Conscious Eating Conference: Putting Animals First

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.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

10 Responses to Conscious Eating Conference: Putting Animals First

  1. Louisa Dell'Amico says:

    James, as much as I love your heart and mind, I disagree with you on this one. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the research indicates that the majority of people who stop eating animal products do so for their own health. This would make sense considering our own powerful instinct for survival that would take precedence over our compassion for non-human farm animals who most of us never have the chance of knowing. And considering that heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S., that’s plenty of motivation for anyone to cut back on their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
    I’ve started teaching a monthly vegan cooking class and dinner here in NH, and I’ve had several people who are obese and/or suffer from heart disease in attendance. I don’t discuss the ethics too much because I’ve been told that people don’t want to be made to “feel guilty.” So I choose to appeal to their self-interest and survival. I don’t ask people what they eat unless they bring it up.
    Second, how many people have the opportunity to “look” at a chicken…or a cow…or a pig? I live in a rural area, and the people I know who raise their own farm animals deliberately dissociate themselves from the animals by not giving them names or spending time around them. I visited a computer technician who rented an apt. at a farm that sells lamb meat, and he told me that he learned “not to get too close” to the animals. That would make sense to purposely not attach oneself to an animal that you know will soon be slaughtered.
    And although I don’t think the environmental issue is as powerful as the health arguement, I do know a woman who became vegan the day after she attended my presentation, “An Inconvenient Food,” so there are environmentalists who see the contradiction between their values and their diet and are willing to change their eating habits.
    And while I admire your optimistic view of humans and our ability to feel compassion for non-human animals, I’m afraid the current eating habits of Americans are an indication of how little compassion the majority of people actually have…especially considering all the undercover videos that keep surfacing over and over again of factory farm atrocities…and all the people who continue to eat this misery.

  2. Jamie Berger says:

    I agree that animals must be placed in the center of the discussion, but I also don’t believe that means we shouldn’t discuss the personal health and environmental reasons as well. It was mainly the environmental reasons that first persuaded me to become a vegetarian in high school, and when I recently began eating a vegan diet it was for both environmental and ethical reasons (although this time the ethical ones were the larger impetus). Animal welfare has to be the principal driving force over the long-term but I think the other approaches can be effective as well.

    One of the things that has confused me most recently is the hypocrisy of the vegetarian–but not vegan–environmentalist, animal welfare advocate, etc. We all know that dairy and eggs can be just as bad as (if not worse than) meat- both in terms of treatment of animals and impact on the environment. We could say the same for the personal health rationale as well (ice cream… butter… eggs…). I could not NOT go vegan once I realized how hypocritical and halfhearted my vegetarianism seemed. I think vegan education would be so effective if targeted at lacto-ovo vegetarians or near-vegetarians who are already motivated by health, animal welfare, or the environment. Making “vegan” the new “vegetarian” and getting rid of the arbitrary distinction between the two (not wanting to eat flesh is not an arbitrary distinction, but that isn’t a very common rationale for vegetarianism anyway) seems like a good first step to me. The vegetarian movement has a lot of momentum right now which vegan educators could capitalize on.

    Louisa, good point about many people not having the chance to “look” at a chicken. I guess that’s perhaps a conundrum of vegan education; it essentially advocates for livestock agriculture (even backyard birds) to be abolished, but agriculture, especially in a backyard or on small-scale “sustainable” farms is the only way people can come in contact with these animals, feel deep compassion for them, and truly experience their individuality. When people witness neither the animals nor their treatment (aside from on those undercover videos, which most Americans tend to avoid/are sheltered from) it’s hard to stimulate the expression of the inherent compassion that James discusses. It’s there but muted by the distance between us and our food and the extent to which the food industry is able to keep the media quiet. How do we get people close to their food while persuading them that it shouldn’t *be* food?

    • BlessUsAll says:

      A possible answer to your last question, Jamie: Perhaps a national advertising campaign bringing attention to the farmed animal sanctuaries around the country would be a way to entice people to “get close to their food” — a way to persuade them that these sweet beings shouldn’t, as you put it, *be* food.

      Who would fund such a marketing pitch? Maybe some of the bigger vegan for-profit companies would consider putting a small percentage of sales into a kitty for this purpose. Or maybe Bob Barker would put up the money, or at least match contributions.

      In 2014, Hollywood is coming out with a movie on Yvonne, a German cow who escaped from a slaughterhouse and spent 92 on the run. Michael Aufhauser, founder of Gut Aiderbichl, bought Yvonne by the pound, and brought her to the sanctuary.

      We have our share of cow heroes in the States who’ve escaped the knife, among them the Unsinkable Molly Brown (Molly B. for short), Bella, Kayli, Maxine and Wanda. No reason they can’t compete for attention and affection with the corporate chicken and pig and cow ad icons of the ag industry.

      As to James’ thesis, I agree that watching animals causes the open-minded among us to reevaluate what we’ve been told, and amend our thoughts, feelings, and actions. I believe that being just to animals and learning to love and respect them is the one motivator that keeps genuine vegans for the most part from even being tempted to revert.

  3. Keith Akers says:

    Growth in radical environmental awareness during the past five years dwarfs the growth in ethical awareness of animals during the past century. Think “climate change” and “peak oil,” rather than “save the whales.” Vegans risk being left behind in this surge of awareness.

    An existential threat will trump an ethical issue any day. The extinction of all life on earth due to global warming is, uh, an existential threat (and, might I point out, will harm countless animals).
    We need all the arguments, and ethics is the “clincher” for many people, but the environmental issue is indispensable to our case.

  4. There is a fourth reason to become a vegan, in addition to health, animal welfare, and environmental considerations. The fourth reason, which encompasses the other three, is the vegan ideal that is clearly expressed in the Jewish and Christian Bible.

    The Beet-Eating Heeb will be exploring vegan theology in detail in future posts.

  5. Provoked says:

    I dislike the idea that the animal’s interests will take a back seat to other environmental/health motivations. But I think it’s inevitable. At least that’s been what I’ve found discussing the issues with others. It’s always health first… Most recently the troubles with antibiotic resistance. A few years ago it was animal cloning… And there is the ever constant diet-weight-loss prize. Add the environment and sustainability issues and there certainly is a lot of material to cloud and delay the real justice issues.

    It would be great to see some positive interactions with these invisible animals. There are certainly enough negative ones at county fairs and animal ag expos where they are displayed in the most superficial ways – As things… Usually, they are exhausted from the break in routine and from being hauled – goodness knows how far. Then they are confined and “exhibited”. The signs around the pens confirms “other”. It would take a very perceptive person to see through the commodity to the being.

    So what if sanctuaries could travel to the schools and events as well as inviting the public to them? I’m sure there are logistics to overcome… And it might be difficult on some of the larger animals – But birds might be great ambassadors to start. It’s a thought…

    And one tiny mention about “chicken keeping” – The exception to the rule would be to adopt and rescue! If anyone has room on their property and love in their hearts – There are many, many birds who would be grateful for the home. And they will enrich your life in amazing ways you can’t imagine. Those who mock or only see the “fried” version of these special creatures are just the typical pragmatist… They fail any test of emotional depth. Sadly one needs more than a pulse for conscious eating.

    • BlessUsAll says:

      “Sadly, one needs more than a pulse for conscious eating.”

      Love it!

      Yes, more than a physical pulse; one needs a courageous heart and an unselfish mind — and I don’t mean “The Mindful Carnivore” version:

    • Jamie Berger says:

      I’ve been wondering about that last part, Provoked, is it wrong to eat the eggs (or milk) of rescued animals? What do farm animal rescue organizations do with them? The cows will go dry but what about the hens’ eggs?

      Cruelty at county fairs is blatant and shocking… I can’t believe there isn’t more focus on these. You’re right- it’s the one place people get to “interact” with farm animals and they’re exhibited like objects.

  6. Provoked says:

    Hi Jamie – I think you’ll find most sanctuaries and vegans feed the eggs back to the hens and other feathered residents. They love eating their own eggs – any which-way they’re served. 😉

  7. Joanna Lucas says:

    James, I agree 100%: “the path to permanent and ethically grounded veganism will only happen when animals themselves are placed at the center of vegan education.” Other angles—health, the environment, even world hunger—although important in their own right, do nothing to challenge and change the speciesist paradigm that created and perpetuated the problem in the first place; if anything, they reinforce it. So, yes, *looking* at a fellow animal is the foundation of becoming vegan, and the key to lasting change.

    However, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to meet the individual chickens, pigs, cows, etc face to face in order to appreciate them as the extraordinary persons they are, any more than it was/is necessary for people to meet elephants, gorillas or dolphins in person in order to get to know, love and want to protect them. In fact, I’d say that it’s almost preferable for most people to begin by reading stories, or watching films that convey the inner lives of other animals with insight, understanding and respect, before meeting the animals in person because, in this way, they are better equipped to replace the master gaze with the fellow-citizen gaze. I say this because I am always astonished to see how many of the Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary visitors (even vegans) who come to meet the animal refugees, fail to see the individuals for the forest of their own speciesist assumptions, and need to be “taught” how to look at *this* chicken (not a chicken), *this* cow (not a cow), *this* pig, (not a pig). So I believe it’s important for vegan advocates to (learn how to) present farmed animals as the complex persons they are, not just the suffering bodies they appear to be in undercover videos, but individuals with complex emotions, deep and lasting attachments, and, as one learns from knowing sanctuary animals, unique ways of coping with the visible and invisible mutilations of a lifetime of slavery.

    I believe that vegan living becomes a lasting imperative only when we begin to feel (not just name) what our victims feel, and experience (not just analyze) the suffering, the hopes, the joys of the “other” as our own. It’s why our sanctuary blog focuses on the in-depth portraits and stories of sanctuary animals, including stories about that rarest group of farmed animals of all—elderly farmed animals.

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