Capitalism is Free Range Carnism

February 18, 2013

If I ever stopped being vegan, I would probably go to business school. After all, what is capitalism but a little bit of species-on-species predation?

Actually, if anything, wage labor is a generous proposition compared to pasture labor. Unlike an animal raised for slaughter, whose entire life and death are managed by the farm boss, wage labor under capitalism promises a few hours per day of relative autonomy. Sure, the boss gets the bulk of your life, but he doesn’t control your very birth and death; not directly, anyway.

If you believe that you can have some kind of natural, holistic relationship with another creature whereby they spend their whole lives accumulating calories for you to harvest when you’re feeling peckish, fantastic. But I want you to then tell me why it’s wrong for somebody else to establish that same kind of relationship–different only in that it is kinder–with another human being.

Humans have always ruled other humans, haven’t they? Isn’t this natural? Isn’t it right?

Processed food: What are you talking about?

August 14, 2012

Can we start really thinking about what we’re saying when we use the term “processed food”, and when we reject or moralize about foods based on that phrase? This phenomenon has become central to anti-vegan discourse.

Just because it’s a vegetarian “meat-substitute” (although it might behoove us to just see it as good plant-based protein that exists in its own right, apart from the existence of meat) doesn’t mean it’s processed, folks– at least, not processed in the evil way neocarnist discourse always refers to. You know the conversation: processed = bad, not processed = good. I can’t really offer a definition of “processed” beyond that, as it’s currently used, because there doesn’t seem to be one.

Let’s break down some examples of foods that are currently trendy to preach against based on their “processed-ness”:

-Tofu. Let’s clear this up, folks: Tofu is made with a blender and cheesecloth from three to four ingredients including water, an emulsifier (a big word, but something that is used in countless simple foods, both vegan and non), and a bean. You can buy that bean GMO-free very easily; many, if not most, explicitly vegetarian products like tofu which involve soy are GMO-free now. What’s non-GMO as far as soy goes are a) those soy fillers in all kinds of other food products, including many animals products, and b) the unbelievable amount of soy that’s fed to farmed animals.

You can even get soy from sustainable farms like Vermont Soy and Eden Soy. Those farms might even be local (gasp!!!) depending on where you live.

Actually, you can make this kind of tofu product with many different beans, as I learned while living with Burmese folks, who often make and eat tofu from lentils.

Right in your own kitchen. Right next to those vegetables you process by… cutting and cooking them.

-Similarly fallacious is all the moralizing about the “process” that goes into making wheat gluten or tempeh. These are products that actually have very few simple, healthy ingredients and can be made easily. You don’t need a Bunsen burner or a mask.

-And to make an alternative “milk” such as soy or almond, the idea is similar. Two or three ingredients plus a blender. Same with any “cheese” alternative that’s made with these things. All of these products are less processed than even the most organic and “happy” cheese.

I’m not sure why so many neocarnists take a moral stance against these plant foods, but most likely it has something to do with things like unblinking Michael Pollan-ism and the Weston A. Price Foundation’s government lobbying, reactive anti-science, and fear-mongering (particularly in regards to soy). Some well-meaning folks, I think, often lump in foods made from Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) with simpler foods made from tofu, nuts, or wheat gluten. TVP is made from soy flour and a significant number of steps are involved in its creation. Some TVP makers use hexane, which is controversial. But whatever one’s ideas about TVP, the current dialogue about it being an evil “processed” food cannot be removed from the influence of Michael Pollan’s hyperbolic, pseudo-scientific diatribe against TVP in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Additionally, hexane is used in multitudes of animal foods. As always, do your own research and use your critical thinking skills.

From the minute you rip a vegetable out of the ground, to the minute you collect rice grains from a stalk, to the minute you bring them home and clean, peel, cook, cut, ferment, freeze, marinate, combine, and flavor them, you are processing foods. You process them in your mouth, too, as saliva breaks them down, and then in your gut, where they are dissolved into their component parts. Life is a process and so is the food that enables it.

If you want to talk about foods with ingredients that are made in labs, talk about that. If you want to talk about GMOs, environmentally unfriendly packaging, huge industries, awful companies, and how complicated that all is across huge realms of both plant and animal foods, please do. But don’t conveniently muddle those concepts with the mere existence of vegetarian foods for the sake of a political agenda or a romantic, lazy paleofantasty about what’s “natural” and what’s not. In short, it is incoherent to consider these veg foods processed yet not consider foods processed that require creating, artificially inseminating, squeezing, prodding, torturing, then slaughtering an entire animal. If you want to talk about excessive food processing–by which I mean the actual time, physical and psychological energy, and other resources that go into the creation of a food–and how it might have moral implications, talk about this: We literally destroy huge pieces of the planet to actually raise entire huge, individual, sentient, ambulatory beasts!!! We artificially inseminate them by putting sperm into their vaginas with poles or our gloved arms, cut off their inconvenient body parts such as penises, testicles, tails, and beaks while they’re still alive, kill them with complicated weapons and machines, drain their blood and cut off all their skin, cut off and throw away their heads, cut out and throw away their organs, pull their reproductive secretions out of them (often after starving and blinding them into laying), squeeze and prod them with hands or machines til the insides of their bodies finally give you inevitably puss-and-blood laced milk which is then turned into convoluted dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Yet, incredibly, it’s a  loaf made of beans and water–no cutting off and throwing away a head involved–that’s called Frankenfood! While plant foods and agriculture are indeed complicated, there is absolutely no plant-food processing comparable–ethically, practically, environmentally, physically, psychologically–to the necessary extremities that must be visited while “processing” individual sentient animals for food. If they’re not the most processed food of all, I don’t know what is.

The basic must-knows of carnism and neocarnism

March 7, 2012

Melanie Joy’s celebrated presentation on carnism and the psychology of meat-eating is finally online in its entirety. If I could have people watch or read one thing about animal rights, it would probably be this. It’s about an hour long and truly worth engaging with if you’ve got some free time. Melanie Joy is an extremely articulate and brilliant animal, and I believe her work is at the forefront of animal liberation philosophy and practice.

I think it’s important to note that in some societies meat-eating is not a choice, but truly a matter of survival. We have to discuss this carefully. Many people are frankly offensive when they talk about what “survival” does and doesn’t mean in terms of food. In my experience, many folks use the word “survival” not to connote actual, literal life-and-death situations, but to justify chosen behaviors. The classic carnistic protein myth–that one needs protein to survive and that meat is the only good source of protein–is a perfect example of this. One simply needs protein to survive and, save extremely rare physiological conditions that you almost definitely don’t have, one can get all of the protein they need from plants. Another good example of the faulty invocation of food-related survival is when we use words like “omnivory”, a necessary practice, to refer to what is actually carnism, a set of choices and beliefs. We’re calling upon the naturalist fallacy here to justify chosen behaviors and beliefs. Biologically speaking, we are not obligate omnivores. We will not die or get sick without meat. Therefore it is more accurate to refer to meat-eating as an ism or ideology, just as we do with veganism.

So when I say that some peoples use meat for survival, I don’t mean folks debating whether human teeth were “made” for slicing and chomping meat and deciding in the affirmative; I don’t mean the oft-spouted fallacy that we must eat meat to get all of our essential nutrients and amino acids; I don’t mean various vague, often new-age, often inexplicable “intuitions” that it just feels better to eat meat and that this is the only information one should need to make ethical decisions. By “survival”, I mean that a person has no other choices. Some Inuit peoples might represent an example of this: in most Arctic climates plants cannot grow, and for some traditional Inuits, it is virtually impossible to even get to locations where there is access to a larger variety of foods. Unfortunately, and absurdly, many meat-eaters use this extremely harsh survival situation to justify their first-world meat-eating. I’ll draw another example from current personal experience: right now, I am a teacher for Burmese refugees and political exiles who, at times, have had to escape into the forest for long stretches with no food at all. If they come upon meat and eat it, that is survival. Survival is pre-moral because survival is not a choice and is therefore not based on beliefs and ideology.

So, to talk about both carnism and veganism, we must recognize the differences between survival and the luxury of choice.

These survival scenarios couldn’t be more different from a person– like most of us reading this blog– in the “developed” world who has some level of informed choice over what they eat.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to have chickens in their front yard in Brooklyn or Boulder instead of growing a vegetable garden.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different than a farmer making the choice to farm animals instead of plants.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to buy flesh or eggs instead of legumes and vegetables at the grocery store or farmer’s market.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to eat locally slaughtered pigs instead of locally grown vegetable products.

I have a bias: I feel flustered and offended that such situations are framed as survival to so many meat-eaters, when there are about a billion people in the world who have no food at all, and the mass existence of non-necessary, first-world carnism is so destructive to the world and everyone’s food supply at large. Let alone the fact that with the luxury of choices comes the incredible ability to enable the survival of others by not eating them.

The point is this: Basic survival is not a matter of ethics. Chosen behaviors, including most meat-eating, are. They have their roots in complex ideology. For most people, meat-eating is based on carefully-constructed, mutually-reinforcing cognitions and actions. And since most people are good people who don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, to unnecessarily eat meat requires complicated feats of cognitive dissonance. Simply put, the core identity as a nonviolent person, on one hand, and the behaviors, on the other, of most carnists don’t match up. Not even the kindest person in the world can eat meat without engaging in violence. Carnists must use complicated defense mechanisms to navigate this disconnect. Those defense mechanisms become the basis of an entire ideology structured around meat-eating. This ideology, like all ideologies of the dominant culture– patriarchy, white supremacy, ecocide, capitalism, heterosexism– remains largely invisible and taken for granted.

This is, in my eyes, the core of Melanie’s research and teachings: that almost all people identify, consciously or not, as non-violent people. They would generally never harm another human except in perceived self-defense; they wouldn’t harm the vast majority of most nonhumans, either. They only harm those seven or eight species–out of hundreds of thousands–who fall into the tiny, culturally-constructed group of “edible animals” (in US culture, this groups consists basically of cows, pigs, lambs, a couple types of bird, and a couple fish and crustacean species. The “edible animals” group changes from culture to culture but always remains tiny.) We are compassionate, empathetic, and creative creatures, yet we make choices several times a day–some people, every time they eat–that have unnecessary suffering and death at their core; we are gentle and full of love, yet for some of us, the only contact we ever have with fellow creatures is literally as so many dead body parts on a plate. We use the ideology of carnism and its attendant defense mechanisms to maintain this disconnect. We shut down, we justify, we deny, we intellectualize, we look away, we naturalize, we objectify, precisely because we care and are good people.

Since Melanie talks about this in much more detail and with much more eloquence, you should watch the video to learn more about the intricacies of how we, as cultures and individuals, banish the realities of meat from our awareness so successfully. I think both carnists and vegans and everyone in-between will get a lot out of it.

Melanie has also recently published an illuminating article that touches on many of the issues in this blog, entitled Understanding Neocarnism: How Vegan Advocates Can Appreciate and Respond to “Happy Meat”, Locovorism, and “Paleo Dieting”.  She breaks down the psychology, cognitive dissonance, and defensiveness behind three issues central to neocarnist ideology: compassionate carnism (humane meat), ecocarnism (carnism for ecology’s sake), and biocarnism (carnism as biological imperative). She frames neocarnism as a backlash against veganism– which, in some respects, we should take as a positive sign that veganism is working as a movement. Unsuccessful movements do not inspire backlash.

Watch it. Read it. Love you.


PaleoVegan say it’s curtains for the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis; Carolyn jams out on sociobiology and violence

November 29, 2011

This is worth a re-post. Once again the brilliant pre-frontal cortex over at PaleoVeganology has done some wonderful reporting and analysis. This time it is regarding a new study that appears to put the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis to rest once and for all. He also discusses, among other things, the history of this hypothesis and how it was never meant to encompass such simplicities as “meat made us smart” or “meat made us human”. Alas, as ideologies compete to be representative of the most “natural” and therefore most “normal” and “necessary” way to be, many paleodieters and other carnists have relied heavily on this hypothesis for their arguments.

But as we leave ETH’s funeral, we shouldn’t just clap our hands and embody everything we argue against by saying, “SEE? It’s NATURAL to be vegan! Science has proved it!” That’s not what this is about. Rather, the way that the ETH has been used by carnists represents a phenomenon: Our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our choices, or to even admit that we have choices. This Normal, Natural, Necessary brand of logic has been used to uphold almost every type of unnecessary violence in human history, and pseudo-science has often accompanied it. We’ve written about this extensively elsewhere in our blog including here, here and here. Science is wonderful and liberating when it’s used how it’s supposed to be used (as Paleovegan uses it): as a method; as a critical thinking tool, as a path by which to ask questions, open doors, admit we’re wrong, assess, reassess, make connections, get awestruck, and hopefully figure out a thing or two in the process. But leaving our complicated social and psychological choices to vague arguments about “nature” and cherry-picked data isn’t science; it amounts to little more than sociobiology, rationalization, and dangerously lazy thinking.

We don’t need to say “veganism is natural” or “meat eating is not natural” in order to make good arguments for veganism; if we do that, we are falling prey to dangerous and convenient sociobiological arguments. Sociobiology is the study of the “biological sources of social behavior.” And sociobiology should always be questioned, for it has generally not amounted to much more than biological determinism. It is the editorializing of science. It is taking objective biological facts and assuming that certain subjective behaviors can and do extend from them. From there, there’s usually some kind of sticky, subtle moral leap: This ancestor ate meat, so we should too, in fact we’re stupid if we don’t. Men are bigger than women, and women are reproductive machines, so that’s why men rape. Animals kill each other, so it’s natural for us to be at war, and we’ll never not be at war because we are just naturally aggressive.  Homosexuality is an aberration because it doesn’t lead to reproduction (OR homosexuality is evolutionarily smart because it staves off overpopulation… how about homosexuals just exist because they love each other?) Women have smaller brains, so of course they’re not as intelligent. There’s a scientific explanation for everything, right?? But many people believe that sociobiology is little more than racism, sexism, and other violence wearing science’s clothes.

In short, we should carefully distinguish between science and sociobiology, and the latter should, if not scare the pants off anybody who wants to change the world, at least make them really weary.

Now, here’s some actual science: Humans have big brains relative to other species, and in particular, a big frontal cortex. When you have the kind of frontal cortex a human does you are able to make all kinds of complicated assessments and choices. And here’s my wish, given that fact: Let’s work with what we have, and celebrate our ability to make conscious choices, and our ability to do the least harm…and let’s stop worrying so much about which of our ancestors ate what and who and when. While we’re at it, let’s stop worrying about a gold-standard perfect diet and, by extension, perfect health and immortality, because those things don’t exist, and never have.

Anyways, the historical truth about food, as usual, is messy; some humans ate some types of meat at some point, others ate other things, and there are a thousand scenarios, motivations, and ecologies to be accounted for. But even if there were one answer as to what our paleolithic ancestors ate, it would be irrelevant. Because we are not paleolithic. Because we have to worry about ourselves, now. Today. 7 billion humans, industrialization, capitalism, ecocide, 2011, hundreds of billions of unnecessary nonhuman deaths, constant war. And, among other things, a whole bunch of us who deny that we are regularly making choices–not just being whipped around by some mysteriously undefined inkling called, conveniently, “nature”. Like it or not, this is what we’re working with. Let’s be present with our situation instead of copping out by slipping into simplistic, irrelevant, and ultimately impossible fantasy re-creations of the past.

Thanksgiving: What’s to Celebrate?

November 24, 2011


It’s difficult to find the right words for a day like today. This is especially true when you’re surrounded by drunk and overfed relatives who, quite frankly, don’t want you spoiling their day off with another tirade on whales or Bosnians or whatever the hell it is today. But, god bless ’em, you’re going to do it anyway. Years from now, your younger cousins will thank you for showing them that critical engagement with social issues is a far more effective ways to piss off adults than the entire Slipknot back catalogue. Congratulations, you’re a role model.

Having a day off work is great, but it’s important to be aware of what today represents to the indigenous people of the Americas. Many have called for a National Day of Mourning to commemorate the victims of a genocide that is yet ongoing. The systematic extermination of the original inhabitants of this continent defies comprehension in its scale and brutality. According to whose figures you accept, the native human population of the Americas was reduced by between 80 and 99 percent in the 400 years between Columbus’ arrival and the massacre at Wounded Knee. We’re talking about up to one hundred million people. More people than you could have met in ten lifetimes. More people than the top eight most populated cities in the world combined. A little more than one out of every one hundred people currently alive today. Behind every “self made” millionaire is this history of primitive accumulation.

Humans were not the only victims of these policies of extermination and the violent conversion of the common fruits of the Earth into discretely bound units of private property. In just a hundred years, the North American bison population dropped from about 60 million to one or two million. [1] During the mid nineteenth century, passenger pigeons thrived to such a degree that “there would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another.” [2] Today, they are completely extinct.

Area of primary forests in the United States (lower 48)
Deforestation Leads to Exinction

The ecosystems of North America were once burgeoning with an integrated diversity of species: salmon, wolves, mink, ermine, badgers, beavers, otters, bears, cougars, bobcats, cranes, eagles, turkeys and so on. Yet one by one, these creatures were displaced and nearly or completely eradicated because of the same philosophy that legitimized the genocide of American Indians, the same philosophy that legitimized the exploitation of European peasants and the same philosophy that legitimizes global capitalism today: manifest destiny. That what is is good because god wills it; because it is “natural.” The genocidal imperative.

Ward Churchill has made the argument that we ought not be surprised when the United States government engages in wars of aggression overseas or domestic repression at home. After all, it was the genocidal imperative that founded this country and, from near the outset, wealth began to be centralized among those who were willing to commit the most heinous atrocities. We have arrived at a point now where our society rests on a foundation of normalized violence. Our economy depends on war all the time to function. The bodies of the body politic literally run on the product of extreme systemic violence: 50 billion nonhuman animals killed every year for a nutritional need that does not exist. The aforementioned staggering death tolls pale in numerical comparison to this figure, yet it occurs annually and with little fanfare.

We are not listing these examples to try to present some sort of equivalency between the suffering endured by humans and the suffering endured by nonhumans. Quantifying and comparing one person’s suffering or oppression to another’s is absurd and incoherent. The purpose is to identify common modes of oppression and the cultural logics which justify them. The purpose is to honor and mourn those who are gone and to fight with those who still remain. The purpose is to understand the history of how we got came to live in arguably the most violent society in all history and to ask why that seems normal to so many of us.

If we are aware of the histories that precede us, then we can begin to construct functional and peaceful alternatives to the cultural logic of genocide. Confronting manifest destiny is a necessary part of this process even if (and maybe especially if) it makes your relatives uncomfortable.


“As an indigenous person, the fur trade represents so much more to me than just animal abuse. It represents cultural genocide. They were the footsoldiers of an invasion and conquest of the new world. They were ones who introduced disease and alcoholism. They were the ones who introduced gunpowder and many many things that lead to our decimation.”–Rod Coronado

If you plan on eating turkey this thanskgiving, this is required viewing. Please don’t fool yourself into thinking that “humanely raised” or “free range” turkeys live and die in appreciably different conditions. Raising animals for food means rape, castration and murder 100% of the time.

1. The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001, pg 321-322

2. A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting, Penguin Books, 1992, pg 168-170

On the Holy Grail of Nutrition

November 1, 2011

There isn’t one. Move on. First world humans spend undue energy searching for a perfect nutritional formula that will turn us into bronzed, teutonic gods. This is a little silly considering the fact that a fair percentage of the human population doesn’t get enough of anything to eat.

Getting enough calories is important. Getting enough vitamins is important. Not eating foods that make you sick is important. Beyond that, people are pretty adaptable. Most of us are just making do with what we can get. As a vegan, I could argue that dairy products are “bad for you” and “unnatural.” But clearly millions of people survive, many of them quite healthily, while consuming dairy. So I don’t make arguments about what a person should or shouldn’t eat based on nutrition. I make them solely on ethical grounds. I refuse to eat dairy not because it’s bad for me, but because it’s bad for cows.

The Paleo Diet: Not the Way to a Healthy Future

The Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past.

Eat with your ethics. Because you can.

Veganomics: How U.S. Monetary Policy Affects Animal Rights

September 24, 2011

The Money Fix is a documentary from director, open currency advocate and permaculturalist Alan Rosenblith. This documentary does an excellent job of explaining the U.S. monetary system in accessible language. It ends with a profile of an intriguing alternative currency system supported by Rosenblith.

We suggest this documentary not so much because organizing around alternative currencies appeals to us (although it does) but because Rosenblith’s critique of the U.S. monetary system is both incisive and digestible. The language of economics can seem so absolutely incoherent that we’re often tempted to throw up our hands in resignation that we will never understand how it all works. When we adopt this attitude, we lose sight of the biases of our currency, economy and how we generate and define wealth.

Our previous post was meant to encourage vegans to think about a kind of organizing that will transcend the current economic and social order which is itself inimical to the vegan ethic. In particular, we discouraged readers from thinking that lasting systemic change is something we can buy. That approach assumes the current economic model and monetary system as givens rather than constructs with encoded biases. One dollar may equal one vote but it’s always a vote for capitalism.

When we study the history of our economic model and the currency that underpins it, we see how they have developed biases towards exploitation of workers, violent resource extraction and hoarding. We can also see that, throughout history, there have been many different forms of currency and many different systems of economic exchange that have had biases toward the creation of social value. There is no more reason to accept the current system as natural, normal or necessary than there is to accept carnism and its annual 50 billion-creature body count.

Rosenblith’s documentary is a great crash course on the monetary system. I also highly recommend Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc. for a more in depth and expansive critique.