Many people now reject using “nature” to justify things like sexism, white supremacy and homophobia but still accept it as a rationale for animal exploitation and disability discrimination. This is particularly clear in arguments supporting ‘humane’ meat, none of which hold up, writes disability rights activist and vegan Sunaura Taylor.
10 April 2011
I recently debated Nicolette Hahn Niman at an art event in California. Niman is a cattle rancher and author of Righteous Porkchop. I am a 28-year-old disabled artist, writer, and vegan. The event was held in a largely inaccessible building in front of an audience that had just dined on grass-fed beef—a rather ironic scenario for a wheelchair-using animal advocate like me!
My perspective as a disabled person and as a disability scholar profoundly influences my views on animals. The field of disability studies raises questions that are equally valid in the animal rights discussion.
What is the best way to protect the rights of those who are not physically autonomous but are vulnerable and interdependent? How can society protect the rights of those who cannot protect their own, or those who can’t understand the concept of a right?
Throughout the debate I argued that limited interpretations of what is natural and normal leads to the continued oppression of both disabled people and animals. Of the 50 billion animals killed every year for human use, many are literally manufactured to be disabled—bred to be “mutant” producers of meat, milk, eggs, and other products but unable to function in many ways.
Niman and her family are leading proponents for raising animals humanely for slaughter. But during the debate, we agreed on something rather surprising—a basic tenet of animal rights: Animals are sentient, thinking, feeling beings, often with complex emotions, abilities, and relationships. We agreed that livestock animals can experience deep suffering and pleasure.
Former cattlemen Howard Lyman and Harold Brown also agree that animals are sentient, but this realization led them to become vegan. They gave up their livelihoods and risked alienation from their communities for something greater: their consciences.
But during the debate, we agreed on something rather surprising—a basic tenet of animal rights: Animals are sentient, thinking, feeling beings.
Lyman and Brown reject animal slaughter on both practical and moral grounds. They point out that meat is not necessary for human health, a position endorsed by organizations from the World Health Organization to the American Dietetic Association.
They cite growing evidence that animal agriculture is a major contributor to environmental problems: A 2009 report from Worldwatch Institute estimated that livestock production generates close to 51 percent of global greenhouse gases.
But Lyman and Brown go beyond the merely practical: An animal, they say, is not a piece of property for human beings to use but instead an individual creature living a life that should belong to him or her alone. As Brown says on his website, “Animal rights, to me, is quite simply respecting animals as the sentient beings that they are.”
But Niman—along with others who support sustainable meat—says that animals’ emotions are not an argument against eating meat—just an argument against cruelty. These conscientious omnivores argue that the justification for meat-eating lies elsewhere. They say we must overcome our empathy with an individual animal’s will to live to grasp something greater—Nature.
Nature is one of the most common justifications for animal exploitation. The arguments range from romantic declarations about the cycles of nature to nuanced discussions of sustainable farming. But the assertion that something is “natural” (or “unnatural”) has long been used to rationalize terrible things.
As a disabled person I find arguments based on what’s “natural” highly problematic. Throughout history and all over the world, I would have, at worst, been killed at birth or, at best, culturally marginalized—and nature would have been a leading justification.
Disability is often seen as a personal tragedy that naturally leads to marginalization, rather than as a political and civil rights issue. Many people now reject using “nature” to justify things like sexism, white supremacy, and homophobia but still accept it as a rationale for animal exploitation and disability discrimination.
Michael Pollan, one of the pioneers of the conscientious food movement, would say I am missing the point when I apply human standards to animals. Pollan argues that animal husbandry isn’t oppression but rather a “mutualism or symbiosis between species”—the very reason domesticated animals exist.
But our understanding of nature cannot be separated from human culture and biases, especially because we understand nature through a long and pervasive historical paradigm of human domination over animals.
The distinction that Pollan makes is especially troubling when one considers that slavery and patriarchy were both seen as simply natural at one time. The argument that co-evolution justifies animal exploitation is similar to an argument that patriarchy is justified by thousands of years of history, culture, and genetics.
One cannot argue that the domesticated animal chose slaughter any more than one could argue that women chose patriarchy.
Niman uses nature as a justification for animal slaughter in another way, arguing that, since it is normal and natural for animals to eat other animals and humans are animals, we are justified in eating meat.
But violent, painful deaths are also “normal and natural” in nature. Would Niman argue that we have no moral obligation to kill animals humanely?
Niman and others have suggested that vegans aren’t helping to change the world’s food production systems, whereas conscientious omnivores are. I’d suggest it’s the opposite.
For a movement that supposedly advocates eating minimal meat, the humane-meat movement sure praises and glorifies the stuff. Trendy, socially conscious events serve sustainable animal products, while articles praise the mouth-watering taste, showing glamorous photos of young hipster butchers and “compassionate” farmers.
Of course all of these articles mention that we need to be eating less and better meat, but one doesn’t have to be an advertising expert to see that what is being sold is “delicious” animal foods—not lentils and kale.
A 2008 Carnegie Mellon University study showed that avoiding red meat and dairy one day a week achieves more greenhouse gas reductions than eating a week’s worth of local food. A vegan is also able to easily buy organic and local or, if that’s not possible, to buy fair trade, which, according to the book The Ethics of What We Eat, is arguably just as environmentally vital as buying organic and local, if you are considering issues of global justice.
Studies show that being a vegan or a conscientious omnivore (whose animal products actually come from small, sustainable farms) are about equal in environmental impact.
But I believe we must weigh environmental impact against other ethical concerns, such as the treatment of animals and global access to food and water. The more important question is which diet is more just for animals and more realistic for a planet with nearly 7 billion people and counting?
The Worldwatch Institute calls for quick replacement of livestock products with other protein sources. Scientists are not saying that sustainable animal farming can’t be done, but many are saying that it’s not a realistic solution for a planet as hungry as ours.
Another argument is that veganism isn’t realistic—that we can’t grow sustainable food without farm animals. The principal claim is that manure is necessary to maintain soil fertility. But animals do not need to be killed to poop. In fact all of the supposedly necessary effects that domesticated animals have on crops and soil come while the animals are alive.
Even if a practical argument in favor of eating small amounts of meat can be made—whether based on soil fertility or on use of land that can’t support food crops—that doesn’t answer the moral argument against it.
In fact, vegan-organic farming may be a realistic option. Farmers in the UK have developed a certification process for “stock-free” farming, a term that “broadly means any system of cultivation that excludes artificial chemicals, livestock manures, animal remains,” and so forth.
Humans have not prioritized farming methods that minimize harm to animals so we actually have no idea what is possible. That animal-free methods are not widely known says more about the belief in human domination over animals than it does about the possibility of sustainable, compassionate agriculture.
Humane meat is an oxymoron—and it seems that its advocates’ consciences know it.
Conscientious omnivores appear to struggle with their own empathy toward animals: From Michael Pollan overcoming his hesitance and shame in hunting a wild boar, to newspaper stories on the new meat movement where people try to overcome their uneasiness about killing animals by taking a butchering class, to the Nimans’ own stories of their grief when sending their animals to slaughter.
Ex-cattlemen like Lyman and Brown show that empathy should be something that human beings have toward animals not only while they are living on our farms or after they have been killed and are on our plates being thanked or prayed over, but at that crucial moment when the decision is made to kill them for food or not.
Nicolette Hahn Niman and I agree about the horrors of factory farming. We also agree on the importance of environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. But I don’t agree with her that slaughtering sentient animals for food is righteous—even if it’s done on a small family farm.
There are better ways to be humane.
Sunaura Taylor is an artist, activist, and writer. She’s currently working on a book on animal rights and disability, forthcoming from the Feminist Press. For more of her work visit her website.