Veganism is often criticised for failing to adequately address specific environmental concerns; such as pest control.
Environmental Ethics is complex and difficult. Even assuming we can reach agreement on the definition of pest it does not automatically follow that humans ought to control or eradicate any species.
While the ideals of veganism are always placed first, individual vegans will differ on what, if any, actions ought to be taken. This can range from ‘do nothing’ (all species have a right to life) to ‘controlling possums’ (applying the golden rule of acting to bring about the least harm)
Detail - Analytic
It is difficult to interpret how the central principle of veganism ‘avoid exploitation of and cruelty to animals’ might be applied in complex environmental considerations.
However, before we try, a few concepts require unpacking.
1. Veganism is a moral standpoint.
Veganism is not a moral theory. Veganism is a moral standpoint regarding the (mis)treatment of animals by (most) humans, either directly or by passive acceptance. We can’t expect specific moral standpoints to offer complete answers to questions that are fully or partially outside their scope. That said, there is considerable crossover between environmental and animal concerns so intuitively we expect that vegans ought to hold a position on environmental issues
2. What is a pest?
Speciesism is a form of discrimination based on species membership. It involves treating members of one species as morally more important than members of other species even when their interests are equivalent.
Vegans will NOT accept this definition of pest as it is ‘speciesist’. That an animal’s interests conflict with human interests is not, in itself, a reason for defining the animal as a pest or for taking action against them. Where crops are concerned alternative means such as fencing, sonics, and eco-friendly organic practices are available.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
- Aldo Leopold (1949) The Land Ethic
Aldo Leopold, the father of environmental ethics, provides a non-speciesist means to identify problematic species in “The Land Ethic”. A species is problematic (a ‘pest’) when, regardless of human interest, it upsets the stability of, interrupts the integrity of, or leads to the destruction of the environment.
Two New Zealand specific examples:
Are wild rabbits a pest?
Biosecurity NZ lists rabbits as pests because they ‘compete with livestock, cause extensive damage to farming land, cause public nuisance…’
So, yes, they are annoying to (some) humans but they are not a ‘pest’. The reasons provided by Biosecurity NZ fail under Leopold’s criteria. If wild rabbits are a pest other more substantial, non-speciesist, reasons must be provided.
Are possums a pest?
Possums occur in high numbers in NZ, breed fast and face very few predators. Without doubt possums have a major impact on New Zealands native ecosystems.
Department of Conservation NZ lists possums as pests, as, “Leaves are the main part of their diet, but possums are opportunistic omnivores. They eat buds, flowers, fruit/berries and nectar, which means they compete with native birds and reptiles for food sources. The growth and life-cycle of a tree or plant is significantly affected when all parts of it are eaten. Possums also have ‘favourites’ such as rātā or kamahi trees, leading to an even greater impact on these species. … Possums were [also] filmed eating the eggs and chicks of kōkako … They eat invertebrates, including weta, and are significant predators of New Zealand land snails such as Powelliphanta. They often occupy holes in tree trunks for their nests which would otherwise be used by nesting birds such as kākāriki and saddlebacks. …Researchers using nest-cameras have witnessed … kea nests invaded by stoats and possums in South Westland. ”
Here it would seem possums can be defined as a ‘pest species’ that directly impacts the ecosystem, without any reference to human specific interests.
Vegans may still object to the term ‘pest’. A species that is out-of-place in the eco-system is, in most cases, due to past meddling by humans and not a fault of the species.
Vegans can classify a species as problematic by reference to Leopold’s non-speciesist definition. However, once identified, any action taken must as far as is possible and practicable be neither exploitive nor unnecessarily cruel.
Identifying a species as problematic does not commit a vegan to act in any specific manner. However, that vegans can offer a non-speciesist definition of ‘pest’ and can argue for a specific approach in dealing with them demonstrates that vegans can address complex environmental concerns.
While the ideals of veganism are always placed first, individual vegans will differ on what, if any, actions ought to be taken. This can range from ‘do nothing’ (all species have a right to life) to ‘controlling possums’ (applying the golden rule of acting to bring about the least harm).
This is discussed in more depth in the appendix.
This disagreement over ‘how to act’ is no different from individuals facing any difficult complex moral questions. Conflicts of opinion arise over euthanasia, abortion, freedom of speech, and many others.
Fitting all this into Moral Philosophy
The next section discusses ethical theory in some depth. Dive in if you’re interested, but it’s the sort of stuff that causes some people to gnaw their own limbs off. (I’m just kidding, honestly… it’s safer than Vogon poetry.)
Perhaps, take a break and come back to it later. But If you do decide to skip this section the arguments above should be enough to serve you in your day-to-day discussions.
Back to the recap.
- Within a vegan ethic it is reasonable to classify a species as a pest by reference to a non-speciesist definition.
- Even when a species is classified as a pest the principles of veganism require that they NOT be exploited or treated cruelly
- Veganism is a moral standpoint so we should not expect it to prescribe a course of action. Rather, veganism limits how we might act (and certainly the manner in which we act).
So where to from here?
While the ideals of veganism are always placed first, an individual vegan may embody any number of specific moral theories including, (but not limited to) rights based, utilitarianism, eco-feminism, egoism or virtue theory. A vegan may even take an eclectic approach and combine two or more of these moral theories.
This is no different to the environmentalist (or indeed any member of the human species) who all hold differing views about the nature of the good, and of right and wrong acts.
For the sake of simplicity we’ll look at just two positions; the rights-based vegan and the utilitarian vegan.
”..all those individuals who are subjects-of-a-life … have inherent value and thus enjoy an equal moral status.”
- Tom Regan The Case for Animal Rights
”…animals have one right–the right not to be treated as property.”
- Gary Francione Animals–Property or Persons?
The ‘rights-based’ vegan may hold a position along the egalitarian lines of Tom Regan or the abolitionist position of Gary Francione. Those holding these or similar views might argue that we should not cull a pest species as we simply cannot, and should not, choose to eradicate one species to protect another. Other actions to protect the endangered species may be permissable but violating the possum’s equal right to life is not an option.
“If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering - in so far as rough comparisons can be made - of any other being.”
- Peter Singer (1979) Equality for Animals?
The utilitarian vegan may adopt a position similar to Peter Singer (considered by many the father of the modern animal rights movement) and argue that the preferences (interests) of all affected must be considered equally.
For utilitarians consequences matter most and to decide to do nothing is to burden the responsibility for what follows. The consequence of doing nothing in the possum scenario is the death (and possible extinction) of many other creatures; a consequence which for utilitarian-vegans seems intuitively wrong.
Utilitarian-vegans might argue that where the eco-system is at risk, maximising preferences (and working towards a consequence that results in the least harm) requires controlling a pest species.
The ideal would be some form of biological contraception but, unfortunately, this is some years off. So, it would seem that for the utilitarian-vegan it is neither exploitive nor unnecessarily cruel to control (by culling) the possum population in the humanest way possible.
Please note that an extremely simplified version of rights based and utilitarian based ethics has been presented here. If you’re interested we suggest the following reading:
Animal Liberation by Peter Singer (1995)
The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan (2004)
Animals–Property or Persons? (2004) by Gary Francione
Also worth reading (and cited in this article)
The Land Ethic (1949) Aldo Leopold
But be warned: Leopold holds an environmentalist position, not a vegan position.