Friday, April 22, 2016, will mark the 46th anniversary of Earth Day, and we are already hearing all the annual awareness campaigns. Take shorter showers, drive a hybrid, change a light bulb, recycle, blah, blah, blah. What’s noticeably missing in these campaigns is perhaps the single most important thing one can do for the environment —adopt a plant-based diet.
To commemorate Earth Day 2016, Sarah K. Woodcock of The Advocacy of Veganism Society asked me to write a piece about environmentalism and veganism. As Communications Director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, I sat down with every intention of writing a piece that extols the compatibility of environmentalism and veganism. As a vegan, however, I have a hard time making the case for veganism (which is an ethical position about nonhuman animals) on strictly environmental grounds. It’s not that a compelling argument can’t be made from an environmental standpoint. The environmental benefits of being vegan are tremendous, and the environmental toll that animal consumption takes on our planet is frightening. When thinking on this subject, I’m often reminded of this now twelve-year-old statement from WorldWatch Institute:
The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future—deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.
Even the most casual Internet search about raising animals for human consumption will turn up a number of persuasive environmental reasons to adopt a plant-based diet. And that’s a good thing.
That gets me thinking, however. When we adopt a plant-based diet but ignore the ethical position of veganism, we miss a critically important moral opportunity with regards to nonhuman animals. With environmentalism enjoying the spotlight these days and the green movement having a whole array of ‘green’ products to consume, I might be quickly criticized when I suggest that anything done for environmental reasons alone is not a legitimate enough reason. Fact is, I’m glad for the growing number of plant-based dieters out there. If concern for the environment gets people thinking about and moving towards veganism, that is great. In the end, however, those of us who are vegan because we respect the inherent sentience of animals must take an active role in moving environmental plant-based dieters beyond environmentalism to learn about veganism and what it is about: the rights of non-human animals.
From the moment Donald Watson and his spouse Dorothy Morgan first coined the term ‘vegan’ in 1944, veganism has been about the rights of animals to be given equal consideration. To this day, veganism continues to be the only logical answer that gets at the heart of animal exploitation. Being vegan is your everyday statement that things are not right as they are, that you are one more person who is standing up to be counted in opposition to the exploitation of animals. It is a refusal of a system that produces enormous profits at the expense of animals that are just as sentient as the family dog or cat. Veganism is and has always been about animal rights.
I don’t want to be misunderstood, so let me say this once again: I’m glad to have people adopt a plant-based diet for environmental reasons. My point is, however, an environmental thrust alone is not a basis for veganism or for a long-term movement seeking to gain animals’ important rights. Adopting a plant-based diet but failing to positively engage veganism (as the ethical position it is) is quite like opposing genocide for environmental reasons. I know that is a provocative thing to say, but think about the central point I’m making. Yes, the person is opposed to genocide. But all of us would argue that the person making an objection on environmental grounds is really failing to see the larger point. That is that using and killing animals is profoundly disgusting and wrong because it violates the inherent rights that all sentient beings have. Most importantly, I would argue—the right not to be used as a resource.
Veganism is recognizing the inherent value of animals as individual beings unto themselves. If veganism is going to have any impact, it needs to be a movement that, at its core, is concerned about realizing rights for animals. Though the environmental implications of the exploitation of animals, and humans for that matter, are severe, disturbing, and taking a growing toll on our ecosystems, we must put these concerns within the larger framework of exploitation—one in which the environmental side effects of exploitation are recognized and understood but not in which they are the central focus of concern.
We need not be silent about the environmental benefits of veganism, but when we do address such benefits, we should point out that, while great, they are very much incidental to the grave moral wrong of exploiting and unnecessarily breeding and killing the innocent. I would be vegan even if it were bad for the environment, but it’s good to know that I can be a good environmentalist and a good vegan simultaneously.
Those of us who are seriously concerned about the environment should absolutely adopt a plant-based diet. But beyond that, those of us who are also seriously concerned with morality should go vegan and take a strong animal rights position. No other ethical position has a farther-reaching and more profoundly positive impact on the environment and all life on earth than veganism. If you’re not vegan – go vegan. If you are vegan – stay vegan. It’s probably better for your health, definitely better for the planet and all life on earth, but most importantly, it’s the ethically right thing to do.
Demosthenes serves as the Communications Director at the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, where he has been employed since 2009. Demosthenes has worked in the field of environmental and public policy since 1989. He began his career with the Long Island Neighborhood Network, the New York region’s largest and most active environmental advocacy organization. There, in addition to many successful efforts, he campaigned for the two most significant pieces of pesticide legislation in New York State history – the Neighbor Notification of Pesticide Spraying law and the Safe School Grounds law.
Now with the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, Demosthenes is part of a team that provides community education and fosters informed debate on key issues related to sustainability. His work also includes integrating concepts of sustainability, environmental ethics, and veganism into the curriculum, operations and culture at Molloy College and the larger Long Island community. He hosts the Sustainability Institute’s Sustainable Living Film Series that boasts an entirely vegan menu at each screening, and makes the ethics and environmental benefits of veganism a central focus of each event. He is also featured in the 2014 documentary film, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret that is currently streaming on Netflix.
Demosthenes holds a degree in Sociology from St. John’s University. He has been vegan since 1989.
Learn more about veganism right here on WhyVeganism.com and request a FREE veganism starter kit. And if you are already vegan, visit The Advocacy of Veganism Society to get started with vegan advocacy.
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