VEGANISM AND PRIVILEGE: A Polemic
WORDS: DANIEL POPE
IMAGE: KATE WEINER
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It is now a well-touted fact that the global poor will suffer the most under the effects of human-caused climate change. This is a fact that allows many to link the climate movement to social justice issues of globalized capitalism; this, in turn, can be linked to issues of structural racism and patriarchal forms of power that dominate and oppress women, queer, and trans people. The well-known-on-college-campuses vocabulary of intersectionality, which studies resonant and overlapping systems of oppression related to imbricate axes of identity, has given us an incredible tool for being able to analyze how all of these related forms of oppression reinforce one another.
A well-deserved critique has often been leveled at the animal rights/vegan movement. The movement has a class and race problem. Often animal rights activists are seen as valuing animal lives over the lives of people of color; vegans are seen as elitist, because it is a form of privilege to be able to choose one’s diet such that one only eats plant-based food. They are often seen as looking down on the less privileged for choosing the diets that they can afford. And I’m not arguing with this assessment. To an extent, it is definitely true. However, the vegans I’ve known have not operated like that. They see their choice of veganism as a means to ending the suffering of sentient beings on earth—which is the mission of any social justice movement—and not as a title by which they can shore up their self-righteous identity. In other words, their veganism is in service of animal rights/environmental justice—not the other way around.
Of course, there are assholes everywhere. Some of them must be vegans. That’s just statistical reasoning. But here’s the point: If environmental justice is a social justice issue—which it must be if we grant that the global poor will suffer disproportionately more than the global elite under the effects of climate change—then, insofar as food production contributes negatively to climate change, the elimination or improvement of that negative food production must be a social/environmental justice issue. As it turns out, animal agriculture is the number one contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. 51% of GHG comes from livestock and its byproducts. That’s more than all of the transportation in the world.
Additionally, growing feed for livestock accounts for 56% of our water consumption. 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef. 1,000 gallons is consumed to produce one gallon of milk. Animal agriculture is also the number one cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction. It takes up 45% of earth’s land, and is only projected to increase, meaning the loss of more rainforest, the consumption of more water, and the further increase of greenhouse gas emissions.
Clearly we’ve been focusing on the wrong things, because even without fossil fuels—if animal agriculture continues the way it has been progressing—we will reach our 565 gigaton CO2e limit by 2030, the number projected by climate scientists that will raise the planet’s temperature by 2 degrees Celsius, which would spell environmental disaster for the planet. Which, as we have agreed, would spell disaster for the global poor even more than for the elites. So if environmental justice is a social justice issue, and the elimination or reduction of animal agriculture is an environmental justice issue, then the elimination/reduction of animal agriculture must be a social justice issue as well.
But, of course, it is the elites that are driving production. That’s what the elites do. As usual, the negative effects of capitalism come down even more strongly on the shoulders of those whom it has already screwed over. The investment in certain modes of production of animal products—which have contributed to unimaginable suffering among animals—has made those animal products cheaper than more sustainable alternatives. This means that, if one is able to choose a plant-based vegan diet, there is a moral imperative to do so if one cares about environmental and social justice. The burden does not rest on those who cannot afford to eat this way.
That is, until they can: If demand goes up on plant-based food, investment in plant-based food production will increase, and competition will make it cheaper. The land cordoned off for animal agriculture can be reappropriated for plants, which can produce fifteen times more protein on any given area of land than animals. But the point is that the burden of making financial choices to support more environmentally-friendly food production must rest on the privileged more than others precisely because they have more influence in driving production.
Shifting the responsibility onto those who can afford it is a simple solution to ameliorate the divisive nature of animal politics. Because, clearly, the mission of animal rights is ultimately to reduce the suffering of sentient beings; this objective is identical with all other forms of social and environmental justice. Framed in this way, the influence of obstacles of class privilege in the movement can be reduced, if not eliminated. And perhaps it can eliminate the elitist image of the movement, thereby expanding its reach and inclusivity. By placing veganism as one method among others within the umbrella of animal rights, and showing how this movement is resonant with other social and environmental justice movements, we can fix the divisions in the Left that have been so destructive. This means that the equation above can be expanded. If the elimination/reduction of animal agriculture is a social justice issue and an animal rights issue, then animal rights is a social justice issue.
As it stands, being able to eat vegan is a privilege. It is because of the curious contradictions of capitalist logic that this is true. If one has this privilege, choosing not to exercise it endangers our planet and falls on the backs of the global poor. This is the bare minimum that one can do; it doesn’t even begin to enter into other discussions of how one can expand access to better resources, but only makes the most basic market argument for how this can be achieved. This doesn’t mean not to volunteer at your local Food Not Bombs! chapter, or at an urban farm, or not to find other ways to participate in food justice. This doesn’t mean that eating vegan is enough. But, if you can afford it, it’s the least you can do, and it is not insubstantial.
Facts from Cowspiracy.