Vegan Choice

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Vegan Choice

Tom Regan, Tom Regan's Animal Rights & Writes / Culture and Animals Foundation

Presentation for several Animal Rights Conferences in Italy, 2009

In the invitation extended to me on this occasion I was asked to address vegan choice. Now, at least in my experience, different vegans understand veganism differently. Some are inclined to think of it as the name of a food choice: vegans are people who do not eat the flesh of other animals, but neither do they eat so-called animal products, including milk, cheese and eggs. Thus vegans not only practice a dietary way of life that differs from the people clamoring for animal flesh at McDonalds and KFC; they also differ from vegetarians who, like vegans, abstain from “meat” (so-called), but who, unlike vegans, eat eggs or diary products. That’s one way to understand veganism: it’s the name of a food choice.

The Vegan Society understands veganism differently. Here is how they define the term:

[T]he word ‘veganism’ denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Notice how this definition encompasses “all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals,” not only “for food,” but also for “clothing or any other purpose.” Thus, while the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism includes, in dietary terms, “dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals,” the definition includes much more than a person’s choice of what to eat. Or not.

When, then, we gather here to think about “vegan choice,” the first question we have to ask is how to understand this choice: narrowly (as a choice restricted to diet only) or broadly (as a choice that includes other aspects of how we live—what clothes we wear, for example). Myself, I have always been inclined to think of the idea narrowly: veganism is the name of a dietary practice. However, I must admit that it is difficult for me to say that the Vegan Society, which purports to speak for vegans everywhere, does not understand the idea for which the Society is named. Which is why I suggest, and I hope you will agree, that we understand “vegan choice” broadly, meaning that the choice we are considering is whether or not to adopt a way of life that seeks to remove our support, as far is possible and practical, from all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for any purpose.

Understood in this way, “vegan choice” is indistinguishable from another idea with which many (indeed, probably all) of you are familiar: the idea of animal rights or, to be more precise, the idea of what the world would be like, if the rights of animals were recognized and respected. For if they were recognized and respected, not by a few but by everyone, people would not eat animal flesh or animal products, any more than they would wear clothes made of fur or wool. Because of how these two ideas (vegan choice and animal rights) coalesce, I will in what follows use them interchangeably.

Now, vegans are not known for their sense of humor. That’s a fact. Even so, I’ve heard a few good vegan jokes along the way. Like:

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Answer: Because she was being chased by Coronel Sanders.

Or how about:
Question: Why did the vegan cross the road?
Answer: Because she was defending the chicken.

And there’s:

How many vegans does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two, one to change it and another one to check for animal ingredients.

But also remember:

How many vivisectors does it take to change a lightbulb?
None, they don’t want you to see what they are doing.

As the American comedian Bill Cosby notes: “Did you ever notice the [vegan] customers in health-food stores? They are pale, skinny people who look half dead. In a steak house, you see robust, ruddy people — who are dying, of course, but, hey, they look terrific!”

Those who know me know this: if Tom Regan has a central, recurring message it is this: any chance that animal rights advocates will achieve what we want to achieve depends on growing our movement—and growing it not a little but a lot.

What do I mean by a lot? I don’t mean hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of new people embracing animal rights. I don’t even mean hundreds of millions. No, what I mean by a lot is what the astronomer Carl Sagan was found of saying: I mean billions and billions. Only if the day comes when billions and billions of people believe in and practice the ideals that define veganism, broadly conceived — only then will we have a realistic hope of achieving what we want to achieve.

Now, different people can have different reactions to the enormity of the challenge we face. Once this challenge is drawn in terms of real (and very large) numbers, some animal advocates will say (roughly), “My God, the situation is hopeless!” Some will even go further and say, “The situation is so hopeless that I am throwing in the towel—giving-up—abandoning the cause.”

I understand these responses. Who amongst us hasn’t looked at what is happening to animals (more than 50 billion slaughtered worldwide annually, and that’s not counting marine life) — who amongst us hasn’t opened our eyes to the incalculable dimensions of the tragic fate animals must endure, and not felt totally spent, completely exhausted, wholly unequal to the challenges we face? Despair felt in the face of overwhelming odds is a perfectly natural human response.

It also is not a very helpful one. We don’t add to our numbers by subtracting ourselves from the total. Let me repeat that because it is important: We don’t add to our numbers by subtracting ourselves from the total.

No, what hope the animals have demands that we stay the course, for as long as we can — up to our last breath, in fact. That is the least we can do. And it is a very small pledge when compared to what animals are made to endure up to their last breath.

One reason the challenges we face seem so enormous is because we try to imagine all those billions of people joining our ranks but otherwise remaining the same. The day comes when billions of them no longer eat the flesh of dead animals and don’t wear fur; they don’t go to circuses or visit marine parks; they don’t buy cosmetics that have been tested on animals and they don’t donate to charities that support research on animals; they don’t . . . well, you can add to the list of what they eliminate from their life. But aside from these changes, most of us seem to assume that these billions of people are the same as most of the world’s population today. The only difference is that they have come over to our side when it comes to veganism or animal rights.

I want to suggest that this way of thinking is far too simplistic. We are not merely trying to change a few old habits about what people eat and wear. Billions of people will embrace animal rights only if billions of people change in a deeper, more fundamental, a more revolutionary way. What I mean is nothing short of this: They must embrace and, in their life, they must express a new understanding of what it means to be a human being.

What would this new understanding be like? Here (by way of a rough outline) is my answer.

Save not only the whales and the planet but ourselves.

Perhaps now what I said earlier will be clearer. One reason why the challenges we face seem so enormous, I said, is because we try to imagine all those billions of people joining our ranks but otherwise remaining the same. The day comes when billions of them no longer eat the flesh of dead animals and don’t wear fur; they don’t go to circuses or visit marine parks; they don’t buy cosmetics that have been tested on animals and they don’t contribute to charities that support research on animals; they don’t . . . well, you can add to the list of what they eliminate from their life. But aside from these changes, most of us seem to assume that these billions of people are the same as most of the world’s population today. The only difference is that they have come over to our side when it comes to veganism.

I want to suggest (I said earlier) that this way of thinking is too simplistic. We are not merely trying to change a few old habits about what people eat and wear. Billions of people will embrace animal rights only if billions of people change in a deeper, more fundamental, a more revolutionary way. They must embrace and, in their life, they must express a new understanding of what it means to be a human being.”

What would this new understanding be like? That is what I have been trying to explain; that is what the Thee Generation represents. The challenges we face, then, cannot be reduced to convincing billions of people to choose veganism; it includes transforming who people are today into what they can be tomorrow. Not a few of them. A lot. Billions and billions!

Is the situation hopeless? Should we abandon the cause? I don’t think so. At least not until we have made earnest efforts to bring about the sort of revolutionary change I have been describing. We are unlikely to achieve what we want to achieve if we do not understand the nature of the challenges we face. And we will never understand the nature of the challenges we face if we think exclusively in terms of having billions and billions of people embrace veganism. For that is only a part, not the whole of the change we seek. As for the prospects of our success? I close by slightly revising the immortal words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed [people] can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has” — and, I add, the only thing that ever will.