James McWilliams wrote an excellent piece on “the best vegan approach” in which he mentions “health, environmental, and ethical angles,” and speaks out for inclusion of all the various reasons for going vegan: “When we confine ourselves to a single approach, we confine the scope of our message.”
The idea that we need multiple approaches — and in fact, these three specific approaches — was a basic theme of my 1983 book A Vegetarian Sourcebook: The Nutrition, Ecology, and Ethics of a Natural Foods Diet. When I started compiling all of the reasons for being vegetarian (about 1980), I found different “numbers” of reasons being given by various people: seven, twelve, or 101 reasons. But they all boil down to three basic issues. I don’t know absolutely that this “three approaches” idea was original with me, but it seems to be the first time it was put into a published book, and I wasn’t aware of anyone else talking about vegetarianism or veganism in this way.
In the 1980’s, there was a focus on health issues, and much less attention to animal rights or ethics within vegetarian groups. Today it’s more the reverse; ethical issues predominate, and in fact some vegans have proposed that we emphasize the ethical issues and bypass health and environmental concerns.
We really do need multiple approaches. In the first place, people are different, and the approach that works with one person won’t necessarily work with another. But it’s deeper than that. None of these approaches, in the long run, will work by themselves.
You need the ethical argument, because if you rely solely on health or the environment, people will just “cut back,” or reduce consumption of animal products to some sort of acceptable minimum. People will take up backyard chickens, just eat fish and chicken, just eat meat three times a week, just eat range- fed beef, or whatever they determine the acceptable minimum of meat consumption to be.
You need the health argument, because if people don’t think that veganism is healthy, most people won’t adopt it no matter how much suffering meat-eating causes. Am I going to sabotage my health for the sake of some animals? Your child or the cow! Believing that veganism is unhealthy would mean that it was crazy to even think about veganism in the first place; it’s God’s way of telling us that we need to eat meat, that we’re naturally meat-eaters.
You need the environmental argument, because if we rely solely on health and ethics, then veganism becomes an expression of personal virtue rather than a social necessity. People will say that it’s nobody’s business if I want to do something that destroys my health. And it’s nobody’s business what my personal morality is, whether it’s about abortion, homosexuality, or meat-eating. But the environment is everybody’s business; mass extinction, topsoil erosion, climate change, and resource depletion affect everyone.
There are many ethical vegans who are less knowledgeable about the environment than is desirable (most of them, probably). Most are not “peak oil aware,” and many are not aware how badly overpopulated the planet is. They aren’t “unethical,” exactly, because they are acting based on their own best understanding, but they are doing things I wouldn’t do. People will travel, spend money, have children, and generally lead a consumer lifestyle, with no concept that the world is already hopeless overpopulated with humans, their livestock, and their lifestyle. If we destroy the planet, it will destroy all the animals as well as ourselves.
I don’t want to throw these people, or other vegans with whom I disagree, out of the movement (and couldn’t anyway). And my own views have changed and evolved over the years as well. We need everyone! This movement is already really huge and diverse, ideologically speaking; and it is out of our hands. We cannot “control” the movement, but we can act in such a way to make its path easier.