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Bringing Social Justice to the Table

July 22, 2004 | Vegetarianism &Veganism

Speech presented by Lee Hall on July 22, 2004
North American Vegetarian Society Vegetarian SummerFest
University of Pittsburgh - Johnstown, Pennsylvania Campus

Jennie O. Kerwood, NAVS president: I'll now introduce our next speaker at SummerFest. Lee Hall is the legal director for Friends of Animals, and a member of the Adjunct Faculty of Law at Rutgers University. Lee researches, writes, and speaks on the topics of global migration, detentions, and nonhuman rights. With Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, Lee is currently working on a pure vegetarian cookbook, Dining with Friends.

Lee Hall: As your programs say, this talk is about bringing social justice to the table.

At the beginning I'd like to mention something about direct action. I didn't mention direct action when NAVS designed the program, because these days if somebody's website says direct action, the Department of Justice may try to crash your events.

But vegetarians engage in the most consistent, effective, and direct action of all to bring about a just and enlightened society.

The life of the vegetarian is direct action. It is direct action for environmental justice. It is direct action for global food security, and thus for world peace. It is direct action for the liberation of other animals. The vegetarian addresses the most urgent social justice issues, and works not at the branches, but at the roots.

Let's start with environmental justice.

Recently, an independent panel for the World Bank suggested phasing out fossil fuels in 8 years. If we do not, warned the independent panel, we could face dire consequences. The World Bank rejected the suggestion.[1]

Now we do not usually find our breaking environmental news in Fortune magazine. But this year, some of us did.

In February, word started circulating about a new Pentagon report released to media just after Fortune and The Observer of London reported its contents. It declares that "future wars will be fought over the issue of survival rather than religion, ideology or national honor."[2]

The report describes a scenario possible in as little as 3 years from now:

In 2007, a breakdown of California's system of aqueducts would interrupt the supply of water to densely-populated southern California.

By 2020, "catastrophic" shortages of potable water and energy could lead to widespread war. Europe and the United States could be fully guarded at their borders, "virtual fortresses" staving off millions of migrants.[3]

Note that only three feet of ocean rise in China would force the evacuation of some 70 million human beings.

Quoting the report's authors, the Associated Press stated: "This report suggests that because of the potentially dire consequences, the risk of abrupt climate change, although uncertain and quite possibly small, should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern.";[4]

The report's co-ordinator, 82-year old Pentagon adviser Andrew Marshall, has a 30-year military career history, and a high reputation in national security and risk assessment.[5] Andrew Marshall is not an environmental activist.

The report indicates that national security and that of all life, non-human and human, may be at risk by the continued burning of fossil fuels, by deforestation, and intensive agriculture that all produce greenhouse gases. And intensive agriculture using animals makes up a significant part of this risk.

Methane (from cattle as well as oil and gas) has 21 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide, released by chemical fertilizers has 310 times that of carbon dioxide.[6]

We in the United States cause a lot of the warming problem. We have enriched ourselves largely by burning fossil fuels.

The United Nations is concerned about the less wealthy countries, and the threat caused by the wealthy nations' rejection of appropriate emissions treaties. In Papua New Guinea, for example, the Salesian Fathers school has had to be relocated because of the rising sea level. Bikeman island (in the Kiribati group) is now submerged, fore-warning similar outcomes for other Pacific islands.

This is a matter of the loss of ancient cultures, and languages — and physical land, the home of all of us, human and others. All life on earth is now clinging to a lifeboat. We put it there. Humans might hope for rescue, but the reality is that humanity is, in effect, throwing countless animals off the global lifeboat.

The advantaged among us also have responsibility to the hungry.

Rather than the wealthy regions of the world helping to feed the poor, protein is moving the other way. Well over 30,000 humans each day die from hunger or a related disease. This makes for a terribly unstable relationship between people. And we know that human violence has cost over 100 million human lives in last century.

The philosophers say that the true quality of a society can be measured by its treatment of those in vulnerable minorities; Gandhi said its moral progress could be measured by its attitude about other animals.

The two seem intertwined.

It is now widely known, for example, that over 1/3 of the raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the United States are used in agriculture that uses non-human animals.

And as for deforestation to create grazing land: Each vegetarian saves an acre of trees per year, which leaves other animals their natural habitat and is a key to preserving the earth's atmosphere. Through our direct action, we do have real power.

Some have said: Why don't we just raise animals in the old-fashioned way, returning to the good old family farm? The position of Friends of Animals is that these "traditional" or "humane" practices miss the point that other animals have their own interests, and were not put here to satisfy ours.

Being kind to other animals does not justify our having dominated them.

Just before leaving for this conference, I heard CBS News report that one major animal protection group is demanding that Kentucky Fried Chicken require it suppliers to treat animals more humanely.[7]

The organization says more than 9 billion chickens are killed in the United States each year for their meat. The group wants chicken factories to use gas to stun chickens before they are killed.[8] "All the laws are the books," said the group's spokesperson. "They simply need to be enforced."[9]

This group also wants to prosecute a certain supplier under West Virginia cruelty laws. Legally speaking, this is a complete waste of time at best; but it is probably outright harmful. This is the traditional way of isolating certain cases from the norm of industry practice (which itself remains acceptable). It's the focus on catastrophe, rather than what is done to other animals every day.

We saw this dynamic in Abu Ghraib, the prison in Iraq where several low- and mid-ranked personnel were charged with the cruel and inhuman treatment of human detainees. Again, we were to focus — amazed and shocked — on the catastrophe shown in the prison scenes. In Iraq, consuming living beings in war is the domination. The daily experience of domination is made normal and acceptable when we focus on certain "shocking" or "cruel" incidents as abuses for which perpetrators must be held accountable under the relevant laws and regulations.

The message should never be regulation, or that there is some sort of "cruelty" (a word we should all banish from our releases); for if dominating and consuming isn't cruel, then what is our point as a movement? The cruelty label is so clearly something that doesn't challenge dominion and control.

The message that should ring in the audience's mind by the end of any media release should always be: Eat Something Else.

But even to those who look at good old family farming simply from a practical perspective, by now it must become obvious that free-range farming is just not feasible. The tradition of family farming using nonhuman animals is now only possible for the wealthy. In contrast, most grain grown in poorer regions is consumed by humans directly. For each average steak — with all the grain and costs it represents in total — we could see that meals are provided to 45 people eating grains.[10]

The activity of our population, without a shift to a plant-based diet, means a concentration of animals — whether aquatic, feathered, or mammal — that creates a huge manure disposal problem while the use of pesticides impairs the world's water quality.[11] Already in the Netherlands, an environmental crisis has overwhelmed the populace and pig farmers may now be fined for exceeding manure quotas.

However raised, cows ruminate when digesting grasses.[12] And when they do, they produce a greenhouse gas strongly associated with global warming. At the same time, they are at increased risk of disease, because increased temperatures facilitate disease transmission. Moreover, the production of one 1 hamburger uses enough fuel to drive about 20 miles; and agriculture that uses nonhuman animals pollutes more water than all other industrial sources combined.[13]

Some have said that biotechnology is the answer. But this only allows farmers to switch to more lucrative crops for the animals they raise to slaughter. Meat and dairy animals around the world now outnumber people 3 to 1.[14] Within as little as 10 years, the grain of the world can feed the animals of the world's farms or it can feed humans. But it cannot feed both.[15]

The 5 pounds of grain fed to cattle to produce 1 pound of beef for humans is a terrible waste. It's ruining the environment, it's a basic reason people see animals as things, and it's a constant threat to human food security.

So what can we do? Humans definitely are doing something now that's putting us into this predicament. People in the U.S. now spend more money on fast food than on higher education.[16] Over 50% of California schools serve fast food brands; and the biggest source of epidemics and disease is now the hamburger.[17] Japan has experienced a 70% increase in food-related illnesses at a time when food chains like McDonald's are taking root.[18] The well-known Surgeon General report that called obesity a U.S. epidemic concluded that "Individuals lie at...the solution."

True, but what is an individual to do? Many live in communities that offer little choice. Which communities have organic vegetables at fair prices? How many have McDonald's and Burger King and KFC? What was the choice in the airports and on the highways you used to get here? What about the snack machines at your local library?

And fast food corporations say they are willing to give us our choices. Really? When 10 corporations control more than 50; of U.S. food and drink sales? Once the LightLife vegetarian product line was bought out by ConAgra, some of you might have noticed that the products started becoming increasingly "flexitarian."

How do we bring food to the table that fits our principles of justice? Everyone who has come to SummerFest already values the earth. On some level, most of use have consciously embraced direct action by working to reverse western culture's violent shift to a processed, high-fat diet and animal-based agriculture. Creating a new form of democratic activism, we have a movement that didn't even exist 30 years ago. For just a few obvious examples, raw vegan restaurants, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, and vegan organic gardening are all on the rise.

Leadership for change will not come from politicians or companies, but from ourselves, one meal at a time.

We at Friends of Animals support direct action by working this year on a pure vegetarian cookbook, which will include information on vegan organics and raw foods, as well as detailed recommendations on how to do traditional holiday meals entirely from vegan ingredients.

This will implicate parents and in-laws in direct action.

Children, in their wisdom, avoid complicated discussions of politics and proceed right into fearless activism. In Berkeley, California, the Martin Luther King Middle school students created an "edible schoolyard." The superintendent declared that there shall be a garden in every school, and this has started a nationwide trend.[19] Imagine the impact we could have by supporting the concept of vegan-organic gardening in schools everywhere.

These students know that food is more than commodity. It is a fundamental element of the way we form community and culture, and bring others into our moral community, and make moral progress. It is the single most important way in which we create a culture of respect for nonhuman animals. Growing, eating, and educating people about pure vegetarian food is direct action.

Footnotes

  1. Financial Times (2004). The World Bank's current energy lending dedicates 6 percent to renewables, 94 percent to oil.
  2. The report is called "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for U.S. National Security" (released 2004).
  3. Compare Bioscience (1993) (forecasting a possible 150 million additional refugees by 2050).
  4. The Associated Press quoted Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall. To read the biographies of these authors, or to print and read their report, visit http://www.gbn.org/ArticleDisplayServlet.srv?aid=26231.
  5. Mark Townsend and Paul Harris, "Now the Pentagon Tells Bush: Climate Change Will Destroy Us" - The Observer International (22 Feb. 2004). Available at http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,1153513,00.html.
  6. "ARS Global Change National Program (204)" - fact sheet posted by the Agricultural Research Service, the in-house research arm of the United States Department of Agriculture.
  7. Videotaped Cruelty At KFC Supplier (CBS Evening News Online, 20 Jul. 2004).
  8. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/07/20/national/main630674.shtml
  9. Televised CBS Evening News with Dan Rather (20 Jul. 2004).
  10. This fact has been noted by Frances Moore Lappe.
  11. Chemical mixes represent an annual $1.6 trillion industry — much of it in pesticides whose effects are unpredictable.
  12. "Global Change & Animal Diseases" - David M. Sherman, Harvard Medical School.
  13. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  14. George Monbiot, "Why Vegans Were Right All Along" The Guardian (24 Dec. 2002).
  15. Ibid.
  16. See http://www.mcspotlight.org/media/press/rollingstone1.html.
  17. New Scientist.
  18. This fact has been noted by Vandana Shiva. See http://www.mcspotlight.org/people/interviews/vandana_transcript.html.
  19. See http://www.edibleschoolyard.org/values.html This site is provided only as an example to inspire such projects, which can probably be done in adherence to animal rights principles.

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