When I first went vegan in 1987, the internet was this thing hardly anyone had heard of which was hard to navigate and didn’t have any websites. I imagine it did have Usenet groups on veganism,vegetarianism and animal liberation, but at the time, although I was aware of it, Usenet to me meant “buy a really expensive computer and run up a huge ‘phone bill”, and I didn’t even have a ‘phone connection at the time, Nowadays many people’s experience of the internet as such consists largely of social media, podcasts and video streaming services, which is very different, but the same kind of interaction as used to happen on bulletin boards and news groups is replicated, writ large, in these places. Consequently, one sees opinions expressed which can come across as rather odd, and likewise one’s own opinions can be read similarly. In a way, this whole post could be seen as a case study of online interaction in the ’20s, but it’s also specific to veganism.
I went vegan in 1987, and lapsed a few years later because I started to become psychotic due to B12 deficiency. This made me afraid to try going vegan again for quite a while although the deliberate animal product content in my diet was always rather low. I am now vegan again, and have been for a number of years. It occurs to me now that I’m already falling into the trap of talking about veganism as if it’s a stricter form of vegetarianism. In fact the two are not necessarily that similar.
To quote the Vegan Society which was set up in 1944 and invented the word:
“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Now, two things about this. One is that humans are animals. Therefore veganism seeks to exclude as far as is possible and practicable all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to humans for any purpose; and by extension promotes the development and use of alternatives for the benefit of all humans and the environment. Humans are the animals whom most of us interact with most and therefore can have the most impact on ethically, partly because humans are also moral agents. This makes veganism something like pacifism or perhaps socialism or green anarchism rather than a dietary pursuit, and this is not a new definition either, nor what the Vegan Society came up with in 1944. There was at first no definition, then in 1949 came a definition which included generic masculinity, but it was never just about diet. A plant-based diet is more along the lines of vegetarianism, and can be pursued for non-ethical reasons. By contrast, although vegetarianism is often adopted or maintained for ethical reasons, that isn’t what vegetarianism is. Vegetarianism is a diet which excludes any part of the body of an animal consumed intentionally. We do of course all eat animals, because there are animals in our food, we may accidentally inhale gnats and so forth, and of course we constantly tread on small animals and kill them and our immune systems are constantly engaged in wholesale slaughter, but there is no mens rea there.
The other thing about this is what constitutes an animal, and this seems to make me rather heterodox compared to some other vegans. My definition of an animal is “a multicellular heterotrophic eukaryote without cell walls”, and also I’m one of those nightmare caricature vegans who believes that plants have feelings. I’ll come to that. In any event, my definition of an animal seems to differ from that of some other people who call themselves vegan, and this comes out in language use.
I’m on a particular Facebook group for vegans which I find a little irritating as it seems to focus substantially on what you can buy in shops which substitutes for various animal products such as meat, cheese and eggs. Leaving that aside, nobody can really vet who joins, so it may be that many of the members are not vegan. If they do see themselves as vegan, some of them seem to fall rather short of the standard. On the group, I’ve seen animals being described as “vermin” or “hazards”, which to me is not vegan language but objectifying. For instance, there was a recent discussion started by a motorist who accidentally ran over and killed a rodent. One of the responses was along the lines of “there are people suffering atrocities in the world and publicly-funded bodies which work hard to keep you and your family safe from vermin, and you should get things in proportion”. This struck me as a deeply non-compassionate response, and it made it seem that rodents just don’t matter ethically. I have to say I don’t understand why opinions like this are expressed on the group, and I wonder if it’s because people are oriented around a plant-based diet rather than ethics.
There was also a discussion about plant consciousness, because as I’ve said I do believe plants are conscious because I’m panpsychist and probably hylozoist too. I’ve been into more depth on that link. Going into more scientific-style detail, I’ll begin by mentioning a few obvious examples of plants responding noticeably to stimuli. The most evident ones are Mimosa pudica, a plant which wilts when touched, the various heterotrophic plants such as the Venus fly trap and sundew, plants such as sunflowers, whose inflorescences follow the Sun and the numerous plants whose flowers and inflorescences open during the day and close at night. There are also the swimming microscopic unicellular algæ such as Chlamydomonas or Volvox, and plants such as liverworts producing semen rather than pollen. All of this, though, is biassed towards movement because we happen to be errant animals. Many animals are sessile and much of what we do has little to do with moving. In a sense this is an anthropomorphic view, and in fact our brains themselves, often understood to be seats of consciousness, don’t move of their own accord but are transported around in the vehicle of one’s body.
Over two dozen years ago, it was found that forest trees share and exchange nutrients such as minerals and sugar via a symbiotic underground network of fungi nicknamed the Wood Wide Web, also known as the mycorrhizal network. They are unable to thrive without this network and use it to gather their own water and minerals. Conifers at least, if not broadleaved trees, also share their carbon via sugar with related seedlings. Radiocarbon labelling of carbon dioxide built into sugar by the photosynthesis of trees has resulted in the labelled carbon showing up in closely related seedlings nearby but not more distant relatives, after the seeds have left the tree. The topology of this mycorrhizal/tree network is the same as that of a brain, with modules like the lobes of a brain, and at least one substance used as a neurotransmitter, glutamate, is also used for communication in this symbiotic network. If a tree is sufficiently injured that it’s likely to die, it will give up its own nutrients and distribute them via the Wood Wide Web to nearby trees and boost their health. If one is attacked by parasites such as aphids or caterpillars, it again signals to other trees in the vicinity and they will boost their resistance to these parasites. Orchids also fool this system to redirect nutrients to themselves from trees. I always see orchids as flowers who think they’re fungi.
Although this doesn’t mean individual trees are conscious, it does suggest entire forests are. The differences between them and brains is more to do with scale and time than anything real, and since we don’t know why we’re conscious it seems presumptious to posit that trees are not, particularly given this mountain of evidence of their similarity to brain cells.
A vegan who does not wish to acknowledge plant consciousness may opt for a solution to the mind-body problem which allows them to do this, because this is how metaphysics tends to work. It manufactures spurious excuses for ignoring real ethical issues, as I found when I was at Warwick and Christine Battersby denied that other species were conscious because they didn’t use language. How very convenient that their voicelessness allows the voiceless to be disregarded and ignored. And this from a major feminist thinker.
Back to the subject of fungi. I asked someone on the group if he ate fungi and he replied that he did not. The relevance of this is of course that fungi are not plants. This may or may not be a technical distinction. Trivially speaking, he almost certainly does eat fungi because their spores are ubiquitous and therefore all over much food just as bacteria are. Moreover, not only does this imply that he doesn’t eat mushrooms, but also anything with yeast in it, and that’s a tall order, as many observant Jews would tell you. It doesn’t just mean not eating bread, yeast extract and fermented beverages. Many fungi occupy what I consider a confusing place in the food chain. My initial motivation for becoming vegetarian was based on tropic levels. Eating animals is inefficient because they eat either other animals themselves or plants (or in a few cases just bacteria or fungi) and then run some of the energy gained off, but they may eat things we can’t get nutrition from ourselves. In general, though, it makes more sense to eat the producers rather than the consumers because that way, more people can be fed and less land or water, or just area, needs to be used. This is why the world does not have a population problem regarding food. It has a capitalism and a “people not being veggie” problem. Fungi, however, don’t fit neatly into this because they’re the organisms who complete the cycle, so it’s harder to work out how efficient they are. Incidentally, psychologically my vegetarianism worked as follows. Once I’d accepted the tropic levels argument, I mainly gave up meat on that basis, but having done so I no longer needed the rationalisations often employed by people who wish to continue their carnism, so I dropped them and it became primarily about animal liberation. Fungi, though, are potentially problematic for another reason. Slime moulds are, well, I hesitate to say “intelligent enough”, but are capable of navigating mazes and solving the Travelling Salesperson Problem. This last capacity puts them in that respect beyond the capacity of human intelligence, because we can’t. However, slime moulds are technically not fungi but amœbozoa, which are protists, formerly classified as animals. It should probably also be borne in mind that the forest communication system just mentioned is genuinely fungal.
The way I reconcile this, because it means that whatever I eat, sticking with that for now, will cause death and suffering, is to consider the larger number of organisms harmed on a higher tropic level, and this applies to arable farming as well as livestock farming, so the excuse that vegans are responsible for more animal deaths doesn’t hold together either.
That’s one issue. There’s another regarding eating bivalves which I’ve gone into some time ago. But there’s a third which is quite far-reaching and has been bothering me since childhood.
There’s a well-known adage about psychopaths and serial killers that in childhood they were cruel to members of other species, which doesn’t seem to work at all. Many tales are told of people who became serial killers as adults who were notably cruel to “animals” when they were young. For instance there’s this article (plus one by PETA which I shall studiously ignore because they suck). Jeffrey Dahmer and Ian Brady are examples given in that article, which seems not be publicly accessible, and talks about cats and dogs – placental mammals. I sometimes wonder if this is an artifact of other aspects of antisocial personalities, not that they are cruel, but that their cruelty is discovered. In a survey of Romanian teenagers, 86% said they thought it was normal to see animals tortured or killed, which is because there are many feral dogs in that country. Those who witnessed these incidents were more likely to kill themselves or self-harm, and again I feel this is a crude understanding of self-harm.
However, as a child I was aware that boys in my village routinely killed and tortured animals, particularly fish, and I think that there is a conceptual chain of being involved here where those incidents of cruelty are discounted compared to cruelty to birds or other mammals. Now we live in a society where there are serial killers who may have been unusually cruel or murderous to dogs and cats as children, but the question arises of what kind of society we’d be living in if similar cruelty against other classes of animal than just birds and mammals was taken as seriously. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations with people who seem to think that veganism is about avoiding cruelty to “animals”, when in fact they are at most including birds, mammals and sometimes other vertebrates, and as the conversation mentioned above has it, apparently not even other members of our own superorder such as rodents. As I say, it’s hard to interpret what’s going on here because nobody knows who is actually vegan, and I suspect there are quite a few plant-based diet followers on that group who don’t actually care about the ethics.
It would be remiss of me to ignore a notorious YouTube video about veganism being incompatible with socialism.
More views for her of course. In this video, Unnatural Vegan confuses neoliberalism with social democracy, which isn’t a good look and doesn’t inspire confidence in her other opinions. She is of course 100% wrong. One notable aspect of this video is that she appears to be arguing from a utilitarian perspective – actions are right in proportion that they tend to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. She describes herself as a consequentialist. Her opinions are in fact so at odds with consistent veganism that I almost wonder if she’s actually advocating for veganism or is some kind of “plant” (pun unintentional). But that’s just paranoia and not productive. Just looking at her ideas and arguments is a better approach. Her consequentialism is significant because she argues that injustice is only wrong when it harms people, which is the utilitarian problem with justice. Utilitarianism does not seem able to account for justice per se. To a utilitarian, two situations with the same degree of happiness and unhappiness, one of which is fair and the other not, are morally equivalent, which is widely seen as a major flaw in that ethical theory. The reason this argument is made is that animal “rights” have historically often been understood as following from utilitarianism, which incidentally is why those quotes are there – utilitarians don’t believe in rights as real or meaningful – “nonsense on stilts” is the phrase. Thought Slime has done a thorough job on this, so I’ll just embed his video instead of continuing further:
Having said all that, there is another interesting perspective on animal liberation which is not left wing. If you believe human nature is broken and either unfixable or that we should take advantage of that brokenness to the general benefit of society, your view of other species might well be that they do not suffer from this brokenness. For instance, they don’t know right from wrong, they’re not selfish, not scheming and so forth. As such, it’s a valid view that they should not suffer from our natural tendency to exploit them and willingness to turn a blind eye to their suffering and death, and therefore you can actually perfectly validly be both right wing and in favour of animal liberation. At some point I’m going to have to address the issue of politics vs. people, but once again this is beyond the scope of this post.
There is one final thing I think I should say about veganism as a diet. Nowadays it’s been assimilated by capitalism, with the result that all sorts of products are marketed at us, often in the form of meat and dairy substitutes, and this probably contributes to the perception that veganism is a luxury for the rich. This is not the case. It is the case that companies are trying to market this idea and get us to spend lots of money on a plant-based diet when we needn’t. That said, there might be a problem in the form of food deserts. There is a branch of Spar near where I used to live in Leicester where I used to go occasionally trying to find something to eat, and it was seriously full of practically useless, non-nutritional foods and other products. I can imagine this is the case in horribly wide areas in some parts of the country, and part of the solution would be to grow food on brownfield sites, which often coincide, but the will has to be there along with a reluctance to trash them from the authorities and others. There are various factors involved in food deserts, including the sheer absence of outlets of healthy food, the affordability of any food of that kind which does exist and the availability of fresh produce. Against this one might set the fact that supermarkets deliberately make unsold food inedible, the existence of product “mountains” and the difficulty of getting local authorities to agree to allotments and other means of growing healthy food. Leaving all this aside though, if you can get the food, and we’re only really talking the likes of rice, baked beans, lentils, bananas and so forth, it is undoubtedly affordable and probably cheaper than a meat-based diet. Veganism is being saddled with an undeservèdly privileged image. What you do when you go vegan is not to replace all the things you ate before with a vegan alternative: you redesign your entire diet on nutritional principles and you research the sources, which incidentally very often include what people think of as weeds such as stinging nettles and dandelions. It isn’t hard, and it’s a moral imperative.