criticalanimalstudies.org/.



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Essay copyright Steve Best, posted on Thomas Paine's Corner, Tuesday, January 20, 2009
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