Friday, April 20, 2012

Beyond Environmental Veganism

Earth day is Sunday, and we’re hearing all the annual awareness campaigns. Take shorter showers, drive a hybrid, change a light bulb, recycle… blah, blah, blah. What’s noticeably missing is perhaps the single most important thing one can do for the environment. Go vegan and stay vegan.

As Communications Director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, I sat down with every intention of writing a blog post extolling the virtues of environmental veganism. As an ethical vegan, however, I have a hard time making the case for veganism on strictly environmental grounds. Not that a compelling argument can’t be made from an environmental standpoint, or for purely health reasons for that matter. The environmental benefits of being vegan are tremendous. Even the most casual research about intensive animal agriculture will turn up a number of persuasive reasons to go vegan because of the environment. And that’s a good thing.

That got me thinking, however. Going vegan solely for environmental reasons is a basic misunderstanding of what veganism is at its core. I understand that with environmentalism enjoying the spotlight these days, and the green movement having it’s own cable channel and a whole array of ‘green’ products to consume, I might be quickly criticized to suggest that anything done for environmental reasons alone is not a legitimate enough reason. Fact is, I’m glad for the growing number of environmental vegans out there. If concern for the environment gets people thinking about and moving towards veganism, that is great. In the end however, those of us who are vegan because we respect the inherent sentience of animals must take an active role in moving environmental vegans beyond merely environmentalism and to see veganism for what it really is about: the rights of non-human animals.

From the moment Donald Watson first coined the term ‘vegan’ in 1944, veganism has been about the rights of animals to be given equal consideration. To this day, veganism continues to be the only cogent answer that gets at the heart of animal exploitation. Being vegan is your everyday statement that things are not right as they are, that you are one more person who is standing up to be counted in opposition to the exploitation of animals. It is a refusal of a system that produces enormous profits at the expense of animals who are just as sentient as the family dog or cat. Veganism is and has always been about animal rights.

I don’t want to be misunderstood so let me say this once again: I’m glad to have people go vegan for environmental reasons. My point is however; an environmental thrust alone is an insufficient basis for a long-term vegan position, or for a long-term movement seeking to gain animals important rights. To put it another way, going vegan for solely environmental reasons is quite like opposing the Holocaust because the trains to Auschwitz had a big carbon footprint. I know that is a provocative thing to say, but before getting up in arms, think about the central point I’m making. In both cases, yes the person is opposed to the holocaust. But all of us would argue that the person making an objection on environmental grounds is really failing to see the larger point. That is that genocide is profoundly disgusting and wrong because it violates the inherent rights that we think all human beings should have.

For ethical vegans, the point of veganism is recognizing the inherent value of animals as individual beings unto themselves. If ethical veganism is going to have any impact, it needs to be a movement that’s at its core is concerned about realizing rights for animals. Though the environmental implications of the exploitation of animals, and humans for that matter, are severe, disturbing and taking a growing toll on our ecosystems, we must however put these concerns within the larger framework of exploitation. One in which the environmental side effects of exploitation are recognized and understood, but not in which they are the central focus of concern.

That does not mean we need not be silent about the environmental benefits of veganism, but when we do address such benefits, we should point out that, while great, they are very much incidental to the grave moral wrong of exploiting and unnecessarily breeding and killing the innocent. I would be vegan even if it were bad for the environment, but it's good to know that I can be a good environmentalist and a good vegan simultaneously. 

Those of us who are seriously concerned about the environment should go vegan and take a strong animal rights position. No other food choice has a farther-reaching and more profoundly positive impact on the environment and all life on earth than choosing to become vegan. If you’re not vegan – go vegan. It’s really easy. If you are vegan – stay vegan. It’s better for the planet, better for your health and most importantly it’s the ethically right thing to do.


  1. Really great piece. I agree that going vegan is probably the single most important thing anyone can do for the environment. I do think, however, that the focus on animal rights or the environmental benefits of eating a plant-based diet on their own are not going to persuade people to give up their meat-based diet.

    You have to add the health benefits of a vegan diet to your mix of arguments.
    We have a country that is bursting at the seams - literally - with obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. But we know now conclusively that all these diseases of affluence can be eliminated by changing from a meat-based diet to a plant-based one. Think about how many millions of Americans could be living healthier, more productive lives if they just could be persuaded to change their dietary habits.

    I’m not saying that the environmental and animal-rights arguments in support of veganism aren’t important. Of course they are. But the health benefits of this lifestyle are equally important and for some people much more persuasive.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Sara.

    I agree that the health benefits of becoming vegan can be persuasive for some people, but that is also very much the problem as I see it. The health argument fails because it only appeals to a very specific population, and because you can be perfectly healthy with a moderate amount of animal products in your diet. The environmental argument alone fails as well because steps to become "greener" are always framed in terms of reduction - reduce driving, reduce plastic use, reduce animal products in your diet, etc. Reduce any of those things and you're seen as doing your part for the environment. Those motivated to become vegan because they understand the inherent sentience of animals and are more likely to remain vegan.

    As and abolitionist vegan, I'm interested in having people go vegan and stay vegan because veganism is the unequivocal baseline of anything that deserves to be called an “animal rights” movement. Because they are both compelling arguments to eat closer to a vegan diet, we need not be silent about the health or environmental benefits of veganism, but they are not compelling arguments to remain 100% vegan.

    Again, I'm glad to have people go vegan for environmental or health reasons. My point, however, is that an environmental or health impetus alone is an inadequate foundation for a long-term vegan perspective, or for really founding a long-term movement that seeks to gain animals rights.

    May I ask what motivated you to go vegan, Sara?

  3. Mike Russo [Department of Philosophy, Molloy College]April 23, 2012 at 8:28 PM

    I think that you are both correct. Eric Marcus, the author of the Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, which is one of the best books on veganism around, says that we need to adopt all three approaches

    1) Veganism as goof for your health
    2) Veganism as good for animals, and
    3) Veganism as good for the planet.

    Hitting on all three points ensures that we can persuade everyone--including the less noble person who is only concerned with health and appearance. But we definitely should not leave out points 2 and 3, since these are equally persuasive for some people.

    In fact, when I show PETA's film, "Meet Your Meat," to my Environmental Ethics classes, that is all it usually takes for them to consider going vegan--and that video is all about animal rights issues.

    Nice discussion!

  4. Demosthenes, to answer your question, I went vegan in college because I grew disgusted with the taste of meat. I wish that my initial motivation was a bit more noble than that, but it wasn't. Since college, though, I've come to appreciate the total benefits of the vegan lifestyle - especially the moral benefit of trying to live a life that is a bit less responsible for animal cruelty.

  5. Yes, I totally agree! The emphasis has to be on animal rights. The environmental benefits and health benefits are a bonus, but the arguments for veganism have to focus on the animals. Otherwise, if you're a "health" vegan, that means that "healthy" animal products are OK. If you're an environmental vegan, that would mean that "sustainable" fishing is OK. That's why there's no such thing as an environmental vegan or health vegan.

    1. Interesting point. I've never considered the idea that focusing on the health and environmental benefits of veganism could actually undermine the whole moral point of veganism.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

    2. Yes, thanks for your comments, Doris.

  6. Reducing the amount of animal protein in your diet promotes human and animal health and is better for the environment in many ways, for sure.

    Well done, Demo.


  7. It is the vegan ideal expressed in the Bible/Torah that should motivate all Christians and Jews to stop eating animal products.

    The vegan advocacy movement would be wise to frequently invoke Genesis 1:29 and other pro-vegan verses in the Bible.


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