By Paul Berry, Executive Director
This past weekend was Brother Wolf’s third-annual Asheville VeganFest. It was also the weekend my oldest daughter Olivia graduated from high school. There was a whole bunch of emotions around it, of course. She’s a brilliant, beautiful, independent young woman, and she graduated with honors! I’m so proud of her. And as any parent would be, I’m hopeful and concerned for her future.
My wife, Tamara, and I raised both our daughters vegan from birth. Back when Olivia was born, vegan food products were rare. There was a small New Age bookstore/grocer in our neighborhood that was run by two very nice hippy ladies. Among the tarot cards and crystals, they carried one brand of tofu and one brand of plain soy milk. That was pretty much it. In those days, we ate lots of salads and fruits, lots of rice and beans, and of course, lots of french fries.
Much has changed since Olivia was born. Nowadays, you can get a variety of food products for every vegan meal from pretty much any grocery store. For breakfast, you can have vegan waffles slathered in vegan butter, even topped w/ fake fried “chik’n” strips like they do here in North Carolina. For lunch, you can have a meatless “meatball” sub with vegan marinara and vegan mayo on vegan baguette. For supper, you can have fake fried “fish” filets and “crab” cakes with side of vegan tartar sauce. And for dessert, you can have a vegan sugar cone stuffed with Ben & Jerry’s vegan version of their “Cherry Garcia” ice cream.
I’m not recommending all those processed food products; if you know me, you can tell I’ve experimented with those foods extensively. I’m just saying— you can get all those vegan food products at pretty much any grocer now. Even for the most distracted slackers, it’s never been easier to transition to a vegan diet.
So a lot has changed since Olivia was born. Vegans should be proud that they’ve inspired a thriving cottage industry for vegan food products. But market analytics reveal some disturbing trends once you dig into the numbers a bit. The Vegetarian Resource Group conducted a national Harris Poll in 2016 which found that about 1.5% of Americans now identify as vegan. There are varying statistics about how much that number has grown over the past few decades- anywhere from 0.1% to 1.0%. But near indisputable is the fact that since the mid 1970s, which many consider the beginning of the contemporary animal rights movement, the percentage of meat eaters in America has held quite steady at around 98%. Meat eaters are maybe eating less of some animals and more of others now, but the overall percentage of Americans who still eat animals hasn’t budged a bit.
You can argue it a percentage point either way, but compare meat eating to how much cigarette smoking has declined since the mid ’70s. Or better, what the No Kill movement has accomplished: since Olivia was born, about 90% less dogs and cats are killed in municipal shelters today.
Compared to the success of the No Kill movement, the vegan movement is failing miserably. Go inside the numbers a bit more, and you’ll find that the greatest gains over the past decade have been among folks transitioning to a vegan diet for health reasons- to lose weight or to protect themselves against disease. Or folks who want to protect the environment or fight climate change. Those are all great reasons to go vegan of course, but ultimately, the data reveal an unfortunate truth: folks who go vegan for health or the environment are much more likely (+80%) to go back to eating meat than those who give up eating animals for moral reasons.
After all, that’s really what the vegan movement is about— it’s about the animals; that it’s morally wrong to use them for food or any other “use”, because animals are sentient beings. Of course, a lot of meat eaters argue that we humans are animals too, and a lot of animals eat other animals, etc. It’s true, but we humans also proclaim to be “moral”, and that’s where veganism has stalled: the vegan movement has failed to effectively make the moral case against eating animals.
Most folks agree that humans do have a moral obligation to protect animals from suffering, but most all those folks still like to eat animals. How does something as trivial as our food entertainment overwhelm our moral resolve?
Arguably, the No Kill movement for dogs and cats has been so successful because activists have effectively connected for the public, that the placeable cats and dogs killed in municipal shelters for population control are no different than the ones at home on our couch— the ones we consider a part of our family.
Family is a powerful motivator. Most all folks— indeed all sentient beings— act with passion and urgency if their immediate family is ever threatened. It’s an innate, primal instinct. And it begs an obvious question: is it possible for humans to extend our concept of family to include all sentient beings?
At that New Age bookstore-grocery we used to go to, the hippy ladies had a plaque on the wall that read, “Families are like branches of a tree, we all grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.” It seemed like old hippy sentiment back then, but looking back now I can see the wisdom in it.
All species on Earth share this planet as our home. In that sense, we’re all one big family, right? Certainly all our fates are connected: anyone paying attention to the various forces of global destruction must know that we are now in a burgeoning planetary crisis:
Since Olivia was born, over half the populations of wild animals living on the earth have been lost. By the time she graduates from college, two-thirds of earth’s wildlife populations will have been lost. (Why are we animal lovers not all freaking out about that?)
Since Olivia was born, almost half the world’s rainforests have been destroyed; and half the world’s coral reefs— the “rainforests of the oceans” — have died. By the time Olivia’s children begin college, almost all the coral reefs in all the oceans of the world will have been lost.
Each successive year of Olivia’s high school career registered the hottest years on record. As she began her senior year, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere permanently passed the 400 parts per million mark for the first time in human history.
The projections on species extinction, ocean acidification, rainforest depletion, and climate change over the next few decades predict an escalating planetary crisis. At some point very soon, those of us head-down, focused so intently and passionately on our animal rescue work, must look around and ask each other, ‘What are we saving them for?’. Are we just “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” while the planet heads toward uninhabitable catastrophe?
A few weeks back, President Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, the international convention among 175 countries to mitigate global warming. To be sure, Trump’s move was meant to underscore his denial of Climate Change science. Was he wrong to do so? Hillary Clinton called Trump’s move a “historic mistake”. But is she right?
Former NASA scientist, James Hansen— considered one of the most respected climate scientists in the world– believes climate change is an imminent threat, but he says the Paris Agreement is “a fraud really, a fake.” Hansen and many others claim that since formal negotiations began in 2009, the Agreement was weakened by relentless lobbying from US Corporations and the Obama Administration.
Long story short: the Republican Party has consistently rejected Climate Change warnings, while the Democratic Party has consistently endorsed Climate Change warnings. But both parties have worked behind the scenes with US Corporations to ensure there are no meaningful mandatory reforms included in the Agreement. And while the Mainstream Media (MSM) has consistently covered the basic debate between the two parties about whether Climate Change is real, there’s been a virtual blackout by the MSM about the role of US Corporations in gutting the Agreement.
So what’s going on here? Are we letting ourselves get played by both political parties and the Mainstream Media?
It’s well documented that about 90% of the Mainstream Media, including all the major news networks and newspapers, is owned by just six corporations. On average, Americans consume five to ten hours of information “programming” every day and just 15 billionaires control almost all that information.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges describes it, the Mainstream Media “is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that is skillfully designed..to shape public opinion by creating fictional personalities and emotional responses that overwhelm reality.”
Some “reality” journalism, then, is in order. The reality is that Animal Agriculture is the single most significant contributor to Climate Change, rainforest depletion and species extinction. According to the USDA, global agriculture—dominated by livestock production and the grains grown to support it—accounts for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions; that meat and dairy consumers contribute to more greenhouse gases than all the planes, trains and automobiles in the world combined. Further, according to the World Bank, animal agriculture is responsible for nearly 90 percent of rainforest destruction. And Scientific American magazine reports that 135 species of animals, plants, and insects are lost every day due to rainforest destruction. That means about 50,000 species are sacrificed each year just to satisfy our meat and dairy habits.
Worse— by the time my daughter Olivia is my age, global meat consumption will have increased by over 70%, and global dairy consumption will have increased by almost 60% percent. Worst of all— the FAO predicts that these massive increases in demand for meat and dairy will need to be met by massive increases in the factory farming of animals.
It is impossible to exaggerate the disastrous environmental consequences of these forecasts, nor the staggering onslaught of cruelty and terror that will be unleashed by us humans upon billions and billions of sentient beings over the next few decades.
Which brings us back full circle: the contemporary vegan movement is failing the animals miserably. As the data and forecasts above suggest, the vegan movement needs a radical adjustment in activism that meets the full urgency and scale of this impending global catastrophe.
To quote Chris Hedges again, “rebellion at this moment in history is a moral act..it’s about understanding configurations of power and not being mesmerized or fooled by the massive systems of propaganda that seek to induce a collective hypnosis that blinds us to reality … The mechanisms [of our democracy] – including electoral politics- that once made reform possible, are irredeemably broken… and it calls for revolution. It calls for acts of mass, non-violent, civil disobedience..It calls for an overthrow of corporate power.”
In addition to his many accomplishments as an award-winning journalist and author, Chris Hedges is also a vegan and a parent of four children. He was one of the speakers at Asheville VeganFest last Saturday. As Chris explained in his speech, the corporatization of our democratic institutions, including the Mainstream Media, both political parties, all branches of government and our judiciary systems has crippled most all social justice movements, especially the vegan movement.
Joining Chris in a panel discussion on “Veganism and Social Justice” last Saturday was Animal Rights icon, Gary Francione. Gary is a legal scholar and Professor of Law & Philosophy at Rutgers Law School. He pioneered the “Abolitionist Approach” to animal rights which maintains that “veganism must be a moral baseline” of rational animal rights activism.
But Gary’s approach goes beyond vegan advocacy. He links the moral status of animals with “sentience alone” and thereby “rejects all forms of human discrimination which discount and devalue the interests of sentient beings”, including discrimination against other humans. Gary maintains that opposition to speciesism only makes sense “as part of a general opposition to all forms of discrimination.” He believes therefore that vegan “advocates should reject all forms of human discrimination,” such as racism, sexism, xenophobia and classism, “just as they reject speciesism.“
I believe that Gary is onto something vitally important to the urgency of our cause for the animals: he’s normalizing our cause with all social justice efforts that oppose all forms of discrimination by humans. When he says, “our opposition to speciesism requires that we oppose all forms of human discrimination,” he’s pointing the way— I believe the only way viable— for a revolutionary leap in our activism.
Indeed, if we are to wage a legitimate activism that meets the full urgency of our cause for the animals and the planet we all share, then we must exponentially expand the scale of our efforts. If we are to heed Chris Hedges’ call for “acts of mass, non-violent, civil disobedience,” sufficient to challenge the “corporate power” that has corrupted MainStream Media and both political parties, then we must find a way to radically increase our strength in numbers.
Gary Francione is pointing the way. If we can integrate with other causes that share our common morality for social justice and which seek to recover our democratic institutions, we have a real chance for r/evolutionary change.
I expect Gary and Chris might advise that a good first step is to contemplate your own personal morality about your animal activism. Then, through your own moral reasoning, study other social justice issues that resonate with you. Study the forces at work and connect your own morality to the plight of the victims involved. Get involved at any level you prefer, and be clear that your involvement is compelled by your shared values as an advocate for the animals and the earth.
One obvious choice would be the Environmental Justice movement.
In his book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges writes about Environmental Justice in exploring what he calls, “Corporate Sacrifice Zones”, which are areas of the country where corporations have plundered their host communities and corrupted local government. Such places are often “environmentally destroyed”, and the regular folks who live there are typically “trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair.”
For anyone interested, a good case-study for such a Corporate Sacrifice Zone is the area in eastern North Carolina near Smithfield Foods’ slaughter operation. The slaughter facility kills 30,000 pigs every day, 365 days per year. It’s one of the largest industrial scale slaughter facilities of its kind in the world.
The nearby hog farms which supply the pigs to Smithfield “collect billions of gallons of untreated pig feces and urine in what are essentially cesspools, then dispose of the waste by spraying it into the air.” Folks in the mostly poor, black communities in the area of the spray complain of adverse health effects and odor so bad that it limits their ability to be outdoors. They feel stuck, exploited, helpless, and defenseless against a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s a very sad but very good example of Chris’ concept of a Corporate Sacrifice Zone.
If you study this example be sure to learn the issues through the people who actually live there or through the independent activists directly engaged on their behalf. Be skeptical of coverage by Mainstream Media or even major non-profits who claim to be working on behalf these communities.
As speaker Eunice Wong explained at VeganFest last weekend, some major nonprofits who advertise as advocates for such causes, can themselves be as corporatized and corrupted as the perpetrators of injustice they claim to be organized against. Eunice was involved with the filmmakers of the groundbreaking documentary, Cowspiracy. She contributed to the companion book for that film, titled the Sustainability Secret. The film focused on the massive environmental effects of animal agriculture, including in-depth coverage of the spray fields in eastern North Carolina, mentioned above.
In Cowspiracy, [ spoiler alert! ] the filmmakers revealed that some major environmental protection groups all but ignore the majority impacts that animal agriculture has on climate change and the environment. Further, they exposed the fact that some major environmental nonprofit organizations receive huge donations from some of the biggest corporations in the Meat And Dairy industry!
Eunice also wrote the book, What The Health, which is the companion book for the documentary film of the same title. What the Health was created by the same filmmakers who did Cowspiracy. This time, filmmakers explored how a meat-based diet is the leading cause of such debilitating diseases as heart disease, breast cancer and diabetes. The film also documents how those diseases can be prevented and even reversed by transition to a vegan diet.
Similar to the Cowspiracy project, What the Health reveals that some of the major nonprofits organized to advocate for victims of those diseases outright refuse to even acknowledge that animal-based foods are a primary contributor. Worse, some refuse to acknowledge the positive effects of the vegan diet on those diseases. And [ spoiler alert! ] the big reveal is that, again, some of the largest donors to those nonprofits are some of the biggest corporations in the Meat And Dairy industry!
In addition to being an accomplished writer and vegan activist, Eunice is a classically trained actor and graduate of the Juilliard Drama School. She’s also a busy mom with two children and two step-children!
In her speech, Eunice talked passionately about her role as a mom. She talked about the moment she decided to go vegan, when she saw the scene in Cowspiracy where a dairy farmer took a newborn calf from its mother. She said as a woman and mother, that moment really affected her, seeing another mom having her newborn baby stolen from her. It was a powerful moment in Eunice’s speech, and we got lots of good feedback on it after, especially from other moms in the audience.
For her own children, Eunice explained that the vegan diet is how she gives them the best opportunity for optimal health. And it’s also a way her family can do its part in helping protect the health of the planet that her children will inherit.
My daughter Olivia was busy with graduation stuff and missed Eunice’s powerful speech. Thankfully we got it all on video! I look forward to sharing it with Olivia— both she and Eunice are artists, strong women, and vegans, a generation apart. I hope Olivia will be inspired to use her art and talents, as Eunice does, to encourage others to action for the animals and the planet.
Olivia has always been bright and self-determined, reserved but easy going. Over the years, most all her teachers have commented on how well she gets on with her classmates. She’s a generous friend, easy to talk to and a thoughtful, critical listener. She tends to focus on the best in people, almost to a fault, and is quick to forgive. But she doesn’t suffer fools— she can be tough— fool her once and you won’t fool her again. When she is working on an art project, she has intense focus, impressive stamina and work ethic. She’s got a great eye; she’s a keen observer, and that’ll serve her art well and all aspects of her life.
I’m not just being a proud papa here. If we humans are to make the revolutionary leap in progress that Chris has prescribed above, to which Gary is pointing us, and taking care to navigate the challenges and shysters that Eunice warns us about, we’ll be asking an awful lot of each other and especially Olivia’s generation. However she decides to contribute, Olivia has cultivated a great balance of creativity, compassion, cunning and stamina. She’s formidable in good measure. And if she’s representative of her generation, I’m hopeful and even looking forward to whatever’s ahead for us all.