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Speciesism And The Palm Oil Debate

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There is no doubt that conventionally produced palm oil is an ecological disaster. The substance has long been a point of contention between vegans and non-vegans alike, in light of its effects on the rainforest and the non-humans who depend on that ecosystem. The animal most mentioned in the debate, of course, being the orangutan.

But whilst the link between palm oil production and habitat destruction is clear, can the same not be said for every other form of vegetable oil we harvest to some degree? By focusing specifically on palm oil – and orangutans – are we not drawing yet another arbitrary line that tells the public that some habitats, some animals, matter more than others? Are we not simply re-instilling a line of conventional thought that allows people to continue distancing themselves from the real issue? The use of sentient beings as property, as resources, in favour of yet another hierarchical system of moral value?

The Guardian recently posted an article discussing these issues where the online store, NotFrom.com, chimed in:

“There’s an ongoing debate in the vegan community, with people saying they’re not going to buy products from animals but then they switch to products that include palm oil, which is a paradox [because] in a way they’re part of destroying the rainforests where orangutans and other animals are living,”

The confusion here, most often fuelled by conventional welfarist thinking, is that the purpose of veganism is to eliminate all harm on the planet. That the sole purpose of veganism is to not be responsible for any harm at all and so therefore, vegans encounter a “paradox” when a choice is made that potentially has an undersirable effect. But not causing any harm is impossible, for anyone, even vegans. That’s an infallible truth simply by virtue of the fact that we are alive and using a planetary resource of some kind at almost every moment of every day.

We can, and should, endeavour to minimise our impact on the planet, but the presence of unintentional harm has ultimately nothing to do with the purpose of veganism. Veganism is about recognising the moral value of animals, and our subsequent obligation to not treat them exclusively as resources, as property, because to do so is a direct denial and violation of that moral value. Veganism is about recognising that we have no right to continue using animals as things for our unnecessary purposes. It’s about recognising that we must treat similar interests similarly, and accord non-humans the right not to be treated as property, just as we do with humans. They all have the same interests in not suffering and in continuing to live, yet we deny the existence and value of those interests where animals are concerned based on nothing but species bias. In other words, veganism is what we owe to animals in recognition of their moral value.  As Gary Francione states, it applies the principle of abolition to the life of the individual.

This is the true purpose of veganism. Everything else being thrown into the debate over palm oil is ultimately a smokescreen. Unintentional harm caused to habitats and wild animals must be a priority in a vegan society. There is nothing good about the conventional way in which palm oil is harvested. There is also nothing good about the way in which conventional crops are grown and harvested, but we don’t get articles in the Guardian talking about how vegans are concerned for the field mice who undoubtedly get sucked into combine harvesters. Why? Because unfortunately, even a lot of vegans are prone to engage in speciesist thought. Especially if one is a follower of the large animal groups that endorse Peter Singer, who is explicit in his assertion that non-human great apes, along with perhaps the dolphins, deserve to be accorded some higher moral value in light of their cognitive capabilities. Recognising that this speciesism has no place in a vegan society makes space for a real step in the right direction to limit the harm we cause to the planet and its occupants.

Ultimately, the palm oil debate tells people that veganism is nothing more than an act of “reducing harm.” The answer to that has been, and always will be, “well, there are other ways to reduce harm – I’ll go vegetarian, or just eat less meat.” And therein lies the issue, the cycle of oppression gets fuelled by a focus on conventional welfarist thought – the reduction of suffering. Only by breaking this cycle, by promoting veganism as the fundamental issue of justice it is, will we create an ethical society capable of truly combating the irresponsible ways we currently treat our planet.

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