Universal Veganism?

A student in my Animal Rights class asked me several years ago whether I thought humanity would ever be 100% vegan.  Over the years, I've found myself thinking about this, but thinking about it in evolving ways.  One of the reasons my thoughts are in flux is that I've added a course on Environmental Ethics to my repertory.  This makes me focus less on the micro-level, and more on the macro-level.

On the micro-level, you focus on one person deciding between an all-plant diet and a part-animal diet.  The all-plant diet will nourish them, but they find the part-animal diet tastier.  Can they justify the harm they impose on animals in terms of the taste-delta, so to speak?  No, it seems clear they cannot.  Next issue: will all humans ever recognize this fact and switch over to an all-plant diet?  The issue seems entirely about self-involvement vs. altruism.  Are we good enough to all become vegans?  The more optimistic among us say Yes.  The less optimistic say No.

But now start on the macro-level, and think about oceans.  71% of earth is covered with ocean, and seafood provides 20% of animal protein, world wide -- 50% in some countries.  In a vegan world, the ocean simply stops being used as source of nutrition.  Land gets wasted too. Only 10% of the earth's land surface is arable--used to grow for crops.  26% of the land surface is used as grazing land.  Most of that grazing land is not convertible to cropland, so if animals weren't being raised on it, it would simply be lost to food production.  The total lost to food production: about 79% of the planet's surface.

Now, a vegan earth is also a planet where the cropland is used more efficiently. As it is, a third of cropland is used to feed confined animals (the ones not on grazing land).  So the cropland will feed far more people, in a vegan world.  Maybe -- I'm not sure -- everyone will still get fed. But by not consuming animals raised on grazing land or living in oceans, a vegan world leaves a great deal of the earth's surface unused for food--the oceans plus all the grazing land that couldn't be used to grow crops.  To make up for this, there has to be lots of importing-exporting, and lots of local people stop being self-sufficient food producers.

It seems to me there's got to be some law of biology or economics (er ... what is it?) that says no to this.  It just can't be that a species decides that a vast amount of its habitat is off limits, as far as obtaining food is concerned. Now, we don't want to make the mistake of thinking "natural, therefore good," or anything so crude, but there are some aspects to nature that just aren't going to be transcended, no matter what. For example, people will keep having sex and reproducing.  And more to the point, they will keep spreading out all over the globe, using every acre of it for food production.

I know what someone's going to say. If we're inevitably going to use every acre for food production, would it be OK to use every acre of Manhattan for food production? May we round up New Yorkers, and turn them into hamburgers?  Well, no. And we're not going to eat chunks of the Grand Canyon either.  But -- perhaps you still see the point.  Manhattan is tiny.  We can pass up Manhattan Burgers, but can we really let 79% of the earth be non-food territory?

Things look very different when you switch from the micro-level to the macro-level.  On the micro-level, the person who eats meat seems to prioritize their taste-delta over the well-being of animals. Selfish jerk!  But now think about humanity collectively, on the macro-level.  We use the whole earth for food production, which must mean we eat other animals. It's not a matter of selfish pursuit of pleasure, but of the basic laws of biology and economics.  The pleasure people get from eating meat isn't an ultimate end, looking at in the grand scheme of things, but actually nature's way of getting them to obey those basic laws.

A vegan world violates the very most basic laws of biology and economics, whereas an omnivorous world does not.  So--to hell with worrying about the treatment of "food" animals? No, no, no.  It's just a starting point to recognize that we're not heading for a vegan world. There's a lot that's wrong with our omnivorous world.  We use every bit of the earth for food (fine) but over-use it (not fine).  We use resources inefficiently.  That's particularly so with respect to the confined animal sector.  Confined animals are fed through the inefficient use of valuable cropland.  That makes no economic sense. These operations also pollute air, water, and land.  There are also issues about the over-use of grazing land--too many animals means too much methane--a greenhouse gas. Finally, and very importantly, there are issues about the horrifying cruelty of these operations.

If you think we're heading for a vegan world, you'll think it's trivial, and even retrograde, to bring about small reforms, like two on the horizon right now:

Federal legislation introduced - bigger cages for laying hens
McDonalds ending use of gestational crates

But we're not.  So we should be for these reforms and support the organizations working for them.  I keep hearing Wayne Pacelle of HSUS on the radio, and think he's the cat's pajamas. If you're abolitionist Gary Francione, you hate the guy, because he's making life incrementally better for animals, while leading everyone a little further away from a vegan world. But I think we're not heading to a vegan world, period. It's not a question of human selfishness, but a simple matter of biology and economics. We just can't let that much of the earth's surface be labelled "not for food."


Wayne said...

Well obviously, people have moral obligations to the extent that they can realistically accomplish them, and being vegan, quite frankly, is not a realistic end for many people in the world. People are starving, and don't have access to even animals, much less vegetable proteins. So even on a micro level, I think we can make the case that it doesn't make sense for the world to be vegan. The circumstances of people in developed countries, and it doesn't even have to be fully industrialized, e.g. India has a large population of vegans, is different from people in say rural China, or Saharan Africa, or even small isolated places like Hawaii.

Lately I've been wrestling with my own vegetarianism. I'm beginning to realize that my vegetarianism might be detrimental to my health. So I've been thinking about opening up and becoming a pescatarian. But at the same time, I really have serious problems with how fish are farmed, and how fish are wild caught. So I'm not quite sure what to do. In the end, I'm probably going to stay a vegetarian, and live with the risks that I'm examining.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, you can come up with arguments on the micro-level, but nothing that looks head on at the oddity of telling humanity, collectively, "You must have a diet that involves putting an off-limits sign on 79% of the planet." That's just ... odd, on some deep level!

Do you eat bivalves? Maybe that would help with the health problem, and do no more harm to anything than eating plants, since they don't feel anything. Farmed bivalves have environmental problems, but so does a lot of plant farming.

Anonymous said...

The question if ever the world population will be vegan fascinates me too. In my opinion the probability for a vegan world is real. Yes, it is possible to feed the world population using any animal products and relying on the existing technology.

In fact chances are diminished by our inability to fight against the problems in the develloping countries. As long there is the threat of starvation, why should these people be concerned about animal rights?

Pieter Van de Velde

Aeolus said...

I find the claim that we must use all available land on the planet for food production quite bizarre. Why must we do this? Your argument, which involves the idea that leaving land in its wild state would be "wasting" it, seems to rely on the (Malthusian?) idea that there is an intrinsic, unstoppable human drive to expand everywhere and exploit every cranny of the planet to produce more and more food and other stuff. Perhaps this is the case, but I hope not. If it is, the biosphere is doomed.

Long-distance importing-exporting is not always economically and environmentally inefficient. And technological innovation should make it possible to produce food locally in ways that would not have been possible in the past.

Two crucial things you don't mention: population and capitalism. If we could get global population down to, say, one billion (the population of the word in the year 1800), surely we could provide abundant food for everyone and still leave vast tracts of the planet in a wild or almost wild state. Then, too, many of our woes arise from the inherently expansive nature of capitalism, which is intent on metaphorically and even literally eating the planet alive.

Having said this, I'm sceptical that humanity will ever go completely or even mostly vegan. Certainly it won't happen as far into the future as we can reasonably see. But I think "the very most basic laws of biology and economics" are not nearly as inhospitable to mass veganism as you imagine.

Deepak Shetty said...

Interesting argument.
A good number of us are well Indian Vegetarians - i.e. we eat eggs and dairy - just not meat(don't ask me for a consistent ethical reason why).
I think that reduces the 79% somewhat.

Wayne said...

Yeah I thought about adding clams to my diet. Still thinking about it. It really boils down to the omega 3s that you get from seafood. I'm Asian, so I have a genetic predisposition to make a lot of cholesterol, even if I'm not eating it. flaxseed omega 3s are good, but seafood omega 3s are better, and it makes sense that my genetic ancestry ate a lot of fish, that they would better handle the excess cholesterol that we make. So I've been downing flaxseed like mad, but it hasn't really helped much. The doctors says, more exercise and more omega 3s, but veg rules out the better omega 3s.

Clams and other bivalves aren't on the top of my favorites list... I like clam chowder, but that wouldn't do anything for my cholesterol levels. But I might try slurping a few down in some other way.

But back to the argument at hand, We already put off limit signs on national parks and such. So its not entirely unusual to say that this land is off limits to food production. We also have hunting seasons and such, so in a sense, some lands are off-limits during certain times of the year.

I don't think the oddness of the argument should take away from the reasoning behind it. I admit, its odd... but is it really unreasonable? Like Plato said... Women fighting in the military is odd, but it makes sense that they can do it, if we just educate them.

March Hare said...

Soylent Green?

We are wasting a precious resource here...

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, I didn't say we must use all available land. I said we mustn't make 79% of the planet's surface off limits for food production. That's too much.

My point is--normally the message to meat-eaters is: you must give up certain tastes for the sake of animal well-being. That sounds like a fair demand. Taste is trivial, compared to what an animal suffers for you to enjoy it. So: good.

But when you think about it, what are you telling humanity if you say "everyone should be a vegan"? You're not just saying everyone has to sacrifice certain tastes. You're saying that collectively, we must give up on 79% of the planet's surface as a source of food. Wow--that's giving up a lot! That sounds too demanding.

This is just an instance of the "too demanding" complaint you can make against lots of different ethical assertions. Say someone tells me I should go to the hospital right now and donate my organs, so 10 can live. Well, that's asking too much. There can't be ethical imperatives that call on people to commit suicide--or at least if there are such imperatives, they're rare, and not in effect for all of us, all of the time.

I'm saying the same kind of thing here. How can it be an imperative for humanity to stop using the 79% of the planet that's now used to catch/produce animal food?

You talk about lowering the population to one billion. That would be another imperative that's wildly demanding. What it would mean, realistically, is that a couple of generations all must decide to have just one child (on average). Surely that's too much to ask.

By the way, I've been reading all sorts of puzzling things about population, and about how (allegedly) more people are for the good--Toby Ord, Julian Simon, Bryan Caplan. This is all puzzling stuff.

veganimal said...

Interesting post, though a bit disheartening (I’m a passionate vegan). I see the conflicting logics of the two levels. But I’ve never belived in a 100% perfect world anyway, either it’s a world without animal use, cruelty, wars, hunger or else. There’s too much evil. But as I see it, it doesn’t change anything regarding the moral motivations or obligations to work for what one view as good (some might think that avoiding slaughter of innocents as a more important moral imperative than to help the needy or feeding everyone in the world). This also applies for abolitionists. So I don’t agree that this dilemma is a reason to support welfare reforms as opposed to promote veganism and abolition. I don’t see how that’s a relevant claim.

How do you think these conflicting logics can be resolved (avoiding the naturalistic fallacy), or what do it say about the limits of normative ethics?