Ahimsa Grove

Ahimsa Grove is a resource for vegan pagan living. It will include personal experiences and musings, recipes, shopping tips, vegan ethical and dietary considerations, and ideas for pagan practice including spells, rituals, and herbcraft.

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Most Good, Least Harm: Pondering the Sentience of Plants and Animals


            Are these turkeys more sentient than the plants they are eating? This is one subject of today's blog. When we are trying to contemplate our diet, harmlessness is clearly impossible. So do our choices matter one way or the other?

            For many Pagans who believe in an immanent or pantheistic type of theology, every aspect of the planet is imbued with the life force. It therefore becomes confusing how we can possibly tackle the practice of harmlessness. If we walk on grass and swallow bugs, the argument goes, harmlessness is impossible. This argument is usually applied to diet in the argument of, “I’m harming someone either way, so I may as well eat what I want.” So today I wanted to share a bit of what I have come across in my own quest for understanding.


            First, harmlessness. It may be helpful to think of a practice of harmlessness the way that vegan activist and humane educator Zoe Weil does in her book, “Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Practice for a Better World and Meaningful Life” (Atria Books, 2009). She refers to her daily practice of harmlessness as “MOGO,” or “most good.”


            Perhaps by letting compassion and knowledge be our ethical measuring-stick and by seeking to do the most good, a practice of harmlessness might seem less overwhelming. And really, we all practice this every day in one way or another.


            One example that I like to use is driving. We all know that accidents happen every day. Many of us have been in an accident or two. But when we get behind the wheel, we don’t just shrug and say, “Oh, well. No point trying,” and smash into every car, hydrant, or pedestrian in our path. We try to do the least harm that we can. We use our training as drivers and our own judgement to practice MOGO. If drivers were not using a daily practice of harmlessness, the roads would be a pile of smoking metal.


            One sticking point for some Pagans is that, since they have experienced plant life as aware in some way, they feel it is just as wrong to eat a salad as a hamburger. This is a genuine concern and I by no means take it lightly. So here are some ideas about the topic that I have gathered.


            The default answer of many vegans when it comes to the issue of plants is that eating plants, perhaps ironically, saves more plants. Therefore veganism is still the default ethical position of plant-lovers. Let me explain.


            This point becomes pretty logical when you think about how animals are raised for food. They have to be fed copious amounts of plant food for several months or years before they are killed. They also have to occupy space, which means that natural plant life and wildlife are displaced. Animal feeds like corn and soy are mass produced as monocrops. This harms the biodiversity on the acres and acres of land where it is grown. And both the crops and the animals have to consume gallons upon gallons of water. Small animals are killed when the crops are harvested.


Every argument people make trying to challenge vegans for eating plants applies (exponentially multiplied) to a diet of animal foods. The impact of animal agriculture on the environment is a true example of our interconnection. Everything impacts everything else. Some examples of the environmental impact of animal agriculture include:


  • rainforest depletion (to make room for animals and their feedcrops), groundwater depletion (to water feedcrops and animals),

  • water pollution (runoff of pesticides, diseased carcasses, feces and urine, antibiotics, etc. out of Confined Feeding Operations, slaughterhouses, and rendering facilities),

  • fossil fuel depletion (fuel needed to raise feedcrops and animals and transport, process, distribute and refrigerate all of these through the system before they wind up on a plate), and

  • carbon emissions by the animals themselves (through methane from their digestive and respiratory processes).


            You can see the break-down of these issues and a nice compilation of statistics, that have been gathered from numerous studies, on websites like “Take Extinction off Your Plate.” This site is run by the environmental group called the Center for Biological Diversity. They are trying to address the extinction of plants and animals that harms biodiversity, as a result of large-scale animal farming. That site can be found at: http://www.takeextinctionoffyourplate.com/. And if you are more into film, the one to see is “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.” This can be found on sites like Netflix, and also on its own website of: http://www.cowspiracy.com/


            Of course it is also true that monocrops and genetically modified crops for human consumption are harmful, and we need to address these agricultural practices through education and activism. But it may be helpful to keep in mind the massive scale of agriculture that is needed to support animal-based foods.


            Now for the sentience of plants. I have thought a lot about this, and I am not sure I have arrived at a final conclusion. But for now, I will explain my ideas and how they have been influenced by the work of others.


When we contemplate plant life, there is some scientific information. Plants do not have central nervous systems or pain receptors that allow them to feel physical pain in the same way that animals do. Plants had no need to evolve with these tools, which are designed to help animals avoid dangerous situations. Leonardo DaVinci, who many believe to have been a Pythagorean (vegetarian), covered this topic when he said:


“Though nature has given sensibility to pain to such living organisms as have the power of movement, in order thereby to preserve the members which in this movement are liable to diminish and be destroyed, the living organisms which have no power of movement do not have to encounter opposing objects, and plants consequently do not need to have a sensibility to pain, and so it comes about that if you break them they do not feel anguish in their members as do the animals.” [MSS. H 60 [12] r of the Library of the Institut de France]




So we can see that folks have been struggling with this issue for a long time. But beyond the physical, many Neo-pagans want to know if plants feel things on a metaphysical level.


Perhaps it is helpful to ask ourselves, do plants possess an individual consciousness, along with personal interests, desires, and goals? Is each blade of grass what an ethicist might call “the subject of a life?” Is it as unethical to eat a tomato as it is to eat a lamb?


            In general, I personally feel that plant life has a different physical and metaphysical design than animal life. Most of us have a firm understanding that all life does not experience suffering to the same degree. Stepping on green grass does not elicit the same reaction as stepping on a cat’s tail. These two forms of life experience existence in very different ways. This does not negate the value of plant life. Yet it does help us to sort out how we make our daily choices when attempting to engage in the least harm.


            Many spiritual people, who have worked with forms of life including water, the soil, and plants, refer to the spiritual energy of those beings as “elemental.” These elemental lives seem to be more closely connected to the universal life source, or Divine Intelligence, than they are conscious or subjective individuals. They seem to be energetic beings that participate in all life on earth. If they have what we would call “thoughts” or “feelings,” they seem to occur on the spiritual level more than the physical.


            Perhaps, in seeking to understand an elemental being, it will be helpful to look at recent research done with molecules of water. The work of researchers like Masaru Emoto in “The Hidden Messages in Water” shows us that water contains the divine life force and a form of the Divine Intelligence.


Emoto’s work has involved exposing water samples to different sorts of stimuli (happy or sad, peaceful or angry, etc.) and recording the responses of the water. These responses are exhibited by the molecular shapes that the water takes on.


His work suggests that water particles respond to the energies around them. His slides of the water samples show intricate and beautiful molecular shapes in response to positive or loving stimuli. Conversely, the molecules would become chaotic and malformed in response to negative exposure.


This seems to indicate that water reflects the energies around it, and serves as a building block for manifestations (as it nourishes plant life and animal life, hence creating and maintaining the ecosystem). Yet this does not imply that water “feels” the energies or emotions around it, in the ways that different types of animals might.


In light of all this, I don’t believe that drinking water is “killing it,” or snuffing out an individual consciousness. This also informs my personal understanding about plant life.


Like water and soil, I believe that plant life has an elemental type of being. Research has indicated that plants respond to music and other stimuli, similar to the way water molecules did in Emoto’s work. Yet, without central nervous systems and pain receptors, the experiences of the plants are not the same as ours (animals) in terms of physicality.


Each individual plant does not appear to me to be the conscious subject of a life in the way that we are (or other animals). Instead, they seem to be more energetically and spiritually rooted in the Divine Intelligence, and to exist of more of a spiritual plane.


Of course, mainstream science has operated on a hypothesis that other non-human animals have a more elemental, non-sentient consciousness. Rene Descartes was trying to prove this theory when he killed a lot of animals through vivisection (experimenting on live subjects) in the 1600s. His attempts to prove that these animals’ cries of pain were “involuntary reactions” were subjective at best. Yet they are still used to justify scientific and military uses of animal subjects, today.


Many enlightenment era vegetarians like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Margaret Cavendish refuted Descartes right from the start. But we are still having the same arguments today. So I leave it to your own quest for an honorable and rationally-informed Pagan path.


            What remains true for me is my conviction as a Vegan Pagan that a plant-based diet is the ethical default position due to modern information that we have about environmental destruction, as well as the physiology (if not meta-physiology) of non-human and human animals. The simple truth is that eating plants saves more plants.


I hope my own quest for information is helpful to you in your journey. Blessings!


* This picture was taken at a gentle thanksgiving event at the Peace Ridge Sanctuary in Penobscot, Maine: www.peaceridgesanctuary.org


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Leslie earned her Master of Divinity Degree at Vanderbilt University and is a Wiccan Priestess, Ordained Interfaith and seeking ordination through the Temple of the Feminine Divine in Bangor. Her column in SageWoman, “Child of Artemis,” deals with women and our relationship with animals. Leslie considers herself a cultural worker, dealing with issues of violence and oppression as they impact humans and other species. She has worked at a rural domestic violence prevention program since 2001 and is a board member on VegME, Maine’s vegan advocacy group.  


  • Stephanie
    Stephanie Thursday, 17 March 2016

    Love this topic! Usually people are just being goading when they ask "but what about plants?!" but it's a legit question. I totally agree with you on this. From everything we can tell scientifically and anecdotally, plants suffer far, far less (if at all) than animals. In the act of trying to create the least harm on a global level, eating plants creates the least amount of harm possible. Like Colleen Patrick Goudreau says, don't do nothing because you can't do everything.

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