The Horrors of Dairy: How “Sustainability” Obscures Suffering

Yesterday I spoke to a Philosophy Dialogue Series on my own campus (Texas State) about food and sustainability. For me, of course, “food and sustainability” means eating plants. As in Berkeley, I hit this message hard, arguing, in part, that we may as well erase the word “sustainable” from our ever-expanding eco-vocabulary if we cannot make the term include the ethical implications of eating. Students seemed receptive. Questions were excellent, smart. It was a nicely structured event, leaving a full 90 minutes for “dialogue.”

After the event a graduate student in “Sustainability Studies” (I didn’t know we had such a degree!) told me that she was a lifelong vegetarian but had never put much thought into the ethical problems of dairy. I quoted Gary Francione’s line that there’s “more suffering in a glass of milk than a pound of steak.” Then I explained to her what happens to a dairy cow–even an organic dairy cow producing milk for “artisanal” cheese. When I told her how the mother cow’s calf is dragged away shortly after birth and, if male, jammed into a veal crate; and when I explained how mother cows wailed and thrashed to have their calves back with them, drinking their milk; and when I explained that this happened repeatedly to milk cows, causing horrible diseases and immeasurable suffering; and when I asked what right humans have to do these things to a sentient being, this woman’s face dropped. She told me she had chills and I could see her eyes water a little.

I’ve since sent this woman a couple of e-mails with links further illuminating the horrors of dairy. Whether or not this women goes vegan is an open question, but I think the chances are good. What I’m especially concerned about, however, is something more structural. How is it that a vegetarian student studying sustainability could have no idea about the cruelty within the dairy industry? This is in no way to criticize this woman–she seemed to be an an extremely bright and dedicated student. My concern is really with how these increasingly popular programs in sustainability (and Food Studies) arrange knowledge–and, in essence, create a reality of ideas worth knowing–in a way that obscures the underlying ethical questions at the core of eating. I see this trend as little more than intellectual laziness. How much easier it is to sing the virtues of “artisanal” cheese production compared to industrial cheese production than it is to engage the deeper philosophical and ethical questions about sentience and suffering.

The trouble with this avoidance is that it’s hard to detect. This is often the case because so often what “environmentalists” or “experts in sustainability” promote comes with a positive message of “improvement” and “empowerment.” These are the good guys taking on the polluters and factory farmers! It’s hard to condemn someone who’s ostensibly working to save the planet as complicit in a world of injustice. But the more I do this the more I’m saying screw it to politeness and tact. We need to hit these prophets of sustainability hard. We need to wake them up.  We need to start asking tougher questions about sustainability–more fundamental questions that cut to the core of animal exploitation. College campuses strike me as a good place to start this effort.



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.

9 Responses to The Horrors of Dairy: How “Sustainability” Obscures Suffering

  1. diana says:

    I absolutely agree with what you have said and am desparately trying to tell people about dairy! I accept your offer of ‘courage’ and the strength that your website provides.

  2. Rebecca Stucki says:

    While I absolutely agree with what you say, I believe the challenge lies in finding a way to communicate with the uninformed and the farmers in a way that doesn’t cause more discord. Reading comment sections in various articles and blogs, it is clear that the internet is rife with insults and rudeness. People hide whatever civility they may possess behind an electronic wall of anonymity. The result is a firestorm of name-calling and extreme posturing that does nothing to bring agreement on any issues (and is exemplified to the nth degree by our broken political system). While I want to scream and cry and stomp and swear at people who continue to perpetrate violence and cruelty toward animals, it won’t get me very far. Do you have any views on this, or any ideas on what we can do to spread the love (which is really what is the basis of any ethical vegan’s passion)?

    • BlessUsAll says:

      Hi Rebecca, I’m not speaking for James, but for myself. I think that Jesus modeled spreading love, being meek but mighty, defending the weak and meek, yet not sparing iniquity–especially hypocrisy–the sternest condemnation. It would seem that studying and practicing his Sermon on the Mount is a sure way to reach those who are receptive to pure love. But we, like he, would have to be prepared for the persecution–by tyrants and ignoramuses–that comes with the territory.

  3. M says:

    Incredible post, thanks so much. Never heard that Francione quote but I really like it.

  4. Carolle says:

    Truly interesting and great points throughout. Begin on college campuses – in the class room and in the cafeteria – is a great way to begin / continue. Education is the key. Courage indeed!

  5. Such great points James, thank you. I couldn’t agree more as my sister is coming out of an MBA program at Fordham with an emphasis in business sustainability and not once did her coursework involve a deep dive into ethical implications of what we eat. I think this disconnect is just another frustrating example of how we take as givens certain parts of our culture and questioning them is ridiculed and stigmatized. Love your posts, btw. Thanks for the thoughtful and necessary contribution to our movement.


  6. BlessUsAll says:

    As for the courage James calls for, I’m reminded of how the book MORAL COURAGE explains that trait: “[A] three-stranded braid … defines morally courageous action: a commitment to moral principles, an awareness of the danger involved in supporting those principles, and a willing endurance of that danger.”

    Author Rushworth Kidder elaborates further: “Physical courage has to do with the guts to climb up one rock face or rappel down another, the valor to continue running uphill into enemy fire, or the bravery of a mother plucking a drowning child from the surf. For each of these acts, the word courage easily springs to mind. We make no requirement that these acts be related to principles, values, or higher-order beliefs in ‘doing the right thing.’ On some occasions, to be sure, physical courage may be driven by a sense of honor. It can be shaped by a concern over reputation. It can even be enhanced by a recognition that good things will come by being bold. But while physical courage may be principle-related, we don’t require that it be principle-driven.

    “Moral courage, however, is just that: driven by principle. When courage is manifested in the service of our values–when it is done not only to demonstrate physical prowess or save lives but also to support virtues and sustain core principles–we tend to use the term moral courage. Moral courage is not only about facing physical challenges that could harm your body–it’s about facing mental challenges that could wreck your reputation and emotional well-being, your adherence to conscience, your self-esteem, your bank account, your health. If physical courage acts in support of the tangible, moral courage protects the less tangible. It’s not property but principles, not valuables but virtues, not physics but metaphysics that moral courage rises to defend. Where the physically courageous individual may be in full agreement with the momentum of the occasion and is often bolstered with cheers of encouragement and team spirit, the morally courageous person often goes against the grain, acting contrary to the accepted norm. Acts of moral courage carry with them risks of humiliation, ridicule, and contempt, not to mention unemployment and loss of social standing.

    “Simply put, moral courage is the courage to be moral. And by moral, … we tend to mean whatever adheres to the five core moral values of honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion.”

  7. Provoked says:

    BlessUsAll – I love everything you wrote. I was cheering with each sentence – Thank you for putting the value of moral courage in it’s highest, proper order!

    As far as putting the courage to use in discussions regarding sustainability – I agree that it’s critical to do so. But it’s also a very challenging task. So many fall back on the “science” of it all without full investigation. Certainly believing that there is a way to “ethically” continue consuming flesh-foods is the preferred method the mind will go to – to avoid any meaningful change.

    It doesn’t help either when the USDA helps promote “sustainable” foods with maps on where to procure farm-bred and farm-slaughtered animals. This new initiative “Know your farmer – Know your food” supports mobile slaughter units and local butchery. It’s frustrating to hear the same old lies being promoted as something improved:

    I agree that we have to take a firmer stand on the ethical matters… Sustainable issues have to include man’s moral responsibilities and progress. Without it the highest virtues of our species will be lost.

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