By Catherine Burt, November 2009
Watch A Life Connected . Available in six languages, this video gently and powerfully presents the truths about how each of our choices in the past built the world we live in today.
November 1, was the 65th birthday of the formalization and naming of “Veganism.”
The Vegan Society was founded in 1944 by a man named Donald Watson, a very ordinary man who lived a very ordinary life. I think that his ordinariness is what makes him so inspiring… because most of us can relate to his life and story, and see that even common people can change the world.
Watson founded a far-reaching and profound social movement, whose wisdom
is becoming more and more evident as we see the detrimental effects of our
use of animals — on animals themselves, humans, and the environment.
What does it mean to be an ethical vegan?
I have been asked this question many times – it’s a rare occasion that I don’t botch it, in the interest of time and the patience of the asker. It isn’t that veganism is complex, in fact it’s the simplest ethical philosophy a person can have: non-harm and non-violence. It is about moral integrity toward life. Vegans understand that using animals as food, clothing, entertainment, and testing of consumer products (and most, if not all, medical experiments), is unwarranted, unnecessary harm to other living creatures.
Therefore, veganism is not a religion, political stance, or a lifestyle… it is about social justice.
It isn’t quite accurate to simply say that vegans don’t eat meat, dairy, or eggs… not even if we also add that we don’t wear leather, wool, fur, feathers, or silk. Not eating or wearing certain items is merely a result of realizing that it is UNJUST to take from animals which is rightfully their own – their skin, their eggs, the milk their bodies have produced to feed their own offspring. It is UNJUST for us to confine animals to cages and deprive them of freedom and natural behaviors, and ultimately, their lives — in order for us to have these products, simply because we enjoy having them.
We may also enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides, rodeos, zoos, and circuses, but is it fair to make horses pull us when we have cars to drive? Is it fair to prove “traditional cowboy skills” (that no one needs anymore) by harming domesticated animals? Is it fair to take animals from their natural habitats and social groups, teach them silly tricks, and put them on display… when we could film them in the wild to observe them instead?
Ethical veganism understands that it is vain jealousy and theft to take from animals what we, as technologically advanced and extremely clever humans, can produce and grow for ourselves. I hear this all the time: “Nature made us dominant of all other life, we can build rockets to the moon, what other species can do that? Aren’t we morally superior?”
Well, in fact, no other species can or cares to do these things – that is precisely what makes it NOT morally superior to take from animals. If the only things a creature has are a fur coat, dignity as a living being, and a desire to be free in their natural environment, then clearly it is unjust for us – who have so many other options for feeding, clothing, and entertaining ourselves – to take them away.
Most ethical vegans also accept that even plant-based products can be non-vegan, if they cause harm to the environment or other people. There is growing concern over the palm oil industry, because plantations are clearing-cutting habitat that belongs to primates and other animals, as well as native peoples. Many ethical vegans eschew chocolate and coffee that are not certified Fair Trade – because these products use human slavery. Would you be surprised to learn that it was the American SPCA that brought the first case of child abuse to court? Ethical vegans see that human rights and animals rights are intimately connected.
What about “humane” farming?
Most people agree that so-called “factory” farming of animals is horrible, and many are calling for a return to the type of farming we had before farming went industrial. But here is what Donald Watson said about the farms during the early 1900s:
“They weren’t all they seemed to be, on the face of it, to a little, hitherto uninformed boy. And it followed that this idyllic scene was nothing more than Death Row. A Death Row where every creature’s days were numbered by the point at which it was no longer of service to human beings.”
And so it goes. The real question of rearing animals for our use is not about being “humane” — once again it is about justice. Is death row a JUST situation for an innocent animal to be placed? What crime did they commit, other than being “tasty,” to land on death row? Consider the plight of adoptable pets who are on death row in shelters because of human caprice… either we demand purebred pets, we don’t bother spaying/neutering, or we simply become tired of caring for them. Clearly it is UNJUST, to inflict suffering and death on guiltless animals because of our own shortcomings or flavor cravings.
I have come to see that veganism is a universal concept that most people can accept, and would accept, given the information needed to make a choice. Industries that use animals pay billions of dollars a year to prevent you from knowing that what they do is unfair… or to justify what they do as necessary to our well-being. In reality, using animals is both unfair and actually harmful to us.
I have not always been vegan, and my purpose in writing this is not to make people feel guilty or to finger-wag at your eating, clothing, or entertainment choices – it is to share what I know and understand, so that you can also make choices that are consistent with your own best values… one of which is almost certainly… a sense of justice.
If you have 12 or so minutes, I’d invite you to watch the following video – I think even Donald Watson himself would be proud of what veganism has become in the last 65 years.