Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jaded Yet?

Through my involvement with animal rights over the past several years, one of the things I’ve wrestled with has been maintaining a level of empathy that is strong enough to keep me attached to the movement, but controlled enough to allow me to be an effective tool for change. Many of us have battled with either feeling such an overwhelming sense of the abuse that we fall into a state of sympathy fatigue, or allowing our outrage to simmer so much that we become detached and unmotivated. As it becomes clear that my involvement with animal rights will extend beyond phases of college idealism and radicalism, I’m trying to figure out how to keep from becoming another disillusioned and jaded former advocate.

Julie Lewin, animal rights lobbyist and founder of NIFFA (National Institute for Animal Advocacy), recently spoke to PAWS members about advocating for animals within the political realm. She is a critic of the protest and demonstration tactics that PAWS often employs, because she believes they place too much emphasis on the activist, while not actually helping get laws passed. I disagree with Lewin’s argument. One of the ways I recharge my interest in the movement is by rallying around other like-minded people in these acts of demonstration. These methods not only provide us with an outlet for our pent up energy, but also change attitudes, especially on college campuses, where the issues surrounding a demonstration are so rigorously dissected. Many people are forced to reconsider their habits through the revelations that emerge in these subsequent discussions.

Although I disagree with Lewin’s argument about the most effective way to implement change, there is validity in her characterization of animal advocates. She explains that “[T]he initial excitement, optimism, and anticipation give way to frustration and disillusionment when worthy goals remain unachieved. There may be a period of retrenchment and lack of vigor. Some activists withdraw, and many who remain are more moderate and less visionary than those who leave.” While we are right to dismiss the false stereotypes of the angry vegan who cares about animals at the expense of humans, we should take seriously Lewin’s more nuanced and realistic image of what we may soon become. It is important to be aware of this phenomenon in order to prevent ourselves from falling prey to it. It seems as though many of the most passionate animal advocates eventually resign themselves to the inevitability of factory farming, after failing to attain enough of the lofty goals they set out to achieve. This doesn’t have to be the path we follow.

Although I’ve had moments where the sacrifice to social interactions and the marginal utility I gain from eating a tasty animal product makes veganism not seem worth it, reengaging myself with the animals that suffer always helps take me back to the heart of the issue. Rereading sections of Animal Liberation or watching Earthlings helps me remember that every meal I eat is making a decision about the relationship I want to have with those animals and the commentary I want to make about their suffering. It’s difficult to motivate myself to rewatch the videos and reread the material, because I know that I’ll immediately fall into a paralyzing state of depression that precludes action. I’ll be hypercritical of my carnivorous friends for being unaware, my vegetarian friends for not going far enough, and myself for not devoting every breath I take to stopping the abuse. But eventually, these bouts of self-hatred and alienation subside and I can use the power of those intense emotions as I work in realistic, and often tedious, ways to make change.

There is no easy way to deal with translating all the outrage and passion we have into the slow and realistic mechanisms of change. But learning how to do this is important if we are to extend our advocacy beyond these early phases of inspiration and excitement.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Meatless Mondays

We’re proud to introduce PAWS’ latest campaign to get students to eat less meat: “Meatless Mondays.” Meatless Mondays is a simple pledge to commit to go vegetarian one day a week for the spring semester. We’ll be tabling at Frist and dining halls to get students to sign up. You can sign the petition here.

The pledge reads:

“As a thoughtful member of the Princeton community, I realize that my daily consumption choices do not only affect me, but also the animals I consume. I am concerned about the cruelty associated with eating meat, and its impact on global warming, the environment, and my health. By signing my name, I pledge to eat vegetarian every Monday for the remainder of the semester.”

Let us know ( if you want to help sign people up. It’s a quick and easy way to get involved with PAWS and make a real impact on the level of meat consumption on our campus.

Friday, February 01, 2008

When Humanitarianism and Animal Justice Diverge

This Christmas, my parents (knowing my distaste for consumption and love of social justice) decided not to give me “stuff” but instead made a gift to an organization on my behalf. The group is called “Kiva,” and provides ‘micro-loans’ for third world entrepreneurs. It has been touted by the likes of Natalie Portman and Bill Clinton (so you know it must be good) as a model for efficient, ground-level aid to the poor.

The exciting thing about Kiva is that it actually connects people, at least insofar as donors determine exactly to whom their money is loaned. I can, for example, choose between a motorcycle shop in Azerbaijan or a clothing tailor in Pakistan, and I even get to know a little bit about each entrepreneur in the process. All in all, Kiva seems like a pretty good deal: poor individuals are empowered to effect positive change on a local level, and rich (at least, comparatively) donors get to feel good about themselves for a relatively small amount of money, which is eventually repaid (so it’s not a ‘handout’).

As with nearly all things I discover that, on their face, make me feel like the world is not entirely going to hell in a hand-basket, there’s a catch. That is, many of the people requesting loans are looking to expand operations based around animal exploitation. Norah Nabulya in Uganda is looking for money so she can slaughter pigs more efficiently. Jonathan Kipngeno would like a loan so he can purchase more cows to produce milk for his business in Kenya. Pardahol Satto in Tajikistan is looking to improve his stock of animals for agricultural labor.

None of this intended to detract from the undeniable good that groups like Kiva do (for the record, I loaned my $25 to a fruit vendor in Pakistan). The fact that economic empowerment in many cases comes on the backs of animals should in no way be an indictment of the well-intentioned people who loan or the hardworking people who have every right to seek to better the situation of themselves and their families, and are likely unaware of the harm they are causing. I certainly cannot attach such a high value to animal life that I can begrudge any of the individuals on Kiva, or that I could deny them opportunities offered to them from birth.

Nonetheless, the paradox of Kiva – helping humans and harming animals – does speak to a broader conundrum for the animal liberation movement. Saving a human beings almost invariably allows that individual to continue or expand their use of animals. And the problem is not just in animal testing, where there is an often touted trade off between humane treatment of animals and medical advances. Every persona added to the global population adds to the global demand for animals for food, clothing, and entertainment. What’s worse, when people become better off, animals are eventually the victims – it is no coincidence that the United States has the world’s most voracious appetite for animal products, or that, as nations like China develop, they increasingly seek to emulate our consumption, to the extent that their animal abuse only expands. On a more individual level, it is almost inevitable that Ms. Nabulya in Uganda’s pigs will be worse off once she expands her operation and begins to make more money for her family: not only will there be more pigs being slaughtered, their lives will be increasingly mechanized and confined. Whether committed in the name of profit or survival, abuses of animals only increase when we raise people out of poverty.

Certainly, animals have been abused in all sorts of societies – socialist and capitalist. To acknowledge this, however, does not mean that the character and scale of animal abuse does not vary depending on the economic system. While this essay is not intended to be a wholesale indictment of capitalism, I think that the above anecdotes suggest that we as animal activists do need to think not just about the system of production of animals, but this system of production in its entirety. We in the developed world are rich because we have excelled at exploiting our fellow human beings, natural resources, and animals. Now people in the developing world want our privileges, and, with many of their natural resources already exhausted by colonialism and mismanagement, and already at the bottom of the human hierarchy, their economic empowerment comes at the expense of the only individuals valued lower than themselves – animals.

As long as exploitation of anything is the basis of our economic systems, animals will always get the short end of the stick, since they will always be the easiest to exploit. Animal activists need to think seriously about the systematic changes that are required in order to help both humans and animals at the same time. Until we find an economic model in which people can get ahead without causing harm to others, animal activism will always be vulnerable to appearing anti-humanitarian. No movement can ever attract widespread sympathy if its followers busy themselves with telling Cambodian farmers to raise arugula instead of cows.

This blog post owes an intellectual debt to the article “Veganarchy” by Brian Dominick.