A Short History of Veganism
According to vegans, animal exploitation and cruelty for food, clothing, or any other purpose is off limits. There are many ways to follow a vegan lifestyle. Vegans have one thing in common: they eat plant-based foods instead of animal products like meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. They also avoid wearing leather, since it comes from an animal, and using personal care products tested on animals.
The vegan movement is slowly growing, as people become more aware of the link between human actions, animal welfare, and the environment. You might wonder how the movement got started and why. Let's look at how veganism started.
How Did Veganism Start?
Between the 1920s and 1970s, vegetarianism became increasingly popular in the United States. In 1944, a small group broke away from The Vegetarian Society because they felt vegetarians were not doing enough to stop cruelty to animals. Donald Watson coined the term "vegan" in 1944. The word has its origins in the first and last letters of the word "vegetarian".
In November 1944, the first vegan society in England was formed, its founding members including Elsie Shrigley and her husband, Donald Watson. The Society's aim was "to end cruelty of humanity to animals and abolish all use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection and all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man."
American Vegan Society (AVS) members were encouraged to avoid all animal byproducts, including dairy, eggs, and honey. They were also encouraged to avoid all products tested on animals or made from harmful chemicals (a stance we would now call environmentally friendly).
The vegan movement is closely associated with a non-violent ethic. This can be seen as far back as ancient Indian times when Ahimsa (non-violence) became an important part of Jainism and Hinduism. The modern environmental movement emerged from the same tradition in India during British colonial rule near the beginning of the twentieth century.
Vegetarians and vegans are often motivated by their commitment to nonviolence. This commitment led them to conclude that they must not kill others, whether human or animal. Other people pursue a plant-based diet for health reasons or due to concerns about the effect of raising animals for meat on the environment.
Veganism in Literature
Veganism became popularized in mainstream culture with the success of the 1975 book "Animal Liberation" by British philosopher Peter Singer. The book quickly became a classic and has served as the foundation for countless books and articles on animal ethics and veganism since. In this seminal work, Singer describes what he calls the "expanding circle" of concern for others. He writes that each of us starts out only caring about ourselves, but most people eventually come to feel compassion for those close to them (family, friends, pets).
Singer argues that if you are compassionate enough to care about animals close to you (your pets), you should extend your compassion further to animals who aren't pets until it encompasses all animals. Furthermore, Singer claims that some animals can experience suffering--and that the pain and suffering of animals should be given the same consideration as the pain and suffering of humans.
Animal Activism Grows
Starting in the early 1990s, animal rights activism became more common throughout Western Europe and North America, especially as a response to increasing pressure from corporations on farms.
In the early 1990s, more people became aware of animal rights issues and began to voice their concerns against multinational corporations, which pushed farmers to produce more food for a growing population. Some corporations pressured farmers to use more pesticides and fertilizers on crops, which led to lasting environmental damage. Other corporations urged farmers to use massive amounts of water and energy in the production process.
In addition, some corporations encouraged farmers to give animals growth hormones and antibiotics to increase their weight. All these practices had negative environmental impacts, leading some people in Western Europe and North America to oppose factory farming as an industry.
The History of Veganism is Still Being Written
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, advocated eating plant-based foods. He observed that "when people eat a fresh, plant-based diet, they develop fewer diseases." Native Americans ate little meat and were fond of vegetarian stews made of pumpkin, corn, and beans.
An early vegan and one of the best-known vegan figures in history was Mahatma Gandhi. He believed animals should be considered "sensates" and lived by his principles throughout his life. Many people don't realize that he was also an environmentalist and vegetarian advocate who helped start many social projects in India, including the movement against untouchability towards women.
The Bottom Line
Veganism has shifted from being a fringe movement to becoming a more mainstream lifestyle choice. Even if you are not a pro-vegan activist, or for that matter an activist for any cause, having background information about the issues faced by farmed animals or the environmental impact of our food choices can help you become a better-informed consumer. And hopefully making informed consumer choices can lead to less suffering for farmed animals, as well as a healthier planet for all living things.