“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Economy (Chapter 1-E)
For many activists confronting widespread animal exploitation and related cruelty – from food, to clothing, to experimentation and entertainment – it can sometimes appear as though there are so many issues to focus attention on that the situation becomes overwhelming.
When advocates are unclear about the best way to address these countless concerns, many choose to focus on one issue, such as eliminating battery cages or gestation crates. Others try to spend their advocacy hours doing “a bit of everything”.
As explained in Making a Killing with Animal Welfare Reform, campaigns against specific practices of animal exploitation are lucrative for animal welfare groups, bringing in tens of millions of dollars into their coffers annually for acting as the large, non-profit “regulators” of industry. Such campaigns are known among animal advocates as single issue campaigns, or “SICs.”
When you combine the financial motivation of large animal welfare groups and the besieged feeling animal advocates often experience from trying to tackle so many different issues, the result is the current dominant culture of the animal advocacy movement, where the efforts of countless individuals are scattered across countless different single-issue campaigns.
It certainly seems that such division amongst animal advocates must work strongly in the favor of the animal industry and the current cultural paradigm of speciesism. By contrast, a united front of widespread public education focused on why and how to become vegan would address the root of the exploitation problem by challenging not only all of our uses of animals, but our society’s decidedly speciesist attitude in and of itself.
To illustrate the point, it’s helpful to consider the analogy of a tree. The animal exploitation tree can be divided into several sections, including the roots, trunk, and branches.
- The roots of the tree – mostly hidden underground – represent our society’s underlying speciesism; the cultural prejudice against all animals (other than humans) that makes it possible for us to ignore the basic needs of others in favor of our own trivial desires. Speciesism, like racism, sexism, and other oppressive cultural prejudices, ignores morally relevant characteristics (such as the fundamental interests of the oppressed or exploited), in favor of morally irrelevant characteristics (such as membership of a species, race, sex, and so on). When we eliminate speciesism (individually or as a group), we respect the interests of individual members of other species sufficiently to take those interests into account with our own, and everyone else’s interests. The behavioral result of such respect is veganism – avoiding animal products and uses in our lives as much as is reasonably possible.
- The base of the tree trunk – located just above the surface of the soil, and the foundation for the rest of the tree’s growth – represents the property status of animals; the legal structure which makes it socially legitimate for us to treat other sentient beings as economic commodities. (As explained in Legal Slavery in the 21st Century, this legal status effectively keeps welfare reforms limited to those that optimize the economic efficiency of a socially accepted use, regardless of how cruel certain practices are.)
- The lower trunk of the tree, where the largest branches begin, can be understood to represent our uses of animals for food, as the food industry accounts for the vast majority of all animal exploitation. Growing out of this section of the trunk are the tree’s most substantial limbs – those that represent the production of dairy, eggs, and meat (including fish) – each of which leads to many smaller branches representing the specific rights violations associated with these industries, such as intensive confinement and the horrific physical mutilations that occur in all three. Other smaller branches that originate in the ‘food’ section of the tree could be seen to represent less common practices such as the force-feeding of geese to produce foie-gras.
- As we travel further up the tree, past the most sizeable branches of the food industry, the medium-sized branches represent the other major industries of animal use – experimentation, clothing, and entertainment. Growing out of these major branches are many smaller ones. For instance, the limb that represents animal-based clothing branches off into fur production (which branches off again into issues such as seal clubbing, fur farming, wild trapping, etc.) The entertainment industry branches off into (amongst many other issues) sport hunting, which branches off again into canned hunting and hunting of endangered animals. Another off-shoot from the parent limb of entertainment is the use of animals in circuses, which then branches off into the issue of using bullhooks on elephants.
- At the very edges of the animal exploitation tree, there exists a layer of ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ branches, which represent specific practices that are not economically optimal for industry to continue. These practices include keeping sows in gestation crates, and killing chickens by electrocution (as opposed to Controlled Atmosphere Killing, which is celebrated by industry and advocates alike as being much more economically-efficient).
- Since the practices associated with animal exploitation exist solely to fulfill demand, consumers and users are the lifeblood of every aspect of the tree. Creating demand for these products and services can be compared to giving the tree water and fertilizer. Reducing demand with an increasing vegan population denies the tree of exploitation its essential nutrients, without which it will surely wither and eventually die.
When we view the paradigm of animal exploitation in this manner, it becomes clear that the fatal problem with SICs is that they focus on the outer periphery, while ignoring not only the trunk and main branches, but the roots themselves, which are continually working to deliver vital nutrients to every part of the tree.
Pruning Makes a Tree Grow Stronger
As a practical matter, SICs are focused primarily on clipping either small or ‘dead’ branches off the tree, obviously making the tree healthier. Even when animal welfare groups attempt to cut off a medium-sized branch, such as seal clubbing or fur production, they find that the tree is easily healthy enough to continue thriving despite the loss of a live (i.e. profitable) branch. If a part of the branch is cut or prevented from growing (as was the case with fur production in the 1990s) the tree is still big and strong enough that – down the line – such branches can actually come back with renewed strength (as the case has been with fur production since the early 2000s). Attempting to prune the tree not only fails to harm the tree in the long run, but actually helps it to thrive.
Branches Grow Back
In our global economy, another fatal problem with SICs is that, even if they were to succeed in cutting off small or middle-sized branches, new branches can grow in other areas to replace the branches that were cut. For example, if we eliminate horse slaughter in the United States (cutting a middle-sized branch); industry will simply ship horses to Mexico and slaughter them there (new replacement branch). As long as demand exists, supply and any profitable practices based on demand will shift to other jurisdictions as required.
Trimming Branches Helps the Roots to Thrive
Because animals are property and economic commodities, we have a wide divergence of social acceptability regarding the treatment of animals. On one hand, the law permits extreme cruelty for the most trivial of economic benefits, as long as the end use is socially acceptable. On the other hand, most people would be horrified to see a dog – especially their own dog – endure what animals raised for food or used in experiments endure.
SICs reinforce these irrational dichotomies by singling out specific uses of animals as though they are worse than others. When we campaign to eliminate one branch of the tree, such as the fur or seal-clubbing industries, while ignoring other branches, such as the leather, egg, and dairy industries, we send a message to the public that certain forms of exploitation are worse than others. The tremendously popular “Say No to Fur” campaign is a classic example. This particular campaign sends the confusing and false message that fur is somehow worse than other animal-based fabric such as leather, which is just as brutal in its production, yet much more widely used.
SICs could avoid this problem by calling for veganism and an end to all animal use, but we almost never see a strong vegan message attached to SICs.
The Vegan Solution: Uprooting and Eliminating the Tree
The animal exploitation tree exists solely because of consumers of animal products. Consumers and users are the lifeblood of every aspect of the tree. When we go vegan, we remove our contribution to the tree’s health. When we inform others about why and how to become vegan, we help others eliminate their contribution to the tree’s health. When we call attention to our society’s speciesism, we dig up parts of the tree’s root system and expose them to the light of day – eliminating one more source of nutrition for the branches.
As more and more of us join in being vegan and encouraging and helping others to be vegan, the tree’s health will steadily diminish, causing the outer branches to naturally die off, until eventually the entire tree – and with it, the extreme cruelty it necessarily inflicts on the innocent – will no longer be able to survive.
Rather than contributing to the efforts of thousands in “hacking at the branches” of the tree (while at the same time nourishing it by consuming and using animal products and services), we ought to “strike at the root” by embracing veganism and encouraging others to do the same.
with Dan Cudahy
Angel Flinn is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.
Dan Cudahy is author of Unpopular Vegan Essays: Unpopular Essays Concerning Popular Violence Inflicted On The Innocent.