with Dan Cudahy
The movement for animal rights is perhaps one of the most misunderstood social phenomena of the 21st century. Despite the sincere efforts of an increasing number of individuals willing to speak up on behalf of the animals who suffer at the hands of humans, our cause continues to be misconstrued, misrepresented, and maligned.
Admittedly, the blame for this lies partially with the movement itself, or at least with certain organizations and individuals perceived to be at the helm, who seem to create their own PR nightmares, or to be so off course that one sometimes wonders if they could actually be working for the other side.
This may come as a surprise to some, but for those of us who view animal rights as the most pressing social justice issue of our time, the antics of the large organizations are often as embarrassing as they are hurtful to the animals they purport to serve. Sadly, these groups have a monopoly on not only the available funding, but subsequently, to a large degree, the hearts and minds of those watching and listening, making it painfully obvious why the animal rights movement has gained such a poor reputation.
Meanwhile, in 2012, while many of our society’s advances progress ever more rapidly, our behavior toward animals is more objectionable than ever. Despite the emergence and growth of an entire industry devoted to providing excellent alternatives to virtually everything we obtain from animal exploitation, the number of animals enslaved and killed every year is greater than at any time in history.
Even to those of us who are deeply involved with animal rights and vegan education, a brief look at the math veritably boggles the mind.
Every year around the world, for no purpose other than providing food alone (food which is not only inappropriate for human physiology, but actually contributes significantly to many of the most significant global health crises), approximately 56 billion nonhuman animals are intentionally bred, raised, and killed.
This entirely unnatural population of living beings not only causes our planet to strain under the weight of so many individuals, each requiring food, water and land that could otherwise be used much more efficiently, but also produces so much pollution and waste that the planet simply cannot recycle it fast enough.
The number of 56 billion does not even include those animals who live in water*, or those who are killed for other reasons, such as for clothing, experimentation or “sport”. In the US alone, we kill 10 billion land animals for food every year; far more than the entire current human population.
At this rate of killing, the number of deaths is greater in five days than the deaths we’ve inflicted on humans in all wars and all genocides in recorded human history (approximately 619 million). Even if every non-vegan cut their current animal product consumption by 90%, it would take us only about 41 days to kill as many sentient nonhumans as we’ve killed humans in recorded history.
* It is hard to find accurate figures with regard to the number of fishes and other aquatic animals who are killed by humans every year. However, a conservative estimate would likely be around 100 billion, making the total number of animals killed for food at least three times as much (156 billion annually).
How did we come to this? It’s obvious that the situation has been made much worse by the disastrous combination of continually increasing human population growth, technological advancements, industrial capacity, and economic demand during the 20th century and continuing into the 21st. However, all of this is occurring on top of a deep social and cultural prejudice against sentient nonhuman beings that is exacerbated by the fact that we humans are frighteningly indulgent of our destructive habits; willing to persistently put our frivolous desires above the indisputable needs and rights of those we oppress.
To animal advocates faced with the harsh reality of this situation, it is abundantly clear that we have an enormous amount of work to do to shift society’s current paradigm from one of unimaginable and extreme violence to one of relatively peaceful sanity. Shifting away from the common belief that other animals are renewable resources – objects, insentient ‘things’, and economic commodities fit to be owned as property – will lead to a new perception that recognizes other animals as the conscious, feeling, innocent individuals they are.
Following is a collection of articles written for those who are interested in understanding what this movement for animal rights is all about, as well as for those who are trying to figure out how to most effectively inform public opinion. We hope that these will offer some inspiration and clarity, so that together, we will be able to elevate the collective consciousness, bringing about a paradigm that will one day grant animals freedom from persecution and slaughter. And that is a freedom one surely cannot deny they deserve.
Veganism is not a fringe philosophy – it is a moral baseline that is consistent with beliefs that most of us already hold. Veganism is a simple matter of refraining from participating in unnecessary and harmful use of sentient beings. As most people are naturally opposed to unnecessary violence, becoming and staying vegan is not a matter of changing any of our basic moral beliefs. It simply requires us to be willing to change the habits we have developed that prevent us from living according to our principles.
As surely as the abolitionists of the past knew that no man or woman should be the property of any other, the abolitionists of today know that the legal property status of animals stands in the way of their ever receiving any meaningful rights or protection, let alone being granted the freedom to live according to their own needs and desires.
We consider killing humans to be wrong regardless of the individual’s cognitive abilities, moral capacity, mental health, sex, race, nationality, age or sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter whether the person in question is terminally suffering from dementia, psychologically ill, severely retarded or a productive genius – we believe it to be seriously wrong in all cases… By stark contrast, the majority of us act as if there is absolutely nothing wrong with unnecessarily killing a member of certain other species of sentient beings. But what rational basis do we have for such a discrepancy in our perception? What quality is found in all and only humans that could possibly point to the conclusion that the lives of other animals are unimportant?
There is something very unjust about the fact that we delegate the most obscene work of our society to a select few who are emotionally hardened enough to carry it out, only to later denigrate them for their disconnection from their natural sense of empathy. When thinking about it honestly, most of us would be hard-pressed to find it in ourselves to slaughter an animal – or to rip off her skin, or slice open her body to remove the entrails, or butcher her flesh into supermarket-sized pieces… And yet, we continue to ask others to do it for us, while most people refuse to even watch these things on video or hear others describe them.
Speciesism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices rely on a morally irrelevant criterion (in this case, species) as the basis on which to deny the interests of an individual belonging to a different ‘group’, even if those interests are more significant than one’s own. As such, speciesism is simply a different form of the same underlying wrong at the foundation of all prejudices. It really doesn’t matter which morally irrelevant criteria we base our prejudice on – sex, race, skin color, age, sexual orientation, species – it is ethically wrong to use such arbitrary criteria to deny the rights of others.
Animal advocacy organizations work side by side with the animal industry in developing and promoting “humane” labels for animal foods. Not only does this sort of “product development” consulting provide invaluable public relations assistance for these companies, but it also effectively gives these products the “animal people” stamp of approval when they reach the consumer. Although these programs may appear on the surface to offer greater protection for animals, it is painfully clear that they are designed as an (albeit very clever) PR campaign to increase sales, by making consumers feel better about using animal products. These labels, which include Certified Humane Raised & Handled, Humane Choice, Freedom Food and the Whole Foods 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards, could quite reasonably be viewed as the ultimate betrayal from the perspective of the victims.
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. Single Issue Campaigns 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, 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.
Not only do such colossal government handouts artificially affect supply, these subsidies also lower the prices of animal products, which would be close to three times as high without subsidies. Considering the exorbitant costs of animal agriculture to the environment; and the costs of saturated fat, cholesterol, and excess sodium to human health, a responsible government would tax, not subsidize, animal products, even if the rights of animals were not an issue.
During the past few years, the call to reduce our consumption of animal products has grown tremendously. There is a great deal of diversity amongst the individuals and organizations behind this appeal, as well as in the reasons and benefits they point to, and most of them are not vegan. However, there is one thing they have in common, and that is that they are all making it easier for people to be vegan for life. Indeed, the movement away from animal use is shaping up to possibly be the most significant social phenomenon of the 21st century.
“I found the minds of the people strangely indifferent to the subject of slavery. Their prejudices were invincible—stronger, if possible, than those of the slaveholders. Objections were started on every hand; apologies for the abominable system constantly saluted my ears; obstacles were industriously piled up in my path… What was yet more discouraging, my best friends—without an exception—besought me to give up the enterprise! It was not my duty (they argued) to spend my time, and talents, and services, where persecution, reproach and poverty were the only certain reward. My scheme was visionary—fanatical—unattainable… But opposition served only to increase my ardor, and confirm my purpose.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison (July 14, 1830)
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.