Most of us would agree (I hope) that there is something fundamentally wrong with making the lives of billions of sentient beings (those who are able to feel or perceive things) ones of intense suffering and violent death. A good way to bring a statement like this into focus is to substitute ‘sentient beings’ with ‘human beings’. And although we cannot prove that what the animal-abuse industries do to their victims is wrong, by the same token neither can we prove that the rape and murder of human beings is wrong or that rescuing a drowning child is right. Some things are simply accepted by people everywhere as universal truths and no further discussion is needed. Such truths, when common to all of humanity, may be are referred to as ‘common sense’ and their acceptance can lead to statements confirming their veracity such as ‘it’s obvious’. It’s obvious that we should rescue a drowning baby. I’ll go along with that any day. But if it’s obvious that we should not cause unnecessary pain and suffering to sentient beings, namely other people and the other animals, then surely it is equally obvious that we should, if in this regard only, treat other animals, as we would wish to be treated ourselves? If not, what is the ethical basis upon which we withdraw our concern for all sentient species other than our own?
Thankfully, a growing number of people across the globe have reached the conclusion that the suffering of all sentient beings is as important as their own and they’re doing something about it. According to a 2008 survey with a statistically-significant sample of the US population, between 3% and 4% of Americans identified as vegans or vegetarians.lxxxi A more recent 2017 survey suggests that the proportion of vegans has risen to around 6%.lxxxii These figures must be treated with caution, because self-reported data is notoriously unreliable and definitions tend to vary from survey to survey. But, just for argument’s sake, let us assume that 4% of the US population are vegan; that’s about 13 million people. If we extrapolate this proportion to the 1.2 billion people who live in the developed world, and err on the side of conservatism, we see there are probably about 40 million who are vegan with, perhaps, several million more in the developing world who have access to animal products but have chosen a vegan lifestyle. (And of course there are hundreds of millions who are vegetarian, or close to it, because of economic, cultural or religious reasons.) If the upward trend continues at its current rate, more than 30% of people in the developed world, most of them under 40, will be vegan by 2050lxxxiii. This may sound promising, and it would certainly be a massive improvement on today’s catastrophic situation, but the levels of animal abuse and environmental destruction that would still exist at 30% would be completely unacceptable. If 70% of a larger population is still propping up the animal-abuse industries it will remain a disastrous situation. There is also the likelihood that as the middle classes in countries like China and India become wealthier they will want, mostly for reasons of social status, more meat. I am not convinced this will happen because climate change is going to hit these countries hard and animal products are going to become very expensive as a result. There are also the benefits of education and heightened social awareness to factor in and we could easily see these burgeoning middle classes finding a wiser path.
Given that becoming vegan is so easy and the strength of the arguments in its favour, I can think of no reason why veganism won’t have become the chosen lifestyle for far more than 30% of the population in developed countries by the middle of this century. We are no longer bound to our past in the way we were even a generation ago. Younger people, those now in their teens and 20s or 30s, are critically aware of what is coming down the pipe and they’re hungry for good ideas and veganism is one of the best, if not the best, among them. Today, we have access to information and food choices that were unheard of just 20 years ago. We stand on the cusp of a technological age which can unshackle us from the stale, thoughtless habits of our past and allow us to make personal decisions that have a real and material effect on improving the world around us. The whole question surrounding animal welfare, in all its permutations and tangential impacts, gives each of us the opportunity to change the way we live and how the world operates. It’s high time we seized the day no matter what our age or disposition in this fleeting life.
A cautionary note…It would be foolish to lose sight of the fact that all people (including the most ethical of vegans) contribute something towards the suffering of animals and the degradation of our environment, despite their best efforts to do otherwise.
If we catch a plane, for example, how many of us consider the greenhouse gases it produces or the birds and insects who may die from being sucked into its engines? Cars, trucks and trains pollute and kill in similar ways, and most of us drive one of them. If we buy an orange, do we consider the birds and bats who have died as a result of becoming entangled in the protection nets that cover the orange trees? Do we consider the numbers of small mammals that die when land is cleared for growing crops? Who thinks about the cost to the environment, and by extension, to the displacement and death of animals, when they switch on electricity, or use petroleum-based products such as phones, cameras, soap, aspirin, fridges, paint, shampoo, bandages, or any number of other modern day necessities?
When it comes down to it, all of us are culpable to some extent, some much more than others, and we all need to be aware of this and humble in the face of it. But that shouldn’t slow any of us down or weaken our resolve because these issues are far too important to be held back by our imperfections. You don’t have to be Einstein to see that through the collective efforts and commitment of millions of people we can turn this thing around on all fronts. The first step in this process is to think carefully about what your shopping list is built upon. The rest will follow.
And finally, because I can scarcely match it, I would like to finish with the quote of a quote from the Afterword of Colin Spencer’s excellent book, The Heretic’s Feast.
‘The American naturalist, Henry Beston, in his account of a year in the life of the Great Beach of Cape Cod, The Outermost House, first published in 1928, put his finger on it when he said: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.” He rejected the fact that the animal was measured against man and patronised for its incompleteness. Animals have extended senses that we have lost and they hear voices that we are deaf to. Beston says: “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”’ lxxxiv