Talking to vegans about simple living

Prairie dogs are extinct in perhaps 98% to 99% of their former range
Prairie dogs are extinct in perhaps 98% to 99% of their former range

If you are a vegan, should you also try to live simply? Does veganism imply simple living? Vegan activists often downplay or reject outright the suggestion that veganism means “doing without.” We have vegan cheese! We can travel to exotic destinations and eat vegan! We can get the latest Tesla electric car with non-leather seats! However, veganism — in spirit, if not in the letter — does imply living simply, because of the effect of our consumption patterns on wild animals.

Here’s a thought experiment for vegans. You are looking for a new house, townhouse, or condominium. There is a new prospective housing development going in a neighborhood you’d like to live in. But then you discover that this housing development is going to displace a prairie dog colony, and the developers are planning on just killing all the prairie dogs. Could you, as a vegan, move into this housing development?

Naropa University campus
Naropa University campus

Actually, this is more than a thought experiment. In 2015, Naropa University — a Buddhist-inspired university in Boulder, Colorado — contemplated expanding their campus into an area occupied by prairie dogs, whom they proposed to kill. (They changed their minds after protests began.) In this case, the connection between expanding one’s presence and driving out wild animals was immediate and obvious; but what about vegans who, through their purchases, desire for new housing, or decisions to start families, have the same effect on wild animals indirectly?

It’s true that there are animals killed by almost everything humans do, and that there’s no way that you can be completely 100% vegan. What are we supposed to do, live on the streets? But still, we should try to minimize our impact as much as possible. Livestock agriculture is destroying wildlife habitat, but all new housing requires development and therefore habitat destruction on someone’s part. Environmentally aware people may want to look first for housing in established neighborhoods where no additional habitat destruction will be required. If you have to get into new housing, at least pick a relatively “dense” neighborhood with a smaller footprint per household. Habitat destruction is the leading cause of species extinctions generally.

This same argument applies not only to new housing, but buying lots of things in general. Consumerism in general hurts wild animals, even when it’s not an “animal product.” Your toy or electronic device required a factory to be built, fossil fuels to be burned, and metals to be mined; that factory, those fossil fuels, and that mining destroyed some wild animal’s habitat.

Think about it: over 90% of the large animals are humans and our livestock, not elephants, giraffes, hippos, or anything else. We cannot avoid all consumption, but we should certainly seek to minimize it as far as possible or practical, and for the time being we should bring as few new consumers into the world as possible. In our society, any child that vegans have, even if raised as a vegan, will almost inevitably be a consumer. As Will Anderson says, human beings are predators just by their very presence.

Even though I’d love it if we all decided that simple living and veganism are the same thing, right now it makes the most sense not to equate these two ideas. Many people following the idea of “simple living” haven’t even thought about veganism. And many vegan advocates are so concerned about not depicting veganism as “weird,” that they would prefer to avoid raising awkward questions like whether vegans should be embracing a consumer lifestyle at all.

For my part, as a vegan I will continue to remind other vegans that true veganism is more than just respecting farm animals. It also means respecting the wild animals being driven to (and beyond) the point of extinction by humans expanding their lifestyle. The communities of people who are using and exploring these terms — “simple living” and “veganism” — have different starting points for their idea. But I suspect that, in the end, they will wind up in the same place.

6 Replies to “Talking to vegans about simple living”

  1. Agreed; its is too early to conflate the two. A similar question emerges with respect to vegetable farming. Some contend that a vegan world would expand the farm land to the point of killing more animals than factory farming. So what do you think about skyscraper farming? I’m reading a great book called The Vertical Farm that might be of interest to you.

  2. How’s that for serendipity? The Summer 2016 issue of The American Vegan just arrived in my mailbox. The lead article is on “Voluntary Simplicity,” by Dale Lugenbehl. It’s a great introduction to the whole issue of simple living.

  3. Is it out of place for me to respond to a posting “Talking to vegans about simple living” when I am neither a vegan nor a simple living advocate?

    I was struck by the sentences “The communities of people who are using and exploring these terms — “simple living” and “veganism” — have different starting points for their idea. But I suspect that, in the end, they will wind up in the same place.” As I said I am neither a vegan nor a simple living advocate but I do end up, if not in the same place, then very nearby in the sense that on many practical decisions we would agree.

    With respect to “veganism”, the issues in my case are fairly simple: If I dropped honey from my diet and got rid of my (second-hand) leather footwear, I’d be vegan in a practical sense. I’ve received some rather harsh condemnations from vegans on these two points. Since I make good use of the vegan label when it appears on products and menus and in various social-food situations, I’ve been sloppy in other uses of the label. Call me a “non-dairy vegetarian”, but that’s not a very handy label in many situations.

    With respect to “simple living”, the issues are more obscure (to me). This is partly due to the lack of clarity (to me) in what is meant by simple living. A lot of what I hear about it seems most applicable to the (semi-) elite. In my case, the analog would be “sustainable living”. This involves issues perhaps comparably obscure and lacking in clarity. A discussion to clarify these issues might start with the Wikipedia articles on “seven generation sustainability” and “ecological footprint”.

    What I’ve written above are not (for me) the “starting points” which are more like (1) the priority of consciousness over materiality and (2) the sense of the sacred.

    1. Most vegans (including me) would not have that many objections to anyone who used honey or second-hand leather. It’s not clear to me that second-hand leather causes any additional animal suffering at all, since there is zero economic reward to the ones who killed the cow. It’s not about purity, it’s about compassion.

      You’re right about the ecological footprint. Simple living really should be seen as a way of reducing one’s total impact, not just reducing costs. Our society throws huge obstacles in front of anyone who tries to live simply, and we need some sort of values revolution in our society, in addition to the social and political one.

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