Vegans miss the  larger point
Vegans miss the larger point
Vegans miss the larger point

Vegans love to buy things. We are surrounded by things we can’t enjoy—food, entertainment, clothing. When we find animal-free shoes, purses, snacks and cookbooks we snatch them up with reckless abandon. If a restaurant with vegan options pops up, we’ll line up out the door. When two vegans meet, their conversations inevitably focus on what stores and eateries they frequent. 

In the mad dash to fill our lives with alternatives to animal industries, vegans tend to miss the greater point of a lifestyle dedicated to making the world a better place.

Ian Paxson is a vegan and anarchist activist trying to find a balance between anti-capitalism and veganism.  

“Initially I became vegan because I believed that consumer choices were a meaningful and effective means of challenging industries that exploit animals,” Paxson said. “However, now I maintain a vegan lifestyle because it makes me feel better about the way I interact with the world around me, even though I recognize that it has virtually zero efficacy.”

Paxson has been vegan for five years, though he recently ate meat. After three weeks, Paxson returned to a plant-based diet.

“I don't believe that consumer boycotts are efficacious by any means and that they are valid only in so far as they make you feel better about yourself and what you are putting into your body,” he said.

“Even now, while I maintain a vegan lifestyle, I go back and forth on whether or not I call myself vegan. Vegan is a capitalist consumer identity. I'm not a capitalist and by extension, don't identify myself by what I do and do not purchase.”

Vegan alternatives are not inherently better for animals or the planet. Pleather and faux fur—staples of vegan fashion—are petroleum-based products. The environmental devastation caused by petroleum—climate change, oil spills, toxic water, acid rain, genetic mutations—are well known and vast. While many vegans will tout the environmental values of hybrid cars, bicycling, reusable shopping bags and eliminating demand for factory farms, the analysis rarely curbs the demand for couture. Sure, cows were not slaughtered for our beloved shoes, coats and belts. However, plenty of other animals were destroyed when their habitats were ransacked, covered in oil, poisoned and abandoned.

If the world as we know it were to go vegan, the dietary shift would not save animals or preserve land. Many of the plant-based products that vegans rely on come from subsidiaries of the largest food corporations. General Mills, Kraft, Heinz and ConAgra—big hands in animal industries—are the purveyors of some of the most popular soymilk, tofu, prepared food and meat substitute brands. (http://naturalsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/organiccompanieschart.png)

Industrial agriculture is no friend of the planet, nor does it preserve animal life. Soy (http://www.euractiv.com/cap/growing-demand-soybeans-threatens-amazon-rai...), a staple source of protein in many vegan diets, is responsible for massive deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Perhaps community- or family-owned organic farms could reduce the environmental impact of our food choices. However, generating food supply that still allows for people to purchase food in grocery stores on demand with abundant selection with which the privileged vegan is accustomed to would require enormous expansion of current farming industry.

“I would even argue that industrialized veganism centered around wheat and soy production is worse for non-domesticated animals and the planet than an intelligently executed gatherer-hunter way of life,” said Paxson, who juggles this issue frequently.

While some opt for plant-based diets for health purposes alone, most vegans make the transition because they oppose the treatment of animals for the production of clothing and food. Animals are treated like commodities rather than living beings. They are forced to live torturous lives and are slaughtered cruelly. Ecosystems suffer from the massive demand for fuel, water and feed. What vegans must recognize is that the brutal treatment of animals and the planet is not a unique feature of food production, but an issue endemic to capitalism.

In capitalism, sentient beings get reduced to resources and products. This happens to humans, animals and ecosystems alike. A critique based solely on one dimension of this complex system dodges the greater issue.

In Paxson’s view, veganism is an act done for individuals.

“It is crucial to remember that it is never enough nor are an individual’s purchasing habits indicative of their ideological values,” he said. “It's also important to recognize the privilege inherent in being able to make those purchasing decisions.”

Capitalism is not an institution that can be changed internally. Boycotts and ethical consumerism shift money from one sector to another, still fueling the dominant system. They feed into the concept that those with privilege can maintain their access to goods and services on demand without ethical compromise.

Part of living on the privileged end of a capitalist society is choice. We have to decide how to live, knowing well that we are fueling a system that is destroying others. We do the best we can to impact others as little as possible. However, opting out of certain practices is not enough. To truly make a difference for animals - people and the planet - we must also work to dismantle the institutions that mandate suffering to ensure profit.

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Zoe Williams's picture

Zoë Williams is a Street Medic, artist, writer and anti-oppression organizer.

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