What’s the Point of Veganism?
Veganism is apparently the fastest growing ‘lifestyle movement’ in the UK today. Within the space of a decade the number of British vegans has increased by 350% and now over half a million people follow a diet free of animal products. Whilst this is still only about 1% of the adult population, the accelerating growth of veganism, the ever-expanding selection of vegan food as well as of clothing alternatives and a relentless media coverage of the phenomenon has meant that we are no longer talking about a peripheral trend.
The mass production and consumption of animal products today does much to make sense of vegans’ central motives, namely, ‘animal welfare, environmental concerns and personal health’. The modern development of intensive factory farming, which is strictly driven by the bottom line in opposition to seemingly inefficient concerns for animal welfare, has inevitably led to battery caged hens and over-lactating cows being squeezed like lemons for their very last drop of profitability. Likewise, the scale of current livestock production has profound environmental impacts and is said to be responsible for 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, principally due to mass overproduction of grain feed and enteric fermentation, whilst modern overfishing is driving both fish and fisheries to extinction. And the insatiable demand which drives all this supply, of course, leads to an unhealthy overconsumption of animal produce, in particular in satisfying our appetite for processed meats, now considered a Group 1 carcinogen.
Care for animals, nevertheless, is cited as the main reason for people becoming vegan and here the central aim seems to be an attempt to resolve what Chris Diehm calls ‘the paradox of the cats in our houses and cows on our plates’. As Francesca Aran Murphy notes, this now causes such consternation because our pets have been transformed from pest controllers and property guardians to ‘emotional dumpsters for our sorrows and desires’. For Murphy, the fact that we simultaneously ‘sentimentalize and bestialize our animals’ is a direct result of our failure to provide a deep account of the ‘nature’ of these animals, meaning each animal is no longer seen as an integral part of an ordered natural ecology ‘but is simply fodder for it’.
It is here that vegans rightly look to correct our treatment of animals and will often make reference to the ways in which we deprive animals from living ‘according to natural patterns of their inclination’. On this, many can agree that agricultural systems that work against the natural realities of chickens roosting and cattle grazing rather than with them are modes of domination rather than of stewardship – but by bracketing serious consideration of our own human nature and applying simple rule-based ethics to the situation, veganism only entrenches our misunderstandings of animal nature.
The same sentimentalized anthropomorphism is recast in a now radicalized form and necessary distinctions between animals are lost. Thus the ancient ‘symbiotic relationship’ between beekeepers and honey bees, when ‘viewed through the vegan lens’, is seen as ‘literal daylight robbery’ rather than a real means to saving the dwindling bee and pollinator populations. Meanwhile, consuming sustainably farmed nutritious bivalves that lack any central nervous system is proscribed solely on the fideistic grounds that ‘if you choose to eat oysters, you’re not a vegan’.
This endgame of empty absolutism can ultimately find succour only in reversing the dictum that ‘it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out’ – like all the other dietary laws that modern man constructs for the preservation of his own purity, veganism frees its adherents from their real responsibility of stewardship only to leave them yoked to self-policing the minutiae of their law. Instead we must reclaim this foundational duty, recognise our own distinct nature as rational animals and use our reflective and active capacities to reintegrate animals into a sustainable permaculture that secures a healthy ecology for both man and nature.