Archive | March, 2012

Vegetarianism as a Social Movement: What it means to me.

21 Mar

Women’s rights. Black Power. Environmentalism. Vegetarianism. What do these seemingly different things have in common? They can all be classified as social movements in cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology is a branch of anthropology that deals with the cultural variation between humans, and various aspects being affected by this cultural variation. One interesting facet of human culture is the idea of social movements. A social movement according to the Britannica encyclopedia is a  “loosely organized but sustained campaign in support of a social goal”[1]A social movement then, in more basic terms, is something that people get behind as an organized group, to draw attention or create change regarding some topic that they, both individually and collectively deem important.

Social movements themselves are not a product of the 20th or 21st century as one might think, we could call such historical events as the French and American revolutions as starting as a social movement and morphing into fully-fledged revolutions. Social movements do not have to end violently as the previously mentioned revolutions did; they can and usually proceed much more passively.

With this blog, I intend to look at a social movement that I hold somewhat dear, and one that I am a part of. This social movement of course, is the vegetarianism movement in Western society. Vegetarianism is the practice of avoiding the use of animal based products in one’s life.[2] This practice can be limited to just one’s diet, or expanded to other aspects of one’s life, such as abstaining from using animal based products in their wardrobe, hygiene products, and other facets of one’s life. And despite a seemingly greater amount of people following this way of life today, it is still only a minority of people in Western society who practice it.

In this blog, I intend to lay down some of the history of the vegetarianism movement, which goes back much further than most would believe. Then I am going to touch upon some of the issues and reasons as to why people join this social movement and follow this way of life, attempting to squash any misconceptions about the social movement as I go along.

As stated earlier, vegetarianism is not some new-age movement, started by the hippies of the 1960s as some may assume. There were many Greek writers and philosophers in ancient times that followed this way of life and actively wrote about it.[3]Furthermore, vegetarianism has been practiced for hundreds of years in some Eastern and Asian cultures, and is somewhat the norm there. And before it


[1] Britannica Encyclopedia online, “social movement” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/551335/social-movement

[2] Matthew Ruby, “Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study,” Appetite 58, no 1, February 2012, 141-150.

[3] Matthew Ruby, “Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study,” Appetite 58, no 1, February 2012, 141-150.

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was even a vegetarianism ‘social movement’, as in reacting against the norms of a meat-eating society, evidence has been found that our distant ancestors ate a predominately vegetarian diet.[1] In Western society however, it is in the minority with less than 10% of Canadians identifying as vegetarian in a recent study.[2] Also interesting, is the fact that the large majority of vegetarians in the West were not born into this way of life, but made a conscious decision to convert from a meat-eating diet to a vegetarian one.[3] This of course, has many implications that go along with vegetarianism being a social movement. One might ask why this way of life is in the minority in Western culture, and to answer this we have to look at some aspects of the evolution of Western culture. If you think about it, meat has always been somewhat of a commodity in the West. The domestication of animals allowed there to be an abundance of meat, which would have been more difficult to come by beforehand. And with the invention of refrigeration systems, it became easier to store large quantities of meat for an extended period of time.[4] But with modern practices, and the way that the meat industry has grown an evolved, meat has become universally accessible, and a staple in one’s diet in the West; just think of the stereotypical American meal of ‘steak and potatoes’. When you think of this, and of Western diets in general, you can begin to understand why it is so commonplace to have meat in one’s diet.

So now that we have established that the practice of vegetarianism is not a new thing, let’s look at how it evolved into a social movement in today’s modern society. As mentioned earlier, advances in refrigeration and transportation technology, along with a prosperous economy post-industrial revolution in the West led to a greater amount of meat being consumed by people.[5]

This amount was still quite small in respect to how much was being consumed in North America as the 20th century progressed. American diets shifted from a more balanced diet including some meat, to one heavy in animal products, cholesterol, salt and sugar, and low in fruits and vegetables. Part of this was the ease of obtaining animal products now that they were easier to keep and transport.


[1] Derek Wall, “The diet of early humans: Vegetarianism and archaeology,” International Vegetarian Union http://www.ivu.org/history/early/archaeology.html (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

[2] Matthew Ruby, “Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study,” Appetite 58, no 1, February 2012, 141-150.

[3] Matthew Ruby, “Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study,” Appetite 58, no 1, February 2012, 141-150.

[4] Michael Bluejay, “A short history of Vegetarianism,” Vegetarian Guide http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/history.html (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

[5] Michael Bluejay,“A short history of Vegetarianism,” Vegetarian Guide http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/history.html (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

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Interestingly enough, the term ‘vegetarian’ was coined by the British Vegetarian society in the mid-1800s.[1] So even before meat consumption in the West reached its high levels of the 20th century, there was a group of people who identified together, and abstained from the eating of animal products. And what separates these collective people into a movement and not a ‘group’ is the coordination and communication that they utilized to spread their message and keep in contact. At this point, the movement was in small numbers and was still relatively unknown. More spot light was brought on to this movement when Gandhi moved from India to London to study law, and began preaching the rational and benefits behind a vegetarian diet.[2] In teaming up with the London Vegetarian Society, Gandhi was able to spread the message of this social movement into the mainstream culture. Gandhi even went as far as to say that consuming diary products was not necessary for people, and this in turn created a sub-category of vegetarianism, Veganism. The term ‘Vegan’ was coined by Donald Watson, the founder of the Vegan Society.[3] Vegans abstain from not only eating meat, but also eggs and dairy. As well, many vegans carry their practices over into not using or purchasing any animal products at all, which can prove to be rather difficult to do.

So how did this growing movement gain momentum and turn into a fully-fledged social movement? Well according to writer Michael Bluejay, a book written in 1971 by Frances Lappe entitled Diet for a Small Planet was the kick off the movement needed to become larger and more recognizable, gaining more mainstream attention.[4] Lappe’s book explained how much grain and resources it takes for livestock to be fed and raised, ultimately for human consumption, and how much larger this amount was than if humans ate the grains and plant products more directly. A shocking statistic published in Lappe’s book was that livestock ate more than 80% of the total of grain production in the United States, and if Americans cut down back their meat consumption by only 10%, that there would be enough excess grain to feeding the starving people of the world.[5]

With this book bringing vegetarianism into the public eye, there were a larger amount of people, including scientists and doctors who began to study the actual benefits of a meat-free diet. An early proponent to the vegetarian diet was Dr. John A. McDougall, whose work includes The McDougall Program, a book that


[1]Michael Bluejay, “A short history of Vegetarianism,” Vegetarian Guide http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/history.html (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

[2] John Davis, “Gandhi-And the launching of vegetarianism,” VegSource http://www.vegsource.com/john-davis/gandhi—and-the-launching-of-veganism.html (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

[3] “24 carrot award: Interview with Donald Watson,” Vegetarians in Paradise http://www.vegparadise.com/24carrot610.html (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

[4]Michael Bluejay, “A short history of Vegetarianism,” Vegetarian Guide http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/history.html (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

[5]Michael Bluejay, “A short history of Vegetarianism,” Vegetarian Guide http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/history.html (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

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looked at the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.[1] Along with ‘professionals’ researching and advocating vegetarianism, in the 1970s and 1980s there became more celebrities and athletes who were embracing this lifestyle, which leads to more of the public eye learning about this social movement.

As we can see, there was a growing amount of people who banded together, in an organized fashion to establish a counter-culture movement, and had all the makings of a social movement.

In this next section, I am going to look at the reasons that people adhere to the vegetarianism movement. This aspect of the movement is one of the things that always interested me, as there are many logical reasons that one may be a vegetarian, and despite all these differences in rational, the movement is held together by people with their overlapping views and beliefs.

Some studies have shown that the two major categories for reasons that people become vegetarian are health-oriented and ethically motivated reasons.[2]

This split itself is very interesting. On one side, you have people who are doing it for their own welfare, and on the other hand you have people subscribing to the same diet and lifestyle but with the focus on the welfare of others. The health-oriented people have the backing of current and leading research, that says that having a plant-based diet is more healthy than a meat based one, and leads to less occurrences of various illnesses and diseases.[3] Now this is not just one researcher saying these things, this is numerous studies by different researchers across the globe, all coming to the same result.[4] So it is easy to see why people would want to take this stance; with less hormones, saturated fats, cholesterol in plant foods than meat foods, it is easier to be a healthy weight and lead a healthy life.

What about for people who are motivated to join the social movement and become vegetarian for ethically motivated reasons? With more and more insight into how factory farms are run, and how leather, wool and other animal products are obtained, many people are physically disgusted with what they see, and believe that animals deserve better than this. A leading proponent of this mindset, and one of the earliest writers about it in the modern era is philosopher Peter Singer. Singer argues that he is a vegetarian since he is a utilitarian.[5]


[1] “Famous Veggie interview with Dr. John McDougall,” Famous Veggie http://www.famousveggie.com/interviews/john_mcdougall.aspx (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

[2] Matthew Ruby, “Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study,” Appetite 58, no 1, February 2012, 141-150.

[3] J. Dwyer, “Vegetarian diets,” Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), 2003, 5974-5979.

[4]A.J.Cross, R. Sinha, “Meat Consumption and Cancer,” International Encyclopedia of Public Health, 2008, 272-281.

[5] Peter Singer, “Vegetarianism and Utilitarianism,” Philosophy and public affairs, vol9, issue 4, summer 1980, 325-337.

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Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that states that the correct decision is the one that maximizes the overall utility of the person and situation, or ‘happiness’.[1]

Singer argues that since most of the animals that humans farm and consume can feel pain and pleasure, they will naturally have an aversion to experiencing pain. And because of this, we as humans have to take the utilitarian step of maximizing total utility while minimizing disutility since humans are in the position of power, and are the one’s who can make this decision. Maximizing utility for all would be that human’s should not harm sentient beings such as these animals. Any thought of putting humans up on a pedestal compared to animals is an example of species-ism, and is not logically valid.

While Singer’s arguments also include other ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia, he does construct as a philosopher very logical ethical premises for being a member of the vegetarianism social movement.

Under the umbrella of ethical concerns, can also fall the environmental concerns of eating meat that leads a lot of people to reduce or cease their intake of meat. As mentioned before, it takes a ton of grain, water, space, and other resources so that we can have livestock grazing and available for our use and consumption. Research has shown that the meat production industry produces more greenhouse gases than either transportation or other industries.

Furthermore, Producing the annual beef diet of the average American emits as much greenhouse gas as a car driven more than 1,800 miles, which is astonishing if you think about it.[2] With all the research into the effects of greenhouse gases on global warming, and the concern of how global warming will affect humanity and the Earth in general, we would be ignorant to ignore this large aspect of the pros of a vegetarian diet.

And of course we cannot talk about ethics and animal rights without bringing up the organization P.E.T.A., or the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Founded in 1980 by Ingrid Newkirk, P.E.T.A. is probably the most well recognized and globally known organization that promotes ethical treatment of animals and a vegetarian lifestyle.[3] With a lot of media coverage, and the backing of various businesses and celebrities, this organization has been able to bring a new level of attention and curiosity to the vegetarianism social movement, especially the ethical side of the movement.

With that thought, I want to add my own insight and thoughts and finish this blog entry off with my own reasoning and discussion of the vegetarianism social movement.


[1] “Utilitarianism,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism (Accessed Mar 1 2012

[2] Nathan Fiala, “How meat contributes to global warming,” Scientific American, Feb 2009, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-greenhouse-hamburger (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

[3] “About PETA,” PETA, www.peta.org (Accessed Mar 1 2012)

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One of the things that always interested me about people’s association with P.E.T.A. and vegetarianism, was the thought that all vegetarians support and respect P.E.T.A.. P.E.T.A. is known to do all sorts of sensationalist acts to bring attention to their causes, and in a lot of cases drawing negative attention to themselves and the vegetarian movement as a whole. And while ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’, it does make one wonder if it is all really necessary. In my life, there has been numerous times that someone after finding out that I am a vegan, makes some claim about just how outrageous P.E.T.A.’s antics are how I can support that. And to answer, I do not totally support their antics. P.E.T.A. views their tactics as a way to draw attention to vegetarianism cause, in much the same way as the Black Panthers wanted to bring attention to the cause of Black segregation. They use their tactics as a means to an end, and the end itself is what I can respect, even if I do not agree with the means itself. But then, as a member of the social movement itself, I can understand the desire to use more drastic tactics so that you can draw attention to your cause, but I think violence and too much negative publicity draws people’s attention away from the positive aspects of the movement itself, and the reasoning behind why us vegetarians do what we do.

And why do I do what I do? Well, I grew up in a typical North American home, eating a diet of meat and other foods. And since it was commonplace for my friends and I to live this way, and having meat farmers as relatives, I did not really question anything as a youth. It was not until I got older and opened my mind to all sorts of research, that I realized that I aligned with this social movement on ethical and environmental reading. After meeting and discussing with the vegetarian lifestyle with various members of local vegetarian organizations, including my younger brother, I decided that this was something that I really wanted to do. As an university athlete, I worried about how not eating meat would affect my performance, and assumed like all my friends and teammates, that it was not possible to be healthy and strong on a vegetarian diet. I figured, that being slim was easy enough with the reduction of saturated fats and cholesterol, but what about maintaining and increasing muscle mass? Well as it turns out, there have been numerous professional athletes who follow the vegetarian diet and succeed at the highest level such as former NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez and former Mr. Universe Bill Pearl. And as time progressed, I found out myself just how correct these athletes were, as I was/am in the best shape of my life as a vegetarian.

So as you can see, there is rational behind the vegetarianism social movement. And while many people do not give it much of a thought, there are very logical reasons as to why this social movement has evolved, and why it is growing in size and importance as time goes on. Why would someone not want to act ethically, be healthy, and minimize their ecological footprint in the turmoil of our world in the 21stcentury, where the average North American adult is not very healthy, and there is great concern over humanity’s environmental impact? If one can live a healthy, happy life this way, and not only just get by but flourish, why not make a small sacrifice in ease of eating, for the greater good? These questions made me question much about how I was living, and in turn led me to join the vegetarianism social movement, a movement that I am now an advocate for.

Here in, then ends this first blog entry on the matter. While this originally was just created as a University project, I believe that I am going to continually update this blog with more entries about things that intrigue me.

Until next time,

-Christopher

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21 Mar

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