The Ethics, Emotion & Logic Behind Going Vegan

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The benefits of veganism have made the practice a part of our wider culture, not to mention daily menu plans. Here, we examine the ethics, emotion and logic behind this lifestyle choice.

Vegans were once seen as the extreme arm of vegetarianism, yippies to its hippies, Valerie Solanas to its Gloria Steinem. The practice of not only not eating meat (which is vegetarianism and also includes eating dairy and eggs), but not eating or wearing anything that caused harm to a living creature, including not only eggs, butter and milk but leather, wool, pearls, honey and, according to some, figs (which consume wasps when in flower form before developing into fruit) seemed, for a long time, a little extra.

Then President Clinton went vegan, which prompted a flurry of stories pointing out that, actually, so was Ellen DeGeneres and James Cromwell, Bryan Adams and “Weird Al” Yankovic, at least 10 NBA players and a whole passel of notable millennials. Even Beyoncé announced she’s going vegan for 44 days before her Coachella performance this year, the third time she’s gone temporarily vegan as a sort of cleanse. She even sells a 22-day vegan meal plan that boasts “life-changing health benefits.”

Something’s happening here. Is this a fad, like gluten-free food? A lifestyle choice, like being a goth? Or is it a moral movement? When your kid asks for meat-free meals and starts buying vinyl shoes, do you tell her to smarten up and eat her kofte or respect her decision the way you would if she were boycotting Chavez’s grapes or P.W. Botha’s lemons?

The truth is, of course, it can be any of these things. There are people who become vegans to lose weight, because lambs are cute or for less well-thought-out reasons. RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, for instance, seems to thinks it doesn’t make sense to “put dead flesh” into a “live body.”

But whether or not it’s a fad, it is most definitely a trend. In 2015, Ipsos found that millennials are twice as likely to be vegans as the general population, and that 18- to 24-year-olds are as much as 50 per cent more likely still.
It’s usually easy enough to trace the roots of fads and lifestyles (the gluten thing to a diet-book industry built on the back of a poorly done and quickly refuted study, goth to the chance intersection of post-punk rock and Bela Lugosi’s ghost). Veganism is not nearly so straightforward but, given the rapid increase in adoption rate and the potential effects on agribusiness, the environment, the culinary arts and our relationship to the animal kingdom, it’s worth a look.

Though veganism has a long history (Syrian philosopher/poet Abu al-Ala al-Maarri was advocating it as early as 1000 AD), the term “vegan” was only coined in 1944 by Englishman Donald Watson, who made it up out of the first three and last two letters of “vegetarian,” saying “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.”

Watson traced his own dietary decisions back to hearing a pig scream while being slaughtered on his uncle’s farm when he was a child, though later in life he seemed at least as interested in the health benefits – boasting at one point that he’d never taken medicine – as he was in the animal morality of it. But these remain the two biggest reasons people turn to veganism and, while both have a good deal of substance to them, they both have some problems as well.

The rise of veganism has roughly tracked with the fall of the family farm and the replacement of local and domestic supply chains with the algorithmic sophistication of today’s trade routes. Though he reacted poorly to it, Watson’s having a relative with a farm was far more common in 1944. As late as my own childhood 40 years later, I had a farming aunt and uncle who sent me out in the mornings into moist, pillowy-smelling chicken coops to reach under roosting hens for the warm eggs and I learned early to equate an empty nest with that evening’s chicken dinner.

Watson’s reaction was, I’m sure, not unique: in order to stave it off among my cousins, my Aunt Alison insisted that if the kids wanted to name the livestock, as they always did, they had to pick from a list of approved names that included Hamburger, Bacon and Lamb Chop. But it was far more common to see it as how the world went. If you were Christian, the Bible told you God had given you dominion over the animals and when those animals were tasty, well, it only stood to reason you’d eat them.

Even if you didn’t have a direct farm hookup, the grocery stores until recently had working butchers, often with carcasses hanging behind glass. Though some higher-end ones still do, for the past couple of decades, as those millennials were growing up, the Metros and Safeways and No Frills have outsourced the butchering or at least keep it behind closed doors, showing shoppers only the tidy, bloodless portions pressed between Styrofoam and plastic wrap. The age of the tidy portion was preceded and complemented by the age of the nugget, traced by food writer Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma to Tyson Foods’ work for McDonald’s in 1983. Both the nugget – which has roughly the same relationship to a clucking chicken as an Easter Creme Egg sundae – and the tidy portion give kids the sense that meat is like potatoes or bok choy, setting them up for the dietary equivalent of Freud’s neurosis-inducing primal scene when they first learn that beef comes from a cow and pork from a pig.

The trend has been mirrored in cities themselves, where the majority of the North American population now lives, with slaughterhouses, once in the urban industrial cores, moved out to transportation hubs well away from the general populace, like the Maple Lodge chicken slaughterhouse in Brampton, Ont. The odd throwback, like the Toronto Abatoir and Quality Meat Packer on Tecumseth Street in Toronto (which closed in 2014), has tended to produce disgust, outrage and anti-abortion-style protests, albeit from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

But it’s not just the killing and the carcasses we’re removed from these days, it’s the very concept that things not only die but are killed. The ambivalence to death that humanity has always felt is starting to harden into something very much like denial. Even as the internet has theoretically made not only the fact but actual images of death more accessible than ever, mainstream media – which, by now, has to include Google, YouTube and Instagram – are erasing them, at least from North American screens. In 1978, when Karl Wallenda, paterfamilias of the famous Flying Wallendas circus family, died doing a promo stunt in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the network evening news ran the full clip of him slipping, hanging on to the wire, losing his grip and smacking into the pavement. The footage wasn’t anomalous. Today we’d call that gratuitous, the same word we used to use for nudity before Game of Thrones and Altered Carbon. According to some etymologists, the word “obscene” derives from the ancient Greek skene, or stage, and was used for things that were kept off-stage for dramatic or technical reasons. We used to think nudity and sex were obscene and so we kept them out of frame. Now, we think death is.

Death is, of course, part of life in the most fundamental way possible, as is killing. And though it’s basic to say that killing is part of nature – birds do it, bees do it – it’s possibly even more simplistic to suggest that something so elemental could somehow be wrong. And this is where the animal-centred motivations behind veganism get fuzzy. The videos Pamela Anderson presents of horrifying treatment of battery chickens, the stories of people being arrested for trying to give pigs sweltering in the back of a truck on the way to slaughter a last sip of water are not about killing but cruelty, and less directly, bad management, cheap food, and excess.

We tend to think we need to eat whatever we want whenever we want to in whatever quantities we feel like at prices that are not only the lowest possible but slightly lower than possible. If we can get our act together, grow up, and ramp up our impulse control, the revolting scale of industrial farming, which adds ecologically disastrous methane and deforestation to the cruelty, would not be necessary.

But veganism, importantly, is not about eating cruelty-free food. If it were, vegans would presumably be in favour of hunting, which requires no animal to be bred, imprisoned or have any interaction with humans at all until the moment of its death. And if killed by a skilled hunter, that death would, moreover, involve a good deal less pain and suffering than the most probable ways the animal would otherwise die: starvation, dehydration or being consumed alive by predators.

When I phoned up vegan Dominika Piasecka to talk about hunting, she was no shades of grey.

“Veganism is a lifestyle choice that avoids harming animals in all aspects of life, such as food, clothing, entertainment and any other purpose,” she responded by email. “Vegans are thus naturally opposed to all forms of hunting.” Killing, she said later by phone, is inherently cruel, and animals that kill “don’t have the morality that we do.” I tried to stick to hunting. It’s a vital part of many cultures, including many indigenous to North America, and the moral opprobrium is unsettling. But Piasecka kept going back to industrial farming, the vegan sweet spot, saying they “reject the idea of animals being seen as products” and pointing out that “free-range, grass-fed, organic,
humanely killed – those are all tricks.” One argues cruelty in discussions of veganism; one simply states an opposition to killing. Perhaps it’s simply rhetorical experience. When Morrissey, another famous vegan, early on with the Smiths sang, “Death for no reason is murder,” he sounded more than a little fatuous. Food, even when we have other choices, is actually a pretty compelling reason.

Veganism requires death itself to be absent, but in arguing that, the organizations that represent it always take an extra step that conflates two related but different concepts – cruelty and death – in a way that appeals to ethos and pathos in order to do an end-run around logos, to use the ancient terms for ethics, emotion, and logic, the three best ways of persuading people. It’s a common strategy and an effective one; the NRA uses the same device with freedom and assault rifles.

But what if animals are not your main concern here? What if it’s your own health? Broad and long-term studies have been done, by Loma Linda University in Southern California among others, that have shown a direct relationship between veganism and good health. According to Vesanto Melina, a vegan dietician in Vancouver and co-author of Becoming Vegan, these studies have found reductions in cardiovascular disease (32 per cent), hypertension (75 per cent), Type 2 diabetes (62 per cent), cancer (16 to 19 per cent) and even cataracts (40 per cent), and that all these figures are higher among vegans than vegetarians, often significantly. And for anyone who might think veganism keeps you healthy but a little friable, she points to Olympic figure skater Meagan Duhamel, weightlifter Patrik Baboumian and those NBA players as evidence that veganism is no barrier to physical fitness at the highest levels.

One possible caveat with the Loma Linda findings, and it’s the biggest and most quoted of these studies, following tens of thousands of people over half a decade, is that all the people studied are Seventh Day Adventists. Loma Linda is a major Adventist centre, and the university is part of the church organization. There is much good to be said for their faith-based, socially networked diet that includes both vegetarianism and veganism but does not require it, and diet books are trying to capture its essence for non-believers.

However, many in the scientific community prefer what are called population-based studies that focus on people from the general population. The biggest of these was recently conducted by scientists at the University of Sydney in Australia. It followed 267,180 women and men over the age of 44 for an average of six years and found “no evidence that following a vegetarian diet, semi-vegetarian diet or a pesco-vegetarian diet has an independent protective effect on all-cause mortality.” Though the figures refer to vegetarianism rather than veganism, a 2009 Oxford University meta-study or review – an overview of scientific consensus at the time – that did include vegans came to a similar conclusion.

But even if you decide you feel better on a vegan diet, there’s the issue of our mortality. When it comes to health, we tend to prefer it with a side of longevity. We don’t want to be like Jim Fixx, popularizer of running, who was extremely healthy right up until he died of a heart attack at 52. And longevity without health is every middle-aged person’s nursing home nightmare. We want to live to be 100 and be healthy right up until the moment we drift gently off, tapping our still agile feet to some tune that was popular 84 years earlier.

According to Prof. Michel Poulain, who studies longevity at the University of Louvain in Belgium, though the secret to long life is still elusive, he is sure about the role of veganism and vegetarianism in living into extreme old age. “There is no relationship,” he says.

One of the two originators, along with writer Dan Buettner, of the concept of blue zones – which is what they’ve called five spots they discovered around the globe where people live a lot longer and a lot healthier than they do anywhere else – he says that only in one, Loma Linda as it happens, are there any people who don’t eat meat. In the others, people actually eat a little more meat than average for their respective regions.

Poulain says it’s far more likely that the eventual key to longevity will be epigenetic, genes that get activated by certain behaviours and contexts, like lifelong moderate physical activity, continual social engagement and sustained calorie restriction (i.e., eating less of everything).

Ultimately, the problem with veganism is not fuzzy thinking on animal rights. Our treatment of livestock in factory farms is very likely to be one of those things generations in the not-so-distant future see as so obviously evil that they can’t understand how their great-grandparents could have turned a blind eye. And it’s not overstated health claims, either. The fact that what health benefits there are, are as likely to be due to caloric restriction as choice of food is of little consequence.

The real trouble with veganism, at least as practised by European-descended North Americans, is that it is less philosophy than faith but won’t admit it. Philosophy is discursive, not only allowing but inviting dissent and even ambivalence. If veganism were an admitted faith, like Jainism, appealing to ultimately unprovable higher powers or deeper truths, then fine; there’s a special place in secular discourse for the faithful. But veganism, with its rhetorical elisions and in the face of contrary evidence, insists on an absolute line; its proscriptions, were they formulated in an earlier era, are perfectly suited to exclamations beginning with the words “Thou shalt not.”

So far, secular study tends to support a less emotionally and rhetorically satisfying but possibly more helpful way forward. Eat less – of everything; avoid supporting cruelty to the extent your bank account allows and come to terms with death, and killing.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2018 issue with the headline, “Man’s Dominion,” p. 46-49.