Hypatia Symposium: Must Every Animal Studies Scholar Be Vegan? by TRACI WARKENTIN

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title: Must Every Animal Studies Scholar Be Vegan?


 Assistant Professor, Hunter College of the City University of New York

Read the full special issue here

Download a PDF of this Symposium

Perhaps I have become too skeptical as an academic, but I am never comfortable when someone presents me with “the answer,” regardless of the question. I experienced this unsettling phenomenon recently at an animal studies conference, and it catalyzed my thoughts on related issues regarding feminism and animal studies that I’ve been aware of for some time and have been noticing at various academic events. In particular, it helped me recognize connections between a problematically uncritical promotion of veganism and a seeming lack of presence of environmental/eco/feminist praxis in animal studies generally, along with a corresponding amnesia about what it has already contributed to the field.

The catalyst was the 2011 New York University Animal Studies Initiative, cosponsored with Minding Animals International, symposium titled “Animal Studies: Changing the Subject?” Gary Steiner, the first speaker of the day, presented an incisive critique of the dominant bias in Western thought that humans are intellectually superior to all other animals, upon which conventional practices of animal exploitation are then justified. Rather, he argued, animals are the subjects of their own lives, much like humans are the subjects of theirs, and he asserted theoretical consistency with a revised, nonanthropocentric philosophical tradition of humanism (Steiner 2011). Acknowledging the overwhelming, unspeakable suffering of animals in industrial agriculture, he then prescribed what “we” (in the undesignated, universal sense) must do if we care about animals: we must adopt veganism as a strict moral imperative.

In the current North American socioeconomic context, which champions the status quo of an enormous and elite food industry with powerful, vested economic and political interests, I could appreciate the urgency with which he was willing to simplify the solution to an alarmingly complex situation. My lack of ease grew, however, as questions from the audience fell short of drawing out particular complexities that would have added richness to the dialogue and would have made the imperative and its application more robust and democratic. Participants instead generally accepted it and focused on the absolute practical implementation of the imperative, questioning, for instance, if it would be morally acceptable for a vegan to continue using a tennis racquet made from cow intestine, since throwing it away was costly and wasteful. The nature of the questions posed in response to this first paper seemed to set the tone of the conversation, effectively eliminating the possibility for a constructive, nuanced critique of the vegan imperative to follow.

Steiner’s proposal could have benefited from an acknowledged alliance with a long-established environmental/eco/feminist praxis; environmental/eco/feminist scholars and activists have been promoting vegan and vegetarian lifestyles as a manifestation of the personal-is-political moral imperative for at least a couple of decades (see Adams 1990/2010; Donovan 1990; Warren 1990; Adams 1991; Curtin 1991; Kheel 2004). Indeed, Hypatia published a special issue on ecological feminism back in 1991, in which several articles proposed that vegetarianism was a necessary political and moral action. A year earlier, in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary in print, Carol Adams advocated for a vegan lifestyle by providing a nuanced analysis of the intimate linking of women’s bodies and the bodies of animals used for food, showing how they are presented as analogous, eroticized, consumable objects for a masculinized diet and gaze (Adams 1990/2010). She has also shown how meat-eating contributes to violence against women, feminized men, and animals. These are significant intersections, which position dietary choices in direct conversation with social and environmental justice, as well as with animal rights and welfare. Adams’s work, like that of many others, opened up critical dialogue about the patriarchal institutions of food-production and consumption rather than putting both blame and solution solely on individual consumers.

Such an opening also enabled important critiques to emerge from within environmental/eco/feminism about the pitfalls of a universal prescription of a “pure” vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. The development of, and serious engagement in, this internal critique illuminates perhaps one of the most generative characteristics of environmental/eco/feminist theory and practice that is particularly valuable to animal studies: that it can accommodate a diversity of viewpoints and account for the complexity of a given situation, thereby avoiding counterproductive allegations of hypocrisy based on an all-or-nothing type purity; it recognizes that each specific situation may require its own unique and partial resolution. In other words, it allows for rigorously considered grays rather than demanding all-encompassing black or white positions.

Many key contours of feminist, nonanthropocentric environmental and animal ethics include reasoning through a narrative situation, which involves detailed considerations of a highly specific context in which varying degrees of responsibility may arise through human–animal and human–human relationships. There can be no prior assumptions of moral value according to dualistic ontology to provide a one-size-fits-all solution. Environmental/eco/feminist ethics cannot be morally defined in abstract terms or applied from some disembodied, external source. Thus, they are fundamentally different from predominantly rationalist forms of Western environmental ethics, which aim to prescribe a set of universal principles to apply to all people everywhere at any time. Universal moral vegetarianism has long been a subject of deep critical debate among environmental/eco/feminist philosophers, particularly in terms of its dislocated, universal application and potential for a Western ethnocentric and androcentric bias (see, for example, Gaard 1993; George 2000; Plumwood 2000; Warren 2000; Donovan 2003; Gruen 2004); these critiques and debates deserve to enter and provoke wider conversations within animal studies about the morality of dietary choices, perhaps now more than ever.

Of late, it is becoming fairly customary for animal studies conferences to be vegan events. This is a tremendous achievement and can be seen as a positive manifestation of the personal as political. It is entirely appropriate that conference organizers arrange for all of the catered food to be vegan, knowing that the majority of animal food products used in conventional, commercial catering are the direct result of the exploitation of animals and dominantly inhumane practices in the industrial-agricultural food system. Given the diversity of dietary needs among conference participants and across the spectrum of perspectives on animal rights and animal welfare, providing an all-vegan spread is far more democratic since everyone (with the exception of those with specific food allergies, perhaps) can partake of it. Moreover, not all participants have to be vegan to accept that this is an ethically responsible thing to do and in line with some of the main concerns of animal studies scholars. It also provides a potent, material grounding for ethical debate as participants are made tacitly aware of the connections between eating practices and the treatment of animals.

I have noticed, however, that a troubling rift keeps emerging at these events, made visible in the way that participants appear to feel the need to confess whether they are a “vegan” or a “carnivore,” even if the theme of the conference is focused on other issues. I find this trend urgently in need of unpacking for many reasons, most of all because it hints at an assumption that a vegan lifestyle is unquestionably good, and, perhaps, the only ethical choice among animal studies scholars. It is not without irony and extreme hesitation that I make such a statement, given that the dominant attitude in Western industrial society is that human beings are morally justified to use, kill, profit from, and eat animals, with little or no concern for their well-being. I do want to be cautious, however, about the emergence of a reversed dualism—vegan versus carnivore—arising in animal studies that oversimplifies the choices people make as all-or-nothing, and may force us to have to proclaim allegiance to one side or the other, potentially generating a troubling mentality of you’re either with us or against us.

Declarations of veganism may give participants (who may be new to animal studies and environmental ethics) the impression that one must be vegan in order to be an animal studies scholar and not to have the legitimacy of their research undermined, particularly if they don’t voluntarily self-identify. Such an outcome would be unfortunate and unnecessary, since many of us exist in the messy areas in between the extremes of veganism, vegetarianism, and meat-eating and yet are still allied with the goals and values of animal advocacy in multifaceted ways. When asked directly, I refrain from categorizing myself as one thing and rather explain that I practice what I call a “conscious diet.” It is dynamic and specific to my evolving belief system, personal history, digestive constitution, location, and economic means. I avoid food that is produced through industrial animal agriculture because I believe it is an exceptionally cruel and horrifying practice. I don’t eat animal flesh because that is predominantly the way it is commercially produced in North America, and because my economic and geographic realities allow me to have a nutritious diet without it. Although I attempt to eat mostly organic produce, I am painfully aware that many of the fruits and vegetables I consume are still caught up in the larger food-production and transportation system that is tied to industrial animal agriculture and causes massive environmental degradation, destroys habitat, and harms many animals.

Soy, for instance, is one of the largest conventional crops in the United States and the main ingredient in a large majority of vegan food products, which are marketed as ethical alternatives to meat. At present one large corporation, Monsanto, monopolizes soybean growing. Monsanto has the power to dictate that soy has to be grown using other Monsanto products, such as the herbicide Round-up. The “Round-up Ready soybean” seed has undergone extensive genetic modification so it can withstand the spraying of the herbicide, which has enabled Monsanto to patent it and claim total ownership of the seed itself. The patent has created a dependency of soybean farmers on Monsanto and has resulted in drastic legal actions (leading often to bankruptcy) against farmers whose crops have become inadvertently “infected” with the modified seeds. Monsanto’s soybean seeds are potentially dangerous (to environmental, animal, and human health), genetically modified organisms, designed to be grown according to unsustainable, monocrop practices, which are chemical- and fossil-fuel-energy-intensive and environmentally destructive.

Unfortunately, these complicated realities of uncritically adopting a vegan diet in the context of a North American food system dominated by large-scale industrial agriculture appear to rarely come up within academic spheres outside of environmental/eco/feminism. Dietary choices and food-production have already undergone rigorous environmental/eco/feminist intersectional analysis, a method aimed at investigating explicit and implicit connections between the oppression of women, animals, nature, and “othered” humans resulting from powerful institutions and their underlying conceptual frameworks. In addition to the problematic dimensions of soy-production that extend to industrial animal agriculture, further intersectional analysis reveals that it is based upon the exploitation of female reproductive systems, as well as the exploitation and maintained vulnerability and expendability of undocumented immigrant workers. Although still of utmost importance, the rights and welfare of animals is not the only moral imperative here. Animal studies, as an academic discipline and forum for animal advocacy, thus needs to remember and re-engage environmental/eco/feminist theories, practices, and methods if it is also committed to environmental and social justice.

That it is even necessary to make this assertion has confused me for some time, since, as an environmental/eco/feminist scholar, I have known of the field’s contribution to, and vital role in, animal studies for many years. Some clarity on this conundrum came at the Sex, Gender, Species conference at Wesleyan University, when Greta Gaard cogently pointed out that ecofeminists may be largely responsible for their own disappearance, at least with respect to the collective amnesia of their work in other academic disciplines (Gaard 2011). Paying tribute to the historical development of ecofeminism, through grassroots environmental activism to the much needed theoretical critiques of Euro- and ethnocentrism from within, Gaard highlighted the exceptionally reflexive and diverse field that resulted. She then lamented, however, that the ultimate result was an extensive abandonment of the name that gave it a collective identity. With that, Gaard explained, ecofeminism fractured and has been operating “under cover” with many aliases since, including ecological feminism, feminist environmentalism, environmental feminism, material feminism, gender and environment, and queer ecologies, to name a few (Gaard 2011). So, although ecofeminist scholarship and advocacy did not actually disappear, it effectively dissipated and fell off the radar, so to speak, of the wider academic community as a result. This quite possibly has contributed to its lack of a strong, identifiable presence in the newly recognizable and growing field that has been named “animal studies.”

By contrast, animal studies is enjoying a steady rise in recognition and legitimacy within the academy and is serving to bring together scholarship existing in many far-flung disciplines. Unfortunately, vital insights from ecofeminism have been lost or forgotten, and much reinvention appears to be occurring instead of building upon already rigorous work. Generative debate about the ethical treatment of animals and the politics of dietary choices could dramatically benefit from the remembering of ecofeminist work and advocacy. Bringing environmental/eco/feminism (whatever it is called) back in and to the foreground of animal studies is, thus, a vital project. How this project can be accomplished, however, is a question, quite fittingly, without a simple answer.

12 thoughts on “Hypatia Symposium: Must Every Animal Studies Scholar Be Vegan? by TRACI WARKENTIN”

  1. Thanks for this great piece. It resonated strongly with my experience at the recent Minding Animals conference in Utrecht.

    Interestingly Gary Steiner made a number of mentions of the women’s movement as an example of wins for social justice but when asked why he didn’t engage directly with these feminisms or feminist theory his answer was that he had read some of it but that he didn’t find any of it very useful.

    This might be reasonable if there was some engagement with the arguments, showing why they are not useful from his perspective, but they simply weren’t mentioned in his paper at all.

    1. Hearing about this very recent exchange is so interesting, Michelle. I wonder at Mr. Steiner’s comment about feminist theory not being “useful” and hope to see an elaboration in the future, as there is such a long-standing and comprehensive debate on the issues that are most relevant to his dietary, ethical stance.

      1. Even more interestingly if I remember correctly I think the overall issue he had was that the work he had read didn’t allow the kind of absolute vegan imperative that he is interested in proposing.

  2. Thanks for this very interesting piece, Traci. It seems to me that a significant insight stemming from the vast literature of ecofeminism and vegetarian ecofeminism (to borrow Gaard’s term) is the recognition that in contextualizing our moral choices and decisions we must look to the larger social, political, and economic structures in which live. Doing so enables us to see the ways in which our choices are limited by these structures.

    Given the world as it is currently organized, our options for finding perfectly ethical solutions to the problem of how to eat are constrained in various ways. Your Monsanto example illustrates this problem quite nicely. For those of us who cannot provide our own supply of food, there may be no morally clean way out of the dilemma of what to eat.

    Those of us who choose veganism as a way of life (myself included) would do well to remember that our hands are not clean simply because we’ve opted out of participating in violence towards animals. Your piece here is a lovely reminder of that important point. It is also a reminder that, as academics working on these issues, we have a responsibility to actively engage in working to change the larger social structures that limit our ability to make sound ethical choices.

    The question you pose at the end about how to bring environmental/eco feminism into the foreground of animal studies is an excellent one and something I’ve been thinking about myself. I wonder if one answer, in the long term, is to make sure we are not teaching ecofeminism as a niche part of environmental ethics. In all the classes I ever took in college and graduate school, ecofeminism was relegated to the “other theories people sometimes endorse” section of the syllabus. In my own teaching, I’ve tried to lead with ecofeminist theories in an attempt to highlight them as exceptionally insightful and rich theoretical approaches to very complex problems.

    A more direct approach, and one I’ve tried on occasion, is to speak up at conferences when I hear ecofeminist insights either re-packaged and presented as novel thoughts on issues in animal studies or ignored entirely. If the speaker seems receptive, I offer to send a reading list. It’s a small step, but one I hope has some impact.

    1. I have struggled with the same curricular challenges in teaching my environmental ethics course, Karen. Thank you for raising a crucial issue! I typically teach a variety of ethical perspectives on environmental and social issues, including anthropocentrism, biocentrism, ecocentrism, ecofeminism and so on, but I will introduce ecofeminist theory very early on in the course before giving it a name, particularly the logic of domination and the work of Carol Gilligan (in response to Kohlberg) and have my students discuss the “Heinz dilemma.” Without fail, some students will eventually voice dissatisfaction over having to judge the theft in only absolute terms, as moral or not, and will raise contextual concerns that lead to more relational ethical responses. At that point, I will share that this is how many feminist scholars work through moral dilemmas and find that the whole exercise is so much more meaningful because the class engaged an (eco)feminist perspective before being told through a formal lecture. It is my hope that the exercise demonstrates how feminist contextual, relational reasoning is something that anyone can do, not just women or someone labelled “feminist”, which is a preconception many of my students seems to bring to the course. It sounds like we share many similarities in our teaching strategies in this respect.

  3. I was recently at the Brooklyn Food Conference on a panel discussing the ethics of eating meat and endorsed contextual moral veganism as an ideal. The conversation that followed was very interesting and I think raises important concerns for us to think about in our teaching and our scholarship. What contextual reasons would count as reasons in support of using animals as food? There seemed to be a worry that too much context led to permission for anything defended as “cultural.” I (and other feminist theorists) have written about they ways that cultural practices, like any practice, is open to critical assessment. That something is “cultural” in other words, does not mean its off limits to questioning. But there are details and challenges here that I think still need to be worked out — I think this is a great direction for further ecofeminist work.

    1. Traci writes: “I do want to be cautious, however, about the emergence of a reversed dualism—vegan versus carnivore—arising in animal studies that oversimplifies the choices people make as all-or-nothing, and may force us to have to proclaim allegiance to one side or the other, potentially generating a troubling mentality of you’re either with us or against us.”

      Thanks for this important point. To me, the demand to state one’s “vegan versus carnivore” identity suggests we must be wary of ways in which consumer ideology operates, even at conferences with participants who see capitalist logic as a central factor in the oppression of animals. Is not demanding one’s “vegan versus carnivore” identity a spasm of capitalist mentality, wherein one’s (ethical) “identity” is bought and sold in line with a hyper-individualistic sense of responsibility (e.g. Traci’s discussion about what is better for a vegan to do – use the racket made of cow or toss it?) This is, importantly, not to suggest that going vegan is without ethical significance, but it is to suggest that the demand to know this feature and to make it a central concern gears the problem of animal oppression in the wrong direction – namely towards one of consumer identity (are you X or Y?). In this way, demanding to know one’s “vegan” identity threatens to make “ethical vegetarianism” similar to other modes of identity operating within a market logic, which suggests that if you do not buy into the system you are opposing, it cannot change. But the idea that consumer power alone can alter the free market is entirely myopic, as Marx and critical theory tells us (and as Karen Emmerman’s comment that there may be no “morally clean way out of the dilemma” nicely illustrates). Perhaps one response, then, to the trend to “know” one’s food identity is to state how such a question is symptomatic of the very problem one is tackling – namely a systematic, capitalist system of domination that ignores context and difference, and sells identities as “solutions.”

  4. I think the question you pose is a great one, Lori, and one that I’ll be taking up in some way in my paper for the conference at Wesleyan in November. In part, my dissertation work was an attempt to work through this very problem. I want to recognize the importance of culture and tradition without enabling that importance to serve as a trump to animals’ interests. Even though my own view is deeply contextual, I have trouble thinking of contextual conditions that could justify the use of animals for food (aside from the usual lifeboat style cases where people will die if they don’t eat an animal but I don’t tend to like to work with those cases). Instead, I have been trying to think about how we might address the importance of what is at stake on the human side while avoiding causing animals harm. Does anyone here want to take a stab at proposing contextual conditions that would justify using animals for food?

    Traci, I am inspired by the way you use ecofeminism in your classes and am going to make a go of doing it your way when I teach this year. I would love to watch a group of students work through the Heinz dilemma and come to the feminist ethical approaches on their own. Thank you for that idea!

    I am very interested in this idea Rebecca Tuvel raises about identities (in particular the vegan identity) being sold as a solution to large-scale problems. It brings me back to thinking about the role activism might (must?) play in our lives as an expression of the understanding that consumer power alone cannot alter the free market (to borrow Rebecca’s language).

  5. Traci, thank you for these thought provoking comments. Over at my blog, I wrote a bit about this post, here is the link. http://criticalanimal.blogspot.com/2012/07/fea-on-traci-warkentin-veganism-and.html

    The last part of my post has a question for you that I thought I would add here: What place is there for advocacy for veganism in animal studies? While engaging with the literature of ecofeminsts is extremely important, it isn’t as if this is a settled question in the literature, and from reading your post I am unclear how you see the relationship of veganism and advocacy.

    Thank you!

    1. James, I really appreciate your thoughtful review on your blog and the question posed. I do feel that advocating for veganism has a place in animal studies, an important place. Practicing veganism is the most immediate and intimate (and probably has the biggest impact given the sheer numbers of animals caught up in meat, egg, dairy production) way for one to positively impact animal lives, which should be a goal of animal studies, in my opinion. That said, I think there are many ways animal studies can contribute to improving animal lives and human-animal relationships, and would hope that those are pursued by scholars even if they do not identify as/with veganism per se. This goes hand-in-hand with corresponding critical and culturally sensitive debate (which has been raised in my piece and in several of the comments above).

      In my teaching, I use an ecofeminist intersectional analysis of the food industry and intensive animal agriculture and find it to be extremely effective for educating students about the multiple oppressions involved for animals and humans. I always show the documentary, Food Inc., very early in my environmental ethics course, after which students are increasingly able to engage in an informed discussion and critique of North American eating practices that extends far beyond oversimplified questions of eating meat or not. Interestingly (although not surprisingly), as they become more aware and involved in discussions, at least two or three students will typically begin to practice vegetarian or vegan eating practices entirely of their own volition, typically by about midterm. This occurs without me declaring my own practices or explicitly advocating for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle (although I am always willing to talk about my choices when asked). I believe that it is very powerful for the students to come to it on their own and I anticipate that their commitment to these changes will be stronger and longer lasting through this process. I am sure, though, that there are many other effective teaching strategies as well.

      In response to your concluding comments on the loneliness of being a vegan and vegan scholar among a still vast majority that is unaware and/or unconcerned with animal rights and welfare, I recognize the necessity and relief of discovering like-minded souls through identifying oneself as such. I hope my piece doesn’t give the impression that I am suggesting a total refrain from doing so. I also don’t want to underplay the major significance that some conferences are providing vegan catering. You’ve reminded me that this is still quite rare (I have been very lucky and selective about the conferences I participate in lately). My concern remains about the perceptions that veganism is the only moral option and that it is necessary for one to be taken seriously as an animal studies scholar, or else lack credibility.

      Lovely exchange – my thoughts are generatively provoked!

  6. ProfessorTraci Warkentin makes a good point, highlighting the non-critical approach to veganism. Furthermore she stresses that the issue is complex, which it is! Or perhaps I should say there are several layers to consider.

    In my opinion there is an added problem of confusing moral and ethical reasons and practical issues. What I mean to say is that Gary Steiner is using the “Doctors shouldn’t smoke argument” Presuming that there are very few people who would disagree that smoking is a health risk and doctors should not do it, this still doesn’t mean a smoking doctors don’t care about their patients. Or does it? Veganism is a moral choice as well and not as ‘black and white as the smoking debate (although, this is not a straightforward issue either if we think about freedom of choice) Furthermore, is this not a case of imposing ones own moral preferences on other people? The jury is still out on veganism from an academic point of view; morally it is conclusive. I would love to believe that eating meat causes violence and that being vegan is the only way forward. I know some really violent vegans which shows that there must be other factors involved. By the same token I know some really passive meat eaters of course.

    Finally, veganism is seen as an extreme and of course it is stereotyped, which does not help to promote critical debate. Of course this is down to education or generally available information. It is always tricky discussing ethics especially when people take the moral high ground fuelled by passion, which is not necessarily a bad thing in itself; it is just that an emotive response is not very conducive for a balanced critique. I hope it has been noticed that I have not declared myself “vegan” or “carnivore”. I like this illustration; it is like going to a conference on feminism and declaring oneself ‘male’ or ‘female” The main point here is that veganism is a multi-level issue as is feminism and environmental issues (ecofeminism) if I must segregate. I think that Professor Traci Warkentin is really moving the debate in the right direction by raising these issues. In fact her article is wonderfully refreshing.

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