I became vegan because I wanted to align my actions with my belief that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to other animals. Once I allowed myself to see the injustice I was supporting, I knew I had to go vegan.
Veganism is a social justice movement for other animals. It seeks to end animal exploitation, reject speciesism and promote animal rights. When I first became vegan it didn’t occur to me that it might have anything to do with other social justice issues. Recently however, I have begun to realise how interconnected our exploitation of other animals is to our oppression of humans and our destruction of the natural world.
I have come to believe that speciesism is the basic form of oppression in our society. It underpins all other forms of oppression by teaching us to be oppressors from childhood. The mentality required to oppress, exploit and dominate other animals is the same mentality that allows us to oppress, exploit and dominate humans and destroy our planet. In fact, as Will Tuttle argues in ‘The World Peace Diet’, animal exploitation and the mentality it engenders is at the root of much of the oppression and injustice we see in the world (Tuttle, 2005).
Historical effects of animal exploitation
While this might seem a stretch at first, the connections become clearer when we look at the history of animal exploitation. According to sociologist David Nibert, our domestication and domination of other animals led to some fundamental value shifts in our society. For much of history humans foraged, consumed mainly plant based diets and lived in peaceful and egalitarian communities. This all changed when humans, primarily males, began to hunt large animals. The most successful hunters became more powerful within their communities, leading to the emergence of social hierarchy and a decline in the status of women (Nibert, 2002).
Nibert states that ‘the beginning of systemic human exploitation and social stratification can be traced to the advent of agricultural society in Eurasia roughly 10,000 years ago’. Agricultural systems relied on the exploitation of large social animals who were used as labourers and for their hair, skin, flesh and secretions (Nibert, 2014).
The commodification of other animals and their role as food and stores of wealth led to the rise of a powerful and wealthy elite class who owned the most ‘livestock’. This elite class waged war on others (enabled by the use of horses to transport them to far-off lands) in search of fresh grazing land and water required to sustain large numbers of animals (Nibert, 2002 and Tuttle, 2005). Animal agriculture’s inefficient and intensive use of natural resources is a key reason why it is so detrimental to the environment (Oppenlander, 2013).
This elite class also waged war to satisfy their desire for more animals, wealth and power. The losers of these wars became the property of the victors leading to the institution of human slavery. In addition, women were increasingly viewed as property, just like ‘livestock’.
The origin of capitalism can also be traced back to our exploitation of other animals – the word capital originates from the Latin word capita meaning head of livestock. Tuttle argues that our modern culture is a continuation of the ‘herding’ culture that arose 10,000 years ago with the same belief that other animals are commodities to be owned and used by humans (Tuttle, 2005).
These linkages, explored in detail by Nibert, Tuttle and others (e.g. Jim Mason in An Unnatural Order), suggest a strong historical connection between animal exploitation and violence towards humans and the earth.
The mentality arising from our exploitation of other animals
When viewed in this context, the idea that the mentality required and promoted by animal exploitation is the root cause of many other injustices is compelling. Will Tuttle has distilled this mentality into several linked aspects, summarised below.
Our reduction of sentient beings to mere commodities or objects to be exploited and used for our own benefit has naturally extended to our commodification and objectification of humans and nature. Our culture and economic system view humans and nature as resources to be exploited for its own gain, just like we view other animals. This has resulted in increased competition, inequality, violence and misery.
Exclusion and domination
By consuming the bodies and secretions of other animals we develop the ability to exclude others from our sphere of moral concern. This exclusion is based on arbitrary and morally irrelevant criteria such as species, gender, race or class status. The mentalities of exclusion and domination are fundamentally linked. As Tuttle argues: ‘as dominators of animals we must continually practise seeing ourselves as separate and different from them, as superior or special…..this exclusivism is necessary to racism, elitism and war, because in order to harm and dominate other people we must break the bonds that our hearts naturally feel with them. The mentality of domination is necessarily a mentality of exclusion’ (ibid.).
Desensitisation and disconnectedness
The suffering inherent in our meat-based diets leads to desensitisation from an early age. Just as we consume the products of violence towards other animals without feeling it, we can contribute to harming other humans and ecosystems without feeling it. An example of this desensitisation and its impacts is seen in slaughterhouse workers. Slaughterhouse employment has been found to significantly increase total arrest rates including arrests for violent crimes, rape and other sex offenses compared to other industries (Fitzgerald et al., 2010).
Desensitisation goes hand in hand with disconnectedness. We have been taught to ignore whose body parts are on our plates and the pain and suffering required for them to get there. We have become disconnected from the consequences of our actions. This inevitably leads us to disconnect from the pain and suffering we impose on other humans through our unjust institutions and behaviour that promote war, poverty and food insecurity. Our disconnection from the natural world allows us to forget our dependence on nature, our place in it and the interconnectedness of all its parts.
Awakening from our cultural conditioning
So many of the injustices we are experiencing today are connected by and rooted in the same mentality:
- our perpetual wars of aggression that benefit a tiny elite while destroying so many innocent lives;
- our crony capitalist economic system that commodifies humans, other animals and nature and causes increasing poverty and inequality;
- our degradation of the environment, climate change and mass species extinction of which ‘animal agriculture’ is a leading cause;
- our oppression of humans through institutionalised sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism etc.; and
- the myriad other problems rooted in the social hierarchies entrenched in our psyches and our society.
Our cultural values and mentality have been heavily shaped by our exploitation of other animals. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have internalised this mentality through our inherited meal traditions. We need to wake up from this cultural conditioning if we have any hope of creating a world that is just for all.
Becoming conscious of our conditioning and understanding its origins is the key to changing it. We need to examine, challenge and where necessary replace our inherited beliefs and question the assumptions on which they are based. Only by consciously choosing values such as non-violence, non-elitism, non-hierarchy, inclusion, justice and compassion for all, can we intentionally and consistently apply them in all areas of life.
As Rumi, Ghandi and many others have told us, we cannot change the world without changing ourselves. Becoming vegan – as the lived expression of non-violence and justice for all – is one of the most meaningful steps towards changing ourselves that I can think of.
Fitzgerald, A.J., Kalof, L. and Dietz, T., 2009. Slaughterhouses and increased crime rates: An empirical analysis of the spillover from “The Jungle” into the surrounding community. Organization & Environment, 22(2), pp.158-184. Available at: http://www.animalstudies.msu.edu/Slaughterhouses_and_Increased_Crime_Rates.pdf
Mason, J., 1993. An unnatural order: Uncovering the roots of our domination of nature and each other. Simon and Schuster.
Nibert, D., 2002. Animal rights/human rights: Entanglements of oppression and liberation. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Nibert, D., 2014. Animal rights equal human rights: Domesecration and entangled oppression in: Tuttle, W. (Ed.) Circles of compassion: essays connecting issues of justice. Vegan Publishers.
Oppenlander, R., 2013. Food choice and sustainability: Why buying local, eating less meat, and taking baby steps won’t work. Hillcrest Publishing Group.
Tuttle, W., 2005. The world peace diet: Eating for spiritual health and social harmony. Lantern Books.
 Speciesism is a bias in favour of the interests of one species against those of other species, in this case the belief in human supremacy over other animals.
8 thoughts on “Joining the dots: Animal exploitation, human oppression and environmental destruction”
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This is a fairly good article and I do agree that farming other animals was probably when human societies started to go very wrong, but it’s still seeing through a glass darkly. The root cause of all these bad, stupid behaviours in our world is self-hate; it is not that we break the (imaginary) bonds our hearts naturally feel towards others, it is that nearly all adults have lost most of the real bond they would naturally have with their own selves, and are desensitised to their own bodies/feelings – people are conditioned into that self-hating way of life by being socialised and fed from when we are babies to ignore ourselves, then later to believe in some ideology or other and follow the crowd rather than one’s self.
Which means that the real solution is self-love (which means integrating yourself emotionally). Being an animal lover and extending compassion to other animals is an improvement on eating other animals, but it is still using other animals’ bodies as a proxy for one’s own.
Though Charlie Chaplin was an animal consumer and animal lover, he had some good ideas on this subject: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/60/86/82/608682165467e13f020e81c7a4bc4ec1.jpg
Thanks for your thought provoking comment Mark. I do agree with you to a large extent. From my own experience my veganism came out of a personal search to know my ‘true self’, for self acceptance/self love (a life long process). As my mind and heart became more connected and I started to see through some of my conditioning and habitual thoughts, I became more present and conscious about my decisions. I found it increasingly hard to contribute to the suffering of others. The most suffering I was causing was through my consumption of other animals so I stopped. To me our feeling of separation from others and from nature (which allows us to cause such harm without really feeling it) is a reflection of our separation from ‘self’. I think this what you are also saying. In my opinion Will Tuttle’s book The World Peace Diet does a great job of connecting this separation from self to many of the injustices in the world, including our oppression of other animals.
But I have always wondered what it was that has made us so disconnected in the first place. Why have we built a society that in many ways depends on our not loving ourselves and conditions us not to love ourselves in so many different ways. What I find fascinating is that there is lots of evidence to suggest there was a time where we lived in a more connected, peaceful (and non hierarchical) state. It seems the thing that set us off course was our domestication of other animals which led to a whole host of problems both internally (our necessary detachment from our natural compassion) which was then reflected externally in the establishment of social hierarchies, war, environmental destruction etc. This is what I wanted to get across in this piece. I don’t think veganism is necessarily an antidote to our lack of self love (though my capacity for compassion and love, for self and others, seems to have increased since I went vegan and opened my heart further-a kind of virtuous circle). I do however feel that true self love would not allow us to contribute to injustice and cause such harm to ourselves, other animals, each other and the planet.
Thanks for the Charlie Chaplin link, I love it!
Also thankyou for your interesting reply, Everyday Justice (not sure of your name!). Yes, we’re basically saying the same thing – that all the crappy harmful behaviour is a consequence of people’s lack of internal healthy psychological functioning.
According to my research into the limited evidence we have, it looks like animal domestication goes back to at least 33,000 years ago which is when wolf-dogs seem to start appearing in the (rather patchy) fossil record (https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/6765980/2011PLoSOneOvodovSuppF.pdf). At that time the human global population would have probably been in the hundreds of thousands (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_estimates). Some of our ancestors were domesticating plants around 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, and farmed animals start appearing around 10,000 years ago (8,000 BC). The first modern civilisation we know of is the Vinča culture in the Balkans in Europe around 7,000 years ago (5,000 BC) – they had the earliest writing and high-temperature copper-smelting with copper tools. There was a trading network and culture (and possibly a shared language (Proto-Indo-European?)) across an area at least hundreds of miles across for maybe a few thousand years, and it appears they were peaceful among themselves and non-centralised (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balkans – Antiquity section, http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/serbiavinca.htm, https://zlj13051967.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/the-danube-civilization-oldest-in-the-world/). Then around 5,000 years ago (3,000 BC) aggressive, stratified, centralised, human-slave-owning societies started appearing in Mesopotamia and Egypt and the shit started to hit the fan in large quantities.
So was the peaceful Vinča culture full of fine people living good lives? No, I don’t like the look of their figurines, which include fish-human hybrids and other weird stuff. So things had gone wrong before then, and of course, surprise surprise, Vinča culture people were indeed using both pet and farmed domesticated animals as a “normal” part of their society.
There isn’t really much historical evidence of how and why domestication started, but there is good modern evidence of how to do it (sadly). It seems to happen merely by selecting the tamest, most docile and human-friendly animals in each generation to breed more of, and psychologically imprinting humans on them when they are babies which means emotionally bonding with them (http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.173.2422&rep=rep1&type=pdf – it’s not pleasant to read though!). So it looks likely to me that the earliest domestications gradually happened (probably without much idea of what the results would be) because at least some humans were consistently too “soft, warm and fuzzy” and kept trying to pet, feed and befriend the cutest ones, thus slowly selectively breeding them. In other words, the earliest domesticators did not respect their own psychological boundaries or the other animals’ – they took on a parental role across species and it’s had disastrous consequences in the long-term. Humans living cheek-by-jowl with eternally-dependant domesticated animals of other species is inevitably a hierarchy, and once the practice of hierarchy becomes engrained in a society and thus in its children’s childhoods, it is hard to realise it’s a dead end because it isn’t possible to easily imagine any other way of living.
So is veganism the answer, or is just self-love enough? I think self-love is enough, as I’ve seen comments from other people like you. My own experience was that I was “working on myself” and trying to find “the truth” for several years, and gradually reducing my animal consumption without really understanding why, before watching some of the Dairy is Scary video one day and instantly realising that the whole enslaving cows thing was wrong and I wasn’t going to take part anymore! Helluva shock at the time actually, but I’m very glad I saw it now! 🙂 It kind of catapulted me forward inside and saved me a lot of meandering.
So I think the whole “veganism” thing can be a good way to speed up people getting to love themselves. Or at least it is if veganism is understood correctly. For me it’s simply about being animal-free as much as possible – so I avoid paying others to exploit and be cruel to other animals for me, and I don’t exploit/use other animals for company in my personal life either, nor do I advocate for those things. This fits in with the 1979 definition which talks of excluding cruelty to and exploitation of other animals as much as is possible and practicable (https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism).
Perhaps another way of putting it is that there are three basic ways to treat other animals, in order of increasing self-love:
1) Be nasty (farm them / love-hate slave relationship)
2) Be nice (pet and rescue them / compassion, love, sympathy, emotional bondage relationship)
3) Be neutral (live and let live, be human, be yourself, empathy/self-love).
I live in an area of Europe where there are free-roaming dogs and cats, and have had some very enjoyable and friendly meetings especially with the local dogs, but we go our separate ways afterwards and it is they who choose whether to interact or not. The free-roaming ones are noticeably more characterful, independent and intelligent than the house-bound, human-conditioned ones.
Hmmm, that was a very long comment. I hope there were some interesting things there! 🙂
Hi Mark (my name is Laila by the way!), thanks so much for taking the time to share all that. Really interesting and much food for thought. Thanks for your thoughts on the origins of domestication. I will follow up on the links you have posted when I get a chance. For now all I will say is that I have not done much research into it other than what I have read in the books referenced in the piece (Nibert 2002 and Tuttle 2005). Their thoughts on the roots of our domination of nature and each other draw on Jim Mason’s book An Unnatural Order, perhaps you have read it? I have the book but have not had the time to read it yet. My understanding is that Mason, based on a review of the available evidence, argues that the subjugation, oppression and hierarchy of Western culture stems from the time we brought plants, other animals and nature under our control. Our shift from foragers to farmers 10,000 years ago which led to disconnection from nature (and self) and the myth of human supremacy. I am not sure what reason he gives for us doing that but I think it is to do with necessity, perhaps as humans migrated to less hospitable climes. It started off as scavenging, then organised hunting of large animals 20,000 years ago and then developed into domestication.
But yes, I agree true self love/(re)connection with all that is (including our true selves) is key. Veganism is one (and I would suggest a necessary) expression of that and from the other way round can also be a catalyst for a deeper journey into self. Regarding the origins of domestication, it’s clearly an area for more research for me. I will add it to the ever expanding list of future blog posts 🙂 Thanks again for your comments, they are much appreciated.
Hi again Laila!
I’ve just been over at Jim Mason’s site reading excerpts from his book “An Unnatural Order” – hmmm. Here is one from the preface:
“The central idea in this book is that we must heal our blind spot for animals. Only a handful of intellectuals seem to understand how essential animals are to human beings, how they are the most vital beings in nature — the soul and the moving parts of nature. Animals represent and symbolize the various features and forces of nature. They have always fed the human mind and culture; they have given us the means of understanding the cosmos. When seen as kin, as they once were, animals gave us a crucial bond and a sense of belonging to the living world.”
Essentially his thesis is that humans always used to have a respect for and closeness to other animals and could learn from them and then 10,000 years ago animal farming appeared and the ideology of “Dominionism” gradually took over the world. His solution is to get again into that worldview where we feel other animals are our kin – to do away with what he calls “the myth of human supremacy”.
I can see quite a lot of confusion in his speculations about our pre-historic past, and certainly the myth of human supremacy is not a myth – it is a blatantly obvious everyday reality. No land animal comes anywhere near an average human animal’s innate biological ability to understand physical reality (almost certainly no sea animal comes close either) and this has been the case for several million years I reckon, or at least since our ancestors started to regularly use fire to cook carbohydrate-rich plant foods around 800,000 years ago. Neurons produce consciousness and by comparison with other species we have a simply outstandingly sophisticated and fine neuron network throughout our bodies, with abundant spare capacity enabling us to concentrate on manipulating our environments according to our will which should then give us the security, space and time to have interesting/fun new experiences in physical life and to dream, feel, imagine and evolve in our inner selves to a depth and breadth and fineness no other species is capable of.
So Jim Mason points us back to the other animals. But that boat left hundreds of thousands of years ago or more, and it’s the wrong way anyway. Yes we’re animals the same as them, yes lots of people mostly think of them as movable inanimate objects which needs to stop, yes other animals behave more naturally than humans do (that’s the main thing we might usefully learn from other animals – but learning it from our own children or just developing it ourselves is better)…. but on the other hand, no, other animals are not essential to humans’ everyday lives, no they are not some kind of gods of nature, no, using other animals to inform our cultures is not the end-goal but just another (better) dead end… and frankly, in reality, saying that other animals were necessary in our “understanding the cosmos” is plain bonkers! The animals we most need to “heal our blind spot for” are us, the animals who helped us on our path are our ancestors, the nature we need to understand is our own. We need to WEAN OURSELVES OFF other animals, and I wish people would just leave them alone and get on with being fully human animals already!!! Why on earth can’t we be courageous and grow up and stop using other animals as a security blanket in so many ways?
Pffft, ok, that was a bit of a rant. I’ve been reading that kind of animal-loving fecking *$&£(%$’ on social media for the last year and a half and needed to let off steam. 🙂 Thankyou for bearing with me 🙂
I found it impossible to re-connect with “all that is” although it can seem like that. More doable to re-connect with all of yourself. 🙂 More maintainable and realistic.
Agree that if someone gets good at self-love then getting into solely plant food and veganism would come along naturally – we are biologically herbivores after all. Also agree that getting into veganism usually greatly helps with the inner exploration and self-love. Basically, forcing your body to make itself out of other animals messes it up, messes you up. I did alright whilst still on animal foods, but on 100% plant food things become a lot clearer and easier and more fluid.
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