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#vegan > #vegetarian

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Guest Essay by James Speirs


Moving towards a vegan world

There was a time when vegans were viewed as outliers – an extreme mutation of vegetarians gone too far. That is no longer the case –and Google trends are helping to prove it.

The term “vegetarian” has dominated internet searches since Google first started tracking such trends in 2004. “Vegan” was some way behind. In late 2011 that changed and there were as many searches for “vegan” as there were for “vegetarian.” What has happened since then is fascinating. While “vegetarian” has remained more or less constant since 2004, “vegan” has continued to grow consistently in number of searches. “Vegan” is now searched for more than twice as often. The hashtag count on Instagram is also telling: #vegetarian finds 9.1 million hits while #vegan has more than three times as many with 27.8 million.

What has brought about such a shift?

Becoming aware

Once upon a time, people who believed animals mattered, or believed it enough to act on it, turned vegetarian. I was one of them. It took me a while: I grew up in South Africa where I was a typical hunting, fishing, farm boy. I was actively hostile to the animal rights movement.

At university, however, I came into contact with vegetarians who were actually people not preconceptions. They were even fun to be around. They weren’t the fanatics I had imagined them to be.

Then there were the vegans. I only knew two of them personally. They both had dreadlocks. One did yoga, the other was a classical guitarist. They were a few years older and had the street cred that music, yoga, and dreadlocks buys at a liberal arts university. We became friends and soon I found myself eating with them and hanging out.

At the start of my third year I turned vegetarian. My girlfriend at the time had been thinking about it for a while but hadn’t taken the step. I stood at a fence looking at a cow and knew. I’d known for a while but now I knew. That was 2008. The vegetarians were thrilled. My father wasn’t.

I’d done it. I’d seen there was an injustice and I had taken a stand. No more animal flesh in my cuisine. I wasn’t much of a cook and lived of a diet of steamed vegetables supplemented with faux meat products and an endless supply of cheese. I was familiar with the dairy industry: my father was a dairy farmer. He is a kind and good man with an inclination towards conservation. There was nothing wrong with cheese, was there?

Some things are difficult to accept. They contradict so many of our beliefs that we find ways not to think about them. One of the hardest parts of acknowledging animals matter morally is realizing that your loved ones don’t believe they matter. Kind, intelligent people are complicit in the most horrendous violence. So it’s better not to think about it. Safer at least.

Sometimes, the people complicit in systematic injustice are ourselves. For six years I was vegetarian. In my mind I was ethical. I knew what veganism entailed. It meant believing what I believed but you didn’t eat eggs and dairy right? I got that animals mattered but I was doing more than most people and that was good enough. Except it wasn’t and it isn’t.


I was wrong about veganism. Being vegan is not being vegetarian without eggs and dairy. The argument for veganism is simple, so simple in fact, I think many vegans overcomplicate it. Veganism is the belief that it is wrong to use an animal unnecessarily. That’s it. Done.

From that argument alone it is possible to completely undermine human entitlement to animals’ bodies. The argument hinges on the word necessary. We are not entitled to kill an animal unless necessary – in self-defence in the face of a lion attack or some other unlikely scenario. In such a case we may act in self-preservation. But animal flesh is not necessary in our diet. If anything, recent research indicates it is detrimental to our health.

We are not entitled to animals’ bodies because we perceive ourselves as superior. The belief in one’s superiority as a justification for violence is at the root of all oppressive behaviour throughout history. That we can force a calf from her mother is not licence to do so. We are not entitled to use force to impregnate the mother in the first place. We are not entitled to animals’ labour be it pulling a plough or carrying a passenger as horses have been forced to do. We are not entitled to animals as entertainment in zoos or circuses. We are not entitled to another animal’s skin to clothe our feet nor are we entitled to their wool or fur.

The problem with vegetarianism is that it does not reject this entitlement. Vegetarians maintain that they are entitled to take eggs from chickens. Vegetarians are complicit in the bellowing of the cattle outside my window as mothers mourn the abduction of their children.

Moreover, vegetarians make it more challenging for vegans – when I pop into the gas station to buy a pie on a road trip I’m greeted with spinach & feta rather than veg curry. Restaurants will have vegetarian options but nothing for vegans. Quorn will release products that could easily be vegan but contain egg believing the vegetarian market is sufficient. Because of this, vegetarians actually stand in the way of animal liberation rather than facilitating it – as they aspire to do.

The conversion

While vegetarian was a concept that once held prominence in the animal rights movement it has fallen by the way side. The inconsistencies in condemning the killing of a grown chicken while paying for male chicks to be ground alive or suffocated have become glaringly obvious. If you respect animals, that respect has far-reaching implications. We are not entitled to their bodies, their ovulations, their lactations, or their labour.

Many, like myself, became vegan after using vegetarianism as a stepping stone. When I look back on the six years I was vegetarian I struggle to understand how I could have believed so firmly in the moral status of animals while being so complicit in in their exploitation. Why did I not become vegan sooner? That’s the question I linger on.

Don’t wait any longer, go vegan.

Acknowledgements: I must thank Michael Glover who first alerted me to the Google trends which inspired this article.

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  • StrangerThingsHappen

    Thank you. Another tool for helping others make the connection.

  • Carl

    Very Good article, but if we look a little deeper, and are honest with ourselves, the line between entitlement and necessity become blurred. In a nutshell, to live a healthy life on a 100% vegan diet, requires more than can be supplied on a completely local scale. Food must be imported, using fossil fuels, doing more damage to the environment than ethical sustainable local meat production could. For humanity to continue forward, local and sustainable are key concepts, both of which cannot sustain a vegan diet, especially in large numbers. In truth, what sustains vegans and vegetarians alike is large scale agriculture, fossil fuels and denail. The refusal to accept that there are sustainable, ethical, and environmentally sound ways to raise animals for meat. Factory farming of animals is sick, inhumane, cruel and twisted in infinite ways, and is definitely not the answer to a growing population. And as idealistic and wonderful as the concept may seem, if one really digs deep and thinks logically, openly and honestly, unfortunately veganism is not the answer either. As far as ethics and empathy are concerned, its all there with veganism, youve got your hearts in the right place, no doubt. But there is a missing link in the concept, and I believe that can be found in ethical,sustainable local produce.

    • Stranger Things Have Happened

      Please motivate your claims, Carl.

      “to live a healthy life on a 100% vegan diet, requires more than can be supplied on a completely local scale. Food must be imported, using fossil fuels, doing more damage to the environment than ethical sustainable local meat production could”
      Simply not true for the vast majority of places. In an extreme case one might not have a wide variety of plant-based options, but would still be able to be quite healthy on what’s commonly available.

      “The refusal to accept that there are sustainable, ethical, and environmentally sound ways to raise animals for meat.”
      You seem to be confused about the word “ethical”. Their lives belong to them, not us. We have no right to use them in any way. End of story.

  • Really interesting piece! The information about Google search results is fascinating. It does seem like people are starting to be more interested in veganism than vegetarianism, which means that the education efforts made by vegans are gaining traction. But it is taking restaurants a while to catch up – there are still a lot of places that have vegetarian options that are even harder to veganize than their meat-based counterparts!

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