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interview on veganism

(c) Lucian Tidorescu (2013)

I don't give money to industries that harm nonhuman animals; the biggest part of that is not eating meat, eggs, dairy, etc. But I haven't written much about it; I dislike signalling virtue in that way and I'm suspicious of the cognitive effects of identity labels. But I dislike the irrational, anti-modern, hipster kinds of vegan more: I think they severely limit the potential audience for animal rights. So I had better pipe up with my supposedly more rational, bioprogressive / ecomodernist form of it. (Someone else will have to handle the task of making it not seem weird.) Handily, I was recently interviewed on the topic:

  1. Can you tell me in your own words, what your definition of veganism is? What are your reasons for being vegan?

    Veganism is usually 'abstention from consuming animal products'. My sort is less straightforward: it follows from a more general view of what is ethical: 'don't cause harm to anything which can probably experience harm'. (This sort of view is called moral consequentialism: it is (only) the consequences of your actions that make something right or wrong.) Vegetarianism is actually an implication of some very common beliefs, but few people act like they have joined the dots:

    1. It is wrong to cause unnecessary harm.
    2. Factory-farmed meat animals suffer.
    3. Humans do not need to eat meat to live or thrive.
    4. Therefore eating factory-farmed meat causes unnecessary harm.
    5. Therefore it is wrong to eat factory-farmed meat.

    (My brother is a meat-eating freegan, but that fits consequentialism: it is not eating meat that causes harm, but sending economic signals that eventually cause the meat industry to cause harm. Similarly, I wear clothes bought from charity shops, including leather; since reusing clothes does not constitute economic demand, it causes no animal suffering, so it is morally neutral. Or, actually slightly positive, since it obviates the production of new clothes.)

    I don't mind if people say I'm not vegan as a result. The label is not the point: stopping the harm is. All my reasons boil down to harm reduction:

    • direct harm, since the industry causes hundreds of billions of minds to suffer totally unnecessarily;
    • macroeconomic, since meat production wastes huge amounts of water, land and energy, which deprives many humans of resources and drives up food prices;
    • environmental, since the carbon emissions involved could eventually cause vast suffering through climate change;
    • antimicrobial resistance: the industry includes antibiotics in the feed of animals, to prevent the disgusting conditions from affecting output - this systematic administration squanders a very precious resource: the effectiveness of our medicines; this process potentiates:
    • the zoonotic risk: most human pandemics have been novel mutations in nonhuman diseases. So, by incubating billions of animals in terrible conditions, the meat industry is thus an unparalleled opportunity for global plagues.

  2. What does it mean to you personally?

    It is a minor chore I undertake in order to meet minimal ethical standards: "first, do no harm".

  3. Can you remember a specific moment that triggered your veganism? What was this?

    A logical inconsistency was pointed out to me. I'd been vegetarian since I was 16, for utilitarian and anti-capitalist reasons (e.g. McDonalds deforesting Brazil for grazing). In a first year ethics course, my lecturer pointed out that ethical vegetarianism is hypocritical:
    • since the dairy and egg industries are either the selfsame companies that form the meat industry, or their operations share profits and harmful processes with the meat industry;
    • since surprising amounts of harm are an essential part of even nonlethal factory farming (e.g. male chicks electrocuted to death at birth, calves separated from mothers at birth).
    • (Environmental vegetarianism is also inconsistent: cow's cheese causes more CO2 equivalent emissions than chicken meat.)

    Veganism appeals to me because it prevents the most harm, and because it is logically consistent where ethical vegetarianism is not.

  4. Can you tell me about your transition to veganism? How long did this take? How did you carry out your transition?

    It took me three years to accept the seriousness of this and switch. I didn't know any vegans (even the aforementioned lecturer ate cheese). Milk was the biggest hurdle; I am very into all-day cereal. So I tried every form of plant milk I could until I got used to it. (Almond and horchata win.) I still miss pizza terribly sometimes, but I actually no longer think about my diet from day-to-day; it is just second nature.

  5. Were there any challenges or personal concerns you had during your transition? How did you deal with them?

    Well, I had to cook properly for the first time in my life. And my decision was and is mocked in friendly terms by my high school friends (but never university ones). I researched the nutrition quite intensely and still keep up a solid regime. I take B12, vitamin D, creatine, and choline daily, to cover potential deficiencies. (These "subclinical" deficiencies aren't so well studied, but the remedies are safe and cost less than £1 per day, so it's a good deal.) The odd potential effects of soy isoflavones on hormonal balance was another one; I eat below 25g of raw soy per day.

    Health, as a standalone motive for veganism, is not well-supported; the studies that show e.g. decreased cancer or cardiovascular disease are selecting from a population that is already unusually health conscious (and I don't know of any proper controlled trials). It could be true, but at present it isn't warranted. Obviously I want more people to go vegan, but decisions should be evidence-based or go home.

  6. Are there any challenges or concerns that you have today with regards to your veganism? How does this make you feel?

    None really. I live in Glasgow and London which are both amazing for it.

  7. You stopped being vegan for a short period of time: what were your reasons for this? What made you return to veganism? How did stopping make you feel?

    I lived in Tanzania in 2012; the available vegan food consisted of plain haricots, spinach, cassava and potato; not at all complete enough, in protein terms, for a long-term diet. The family had a well-treated cow, so I milked it and had boiled milk with breakfast. I was completely fine with this decision, until I learned that I had contracted giardiasis, probably from that milk!

  8. Has your sex and/or gender ever been brought up as an issue/subject with regards to your veganism in any way? How did this make you feel?

    It was an issue when I lived in China, where meat still has a status that it has largely lost here; men eat as much meat as they can, for both class and gender signalling. I was teased for being squeamish or feminine in both the UK and China, but much more in China. (In Tanzania it was sometimes respected as very sophisticated but never emulated.)

    I don't mind; my gender is not really relevant to me (except insofar as being male and not having dysphoria has probably made my life easier). I am mildly confused by people whose lives revolve around it, and who are stung by the above kind of gendered mockery.

  9. Do you promote veganism in any form? If so, in what ways? What has the reaction been to this?

    I don't actively promote it; I view my role as normalising the practice by not being single-minded or stereotypical about it. I lie in wait; people usually bring it up themselves and the subsequent rational conversation is my contribution. I have opened perhaps a dozen friends to the necessity of it in this way. I don't have formal research to back this up, but I suspect that this method prevents the fruitless interactions caused by vegans' dogmatism and omnivores' "anticipated reproach".

    I recognise the need for louder activists; I will donate to the Humane League, a transparent, evidence-based animal organisation (with an amazing name) who do this work well. I would support the criminalisation of factory farms, if that turned out to be a more effective way of solving the problem than e.g. alternatives like in vitro meat or (in the short-term) meat offsets.

  10. You chose to be vegan for reasons that could be seen as trying to work towards a much bigger cause. Do you feel this way, like that you are part of a much larger movement? Or do you practice veganism and your choices are purely a personal thing?

    Yes; I am an abolitionist about any and all involuntary suffering; I have crazy sci-fi views about how we might achieve this. The awful fact is that the natural world is an appalling place; billions upon billions of creatures starving or being eaten alive or raped every day. But we simply do not have the capacity to do much for them now; ecology is far too complex for us to know that intervention would not cause even more harm. There is a fledgling academic literature on the topic, but we are a hundred years away from fixing this at minimum. The least we could do is not make the problem worse, but people inexplicably support increasing the number of obligate murderers in the world (that is, "reintroducing wolves" and all that expensive lunacy).

    The meat industry is, then, the worst single thing in the world that we can actually improve right now - worse than the 500,000 annual human malaria deaths, worse than the North Korean government which caused the death by starvation of around 2m people, worse than ISIS. Even if we value an animal life as 1/1000th as important as a human life, that would still make the end of factory farming of supreme importance, because there are more than 25 billion meat animals at a time, with the industry killing 65 billion a year (think about how that could be possible: chicken lifespan). More than 40% of them are imprisoned in factory systems, or around 90% in the rich world.

    We are fortunate that science and industry are developing a way for us to end this quickly without unrealistic social change or a potentially counter-productive legal ban on factory farms: cultured meat (physically identical animal protein, produced without harm through cell biology) is here, and its price has dropped by a factor of ten thousand in a few years; some (biased) people forecast that mass produced cultured meat could undercut factory farms and drive them out of business within 30 years.

  11. This may be already covered, but: how do you set boundaries for yourself on what is and is not acceptable to buy or consume? And are there any situations in which you would be more lenient?

    The general principle is: no unnecessary harm to anything that can feel it. In modern urban life, this means: don't go hunting and don't buy anything any way that gives money to the harmful industries. In traditional societies where hunting is still a primary food source, it means: hunt with large guns, not bows. In poor mountainous societies where sufficient crops cannot be grown it means keeping goats and sheep is permissible (until the world trade network links up with you and offers a fair price for soya).

    My friend has chronic anaemia: her eating the occasional fish is arguably necessary harm. (Obviously it would better for someone without a personal stake to judge this for us.) In the pipeline: an app for people with dietary health problems to send a recurring payment to effective animal charities, to offset their arguably necessary harm.

    You can consume animal products without moral problems if e.g. they're taken from out the bins of supermarkets (actual theft is an economic signal however so none of that); if they're heirlooms; or if it was already dead (e.g. roadkill); or if we get more info about the combination part of binding problem which lets us classify borderline cases. (There is a chance that eating clams is morally neutral; they have no central nervous system, i.e. nowhere that signals could be integrated into an experience.) I don't do any of these, for aesthetic reasons, as well as because my protease levels have changed so much in 10 years that it would probably be a very unpleasant experience!

  12. You're a member of an organisation, Giving What We Can, that helps charities proven to deliver much needed care at a low cost. With regards to your own ethical framework, is it the case, that this is more important than being a member of an organisation that is more focused on animals rights or promoting veganism? What are your reasons?

    GWWC is actually closely associated with the work of Peter Singer, perhaps the most famous animal rights thinker. But it's true that they prioritise the suffering of humans - but this isn't necessarily an ideological decision, since we have a principled (and partially objective) way of ranking which organisations to support: the QALY per dollar. I donate to the Humane League (animals), the Against Malaria Foundation (humans), and GiveWell (incredibly deep research into charity effectiveness, including animal charities), in that order. If any animal organisation shows itself to be more effective (measured in QALYs per pound) than the first two then I will switch to them too.

  13. Is being a member of an organisation that promotes veganism an important part of your ethics?

    Not inherently; only insofar as the meat industry is the worst thing in the world and insofar as the ways that one person can tackle it are as powerful as the ways I can tackle e.g. malaria in humans. I am very pessimistic about collective action in this case; most people simply do not care about meat animals, and will not switch until we make cultured meat cheaper than factory meat.

    I'm not a joiner really; I only joined GWWC in order to commit myself to a nonselfish life. No way out now, not without looking like a dick!