Vegan ruminations

Reflections on the 2018 Conscious Eating Conference

Hope Bohanec introduces Karen Davis, president and founder of United Poultry Concerns. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

This past weekend I attended the seventh annual Conscious Eating Conference, presented by United Poultry Concerns in Berkeley, California. I don’t attend vegan or animal rights conferences very often, but one of the presenters was my friend Justin Van Kleeck, a writer and sanctuary caretaker whose anti-oppression group blog Striving with Systems I’ve been following for years. I hadn’t seen Justin in person since the Intersectional Justice Conference in 2016, where he was an attendee and I was a presenter. I also knew writer and activist Hope Bohanec, who emceed and presented at this month’s event.

Justin Van Kleeck speaks at the conference, wearing a “Hail Seitan — Vegan” shirt and sporting a Vegan tattoo.

Justin Van Kleeck’s presentation, “Animal Farming and the Roots of Speciesism”, included many photos of, and stories about, the chickens and other animals that have resided at his microsanctuary. He demonstrated that these animals have individual personalities, and deserve to live and not be exploited and killed for their flesh and eggs.

My thoughts: By sheer numbers, chickens are the most exploited farmed animals on Earth, killed by the tens of billions annually for their eggs as well as their flesh. The brothers of egg-laying hens are routinely killed shortly after hatching, and the hens themselves are normally killed for their flesh once they are “spent”; this slaughter is standard on so-called “humane” farms, not just factory farms. Backyard egg farmers also contribute to this death and suffering.

Chickens are are no different from parrots, pelicans, penguins, or peregrines when we consider things from their perspective: All of these birds value their own lives. Many who would balk at causing any deliberate harm to a member of one of those other species think nothing of eating the flesh of chickens. Chickens are stupid, they might say, or they are bred for the specific purpose of feeding humans.

This is speciesism; the belief that humans are superior to all other animals. All humans, vegans included, behave in ways that are speciesist to some degree. But the assignment of relative value to different animals based on their perceived intelligence, beauty, or usefulness to humans is responsible for billions of unnecessary deaths and suffering of individuals who want to live just as much as we do.

Yes, domestic chickens are bred for the purpose of feeding humans. Descended from junglefowl, they have been genetically manipulated over the decades to lay many times more eggs than they would in the wild, resulting in great strain on their bodies. Sanctuary caretakers like Justin witness this suffering first-hand, every day, and it is heartbreaking.

I contend that this situation is wrong, and avoidable. Transitioning to “cage free” eggs is not the solution. We need to stop breeding domestic animals entirely, and transition to vegan diets.

Adam Karp, holding a copy of his book “Understanding Animal Law”, speaks at the conference.

The next speaker at the conference was Adam P. Karp, a lawyer who practices animal law. His jam-packed presentation, “Veganic Lawyering, Carnivore-Keeping, and Natalist Ruminations”, covered a wide range of topics, including two that he acknowledged were controversial, and were of particular interest to me.

The first controversial subject was on the ethics of feeding vegan diets to cats and dogs. While dogs are omnivores, cats are obligate carnivores; animal flesh is predominant in their natural diets. Some cats are able to thrive on specially formulated vegan diets, but others are not.

My partner Ziggy and I both love cats, and he has always wanted to adopt one, but I have been resistant. We’ve had a vegan kitchen for over 14 years — longer than either of us has been consistently vegan ourselves — and I really don’t want to re-introduce animal products to our household. I also don’t want to subject a naturally carnivorous animal to a vegan diet. I’ve suggested that we adopt a (naturally herbivorous) rabbit instead, but Ziggy would prefer to get a cat.

Ultimately, I feel the solution is, again, to stop breeding domestic animals, including those who we consider pets or companions as well as those who are raised for their flesh, milk, eggs, and skins. Many vegans balk at the idea of no longer having companion animals, and I certainly don’t object to sharing our homes with needy animals who would otherwise be killed (“euthanized”) at this time.

But I’m taking the long view, and I feel the best place for humans to appreciate our fellow animals is from a distance; we should not be altering their natural diets, behaviors, and bodies to accommodate our living situations. To me, animals are people, not property, and that means the practice of domesticating animals should come to an end — for their sakes.

The other controversial subject Adam Karp raised was on the ethics of humans having children. Considerations included the ecological as well as ethical impact of bringing more humans into the world, as not even a vegan parent can guarantee that their children will grow up to be vegans themselves.

I, personally, have never wanted to raise children, whether adopted or born from my own womb. I made this clear to both my former and current spouses well before we were married. (My ex went onto re-marry, and did end up having children; Ziggy and I remain child-free by choice.) But my decision to remain childless had more to do with a general dislike of young children and a concern that I am scarcely able to take care of myself, much less be responsible for another human’s well-being.

Gender dysphoria is also a factor, although it took me over 40 years to realize that my significant discomfort with my female-assigned reproductive system was more than just an inconvenience I had to put up with. Of course, many trans people do raise children, and some trans men willingly become pregnant and give birth, but I’ve never been interested in doing so myself; the idea is frankly terrifying to me.

Regardless, while I feel that there are too many humans on Earth, I am concerned that many anti-natalists — inside and outside of vegan movements—take on a tone that is oppressive to women, especially women of color from what Westerners refer to as “developing” nations. I don’t feel that anyone should be telling a woman — or anyone else with a uterus and ovaries — what to do with their own reproductive system. And single, middle-class vegans living in the U.S. likely consume far more resources than non-vegan families living in poorer circumstances.

As I posted recently in regards to violence, I honestly don’t think we humans deserve to continue as a species if we don’t radically change our ways. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to do anything deliberate to speed up the process of our extinction. I have chosen not to reproduce, but I will not force or pressure anyone else into making that same choice.

I was hoping to talk with Adam at lunch about some of these issues, but he was engrossed in another conversation. Since he ran out of time during his talk, I believe he said that he would put his full presentation online, which would be great as there were several other interesting topics and legal cases he had to rush through near the end.

UPC founder and president Karen Davis speaks at the conference.

Next on the conference agenda was Karen Davis, founder and president of United Poultry Concerns. Her presentation, “Don’t Just Switch From Beef to Chicken”, showed many photos of chickens, turkeys, and other domestic birds, and the devastating consequences of animal agriculture to them. I don’t have more to say on that subject than what I already wrote above, but I am glad that Karen is bringing much-deserved attention to these animals with her speaking, writing, and leadership.

John Sanbonmatsu speaks at the conference.

After a break for a delicious vegan lunch, the next speaker, philosophy professor John Sanbonmatsu, gave a fascinating and intense presentation entitled “Lady Macbeth at the Rotisserie: ‘Femivores’, Violence, and the New Maternalism in Animal Agriculture”. He discussed a disturbing trend of women — white middle class women in particular — asserting their power and independence by dominating and killing animals.

In graphic passages that made me literally nauseous, these women described their emotions as they raised these animals with what they often described as loving care, then killed and ate them. John explained that men were not expected to provide such rationales or excuses for practicing animal husbandry, as it was, presumably, in their nature. This style of narrative was unique to modern women practicing farmsteading or locavorism.

John also showed some advertisements for animal products that displayed almost comical levels of toxic masculinity. I’d seen some of these before in Carol Adams’ presentation at the aforementioned Intersectional Justice Conference.

“I Am Man” Burger King commercial

My thoughts: While I could see criticism of this topic (which Justin also addressed) being presented by a man, speaking as someone who lived as a woman for several decades I felt this presentation was framed fairly, and free of the overt sexism that often accompanies animal rights activism. While most social justice activists would not agree with this analysis, I feel that the domination and killing of animals is bound up with toxic masculinity. Will Tuttle also addressed this subject in his book, The World Peace Diet.

The strong association of violence with the male sex is one reason I named myself Pax Ahimsa — literally, peace and nonviolence—as a constant reminder to do no harm to anyone, animals included. Despite being agender, I have transitioned legally and medically to male, and am (after four years on testosterone) read as male most of the time, so I’m mindful of the privileges and presumptions that accompany presumed manhood. Many genuinely peaceful, vegan men do exist — Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh comes to mind — but men are still disproportionately responsible for killing. Women seeking to advance gender equality by killing more animals are making the world an even more violent place.

Hope Bohanec speaks at the conference.

After John’s talk I had to leave to attend another event, so I didn’t hear the remaining presentations or panel discussion. Hope Bohanec presented on “Sentience in the Sea”, and Clifton Roberts, 2016 Humane Party presidential candidate, presented on “The Humane Party — Animals, Politics, and the Future”. I’m friends with his vice-presidential running mate from that year, black vegan activist and scholar A. Breeze Harper, but ultimately I decided to go with the Green Party in the 2016 election (a decision I’m not interested in debating).

I mentioned Breeze’s race specifically because as with the previous vegan event I attended at the same location, the Cowspiracy Conference, the audience was predominantly white. Two of this conference’s speakers (John Sanbonmatsu and Clifton Roberts) were people of color, and I saw a number of people of Asian descent (Supreme Master TV was also covering the event), but very few black or brown faces in the audience.

The cost of this conference was fairly low ($20-$30, including food) and it was free for students, so I’m not sure that affordability was a factor in attendance. But I do notice when there are very few black folks at an event. For what it was worth, I wore my Black Vegans Rock T-shirt, and mentioned to a couple of people at lunch that I manage the BVR Instagram page, when they asked if I were a vegan or animal rights activist.

In any case, I’m glad that I attended the Conscious Eating Conference. Besides Justin, I connected with a few folks that I used to do Direct Action Everywhere protests with (nearly all of whom, myself included, have left that group; DxE was also removed from the speaking program, which made me and a number of others feel better about attending). It was good to spend time in a place where the lives and well-being of our fellow animals was taken seriously.

My full set of photos from the conference is available on Flickr. A few of the photos are on Wikimedia Commons as well. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of my photos, thanks!

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