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June 13, 2010

I had a weird experience earlier today.  Yesterday someone reiterated to me why she is a vegan after a misunderstanding over something I said.  When I got up today (I must have had some subconscious thought on the matter in my sleep) I thought about finishing/re-doing a post I’ve had saved as a draft for a year (to the date—another contributing factor to the weirdness).  I then second-guessed this urge and instead opened up my bookmarks.  In one of my feeds, posted yesterday, was a post titled “Veganism and Radical Sustainability.”1 His post is a lot better (and thorough) than the post I was going to do, so instead of doing a full post of my own I’ll post some highlights with a bit of commentary.

I was going to make a post about this because a year ago one of my friends posted this on Facebook: “[Name Removed] has a hard time listening to non-vegans talk about saving the planet.”  I was really confused by this, and offended, on some level.  My first question was simply How is veganism going to save the planet?  (Part of the reason I hesitated to post this for so long, but only part of the reason, was that I added the feed from this site to Facebook and I was afraid he’d read it, and I was being a huge pussy at the time.  I’ve since taken the feed off again, and so with little risk of him reading this, I’m free.  If he does happen to read this, I’m sure he’ll be willing to discuss the matter reasonably.  I think he’s learned his lesson and won’t jump to undue conclusions.)

If it’s not obvious, I don’t think veganism can “save the planet,” and I think the people who believe it will are, to some extent, deluded.  This is not to say that I’m viciously opposed to vegans being vegans—I’m really not opposed to them being vegans at all.  As I’ll quote in a minute, a vegan diet, are far as civilized diets go, is the most efficient and is, in some complex way, commendable.  But I’m opposed to veganism in theory, not so much in practice.  I don’t think it’s the best diet for people, and it’s definitely not going to “save the planet.”

What do I mean by ‘radical’ sustainability, and how does it relate to veganism? Radical comes from the Latin radix – root. Radical sustainability is a kind of sustainability that has deep roots. It’s not something civilized, colonized (and colonizing) people are coming up with, from the distorted vantage point of industrial life, but something that we see when we look to our indigenous heritage, into the land and the big story of who we are. It is something we can look to and see – ‘people existed here without killing the land – how did they do it?’

I make this distinction from simple ‘sustainability’ because that word alone has become meaningless. People bend it to serve their purpose – every big auto, oil, and agricultural corporation claims to have ‘sustainability’ as their primary concern. The word has been killed, it means too many things, most of which are never actually ‘sustainable’ – nourishing or maintaining life.

How does this relate to Veganism? Because, to put it simply, if we look at our roots, the life ways of our indigenous ancestors, we don’t see anything resembling a vegan diet or way of life. Traditional cultures everywhere have two qualities that exclude them from being vegan: 1 – they don’t farm, and 2 – they consume animals as food / are omnivores, be it via insects, eggs, fish, or mammals. If we really look, we’ll see that vegan ethics do not have deep roots at all.

A vegan diet, being a civilized diet, is unsustainable.  I’ve known this for a long time.

[From] In a time when population pressures have become an increasing stress on the environment, there are additional arguments for a vegan diet. The United Nations has reported that a vegan diet can feed many more people than an animal-based diet. [Emphasis Urban Scout’s.] For instance, projections have estimated that the 1992 food supply could have fed about 6.3 billion people on a purely vegetarian diet, 4.2 billion people on a 85% vegetarian diet, or 3.2 billion people on a 75% vegetarian diet.

Whoever wrote this does not understand the connection between population growth and grain production. Veganism, while addressing many of the terrible problems with animal-cruelty and pollutive factory farms, does not address the larger force that drives population growth, in fact, the diet simply adds more fuel to the population growth diet. By taking grains out of your diet you support another way of food subsistence and limit population growth. Of course, a grain-free diet will still not cease the collapse of civilization, but may actually help to induce collapse, as a collapse-free future no longer exists. I don’t want anyone to think that eating differently will “save the world” or “bring down civilization.” Changing your diet alone will not help that.2

If we broaden our concept of sustainability – if we understand that civilization, agriculture and domestication are inherently unsustainable, then veganism dissolves as any kind of solution. It is a diet that has evolved with agriculture and the most priveleged class of civilization. It does not challenge domestication, absolutely the most ‘unnatural’ aspect to our lives, and actually reinforces it strongly.

I think veganism should be defined as efficient, not sustainable. This is because within the context of civilization – which is inherently unsustainable – it is a more efficient way for humans to live. In fact I’m sure those at the top of this culture’s pyramid are aware of this – that it would be more efficient to cut the cattle out and feed all the grain and soy straight to the humans in their feedlots – and are strongly supportive of the endless sea of vegan literature.

I can already hear people saying “But Tony, you have to admit that a vegan diet is more sustainable than a diet that includes factory farmed meat.”  This is an argument that a lot of people use, and it’s usually a pretty decent one (in the situations it’s used) because when we first hear it, it makes sense.  But it has one fatal flaw: something isn’t deemed more sustainable than something else when it’s not sustainable to begin with.  The facts bear repeating: (1) Veganism is a civilized diet.  (2) Civilzation is unsustainable.  (3) Something that is unsustainable cannot work in the long term.

But what about the argument that we have a digestive system and teeth adapted to herbivory? I’m not sure how many times I have read that humans have the digestive system of a herbivore, but I am really curious how people came up with that.

Take a mammal of a similar size to us – deer. They are herbivores – they have a four chambered stomach for slowly fermenting and digesting cellulose. They regurgitate food that has been partially digested, masticate, and then swallow to continue the digestion. They lack upper incisors, and instead have a pad where we have our pearly whites (those teeth you show when you smile). Humans, on the other hand, have a single chambered stomach that food passes through quite fast, comparatively, the length of our intestinal tract being relatively similar to that of a raccoon, bear, or other omnivore. Humans can thrive on a diet of raw, unadulturated animal foods (meat, fat, organs), but many plant foods contain anti-nutrients (oxalic acid in greens, phytic acid in grains/seeds) or are simply indigestible without some kind of adulteration (cooking, fermenting, etc). Cultures that come closest to being total raw foodists also seem to have the highest concentration of animal foods (I am thinking Inuit). The reverse is true for those with more of a focus on plant foods (e.g. China). We are biologically omnivores. Sorry, it’s pretty much that straight forward. Humans thrive with plant and animal foods, that is what we have evolved to eat and need.

Our bodies have evolved to eat and process meat, but they’ve also evolved to the very act of hunting.  Compared to many other animals, humans aren’t capable of very many amazing physical feats.  If a man got in a fight with a bear (or even a chimpanzee!), he’d get his ass kicked.  If he got in a footrace with essentially any other decently-sized mammal, it will leave him in the dust.

Our real difference is bipedality, which contributes to our ability to run long distances at a slower pace.  While most animals are capable of running faster than a person, their bodies are only capable of sustaining that high-speed run for short bursts of time.  Our upright, naked body covered with sweat glands is capable of sustaining a slower run for very long distances, conserving calories and regulating body temperature.  We can chase down a group of speedy antelope for days possibly.  It goes like this: The speedy animal runs away—the people catch up.  It runs away again and the people catch up again.  Eventually, since it never had a chance to refuel, it runs out of energy and can’t run away.

(Amendment, Jun 29: I guess bipedality/upright-ness really doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with it.  Many wild dogs are also well adapted for running long distances and tiring out prey.  The sweat glands do have something to do with it, though.  I didn’t come up with this on my own, either [as if that wasn’t obvious], but I don’t know where I originally read/watched it and obviously I didn’t remember things entirely correct.  The process is the same, though: the prey animals are adapted for short bursts of speed and we’re not, so we have to chase and chase and chase and chase.  Wild cats, on the other hand, unlike dogs, are more built for stalking and ending a hunt with a quick ambush.  In other words, since we’re not the best physically adapted land animals in the world, like dogs we had to learn to outrun prey.  Other predators, like wild cats, have different strategies.)

“I would only eat meat if I killed it myself!”

This statement is one I have heard countless times from vegetarians and vegans. I often think: have you ever cleared a forest? Have you plowed a feild – taking the homes and lives of countless wild/feral creatures? While listening to your iPod (cause they do). Have you ever driven a massive combine harvester over and endless field of soy lit by your tractor’s headlights in the middle of the night?  Have you stolen food from exotic places? Why is it okay to be alienated from some foods and the pain associated with their harvest, but not others?

One of the first things you learn about vegans, upon meeting them (in my experience), is that they are vegans.  It might be on their Facebook profiles.  Personally, I find this strange.  After all, I don’t immediately explain my dietary intake, nor do most people who are other-than-vegetarian.  Sometimes upon meeting a middle-aged woman you’ll find out immediately that she’s on a diet, but rarely do people introduce themselves and explain their foods of choice or their taboos.  Vegans do, and I don’t get it.

After outing themselves, if confronted about their choice by someone who is other-than-vegetarian, they’ll often try to explain it.  If they’re being crafty, they’ll explain how meat-eating is bad, how veganism is commendable, and so on.  (If they’re being straight-forward and honest, they’ll say they don’t like the idea of eating animals.)  Often, one of the first arguments is that refusing to eat animals is better for the planet.  They might bring up global warming, but I’m not going to go into this one; nobody seems to know the real details anyway, and I’ve heard some preposterous figures and downright lies.  My favorite is that being a vegetarian for one day cuts down your carbon emissions more than riding a bike (instead of driving) for your entire life.

The next talking point is often the one that sticks: factory farms.  Factory farms are unsustainable, yes, but anyone with empathy for other creatures will hate factory farms because of what happens in factory farms.  But the reasoning isn’t usually just “Factory farms—plain and simple.”  It sounds good, but that’s not it.  And how do I know that’s not it?  Well, for some it is.  I’ve had a few non-meat-eaters tell me that they don’t have a problem with hunting.  But in my experience, most do.  Maybe it’s simply that in this culture vegans are usually left-leaning while hunters are often right-leaning, and that anything right-leaning people do is asinine and stupid and ignorant and backward and “fearful of change.”  Or maybe it’s that the left-leaning vegans have a perceived moral superiority, and that anything that causes harm to anything is bad, and anyone who is OK with anything bad is worse than bad.  Let’s just say there is a spectrum and leave it at that.

In the end, the choice to be vegan is usually a moral choice.  And this is fine.  However, I wish more people would be up-front and honest about the decision being a moral decision, because too many people make themselves look like fools trying to explain all the different reasons they are vegan when it comes down to something so simple: they don’t like the idea of killing animals.

I’m OK with the honest admission of moral reasoning, even though I don’t agree with it.  I appreciate honesty.  I’m not OK with any vegan (or non-vegan, as I’ll explain in a minute) lauding their supposed moral superiority over anyone else.  Anyone who believes himself morally superior to another believes in one universal moral code.  Anyone who believes in a universal moral code is a fool.  This is why it’s not really off the mark to say “hardcore vegan activists” (as it’s put in the video I posted above) act like “bible-thumpers”: both want to impose their superior moral code on others to make it universal.  Both are fools.

(I’ve had a funny story recounted for me second-hand a number of times.  A vegan told a friend that he’d like to own a snake.  When asked by the friend, “How would you feel about buying mice to feed the snake?  You know, being a vegan and all …” he responded that he’d be OK with it because snakes don’t have the moral knowledge to know that eating other animals is wrong.  [Insert laughs.])


Anyway, I’ve said everything I originally wanted to say.  To end, I’ll post the end of the post I began quoting.

So how do we live? What am I getting at? I have no easy answer, not for myself, not for others. Factory farming is a tragedy, the industrial food system is too – agriculture itself is unsustainable and so is veganism by association. We need to learn how to live in balance, with what our land bases want to give us – to ‘live in the hands of the gods’, as Daniel Quinn put it. This is how all creatures live, it is the way of life – but how do we realistically get there? 6 billion people cannot live as forager-hunter-gardeners. But then again, 6 billion people cannot live under industrial agriculture without killing the planet (and themselves), so that is a moot point. Like all other creatures, if we weren’t farming, our landbase would determine our population.

Really, there are no easy answers. And that’s exactly what veganism can be; something that makes us stop thinking and questioning, something that is attainable because it plays into the plans of the system. There is something beyond veganism though – beyond a diet of domestication and dogma; a place based diet. A diet based on relationship, on the realness of taking plant and animal life, for the greater good of all living things.

Notes and links

  1. Veganism and Radical Sustainablilty at
  2. Pizza Vs. Rewilding at
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonah permalink
    June 25, 2010 2:16 pm

    Yeah I couldn’t agree with you more everyvegan I have ever met wants to be patted on the head for their “progressive choices”

    • June 26, 2010 11:30 am

      I guess I could reinforce this: My problem isn’t so much with vegans as with veganism. The way the behave can annoy me, but really it’s just the expression of their theory that aggravates me.

      It might seem like common sense to ask why I’d even bother expressing my discontent with an idea. I guess my answer has to do with seeing deeper. I just saw a group/fan-page/like-page/whatever they are now on Facebook called “10,000 Strong for Lierre Kieth on the Daily Show,” and even though I know practically nothing about her, I’m not appalled by the idea of the page/group like I am with most things. She’s exposing something deeper about the truth to being a vegan: it’s not going to save the planet because it can’t—and it can’t because our method of agriculture ruins the land. That’s something people should know. She’s not just raging against her vegan past.

      For the most part I respect vegans. They realize something is terribly wrong with the world and they’re doing something about it. But their moral approach isn’t one that I think is applicable to the world, and obviously the (un-)sustainability of the diet ain’t so great either. I guess I consider myself a moral nihilist, or an amoralist, and because of this what works is what is most important to me, not what makes me feel the most peachy about the world.

  2. June 28, 2010 11:25 pm

    This is an excellent post — the combination of your own thinking and that of goingferal. Somehow it sharpens the point Lierre makes in her book. Part of that, I think, is that you hone in well on the point that “A vegan diet, being a civilized diet, is unsustainable.” That’s pretty much the bottom line if you ask me. You hear all sorts of rationalizations about permaculture being the sustainable alternative, etc. But they all fall apart on careful consideration. There’s no alternative that can match what we did for 2.5 million years during which we lived, like all other species, as contributing members of local ecosystems.

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