Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mindful Blindness: A Rant Against Speciesism

Every time,
A twinge of sadness:
The meat department

Warning! This is a rant.

As you may have noticed, I love you all dearly. The last thing I want to do is cause you pain. Because this is a rant, I’m not taking aim at anyone in particular, but if you stand too close, you may get thwacked, I may hit a nerve, or even step on your beliefs. No hard feelings if you bail out at any time.

You could think of this as an address to the jury on behalf of a group of sentient beings facing the death penalty that can’t speak for themselves.

I’ve been a vegetarian for the past six years, and in total, about 15 of my 62 years, but have only been phasing eggs and dairy out of my diet for the past six months or so [as at 2011].

I am grateful to Peter Singer’s classic book Animal Liberation for helping to crystallize my thoughts on the subject. I have drawn freely from his ideas.

Speciesism, like cannibalism, slavery, religious persecution, racism and sexism, is the imposing of the will of a powerful group upon a weaker group - in this case, by humans upon other sentient species. We take it so much for granted that it often goes unnoticed. But it's everywhere - not just on our dinner plates and covering our feet, but also at the rodeos, circuses, bullfights, hunting and fishing trips, the fur trade and clothing stores. Last but not least, the worst atrocities are hidden behind the walls of the factory farms and slaughterhouses.

The idea of animal liberation isn’t new. Plato and Pythagoras were vegetarians for ethical reasons. So was Leonardo Da Vinci. He would buy caged birds sold at the marketplace for food and then set them free. Edison and Einstein were another couple of smart guys that decided they didn't need meat and stopped eating it.

The amount of suffering we inflict on animals is staggering. Of course, physical pain causes suffering – branding, de-horning, castrating, tail docking, de-beaking – all without anaesthetic.

But so does the psychological pain caused by frustrating the natural instincts to run, to root around, snuggle with a mother or an offspring, socialize normally, exercise and play. It’s not uncommon for pigs in factory farms to literally go insane, making endless repetitive movements and biting their own tails and their cage bars. Pigs are as intelligent and affectionate as dogs, but the idea of subjecting puppies to the same cruelty we bestow on pigs, and then killing and eating them, is unthinkable.

Fish suffer too, when they are pulled out of the water and left to die in a heap.

Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
So why do we eat animals? What benefit can we possibly get that outweighs the suffering and killing?

I like the taste. You can make some really delicious veggie meals – avocados, ginger, oranges, roasted nuts, garlic – the combinations are endless. My dad used to say “hunger makes the best sauce”. I think eating with a glad heart makes things taste pretty good too.

They are dead already or I didn’t kill them. Every time you take a chicken home from the store, another chicken has to be killed to take its place on the shelf.  By eating them, we are causing their deaths. Like the starfish story posted over at Jomon's lovely blog nothing to attain, every little bit of meat not eaten makes a difference.

I need my protein. True, but you can get it from plants.  Beans and grains provide all the essential amino acids our bodies require. End of story. If you don’t believe me (I’ve got a degree in nutritional biochemistry), ask the vegetarian Olympic athletes. If vegan Carl Lewis can win nine gold medals, surely I can drag my sorry ass to work and back without eating meat. The omega unsaturated fatty acids found in fish oil are abundant in flax seeds. The only thing lacking in a vegan diet is vitamin B12, which you can take as a supplement.

Our bodies are designed to eat meat – we have canine teeth.  True, but we are also designed to eat plants – we have molars.  Unlike other animals, we have the ability to choose our foods.  We tell our bodies what to eat, not the other way around. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

You are killing plants. As far as we know, plants don’t experience pain.  As Alan Watts said, “cows scream louder than carrots.” Besides, it takes about ten pounds of plants to produce one pound of beef.  So if you eat a pound of beef, ten pounds of plants are killed as well. Maybe in a perfect world, we will live on fruit and nuts and grains and no plants will be killed.

You may want to skip over the next paragraph. It's a little unkind.

I eat meat mindfully. This one really gets me, and I’m sorry if I’m talking about you. Nothing personal, but I don’t care how many prayers you say, how many candles or sticks of incense you light, or how “in the moment” you are; and I don’t care what the sutras say, or what the Buddha said – the animal on your plate was still killed, and another will be killed to take its place. Maybe the smells and bells and chanting will make you feel better or change your karma, but that’s not the point. If it is the point, then I’ve missed it. The same reasoning would justify the death penalty, killing in battle and all manner of atrocities. How can you be mindful and in the moment, and not hear the screams from the abbatoir?

I only eat meat from animals raised and killed compassionately. Good for you. I mean it. But if you go to all that trouble to eat something you don't need, why not just stop?

What about eggs and dairy?  I'm finally 100% vegan - no eggs or dairy or honey, leather, wool or silk - but it took quite a while.

[This post originally read: Ouch. This is where I get hit by my own flailing. There is plenty of suffering associated with the milk and egg industry, but my diet is still only 95% vegan, for interpersonal reasons. You know the old saying, "take my advice - I'm not using it." Besides, if they only allowed perfect people to rant, it would be awfully quiet.]

What can I do? Lots. Here are a few suggestions. Start by cutting dead critters out of your diet.  If you eat eggs, make sure they are free range. If you eat dairy, make sure the cheese doesn't contain rennet and the yogurt doesn't contain gelatin. Consider giving up leather and silk. Consider only using detergents, shampoos and cosmetics that are labelled 'not tested on animals'. Learn about this stuff. Check out blogs like vegan.com and organizations like PETA. And of course, spread the word. If you're looking for company, I posted a list of some famous veggies here.

Here's something to consider: If all the land in North America now used to raise and feed animals were used to grow crops, it would produce enough food to eliminate hunger on the entire planet.

If you managed to read this to the end, my heart gives you a big hug! Thank you.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

If you're up for it, watch the trailer for the award-winning documentary Earthlings, but be prepared to weep (seriously!).  You can watch the trailer and the entire movie here.

I also recommend seeing the documentary Forks over Knives just released, about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and unrefined foods.

Photograph: AP/Alexandre Meneghini 


  1. Nice rant! If it leads to think about someones 7-days-meat-a-week lifestyle than ok - if a nearly vegetarian (like myself) thinks about eggs and milk -ok- But please don't promote organisations like PETA, because this bunch of people celebrated in a tasteless way the death of an human (osama bin laden chocolate for sale as a gift for SEAL-Soldiers). They lost every credit in my oppinion.

  2. mtk - good point about PETA - the chocolate Osamas really bothered me, too. Rather than promoting these organizations, I'm just suggesting people check them out, as they have links to a lot of information. Thanks very much for the comment!

  3. I'd hardly call that a rant. It's more common sense although it's hard to follow. I'm a wanna be vegetarian after watching Food Inc and attending an Anthony Robbins seminar awhile back.

    I need to get back to some of these principles.

    Great post David.

  4. Thanks Jeff. Rant or not, it's my clumsy attempt to make a case for these creatures. Hopefully I haven't generated too much collateral damage. Good luck!

  5. Thank David ...I do not know if it is a rant either...But it was good no matter what. :)

    I am working on being more veggie based.

    Phasing out each day something which is animal based. Renewing my cupboard with non-animal products.

    Sorting through all that IS animal-based that I never knew was.

    Again thanks David:)

  6. Debra thanks for your kind comment. Every little bit counts! It is surprising what contains animal products or is tested on animals. I was sad to give up marshmallows because they contain gelatin. Good luck with the veggification!

  7. The trace of sadness at the meat department... I know it well too. It took many months to forgive myself for being one of those mindless consumers pawing through the cases looking for that "special" cut. I still can't come to grips with what I was (or was not) thinking.

    You are so right that there's absolutely no good reason to continue on our meat-eating, speciesist path. If we could only put ourselves in the place of the victims - All our eyes would be open.

    Thanks for this post as it allowed me to "rant" a bit too.

  8. so much more than a rant. so very well done. thank you :)

  9. Bea, sorry I missed thanking you! I very much enjoy and appreciate your work over at PROVOKED.

    Hi Susan, thanks very much! Your blog over at S,C & GP takes away all the misinformed excuses that veggie food can't be delicious. BTW thanks for following back!

  10. Thank you so much, Nicola, and thanks for following the blog. I checked out yours at Diary of an Animal Lover - nice work! The more people like you speak out, the faster things will change, which isn't nearly fast enough for our suffering cousins, but things take time - you can't open a bud with a crowbar.

  11. oh dear, your cogent post has put me in the hot seat again. I was a vegetarian for many years, way back when, but went back to eating meat because it was 'easier' given the people I was around. But your post says it all...and I appreciate being reminded. I can incorporate vegan meals into the meal planning of this household; and I am happily surprised that, while a meat lover, my dad also makes many a lovely vegetarian dinner as well. Thanks for the links, as well. I need to bone up on vegan meals.

  12. Thanks, Tara. My stretches of meat eating always seemed to be related to who I was with. I'm still incompletely vegan out of family considerations, but like you, pleasantly surprised by the unexpected veggie meals that appear. Best of luck!

  13. I love it! What a well written rant! I completely understand why giving up dairy is hard on you. It was the last animal product I gave up before going all the way vegan. My favorite leather boots and bags were long gone by the time I finally stopped eating cheese. It' addicting, as I'm sure you already know. I'm also pleased to see one of my favorite quotes at the end of your post. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks, Kara - just a two year belated note to say I appreciate your comment and your blog over at Vegan Rabbit!

  14. David, am completely with you on this post, and have ranted similarly on my own blog in the past. We all do what we can, but working towards eliminating suffering to other species seems to me to be a pre-requisite of an enlightened society. As a small-scale animal rights activist I really welcome this blogpost, and thank you for sticking your neck out. I've been a vegetarian for 40 years and a vegan for the last three. It's a logical step. I miss cheese - but hey.

    I'm still hypocritical in that I wear the leather boots still that I bought many many years ago (and the waterproof alternative is fossil-fuel derived, so it's a hard one here in the sticks in rainy England).

    What's heartening is that there are more and more of us. Bring it on!

    1. Dear me - how could I let such a nice comment go unthanked for so long! Thanks, Roselle, for this and all your other kind comments. You are a real treasure!

  15. Interesting post, which I just discovered. For anyone in England looking for non leather non sweatshop footwear try "Vegetarian Shoes" in Brighton or Ethical Wares" in Wales, also "Vegan Store" they are in the UK somewhere, they all ship internationally too. I was vegetarian for a very long time before I made the link to become vegan (except for my prescription drugs, to treat my chronic Lupus.I really did not understand about leather, wool,honey, milk, eggs, etc. I had to have it spelled out to me.

    1. Hi Herb, sorry it took me a long time to notice your comment. Yes once we get over the feeling of entitlement to take just because we can, veganism makes sense. Hopefully more and more stores will cater to the trend.


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