Indeed, what does forgoing products made from other animals have anything to do with sustainability? I haven’t made (too) much ado about my veganism, but I’ve been meaning to write a little bit about how it’s part and parcel of being sustainable. In fact, this post has been sitting in my drafts since September 8th!

So, first off a working definition of veganism: “a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.”

There are many reasons why someone would choose not to exploit or consume other animals. Some believe that all sentient beings have the right to their lives, human or otherwise. Others see eerie similarities between the treatment of and attitudes towards animals other than humans today and the treatment of and attitudes towards humans of their own marginalized group(s) in the (not-so distant) past. The first is ethics-based, but not all people are ethical or can agree upon a shared set of ethics. The second is derived from empathy—from having “been there” as a marginalized person—but centralized people, or those who are marginalized but have little empathy, may not recognize the similarity in attitudes and treatments to act justly. In which case, a third, highly utilitarian reason might be the most useful in explaining veganism to the greatest number of people: consuming other animals the way we do in first world countries (namely the U.S.) is simply unsustainable.The UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow in 2008 concluded that the meat industry is “one of the… most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global” and that eating meat contributes to “problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”Bruce Freidrich of the Huffington Post wrote an article on Eating As If the Climate Mattered. In it, he lays plainly:

1) A 135-pound woman will burn off at least 1,200 calories a day even if she never gets out of bed. She uses most of what she consumes simply to power her body. Similarly, it requires exponentially more resources to eat chickens, pigs, and other animals, because most of what we feed to them is required to keep them alive, and much of the rest is turned into bones and other bits we don’t eat; only a fraction of those crops is turned into meat. So you have to grow all the crops required to raise the animals to eat the animals, which is vastly wasteful relative to eating the crops directly.

2) It also requires many extra stages of polluting and energy-intensive production to get chicken, pork, and other meats to the table, including feed mills, factory farms, and slaughterhouses, all of which are not used in the production of vegetarian foods. And then there are the additional stages of gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing transportation of moving crops, feed, animals, and meat–relative to simply growing the crops and processing them into vegetarian foods.

Up until even hundreds of years ago, non-human animal exploitation, much like human exploitation, may have been a “necessary evil” to survive, but in the year 2010 in a place like the U.S., it is unjustified.

However, not engaging in animal exploitation is not automatically sustainable. As veg*n (vegetarian/vegan) critics often point out, many fake meats and other highly processed veg*n foods are resource-intensive and therefore aren’t sustainable long-term or large-scale. In other words, they’re another form of greenwashing. And even if a veg•n diet is whole-foods based, if it isn’t organic, the pesticide-laden produce can be just as environmentally degrading as a meat-based diet and even more dangerous to the workers exposed to the toxins. Purchasing from organic CSAs, small farms, or growing one’s own food are a few way of getting sustainably-sourced produce.

It is necessary to go a step further than vegetarianism because eggs and dairy still divert resources (land, water, and vegetation) to keep other animals alive to derive products from them — resources which could otherwise be used directly in food for human consumption. In addition to this utilitarian aspect is the ethical issue of using other animals primarily or exclusively as a resource: As we’ve witnessed throughout history, whenever a being is reduced to nothing more than a resource, be it a milk cow, wool sheep, slave, or factory worker, the well-being of that “resource” often means nothing more than keeping it alive long enough to extract a product or service from it. Often, children who are produced by these “resources” but are unprofitable are considered “by-products” of such industries.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. one wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must abolish all forms of injustice and the beliefs that enable these injustices — not only against human animals, but other animals. Starting with food, we can choose to eat foods that either perpetuate injustice or arrest it.