Veganism and the myth of individual choice

I just came across this video via GOOD magazine. It’s a Mercy for Animals tape of pigs inside a factory farm, and though it’s incredibly hard to watch, it’s also really important.

I’m cynical and jaded. It’s hard for me to get truly angry or upset about the abuses of industry and the destruction of the natural world, because it’s so ubiquitous. But this video had me in tears. Climate change is distant and species extinction is abstract, but pigs screaming in terror and pain is awfully, disturbingly real.

I went to the Mercy for Animals website and clicked on their “Get Active” page, which made me even angrier. Here are their suggestions for getting involved in this issue, in the order they’re listed on the site.

1) Go vegetarian, or better yet, vegan.
2) Educate others about the horrors of factory farming and the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism.
3/4/5)Join Mercy for Animals by sending them money, volunteer for them and attend their events.
6) Spread the word about vegetarianism via Facebook, Twitter and your email signature.
7) Hand out leaflets about vegetarianism.
8) Organize a video screening.
9) Veganize local restaurants and cafeterias.
10) Write people in power about these issues.

Look, I get that individual actions are important. Feeling personally invested in an issue is an important thing, and many people get into broader forms of activism because they started out being vegetarians and then choose to look into food production more (oh hey there). So by all means, go veggie or vegan if you want to and spread the word to interested parties. But we all know that individual vegans are never going to end factory farming, and as a movement, we do a disservice to ourselves by pretending otherwise.

Most people will never be vegan. Selling people on reducing meat consumption is feasible—it’s probably healthier for them anyway. Selling people on vegetarianism is challenging, but doable. Selling people on veganism is really hard. Veganism, as far as I’ve seen, has a popular perception as a movement of ascetics who are interested in self-deprivation and having moral high ground. This isn’t completely accurate, obviously (I have vegans friends, I swear), but like most stereotypes, it contains grains of truth. Being vegan isn’t easy, and it isn’t practical or realistic for many people, especially people who are low-income.

I don’t believe we can sell the world on veganism, but I think we can sell them on not torturing animals. Pretty much any decent human would be saddened, angered or shocked by watching that video, or one of the many others documenting similar practices in the industry. I believe we do a disservice to those who will never be vegan when we list that as the first action step a concerned person can take. Individual choices can be powerful and empowering, but they won’t change the status quo. Framing the solution to factory farming as veganism disempowers people who aren’t willing or in a position to make that choice. It frames people unwilling to give up animal products as part of the problem. It emphasizes personal choice over political action, even though the latter can produce results on a much larger scale.

Existing power structures will not change or give up power without a fight. No one has ever stopped clear cutting because a bunch of people from the Sierra Club asked nicely. They stopped because radical Earth First and ELF people were busy chaining themselves to trees and monkeywrenching machinery, and suddenly a compromise with the Sierra Club seemed like a perfectly reasonable middle ground. And existing power structures have made factory farming a necessity for feeding the world, especially poor Americans.

Ending factory farming requires radicals and compromisers. It requires activists willing to break into slaughterhouses and film conditions inside of them. It requires people to build and support alternative meat suppliers, and policies which allow equality of access to those alternatives. It requires people who want to lobby Congress to pass more stringent regulations on factory farms, and it requires vegan anarchists who want to liberate pigs from their prisons. There’s no reason you should have to be a vegan to care about animal suffering or to be an anti-factory farm activist. We need as many committed people as we can get to fight back, and pretending that our individual choices are the most important tool we have won’t get us very far.

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Grazing: learning to see

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Escalante, Utah
context: During this week, we were working with Mary O’Brien, an ecologist with the Grand Canyon Trust. Mary was one of several ecologists we met who believed that cattle grazing on Western public lands was an environmental nightmare and is working to reduce the amount of land that’s grazed. Today, we went out on an actual grazing allotment to count cows and see what the land looked like.
I think today, I get it. I’ve seen Suzanne cry and Mary rant about riparian habitat and grazing. I’ve seen cows and incised channels. But today, wandering across a few miles of moonscape covered in hoof marks and cowpies, I saw a bit of what they see. The fence, built perhaps to keep cows away from part of the stream and the juniper bushes, was in decent shape, but the cows had access to the stream on both sides because they’d managed to erode a path down into the gully. The water was muddy and trampled to death.
I’m still having trouble being angry about it. Maybe because it’s hard to pinpoint a source. I don’t fault the individual rancher trying to make a living, though I have no sympathy for absentee billionaires or giant corporations who run cattle. Cows are far too docile and placid to be the objects of anger. And the political and bureaucratic clusterfuck seems difficult to pin on any particular person, law or agency. It’s a beast of its own, independent of individual human desires, although a product of them.
But I know it needs to change. I’m not as strident as Mary, though I feel the truth in her statement that some jobs or lifestyles cannot be justified because the cost to the earth is too high. I know absolutely that a rancher should be able to graze fewer cattle than an allotment allows for and should be able to sell it for conservations purposes if both parties are willing. But beyond that, it’s so hard to untangle. I worry about imperialism and outsourcing of negative consequences. If we eliminate the 2-3% of beef grazed on public lands here (and 2-3% of American beef is still a ton of cows), demand won’t follow the drop in supply. So we’ll import from Argentina or Brazil and eat cows with a huge carbon footprint grazed on pasture that used to be Amazonian rainforest before it was clearcut. We’ll have our land back and some smug satisfaction or feeling of grand victory, but I worry we’ll just be outsourcing the problem. So what, ethically, should I be eating? If I add a no-public-grazing clause to my vegetarian meat-eating ethics, I might as well just go back to no meat at all. I want to be healthy, which means no more tofu if I can help it, and I’m not the kind of girl who can live off of lentils. I love dairy, but that’s a curtain I’ve barely started to pull back, and I know I won’t like what I find. Someday, I want a house in Seattle with a backyard big enough for chickens and a goat. But until then, I still think I’m doing better eating cheese, raw milk and Thundering Hooves beef.

Seeing cows

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon
Today, I went running without my glasses on. I saw the same landscapes I‘ve been seeing all week, but without the sharp focus I’m so used to. Somehow, I think that blur makes it easier to see. Sight becomes a matter of color and pattern, general characteristics spread out across the entire skyline. The specific details tend to fade. A black dot on the horizon moves closer and closer, until suddenly you realize it’s a cow ten feet from you. And then you feel vulnerable, realizing that the cows of the world, organized into reasonably sized herds, could wrest control of everything from people if they put their minds to it. A single cow could trample me to death, leaving my body bleeding in the road until someone noticed I hadn’t come back from mg run. Yet they eat so placidly, wander our public lands and follow each other calmly to slaughter in an industrial warehouse. Tick. Slit the carteroid artery. Tock. Dripping blood. Tick. A resigned moo. Tock. The line keeps moving.
Cows seem almost to belong in this system. They’re thoroughly domesticated, stubborn perhaps in insignificant matters, but complacent as cogs in the wheel of industry. I don’t know this for certain; I’ve never spent time with a cow, birthed a calf or played my part in the slaughter. But looking into a cow’s eyes, I don’t see the wild. They’ve had it tamed out of them.
Can there be honor in a kill like this? Can the predator kill its pretty without the delicate dance between the two that has existed since time immemorial? I don’t think our slaughterhouses and pastures honor that dynamic, but perhaps they honor what the animal is, in itself. This seems like a better medium, though we’ve raised them to be that way. I’ve never killed a cow. I’ve never killed any mammal at all. In fact, I believe the most highly evolved murder I can be held responsible for was boiling a moonsnail and eating it whole on a breach trip freshman year of high school. And yet, I eat meat, after eleven years of refusing. I eat it happily, relishing the taste of flesh, overenthusiastic after so many years of trying to live what I believed was a better way. I eat is uneasily, feeling insincere in my excitement because I’ve never proved to myself that I know what it is to nourish myself with the flesh of another living being. I eat it hoping of a better world, where food is transparent and I won’t have to worry that the labels I’ve decided to screen my food by don’t actually mean anything about the health of my body, the animal, the ecosystem, the planet. I eat it, and I feel nourished. This feeling is what I go back to when I have nothing else to make it ok.