Guest blog post by sociology professor Dan Brook, PhD
It’s sometimes hard for me to understand how compassionate young people, including feminists, environmentalists, civil rights activists, socialists, and other social justice warriors can be so regressive on the issue of meat and dairy.
For them, perhaps it seems like a personal choice, perhaps because “we’ve always done it that way,” perhaps because they think it tastes good, perhaps because it’s easy, perhaps because of family pressure. But this means that, as Matthew Scully recognizes, “The most basic animal needs are always to be subordinated to the most trivial human desires.”
The exciting news is that more and more teens and twentysomethings are eating cleaner and greener, becoming vegetarian and vegan. As a sociology professor, I see this every semester.
Take teens, for example.
Isabella Hood, age 15, is fairly typical: “The main reason I became vegan was because I see all animals as my friends and I would not want to eat a pig, just as I would not want to eat a dog. Every animal is a living, breathing and feeling creature who doesn’t want to die. I don’t want to contribute to their deaths.”
Isabella adds: “There is so much I could say about why veganism is the only sustainable choice for people. I could spout so many shocking statistics and facts. For example, animal agriculture is the leading cause of CO2 emissions, deforestation, and pollution of our waterways.”
Abigail Wheeler, age 17, relates “I went vegan for three reasons: animals, health, and the environment.” She says “My dad thought it was really strange at first,” but her mom was on board right away and her dad came around.
Genesis Butler, age 13, went vegetarian at only 3 years old, later vegan, after finding out where her food came from. At 10, she became the youngest person to give a TEDx talk. “According to many scientific studies,” Genesis says in her bubbly way, “raising animals for food is the primary cause of global climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and water shortage — just to name a few.”
Sarah Goody, age 15, tells me “As a climate activist, I understand that I cannot fight for climate justice without fighting for animal rights. Veganism isn’t just an animal rights issue, it’s an issue of climate justice, racial justice, economic justice… Veganism isn’t just a diet, it’s a lifestyle. It’s prioritizing compassion, kindness, and morality.”
Coleen Brennan, age 14, exclaims “Veganism is a lot more popular among teens these days.” She continues with a common sentiment: “Becoming vegan has affected every aspect of my life. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
We may not always want to think about it, but we know that eating meat contributes to confinement, cruelty, torture, rape, terror, violence, and murder — a major violation of our ethics. Every year, billions of individual animals (millions per day!) are tortured and killed in a variety of horrible ways. The cruelty is an endless abomination. Yet, like Rai Aren, we “know that the same spark of life that is within you, is within all of our animal friends, the desire to live is the same within all of us.”
Take chickens, for example.
Chicken meat mostly comes from the objectified breasts of very young females (killed at about 6-7 weeks) with tight confinement, torture, and murder along the way. They are typically stuffed into cages, tightly crammed together, beaks cut off without anesthesia, with poor lighting and ventilation. This happens to about 9 billion chickens each year in the U.S. And this horrific treatment is inflicted on even more chickens for their eggs, while the unproductive males are summarily killed as babies by being pushed into grinders or garbage bags.
The accumulating litter, feathers, and feces produced by so many chickens and other captive birds create serious environmental problems. Mass-produced chicken is also a substantial public health threat: “If there were no poultry industry,” concludes Neal D. Barnard, M.D., “there would be no epidemics of bird flu.” It’s worth noting that the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 that killed tens of millions of people worldwide was a type of bird flu that originated on a chicken farm in Kansas.
Take cows, for example.
Cows are branded, injected with hormones, transported long distances, crowded together, fed unnatural diets, stunned, hung upside down, bled out, and eviscerated, not always in that order. Given the pitifully weak state of U.S. law for farm animals, these animals do not even have to be dead before being skinned or cut into pieces on the disassembly line.
Dairy cows are forced to calve every year, being forcefully artificially inseminated and re-inseminated on what the industry calls “rape racks,” constantly forced to endure pain and then repeated pregnancy, with their newborns separated from them shortly after birth, exacerbating the trauma. Female calves are channeled into the dairy industry to replace their mothers, while male calves are pushed into the meat industry, mostly for beef, though about a million male calves are quickly turned into veal in a torturous process.
Dairy cows are fed unnaturally rich diets, are pumped with antibiotics (in some cases, every day) and hormones (e.g., BGH), and are subjected to other cruelties to further increase milk production to about a 1000% of what they would normally produce for their babies. About half the dairy cows in the U.S. suffer from painful mastitis and many more from other illnesses, diseases, and indignities. Instead of living to about 25 years, dairy cows are worn out after about 3 or 4 years of hyperexploitation, at which point they are shuttled from milk production to meat production.
Each cow produces about 120 pounds (55 kg.) of wet manure every day, in addition to their burping and farting, all of which emits a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, the major greenhouse gases, as well as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. The amount of water used to produce the meat from a single cow is enough to float a large ship. Tropical rainforest, including the amazing and precious Amazon Rainforest, is destroyed to create cheap land for cattle grazing, as well as the genetically-engineered and monocropped soy and corn to feed the hundreds of millions of cattle. If there were no cattle industry, there would be no E. coli outbreaks or mad cow disease; if there were no cattle industry, there would be much less deforestation, climate change, and species extinction.
Take pigs, for example.
Approximately 100 million pigs — crowded, crated, mutilated — are raised for slaughter in the U.S. every year for the production of hot dogs, pork, ham, bacon, salami, sausage, pepperoni, prosciutto, etc. A typical hog factory farm generates raw waste equivalent to a city of 12,000 people. The swine flu pandemic originated on a hog farm in North Carolina.
According to Hog Farm Management, “What we are really trying to do is to modify the animal’s environment for maximum profit … Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory.” Pigs, who are cute, social, and can be quite smart, are usually slaughtered at around six months young.
This is not nearly all the cruelties and tragedies that transpire and we have not even spoken about turkeys, geese, ducks, sheep, goats, fish, shrimp, lobsters, octopuses, and other living beings that are forced to suffer.
At the 2012 Empowering Women of Color Conference, Angela Davis stated we all must challenge “the whole capitalist industrial form of food production.” Davis mentioned that “Most people don’t think about the horrendous suffering that those animals must endure simply to become food products to be consumed by human beings.”
Farmed animals, also known as livestock, are unwilling captives, who have no choice, no defense, no rights, and no alternative options against their cruel and unusual punishment for which they committed no crime. “[Animals] were not made for
Writing for Harvard Political Review, Joseph Winters makes the case that this “pandemic provides an opportunity to more deeply interrogate the structural injustice of this system. It is animal agriculture that is wrong.” Jane Goodall, perhaps the world’s top expert on chimpanzees, suggests we need to change our ways. “We have brought this on ourselves because of our absolute disrespect for animals and the environment,” Jane said. “Our disrespect for wild animals and our disrespect for farmed animals has created this situation where disease can spill over to infect human beings.” And yet the barbarism against these innocent animals continues.
Take workers, for example.
Working conditions are notoriously horrible with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and repetitive stress injuries, headaches, nightmares, amputations, and worse, making meat a critical labor, human rights, and social justice issue, as well. Many of the workers on factory farms and in slaughterhouses are immigrants, some undocumented, and they are less likely to complain about their unjust conditions and less likely to unionize, while engaging in dangerous, underpaid labor. The workers are apparently as sacrificial as the animals, all in the name of profit and blood lust.
Slaughterhouses are one of the most dangerous workplaces for humans. According to Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, “at least 1/3 of meatpacking workers are injured every year.” Human Rights Watch calls meatpacking “the most dangerous factory job in America.”
Further, the waste products of the meat industry are disproportionately and unfairly dumped onto poor communities of color in yet another poisonous example of environmental racism and classism. It is not “out of sight, out of mind” for those without the requisite economic wealth, political power, and social status who are forced to live with it. These are critical issues of social, racial, and economic justice.
Take the environment, for example.
“Behind virtually every great environmental complaint,” declares Lee Hall, “there’s milk and meat.” The livestock industry is the one of the largest contributors to environmental destruction, along with the fossil fuel industries. The environmental implications of meat are disastrous and meat is substantially implicated in climate change, deforestation, habitat destruction, species extinction, air and water pollution, soil erosion and degradation, overuse of resources, epidemics and pandemics, etc. “Shifting away from meat and dairy,” Michael Pellman Rowland reports, “is the single most effective way to regenerate our ecosystem and prevent its destruction.”
Climate change is a mega-disaster, overheating our planet to alarming levels with catastrophic consequences and evidence suggests that livestock raised for meat and dairy is responsible for 51% — a majority! — of greenhouse gases that lead to climate change, according to “Livestock and Global Warming,” a report by the Worldwatch Institute (Nov/Dec 2009). And, writes Jonathan Safran Foer, “if cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.”
Greta Thunberg became vegan for the environment and convinced her parents to join her. That success inspired her to go bigger. Greta, age 17, started her School Strike for Climate, now known as Fridays For Future, in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2018 when she was 15. Having spoken at the United Nations, the European Union, and the World Economic Forum, and having won numerous awards, she is changing the world after changing her family.
Take you, for example.
“We treat animals how we used to treat human slaves. What possible justification could there be for that?” writes Gary Francione in “One Right For All.” Like racism, sexism, and homophobia, we engage in unfair and unjust species-ism when we treat — and eat — animals as means to our own selfish ends, simply because we have the physical force, political power, economic means, and social privilege to be able to do so.
Every action we take is a vote — an economic vote, a social vote, and a moral vote. Every time meat, poultry, or fish — and any other animal product — is purchased or consumed, it is a vote for that to continue, a vote for brutality, a vote for more innocent and defenseless animals to be commodified and killed, a vote for more trees to be cut or burned down, a vote for more wilderness to be encroached upon, a vote for the overuse of chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, water, and fossil fuels, a vote for the poisoning of our air, land, and water, a vote for monoculturalism and a loss of biodiversity, a vote for the overconsumption of a few and the exclusion of the many, a vote for more disease and ill-health, a vote for force and violence and selfishness. Regardless of your intentions, these are the results.
Holocaust survivor Alex Hershaft grew up in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. Hershaft likens American attitudes toward farm animals to German attitudes toward Jews and other religious, racial, sexual, and physical minorities targeted for death during World War Two. “Millions knew about the death camps in their midst, but pretended not to notice,” Hershaft intones, “just as we pretend not to notice factory farms, slaughterhouses, and factories.” Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer famously wrote that “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Whatever behavior is accepted toward one living being will be applied to other living beings, both human and animal. “In the moral universe,” Hershaft declares, “it really shouldn’t matter who the victims are.” This truism has been known for thousands of years, resulting in many religions having some version of what’s called the Golden Rule.
We are responsible for the logical consequences of the actions we take. Any willing participation in the meat production-and-consumption process, even passive acceptance, also implies responsibility for the dire consequences of that process. Meat-eaters — regardless of their ideologies, philosophies, theologies, beliefs, and intentions — effectively vote for continuing otherwise-unnecessary mass suffering, death, and environmental destruction.
“Given the horrible treatment of farm animals, tremendous environmental damage done by animal agriculture, and health risks associated with consumption of meat, dairy products, and eggs,” Gordon Ehrman wonders, “I can’t understand why anyone would choose to eat those foods.” It’s not good for our personal health, spiritual health, public health, animal health, worker health, and environmental health.
“Animal agriculture not only exploits animals, it exploits us,” Dr. Will Tuttle laments. “As we exploit and abuse, we will be exploited and abused. Each one of us, as we purchase meat, dairy, or egg products, becomes an invisible killer to the cows, pigs, hens, and fishes we are exploiting. We directly but invisibly cause terror, pain, and death, and we compound it further by eating it and feeding it to our vulnerable and innocent children, ritually indoctrinating them as we were.”
But the animals and the Earth have you: your daily choices and your advocacy. Meat is highly regressive in so many ways and compassionate youth — feminists, environmentalists, civil rights activists, socialists, communists, anarchists, animal lovers, those who want to silence the violence and increase the peace, those who support public health, social justice warriors, and other solutionaries — should not support this violent, destructive, and fascistic industry.
No one is forcing us to be progressive, to care about our fellow beings, to improve on the past, to be better, to be part of the solution, not the problem. It’s our choice.
The best personal thing we can do for the worst global problems is to avoid animal products and embrace a plant-based lifestyle. Should teens delete meat? The answer is clear.
Dan Brook, PhD teaches sociology at San Jose State University, where he is Faculty Advisor of the Spartan Veg Club, is on the Board of San Francisco Veg Society, the Advisory Board of Jewish Veg, an Administrator of Vegetarian & Vegan Chiang Mai (on Facebook), has edited the non-profit veg cookbook Justice in the Kitchen, and is author of the forthcoming Eating the Earth.