The Shortcomings of Environmental Veganism

Adopting veganism is, in my view, the greatest moral imperative of our age. When it comes to the perpetration of suffering there are no bigger culprits than the world’s meat and dairy industries. In terms of sheer numbers this simply must be the case: with 70 billion farmed animals on the planet, 50 billion of whom are in factory farms, this suffering is both incomparable and incomprehensible. One may find it off-colour to say that this great tumour of hurt is the very worst thing in the world when we have humanitarian crises such as Syria, Yemen, the Uighurs, police brutality, world poverty et cetera. Yet even if I conceded that the contemporary suffering of mankind was more acute than that of animals I would still maintain that animal exploitation remains the most urgent moral crisis. This is due to the prevailing cultural attitude, the fact that most of the world’s population don’t consider animal exploitation to be a moral issue at all. Ask any pedestrian what they think of poverty, genocide, war or famine and you will find practically unanimous condemnation. Ask what they think about the killing of animals for food and you will hear a very different answer.

With these facts in mind I want to make it abundantly clear that, in terms of going vegan, the outcome is far more important than the intentions. Whether for philosophical, ethical reasons or for a concern about ecology and climate disaster the act of going vegan has equally excellent consequences. These reasons are not mutually exclusive and many, perhaps most, vegans hold to all of them to different degrees. Nevertheless, I find those people who are vegan or vegetarian largely or purely for environmental reasons to be misguided.

My intention in expressing this opinion is not to alienate but to persuade. Indeed, such a cannibalistic exercise is vulnerable to accusations that I am indulging in what Freud called the ‘narcissism of small differences’. Why does it matter if people do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Why are you criticising those who share your prescriptions but not your beliefs?

Largely because I think that one’s intentions do matter, as they may in turn lead to different outcomes. They matter chiefly in this case for a few reasons. As climate change becomes a more and more pressing issue it is possible that technology could be created that may help reverse or at least slow the process. I recently read a piece which highlighted the possibility that selective breeding could create cattle with a smaller carbon footprint.[1] Or take an article on the BBC, which weighs up the pros and cons of eating certain meats on the basis of their environmental damage: eating sheep and cows is bad, eating chickens and pigs is better.[2] The article goes on to conclude that people should eat less meat to prevent environmental damage; about half the amount people commonly do is suggested.

These articles have no impact on me whatsoever. Their arguments simply cannot persuade me because they are all, as far as my understanding of morality is concerned, completely beside the point. I hold by the view that the infliction of unnecessary suffering is bad, and should be avoided. As such, my following responses arise. So what if a pig produces less CO2 than a cow? That says nothing about its moral worth. Even if we could create cows which produced no methane or CO2 it would be wrong torture and kill them. Even if we created cows which sequestered CO2 and methane and healed the environment, which worked to reverse climate change, it would still be wrong to torture and kill them. This is because these creatures share our own desire to live and be free of pain and entrapment. These animals can and do feel pain, due to their similar brains and nervous systems, up to a calibre that we would decry as shockingly tragic and evil if found in a human being. Our equality in suffering is the reason why we should not needlessly harm humans or animals. Any analysis of the morality of killing animals that does not have these facts front and centre is going to be ethically dubious.

Yet I do not think that the environmentalist vegan or vegetarian can so easily brush aside these arguments. If there was no climate change, no ecological desolation, would the meat industry be fine? Would its existence be inconsequential? Even justified? If one is putting environmental reasons front and centre of their morality I think the answer has to be yes. If the abattoirs and dairy firms cut their emissions down by half, or three quarters, I can’t see why someone of this mind-set might not be tempted to return to eating the flesh of animals. If the meat industry became an insignificant polluter then surely the environmentalist would be better off focusing on the fossil fuel or textile industry. If animal exploitation only matters insofar as it affects the health of the planet then it follows that a healthy world with a brutal animal industry would be preferable to an unhealthy world that was vegan.

That may seem like a relatively reasonable proposition but I am not convinced it holds. Imagine two separate timelines. One is an extension of our own, current timeline in which people continue to eat meat at the same rate, environmental degradation continues and subsequently the human race and its domestic animals die out a hundred years from now, enduring a great deal of suffering in the process. Let us say that this world produces 100 points of suffering every year until the last cataclysmic ten, which produce 500 points of suffering each. That would result in a grand total of 14,000 points of suffering, from start to finish.

Now consider a second timeline, one in which we have the same world and animal industry, and therefore also one which also creates 100 points of suffering per year. Yet in this timeline there is no climate disaster and so it continues to go on, with the same level of suffering, in perpetuity. Over the same period of 100 years it is clear that this second timeline is better, causing only 10,000 points of suffering compared to 14,000 points in the first. Yet here the first timeline ends and the second goes on. After 140 years the suffering will have reached 14,000, after 200 years 20,000 and on and on the suffering will continue. Due to this fact it is not at all obvious to me that the second timeline in which suffering, and in the case of factory farmed animals irredeemable and abject suffering, continues perpetually is better; in fact I am inclined to think it is worse.

Perhaps this bit of moral calculus seems daft to some but I hope I’ve illustrated the point. A state of perpetual suffering is in fact worse than a state of suffering which ends, with a sharp rise in pain, but ends nevertheless. Non-existence is certainly better than the unmitigated horror of the factory farm. Pigs have their teeth torn out and tails severed so they cannot cannibalise their neighbours from between the bars, the terror of their lives driving the animals literally insane. I reject outright the claim that such a life as this is in any way worth living. Environmental calamity and death would be a better alternative to constant torture for tens of billions of animals in the long run.

This is, of course, purely intellectual and it is categorically not my desire to end the world in any shape or form. The way forward is one in which the unnecessary suffering of animals as caused by humans is reduced to a hard minimum and where environmental catastrophe is averted through, amongst other means, the rapid and universal adoption of veganism. That, at any rate, is the future I am fighting for, but on the basis that the unjustified harming of sensitive beings is in itself wrong and as such we should not cause the immense suffering that wrecking our planet entails. It is on these grounds that I want to ensure that, in the unlikely event that the animal industry became carbon-neutral or ‘green’, nobody would feel justified in giving up veganism.

There is a further question of strategy. Many of my meat-eating family and friends have confided in me that they find the environmental case for veganism to be the most compelling. Indeed, the revelation that going vegan is the single greatest contribution an individual can make to combatting climate change is a powerful and valuable one.[3] Perhaps they are right, but I find this pill too bitter to swallow. The environmental argument is essentially a selfish one: stop eating animals because doing so will kill us. This is a bit like saying don’t torture children because it might affect your job prospects. I am not claiming that the self-interested desire to prevent ecological ruin is ignoble or unreasonable, only that it skips the first step, the morality of hurting an animal, to purely consider what the down-the-line effects are. It is the act itself which is wrong, and then whatever secondary effects it may have. Of course there are many self-interested reasons to be vegan and the environmental and health arguments are strong ones, and should by no means be abandoned. Yet to have these as the foundations of our beliefs is, at very best, highly insufficient. If we use narrow self-interest as the basis of our moral positions then I cannot see what stops the opponent of veganism saying ‘Well sure I like my health but I like my burgers more and I’ll fight climate change in fifty different ways, just not by giving up meat.’

Perhaps the analogy that best encapsulates my position is this one. Imagine you are an abolitionist in the USA of the 1850s or 60s. You are attending a conference of abolitionists, filled with intellectuals, freed men and women, clerics, business people and all those of varying creeds and backgrounds who stand against the cruel tyranny of slavery. Amongst the speeches and pamphlets, the polemics and debates, you encounter a gentleman making a rather peculiar argument. His stance is that he is absolutely an abolitionist and that his commitment to ending slavery is unshakeable for the following reason. Cotton plants have an irreparable and deleterious effect on the soil that holds them. Ergo, vast swathes of the slave-owning countryside will be wrecked permanently by the continued proliferation of these crops, which the institution of slavery promotes. The degradation of this soil requires more soil to be found and so a steady belt of impoverished land is forming, threatening to swallow large tracts of the United States.

My answer to this gentleman, well-intentioned as he may be, would be something along the lines of ‘as noble as your intentions are you seem to have missed the point’. I cannot claim ownership of the vegan movement or say that mine or even Peter Singer’s beliefs, a great hero of mine whose ideas I inevitably plagiarise, represent the inarguable ‘point’ of the movement. However, I do think a moral foundation which cares about suffering for suffering’s sake is the firmest bedrock on which to build an animal welfare movement. Environmentalism is not a watertight justification for veganism. If the meat industry can reduce its emissions then environmentalist veganism as a theory will have hole after hole poked into it. The environmental case should always be subsidiary to the moral one. After all too many holes, no matter how small, will sink a ship.

By Matthew Chalmers


[1] https://www.carbonbrief.org/video-how-beef-farmers-can-reduce-their-carbon-footprint

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-28858289

[3] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987 & https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/behaviour-change-public-engagement-and-net-zero-imperial-college-london/

3 thoughts on “The Shortcomings of Environmental Veganism

  1. Hi , this is quite difficult to read, but I understand your points. Non human animals have been exploited forever & the ‘ prevailing moral culture’ is a continuation of the view that animals are, basically, unable to suffer like humans: or particular humans. It all goes back to the Aristotelian hierarchy & the Bible; in the West atleast.
    The problem of intention & outcome is always fascinating. Can we ever really afford to be a moral purist? Perhaps sometimes, but moral pragmatism & compromise might be the best we can hope for these days…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Howdy Liz! I tend to agree with you once again, I think the slightly more academic style of this piece makes in more inaccessible and is something I’ve been moving away from.
      I also wrote it when I felt a bit puritanical and I have been coming round much more to a pragmatic approach. I think my points still stand intellectually, but who does that help?
      I think you’ll enjoy upcoming pieces which tend to be more personal/humorous/creative. Stick around for them! And thanks as ever for the feedback!

      Like

      1. Howdy to you! No, don’t be put off the academic style of writing. I think the trick to good writing is picking the best style for each subject/audiance.Producing the academic style & making it accessible to the general reader is probably what you are aiming for? Philosophical writing is always hard, but can benefit from the light touch.
        I admire your endeavour! Liz

        Like

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