Recent years have seen a near meteoric rise in the popularity of veganism. Whereas not too long ago it was a real hassle to find vegetarian, let alone vegan, options on restaurant menus and in supermarkets, now supermarket chains like Tesco, Aldi, and Sainsbury’s have entire isles dedicated to veggie and vegan food ranges. Although I’m deeply skeptical of the ‘green capitalist’ and individualistic approach to animal welfare and ecological sustainability, I do think the spread of veganism is a good thing, not least in its ability to challenge prevailing norms around food and nutrition.
I myself am almost exclusively vegan (I cave every now and then when it comes to cheese, sadly) because I object to the unimaginable cruelty imposed on our animal kin via industrial factory farming, and because of the colossal ecological impacts of the industry. I too would love to see the end of factory farming and the liberation of our enslaved animal kin. However, there’s one line of argument occasionally seen in the vegan and animal rights movement that has always bothered me: the demonization of meat-eating and predation as a moral wrong in and of itself. For reasons I’ll explore below, it’s not only logically inconsistent to oppose consumption of others on ontological grounds; it can also be dangerous and counterproductive to the effective liberation of animal life from oppression and exploitation.
Though at first glance some persistence of the ‘use’ of animals for food might appear to perpetuate traditional human/animal hierarchies and human exploitation of animals, consider the following excerpt from the late utopian writer Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home:
“Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food [emphasis added]. They are with you, not for you… Walk here, sleep well, on ground that is not yours, but is yourself” (Le Guin, 1980, Pg. 77).
The idea expressed here is akin to eco-philospher Val Plumwood’s (2003) contextual theory of ecological animalism. Ecological Animalism fundamentally opposes the exploitation and ‘othering’ of animals and seeks to dismantle human supremacy more broadly by both resituating humans in ecological terms and more-than-human species in cultural and ethical terms. Crucially, this is done by affirming a universe of mutual use wherein animals as well as humans are equally available for respectful use (pg. 2; Cook, 1977). Use in itself is not inherently exploitative or problematic. Consider forms of mutual and respectful use seen in symbiotic relationships between pollinators and flowers, or when one ‘uses’ someone else’s labour while labouring in exchange. In these scenarios individuals interact on equal footing and use is neither oppressive nor exploitative. What’s at issue is the reductive, instrumental form of use seen most starkly in industrial-capitalism where human and nonhuman animals alike are treated only as means to ends (profits, etc.).
An unyielding opposition to consumption or use of any kind as a moral wrong in and of itself rather than by virtue of its mode and extent, a position referred to as ontological veganism (Plumwood, 2003), subtly reinforces human/animal and nature/culture dualisms. It denies ecological embededdness and redeploys an exclusionary logic in asserting that only beings within bounds of ethical consideration cannot be conceived as edible. Drawing a line anywhere erects binaries and divisions, initially between humans and animals, and with ontological veganism, the logic is only extended to a wider class of beings instead of being dismantled altogether.
Also, in framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong in and of itself, ontological veganism risks the demonization of predation more generally. In order to avoid arriving at this position, a common approach is to ‘excuse’ animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of ‘nature’ while humans, as cultural beings, can/should be exempt from predation. While it is true that some of us (especially those living in wealthy Western-industrial societies) can ‘choose’ to opt for vegan as opposed to animal-based products, this line of thought merely reproduces yet another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. In reality all of our choices and activities, including what we eat, have cultural as well as biological aspects to them that cannot be neatly separated.
Moreover, ecosystems and all living beings depend upon consumption of others in one way or another in order to function- wolves prey upon ungulates and rodents, we must prey upon vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms and nourish them in turn. Consumption and use of various kinds are natural features of ecological systems, which would cease to function if the absolute moral and ontological opposition to such things were taken to its logical conclusion. If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, and therefore are components of the web of life along with all others, then like them, we are food- as well as so much more. To suggest otherwise is to reinforce the very dualisms that we, as animal and earth lovers, wish to do away with.
On the basis of the horrendous cruelty involved in industrial factory farming, on its reduction of living beings to mere commodities, and on its disastrous ecological impacts, however, calls for abstaining from or at least radically reducing/reforming the use of animal agriculture find firmer ground. The ways in which we presently treat animals in contemporary factory farming and in broader settings constitute the exact opposite of respect and mutuality, so much so that Huxley once noted in his incredible Ecotopian work, Island: “For animals everywhere else, Satan, quite obviously, is Homo Sapiens.” No being or organism is exempt from use in some form or other; what’s important to keep in mind is that we are all so much more than what we provide, and therefore we should treat others not only occasionally as means but, more importantly, as ends in themselves. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved as these are important for the ultimate goal of animal liberation.