The concept of ownership of members of nonhuman species and every single one of the uses we make of them, stems from the ugly prejudice known as speciesism, a prejudice with which almost every one of us is indoctrinated from birth. Even once we shrug it off and decide to become vegan, we can each find little pockets of undetected speciesism lurking in our minds, and for me as for many others, recognising and eliminating these lingering remnants is an ongoing challenge. The key requirement is a deep and sincere desire to embrace the values that are important to us. In rooting out any remains of our own speciesism, the words we use in unguarded moments can teach us so much about our subconscious attitudes to nonhuman use and animal rights. We need only to listen to ourselves.
I’ve previously written at length about the notion of ‘waste‘ as it relates to animal rights. Particularly as the reality of our planet’s dwindling resources is seeping into mainstream awareness, ‘waste’ is a word that provokes strong feelings. The topic is frequently raised in relation to animal-derived substances for consumption, but practices perceived as waste avoidance are also defended by vegans and nonvegans alike in connection with wool, leather, and other substances.
The general justification is that since these ‘products’ are occurring anyway, and since the individuals whose bodies produce them don’t (in our extremely biased opinion) have any use for them, then it’s ‘wasteful’ not to use them. There’s even a related notion of it being somehow ‘respectful’ to use up every part of a slaughtered nonhuman corpse. Apart from anything else, the idea that substances are ‘just there and needing used up’ totally ignores the fact that in almost every single case, our species has selectively bred our victims, manipulating their bodies to maximise the production of whatever aspect of their lives and bodies that we intend to profit from financially, without any concern or consideration whatsoever for their wellbeing.
However, in this instance, I was reminded of the topic of ‘waste’ because substances we casually refer to as ‘milk and eggs‘ had been left by mistake on the doorstep of a vegan household. A question arose about the ethics of giving them away since the vegan household had no use for them. I’ve known the phrase ‘to save waste’ to be used in this context many times but I’m never comfortable with it, and once again I found it buzzing through my thoughts all day. So what’s my problem with it, since the avoidance of waste is highly desirable in today’s fragile world? I came to the conclusion that the word ‘waste’ when used in connection with any substance or service that makes use of the life or the body of a nonhuman undividual, is a beacon that points the way to ingrained speciesism, and speciesism is incompatible with veganism.
Looking for answers and guidelines
For various reasons, our ideas of ‘waste‘ are hard to dislodge. We can easily get bogged down in circular conversations about whether passing on nonvegan items and substances is creating consumer demand in recipients who will likely buy from a store the next time, whether it’s acceptable if the recipients are destitute, or whether we are sending out a message that might leave us open to accusations of thinking ourselves ‘holier than thou’ by passing on to others, substances that we consider ourselves ‘too ethical’ to use. We can get embroiled in debates about what should be done with nonvegan substances that clearly exist whether we want them or not, what we should do with the nonvegan items we still own, and so on.
And these are definitely issues we have to face up to and decide, and in most cases the answers are not simple. But the answers are personal, reached only after much soul searching, and lie in the heart of each of us. They hinge mainly upon the extent to which we have purged speciesism from our minds. I can’t write a manual for what to do with your old leather boots, or your old sheepskin coat, or that hat with the fur pompom that you have a sentimental attachment to. Nothing that I say can take the place of your conscience, just as nothing you can say will take the place of mine. All I know is that I’ve finally reached a stage where, despite living in poverty, I would rather do without than consume or wear body parts that were not mine to begin with and so any forgotten items that I come across are cremated or given a decent burial. If a package of breastmilk or flesh or eggs were left in my house, I would treat them in exactly the same way as if I were to find a dead wild creature in my garden. They are not food so I have no mental conflict about the matter. I took a while to get to this place of certainty, but it does not in the slightest ease my burden of guilt for the past.
A surprise delivery
It is often written that being vegan means that we stop considering the lives and bodies of others as being for our use. Specifically, we do not see other individuals as ‘food’, but to get a real sense of what this means, I find an analogy helps cut through to the heart of the matter.
Imagine that by mistake, a delivery driver leaves a package on your doorstep from an ‘exotic meats supplier’, who can’t be contacted to re-deliver to whoever ordered it. Closer examination of the package reveals the slaughtered and shrink-wrapped corpse of a *dog who, in life, would have looked exactly like the furry four-legged sweetheart who shares your home and your bed. Picture the scene. What thoughts that would go through your mind?
Would your first thought be about how the meat was going to go to ‘waste’? Would you decide that as this dog was ‘bred for eating‘, it would be only ‘respectful’ to find someone with the appropriate dietary preferences to pass the body on to? Or would you feel sick and shocked and traumatised? Be honest now; no one will know what you’re thinking here but your own conscience.
I admit that I’d be traumatised, but then I frequently experience that emotional response in the mortuary aisles of the supermarket. My instinct would be to cremate or to bury the tragic remains; and to apologise profoundly for whatever torment had been endured. I would be swamped with grief and shame for my species, but the word ‘waste’ would never enter my head – not even fleetingly. I suspect that many readers would share this same revulsion. Very few would be agonising about how awful it would be for ‘meat’ to be ‘wasted’.
So back to the original delivery
So to come back to the original delivery of ‘milk and eggs’; what’s the difference between that and my analogy? I’m sure there will be some who say they’re not the same, but if we think there’s a difference, it can be only because in our minds, we subconsciously still perceive the eggs of small birds selectively bred into bodies that self-destruct, and the breastmilk of mother mammals whose infants we have taken from them at birth, as appropriate foodstuffs for our species.
But cutting through all our justifications, there’s really only one difference between the two tragic packages, and that difference is speciesism. Just as with humans, there are species that we don’t ever consider to be food, although like humans, their flesh, their breastmilk and body parts comprise the same basic components as our victims. But because we don’t think of them as food, we can’t think of their corpses, their body parts and reproductive secretions as ‘waste’ simply because we ourselves have no use for them.
The decision to be vegan is far from being the end of the road; it’s just the beginning of a journey of self discovery. As we travel that road, we won’t always like what we find and there is pain and sadness aplenty, but speaking purely for myself, I cannot regret a moment of it. All I regret is that I didn’t set out sooner. Speciesism. Reject it.
*A dog is the example used here, simply because so many people share their homes with dogs and in the western world the species is synonymous with our irrational favouring of one species over many others who share the exact same qualities and attributes. It should not be inferred from this that dogs are the only species affected by the selective speciesism of humanity.