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.