The stairway to veganism

Photo: Vegan NSW/Facebook.

Becoming vegan isn’t an overnight transition but a process – with various ‘steps’ – writes Elizabeth Usher, in this informative and thought-provoking piece. 

When I went vegan back in 1998, my process for finding information about veganism was very different to what it would look like today. Yes, I had an email address, and the ‘information superhighway’ was around, but let’s just say it’s certainly been upgraded several times over the past 22 years! My veganism even pre-dates Google, which was founded later that same year, so the ‘Google it’ option didn’t exist.  

I lived in the UK at the time, and The Vegan Society helped out with sending a free info pack in the post, plus I added a small number of cookbooks and non-fiction books on vegan ethics to my bookshelf. I also knew one vegan personally, and she helped me out with some questions. But there were definitely significant gaps in my knowledge about all the different ways in which non-human animals were exploited. For example, soon after returning home to Sydney, I went on one outing to ‘the races’, thinking it was a fun way to be around horses. It took a couple more years before I learned about the realities of the horse racing industry. My next visit to the racing track involved placards and a loudspeaker!

Maybe we can think about a ‘staircase of veganism’ – where there’s a common order of ‘giving up’ of prior unquestioned habits, and people take different amounts of time on each ‘step’. Of course, this isn’t universal – some people would do these in a different order, and some people race up the stairs three or more at a time! But I feel that a typical staircase experience would to start with ‘giving up red meat’, then the next step might be chicken, closely followed by fish. 

Those steps continue through eggs, dairy and then specifics such as honey, gelatine, food additives and so on – you know, the ones that take up screeds of back-and-forth commenting on some online platforms. 

Then, once the ‘dietary consumption’ part is covered, there’s also the myriad other aspects of consumption that call for examination – such as entertainment and clothing, and the list goes on. The staircase can feel like it’s never-ending, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid striving to keep on climbing. Each step requires self-reflection on what our values are, and whether our actions are in alignment with these values. 

There’s another staircase that we also face when considering whether we are living according to our desired ethics – and that is in relation to how our actions affect other humans. Vegan NSW recently held a webinar titled ‘How consistent anti-oppression enriches and saves both animal & human lives: Exploring the complex interplay of privileges and oppressions within which all humans & animals exist’.

The summary of the webinar was listed as: ‘Activists and advocates from our global vegan community join Vegan NSW’s Kate Jones in a deep dive into anti-oppression unpacking some of the core pillars such as racism, speciesism, fatphobia, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism and ableism that make up the complex realities of all our lives, and what the vegan community can do to expand our thinking and progress the movement further, without leaving anyone behind.’

This is a huge topic (or, more correctly, topics) and I took 21 pages of notes, and the multitude of issues covered are beyond the scope of this one article – but I will quickly highlight two things that stood out for me.

Firstly, I’d not heard the distinction between an ‘ally’ and an ‘accomplice’ before. There was a helpful glossary provided for the event: ‘An ally will mostly engage in activism by standing with an individual or group in a marginalised community. An accomplice will focus more on dismantling the structures that oppress marginalised individuals or groups, and such work will be directed by the stakeholders in the marginalised group.’

Secondly, although I’ve done some reading on ableism, and tried to remove various phrases and unknowingly ingrained learned attitudes from my vocabulary and outlook, I’d never heard it summed up as succinctly as how Leigh Drew put it on the night, discussing – and, importantly, dismissing – ‘this idea that health is a value assigned to a human – that being healthy is somehow expected of all humans.’

Vegan author and advocate Leigh Drew at Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary. Photo: supplied.

So, my apologies that I cannot go into a deep dive here on what ascending this second staircase involves. It takes time, commitment, energy, and a willingness to be uncomfortable about our own involvement, actions, and beliefs. I’m certainly no expert!  

On reflection, even the staircase metaphor seems to have ableist overtones. Perhaps it needs a stairlift, or a ramp, or an elevator woven into the image. I should also acknowledge too that digital literacy and an internet connection are both important factors affecting access to information and services.  

The aim of the webinar was to provide tangible solutions for how to actively practise anti-oppression, encouraging vegans and activists to expand our thinking, show up, support, and make space where it counts!  When the replay becomes available in a few weeks it will be a great resource for both the local and wider vegan community. 

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