Is not human treatment of animals, indeed of the natural world, appalling and worsening with each generation? Isn’t this, after all is said, the point of Vegan ideology?
The answer to these questions is a qualified yes, this is not really at dispute. But rather it is the response to these problems that is the primary concern of these current writings.
Human beings have an unique relationship with other animals, unique as far as we can tell for the history of our planet. We are the only species that uses such a vast variety of animal and plant species, and the extent of that usage continues to be essential to our survival and defines our relationship with the world. Our diet is more extensive, our use of plants and animals for shelter more extensive, by such orders of magnitude that we should rightly be considered as fulfilling a different role within the broader scheme. We are so far past being an “apex predator”, though that is one role we take, it doesn’t define us in any suitable way.
Our relationships to each other, human individuals to others, groups to others, is also distinctive; no other animal kills its own kind to the extent that we kill ourselves. Our relations with each other that are supportive, cooperative, are not the exception within the animal kingdom, they are the norm. It is our tendency towards violence that is not only abhorrent, but unique.
No other animal kills animals of other species for pleasure to the extent we do. Yes we all have our cats with their caught birds, YouTube videos of killer whales “playing” with seals, but these are orders of magnitude different than our behaviour towards other species. Predators kill other predators (usually the stronger killing the weaker/smaller), but these are mostly measured kills, it is not a motivating factor, a goal in itself, as it with humans who have long hunted animals for the challenge of it. While we have, and should, indeed must, acknowledge that the roots of our behaviour emerge from the basic attributes of predators, particularly apex predators, our behaviour has for millennia surpassed the bounds of those roots.
Our invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals has gone from a husbanding of the resources of nature to build wealth to an extraordinary scale of industrialisation that we consider it completely legitimate, driven by profit margins and cost rationalisation, to treat nature, both plants and animals, as products, with no regard for their welfare, whether of individual animals or the broader environments that they inhabit. Nature is a resource to be abused for human gain.
We are killers of such an extent, of such refinement, that we are forced to accept this as a defining characteristic of being human. It is this, our violence towards ourselves, towards other species, both animals and plants, that truly distinguishes us from other animals, indeed from the larger world around us. We are in no way equal to any other animal, we are quite, irrevocably, distinct.
We even have the temerity to characterise this uniquely human behaviour as “animalistic” – ‘he behaved like an animal’, a ‘dog eat dog’ world. We characterise this as barbaric, as primitive behaviour, and yet it is generally the more organised, the more highly structured groupings and societies of men that have perpetrated the most carnage on ourselves and the natural world. We characterise ourselves in ways that define being human as somehow uniquely pure and virtuous, at least in potential if not in actuality, and that our barbarous acts are the exception, the ‘animal’ side of our nature; the primitive reptilian brain, etc… If you really look at how animals behave towards each other, it is generally with a courtesy, a lack of cruelty; necessity guides actions, to eat, to control competition, indeed all of the basic behaviours we consider to be the better part of us, of being the better part of being human are found with how animals behave. What truly is distinctive about human behaviour is behaviour towards others that is rarely, if ever, found within the broader animal kingdom. Our cruelty, our capricious acts of violence are a defining characteristic of being human. Our aspirations, towards civilised, moral behaviour, can almost be characterised as a morality of the natural world; it is “humane” behaviour that is truly barbaric, not “animalistic”.
When animals kill, they kill out of a sense of necessity, of need. And as we are learning in great detail, the environment within which we live exists and thrives as a result of this complex interaction of life and death. You cannot take death, take killing, out of a natural environment before it will shift to an environment that is disturbed, out of balance, where the lives of animals, plants, fungi are all changed by this. The scientific literature, our experience as colonisers, is full of examples of environments that have degraded, species becoming extinct, as a result of disturbing pre-existing environments: removing of apex predators, introducing animals with no natural predators.
The one species that does not kill out of necessity is human beings. We may be charitable and add “only kill” to that statement, and that is indeed the point of distinction we are exploring here. From a certain point of view, it is a rather spurious distinction to draw that the object of that activity is plant or animal, because to split the natural world like this, to pretend there is no co-dependency, is to carry an ill conceived and erroneous notion of nature itself.
The Madeira Islands were fist colonised by the Portuguese in the 15th Century. Madeira means “wood”; these were islands covered with trees. Slowly, the islands were converted, the trees that were sporadically used for ships, were now systematically used for fuel, slaves were recruited to help with the work, and within a few, short decades the islands were denuded of any tree. And what was the object of this destruction; goats for meat, sheep for wool or meat, cows, pigs? No… Sugar. The islands became a vast sugar plantation, and as Patel describes, this can be thought of as the first instance of the kind of industrialised farming, the economies of producing food cheaply, that is now our norm. And after this environment had been destroyed, the islands were adapted to wine growing. If you look up Madeira now: “It is known for its namesake wine and warm, subtropical climate.” It is somewhat ironic, that this was for sugar, a vegan suitable food, not animal products, that took longer to figure out. The tales of environmental destruction are as broad and damning whether the objective is animal or crop production; it is not, it should not be, the object of the exploitation that is the primary concern, it is the exploitation, and the value system that underlies it, that is.
The extent of our ability to manage, to exploit, to destroy our environment has grown exponentially. Ecologists, geologists, et al, now talk about a new geological age: the Anthropocene where human beings, our economy, our actions, our effect on the broad characteristics such as climate, extinction rates, ecological destruction that are the overriding and defining influence on the way the world is now. Human actions are responsible for an extinction event that is one of the largest in the history of the planet, and still growing; we aren’t done yet. We are responsible for the output of chemicals within the environment that is the direct cause of a dramatic change to the Earth’s climate: Anthropogenic climate change.
We have vast swathes of land under farming, whether for wheat, for cotton, for wood, for paper, for corn, for grapes, for fruit and vegetables. All of these factors cover the basic products that are used by all human beings. These farms are increasingly run at industrialised scales; jobs are replaced with technology; to the point that GPS technology now drives harvesters in some areas and huge tracts of land are able to managed by few human beings. Entire river systems are given over now to irrigation, to providing water for these crops, often leading to ongoing degradation as environments rebalance themselves as the forests and native grasslands disappear. The battle between irrigation, environmentalists, city-planners regarding water usage is an ongoing one, with many rivers no longer flowing, let alone reaching the sea. It is a constant, and losing, battle to talk about “environmental water rights”, the rights of humans, of their crops, of their economies, will always win.
As the experience shows in Australia again and again, we do not look at what the environment can generally support over a long period of time, taking into account the intermittent rainfall, but we farm as if we should not regard those needs, and demand, complain, cajole, steal, water to survive the latest drought, the only “humane response”. In almost the same breath these groups will also deny the effects, the reality of anthropogenic climate change, refusing any need to adapt and change their response, their usage of the environment to what it can support. We impose a set of requirements and values on the world, and expect the world to conform to that, and our societies in general to support it. We seldom place sustainability, natural environments, as a value in this equation; we can make parks (not too big mind), for that.
Walk through a forest and what do you notice: a vast interplay of species, of animal life, a cooperative thriving ecosystem. Walk through a tree plantation and what do you notice: it is a wasteland, silent, dusty, with few animals. The same is true of the vast fields of mono-cultured products: corn, wheat, sugar-cane, etc… We see the waving heads of wheat in the wind, nature sees a desert. As you look over these vast fields, vast plantations, think of the diversity of animal and plant that is not there. As we turn more and more of the earth’s arable land to the production of crops, for both human and animal feed, we destroy natural environments, we take life, we destroy habitat. This is the true cost of our unrelenting power and control, the creation and unrestrained human world. On any meaningful scale we have abandoned a notion of work alongside nature, of fitting in with the requirements of other species, plants or animals, of ecologies. We seemingly face no retribution for failing to do so.
We also have industrialised animal farming, factory farms that jam animals into pens barely big enough to fit within, let alone live. So unhealthy, unnatural, is their environment that they are fed drugs to ward off infections, to promote growth, to survive long enough so that their flesh can be harvested for food, or their skin for clothing. We give over large tracts of land to produce feed for these caged animals, rather than letting them roam and feed naturally. That is a cost easily removed, it makes the product cheaper.
Nothing that we do today, whether with plants or with animals, is sustainable (let alone ethical) when we do it on these scales. The manner in which we farm requires extensive chemical intervention, not only with antibiotics, but with fertilisers, food additives, pesticides. We seek to lessen this intervention through the modification of the basic genetic structure of our products: a plant resistant to an animal that will eat it, means pesticides do not have to be sprayed to control that animals access to our crops. We breed chickens with larger and larger breasts as this provides the ideal meat for “chicken nuggets”, to the extent these animals cannot walk or stand of their own accord.
It is not the single use, or abuse, of some elements of the natural world that is the problem, it is our overall attitude, our overall expression of dominance, our unquestioned right to use whatever, however, we see fit. Our right to live, our right for billions of us to live is the single overriding factor that drives this, drives the economies of scale, the technological innovations that enable billions of people to live, billions that have a right to live, and through our plenty, billions of people who can and should live. Billions more that should live, we can support them, we can feed them, we should breed them. And by who’s judgement is this right bestowed? By ours, and ours alone, with whatever schemes of the supernatural, the spiritual, the religious, the ethical, the improbable, it boils down to this one single fact: we decide that we deserve to live, at whatever the cost. Human life is sacrosanct to ourselves.
By focussing on animal use only, Vegan ideology misses the larger picture that animals live somewhere, live in forests, live in places that are now going, are now gone, for the sake of growing crops, and indeed may end up advocating life-choices, such as a broadening use synthetic products for clothing, for coverings, for furnishings, etc., that exacerbate this problem. This is particularly problematic when natural, sustainable, ethical alternatives are available. It is the extremity of Vegan views that make them blind to this, an extremity bread within the cities, the detachment from nature that so characterises, increasingly with each decade, with each generation, that views us as a species devoid of the natural, that disparages the animal.
Animals are killed, species are extinguished by our destruction of habitat for farming, for oil production, for many purposes beyond the simple and direct one of being farmed and killed for food or clothing.
The question then becomes not which parts of the natural world we use and which we don’t, but rather how we use whatever we use, plant, animal, mineral, land. What is our relationship with the natural world, what are our terms of engagement. Can we reform our relationship with the natural world, can we truly value the resources we use, understand what is sustainable, and take responsibility for our unique position and abilities?
To truly understand this requires many words, and is the subject of these writings. We need to tear down dogmatic, ideological solutions, this simplistic, tribal, unnatural view of ourselves and the world within which we live.
At the basis of this relationship lies a set of values, what I will call ethical values. It is my belief that we have become what we are today because we deny the natural world, its fundamental realities, we deny our part in this world, we place ourselves beyond and above it. It is in the denial of these realities within the contexts of our religions that place us above that world, and of ideologies that would separate us from that world. Nature is our teacher, not our slave.
The choices that confront us are questions of sustainability, of necessary, of natural use, what we would call an ethical basis. In the broader society we see these again and again. We have seen a growing emergence of “organic” crops, of “free-range” eggs, of sustainable farming practise for dairy and meat products. Concern over the mis-treatment of animals is not new; the RSPCA is an organisation that has existed since 1824. There is a slow, growing consensus that has emerged within human societies, that rejects all of the very same things Vegan ideologists reject, but with solutions that engage rather than forbid, solutions that would broaden and deepen our relationship to the natural world, rather than remove us into a world of manufactured fibre and synthetic materials, the antiseptic world of the truly Vegan.
By adopting a criteria of “do not eat, do not use, animals”, Vegan ideology abrogates any responsibility towards a sustainable and ethical solution; it is a “holier than thou” position. It is a diagnosis of a symptom, but not the disease. It is Nero, playing his fiddle while Rome burns.
Return to: Veganism, An Unnatural Ideology