As we discussed in one of our articles, there is the possibility that veganism as practiced today will not bring about our vision. You may have noticed that our vision is vegan agnostic. While we cannot speak for our colleagues in the Vegan World Alliance (VWA), there are many reasons we have a vegan agnostic vision. One of them is that the term “vegan” is just a label we voluntarily apply to ourselves, and, like all other labels, it has no inherent power to bring about our vision. Therefore, our vision being the most important thing, we do not want to be tied down to a label that one day may no longer be concordant with our vision.
Our commitment to our vision is steadfast. We hope the following analysis and discussion of various topics and concepts within veganism will inspire reflection and increase our ability to refrain from exploiting animals.
This is important since a purely dietary approach will make our vision impossible. As we have repeated countless times, we are not against the molecular structure of things but the exploitation behind it. The alternative would be shortsighted and confusing the objectives with some of the means to achieve those objectives.
Related to the point above, since veganism is not a list of ingredients there is also no such thing as a dietary vegan. Veganism cannot be split into sub-components; this is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Dietary veganism does not exist any more than a version of veganism exclusively to end the exploitation of non-human animals: Both are unable to bring about our vision.
Furthermore, a vegan diet is an almost meaningless term just like a caucasian diet would be. A vegan diet is anything a person who self-identifies as vegan eats. This is why we no longer use this term as it is at best misleading; instead we say “foods suitable for vegans”.
Similarly, as we have discussed in the past, we have also stopped using plant-based; instead we say 100% plant ingredients or animal-free ingredients, the latter being preferred. The simple reason is, in hindsight, using “plant-based” should have never happened as a replacement to various concepts in veganism. However, even “100% plant ingredients” is at best misleading because when people use this term they usually mean to include many ingredients that are not part of the Plant Kingdom like mushrooms, salt, water, microbe, yeast, some algae, etc. This is why the sub-component of our certification is called “Animal-free ingredients” because that is actually what we meant all along.
As long as we are on earth, it is impossible to destroy the environment without exploiting animals. The environment is an integral part of veganism. It is simply impossible to achieve our vision while destroying the environment. As we have discussed before, since animals used for food are but a very small proportion of all animals exploited, we posit that environmental degradation is a bigger exploitation vector for animals at large than factory farms.
It seems like we are stating the obvious, but unfortunately, many organizations that label themselves as vegan are simply in the business of moving exploitation around, not ending it. They move it from non-human animals to human animals by certifying goods and services made using slavery, slavery-like conditions, child labor, or any other form of exploitative practices.
Furthermore, from a linguistic point of view, the anti-science reference to animals as explicitly or implicitly excluding human animals is likely due in part to the remnants of our past. We may have forgotten, but throughout our history, countless people had to die to propagate the scientific views that provide the foundation for our current society. There was a time when saying that the earth was not the center of the universe or that humans are animals could get one killed. For veganism, the impact is exponentially more serious because it crumbles the ethical foundation that we need to support our arguments.
It should be clear that this makes our vision impossible. As we have discussed in more depth, veganism becomes nothing more than a mindless list of products we avoid instead of a philosophy or way of life when we decide to exploit human animals in order to save other animals from exploitation. We have forgotten one of the main reasons we focus our efforts on non-human animals is because they are underrepresented, not because they are more deserving to be free from exploitation. Veganism falls apart if we allow the exploitation of human animals because they look different from cows.
There are a few reasons for this. First, we define what is and is not sentient when in reality it is hard to translate the human animal experience of pain to other animals. We know that perception is subjective: For us, a pair of shoes is just that, but perhaps ants perceive them as mountains. Furthermore, just like any other scientific field, what is and is not sentient evolves. For example, decades ago the scientific consensus was that lobsters are not sentient, but over time the scientific consensus shifted. In addition, since we use the precautionary principle in veganism, we simply do not want to take a chance.
In a dichotomy, as soon as we define sentient animals, we similarly define non-sentient animals.
In addition, while we normally think of water as not an animal, living or sentient, the problem is that most sentient beings are made of non-sentient beings. For example, most animals are composed of water; when the water is within the animal it is part of that sentient being, and if we pollute their bodily fluid we harm this animal. But when the water is outside and we pollute it, we often do not consider this harming animals.
If we ask people whether injecting a cow with mercury is an action suitable for people who self-identify as vegan, we posit most people would answer with a resounding No. On the other hand, if we asked the same people whether injecting mercury in the water was an action suitable for vegans, we posit we would not hear the same resounding No. The fact that all animals are made from non-animal parts is another reason why the environment is an essential element of veganism and the achievement of our vision.
Nevertheless, it is clear that if we pollute the water it will eventually harm all animals since we are all composed of water. Our environment is becoming more and more polluted; as a result, the bodies of animals are also more polluted. In 2005, tests on a group of newborn human animals detected 287 chemicals in umbilical cord blood; of those, 180 of them are known to cause cancer, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development.
We must realize that the Animal Kingdom is vast and the majority of animals are not those used as foods. Furthermore, there are even animals that cannot be seen with the human eye. It is not reasonable at this time to avoid killing or even eating some of those very small animals. However, we can be aware that animals are both visible and invisible and not be careless. For example, gathering leaves and setting them on fire is careless and shows a lack of understanding of our complex environment. Another good example of this would be speeding on our roads. This is not only illegal and could be a criminal offence, but it also makes it much more likely to kill animals that may stray onto the road.
It is our responsibility to always make sure we are at the edge of our capabilities as human animals and to always seek to expand them further in order to bring about the end of animal exploitation. However, what is in the realm of possibilities is decided by each individual and not by a vegan jury of 12 members. Therefore, it is up to each one of us to interpret what this means in our own life.
Vegan is simply a label that we choose to apply to ourselves. We must realize that no one can know for certain whether someone else is truly within the realm of their capabilities or just lacking in their efforts. Many arguments involving people who self-identify as vegan are a result of trying to impose on others our version of what is feasible for ourselves. We want to avoid discussions like “I’m 82.5% vegan and you are 63.6%,” or “I’m 81.8% vegan but hope to be 82.4% by next month.” Instead, when we are faced with an action we believe should be feasible for others, we should constructively share the benefits and insights with others so they can adapt to make it possible for themselves.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that this ability to only do what is feasible for us only applies to individuals and not organizations. As an organization that self-identifies as vegan, we must lead by example; what is feasible for us must be in accordance with achieving our vision in a timely manner, meaning that as an organization our actions must be consistent with a world where if everyone followed our actions the exploitation of animals would end. We cannot and must not let our individual limitations permeate the organization.
As per the above, since it's up to each individual to decide what is feasible for them, such a statement is illogical. It is impossible to know whether someone is just being lazy or is doing what is feasible for them. This is one of the reasons why we always talk about things not being vegan certifiable instead of not vegan. This is an objective statement that can be easily evaluated against some criteria. We believe simply saying "XYZ is not vegan" is a confusing shorthand for a statement like “For the circumstance of the people or audience I am now addressing, I am guessing that given a few hours of discussion many would conclude that someone who is committed to our vision would find it inconsistent with those objectives to do XYZ.”
We can easily imagine a scenario where it would not be feasible for someone in North America to avoid eating meat. For example, many governmental institutions like hospitals, prisons and jails do not offer foods suitable for vegans even though they are legally required to; if a person ends up spending weeks or months there and they have no help, would eating meat require them to no longer consider themselves vegan? Or what if in the next financial crisis we experience homelessness for months or years living on the generosity of others? Eating meat in this case is likely to be concordant with our vision and still fulfills our definition of veganism. We say likely because the devil is in the details. If we are in prison without any options suitable for vegans but go for the 72-ounce steak challenge three times a day, it seems inconsistent with what our capabilities as human animals should be.
It has happened more than once that hospitals called us because someone who self-identified as a vegan was refusing to eat foods unsuitable for vegans, and the situation was so dire that death was a possibility. Clearly we are against the killing of animals, and we do not want people to misunderstand veganism and think that it requires killing ourselves when no suitable options are available. On the other hand, we also want people to understand that they must always seek to expand their capabilities and ensure they are at all times at the edge of their capabilities as human animals.
Making an absolute statement like “meat is not vegan” ignores possible technological innovation and causes some people to be defensive. In reality, many people are hard at work making commercially profitable lab-grown meat a reality, and while we posit many would not be vegan certifiable, it’s possible some would qualify. In the future, it could well be that most people who are today not willing to reduce their meat consumption are simply having vegan certified lab-grown meat instead. An initial reticence towards reducing meat consumption should not be interpreted as an ultimate barrier to the adoption of veganism.
In addition, this propagates the fallacy that veganism cares about the molecular structure of things. The problem is not with the molecular structure of meat itself but the exploitation necessary to produce the meat. This practice of veganism, which we will simply refer to as molecular veganism—a form of veganism that focuses on the molecular structures of things instead of the animal exploitation behind it—is an emerging threat to the achievement of our vision. We have discussed it in more detail in this article.
There are plant-based industries, such as palm oil, and cocoa, where animal exploitation commonly occurs via animal slavery, slavery-like conditions, and child labour, not to mention the destruction of animal habitats and vital ecosystems for countless species. Continuing these practices means we will never end animal exploitation and our vision will never be achieved.
Veganism is not black and white. We have to remember that around 80% of the world lives under $10 USD per day, and around 50% of the world lives under $2.50 per day, and it may be quite difficult for some to adopt a vegan lifestyle. It is interesting to note that the 50% who make more than $2.50 per day are also the cause of much of the trouble our environment is experiencing today. We do not have any members in the VWA outside of a G-20 country, so we have no idea what veganism would look like in a country where people make less than $10 per day. One day we will need to figure it out if we want to end the exploitation of animals. Until then, we should not foster divisiveness but encourage everyone to do what they can, even if we consider this threshold of what is feasible too low for us. It also directly supports the mission of many vegan organizations for making veganism easily adoptable.
Since our vision is to end animal exploitation, our way of life must at the very least be sustainable. We are making various ethical arguments about a philosophy and lifestyle which treats species equally and aims to end the exploitation of all animals; this lifestyle must at the very least be sustainable. Any other way of living, while maybe feasible to some, would not be feasible to all for any meaningful length of time. This contradicts the basis on which the vegan philosophy is based.
If everyone on the planet were to adopt a diet consisting of 100% plants, we would most likely be in a better position but still very far from achieving our vision. One of the reasons is, for most of us living in developed countries, we would still not be living sustainably since diet is only part of our way of living. Currently, most developed countries consume many times the number of planets that would be required for humans to live sustainably. This may be a case where for our North American society this is what is currently feasible for us: consumerism. Nevertheless, this makes our vision impossible.
There are various pros and cons to our economic system, and one of the pros is that corporations will produce goods that society demands. For-profit corporations do not care whether we change from buying 50 pairs of leather pants to 50 pairs of vegan-certified pants; what they care about is that we buy 50 or more pairs. When narrowly looking at each action in a vacuum, it might seem that it does not go against our vision to buy 50 pairs of vegan-certified pants per month, or that our travelling pollutes as much as a small country; however, when taken as a whole, these actions clearly exploit animals because we are not doing our fair share on climate change, and we are taking an unreasonable share of the resources required by all species to live.
It’s important to note that if we had perfect knowledge, could account for all animal exploitation and assign each individual a score based on the amount of animal exploitation they are directly or indirectly responsible for, we posit that a majority of people who self-identify as vegan in G-20 countries would account for more animal exploitation than some people who do not self-identify as vegan from non-G-20 countries. We should reflect on this.
We work as hard to prevent human-caused mass killing due to climate change as we do to end factory farming; this is not a case of scope creeping, but a requirement to achieve our vision.
The needs and desires of human beings can be infinite, but the resources are not. This is why if everyone adopted the average vegan lifestyle in most developed countries, we would most likely still not have enough resources with one planet. In our society of consumerism, where the system is not only meant to offer something to fill every need and desire we may have but to even create desires we do not yet have, it can be difficult to avoid this endless spiral.
There are people who self-identify as vegan who have no qualms about killing insects like spiders, mosquitoes and flies. To those people, the discomfort they feel goes beyond their view of what is feasible. In addition, there are also people who self-identify as vegan and who in some circumstances will eat animal products. This is part of our task to educate the public in order to expand each individual’s definition of feasible while being joyful doing it. In addition, as we have touched on previously, we want to encourage people to constructively share their experiences with others so they can expand what is possible for them.
Someone might object and say that pretty much everyone can self-identify as vegan with all the reasoning above, and that is almost correct. As we have seen, there is no vegan jury nor do we certify people, but we consider the only barrier to entry the notion of intention and effort. We fulfill the definition from the moment we make a strong commitment to ourselves, take actions to adopt the philosophy and lifestyle, and seek to expand our capabilities to avoid taking part in animal exploitation.
The road to veganism is often a progression because few of us are raised vegan from birth. We would also make the case that from the first day we self-identified with the word vegan to 20 years after, many of us will have a completely different reality of what is feasible in our daily lives. What may have not been feasible on day one, might be inconceivable to do on day 7,300. Would we look back at this day-one person and marvel at the mountain of ignorance?
It is clear that with time what will be feasible for us will change. Having one's intention, motivation and actions the only requirements for entry at the start make veganism easily adoptable. The only thing we can do is encourage people to always be at the edge of their capabilities, and once someone makes a strong commitment to themselves to do that, they are living in accordance with our vision.
We use the word animal almost everywhere, but since all animals are made of non-animals it is not possible to refrain from harming animals while harming other beings. Animals do not exist in a vacuum; life is fragile and we need an almost infinite set of conditions just to sustain life. It is worth reflecting on all the necessary conditions that are required for animal life. We cannot end the exploitation of animals while destroying the environment. It is an integral part of philosophy. We must reflect on the interdependence of everything and realize all its implications. Our vision, ending the exploitation of all animals, is vast and all the implications may not be clear at first.
We use animals everywhere but we just as easily could use the word “everything”. The concept of ending the exploitation of water can seem abstract at first, but since all animals are made of a majority of water, we simply cannot pollute or exploit water without exploiting animals.
The precautionary principle in veganism is a crucial pillar. Without it, veganism is not only illogical and renders our vision impossible but also crumbles the foundation that it needs to solidly rest upon and becomes a mindless list of ingredients, compounds and actions we avoid for reasons that cannot be justified by logic and science-based reasoning.
Without the precautionary principle, it is impossible to make scientifically sound reasoning as to why we do not allow testing on very small animals like nematodes or insects. The precautionary principle also allows us to use scientifically sound reasoning as to why the killing and exploitation of animals are to be avoided but not that of a soybean plant when they are both living beings.
The precautionary principle allows us to extend the many things animals have in common, such as all animals want to minimize efforts and avoid pain and threats, to the reasonable suspicion that all animals simply want to be happy or live a life free from exploitation just like we do. This extends to all animals and not living beings from other biological kingdoms because we have not, so far, determined they have these characteristics as a group.
The precautionary principle in veganism must be applied indiscriminately. We cannot use it to denounce and ban from certification products tested on invertebrates, while simultaneously requiring facts beyond reasonable doubts and convictions in a court of law before we ban products due to the exploitation of animals in the case of slavery or slavery-like conditions. Doing so is not only illogical and makes our vision impossible but also crumbles the foundation that veganism needs to solidly rest upon. Veganism becomes a mindless list of ingredients, compounds and actions we avoid for reasons that cannot be justified by logic and reasoning based on science.
The precautionary principle, along with other factors, is the golden principle that can logically explain all the actions we encourage and discourage in veganism. When used foolishly, it can destroy veganism and make our vision impossible.
Our vision is clear: to end the exploitation of all animals. Science is clear: arthropods, invertebrates and human beings are animals. The precautionary principle is clear and it cannot be applied subjectively to different species of animals to prevent actions against those animals we want to protect while condoning or even encouraging the exploitation of those we care less about.
We avoid using the word cruelty in isolation and instead prefer the word harm. There are various reasons for this. One of them being that psychology as a science has evolved rapidly in the last century, and many words and concepts have been further refined over those decades. Without going into too much detail, some things that are commonly seen today as being unsuitable for people who self-identify as vegan, in some cases arguments could be made that this does not constitute cruelty. We have seen courts interpret killing as not cruel because they were performed quickly, and in the courts’ view did not cause suffering. We want to make it crystal clear to everyone, independent of the views of various courts around the globe of the word “cruel”, these actions are not suitable for vegans. We are not advocating for “humane” killing or “humane” treatment; we are advocating to end the exploitation of animals. Therefore, as another safeguard mechanism, we usually replace the word cruelty with the lower threshold of harm.
Our original vision that we refined with the VWA had both words. However, we decided it was time to remove the word “use”. There are various reasons for this. First, we define exploitation as explained in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by simply extending the concept from “person” to all animals. Having said that, if we believe that ending the exploitation of animals is an enormous task, ending all animal use is exponentially more challenging and is not something we aim to achieve. The reason being the word “use” does not require a value judgement and whether the “use” is perceived as good or bad does not matter. For example, putting a bird feeder for enjoyment is animal “use”, as well as vaccinating a dog against rabies, or selling tickets on behalf of animals to pay for their care. With the word “use”, pretty much any interaction between two animals falls under the umbrella of “use”, and many actions that today are generally considered suitable for vegans would become banned and unsuitable for vegans.
The reason we originally had both words is that having the concept of exploitation alone brings in edge cases that are normally seen as unsuitable for vegans but that in certain very specific cases may not be considered exploitation. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but we are ethically comfortable with all the implications while we are not comfortable indicating that all interaction with animals should be banned.
Therefore, we have amended our extended vision statement by removing the word “use” and keeping “exploitation”. We never had the word “use” in our short vision statement which remains “Ending the exploitation of animals.”
History is littered with examples of people or groups of people trying to convert others to their ways of thinking, doing, being, etc. Even when this succeeded and humanity converted a majority of people, the earth and all its inhabitants were often not significantly better than before, if any better at all. As such, we have to be careful that in 200 years we do not end up with a vast majority of people self-identifying as vegan but no closer to ending the exploitation of animals.
This could easily happen; we’ve seen how the transition to animal-free products can go wrong in the case of palm oil. There are also some valid questions about whether the upcoming alternatives will be significantly better than the products they are replacing. While they may get rid of the most visible exploitation, it might simply transform into some other form of more hidden exploitation. As we have discussed in more detail previously, these things tend to happen when all businesses exist for the sole purpose of maximizing profit.
There is one piece of the puzzle that is missing to ensure we do not end up in 2100 with 70 percent of people who self-identify as vegan but no closer than we are today to ending the exploitation of animals; this piece of the puzzle is our motivation. It is easy to see that if we adopt a vegan lifestyle for health reasons and we do not achieve our goals, we might be discouraged and abandon veganism.
Similarly at this time, many billions of dollars are being invested to make animal agriculture less carbon-intensive, and it is possible that with enough investment and effort animal agriculture could become much less carbon-intensive and maybe even compliant with various climate change targets. Of course, the benefits of a vegan lifestyle on the environment are much more than just reducing carbon emissions. Nevertheless, if we adopt veganism motivated by environmental concerns and it does not materialize, this may also lead to abandoning veganism.
Having an ethical motivation is what provides a solid foundation for the achievement of our vision.
The best way to avoid repeating mistakes of the past is unclear. Today there are people who self-identify as vegan who eat animal products, and a further 30.8 percent who would be likely or somewhat likely to eat animals in the future; if everyone lived like the average person who self-identifies as vegan today, we would still be very far from achieving our vision.
However, it is most likely safe to assert that people have reduced the amount of animal exploitation since the creation of the word vegan. Is it time now to create another movement to encourage people who self-identify as vegan to do even more, just like we did in 1944 to encourage people who self-identify as vegetarians to do more? Or is it more efficient to continue to encourage everyone, including those who self-identify as vegan, to act in a way that is in accordance with our vision?
We don’t have the answers to these questions, but at least we are aware of the issues and continue to evaluate the best course of action to achieve our vision.
This is the power of a vegan agnostic vision. Our vision is not concerned with labels and is not tied with veganism. We have not defined our vision as “Creating a vegan world” because there are so many views of what veganism is and is not, and even more ways it is practiced, that having a world filled with people who self-identify as vegan does not necessarily bring us closer to our vision.
Therefore, we define veganism in a much simpler way, in relation to our vision:
Veganism is a way of life and philosophy that when practiced will result in the end of the exploitation of all animals, including human animals.
We had been working on a different draft version with our colleagues of the VWA that as of the writing of this article was never completed, but for historical purposes we are sharing it here:
A philosophy and a strong commitment to a way of living, which respects the autonomy and interests of animals, and in particular excludes—as far as is possible and practicable—the exploitation or use of animals without their informed consent.
We are well aware that eradicating exploitation is a difficult task; it is pervasive in our society and has existed for at least as long as modern society. Nevertheless, we believe doing whatever we can to end exploitation is an effort worth pursuing, and we hope you agree.