Where we draw the line: The issue of sentience

free-wallpaper-19Note: We are all animals. In this blog, when I use either “other animals” or “our fellow animals” I mean “non-human animals”. I don’t use the latter term here because it creates a conceptual divide between human and non-human, one that as an abolitionist, I’m trying to collapse. I don’t only mean “wild” mammals. I mean all animals, including domestic animals, but also including non-mammalian species, arthropods, and invertebrates.

The following is my own personal view on the issue of who is “morally considered” in terms of rights, and who is not. I don’t have any credentials, nor have I written peer-reviewed papers, so this is definitely a lay-person’s approach. I examine the issue of using sentience as the criteria for consideration, and the problems that arise. I hope people find this review useful or at least thought provoking. If I’ve misrepresented the position of any theorist I reference, I apologise. It was not  my intention, and may be due to my lack of understanding. I am open to discussion and clarification.

In my “Why Vegan?” post, I intentionally did not use “sentience” as the reason to be vegan. It may have been implied, but I did not want to rely on that, or use it thoughtlessly, and instead tried to put the reasons for becoming vegan in a more basic, less defined framework of seeing the moral personhood in fellow animals. In part, this is because I wanted to avoid the very intellectual debate about the nature of sentience. While I find some academic debates on the nature of truth, of perception, of sentience, or of the basis of morality are interesting and worthwhile, I view the understanding of veganism as much more of a gut understanding, as an instinctive and emotional response.

It’s like feminism. I like Judith Butler, a feminist writer who looks deeply into the social construction of “self” and our development of gender. She has a lot to say, but her writing is not “easy”. And it is completely unnecessary to everyday feminism, when we look at everyday feminism as the struggle to dismantle the systemic discrimination against women. Understanding the construction of gender is important, but not needed when you’re fighting violence against women.

G4SH4142-cow-calfLikewise with veganism: Philosophical debates can get very abstruse, and lose people. It is very intellectual, debating what sort of ethical system is best: moral absolutism, moral relativity, moral realism, and so on; looking at rights-based vs utilitarian approaches. These issues interest philosophers, and help frame our deeper understanding of veganism, but really make little difference to the grass-roots understanding that using our fellow animals is wrong. I tried to reflect that in my explanation of why people might be vegan.

Before I commence, I’d like to say that there are reasons to distrust sentience as a criteria. As humans, we cannot ever truly fully know and understand the internal world of any animal or living being, because they are of different species. Any conjecture about that inner world is seen through the anthropomorphic lens of our own understanding of the world, so our conjectures about their sentience or experience can only be speciesist. We interpret response through our own experience, but that is not necessarily an accurate measure of what they experience. We create the requirements for inclusion as sentient, and then attribute these requirements, or not, to other animals. The process is, to a large degree, arbitrary and a result of human interpretation.

“Scientifically”, studies of pain or “sentience” are generally the result of animal torture. Measurements may be objective, but interpretations and choice of what to measure are subjective. The conclusions are often suspect, and completely subjective, often simple intellectual constructs not based on any evidence. An example is the conclusion that sessile beings would not evolve the ability to feel pain because they couldn’t escape from danger, which is pure conjecture. It is used to dismiss sentience in species like bivalves, even though it is clear that bivalves react to intrusion, some (clams and scallops) will bury themselves under sand when threatened, and in the motile juvenile states they clearly respond to other organisms, and to threats.

Sentience is therefore a questionable basis for granting moral personhood. Yet it has been used from Bentham onward, as the reason to examine our treatment of animals. In this blog post I will now look at the use of sentience, and try to consider what it may mean for abolitionist vegans.

Sentience: Drawing the Line

Most academic writers use “sentience” as the reason for treating our fellow animals with “respect” (which they frequently define differently), and to ethically justify not applying the same principle to other living beings (like plants). I’ve specifically avoided that, because there then follow debates about how we measure sentience: who is sentient, and who falls short, or who is sentient, but less self-aware than someone else and whether that ethically matters. It’s easy to start to create hierarchies of rights, of consideration. Most concerning is when we humans start to define consciousness or cognitive development in terms of human-like cognitive processes, and then judge other animals on whether they “measure up”. This sometimes gets even more vexed, where we take aspects of our peculiar kinds of cognition, like logic or speech, as a measure.

Briefly, just to make my own position clear, as a biologist, I was taught that there are essentially two realms, the bacteria (Prokaryotes), and lifeforms with a nucleus (Eukaryotes), which includes four kingdoms, the Protista (microscopic lifeforms), Fungi (mushrooms, yeasts, and molds), Plants, and Animals. Animals include invertebrates, insects, and all sorts of little beings. So as a biologist, when I say “animals”, I automatically include snails, spiders, worms, jellyfish. I include mussels, sea-pens, sponges and Krill. This definition excludes plants, fungi, protista, and bacteria. But it include a lot of very small beings, and a lot of forms of life outside the mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. I’d also like to make clear that, due to our limited perceptions, while  it is not possible to absolutely eliminate all questions of plant sentience, I personally don’t consider plants, fungi, protists, or bacteria sentient. If the issue of plants is raised here, it is because this issue is raised by writers like Colb and others, mainly to create definitions of sentience that include animals while excluding plants.

sea pen

Sea pen, a sessile aquatic animal

The biologist’s definition is not the one commonly held by “animal ethics” philosophers. Most want hard ethical principles, where they can say, “This is the line, and this is where, and why, we draw the line.” To be blunt, to a degree, I think their considerations are self-serving. I think that constructing definitions of sentience that allow people to draw lines which allow them to stay on the “ethical” side by declaring some animals sentient and some as questionable, is convenient. If we define insects and invertebrates as moral persons, it is distressing to think that insects are sentient, knowing you will get in a car and kill at least dozens of them. It is distressing to think that when you garden, you kill sentient insects and invertebrates. It is distressing to think that when you wash a widow, or a counter, with soapy water, that water will kill any sentient insect it encounters during use or disposal. It’s distressing to think that the food you get in a supermarket involves hundreds of deaths. And it doesn’t matter that we know that as vegans, we prevent the death of millions of insect and invertebrate lives through not using animal products. It is still terrible. It is more convenient for us to say we are ambivalent about insect and invertebrate sentience. We feel less like hypocrites.

Sherry F. Colb, vegan advocate and Professor of Law at Cornell, in her book Mind if I order the Cheeseburger, (2013, Lantern Books) takes up the issue of drawing the line in her first chapter “What about Plants?” She draws her line at sentience, and then defines sentience as perception. I feel there is a problem with saying this and then limiting our consideration to animals. We know plants at least perceive light, and many plants respond to it. Let’s look at how Colb reasons:

Pharaoh_cuttlefish“What then distinguishes plants from animals? One important answer is sentience, the capacity of an organism to experience the world around her. If an animal has perceptions and experiences, then that animal is sentient.

To be sentient generally means that a living creature is able to experience pain and pleasure. We do not need much scientific study, for example, to know that under this definition, a dog is sentient. Anyone who has had the occasion to live with a dog (with the rather notorious exception of Rene Descartes) can attest to the fact that a dog can feel pain, fear, affection, anger, and other states that reflect the ability to perceive and experience the world. Those who study animal behaviour more broadly find overwhelming evidence that not only dogs, but all vertebrates – including mammals, birds, reptiles and fish – and many invertebrates as well – including octopi and squid – have the capacity to suffer.”
Mind if I order the Cheeseburger, (2013, Lantern Books) (p 3)


Sentience as Suffering

Although Colb begins with perception and experience, by the next paragraph she has included further requirements to insist sentience must be a perception of pain and the capacity to suffer. Ultimately, nearly all animal ethicists come down to a definition of sentience as the ability to suffer, to feel pain. As Colb does here, they may mention other qualities, but it is pain, suffering, that they generally rest on, as the easiest to find evidence which will be accepted, the issue they focus on, far more so than emotions such as affection, anger, or even fear. But as this report shows, even pain is hard to ascertain.  Using pain and suffering as a definition also allows them to disregard living beings that arguably do not feel pain (plants, maybe jellyfish, though jellies have more happening than is obvious), or beyond that, to disregard those who may have a reflexive response to pain, but are deemed not “suffer” from it (clams and mussels).

Colb mentions the disputes around consciousness, and the fact that most who do dispute the sentience of other animals do so by defining sentience in terms of the qualities human philosophers see in themselves. And of course Descartes had the unique qualification for sentience that one must have a “soul”, and baldly stated that animals don’t.

But Descartes had a more lasting impact on our assessment of other animals, stating that they were effectively machines, acting on biological programming, with no consciousness at all. Some form of this idea is still used by many of those who seek to deny consciousness in non-human animals. The claim that “instinct” is not “consciousness” has allowed some people to deny awareness of even some of the mammalian group, certainly birds and fish.

category-reptiles-lizard-reptile-picture_218069The recourse to the capacity to feel pain, to suffer, as a proof of sentience is also not new. Colb, like many theorists, cites Jeremy Bentham, often seen as the father of welfarism, and “humane use”.

“The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation

Puffer_Fish_DSC01257As an aside, one outcome of the use of “suffering” as the gauge of sentience, is that focusing on suffering lends itself to “humane treatment”, the reduction of suffering, as a response, and a definition of ethical treatment in relation to our fellow animals. This is used instead of looking at our interference with their autonomy, as beings that have lives that belong to them and that they experience living, with their own preferences, and their own purposes. Considering their autonomy and desires should lead to the conclusion that our use of them violates this, and the ethical response would logically be not to use them. But with the exception of the abolitionist vegan movement, the central focus of the “animal movement” is “humane treatment” and reducing suffering. This is why those who focus on “humane treatment” are described as “New Welfarists”.

In a recent, particularly cynical attempt to address reduction of suffering, it was suggested that animals be bred without the capacity to feel pain, as a way to “eliminate suffering”. Experiments involving complete pain suppression have already been performed. This sort of distortion and modification of animals to suit us is wrong, and shows the problems of using “suffering” as a criterion. It is even worse when we do so to assuage our consciences about using them in the first place.

Though the capacity to suffer is broadly accepted as a measure of sentience, suffering is used two ways, and addressed in two ways.

  • Regan, Singer, and the major animal charities see suffering as arising purely physically, and adopt the “reduction of suffering” through “humane treatment” model of New Welfarism.
  • Colb, Francione and other abolitionist vegans, see suffering as arising through use, and say that suffering will not end until animal use ends.

Sentience may be considered basic to recognition of other animals as moral persons, but sentience is not always deemed enough by many new welfarists.

New Welfarists

Looking at the new welfarists first, Tom Regan, Professor of Philosophy from North Carolina University, in his The Case for Animal Rights, develops a basis for moral personhood that goes beyond sentience to grant “intrinsic rights” only to those who are “subjects of a life”.

To be the subject of a life… involves more than merely being alive and more than merely being conscious… [I]ndividuals are subjects of a life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference and welfare interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them.
The Case for Animal Rights (p 243) (emphasis added)

jellyfishBy introducing these other issues, Regan draws the line for granting of rights considerably more tightly, eliminating inclusion of a range of  sentient animals from being “subject of a life”, and in the process, also eliminating human foetuses and those in a coma, or the severely disabled, who also may be sentient, but not “subject of a life”. He patches over the human cases with calls to grant humans rights through various mechanisms. He also attempts to patch over some of the exclusion of animals, while denying them “intrinsic rights” in the following way.

Even assuming birds and fish are not subjects of a life, to allow their recreational or economic exploitation is to encourage the formation of habits and practices that lead to the violation of the rights of animals who are subjects of a life.
Ibid (p. 417)

If, according to Regan, some animals are without “intrinsic (inherent) rights”, animals become divided between:

  • those deemed to be “subject of  a life”, who have intrinsic rights;
  • those deemed to be sentient but without rights, the killing of whom may create “bad habits”;
  • those deemed sentient, and without rights, the killing of whom may not create “bad habits; and
  • those deemed not sentient.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, largely accepts this model, privileging “subjects of life” without granting intrinsic rights (he’s a utilitarian, and doesn’t follow a “rights” model) .

He also doesn’t include killing of “sentient creatures” as creation of suffering. Singer said, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times on 12, March, 2000:

I don’t think, that ”every sentient creature deserves equal consideration for the opportunity to continue living without suffering.” It would be more accurate to say that I think that every sentient being deserves to have its interests given equal consideration. The difference is significant, because I don’t think that sentient creatures have a personal interest in continuing to live, unless they are also self-aware beings.
(emphasis added)

As well as the distinction between animals with “subject of a life”, and those with “mere sentience”, Singer makes clear statements that humans deserve special consideration, beyond that of “subjects of life”.

You could say it’s wrong to kill a being, whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed. What is different about humans? Humans are forward looking beings and they have hopes and desires for the future. That seems a plausible answer to the question of why it’s so tragic when humans die.
Indystar.com interview with Peter Singer on his book The Life You Can Save.
8 Mar, 2009.

Although Tom Regan and Peter Singer create hierarchies of sentience, and both Regan and Singer promote “humane use” of animals and are therefore “new welfarists”, all the animal ethicists I know of, new welfarists or abolitionist vegans, tend to depend on sentience, and to ultimately define sentience in terms of ability to suffer. I don’t say they define sentience only in terms of suffering, they do not, but nearly everyone who talks about sentience, talks about suffering.

Abolitionist Vegans

Turning back to abolitionist vegans, in her book, Colb moves from a definition of sentience in terms of suffering to investigate some of the limits of using suffering as tool for determining if behaviour is ethical. She looks at issues like whether death without suffering would be a problem. She further teases it out, looking at claims that though in death there is no suffering for a being that is killed, the suffering is to others for the loss of a child/parent/herdmate. Then Colb looks at the situation where a friendless, isolated being is killed painlessly in their sleep.

Ultimately she rejects the rationalisations, and states:

indexThough it is difficult to explain precisely what harm we do when we kill him, given that he is no longer around to experience the harm, [and no-one else knows or cares] most of us strongly and intuitively believe that we should not kill people. And what makes us believe we should not do so – the fact that people have lives that belong to them and that they experience living – is not unique to humans. Nonhuman animals live and experience their lives too, and when we kill them for our purposes, we steal something precious from them, something that we have no right to take. We instinctively understand that the right not to be tortured goes hand in hand with the right not to be murdered….

Here it is interesting that, pursuing the issue of pain and suffering, I feel Colb paints herself into a corner with the person whose death won’t “harm” anyone. She comes to the limit of using suffering as a criteria, and abandons it, turning to the “strong intuitive belief that [killing is wrong because] people have lives that belong to them, and that they experience living” This is a definition of sentience that is far more effective in terms of moving beyond simple physical harm, and into the realm of the harm any use creates. As an abolitionist, it would seem a better basis than the focus on pain and suffering. It is interesting then that once this intuitive understanding that life itself, and an animal’s autonomy, is precious has been used to get out of the trap of relying on pain and suffering, Colb’s focus returns to the issue of the right not to be killed or tortured.

insect47Gary L. Francione, abolitionist vegan and Professor of Law at Rutgers, is another who makes sentience his criterion for consideration. In his article,  Sentience, he, like Colb, defines sentience in terms other than pain and suffering:

A sentient being is a being who is subjectively aware; a being who has interests; that is, a being who prefers, desires, or wants. Those interests do not have to be anything like human interests. If a being has some kind of mind that can experience frustration or satisfaction of whatever interests that being has, then the being is sentient.

This is a definition, one that may be contentious in terms of who is deemed to have “preferences” or “desires”. But Francione makes efforts to extend his definition beyond the comparisons to human cognition. However, without trying to be reductionist, he seems to ultimately come back to the ability to suffer and feel pain as evidence of sentience, and a primary indicator of preference and desire. In Introduction to Animal Rights, while critiquing Regan’s notion of “subjects of a life” as the criterion for consideration as “protected animals”, Francione devolved back to suffering.

First, I see no reason to restrict the class of protected animals to those Regan describes as ‘subjects of a life.’ Some animals and some humans may lack “the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals” and they may have a most elementary “sense of the future” or “psychophysical identity over time”, but if they are sentient, they nevertheless have an interest in not suffering or experiencing pain, and therefore can be said to posses an “experiential life [that] fares well or ill for them, logically independently from their utility for others and logically independently from their being the object of anyone else’s interests.'”
Introduction to Animal Rights, (2000, Temple University Press, pxxxiii)

(emphasis added)

Here he makes an interest in avoidance of suffering evidence of sentience. If an animal does not want to be hurt, he deems that as evidence that she suffers, and wishes the pain and suffering to stop, and that the interest in ending the suffering is evidence of an “experiential life”. He defines sentience as the basic criterion for moral personhood.

Francione is clever in avoiding the need to describe a detailed system of sentience, and a detailed way to designate who is sentient and who is not. He takes for granted that most would agree the animals commonly used by humans; mammals, fish and birds; are sentient, and therefore not to be used. Francione, in Introduction to Animal Rights, remains ambiguous about the issue of species who seem “marginally sentient”, saying:

“Not all animals may be sentient, and it may be difficult to draw the line separating those who are capable of consciously experiencing pain and suffering and those who are not. There is, however, no doubt that most of the animals we exploit are sentient.”

Where there is less general consensus for bees, clams, silkworms, he states that we cannot be certain, and so we should treat them as sentient. In this way, he basically creates a moral argument for ending the use of all animals, including the use of bees for honey of pollination and silkworms for silk.

His pragmatism extends to the two principles he puts forward, principles he believes have broad social agreement. He says it in a number of places, this is from Eat Like You Care.

  1. …[T]hat we have a moral obligation not to impose unnecessary suffering on animals. (p.10)
  2. …[T]hat although animals matter morally, humans matter more. (p11)

This may seem anthropocentric, but Francione makes clear that human priority over animals applies only in cases of conflict or emergency . He is also clear that in our duty to avoid causing the unnecessary suffering of non-human animals,  “suffering” more or less includes both loss of life and loss of freedom, and any human use of other animals for food, clothing, entertainment or other purposes is “unnecessary”. This effectively means that from his principles he can argue all use of animals is unethical. He is also explicit in stating that if animals are property, they effectively lose any rights, and are treated as things. Therefore, according to Francione, being considered property is a fundamental form and cause of suffering. Abolishing the property paradigm becomes fundamental to ending animal suffering.

In general, nearly all animal activists accept mammals, birds, and reptiles as capable of suffering, and therefore see them as sentient. Fish are generally, but not always, included. Beyond that, it gets fuzzy. Francione considers all these animals obviously sentient, while displaying ambivalence about insects, clams, and other invertebrates. In my earlier quote from Colb, she clearly included at least some invertebrates (lobsters are widely regarded as sentient), and explicitly included cephalopods like octopi and squid. She doesn’t mention insects or arthropods, bivalves, or anchored animals like sponges, sea pens, and so on.

38540dc95815a807ebdc4dfcf293e0ddIf I remember, Singer explicitly drew the line at animals like bivalves (clams, mussels, scallops, etc). This is probably the reason questions of their sentience comes up. Francione expresses uncertainty about these, and indeed about insects as a whole. However, while expressing uncertainty, he does recommend treating them as if they are sentient. This leaves the issue of the large number of animals that humans generally do not use; although we regularly use some insects, worms, snails, sponges and jellyfish, there are many in those classes we don’t use, and several classes that we don’t use at all. Their claim to moral personhood, like their sentience, is left up in the air.

Sparassidae_Palystes_castaneus_mature_female_9923sAs to insects, arthropods, and invertebrates, I take the perspective that it is important to make an effort not to harm them, but that some unintentional harm is inevitable, especially with very small beings. I won’t deny their sentience. Recent research has shown that cockroaches act democratically. I won’t deny the status of insects and arthropods as fellow animals, just because classifying them as “not sentient” would make killing them more technically ethical. My ethics say that they are fellow beings, and it is important to consider them, and do my best not to harm them. Intentionally killing them is wrong, and that includes killing them through ignoring them and not paying attention.

Acknowledging the harm I unintentionally do is a motivating force to try and remember them, and watch that I don’t harm them. It is important to become more aware of what harm I do, and to minimise it through awareness. Ethically, it becomes a matter of intention and effort. If I make efforts not to harm, that is really all I can do, and all I can hold myself responsible for.  And only I know if I am honestly making efforts, or simply deciding it is not important enough to care.



Are Plants Sentient?

Colb goes straight from the discussion of sentience of animals to the question of whether plants are sentient, and advances some rationalisations about why plants should not be included (arguments that actions that optimise survival are not evidence of a desire to survive, not evidence of emotion, and that evolutionary adaptations may be more or less mechanical). “Only a being which has subjective experiences like pain and pleasure can want something.” This seems to parallel arguments against sentience in many animals.

But Colb is willing to work past this, and moves her argument on to the situation where we assume plants are, in some way, sentient. Her argument then is that in this case, it is, for humans, an issue of survival. We do not need to harm or use animals. Our survival does depend on our use of plants. Ethically, if they are sentient, our option is to minimise the harm we cause. And we can do that by adopting a plant-based diet, because animal agribusiness uses far more plants than are used directly by humans, and more than humans would use if they sourced all their food from plants. To see some more on this.

tamarind-tree-with-seedFrancione, in Eat Like You Care (2013, Exempla Press) simply dismisses the idea of plant sentience as silly, (p. 86) though he also takes the opportunity to point out that animal industries consume far more plants than growing crops for direct human consumption. In my opinion the argument he then offers (below) is poorly considered.

Will a plant turn toward the sun? Sure. Will a plant turn toward the sun even if by turning in that direction the plant will be mowed down? Sure. Will any animal behave in this way? No.”
Eat Like You Care (2013, Exempla Press) p. 87

This example may not be well considered, and relies on notions of plants as machine-like, or “instinctive”. It also relies on requiring higher orders of prediction for sentience, and an ability to understand human technology.

  • Firstly, in most situations, a plant turning to the sun will not result in its being mowed down. If a mower comes, and the plant is high enough, it will be mowed regardless of the way it faces. Some plants can turn, but they can’t duck.
  • Secondly, a wallaby, an animal almost everyone would deem sentient, may jump off the road when our car slows down and honks. Sometimes, more often than makes any sense, they jump straight back in front of our car as we start moving. In the case of those I encounter, we’re careful and we’re fortunate that we haven’t ever hit one. But I understand why, sadly, there are so many dead wallabies on the road.
  • Thirdly, humans act all the time in ways that are not good for their survival. In particular, people seem to engage in actions for short-term apparent benefit that will certainly hurt them in the medium term, if not far sooner. If humans pursue short-term interests at the cost of longer term interest, sometimes at the cost of survival, how can we claim that this, in plants, demonstrates that they have no sentience?

flowerThis is not to say plants are sentient. But clearly, Francione’s dismissive example seems to be a poor argument to show that they conclusively are not.

In any case, my own take on the “sentience” issue is that making sentience the grounds for moral consideration opens up to debate questions of what sentience is, and whether our fellow animals have it. I personally think that it is enough that we do not need to kill or use other animals, and therefore, regardless of whether they meet our definition of sentience, there is no excuse to do so, since in using them we certainly take their lives and violate their beings. This includes all sorts of animals, including the animals we normally use as “resources”, and those we don’t. I believe that simply because there is no need to kill them, that is enough reason not to do so. We can easily meet all our nutritional and other needs from non-animal sources. The idea of killing them just because I choose to is abhorrent. And since there is no need, every death becomes “because I choose to” (“because they taste good” is a form or “because I choose to”). My choice to indulge in unnecessary use (any use) is effectively the only reason I would have to kill or cause them suffering. Again, all use is unnecessary.

As to plants, although I don’t class them as sentient, I really will not classify them as “living things that can be morally disregarded”. My usual response where people say “what about plants” is to ask what they do to consider plants. Colb is generous on this issue, seeing it as a legitimate question, instead of simply as trolling. She sees it as a question as to where a vegan draws the line in considering living beings. (Ibid, p.2) I generally explain that I don’t think anyone is seriously concerned with plants unless they have already addressed their behaviour in relation to animals, since stopping our exploitation of animals is relatively easy, and stopping our exploitation of plants is not.

I’ve rarely heard vegans raise ethical concerns about using plants. Vegans may care, but most believe we must use plants, for food, for clothing, and for other purposes. The only ones I know who are advocating restricting use of plants are some fruitarians (many fruitarians are doing it purely for dietary reasons, and not all of whom are vegan).


Do we need “sentience” to decide not to harm?

worm1In any case, I don’t believe we need “sentience” to justify treating our fellow animals with respect. We do not need to use other animals, and the evidence is clear that we can easily live a good healthy life without using or killing animals. That’s enough reason not to do them violence. We need to eat, and so we eat plants (and fungi). Why the different treatment? Simply because we are animals, like other animals, and they are closer to us than plants. That may sound arbitrary and  speciesist, and it is, but it actually is no more arbitrary than humans creating divisions based on our human definitions of “sentience”, especially when we fetishise certain species like primates, dolphins, and others none of which are generally used as food.

ficus-obliquaIn respect of plants, I really have no idea if they are in any sense sentient, but since they are alive, there is no good reason to abuse our use of them, to use them thoughtlessly. I’ve seen orchards levelled for housing tracts, because it’s more convenient for the tractors than leaving at least one tree in each yard. Wanton destruction, and the mindset that goes with it, is problematic.

We should endeavour to use only what we need, and to investigate alternatives, but it is unlikely we will ever be free of the need for using plants, (humour alert) unless we develop a Star Trek “replicator”. I also feel there is some difference between killing a long-lived plant lifeform such as a tree, which may naturally live for several generations of humans, and killing or using a plant lifeform that naturally dies within a year. It seems less of a violation of them, closer to the natural state. Of course, that’s speciesist too. We plant some plants and pull out others we call “weeds”. Despite my serious doubts about plants being sentient, I do feel we need to consider plants, and not simply think of them as “things”.

Level 5 Vegan

Humour: From “The Simpsons”.

We all face difficulties living ethically. As I said in relation to insects, we can control the harm we do intentionally, but can’t ever eliminate unintentional harm. I, like all of us, can only do what I can do. I don’t grow all my own food, I buy plant-based food from a supermarket, and I know that farmers kill insects, and even mammals, and that agriculture alienates land and reduces habitat. I can’t change that, except by trying to grow what food I can without pesticides. And here, I’ll mention “veganic gardening”, which from what I understand uses insect predators as “biological control agents” to reduce some “pests”. This  use of animals is also speciesist. But it’s difficult to grow food when insects and other invertebrates want to eat it too. Like most people, I don’t have a big enough garden to feed myself. In any case, most people live in urban areas. I mostly can’t afford organic food, even if it is available, and “organic” still leaves room for non-chemical means of killing. I recognise we humans impose a cost on all other living beings, animal and others, simply by living in our global capitalist consumer culture. There’s not a lot I can do about that, but it’s a good argument to limit human reproduction. That is one of my causes. Short of living in a cave and eating nettles, we all are complicit in the harm human activity does. And if even ten percent of us tried living in a cave, that would also have a major impact. I know just driving kills numerous insects, and that disturbs me,  but my alternative is to isolate myself. Anyone who suggests riding a bike… I live rurally in Australia, and town is a long way away.

antLikewise, there are issues of survival and health. A plant-based diet is healthy, and I may be able to:

  • prevent mosquitoes by using flyscreen, or coating my skin with citronella; and
  • relocate mosquitoes if they come into the house.

This does not cover issues like having Ascarid worms or other parasites, attacks by rabid animals, and so on. In this situation, I, like Francione, put my interest in survival and maintaining basic health above that of others. I wish it was not so, and try to prevent problems I can foresee, but I do value my own life.


In conclusion, sentience has generally been the criteria animal ethics theorists use for deciding which living beings “count” and which do not. While I don’t say people should not look to sentience, I hope I’ve pointed out that it results in issues of inclusion and and exclusion, even among animals. The worst part of that is where people argue who is sentient in order to keep exploiting some animals. I don’t see that reliance on sentience is necessary. I realise it sounds simplistic, but in my opinion, the fact that other animals are our fellow animals, and we do not need to use them for any purpose, is enough reason not to do so. If you like using sentience as a basis for your vegan education, fine. But be aware of the limitations, and please, there is no reason for us to use, or intentionally harm, any animal, ever.

Primates in Peril 2012 2



Intersectionality and Abolitionist Veganism; Part II

sunando-senI would like to dedicate this to Sunando Sen, who was killed two years ago on 27 Dec, 2012. Sen, a Hindu who had migrated to the US was pushed onto the tracks in front of a subway, by a Ms Erika Menendez who said “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate […] Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up” Sen had just opened his own copy-shop business after years of hard work and struggle. Sen was described by his roommate as a soft spoken man who liked to stay up late watching comedy shows and listening to music: “He was so nice, gentle and quiet… It’s broken my heart.” Sen was one of three Asian-American men to be killed in this way in NY city within a few months. Two other Queens men were also killed for “looking Muslim”. For more information

I originally intended to finish and publish this soon after Part I, but life intruded and finishing this got away from me. Corey Wrenn seems to have gone mostly offline, but I’ve edited this, and think there are still many relevant points. The issues Wrenn pushed, and the manner in which she pushed them, are still present online, and so much of this still applies.


I just want to start this by making absolutely clear that I think any ethical person who believes in ending oppression will oppose oppression everywhere. I absolutely oppose racism, sexism, heterosexism, economic oppression, and other forms of structural oppression. I also want to make clear that the commitment to oppose structural oppression comes from a fundamental opposition to exercises of power for self-aggrandisement, any exercise of power at another’s expense. I therefore also oppose personal, non-structural oppression, bullying, character assassination and demeaning others, knocking others down to try and make oneself “higher”.

Attacking the “Grumpy Old” “white” man.

In writing my first blog on intersectionality, I dealt generally with the issue of “intersectionality” and the way it is used in the online abolitionist vegan movement. In part, it was a response to the pillorying of “Grumpy Old Vegan” (GOV), by “Academic Abolitionist Vegan” Corey Wrenn. “Grumpy”, who is, I understand, an abolitionist advocate of Irish descent from the UK, has, for the last few months, been accused by Wrenn and her followers of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, seemingly for no reason other than because he is “white”, male, and doesn’t include “intersectionality” or posts about racism or sexism on his abolitionist page.

The attacks come in spite of the fact that he has, to my knowledge, made no racist or sexist remarks. His major “crime” seems to be that he focuses on veganism, and doesn’t raise human rights issues on his vegan page. This is not uncommon on abolitionist pages regardless of the gender or sex of the advocates, and regardless of whether they support or advocate for other issues elsewhere. Wrenn has posted her attacks, focusing mainly on Grumpy’s “white privilege” and the lack of “intersectionality” (and here I think she is misusing intersectionality), without defining what sort of “intersections” she sees as significant to vegan advocacy.

Looking at responses on the Facebook pages of Wrenn and The Abolitionist Vegan Society (TAVS), which recently has supported and repeated Wrenn’s statements, it seems others are also bothered by the personal attacks without (adequate) evidence or explanation, and the vaguery around which Wrenn uses “intersectionality” to beat people over the head without explaining what she means by it, or how it should, in her opinion, be implemented in vegan advocacy. Wrenn recently wrote a blog: Intersectionality is a Foundational Principle in Abolitionism and got this gushing response from Sarah Woodcock of TAVS.

TAVS intersectionality Fb post“NEW POST! Intersectionality is FOUNDATIONAL to abolitionism! Read on for the abolitionist smackdown on the “nonhumans first” approach that is creeping into our advocacy spaces:”

This is obviously aimed against those who don’t address “intersectional issues”. Note the aggressive and violent language, and the claim of ownership implied in “our advocacy spaces”. I don’t think by “our spaces” Woodcock is talking about TAVS and Wrenn’s pages. It seems she is claiming an ownership of abolitionist veganism, or speaking with the royal “we”.

Non-Human First?

I’m not sure what she means when Woodcock says the “nonhuman first” approach. I don’t believe failure to put human concerns first is identical to putting non-human concerns first, any more than failure to raise issues of ableism make one ableist. I would not say, or agree, that I put “nonhumans first”, but my abolitionist vegan advocacy is about non-humans (as it should be, as my feminist advocacy is about women). Veganism is about ending the oppression and violence we visit on our fellow animals. Part of that oppression is our anthropocentric view of the world, and part of the ending of that oppression is moving out of our anthropocentric position.

(Before I proceed, I’ll say I put “white” in quotes because it is an artificial concept that was used to divide the world between those with “one drop of black blood” and the “superior” race, both the rulers of the British Empire, and the poor cannon fodder they used in their conquests. Even Southern Europeans were deemed “dusky” or “swarthy”. I put “minorities” in quotes because frequently they are not. Women are, statistically the majority. The vast majority of humanity has black hair and dark eyes, and skin tones from tan to plum coloured.)

This should sound familiar, at least to Wrenn. The unconscious support of systemic racism embodied in “white privilege” is based on taking a “white-centric” perspective, in which “white” culture is defined as “normal”. Since “white culture” exists in conjunction with systemic oppression of various “minorities”, particularly ethnic or racial “minorities”, assumption of “white culture” as normative reinforces oppression. The assumption that “white” issues are central, also reinforces the notion that other (non-”white”) issues are therefore peripheral.

feedlotJust as “white-centrism” and taking “white” culture as normative is oppressive to victims of racism, anthropocentrism and taking human culture as normative leaves the issues of non-humans as peripheral, and reinforces the oppression of non-human animals. It is exactly the same principle, except that other animals really do have no-one to speak for them other than humans. This is not to lessen the difficulty human victims of oppression face in being heard. But humans other than infants are generally heard by someone somewhere, even if their voices are suppressed or ignored by those in power. Even under draconian regimes that attempt to silence ideas by force, communication occurs. Other animals literally cannot represent themselves or their case to us, under any condition.

When humans demand a voice in forums for other animals, it is exactly like white men demanding a chance to express their issues in a collective of women of colour. Relative to other animals, humans always have the dominant voice. Human concerns always trump those of non-humans. Even Gary Francione, in his approach to Abolitionist Veganism states that in situations of genuine conflict, human interests prevail over those of other animals. In his defence, he does limit that prioritising of human concerns to cases of genuine survival or direct conflict, and criticises the approach that says the survival of one human is worth more than that of a thousand other animals.

Actually, though, concern for non-human animals and concern for human victims of human oppression only come into conflict when advocates for human issues demand their issues must be considered in any forum advocating the end of exploitation of non-human animals. There is no need for such conflict. Just as “white” women, or “white” LGBTI people, need to learn they cannot dominate spaces where victims of racism come to speak, though sexism and oppression of LGBTI people is real, so humans need to learn that it is not right to try to dominate spaces where people advocate for other, non-human animals, just because humans also oppress other humans. There are a multitude of sites where human issues are considered. There are many voices raised against racism, sexism, and discrimination on the basis of sexual preference or gender identity.

Of course, just as it is valid for feminists of colour to raise feminist issues with men of colour when those men are oppressing those women, even in groups considering racism, so it is appropriate to raise issues of sexism (PeTa) or racism (Animals Australia) when animal advocates actually engage in racism or sexism.

Furthermore, just as race-based discrimination (closing meetings to “white” people) is not the same as racism (widespread systemic social oppression of a racial group), so discrimination against humans (limiting the demands that human issues be heard) is not the same as speciesism (the systemic oppression of all non-human animals based on species). Abolitionist vegans are not being speciesist when they don’t let those raising issues of human oppression hijack a vegan forum. Abolitionist vegan advocacy forums are “non-human animal space”.

cowHumans are indeed animals, but they are not victims of speciesism. There is a major difference between human and non-human animals. Non-human animals are treated as things. They are seen as objects, as resources, as means-to-a-(human)-end. Human issues are seen in terms of social justice and human rights. The best other animals get as a frame is generally “humane treatment” in the process of exploitation.

Humans using the rationale that “humans are animals, and therefore abolitionists wishing to end exploitation of animals must consider human oppression” is exactly like men using the rationale that “men are a sex, and therefore feminists wishing to end sexism must consider male oppression”. And of course, men do say this. And of course, women say, “this is different to the systemic social, legal and economic discrimination faced by women”. Not only that, but most of the “forms of social discrimination that affect men” are actually aspects of patriarchy, and hence a result of the oppression of women.

Is it odd when abolitionist advocates who find someone insisting abolitionists take up human issues say something similar?

The argument about feminism is invalid because the oppression in sexism is a systemic system that privileges men. The argument about veganism and speciesism is equally invalid because the oppression and exploitation of non-human animals is a systemic system that not only privileges humans over non-human animals, but which obliterates the interests of non-human animals.

One can recognise that parts of an oppressor class also face oppression, but the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy forms a barrier to considering the groups on opposite sides of that line as intersecting. Just as feminists wouldn’t give primary or special consideration to the oppression of groups of men in their feminist advocacy, vegans shouldn’t be expected to give humans special consideration in relation to vegan advocacy.

mother-sheep-and-her-lambI don’t put “non-humans first”. Veganism, and the principles of non-violence behind it, is central for me, though far from my only issue. As an ethical being, I oppose oppression as a form of harm, as a lack of justice. I see abolitionist veganism as opposing one of the most basic oppressions, and the most drastic, affecting trillions of other sentient beings. And it goes on almost unremarked, and it is accepted as normal by almost all of humanity, including all those oppressed groups. Socialist groups, feminist groups, groups countering racism, LGBTI advocates, anarchists, atheists, and so on are unlikely to ever consider other animals and veganism. The interests of other animals is likely always to come last, if they are not ignored completely.

Why doesn’t Wrenn’s “intersectionality” go the other way? Why doesn’t she attack feminist and racial justice groups for ignoring non-human animals, and attack them for their “human privilege”?

While engaging in my other issues; opposing planetary destruction, imperialism, transnational corporate and speculative capitalism, the economic and cultural colonisation of many nations, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, heterosexism, cisgenderism and binary gender assumptions, I find I can’t see how the situation for the oppressed in any of them create “special conditions” preventing people from becoming vegan. I don’t see how it prevents the change of mind, the seeing of other animals as beings. I don’t see how it prevents people from adopting a plant-based diet, or from stopping other uses of non-human animals. Intersectionality is about the way forms of oppression combine. I really do not see any intersectionality issues with veganism. I do not see how the issues of any of these groups “intersect” with veganism to create specific patterns of oppression of other animals not covered by veganism. I don’t see how veganism oppresses human groups. I don’t see how the oppression of these groups, oppression I oppose, makes my focus on non-human animals in vegan advocacy, and my desire to keep my focus on non-human animals in vegan forums, specially oppressive.

Abattoir-shot-300x283I see that regardless of the oppression of groups of humans, oppression of other animals continues unchanged, including by oppressed human groups. I don’t see that veganism, either making the decision not to harm other animals (to become vegan), or adopting a plant-based diet, is any harder for any group of people, except the desperately poor who may need to eat whatever they find, and the few remnant first peoples groups who live traditional lifestyles in deserts or the Arctic. I fail to see how veganism oppresses anyone at all, or where there are any special cases aside from those I just mentioned, the desperately poor, or tribal people living in areas where a plant-based diet is impossible.

Note, nothing stops feminists from raising issues of the race-based killing of a boy in Ferguson. Likewise, nothing stops any abolitionist vegan advocate from raising any human issue of oppression if they like. Some vegan pages do raise human issues, particularly Francione’s The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights, or the LiveVegan page. Both post on human issues, the latter very frequently. Vegans for Non-Violence is a page that specifically addresses human rights issues as well as abolitionist veganism. But both the The Abolitionist Approach and LiveVegan have stepped on attempts to hijack the page and declare human social justice issues as more central or more important than abolitionist veganism.

Absence of mention is not the same as opposition.

On the other hand, many vegan advocates focus only on vegan issues. Just as many advocates of other issues post only about their issue on their page. That does not make them racist or sexist, any more than Wrenn’s focus on race and sex makes her guilty of ableism, or means she has contempt for issues of global ecology. She does not mention the structural oppression of ex-colonial nations by agencies like the World Bank and IMF, which impose austerity programs upon them. She does not mention the fact that there are deliberate attempts to undermine the ability of ex-colonial nations to form unions that would demand a reasonable return for their raw materials. She does not mention the use of intellectual property to disenfranchise the researchers who create them, to claim ownership of natural products and traditional processes, and even to claim ownership of genes of first peoples. She does not mention wars of aggression committed by her own nation. There is a lot Wrenn does not mention. Afghanistan_war

Does her silence make her complicit in Imperialism? Is she therefore an imperialist and a nationalist, since she is silent although she has “US privilege”? Perhaps.

Should I assume she is an imperialist and nationalist, and castigate her for that? Since it hasn’t been proved, perhaps not.

A Foundational Principle?

In the light of the issues I’ve raised, it is interesting Wrenn begins her blog with an assertion: that intersectionality is a foundational principle in abolitionism. In examining this, we’ll start with G.L. Francione’s Six Principles of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights. I’m assuming in making her assertion, Wrenn is using some authority other than her own, and I’m not sure what other authority she might rely on. The assumption is based on the fact that she doesn’t actually argue the case.

In Francione’s Six Principles, the only applicable principle is:

5. Just as we reject racism, sexism, ageism, and heterosexism, we reject speciesism. The species of a sentient being is no more reason to deny the protection of this basic right than race, sex, age, or sexual orientation is a reason to deny membership in the human moral community to other humans.

The primary problem with taking this as an endorsement of intersectionality-as-a-foundational-principle is that “just as” does not mean that the example following is intrinsic. It is a metaphor, or an analogy. It compares two different things, and points out the similarity. “Just as a fuel pump sends fuel through a pipe to the motor, the heart sends blood through the veins to the cells.” It is a form of comparison, not a claim to identity of two things. I used a lot of “just as” statements in explaining the parallels between abolitionist vegans denying human issues primacy or equal space, and the way feminists, or anti-racism groups do the same.

The rejection of racism, sexism, ageism, etc, are all rejections of otherising within humanity, of the division of us/other, and the use of that alienation to justify oppression. In rejection of speciesism, we similarly reject the us/other divide between humans and other animals as a justification of oppression of this group. There is nothing about intersectionality here. There is an implied acceptance of the commonality of an ethic for justice and inclusion, and a rejection of oppression. It implies that as ethical beings, we should reject all forms of oppressive discrimination. Elsewhere, Francione has said that the root of different forms of discrimination comes from the same place. But this doesn’t say we need to consider other forms of oppression in considering the oppression of speciesism. All it really says is that speciesism is like other forms of oppression. ….And it certainly says nothing about the way forms of oppression like racism and homophobia may intersect to create oppressions for gay men or lesbians of colour that go beyond those expected from taking racism and homophobia separately. And that intersection is what “intersectionality” is about.

Attack on abolitionist vegans as racist and sexist.

Wrenn says almost immediately that she won’t argue the case for the importance of intersectionality in her blog, that she’s done it elsewhere, and we can go find it. Instead, she looks at the prevalence of racial violence in the US, and accuses vegans of being made uncomfortable by confrontation with racism.

This is a broad generalisation, presented without evidence, and the truth-value of it in any specific case is suspect.


North Africans migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

I certainly am aware of racism as an issue, and its prevalence globally. I’m also fairly certain the headlines Wrenn speaks of are US ones, not those from other nations. Rather than look at the rise of racism as a function of mass migrations in response to war, international divisions of wealth between nations, and the fallout of collapse of socialist economies, she focuses on the shooting of African-Americans in the US. She seems to take it as irrational, ignorant, oppression, rather than looking at the role of the militarising of the police, and factors behind that. Her work is very US centric, very blinkered, and while she acknowledges other issues, woman and the African-American population seems to be her major focus.

After her assertion that racism makes vegans uncomfortable, and the implication that this leads to “unsavory and insensitive comments and essays”, she offers as evidence a post by Grumpy Old Vegan (GOV). He says,

Of course I recognise that speciesism and other forms of injustice are cut from the same moral cloth.

This part essentially paraphrases Principle 5 cited above from the Six Principles.

I also recognise that, ideally, the vegan movement should be truly inclusive and that necessarily involves considering both animal and human rights in our advocacy.

This actually goes beyond Principle 5, and supports the notion that an ethical being should also address other forms of injustice, something Francione has said and does on his page, though he hasn’t included this in his “Principles” except by implication.

I’d guess Wrenn’s objection is to the exceptions GOV makes, the “Buts”. These “buts” basically assert that while human issues are of concern, and should be supported, vegan advocacy focuses on the issue of speciesism, an issue that very few advocates for oppressed human groups mention, an issue to which very few oppressed groups (likely no oppressed groups) ever give consideration or support.


French anti-racism march

If Wrenn’s main focus is on advocacy for women and racial justice, I can understand that she would be disappointed with this response. I don’t see that it makes GOV a racist or a sexist any more than Wrenn is an ableist, a nationalist, an imperialist, or is binary-gender-centric (she mentions “cis-” and “trans-”, men and women, both binary dualisms, but I’ve never seen her include those who do not fit or who reject, binary gender categories). I’ve never seen her raise issues of the oppression of North Africans in France. Is that because they are Muslims, and she is Islamophobic? Perhaps. Perhaps that ties into her acceptance of the nationalism and imperialism that benefit her as a US citizen (US privilege). I’ve never seen her mention Islamophobia at all, in spite of the obvious anti-Muslim propaganda and demonising her nation engages in regularly, the wars of aggression the US engages in. Perhaps her silence means she supports that aggression and demonising. Perhaps her silence is a support.

Are those accusations against Wrenn fair?

Are they different in spirit or in principle to her accusations against GOV?

Advocacy and Focus

I’ve often worked with groups of people who are oppressed, or those who advocate for various issues. Mostly, advocates and activists focus on one issue, or a few issues, in their advocacy or activism, as Wrenn focuses on feminism, discrimination against African-Americans in the US, and Abolitionist veganism. As others limit their practical advocacy, so does Wrenn. It is, after all, impossible to adequately focus on everything. “Focus on everything” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

Trying to include everything in advocacy is not focus. It dilutes focus. However, it is not impossible to support many issues we do not, ourselves, focus on. I support a broad range of issues, and have focused on many over the years. Feminism is important to me. Socialism is important to me. Ending racial discrimination is important, and the situation of First Peoples (Indigenous Peoples) is also. International nation-based exploitation, social, cultural and economic colonisation are all important to me, along with international fair trade and labour-standard issues. I’ve been involved in the anti-war movement since the 60s. Ecology matters to me, and so do queer, gender, and sexual issues. I’ve never done much with disability issues, but I’m aware of them. I’m aware of many things I haven’t worked on personally. I bring them up when and how I can. But if I’m advocating for gender issues, or feminist issues, or to end abuses and forced austerity measures by the IMF, I focus on those (and related) issues. I don’t talk much about non-human animals at that time. When I focus on vegan advocacy, I do focus on non-human animals. I don’t find focus by anyone an issue or a problem, unless they, or their cause, is involved in explicit oppression of some other group. To be explicit, I may (or may not) have problems with someone’s cause, or their strategy, but don’t find it a problem that they focus on that cause, and that they don’t bring up, say, LGBTI rights in relation to it.

Wrenn ties focus on oppression of non-human animals in vegan advocacy with racism and sexism. The only reasons I can see in singling out those two issues, is that GOV is “white” and male, and these two issues are Wrenn’s interests, and “white” males her main target. She asserts, without evidence, that abolitionist vegans are uncomfortable with race issues. A generalisation about “white” people being uncomfortable with race is not evidence that vegans, even “white” vegans are uncomfortable. Some may be. Some may not be. There is no evidence, there is a possible explanation.

She raised the issue of “white privilege”, a true issue, and the oppression of normative discourse, giving it a sentence, a nod and a reference. But then she jumps to emotive straw-person arguments, putting words in the mouth of the generic “stupid cowering white liberal man”, implying that this puppet she created has similar views to GOV. Then she refers to D’Angelo on “white fragility” and Byer for more on privilege. But these are attacks on generalised “white people”. This is not evidence of such behaviour in GOV or others. Stereotyping and generalisation are not arguments for the specific, and are poor arguments even for the general case. This may apply to GOV. It may apply to other “white” vegans. It may not. It is likely to apply to some “white” vegan somewhere. But regarding GOV specifically, or “white” abolitionist vegans generally, the evidence for this particular proposition is out.

The attack on abolitionists who assert the need to focus on non-human animals neglects the fact that asserting that need does not mean ignoring the oppression of humans. Not listening when someone says “they agree that countering human oppression is important”, just because they also say they “think abolitionist veganism should primarily focus on non-human animals”, does not help. Characterising such people as uncaring of oppression, or as opposed to efforts to oppose human oppression is unfair and inaccurate.

The problem with Wrenn’s position is that she does not seek dialogue with people. She is adversarial, and demand for “intersectionality” becomes a weapon to accuse others of racism, sexism, and any other form of discrimination. She seems to have a personal axe to grind specifically with older “white” males, possibly explaining her attack on GOV. Her actions are divisive, and don’t actually promote either feminist goals, or anti-racist ones. Instead, she seems to enjoy putting people down, and attacking as racist and sexist any abolitionist vegan advocates who don’t agree with her notion of “intersectionality”. Her attacks often involve a knee-jerk automatic assumption that her opponents are white men, which has led to her to demeaning a transgender person of colour as white. The attacks, the smears, the twisting of words, the glee behind it has a certain familiarity. What we see on some of her pages effectively amounts to bullying and “mean-girl” gang behaviour.

Human Issues are Important

boyatgunpointIssues of human oppression are vitally important, and I’ve spent most of my life as an activist in relation to a number of causes, opposing oppression of various people, often not minorities but majority masses of people oppressed by minorities in power. The environment has also been a central issue for me, since destabilisation of the ecology, globally or locally, affects all living beings. These adverse affects, caused by uncaring anthropocentrism, short-term thinking, simply not considering our actions, or putting our immediate interests above those of all others, are already leading to a mass extinction, which in the near future will make human concerns irrelevant.

Zaatari-Refugee-CampThe greed, putting personal interest above the welfare of others, and the calculated cleverness in exploiting and appropriating the lives, desires, and needs of others is behind most of the human oppression on the planet, as well as the devastation of the natural world, animal and otherwise. It needs to be countered everywhere, and that needs to start in our own heart. Abolitionist veganism, the non-violent social movement to end the eating, wearing, of killing of non-human animals, or using them for entertainment or any other purpose, is an important step, a step beyond focus on our own species. And it is possible, because there is no need to exploit or kill our fellow animals.

We need to examine the consequences of all our actions, and look at how they affect others, including our relations to our fellow humans. We do need to fight oppression. That’s part of being an ethical being. We also need to pick our particular causes. We can personally oppose oppression generally, but we cannot personally advocate against all forms of oppression. Advocacy generally means learning deeply. It means putting a lot of energy into a cause. That means, unfortunately we will leave many causes for others to advocate. I don’t personally work on the plight of those who have been victims of torture. I know people who do. I try and understand and support their issues, but it is not an area I advocate for, and I know, and acknowledge, that there are many areas of that issue where I am ignorant. Again, there is a difference between support and advocacy.

While over my lifetime I’ve advocated for many issues: women in unions; sex workers; HIV+ve people; recipients of foreign aid; land rights; transgender people; climate change; public ownership of education, health, transportation, energy, communication and banking. I haven’t done so simultaneously. That doesn’t mean any of the issues are less important to me, even now. It just means that an advocate needs to focus their energy.

I don’t have a problem with advocates focussing. I do think it is wrong to ignore oppression of others. I do know that advocating for one social justice cause doesn’t mean a person is onside with all others, or even any others. I’ve seen plenty of proof to the contrary. I’ve known transsexual people who assert that transgender sex workers “give a bad name to mainstream transsexuals”. I’ve known racist or homophobic feminists and misogynist people of colour. Experience of oppression does not guarantee empathy for the oppressed. Bigotry and prejudice are common to humanity.

I do know that if we work for a cause, being effective means working with others who share that cause, if possible. If someone shows no sign of being racist, or sexist, or homophobic, I don’t assume they are, even if they are “white” or male, or straight. I don’t assume they are not, but I do see that if they have some prejudice, they are smart enough, and disciplined enough, not to show it. That helps. I don’t make “centrism” a deal-breaker. I can’t think of many straight people who are not heterocentric. All of society and their personal experience pushes them that way and reinforces it all the time.

There are not a lot of abolitionist vegans, and we live in a very speciesist world. Even most “AR (animal rights) people” are speciesist, as is clear from their campaigns for “humane” exploitation. Anthropocentrism is endemic, and there are a lot of people advocating around various human causes. The concerns of non-human animals not to be exploited is seen as ridiculous, trivial, and indulgent by most activists for human or environmental issues. So I really do not think it is wrong when, as abolitionist vegan advocates, the focus is on other animals, and stopping the exploitation, objectification and use of non-human animals. I really don’t believe that being focused silences any oppressed human. I really don’t think any oppressed human has the right to silence people advocating for non-human animals in order to promote their own agenda.

That said, I also really do believe it would be good for abolitionist vegans to address, at least occasionally, human issues. But we do so as people, not as “vegan advocates”. A commitment to end oppression as a general stance is something I believe comes from the same place in the heart that the commitment to end use of our fellow animals comes from.

The Silences that Bother Me

I do sometimes feel there are some issues of human oppression so large that I can’t understand how they are ignored. Most of those issues are ignored by some non-human-animal focused abolitionists, and by Wrenn and the TAVS promoters of “intersectionality”.

girlgazaThe genocide of Palestinians is one of those areas. The invasion of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Syria is one of those issues. Over a million people, about 80% civilians, men, women, and children have been killed in these actions. Their homes have been invaded, destroyed. Their cities have been shattered. Millions have been displaced, living in refugee camps. The poor in the US have been gathered up as cannon fodder for these wars of aggression and colonisation. Poor people, disproportionately people of colour, have bought in, gaining short-term economic respite at the expense of other people’s lives, and the risk of their own. Those same poor people, after destroying homes, killing the old, the young, women, the innocent, go home where their government abandons them.

new york bus adsThe fomenting of fear, hatred and nationalism (“patriotism”) to feed this aggression is an issue for me. Islamophobia is the active oppression of our time. It is the oppression that currently serves the agendas of imperialist governments and global capital. Yet in mentioning racism, people ignore the current, and widely accepted form or racism, the attack on “middle-eastern-looking” people, on the basis that they “look Muslim”. This is an active, spreading, pernicious racism. And it feeds into racism of all sorts, and is used to justify the militarisation of police, and the erosion of civil liberties.

The issue of global capitalism, and the concentration of wealth and power allows corporations and the rich to drive for ever-increasing exploitation of people and the planet. It allows the IMF, World Bank and other such organisations to impose “austerity programs” on nations, generally poor nations. These programs mean the destruction of social infrastructure, education, health, and so on. These social support institutions are further eroded by the actions of the World Trade Organisation, which can impose sanctions on nations if they do not open their economies to global corporate interests, and the WTO generally deems any social democratic (public) support of society, including public health and education, as a “trade barrier”. They use their power to create economic colonies they can mine, exploiting people and the environment.

These are issues I’d like to see more abolitionist vegans reference, at very least, instead of ignoring them, and I include Wrenn, Woodcock and others when I say I’d like to see them stop ignoring these issues. They are issues that tie directly into racism. Racism is not an isolated attitude, it is spread because it profits some, allowing increased exploitation of some populations, while also allowing the powerful to use one exploited group against another. And don’t think for a moment that racism is only practised by “white” people against people of colour. Inter-racial racism occurs and is encouraged by the powerful. It is a tool that allows the improved exploitation of all groups. In this sense, “white” people, including groups that were formerly targets like southern Europeans, Irish, Scots, and so on, are just another exploited group where racism is used to help the powerful, encouraging one exploited group to exploit another. We need to look at the roots of racism, and not just it’s manifestations. We also need to see the roots of increased racism in war, refugees, national borders that lock in people while being permeable to corporate exploitation.


Bon Appetit in Zermatt, Switzerland. One of the glitziest ski resorts in the world.

All people need to begin to act in solidarity to identify the actual benefactors of oppression. And elites today are no longer limited to the lords of the British Empire and their Anglo heirs in the US and elsewhere. Go to any elite resort and you will see Chinese, Arab, Indian, Latin, and African members of the global elite rubbing shoulders with the European and US rich and powerful. It is the possession of vast amounts of power, economic or military, that defines members of the global elite. It is not race. Race is a tool they use.

I’d love to see a little more of this mentioned. I’d love to see some climbing out of the mirror-box where we look at our own oppression, and start to see how it links into a global system. Personally, I’d like to see some targeting of actual oppressors, and a drive for revolution (non-violent, of course). A good start would be to educate people that this is going on. To educate people who think racism simply means “white people treat black people badly” to see that it is something bigger, and far more malign: that we are being used against each other, as a distraction, as tools. For the elite, poverty is useful. Racism is useful. It allows division and control. We must work together to end this.

That’s what I’d like. That’s not what I expect. Wherever anyone fights oppression, that is a gain. People fighting for an end to oppression in one area or another aren’t always free of participation in all forms of oppression, particularly the subtle ones, like acting as if “mainstream” normative positions apply to everyone without question. Many nice people, who aren’t mean or trying to make me or other queer people feel bad, still fall prey to heterocentrism. That makes me and other LGBTI people feel less visible, and is not good, but these people aren’t bigots, they are just unconscious. Their unconsciousness hurts me, but ignorance is not the same as prejudice. I (sometimes) try to educate, but don’t treat them like I would treat someone who is bigoted.

As to the abolitionist movement, I’ve yet to see anyone actually gain power through advocating abolitionist veganism. I’ve seen people who, as in every movement, want to the big wheel, and/or the centre of attention within the abolitionist circle. However, generally, advocating for other animals does not get a person much credit, or praise, and certainly does not give much money or power. Mostly, we abolitionists have people dumping on us, people from the unending stream of new welfarists, to the people who think sending, “Mmm, bacon!” is some sort of little triumph.

Abolitionist vegans advocate for the end of exploitation of non-human animals. That’s an admirable cause, regardless of what other causes a person does or does not advocate. Non-humans have no voice. I don’t mean their voices are silenced or ignored, I mean they have no voice at all. And the abolitionist movement is not made of “white” people. That is a terrible disrespect of all the people of colour who are also vegans, and abolitionists, some in their own way without theory or computers, but committed to the end of animal use just the same. I’d also say there are more women abolitionists than men.

We need to work together, if we are to pursue any cause. Inclusion, and inclusive practice comes from a fundamental attitude, and supports growth. Exclusion, bullying, attacks, foster power trips and egos. Constructive criticism is good, if it is constructive, but we cannot afford to attack each other, particularly unjustly.

Yes, it would be great for vegan advocates to also advocate for other issues, opposing other forms of human oppression. Certainly some, perhaps many, do, even if they don’t do it on their abolitionist page. Grumpy Old Vegan has said he opposes racism, sexism, and other forms of human oppression. Is it fair to attack him because he’s “white”, male, and doesn’t promote these issues on his “Grumpy Old Vegan” page? No-one covers all the issues, and without evidence to the contrary, we should take people’s words for what they support, oppose, or feel. From what I’ve seen, the GOV page seems to be a good abolitionist vegan page. The principles of abolitionism are presented clearly, and I don’t see contradictory posts. If there is not much about feminism there, well, there are many good feminist pages elsewhere (which don’t address non-human animals). But as an abolitionist, I feel GOV and I are working for similar goals, as are many other vegan pages, like Gentle World, My Face is On Fire, Vegan Whispers, LiveVegan, There’s an Elephant in the Room, International Vegan Association, Peaceful Prarie Sanctuary, Vegan Buddy: find answers about veganism here, Sentiocentrism, Alice Springs Vegan Society, Clare is Vegan, Peaceful Abolitionist, Vegan Trove, Unpopular Vegan Essays Archives. I’m not saying any of these represent my views, just that what I’ve seen seems to be consistent and abolitionist.

The Abolitionist Vegan Society (TAVS) was a fairly consistent abolitionist page until a few months ago. But I feel they’ve gone off the rails, and their attacks on other abolitionist vegans are unfortunate and seem to be the primary way they try to address human rights issues. I don’t think the abolitionist movement needs “attack sites”, especially when the attacks don’t relate to veganism at all, and the targets are other abolitionists.

Honestly, it’s hard enough promoting an end to exploiting non-human animals. We don’t need to attack one another and make our advocacy base smaller. All it does is stop communication, and make some people give up and go away. It reduces our efficacy and stops the spread of abolitionism. In many ways, attack sites do the work of entrenched power, those who own the feedlots, the stores, the ranches, the restaurants, the supermarkets, the ad companies. Animal industry may not be the cause of animal exploitation, the non-vegan public is, but animal industry are the ones that profit from our disunity. Back-biting and attacking one another primarily disadvantages all non-human animals. Secondly, it disadvantages the non-vegan public, as it makes our education campaigns less effective. Thirdly, we tax the spirit of one another, and life is hard enough.

Support those who have a clear abolitionist message. If you have other social change agendas, by all means pursue them, but not at the expense of other human rights advocates, and not at the expense of the abolitionist movement and the non-human animals it means to liberate.


Intersectionality and Abolitionist Veganism: Part I

The issue of intersectionality is sometimes raised in conjunction with abolitionist veganism. While it is important to see how different individuals and groups have different experience of the world, and how this can affect all their interactions in the world including veganism, the use of a lack of inclusion of “intersectionality” in a vegan post or poster as a justification for attack of abolitionist vegan advocates is suspect. This post means to look at these issues.


Coretta Scott King Feminists

Coretta Scott King Feminists

Intersectionality: What is it?

Intersectionality, as used in sociology and similar academic disciplines, is the study of the unique ways areas of oppression may interact. It arose primarily with the intersection of race and feminism in the 1970s. The agenda of feminists and feminism were often shaped by the fact that many prominent feminist writers and theorists were “white”. That agenda often didn’t reflect the realities for women of colour. Women of colour also found anti-racist groups were dominated by men, and the racist issues such groups frame also didn’t seem to reflect their concerns or needs as women. As a result, “black feminist” and other groups for women of colour arose. In a parallel usually not considered in the non-queer literature, lesbians sought to focus on their interests as distinct from “gay” issues, which were generally framed by gay men and as a result, “gay issues” reflected masculine issues. The concern for differentiation started as “gay and lesbian” or “lesbian and gay”, and has morphed into LGBTI(QQKA) and probably more letters as other groups sought specific inclusion and recognition.

The term “intersectionality” started to be used frequently in the 1990s, and has become something of a fashion in academic circles, rather like “queer theory” in the 1980s. Many academics found an interest in these issues, and papers addressing them were often popular. Intersectionality was a useful way to look at many sociological complexities, and aided the examination of differences of experience within social categories, or helped frame examination of certain groups that spanned more than one social category.

Also, to clear up confusion, intersectionality doe not mean that all forms of oppression intersect. It means that in specific situations, multiple forms of discrimination can create specific situations for a group not described by the forms of oppression that intersect. The primary example is the failure of racism and feminism to describe their intersection for women of colour. This intersection includes issue like the fact that it is harder for women of colour to raise feminist issues of dominance or abuse because they play into racist stereotypes that “black” men are violent or rapists. As people of colour, they need to address the feminist issues “in house” in a way most feminists don’t. Neither racism nor feminism really address that intersectional problem. So “feminists of colour” becomes a new, intersectional category. Technically, any intersection of oppression for a group which creates situations that are “more than the sum” of the oppressions intersecting is an intersectional issue.

Intersectionality: Strengths and Weaknesses

The major strength of intersectionality is in looking at complexities of oppression when tied to specific groups. Looking at the situation of older Hispanic women in the US, or young North-African women in France, or Nepali lesbian female sex workers in India, intersectionality allows a complex analysis drawing from literatures of race, class, nationality, religion, sexuality, “morality”, legality, and so on. Intersectionality allows a certain amount of deconstruction.

Intersectionality is less powerful when used in more theoretical form. Talking “about” intersectionality can descend into messy vaguery and inappropriate generalisation. Simply naming social classes or types of oppression, and seeking to find examples, runs the risk of “finding what you are looking for”, seeing situations through a lens of expectation. Intersectionality is sometimes used as a platform for attack of other writers for not (or not adequately) considering intersectionality.

Ivy Bottini

Ivy Bottini, a founding member of the National Organisation of Women (N.O.W.), designer of the N.O.W. logo, and an out lesbian. When she tried to raise issues for lesbians in 1969, NOW president Betty Freidan opposed lesbian participation in NOW, and declared lesbians the “lavender menace” also firing Rita Mae Brown, who edited the NOW newsletter.

Chief among the theoretical problems of intersectionality are the assumptions it makes about people, and about the way we perceive ourselves and our interaction with society. In looking at social classes, it falls into a form of social construction of identity that is problematic, and may not correspond well with the way people self-perceive. Sociological classes are, to a degree, created in academic literature and the policies of government and social organisations (welfare-related, religious, or whatever). There are also complexities of identification, self-identification, and social identification. A person may identify as gay or lesbian even if they sometimes have opposite-sex partners. They may not identify as bi, rejecting that identity strongly. A person may self-identify as a feminist, yet not be seen as a feminist by a local feminist  group. What group are they in?

It is questionable how well the individuals in a group actually fit the descriptions of the group, and how they self-identify. Also, if examination and consideration of different applicable identities is meticulous, intersectionality tends to split and split social groups into smaller and smaller subgroups, until it reaches the level of the individual. Predominately English-speaking first nation women in Quebec can be divided into subgroups that are bi-lingual, trilingual, young, old, working-class, have a sensory disability (visual, auditory, olfactory, etc), a movement disability, a congenital disability, we could consider consider tribal affiliation, gender identities, sexual preference, religion, body shape, substance abuse, and how seriously any member of the group ranks any of these issues as applying to themselves. Deciding what differences intersect, which differences are considered? Where does one stop?

The issues of membership in a class is also sociologically vexed. As with queer theory, identity politics can be used as a way of dividing groups, drawing a line and policing inclusion and exclusion. This occurred particularly in feminism with various groups vying to be the arbiters of “true” feminism, who would tell people if they were “real” feminists, or condemn some women as “not real feminists”. In this case, many lesbian women were excluded, then included, then told that if they did “butch/femme” they were not proper feminists (or lesbians), and as lesbians-for-political-reasons invaded and colonised lesbian (women who prefer women sexually) spaces, women who had male partners were deemed suspect or excluded as “not real feminists”. This sort of identity politics was very often destructive, and used in games of power and control. Another classic example is the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which decided to exclude male-to-female transsexuals. This was highly divisive, and resulted in great insult to many women who identified as women, who fell under suspicion because they “appeared masculine”. Many of those women were female-identified, lesbian, born as women, and were not transgendered although the general public might frequently confuse them as men, and of course there were tranny-boi butches, “stone butches” and intersexed people. Thus, identity politics became a tool of oppression against women (and others) already facing discrimination in the wider world.

In queer theory, the problems of identity politics resulted in other theoretical models, like the topographical model of identity, in which rigid identities in which one is included or excluded are rejected, and a person is seen as existing on a identity “landscape”, closer or further from certain “landmarks” of identity. Every individual was seen, not as “lesbian” or “intersexed”, but as existing on a complex social landscape, in greater or lesser proximity to a variety of landmarks. The landmarks were also fluid, as identities changed and became more complex, dividing into sub-identities (“kink” might divide into “fetish”, S/M, D/s, etc). Likewise, landmarks might coalesce, like gay/bi/lesbian etc becoming “queer”.

The issues, then, are that sociological classifications are generalisations about groups, and don’t always reflect self-identity well, and that intersectionality can devolve into ever smaller classes, or else lump dissimilar people together as one. It is useful to deconstruct issues facing a specific group, but is less relevant and more problematic as it becomes more generalised or theoretical.

Intersectionality and Vegan Advocacy

mother-sheep-and-her-lambAbolitionist vegan advocacy advocates the end of non-human animal use for food, clothing or any other purpose. It is a social movement to end the exploitation of non-human animals. It differs from most forms of struggle against oppression because the advocates are from the class that oppresses, not the class that is oppressed. It is an attempt to get us to change our own behaviour towards others. It is also an attempt to end the us/other split.

N african womanAs such, intersectionality applies differently. Instead of seeing how different forms of oppression intersect (cats seen as both “pets”, and as “pests” to be eradicated), the best it can do is to look at any particular difficulty some human (oppressor) class might have with changing their behaviour and ending their oppression of other animals. It is the case that nearly all social classes of humans oppress other animals, and nearly all ideologies, cultures, religions, classes, races, sexes support that oppression.

Veganism represents a fundamental change in human behaviour and understanding. The fact that different cultures have different ways and understandings of oppressing non-human animals does not change the need to alter our behaviour and attitudes. Abolitionist veganism represents an attempt to alter all existent cultures.

Demands that vegan advocates consider various cultural difference becomes very close to the demand for cultural relativity, and the notion that veganism is a matter of personal and cultural choice. That is often raised as an objection to abolitionist veganism. Abolitionist veganism is social activism. One cannot consider veganism a personal choice, and be an abolitionist. The two are mutually exclusive. It is currently the culture of virtually all humans to use and kill other animals. Trying to end that is attempt to change individual and cultural practice.

We, of course, recognise that it is a long process. And we are committed to non-violence. In 1944, Donald Watson, the person who coined the word “vegan”, encouraged others to take a “broad view of what veganism stands for”, reminding us that far beyond diet, veganism embraces the principles of non-violence. This includes vegan advocacy.


Condoman, and Lubrilicious are educational comics targeting Aboriginal communities in North Queensland and the Northern Territory. They promote the use of condoms and water-based lube, and provide some education about STIs.

That said, of course the shift to veganism is best accomplished for any group, by people within that group, using the language and telos of that group. Hence, there may be a Hindu vegan movement, or an Australian vegan movement, or a Maori vegan movement. But that is like adapting anti-HIV education to different groups; gay, straight, African, US, Chinese. Different approaches are useful, necessary, but general information is good, and accessed and used by people everywhere. In the same way, general vegan advocacy is useful by anyone, and is not specific to any group. Only where specific groups are targeted does it risk being inappropriate to other groups.

Targeting groups makes sense. Educational information about “Ahimsa milk” is an example. But general posters/comments are appropriate, and many advocates online are speaking to their own communities, eg, UK urban, or “developed world general”. My comments are general, and applicable to other English-speaking nations at least, including the US and UK, even though I’m in rural Australia. The only place where intersectionality seems particularly appropriate is to make sure that in targeting one group, subgroups (eg, women) are not ignored, though clearly a campaign for islander Polynesians should not be expected to include references to town-based Inuit. If advocacy seems to suggest ideas or practices that exclude, or antagonise some group, than it is good for people to raise those issues, remembering of course that social change is bound to antagonise someone.

What is not useful is criticising the expression of general principles. It is not appropriate to criticise advocates simply because they belong to some group of humans. When I said “Donald Watson, the person who coined the word ‘vegan’”, I called him a “person”, not a “man”, not a “white man”. That’s because he was speaking as a human, not as a member of other classes, and his expression is unlikely to have changed if he was a member of some other class. It is not appropriate to think or impose class characterisation on that statement.

Intersectionality” as a form of attack.

I find it discouraging and unfortunate when I see “intersectionality” used as a fuel for abuse, especially within the abolitionist vegan movement. As humans, we are oppressors of other animals. It does not matter what sub-group we belong to, (other than vegan). As vegans, we personally try not to oppress other animals. The principle ethos we espouse is not to use other animals as things, meriting no consideration, as means to our ends. There is no consideration around any special subgroup of humans that negates that ethos.

On the other hand, how we talk about veganism, and what else we do, matters in terms of changing others perceptions and practices. If we are racist, or sexist, in our language, then we risk alienating others, or making them antagonistic. And as people who are fighting a very fundamental oppression, the oppression of other animals, we also should consider the end to oppression of human animals, oppression of various kinds. This is why some abolitionist vegan pages may frequently include posts on racism, sexism, heterosexism, Islamophobia, and so on. These issues are seen as a logical extension of the sense of justice that motivates veganism, but these issues are not veganism, nor are they intrinsic to veganism. And advocacy of veganism, while being onside with other issues, does not necessarily include those other issues explicitly, especially in short posts and on posters. Omission of other issues is not, in itself, a problem, though consistent avoidance, or non-speaking about some issue, like Islamophobia and international aggression, is an issue when it becomes so common that it becomes complicit with oppression. https://www.vegantrove.com/2014/11/28/vegan-trove-podcast-0005/

The problem comes in where vegan advocates say something explicitly racist, or sexist, or explicitly advocate an approach that leaves some group out. The Australian stop live export campaign targeting Indonesia is an example, where it becomes positively racist and Islamophobic in it’s literature. The answer, in that case, is to take the issue up explicitly, and call racism as it is seen.

What doesn’t work, and is actually oppressive, is the way some abolitionist vegans on social media jump on other abolitionist vegan advocates for little or no reason, calling names and making accusations without any valid reference to the issue they are accusing them of. Also, in itself, accusations and name-calling are useless. Even better than being very explicit in critique of a comment that has negative implications for some group, is to be explicit about the problem with the comment, and also do some education about the oppression of that group and how to approach it differently.

What does not work is simply shaming, bullying, and distorting words. It is also not an adequate argument of wrongdoing to say “they ignore intersectionality (or intersectional issues)”. What does that mean? That they don’t mention that phrase? Why should they? If there is some intersectional issue, then that should raised. If what is said is sexist, or racist, then say so, pointing explicitly to what is said. But it is not sexist to advocate for ending non-human animal use without mentioning sexism. Advocating an end to the use of other animals is unaffected by the sex of the speaker or the listener, unless it is something like “Girls, do hubby and your family a favour. Serve them vegan food tonight.” That would be sexist (and wrong in so many ways). As are the commodifications of female bodies in PeTa ads.

The statement, “The fact that we don’t need to use other animals renders all arguments against veganism invalid.” is not sexist, or racist, or “white”, or homophobic. It is not a male statement, not racially-based, not specific to any sexual orientation or gender-identity. It is a statement from a human animal about non-human animals. Targeting the gender, or the age, or the nationality of the writer is effectively discriminatory, and an ad-hominem attack.

Intersectionality, or its lack in a post, cannot be a basis for a charge of oppression in itself. “Intersectionality” means nothing without context. Either someone is ignoring some specific issue of intersectionality or not, and that issue should be the focus of critique. “Lack of intersectionality” means nothing in itself, since no-one includes all forms of intersectionality. Not including race or gender issues does not make a person a racist of sexist, and accusing someone of racism because they didn’t include it, would make the accuser guilty of homophobia because they focussed on race and sex and left out sexual orientation issues. It is the same lack of intersectionality. The accuser privileges racism or sexism. It makes the accuser guilty of religious discrimination, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, nationalism, classism, heterocentrism, cisgender-centrism, ableism, ageism, body-shapism, etc, etc. You can’t claim a person is doing wrong by not including one general intersectional issue without being equally wrong for not including all the other possible intersectional issues. Who are we to say somebody’s intersectional issue is irrelevant?

A note on “privilege”, intersectional discrimination, and a note on “passing”.

People also sometimes throw the notion of “privilege” at others to invalidate their words, especially in relation to intersectionality. Privilege is a real issue. Those in a dominant class may assume in their speech that the conditions for the dominant class are normative. That is wrong. That is also not always the case. Just being a member of a “privileged” class doesn’t make everything one says wrong or oppressive. In groups, a person of privilege may have more access to speak and be heard. That doesn’t mean that’s what happens. That does not invalidate what they say. It just means that under those conditions, it is important to ensure others have an equal say. Sometimes, it is important that an oppressed group not have members of the dominant group around. Women sometimes need to speak without participation of men. Racial groups may need to be free of participation of “white” people. But that doesn’t apply everywhere. It cannot, if there is to be communication.

It is true that anyone in a dominant class tends to get a better, easier deal than those of us not in that class. That’s not their fault. We’re all privileged in some way. If we are not blind, we are “sighted-privileged” and there will be a lot of things that are easier for us. If we are any age other than “old” or “children”, we are privileged in some circumstance more than someone else. If we have a computer, and language, we are privileged relative to those who don’t have those things. There will be other areas where we are not privileged. An obese, poor, old “white” man may face more problems and discrimination than an attractive, middle-class professional “black” woman. The problems and discriminations will just be in different areas.

The issue is not what we are/have by chance, genetics, parentage. The issue is what we do with it, and whether we treat others oppressively, or with empathy, respect, and a sense of equity. The fact that someone is male does not make them sexist, or guilty of oppressive behaviour, even though the fact someone is female means they are subject to oppression, whether or not they recognise it. It is a person’s behaviour that establishes whether they perpetuate oppression, or seek to remedy it. Oppression can be unconscious and subtle, however, especially when it comes out as normative assumptions; “white”-centrism, US-centrism, heterocentrism, cisgendered-centrism. Unconscious oppressors can often be made aware of their assumptions and may change their behaviour.

Because of her freckled face, actress and fashion model Rachel Meghan Markle could easily be mistaken for being lilly white. But the star, who currently plays Rachel Zane on the USA legal drama Suits, is the offspring of an African-American mother and a Dutch and Irish father.

Because of her freckled face, actress and fashion model Rachel Meghan Markle could easily be mistaken for being lilly white. But the star, who currently plays Rachel Zane on the USA legal drama Suits, is the offspring of an African-American mother and a Dutch and Irish father.

It is also important to recognise that while certain classes exist sociologically, or legally, the reality is highly subject to appearance. Where there is social inequality, “passability” matters. “Passing” is a term used by African-Americans during the period where race and miscegenation laws applied. It meant someone technically classed as “black” (one drop of coloured blood) appeared “white”, and could function as “white” in society. In many ways, it meant that in spite of being legally “black”, these people in the US had access to “white privilege”. Likewise, in the pre-stonewall era bars for queer people (as a designator, not an identity) were mainly refuges for those who really didn’t/couldn’t “pass” well as straight, and faced social, physical, and legal oppression. Other gays and lesbians could “pass”, and had “heterosexual privilege”, although that creates its own form of internalised oppression. Today, homosexuality is more accepted, but people who don’t pass as straight still have a harder time, and today “twinks” (slight, effeminate gay men) face a certain amount of discrimination, even in the gay male scene, while very masculine looking women have a mixed reception everywhere.

We should also be aware of the inverse of “passing”, where some people are judged on appearance and perceived to belong to marginalised groups subject to discrimination. A small, slight man seen as effeminate may be perceived as “gay”, and subject to assault and discrimination as gay, even if they are straight. People who are Jewish, Romany, Southern Mediterranean, or Levantine Christians and some Latin Americans are often subject to discrimination as Muslims in several countries due to the prevalence of Islamophobia propaganda.

It irritates me greatly when someone who is “white”, or certainly passable as “white” and therefore has “white privilege”, as well as being a highly educated professional, leads the charge pointing fingers at others for “white privilege”. It is ironic, and seems fairly hypocritical when their attack seems to be only based on claims some other person has “white privilege”, and doesn’t raise raise race as an issue in their vegan advocacy, and then the conclusion is that they are “obviously” racist. Such irrational assumption is like assuming anyone who calls the attacker on this behaviour is white, without bothering to check. That is demeaning, as some people of colour have rhetorical ethics and may simply disagree with the attacker, may not believe that not continually raising race as an issue makes a person racist.

Final Thoughts

Intersectionality, the way different forms of oppression interact for groups of people, has its place, and is a valuable tool sociologically. It is also something that should inform our understanding of social movements, including veganism.

ChickenfaceVeganism, however, is not about oppression of humans. It is oppression by humans of non-humans, and that oppression is practised regardless of most human social divisions. Vegan advocacy should therefore be taken as statements about human oppression of other animals. Unless the advocate makes their statement somehow about sub-groups of humans, their membership or non-membership of any human group should be taken as irrelevant. Unless the advocate makes racist, sexist or other discriminatory remarks, attacking them on the basis of their race or gender is an ad hominem attack.

Essentially, unless shown otherwise, we should treat other vegan advocates as acting in good faith. There are few enough of us. Abolitionist vegans, like other groups of people, can form groups capable of attacking someone nominated as “victim” and ganging up, attacking them to make themselves feel better or part of a group. Even high-profile abolitionist vegan advocates are sometimes guilty of this. This is bad behaviour even among adolescents, and clearly adults (and many adolescents) know better. Before joining in such an attack, vegans should consider:

  • Has the person actually done anything wrong? Has that been identified?
  • Are you making the critique/attack against the behaviour, or the person?
  • Is the reason for attack clear?
  • Does the person attacked have a real ability to reply, put their side of the story, state their intentions, or is that seen as irrelevant?
  • Is the intention to shame, ostracise, or drive the person away, or to educate them? Is the attack/critique appropriate to the intention?
  • Will the attack help advance abolitionist veganism, or will it make the movement weaker by alienating advocates and people considering veganism?

Veganism is an aspect of non-violence, and part of the non-violence movement. Non-violence should guide our actions, including those with one another. It is also part of the social-justice movement, addressing one of the greatest forms of oppression humans commit. We should not forget other aspects of oppression, that of humans against other humans, and if we support justice, we should oppose other forms of oppression, even if veganism is our central focus. Minimally, this means being aware, and not contributing or supporting other forms of oppression with our words and actions. It should include, at least, liking other people’s posts against other forms of oppression, even if one does not include those issues in one’s own posts.

If we look at issues in the human world, the two biggest issues are the general destruction of the global environment, and the wars of aggression, mainly focussed currently on Islamic-majority nations, and fuelled by a steady stream of propaganda designed to foment hatred of Muslims and Islam. In the last 13 years, it has been used to justify invasion after invasion, bombing, drone and other assassinations, killing of civilians on a huge scale, interference with other governments and the process of democracy, as well as creating environments of fear and discrimination in many “developed” nations, This fear has further been used to erode civil and legal rights in home countries, and to support the militarisation of police, leading to race-based murder and violations, not only against “middle-eastern looking” people, but against African-American and other minorities. If people are really interested in intersectionality and ending human-on-human oppression, it seems to me that sexism in developed countries might be less urgent (and I say this as a woman) than wholesale slaughter of people, men, women, and children, in Gaza, Afghanistan, Yeman, Syria, and Iraq and the culture of hatred that supports this destruction.

Overall, the call to end racism and sexism is important, as is the call to end the massive skewing of wealth and power under capitalism. However, it cannot be pursued at the expense of veganism, or oppression of other animals will never end. Again and again, I’ve seen people say “veganism is a result of capitalism, we need to stop capitalism first.” The same applies to other massive systemic forms of discrimination, racism and sexism being two of the largest. But when that is seen as precursor to veganism, I think we need to see it as yet another excuse. Ending war, sexism, racism, oligopoly is important but change will only happen when society as a whole is affected. Veganism is something we can do now, and convince others to do now. It will only result in large social change when there are enough of us, but every single vegan has an impact on how many deaths occur, and it is something we can all do, right now.

Veganism is not the only issue in the world. But it is a worthwhile issue, and an such a fundamental issue of oppression that, if incorporated as ethics, it should inform our actions in relation to all other forms of oppression. It does not need to wait for any other social movement to succeed. It does not need to be exclusive, and we can certainly support other struggles against oppression at the same time, without talking about all of them every time we open our mouths. Veganism is not an umbrella issue, and should not be forced to include all other issues. Other issues lie parallel to veganism. Veganism is not the province of any race. Just because a majority of online vegans are “white”, that does not make it a “white” issue. I’d guess the majority of people commenting on police killings in the US are also “white”, even though the victims are generally “black”. I’d guess that’s an artefact of internet participation and availability of time, …and it’s changing.

There are few enough abolitionists that we really should do something other than try and tear each other down. Unless someone is genuinely actually making a racist of sexist remark, there is no reason to assume racism or sexism. We rarely know the reality of each other’s lives. Assumption will almost always lead to mistakes.

The qualities of good communication include first, listening, then addressing what is said, then listening again. Accusation, blame, and shaming are not helpful, especially where they are not based on anything real. Disagreement does not make another wrong.

I look at this issue, the current scurrying to shame abolitionist vegan advocates as racist, with dismay. The promotion of the idea that there are “exceptional” circumstances for people of colour, and that it is racist not to address these circumstances, is not helpful, …and I think it holds a certain contempt for people of colour. The issues of veganism are not different for people of colour. Our thinking is not different. We either recognise the autonomy, the moral personhood, of other animals, and respect them enough not to use them as things, or we don’t. There are no “special” economies for people of colour. Plant-based diets are cheap diets, and traditionally the diets of the poor. There are no “special” cultural conditions for people of colour in most parts of this global consumer world. “Cultural foods” may differ, but all cultures traditionally use animal products. It’s not different if your “traditional” diet is goanna, or yak, sashimi, dog, or “bacon”. Veganism represents a change for us all.

Lets work together, and change the world.

End of Part I

I notice that Corey Wrenn has just written a blog on intersectionality and veganism. Since it exemplifies some of what I’m talking about, I’ll write a response, parsing that, and responding, as Part II

Veganism: What and Why.


Why veganism? This is a basic question, though for a vegan the answer may seem obvious. We should be vegan for the same reason we don’t treat others like objects. We don’t see a person with long hair that we like, and just walk up and cut their hair off, put it in a bag, and walk away, because we like their hair and want it. We don’t cut off the foot of someone to use as a humorous interesting door-stop. We don’t see a child and tie it up, thinking it could be useful later, and work on breeding imprisoned children to make them more useful and compliant. At least most of us don’t, and we see those who do as criminal, evil, warped.

Why not? Because we see other people as like us. From childhood, we grow in an environment where our mother, our family, treat us as people, as autonomous beings, and we treat them that way. It’s natural. It takes ideology, pathology, or an egocentric hardening of emotion to develop the callus to allow us to treat other people as if they don’t matter. Not only do we grow up with the notion that other people are beings like us, and so not to be treated as objects, but we also, in childhood, generally recognise that other animals are also like us. They respond to us. They may threaten. They may befriend. They generally have their own agendas, and our interactions are negotiated. We can develop trust for each other, ourselves and other animals, or develop fear, but clearly it is interaction, and there is a mutuality, at least with other mammals. Children know that there is a difference between a cat and a chair. It’s instinctive. We recognise one another on a basic biological level. We are all animals. It is likely that the recognition is evolutionary. A bonobo recognises that a lion, or a wildebeast, is someone that must be considered, respected, another active agent in the sphere of life.

swing1Although individually our minds can help us see past this, as a species, our minds, our highly vaunted intellectual ability, seems to allow us to dissociate from the rest of life, and see ourselves as special and different, which of course makes everything else “other” to our “us”. We start to see “animals” and “humans” as if they are different things. To see nature and “civilisation” as different, and opposed, spheres. We find we can control and use, and we develop ideologies that justify and normalise control and use. But really, somewhere in our biological roots, we have the recognition that other animals are animals, like we are. There is an equivalence, an equity between us.

Veganism comes from that place. It is an evolved view, that recognises that we have no right to use each other, and that extends to our fellow animals. We don’t need to do so. There is no real excuse for ignoring their autonomy, their right to live their lives, to have their own agenda. Animals may sometimes kill one another, but we don’t need to kill, and have a sufficient ability to judge and choose, so that we have no real excuse to kill. We have no excuse for using them, as objects, as “resources”, as “property”.

gibbon-swingingIt is possible to impose our will on other people. It is possible to create social structures where we can claim we own other people, and we have done so, compelling people to do this or that. But it is not, actually, possible to own another, to make their will completely subordinate. It is like the way using fear can stop people from speaking certain things in public, but cannot stop people from thinking or feeling those things in their own minds. Likewise, we can create social structures that let us “own” other animals, but ultimately, they belong only to themselves. We can force their actions, we can condition them, but ultimately we cannot make their will really subordinate to ours. We can only dominate by continuous efforts for control.

Veganism is the recognition that our fellow animals are autonomous, and that our attempts to control, use, dominate them is a form of violence. Veganism is the viewpoint that this is unethical, and abhorrent. It is, therefore, our decision not to use fellow animals for food, clothing, entertainment or any other purpose, and not to kill them as “pests” when their existence is in some way inconvenient. It is a way of seeing the world, where certain actions are just not contemplated. Not using or harming them is not denial, any more than we feel not robbing and killing our neighbours is a form of denial.

Becoming vegan, for most of us unlucky enough to have been raised in a speciesist world, is a slow process of accretive change in understanding, followed by a sudden moment of metanoia, change of mind, when our view alters, and everything lines up differently. The elements that build to that sudden change are different for each of us. They may involve experience of caring for a member of another species, they may involve eating certain diets, they may involve organisations, they may involve realisation of the immense cost animal industries impose on the planet, they may involve horror when we cause death to fellow animals and recognise that they are not unlike us. There can be many factors. none of them is sufficient in itself, or indespensibile. But becoming vegan is, ultimately, a sort of waking up.

Veganism, as an ethical precept, is something that creates a certain mindset. It changes our relationship with our fellow animals. It makes us aware of many of the things humans do to our fellow animals: the way we distort their lives; the way we don’t consider our actions where their lives and well being are concerned; the way we put our trivial wants above their lives. And in separating from this violence, it lets us live in a different peace, with a loving and harmonious attitude towards other animals, human or non-human. We become part of a greater community, as when we go beyond the divisions that separate people; race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality; and see that we are all essentially the same. Vegans see that all we animals are essentially the same. It is a harmony with the world.

cowThe practice of veganism, as a way of life, also has an impact. Thinking about what we eat, caring about what we use and do, taking care to drive so that we don’t hit animals, saving a fly, helping them return outside when they are trapped in the house, all these ways of acting and seeing change our consciousness. We become more aware of ourselves, and of the life around us. We pay attention. We live a positive attitude toward other life.

Very simply, veganism is a way of seeing and acting. It is a way that values our fellow animals. It is a way that seeks to avoid harm. Put as a formula for others to understand, it is a decision “not to use other animals for food, clothing, entertainment, or any other purpose.” It also generally means making efforts not to harm, and to avoid doing things that will cause harm to fellow animals.

People sometimes wonder about phrasing; “Other animals”, “non-human animals”, etc. Why not just use “animals”? The reason is that we are conditioned to think animals are “other” and we are something different. “Non-human animals” is used to remind us that we are animals, human animals. “Other animals” is also used that way, without the division human/non-human. Instead it is “us-animals/other-animals”. Personally, I think I like “fellow animals” – more unitive than divisive. But I may use any of the terms, for variety, nuance, or flow of language.

SONY DSCWhat veganism is NOT is a diet. Vegans eat a plant-based diet, and might use language casually, “Is that curry vegan?” But veganism is an ethic, not a diet. Precisely speaking, the curry is “OK for vegans”, it is not “a vegan curry”. “The curry is vegan” is just a short, imprecise way of speaking. It’s something I try to watch, since talking about a “vegan curry” reinforces the notion that veganism is a diet, and that’s not what veganism is.

Veganism is first, a recognition that all our fellow animals have as much right to be here, and to have autonomy, as we do, and that it is wrong to use them, or harm them. They are not “ours” and can never be, any more than a child is “ours” in some sense of property or something to be completely controlled. Beyond that, veganism is the essence of Ahimsa. It is a deep respect for non-harm in all our actions. Ultimately, it is a position that embraces unity and harmony with all other animals.feedlot

Veganism is often conflated with diet. This is because our biggest use of our fellow animals is as food, not because we need to eat them, but today, purely as stimulants to taste, for our sensory pleasure. But using them as food is not our only violation of animals. We also wear their skins, their hair, on our bodies. Again, there is no need to do so, especially today. And there is no real difference between wearing someone’s scraped skin (leather), someone’s unscraped skin (fur), or someone’s hair (wool). It all comes from a disregard of others, it all comes from practices that involve imprisoning our fellow animals, controlling their lives, breeding them to distort their forms in ways making our use easier, or “better” (for us) in some way. It all involves killing, at some stage. Vegans don’t wear other people’s body parts. We don’t imprison our fellow animals, forcing them to do “tricks” for our amusement. Vegans don’t use our fellow animals as living lawnmowers, we don’t make them aggressive, as “guards”. Vegans don’t divide up the world into “useful” animals, “pests” we try to destroy, and “wild” animals that are mostly irrelevant, but of a small value to some of us because they are attractive or interesting in some way.

Vegans know we are animals, and have no more right to be in the world, or control others, than any other animal. We try to live at peace with each other, because we can. It’s a better way to live, and living as if we are separate, and lords of creation, and everything else is ours to use creates huge harm. We don’t believe we can cause such harm and continue to call ourselves ethical beings. That’s why we’re vegan. That’s what being vegan means.


America, Food Deserts, and Abolitionist Veganism.


Gobi Desert- Southern Asia
Gobi Desert

Over the last few years, I’ve seen people claim that veganism is difficult, because having a plant-based diet is hard to do in a “food desert” and use this as an excuse for not going vegan. Issues of class and race are raised as barriers to veganism, and “food deserts” are brought up in this context. Some people ( in coloured and low income communities) are said to  live in “food deserts”, and the lack of food availability raised as reasons why a plant-based diet is difficult for the poor, and for people of colour. While the rationale for this difficulty is generally ineveganxplicit, my understanding is that it is based primarily on the situation in the urban US. When queried, someone who frequently brings up “food deserts”, and the barrier of race and class, suggested those who question go to this site: http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/ for explanations.

Before I go on, I’ll remind people that veganism is not a diet, it is an ethical position regarding the treatment of animals as property, objects, or resources. When food, and limits around food, are discussed, the discussion is not about the ethical understanding that it is wrong to use other non-human animals, it is about the pros, cons, and “difficulty” of a plant-based diet. The “food desert” issue is basically claiming that people cannot make that ethical commitment (or that it is especially difficult) because it is hard for people in “food deserts” to adopt a plant-based diet.

While “food deserts” certainly sound dramatic, I believe it is worthwhile looking at what, exactly, constitutes a “food desert” and the context in which the idea of “food deserts” arose. I’ve heard the term originated in the UK (around 1995), but the discussions seems to mainly be very US-centric. It is about government policy, and mainly relates to human health, and is a way to try and explain why people eat fast food and become obese. It focuses on obesity-related heath costs, and reducing those costs to the government. It makes some assumptions:


From the film, “Precious”

  • That it is poor people who become obese. (Never seen any fat rich people?)
  • That it is coloured (especially “black”) people who become obese. (No fat poor white folks?)
  • That obesity occurs through eating fast food and junk food. (Remembering “Roseanne” and the macaroni-and-cheese or meatloaf for nearly all meals)
  • That people eat fast food and junk food because they can’t get “good” food.
  • That “good” food comes from supermarkets, the bigger the better (Transnational corporate supermarkets provide the best food).

These assumptions are not particularly good. There are statistics that show correlation between poor urban neighbourhoods and obesity. They also show correlation to high levels of ethnic minorities, and correlation to fewer supermarkets and lower car ownership. I’m sure if you looked, it would also show correlation of “food deserts” to higher crime rates, higher levels of single parent families, higher levels of conviction for drug use, lower levels of education, and higher levels of immigration. …Which goes to show correlation does not imply causality. Some points to look at would be:

  • How many people have multiple poorly-paid jobs, and so turn to fast food as an easy option to feed their family.
  • How many people live in flats with poor (or no) cooking facilities, and so junk food or takeaway is a non-cooking option?
  • How many people spend a lot of time away from home, on the street or at work, so turn to convenience food as a pre-prepared option?

Southside, Chicago,

The notion of a “food desert” today is mainly seen today as part of US food policy. It is an aspect of US health policy, designed to look at tools to reduce obesity-related illness and the massive economic costs of poor diet in the US. It is also part of ongoing reviews of welfare and the food stamp (now SNAP) policies.

What is a Food Desert


So, what is a “Food Desert”? Instinctively, we think of areas where food is not available, e.g. real deserts, the Sahara, the Gobi, the Australian Central Desert, or in vegan terms, inhospitable areas where there is little vegetation edible to humans, like the Arctic. We generally don’t immediately think of US cities. But it is primarily US urban areas that are meant.

Here is a reference to food deserts from the Food Empowerment Project (FEP) site:

Food deserts can be described as geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance. For instance, according to a report prepared for Congress by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, about 2.3 million people (or 2.2 percent of all US households) live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car.

From: http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/

The site is has good and interesting treatment of food inequality, as part of general social inequality in the US, and racial inequality in specific. The same page continues:

The other defining characteristic of food deserts is socio-economic: that is, they are most commonly found in communities of color and low-income areas (where many people don’t have cars),

Although the FEP site is vegan, and promotes ethical veganism, in terms of arguments about veganism, it is worth pointing out that the central issue with food deserts in most of the literature is not whether food is animal-based, or plant-based, but whether nutritious food is available. This is also the case on the FEP “food desert” page, though it re-phrases the focus to the availability of healthy food, and specifically fruit and vegetables. Absence of vegetables and fruit affect both vegans and non-vegans. But access to fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables is a complex issue. It should be noted that “seasonal fruit” may be available in late spring through autumn, but is generally unavailable the rest of the year, and traditional societies stored or preserved fruit for later consumption. Likewise, many vegetables have fairly short seasons, and must be preserved or stored for later consumption. Modern supermarkets ship “fresh” produce from global sources, but there are issues of storage that lead to picking produce unripe and gas-ripening, breeding and genetic engineering for “storability”, as well as environmental impacts of long transport lines. There are issues of diminished nutritional quality in modern produce distribution. One result of this is that fruit and vegetables in supermarkets are rarely fresh, and availability has no relation to local season. Instead, we get tasteless products that lack food value, imported from the other side of the world, and stored, often for considerable time, before being artificially ripened. So “healthy” and “access to supermarket produce” are not necessarily equivalent.

The nutrient value of “fresh” vs canned, frozen, or preserved food is also not necessarily greater. Globally many people eat plant-based diets with minimal fresh vegetables and fruit, which are often luxuries, seasonal, and eaten through the year as dried foods or preserves. An example of preserved food use is the ristra of chillies often seen in Hispanic homes, kimchi and other pickles common in Asian cooking, chutneys in Indian food, things like dried mushrooms in Chinese cooking, and tomato preserves, including tomato paste, sauces, and pickles in Italian cuisine. Fresh seasonal local vegetables are wonderful, but people dependant on local agriculture make do without them much of the year.

While access to “healthy” fresh fruit and vegetables is background to the “food desert” issue used by the FEP, it is interesting to actually look at the USDA Economic Research Service report, Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences, (June 2009) referred to by on the FEP site. It is one of the primary sources for “food desert” policy and research.


The purpose of the paper is given as:

Increases in obesity and diet-related diseases are major public health problems. These problems may be worse in some U.S. communities because access to affordable and nutritious foods is difficult. Previous studies suggest that some areas and households have easier access to fast food restaurants and convenience stores but limited access to supermarkets. Limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious food may be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, to obesity and diet-related diseases.

In other words, it is related to reducing obesity and diet-related disease, and linking those conditions to fast and junk food.

Then we get to the definition of the ambit of concern:
Access to a supermarket or large grocery store is a problem for a small percentage of households. Results indicate that some consumers are constrained in their ability to access affordable nutritious food because they live far from a supermarket or large grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation. Three pieces of evidence corroborate this conclusion:

  • Of all households in the United States, 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. An additional 3.4 million households, or 3.2 percent of all households, live between one-half to 1 mile and do not have access to a vehicle.
  • Area-based measures of access show that 23.5 million people live in low-income areas (areas where more than 40 percent of the population has income at or below 200 percent of Federal poverty thresholds) that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. However, not all of these 23.5 million people have low income. If estimates are restricted to consider only low-income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket.
  • Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling (sic) to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes). However, 93 percent of those who live in low-income areas with limited access traveled (sic) to the grocery store in a vehicle they or another household member drove. These distance and time-based measures are national estimates that do not consider differences between rural and urban areas in terms of distance, travel patterns, and retail market coverage.

So, a “food desert” seems to be any low-income area where the closest large grocery store is over a mile away. The time required to go to a grocery store is on average 4.5 minutes longer than for most people. Particularly at issue are those without cars. The point of the paper is access to nutritious food. Still, this definition looks solely at large grocery stores and chain supermarkets. It does not look at small grocers, local produce shops, or other food sources on the assumption that these will be more expensive, and the primary concern is for cheap food with reasonable variety,. A further assumption is that availability will translate into buying practice, and when confronted with all the choice, good and bad, of a supermarket, more nutritious food will be purchased. It does not look at the quality of supermarket food, on the assumption that the diversity available will mean there is some nutritious food. The report is explicit on some limitations of this approach:

Supermarkets are not the only sources of healthy and affordable foods. Many smaller scale sources may be used by those who are underserved by supermarkets. However, a complete assessment of the food environment of every area in the United States is an enormous task that is beyond the scope of this study.


But focusing only on supermarkets and larger grocery stores is likely to underestimate the availability of healthy foods since some of these foods are also available at small grocery stores, convenience stores, There is also some evidence of substitutability in stores—that is, areas without large chain supermarkets are often served with independent, and often smaller, grocery stores (Neckerman et al., 2009; Powell, 2009). These smaller stores may have adequate and affordable food choices, so that in ignoring them, researchers may underestimate the food that is available in those areas.

The report also mentions the limitation of using distance from home as a measure:

Distance is almost always measured as distance from a residential area to a store, assuming home-to-store travel is the way most people access supermarkets. But people do not just travel from home to store. They travel to work, school, church, and beyond and often purchase food on the way. Using an access measure that only considers distance from home is likely to underestimate the options available for food shopping.

It does not look at cultural factors that lead people to eat fast food meals, instead of making a meal from ingredients. It does, however, note this.

Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity. Many studies find a correlation between limited food access and lower intake of nutritious foods. Data and methods used in these studies, however, are not sufficiently robust to establish a causal link between access and nutritional outcomes. That is, other explanations cannot be eliminated as the cause of lower intake. A few studies have examined food intake before and after healthy food options become available (either within existing stores or because new stores opened). The findings are mixed—some show a small but positive increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, while others show no effect.

The causal pathways linking limited access to nutritious food to measures of overweight like Body Mass Index (BMI) and obesity are not well understood. Several studies find that proximity of fast food restaurants and supermarkets are correlated with BMI and obesity. But increased consumption of such healthy foods as fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, or whole grains does not necessarily lead to lower BMI. Consumers may not substitute away from less healthy foods when they increase their consumption of healthy foods. Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in BMI and obesity.

In other words, access to more food does not translate into better eating, “The findings are mixed—some show a small but positive increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, while others show no effect.” While availability is a factor, consumer habit and preference are dominant.

Potential access shows where consumers could possibly shop, while realized access shows where consumers actually shop. A consumer that does not care to eat at fast food restaurants or convenience stores may have high access to these stores but may pass by them on the way to a supermarket that is farther away. And even if the concentration of convenience stores is higher in some neighborhoods, most of the food shopping could be conducted at larger supermarkets. For example, Broda et al. (forthcoming) find that compared with higher income families, low-income families spend slightly more of their food budget at convenience stores, which offer prices that are, on average, greater than those in traditional grocery stores. However, the study also found that compared with higher income families, low-income families spend a greater share of total expenditures at supercenters, where lower prices almost completely offset the higher prices at convenience stores. To further illustrate this point, data show that, on average, SNAP participants lived 1.8 miles from the nearest supermarket but traveled 4.9 miles to the foodstore they most often used (Cole, 1997).

This indicates that people in the “food deserts” studies do travel. Poverty is not a complete determinant of behaviour though it may limit choices, but in general, people, particularly poorer people, will do what they must to maximise their options. Greater travel time, rather than eating fast food, is often the outcome of the need to save money. The major determinant of whether people eat a healthy diet or become obese is nutritional habits. It is not the fact that they are 4 minutes further from a supermarket. If poverty has an impact, it may be that pasta, and other inexpensive, filling foods, are fattening and lack some of the aspects of good nutrition. Buying it cheaper at supermarkets doesn’t make it better for a person.

In July 2011, the JAMA Internal Medicine published research on the issue, “Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores: Longitudinal Associations With Diet in Young to Middle-aged Adults: The CARDIA Study”. This concluded that increasing availability of fast-food outlets increased fast food eating for low-income men. Women were not affected by that increasing availability. Increasing availability of supermarkets made no difference in diet for either sex.

fastfood_topAgain, a final note: the purpose of “food desert” studies are to investigation of factors in obesity in the US. They are mainly focused on availability of “healthy” food as opposed to “fast” food, and they often tie into issues of race, since US cities often have race-based neighbourhoods, and often these have lower income levels. They are intended as tools for government policy to determine whether ensuring there are more supermarkets will decrease obesity-related illness.

It is hypothesized that the relative lack of access to full-service grocery stores and the easier access to fast and convenience foods may be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, to obesity and other diet-related diseases.

It was this concern that led Congress, in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, (hereafter referred to as the 2008 Farm Bill) to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct a 1-year study of areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

whole foods chicagoOne conclusion we cannot draw from studies of food deserts is that veganism, an ethical position,  is more difficult for people of colour as some people claim. There are not even statements that a plant-based diet is difficult for people of colour. The issue of “food deserts”  does not impact on either a plant-based diet, or the ethical position that is veganism.

The studies focus on proximity of home to supermarkets. They do not look at proximity to grains and pulses, the basis of a plant-based diet. Since a plant-based diet is often an inexpensive diet, and a plant-baed diet, even though poor in fresh produce, is available, “food deserts” are not relevant to most potential vegans, particularly since rice, oatmeal, bread, beans and lentils are found in almost any grocery of any size. In fact, for many people of colour, local stores are more likely to have plant-based elements: tortillas, chapatis, falafels, a wider variety of rices, beans and lentils, and corn products than are found in vanilla supermarkets. We should remember that African-Americans are not the only people of colour.

An Aside

Fitzroy Crossing: local fun.

Fitzroy Crossing: local fun.

As an Australian, I look at the definition of “food deserts” and go, “What?” Many areas here have little or no access to local seasonal fruits and vegetables, although most urban centres have access to “fresh” fruit and vegies (from California, Brazil, Israel, etc, and some from around Australia). However, I’ve lived in the Kimberleys, where in spite of the fact that Kununurra is a major vegetable growing area, one can easily be in a town (Fitzroy Crossing) that is hundreds of miles from a major supermarket, and many older people and Aboriginal people have no cars. Not only that, the food that is produced regionally is shipped to Perth, and pathetic specimens comes back to the supermarket cling-wrapped on Styrofoam. Yet there are vegans there.

More recently, I lived in the NE of Tasmania, where there are many dying small towns. In ours, many people are older, and don’t drive. There is only one bus out, 5 days a week, and one in. The nearest chain supermarket is a 40 minute drive at 90kph, and the nearest general store (with a very few fresh veg,) is 5 miles away. There is no local market, in spite of the fact that Tasmania produces a lot of food. Most goes to Melbourne, across the Bass Straight, and comes back a few months later. Yet we were vegan. The notion of “food deserts” as a special problem seems very US-centric.

People work around things. We travelled about once a week, and bought a lot of tinned or dried food, beans, lentils, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, tinned corn, dried mushrooms, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, pasta. We bought what we could from the pathetic selection of vegetables (don’t talk to me about supermarket “fresh” food), and supplemented with a garden. People buy like that. We whinge about the difficulty of getting good food, but not about the difficulty of being vegan. It isn’t really harder. Fresh food and food choice was the difficulty. In the Kimberleys, and in Tasmania, people got rides with people with cars. Finding good affordable food might sometimes be difficult, but “vegan food” is just, generally, the cheaper part of ordinary food.

Food Deserts and Veganism

“Food deserts are” not related to veganism, or even a plant-based diet, in any of the literature the vegan academic who pointed to it refers to. The FEP page http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/ talks about access to healthy food, not access to “vegan food”. They don’t present veganism as anything particularly more difficult as people who point to “food deserts” as an obstruction claim..

In any case, while racial and sub-racial culture may play a role, poor diet is more than racial. If a person in a “food desert” wants to be vegan, there are usually many options for a plant-based diet in terms of beans, pulses, and grains. Most such food is less expensive than animal products, and generally cheaper than fast food. Can one eat a really healthy diet with limited access to fruit and vegetables? Possibly not, but that is so whether or not a person is vegan. Eating a plant-based diet, even if it is mainly whole grains and pulses, with additions like tomato products, onions, garlic, and chili, is likely to be healthier than eating meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, and much healthier than KFC or McDonalds.

There are three issues effectively covered by the excellent Food Empowerment Project site. The first is education about what is healthy food. This applies in all cultures and at all socio-economic levels. Well-off people who eat a lot of animal products, snack foods, expensive treats, and who don’t like vegetables and fruit, may have major health issues, regardless of their money. Poor Latino families who eat a lot of corn tortillas and beans, with lashings of vegetables and fruit, may have a fairly healthy diet. Certainly there have been other efforts (Jamie Oliver has done a number of programs), to highlight unhealthy eating, not necessarily in US ghettos. Oliver did one focussing on UK public school lunch programs, showing the abysmal eating habits of generally poor white English people. He also did a program in the Appalachians, where the issue was specifically lack of education about food and health. If we are to believe Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, not a vegan book) and others, access to good seasonal vegetables and fruits is not an issue in the area. It is about unhealthy choices

Associated with health is the second issue, whether to eat animal products. Though focusing on health, the FEP includes the ethical vegan position that using animals is wrong. But that it is probably unhealthy is really their point. If they want people to go, and stay, vegan, however, ethics, not health, should be the motive. Eating a fundamentally plant-based diet with minimal animal products is probably not worse in health terms than eating an entirely plant-based diet. The argument for veganism cannot reliably rest on health or environmental factors, although those factors exist. Veganism is more than a diet, and unless a person is vegan for ethical reasons, they have no real anchor for their veganism, and are likely to change their priorities with time.

The third issue is food availability. Availability of food is important, availability taken as both physical availability and economic availability. Clearly, in “food deserts” physical availability of fresh raw vegetables and fruit is an issue. That is an issue for vegan and non-vegan alike. Lets also remember that “food deserts” are defined in terms of access to chain supermarkets, and large grocery stores, not access to vegetables and fruit. Small fruit and vegetable shops do exist in poorer areas. There are measures some people (vegan and non-vegan) have taken, including home gardens (even if only in a windowbox), relying on extended family elsewhere, travel, and bulk buying (economically affected, but often cheaper overall, if the initial outlay can be found), buying in bulk within an extended family, community gardens, and food-buying co-ops (co-operative efforts to bulk-buy and transport). Things like food-buying co-ops can often be organised through, or by, local churches or other community centres. In my experience, there is also some variability of food availability in terms of ethnicity of areas. Hispanic areas tend to have shops /markets selling products for Hispanic foods, particularly corn flour, beans, tomatoes, sweet and hot chilis, and fresh herbs like cilantro. East Asian areas tend to have more fresh vegetables and fruit, and a much greater range of preserved foods. The fundamental thing to remember is that food availability is an issue regardless of vegan/nonvegan status. Most shops that sell food, even small groceries, sell barley, oats, flour, beans, lentils and split peas, potatoes, onions, garlic, and at least tins of baked beans, corn, diced tomatoes, and tomato paste. Good plant-based food can be made from these, generally for less than animal products cost.

In claiming “food deserts” prove veganism is not easy for some races, there is a conflation of issues of race and income. (The two are related, but we must be careful where we attribute causality). It is a fact that African-Americans are disproportionately poorer and that is the reason they have more chance of living in “food deserts”. But they are living there because they are poor, not because they are “black”. The people there may be poor in large part because they are “black”, but in this case it is their poverty, not their race, that affects the availability of food. Well-off Afro-Americans live where there are supermarkets and growers markets. Even poorer Afro-Americans who don’t live in food deserts are not disadvantaged in terms of availability of supermarkets.

I’m also not sure how well this issue travels outside the US. My suspicion is that in most of the world, people, even in poor areas, have more access to fresh food, though often far less food choice. I’m almost certain poor minorities would have access to vegetables and fruit in countries like France. The concept of “food deserts” as a cause of poor diet doesn’t really apply in Australian cities, though here (as in the US) rural people, and the urban poor, may have to routinely travel many miles (generally more miles than in the US) to a supermarket. So it seems the situation is specific to the US. It is therefore less appropriate to “take to task” vegan advocates from outside the US, for not considering the impact of entrenched US racism on the socio-economic situation for people in the US.

Going Vegan is Easy?

Regarding whether saying “going vegan is easy” is racist or even classist, one would have to say it is not. Even for African-American (and other) people in the US living in “food deserts”, the issue is how “easy” it is to eat a healthy diet, not how easy it is to eat a plant-based one. Even for them, eating a poor plant-based diet is probably cheaper and easier than eating a poor omnivorous one, and probably healthier as well. It is also my experience that even in fast-food terms, in a pinch, one can get a Subway, burrito, or falafel roll that is vegan, and generally for less than the equivalent product containing animal products.

In my earlier blog, I dealt a bit with the general issue of of whether “going vegan” is easy, and won’t extensively revisit that issue. I think the main point is that in most cases, and definitely in US urban ghettos, food suitable for vegans is available, and cheaper than non-vegan food, whether animal products are in “fast food” or not.

Claiming that “black” people have some special barrier is doing a disservice to the intelligence and will of non-“whites”. (Again, I personally object to the normative use of “black” for all people with a trace of non-Northern-European blood as being essentially an imperialist “otherising” by a racist power elite.)

Also, claiming that “food deserts” particularly affect “black” people neglects Latino, Hispanic, Russian, Indian Sub-continental, East Asian, Eastern European, North African, and Middle-Eastern minorities, all of which are subject to the same economic pressures African-Americans face, and all of whom may live in “food deserts”. If we claim that their cultures are less inclined to fast-food, then we make the issue cultural, and unrelated to distance from a supermarket.

All and all, I don’t believe “food deserts” are really about veganism at all. A plant-based diet is not a special, high-cost diet. It is based on simple, inexpensive, and widely available grains and pulses instead of animal products. It is not elitist. High levels of consumption of animal products traditionally has been the province of elites, especially wealthier people of Northern European ancestry. A predominately plant-based diet is the traditional diet of the poor. If class enters the equation, plant-based food is the diet of the poor and the lower classes. So claiming “veganism is easy” is clearly not classist, or related to economic status. Of course, it isn’t always “easy”, but is virtually always “easier than we think”.

It is, of course, important to eat well. But veganism is an ethical position, not a diet. “Food deserts” are a construct of the a group reporting to the USDA, and of academics associated with that research, in an effort to reduce dietary-related disease. “Food deserts” do not mean food is unavailable, or even difficult to obtain. They mean supermarkets are not accessible from home within (on average) fifteen minutes. They are accessible (on average) only after twenty minutes. Hardly a barrier to a plant-based diet, and certainly no barrier to the ethical position that is veganism.

When people raise the issue of “food deserts” to try and tell vegan activists how difficult it is to become vegan, it should be seen as the excuse it is. It has no more substance than arguments for “cultural relativity” or that humans need meat for health. Veganism is a recognition that we have no ethical right to use other animals as instruments of our pleasure and convenience. They are not “resources”. They are not objects. They are not property. We should not use them for food, clothing, entertainment, or kill them as “pests” when we deem them inconvenient. Whether a supermarket is nearby, or whether there is easy availability of junk food and fast food doesn’t make an iota of difference to this understanding.