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.