What would a Vegan Society look like? Part 2: Species and Cultures

I sort of feel like the ‘what would a vegan world look like?‘ topic deserves a couple more posts, although this one continues to duck the central and thorny (and sticky – like a thornbush covered in treacle) questions, and instead deals with certain concerns that often come up in this sort of context.

One recurrent question goes as follows:

“If we all became vegatarian/vegan what would happen to all the existing domestic cows, sheep and pigs etc? Would a truly vegan society mean the extinction of domestic cattle and sheep and pigs?  What happens while they all die off?”

The other question is:

“What about places where there are ‘indigionous’ people such as Inuit who  do not have the weather to grow sufficient vegatables?  How much will we have to ride roughshod over peoples’ culture to do this?”

Now, I think in both these cases, there is a reasonable and very difficult question of means, and relatively simple question of ends.

The question of ends in the first case is – do we aim at the extinction of the domesticated cattle, pig, etc. sub-species? And to this I think the question is fairly straightforwardly ‘yes’ – we don’t aim at that for its own sake but if, as is quite possible, it would be the consequence of veganism, we’re fine with that. Sub-species in themselves aren’t particularly important, and don’t have moral rights that way that individuals like you do.

And similarly, in the second case, there is the question – are we happy to cause an irrevocable and radical change in hunter-gatherers’ cultures, essentially amounting to the disappearance of the older cultures? Again, I would say ‘yes’, because cultures are not in themselves morally significant things.

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What Would a Vegan Society Look Like? Preamble

Reader Mute Fox, from withwhatartthoudiscontented, said a while back:

“I am merely curious to know how you envision a free human society…interacting on equal terms with other species, all the time. I am not saying it couldn’t be done…I just wonder what you think that would look like.”

After a perhaps-unconscionable delay I figured I should try to say something about this. It’s hard to know where to start, especially because so much of the answer to this question is bound up with environmental questions about our relationship to the overall biosphere. There’s also the equally tricky question of which animals we’re talking about, and how they differ – to avoid that I’m talking primarily about mammals here.

But I think the best way I can think of the come at the question is from the idea of paradigms. By ‘paradigm’ I mean a sort of guiding thought that informs and determines how we relate to a particular thing – less specific or rigid than a rule, and one step more practical than a philosophical truth.

For example, at the moment, the primary paradigm by which human societies relate to animals (strictly, ‘nonhuman animals’ but I’m going to go for brevity here) is that animals are property. This is related to the philosophical claim that animals possess only ‘extrinsic’ or ‘instrumental’ value – that is, whereas humans are morally valuable and important intrinsically, animals are valuable insofar as they are valuable to someone else.

As I said, the paradigm is one step more practical, more concrete and specific, than this principle. It’s that claim – that animals have only extrinsic value – refracted into various sorts of definite relationships: animals which are positively valuable will become a resource to be owned, increased, and consumed, as food or clothing or work or information, while animals which are negatively valued will become pests, vermin, or ‘beasts’, and the target of extermination attempts, just like the dirt on our floor.

Obviously, part of my goal would be to do away with this paradigm. But what to replace it with? That will at least be the first step from a philosophical principle like ‘animals have rights’ to a concrete social vision.

One obviously inappropriate paradigm is something like ‘citizen’ or ‘fellow’, which is (in theory) how we’re meant to morally relate to other adult humans. The reason this isn’t appropriate is, in essence, that we can’t communicate with animals in the appropriate way – they can’t speak up in our discussions, they can’t understand and accept the rights and responsibilities that society might bestow on them, etc. Of course, nobody has ever suggested that we should apply a paradigm like that to animals, and I mention because sometimes people arguing against animal rights talk as if that were the only alternative.

I think there are at least two other alternatives, that we already apply to a certain extent when dealing with humans, and that I think would be the right ones to apply with different groups of animals.

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Environmentalism and Anarcha-Feminism – who owns ‘Green Politics’? Part 2

In yesterday’s post I asked how ‘environmentalism’ fitted into other schemes of political ideas. I distinguished three sorts of ‘environmentalism’, and promised to talk about a fourth.

Of those three, the first two (an ‘instrumental’ version that cares about ‘the environment’ only for the sake of the humans who depend on it, and an ‘animal rights’ version that extends this to care about the other sentient creatures who depend on it) were reasonable and sensible, but weren’t really ‘environmentalist’ in any strong sense. The third (valuing life of all kinds per se) was clearly ‘environmentalist’ in nature, but also, in my opinion, wrong and foolish.

The fourth, that I want to focus on today, is less about what doctrines and principles one rationally holds, and more about a different sort of emotional mindset, a different way of approaching matters – things which, I’d argue, play a large and sometimes underestimated role in making apparently ‘rational’ political decisions.

This sort of ‘environmentalism’ is opposed to a mindset that opposes two abstractions, ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’, supposes them to be locked in conflict, identifies with ‘humanity’ and therefore legitimises, encourages, and takes pleasure in all ‘triumphs over nature’ that humanity acheives.

In its place, it would recommend a mindset that holds up a single abstraction, ‘nature’, and treats ‘humanity’ as one component of that, alongside ‘moose’ and ‘fungi’. It then regards conflict within nature as regrettable, and prefers ‘harmonious co-existence’ to ‘triumph’.

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Environmentalism and Socialism – who owns ‘Green Politics’? Part 1

A friend asked me recently about the connections between environmentalism and politics – is it naturally left-wing? Is it naturally at home with a certain ideology? Or is it neutral, a separate issue that all sides can or should adopt? I thought this was quite an interesting question, so I immediately shouted ‘to the blogmobile’ inside my head silently.

Now obviously there are attempts to ‘claim’ environmentalism from all sides – rather neatly illustrating this, the ‘Labour for Climate Action‘ blog, which in general seems to be a fairly worthy endeavour, says on its ‘about’ page that “We believe in justice, fairness and equality…Climate change places the greatest costs on those who have the least historic responsibility for the emission that cause it.That’s not just. The actions of the few harm the opportunities for development for the many. That’s not fair.

Having so nicely presented an attempt to link socialism (or whatever it is the labour party are talking about nowadays) with environmentalism, one of their posts then says that “Right-wing philosophers such as Roger Scruton  have argued that restoring harmony between society and its environment requires respect for a supposed ’social ecology’ with its own order of nature, harking back to 19th century societal hierarchies.” So there is, so to speak, everything to play for.

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Speaking of Pervasive Sexualisation…

Cross-posted at Vegans Against PETA

A recurrent theme in animal-rights rhetoric is an attempt to connect with other struggles against oppression, to present the abuse of animals as similar to the abuse of different sorts of humans.

Now, for many people, the leftist revolutionaries of Latin America, from Fidel Castro to Evo Morales to Salvador Allende, are a key example of that struggle against oppression. So if you were an animal rights group and you found that the granddaughter of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was a vegetarian and was willing to work with you, it would seem that you have a campaign ready made.

You might, for example, have her in an outfit and posture that echoes famous poses that Che Guevara often held. You could use a slogan like “Join the vegetarian revolution”. It’s a brilliant plan. It’s got a striking image with a lot of resonance, and it’s also got a point that can be backed up (the connections between different forms of oppression, the need for revolutionary change in human-animal relations, the willingness to endorse militant tactics, etc.)

It’s controversial, sure – Guevara is a controversial figure, hated by some and loved by others. But let’s suppose you have no problem taking controversial stances. And perhaps your main plan is to run the campaign in Latin America, where Guevara’s very popular.

But now, imagine that you’re also PETA. Now a problem emerges. There’s a woman in your poster, but there’s nothing sexual about it. Nobody’s going to get a boner out of simply seeing someone in an inspiring pose of resolute defiance. What can you do?

I guess you’ll just have to make her semi-naked. Get her tits out, yeah? Cover them with an ammo belt of carrots, sure, but make sure that she’s clearly in a state of undress. After all, she’d rather go naked than wear fur, amiright?

Never mind that there’s absolutely no reason for a sexualised image in a poster themed around Che Guevara and revolution. He is hardly famous for having posed nude while storming Havana.

And never mind that it introduces a completely conflicting message that is liable to undermine the actual point – that will encourage viewers to look and think ‘I’d like to do her’ rather than ‘I’d like to aid her in doing something revolutionary’.

Never mind that you’re sending the message that women must always be sexual, even when the subject at issue – political relatives – has nothing to do with sex at all. Never mind that you’re encouraging a culture where every bit of the media features soft-core porn and women are pervasively judged in sexual terms.

That’s all beside the point. This campaign might get more attention now, and that’s all that matters. Nice one PETA.

Part 4: Telling Stories, Archons, and the definition of ‘Man’

Following on from this post, where could we start, if we wanted a theoretical understanding of oppression that was broader than economic oppression? Marx claimed to start from labour, and we’ll need to find an aspect of life that’s similarly fundamental. I’m going to see what can be done by starting from how people ‘make sense of’ the world, not just theoretically but practically.

I’m going to try to trace out how this might provide some understanding of patriarchy and human-supremacism (aka ‘anthroparchy’), though I hope it will also provide insight into other matters, and will try to lay out how in future posts.

Narrative Structures

Let’s try to make a very very broad comment about how people understand the world: people like stories. Narrative structures are more emotionally satisfying that static structures or structures that don’t resemble action, so people tell stories about their lives to make sense of them.

Can we then make any very very broad comments about narratives? Are there any shared features of all stories? Well, stories need a hero, and they need the hero to be driven to action in seeking something they do not already have. So there’s a basic division between the seeking hero and the sought prize, which may be a state of affairs (e.g. safety), or may be concentrated into some particular item (e.g. the grail), or personified into a person (e.g. a princess).

But of course, just as there would be no story if the hero already possessed the prize, there would be no story if they had no difficulty in attaining it. So there’s another basic division between the protagonist and the antagonist, between the hero and those forces that they must struggle against. Often this is personified in the figure of a ‘villain’, though sometimes it is something less personal (e.g. a mountain that must be climbed).

So we can say that there are three broad ‘roles’: hero, villain, and prize. There are also, of course, background characters, minions, sidekicks, etc. etc. And we can take a sort of axiom that, other things being equal, people will cast themselves as the hero in their own story.

Reality Intrudes

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Damn Liberals and their Relentless Abstraction

Often, neoconservatives declare that ‘we’ needs to have the confidence to assert our own values, and not display an exaggerated deferrence to rival values.

And often, anti-abortion activists say that it’s necessary and appropriate to go outside the law and use aggressive or harassing methods to advance their cause, because of the ongoing large-scale murder of the innocent.

Frequently, fascists say that the sphere of genteel liberal debate and discussion has its limits, and that less pretty forces operate outside it and need to be confronted outside it.

Almost constantly, militarists and war criminals say that sometimes regrettable things happen in conflict, and we need to accept that.

And almost everyday, senior members of the British conservative party drink tea.

The thing is, all of these things can be true. And someone can say all four them, while drinking tea, without either being a neocon, anti-abortionist, fascist, war criminal or tory, or even being their moral equivalent.

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Veganism and a Bit of Political Autobiography

Today I thought I’d say a bit about veganism. Sangoma

I’ve been vegan for about many years now. I was coming to the end of a long day of casting and reading the bones, and having asked them “does string theory bring anything new to the question of scientific realism vs. instrumentalism?” and “is it true that the deconstruction is inextricable not only from the text, but from the self?”, I asked, on a whim, “should I stop eating meat?” and got the clearest and least directionless answer for a while – “yes”.

So naturally I stopped. I was still living at home at the time, and my parents were a little anxious, but I reassured them: “don’t worry, I’m just going to be vegetarian, not vegan or anything.” Then, two weeks later, it occurred to me that maybe I should do a bone-reading on that, so I asked the bones “should I stop eating animal products in general?” and got an equally clear “yes”. So that was that.

At the time I was fairly apolitical. I had a certain interest in politics, but every question seemed so obscure, and to have two or more equally emotive teams emphasising their emphasis emphatically. Whenever I tried to get the answers to political questions out of the bones, they were consistently directionless. Veganism was therefore probably the first strong ‘position’ I held, the first ‘political identity’ I took on.

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Revolution, Reform, and Abolition

I did a post a little while back about revolution, so I thought I might try one or two about reform. What sorts of reform should be supported, which opposed, which ignored?

This is actually something that comes up separately in a number of areas. Two examples are eating animals and assaulting migrants, though both cases the issue is not phrased so much in terms of ‘revolution’ as much as ‘abolition’. Let’s take, for example, abolitionism about meat.

A commonly encountered reformist thought here is that demanding full abolition is unrealistic, because that policy is not going to be accepted in the foreseeable future – and if one is ‘all or nothing’, then one will get nothing. It’s much more sensible to accept gradual piecemeal reforms, each of which is a step in the right direction: things like new regulations on cage size, more humane methods of slaughter, higher welfare standards, etc.

But this misses the point. Obviously it’s foolish to look for ‘all or nothing’. We have to focus on gradual steps. But gradual steps can be in two very different directions.

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Are We Oppressing Our Pets?

One of my older posts, “Why Pet-Ownership is Oppressive but Necessary“, has been getting a lot of traffic lately after being posted on some forum. It’s attracted a few comments on said forum, generally derisive.

Since this topic is liable to sound ridiculous to many and irrelevant to others, I thought I might try to clarify the point, as well as looking at a couple of comments and the way that they exhibit exactly what I’m trying to talk about.

I should start by being clear on ‘oppression’. When I call pet-ownership ‘oppressive’ I don’t mean that pet-owners are going around plotting evil things to do to their pets. I don’t even mean that life as a pet is necessarily worse than life in the wild, since it sometimes brings greater security. I certainly don’t think people are bad for having pets (I have some myself). I’m just stating the factual character of the relationship.

What I mean is that the relationship between an owner and pet is characterised by the control of one by the other, one having no adequate way to articulate their needs and hence finding their life dictated on terms alien to them. For example, it is decided for the mouse whether it will live in a cage or not, and how often it will come out. It has no way to express how often it wants to come out, how much space it needs, how it feels about any of this. So the parameters of its life are set by someone else, who only takes the animal’s feelings into account on their terms, when the owner happens to be aware of them.

I think this is problematic. I don’t think there’s a much better alternative right now, but I think in the long term we should aim for co-existence with animals on a different basis. For example, in planning a town, if we think there will be dogs living in it, we need to find out how dogs relate to space, to other dogs, to other humans, to territory, etc., and we need to design the town from the ground up with them in mind. We can’t design everything simply with humans in mind and then throw non-humans in as an add-on.

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