Conscious Eating Conference: Putting Animals First
February 20, 2012 10 Comments
Berkeley was great. I spoke at the first annual Conscious Eating Conference, sponsored by several animal advocacy groups, and held in the Student Union. I tweaked my talk the night before to sharpen one point that I think was obscured in the original version.
Approaching vegan education through appeals to personal health and environmental improvement, I now argued, are limited. Important, but limited. By contrast, the path to permanent and ethically grounded veganism will only happen when animals themselves are placed at the center of vegan education. I love animals–and I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. We have to capitalize on this pervasive love. We have to put animals first, highlighting their sentience, sociability, intelligence, emotional lives, and sense of identity. Only when we come to appreciate why animals matter will the call of veganism have the same powerful appeal that the call for the abolitionism of slavery had for many Americans living in the antebullum United States. That’s what has to happen.
My decision to put animals first was confirmed by Karen Davis’s profoundly moving discussion of chickens. Listen to Davis discuss the complexity of chicken lives (or read her books) and you’ll never look at a chicken the same way again. “A chicken,” I say, because Davis has a remarkable way of reminding humans to look at animals as individuals (which is how they ultimately see themselves). Hopefully, if you’re thinking about keeping some chickens of your own, you won’t, as Davis–who’s president of United Poultry Concerns– makes it brutally clear that backyard birds come from breeders that epitomize all that’s wrong with industrial agriculture. And if you eat them or their eggs without reflecting on what that animal is like, then you’re simply not eating responsibly.
Re-reading this post, I’m struck by how easily it would be to mock. “Chickens! I’m sure they’re brilliant!!! I prefer them fried!!” I get this kind of thing a lot. So what. In the face of mockery we have to pursuade skeptics to do one thing and one thing only: look. Just look. Given the decency that marks the human heart, I am confident that, as more and more of us look, the appeal of veganism will spread–not because of our health or the environment (important as these factors are), but because we know it’s wrong to exploit a living being with feelings.