The Importance of Veganism: A Historical Perspective
Written by Nick Pendergrast
Created Wednesday, 16 January 2013
Lately “veg*nism” seems to be everywhere. I see people talk about “veg*n” food when all the food is vegan, people encouraging others to support “veg*n” restaurants or businesses, and people saying it is pointless to talk to “veg*ns” about animal rights because it is “preaching to the converted.”
I also see many groups and individuals saying that if you’re already “veg” or “vego”, then try to convince others – as if there is nothing to be gained for non-human animals by avoiding other animal products beyond flesh.
It also seems common for people to be vegan at home and vegetarian when they eat out. At a vegetarian restaurant where I live in Perth, Australia, they even give away a free dairy bubble tea with any meal on Monday to congratulate people for supporting Meat Free Mondays.
Leave out the meat and get a dairy drink instead?
Animal Flesh as the “Ultimate Evil”
The idea that flesh is the “ultimate evil” rather than just one of many products that involve the exploitation of other animals is very dominant in the animal advocacy movement. But is this idea a valid one?
I believe that Leah Leneman’s article No Animal Food: The Road to Veganism in Britain, 1909-1944 sheds some light on this. Back in 1847, when The Vegetarian Society was set up, they justified the consumption of dairy and eggs on the basis that it was not necessary for animals to be killed to produce these products.
This idea was challenged in The Vegetarian Messenger and Health Review (The Vegetarian Society’s magazine) from 1909-1912, with many different people pointing out that dairy and egg products involve the slaughter of the males who cannot produce the desired product. Also explained was the slaughter inevitably waiting the females once they were no longer producing enough eggs or dairy to be profitable. Finally, others also pointed to the separation of the mother and her calf in the dairy industry – her calves will be stolen away and slaughtered for veal so she can be continually impregnated to produce dairy.
In 1911 and 1912, there were a few vegetarians who attempted to challenge the idea that suffering and death were inherent to the dairy and egg industries in The Vegetarian Messenger and Health Review. However, after 1912, such arguments were not made in this magazine again.
Justifying Vegetarianism based on Practical Considerations
After this point, the Vegetarian Society justified the consumption of dairy and eggs based on practical, rather than ethical considerations. Veganism was seen as too difficult, so while the Vegetarian Society accepted that dairy and eggs could not be justified ethically, they argued that it was too difficult to give up all animal products and that vegetarianism was a transitional stage to a more humane, “pure vegetarian” diet that avoided dairy and eggs as well as flesh.
It has been about 100 years since the Vegetarian Society has attempted to justify consuming dairy and eggs ethically. So what about the argument that it is just too difficult to give up all animal products?
Referring back to Leneman’s article, the first vegan cookbook in Britain, No Animal Food, was written by C.W. Daniel and published in 1910. The review of this book by the editor of The Vegetarian Messenger and Health Review explained that these recipes showed that it was ‘not at all impossible to obtain a variety of palatable dishes without recourse to either eggs or milk.’
In 1964, Eva Batt explained that ‘veganism is by no means concerned only with food; vegans deplore the slaughter or exploitation of any creature for any reason.’ She also explained some of the forms of exploitation that vegans avoid, including those involved in food, clothing, entertainment and household products. Batt explained that: ‘This may seem a formidable list…However, for all the above there are humane alternatives.’
In the same article, Batt went on to say that: ‘Putting veganism into practice will require a little patience, some knowledge of nutrition (which is easily learned and is a most rewarding study) and perhaps a bit of help from other vegans who have acquired local knowledge about the availability in the area of pure foods, humane clothing and household products.’ Keep in mind, this was in 1964.
I recently published an article explaining the gains for veganism in 2011 alone, in terms of awareness of veganism and the reasons for becoming vegan, as well as increased vegan options in supermarkets and restaurants. Think of how far veganism has come since 1964.
The internet has made things so much easier now. Unlike in 1964, anyone with internet access can easily find numerous websites, podcasts and books on vegan nutrition. Humane clothing, personal and household products are also easy to find. Vegan mentor programs and 30 day vegan challenge programs can provide support for people making the transition to veganism. (Note: Four Domains doesn’t agree with the way some of these sites present veganism.)
At What Point Will the “Transitional Phase” End?
In the early 1900s, the Vegetarian Society admitted the problems with dairy and eggs, however, saw vegetarianism as a practical step on the transition to a vegan diet. Unfortunately, this transition does not seem to have happened.
They continue to encourage people to give up flesh but not eggs and dairy, even speaking of the “virtues” of “free-range” eggs, which involve the slaughter of animals, while elsewhere on their website challenging the idea of “humane” slaughter.
But this prioritisation of flesh is quite arbitrary and unnecessary. Not only do dairy and eggs involve the slaughter of other animals, but dairy has the additional cruelty of the continual separation of mother and calf. In fact I’ve heard many people convincingly make the case that dairy actually involves more suffering than flesh.
When I was vegetarian, I obviously gave up flesh, but increased my intake of dairy and eggs. As a result, I was possibly contributing to more animal suffering and death than before.
I won’t assume every vegetarian was the same as me – some may not increase their intake of dairy and eggs. However, if we accept that products like dairy are just as bad as flesh, then are vegans still “preaching to the converted” when talking to vegetarians?
If someone totally gave up dairy but continued to eat flesh and eggs, as well as wearing animal products like leather, and using household products that contain animal products and testing, would we think it would be pointless talking to this person about animal rights as we’re “preaching to the converted”? Of course not – but this is much the same as someone who does not eat flesh but is otherwise engaged in animal exploitation.
Of course individual vegetarians may refuse to consume leather and may avoid household products that are tested on animals. However, there is nothing inherent to vegetarianism that requires avoiding such exploitation – vegetarianism is a diet. This is contrast to veganism, which goes beyond diet and is about considering non-human animals in all of the choices that we make.
In 2012, with more vegan options than ever before, it is important that we advocate for veganism, which means advocating for all non-human animals. Not just those raised and slaughtered for their flesh, not just those used for food – but all non-human animals that are exploited by humans – whether for clothing, entertainment, or whatever other purpose.
When I interviewed Patty Mark from Animal Liberation Victoria for my PhD thesis, she explained that in the 1980s, they were concerned about using the word “vegetarian” because it might put people off and marginalise the organisation as too radical.
Now vegetarian is such a mainstream term – but this is only because people used the word, promoted vegetarianism, and demanded vegetarian options. We can do the same with veganism, and it has never been easier to do so.
If The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek and the ABC are happy to talk about veganism – though they generally only focus on the dietary aspect - surely vegan animal advocates can also embrace the term, and encourage a fuller appreciation of it?
Let’s Promote Veganism, Not Veg*nism
The debate over whether animal products beyond flesh involve suffering and death to non-human animals was resolved by 1912. Vegans such as Donald Watson and Eva Batt also showed that it was very possible to live without animal products even decades and decades ago, meaning that there was never a need for the “transitional” phase of vegetarianism. With mainstream awareness of veganism and increasing vegan options, the argument that we are still in a “transitional” phase where animal products like dairy and eggs are not desirable ethically but are too difficult to avoid is even less convincing.
With all of this in mind, now has never been a better time to be vegan, and to promote veganism. This does not mean being hostile to vegetarians or anyone else who isn’t a vegan. Rather, veganism can be promoted in a positive way, highlighting the benefits of avoiding animal products, rather than dwelling on the animal products people are currently consuming – flesh or otherwise.
The problems with our relationship with other animals go well beyond the consumption of flesh. Being vegan, and promoting veganism rather than veg*nism, shows that avoiding animal products beyond flesh is a really important and positive step to take on behalf of non-human animals.
This article was originally published here.
Nick Pendergrast is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Curtin University in Western Australia. His research focuses on the animal advocacy movement, primarily in Australia and the US. He also teaches Sociology and Anthropology at Curtin University, co-hosts the podcast Progressive Podcast Australia and runs the website Vegan Perth with Animal Rights Advocates.
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