Animals are not just living things; they are beings with lives… that makes all the difference in the world…next time you are outside…notice the first bird you see…you are beholding a unique individual with personality traits, an emotional profile, and a library of knowledge built on experience…what you are witnessing is not just biology, but a biography.
Jonathan Balcombe i
If I was to offer you a completely new range of things to eat—food with marvellous tastes, textures and mouth-watering aromas—I think there’s a good chance you’d be interested in trying them because generally speaking that’s exactly what we look for in our food. So let’s assume that you have accepted my offer. However, before you get underway there are a few things I have to tell you.
Firstly, in order to obtain this food, several species of animals, mostly cows, pigs, chicken and sheep, had to be killed, and in most cases this was done in cruel and painful ways. Prior to being killed these animals were subjected to various forms of ill-treatment and as their lives drew to a close and they became aware of their impending doom, they experienced high levels of terror, sufficient in fact to change the nature of their flesh.
Secondly, the methods employed to produce this food are highly inefficient and environmentally disastrous in terms of water pollution, water wastage, land degradation, species loss and the production of greenhouse gases.
And finally, eating this food will, in the long term, significantly increase your chances of developing certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and, it seems increasingly likely, dementia.
So, are you still interested? I assume, and certainly hope, that by now you’ve changed your mind about eating the stuff, but if you are a consumer of animal products in any form (not just food) these are exactly the sorts of things you are helping to facilitate with every purchase. It’s not a pleasant thought, but it’s what ninety-five percent of the population in the developed world1 is doing every day of every week.
So why do we do it? Why do we treat our fellow travelers so barbarically? If causing such levels of suffering in so many animals is not highly unethical, then what exactly is unethical behaviour? By any measure, the mistreatment of animals by commercial operations that act ‘legally’ among us goes far beyond the pale of what could ever be acceptable in a civilised society and presumably that is the type of society we want to live in.
It’s an abhorrent situation, many centuries in the making, but the past is the past and it cannot be changed. The question now is: what can we do about what confronts us today? How can we as individuals, working within the sphere of animal welfare, help move our societies a step closer to a state of civilisation? Surprisingly, the answer is quite simple: withdraw financial support for the industries which are causing, or contributing to, these problems. Just stop buying anything that relies on animal abuse for its existence. There are many other actions we can take in addition to this, but none are as effective as refusing to give them our money, because, like all commercial operations, the animal-abuse industries exist for one reason only—to make a profit. Without it, they will cease to exist.
Each person who chooses to withdraw their financial support for the animal-abuse industries—which of course extend well beyond food production—become, by default, vegan.
This is not as disturbing as it may initially sound even if the words vegan and veganism conjure up uncomfortable thoughts of oddballs, extremists, trendy bandwagon jumpers or tiresome do-gooders looking for a drum to beat. Yes, there are some vegans who can be described this way, but as a general rule such descriptions are neither fair nor accurate. Today, the concept of veganism has a much broader and more powerful meaning despite outdated dictionaries still defining it as simply a diet that excludes all animal products. For many of us, myself included, being vegan has got very little to do with what we put in our mouths per se and much more to do with the whole picture of animal welfare, the contribution of animal agriculture to the looming environmental catastrophes and plain old human health. Indeed, veganism, by its very nature extends beyond non-human animals to a deep concern for human beings as well because we are all of us, in our capacity to suffer, inseparable.
I think of veganism as a moral and political response to a critical situation, and while it certainly does mean having a diet free of animal products, this is no more than an inevitable consequence of the decision to take action. Veganism is NOT a squeamish dislike of sausages, leather shoes and horse-racing simply because they exist, nor is it a quasi-religious fad diet designed to make the devotee feel ‘different’ or ‘superior’. It’s got nothing to do with religion, culture, career, age, gender or anything else that distinguishes us from each other. Veganism is about lowering the demand for food, clothing, entertainment and anything else which causes high levels of suffering among the animals it exploits and, as a corollary, increases demand for those which do not. It is both a re-balancing of our relationships with animals and decisive action to preserve and defend the natural environment. Veganism has clear, measurable goals, many of them simply zero.
The scope of animal abuse
If you read on you will notice that I have directed a lot of my comments and antipathy toward the meat and dairy industries. This is not because they are necessarily the cruellest; it is because they are the biggest, towering as they do over the landscape of animal abuse. Between them these two titans are responsible for the terrible and completely unnecessary suffering of billions of cattle, chickens, turkeys, geese, pigs, sheep, goats, fish, horses, dogs, camels, buffalo and other species, and the sooner they are replaced by plant-based food industries, cellular agriculture and other scientific and technological advances that do not involve animal exploitation, the better our societies will become.
By concentrating on the meat and dairy industries I don’t want to suggest that those animals who fall foul of other exploitative industries are necessarily better off, because often they are not. Consider for a moment the fate of circus animals, trapped in small cages or chained up for most of their lives, deprived of any reasonable quality of life, carted around the countryside in all weathers, whipped, threatened, and forced to learn stupid tricks; marine mammals, such as orca and dolphins, that would swim for thousands of kilometres if they were in the wild, held in captivity and forced by the staff of marine parks to entertain people from the confines of over-sized swimming pools, and worse still, locked up overnight in tiny tanks where they can barely move; birds imprisoned in cages, deprived of social interaction or the chance to fly, bored beyond description—an exquisite form of torture in its own right (and one that is used in our human prison systems), is something unbearable to witness; race horses restrained in their stalls for twenty-two hours a day when they should be roaming or grazing with others of their own kind, whipped on race day and then discarded and killed for pet food when they break a leg or the sums don’t add up; free-ranging animals of the open plains and forests—the gorillas, monkeys, wildebeest, gazelles, big cats etc., confined in zoos where they suffer the mental anguish and eventual madness of an isolated prisoner; the millions of mice, rats and chimpanzees subjected to cruel experiments in the name of science and the rabbits and hares into whose eyes the cosmetics industry drips its chemicals. These are a few examples of animals whose lives can be as bad as, or even worse than those of the ones we raise for their flesh; and each is as entitled to be freed from their human-induced hells as any other.
If you run your finger down a list of all the forms of animal abuse we in the developed world indulge in, one thing stands out as common to all (with the possible exception of some scientific experimentation) and that is they are all unnecessary. There is simply no need for any of it. Surely we’re capable of feeding and entertaining ourselves without having to sink to these levels of depravity? Even the use of animals in experiments, which, from our anthropocentric view of the world we deem necessary, is waning and seems destined to become a thing of the past in the next few decades.
Among the worst crimes in human history are today’s factory-farms. The industry name for them says it all: ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations’.ii These sickeningly overcrowded hell-holes, which I will describe in detail in a minute, are far and away the number one cause of prolonged suffering for animals in the world today. According to the heartless economic principles of factory-farming, an animal is merely a unit of production to be confined, controlled and exploited for monetary gain. Any action taken to improve its well-being—that does not also increase profits—is deemed a waste of money. This type of thinking may make ‘economic’ sense, but the consequences for the animals caught up in it are ghastly.
It may sound an exaggeration to say (as I did) that what is happening to animals in factory-farms ranks as some of the worst evil that human beings have ever engaged in, particularly when you consider the mass barbarities that litter human history. But it is actually closer to an understatement than an exaggeration, and that surely ought to give us all pause for thought. If it doesn’t, then it’s hard to imagine what could.
As Yuval Harari says in his masterpiece, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: ‘If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.’ iii And when you think about what is going on, for how long and the massive numbers involved, you can confidently remove ‘might well be’ from his comment and replace it with ‘is’.
A most disturbing thought is that the extent of factory-farming may very well increase as the world’s human population continues to grow. United Nations’ demographers expect there to be more than nine billion people on earth by 2050. That’s two billion more people demanding resources than there are today, and unless there is a major shift in behaviour many of them will want to eat meat. As a result of this rapid growth, global meat consumption is predicted to double over the next forty years, although how this ghastly statistic could possibly be achieved without huge input from cellular agriculture (meat grown in bioreactors), nobody understands, because conventional production is now close to its maximum output. What may happen, and something every person on the planet should greatly fear, is that even as the developed world continues to move away from animal products, countries with huge and growing middle classes, such as India, Indonesia, Nigeria and China, will go in the opposite direction, demanding more and more meat, resulting in more and more factory-farming. The global picture may become much worse than it is today although there are some big unknowns in this equation. How rapidly, for example, can cellular agricultural meat production be scaled up over the next few decades and will education, heightened social awareness, government policies or even a blind fear of environmental catastrophe, be sufficient to stem demand for meat in these huge human populations?
Furthermore, factory-farms are the main incubators of both infection-resistant antibiotics—those ‘super bugs’ for which we have no cures—and the mutated viruses that cross over to humans from other species, of which Avian Flu, HIV/AIDs and Ebola are recent examples. To date, these new pathogens have not caused global devastation, but it is predicted that the number of people they will kill will rise to around ten million each year by 2050—a ten-fold increase on current numbers.iv
If being party to animal cruelty on this scale is not sufficient reason for some people to alter their behaviour they might be moved to do so by the chilling fact that animal agriculture is a fundamental cause of many of our gravest environmental problems, among them: land clearance to create grazing land, and the associated soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and reduced carbon capture capacity that accompanies it; over-fishing and the destruction of marine ecosystems; water pollution; fresh water wastage and the production of methane, a significant greenhouse gas, are just some of them. Each is critically important in its own right and each can be greatly ameliorated, even rectified, if we move to a plant-based food system. If we stop feeding a third of all our grain and soy to animals trapped in factory-farms, vast areas of land can return to naturally occurring vegetation and there will still be sufficient food for all people. But time is rapidly running out and we have to get moving, even if only to blunt some of the effects of the environmental damage we’ve already caused and we certainly can’t rely on last-minute technical solutions to give us a ‘soft landing’ when the causes of global warming have already gained such irreversible momentum.
In the face of all this gloomy news it is easy to become despondent, especially when we look at how big the meat, dairy and other animal-abuse industries have become and at how normalised their products are within society. I know that sinking feeling well, because I drive through the farming country of New South Wales in Australia regularly and I see the scale of it all. It’s huge and sometimes the thought of bringing about meaningful change feels a bit like trying to nudge a fully-laden iron ore carrier off its course using a rubber dinghy. But it may prove to be easier than that because people-power, when properly harnessed, is incredibly strong and has the potential to increase exponentially once it takes hold in the shared human imagination. Official statistics don’t show it, but in the developed world a major shift in people’s views on veganism, animal welfare, the environment and healthful plant-based nutrition, is well and truly underway, and it’s gaining momentum. Just the other day (May 2018) Woolworths in Australia reported a 10% increase in the sale of vegan foods in the last 12 months. Every day the penny is beginning to drop more frequently, adding thousands of vegans to the tens of millions who have already arrived.
As Margaret Mead said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ v
In this case the ‘small group’ comprises the roughly forty million people globally who have chosen to become vegan for ethical reasons. These are people who have access to abundant, cheap animal products but choose not to consume them because they want to do something about the dreadful mess we’ve got ourselves into. That is what an ethical vegan is. And while 40 million is a comparatively small group in a global population of over seven billion (representing only 0.6%), it is still a lot of people and sufficiently large to ignite an idea in the collective human imagination. Just as a flaring match head is tiny compared to the forest fire it starts, a concept as potent as veganism, which is fuelled by logic, compassion and urgency, can spread in the age of social media as quickly as an Australian bush fire on a hot, windy day.
Scope of essay
I have deliberately focused on the major animal-abuse industries in this essay because of their sheer size and because they are a problem we can really do something about. It does mean, however, that I haven’t touched on more esoteric topics such as whether or not it is OK to swat a fly, stamp on an ant; or eat a jellyfish, an oyster, the carcass of an animal that has died of old age or was run over by a truck. Nor have I mentioned anything about what actions we might justifiably take if our houses are plagued by rats or mice, or if we’re feeling self-conscious about the tens of thousands of little animals we slaughter each morning when we wash our faces. I’ll leave that to the Buddhists because they’ve had a long time to think about such things. I’ve also avoided tricky modern day questions about how to deal with introduced animals which are killing native species and in other ways destroying the environment. These are issues for another discussion. One thing I have done is make a few comments about the role of animals in scientific experiments and the need for blatant (but temporary, I hope) hypocrisy on our part if we are willing to accept treatment using modern medicine that has it’s roots in animal abuse.