Veganism & Animal Liberation - An interview with Graham Nicholls

This interview is an expanded version of an original discussion with Elisabeth Haljas. Graham Nicholls is an artist and the author of Avenues of the Human Spirit. He was born and has lived most of his life in London, but is currently based in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. He is a strong supporter of animal liberation philosophies and sees veganism as the core of a compassionate life.

How long have you been vegetarian/vegan?

I've been vegetarian since I was 16, although I started experimenting with giving up meat at 14.  I've been vegan for 5 years as of July 2010.

What were your reasons?

In my teens it was more to do with health and my spiritual disciplines. I had already made a commitment to abstain from alcohol and other recreational drugs and giving up meat seemed a natural extension of this. Later, when I became vegan, it was from a growing awareness of animal rights and speciesism, as well as the environmental issues such as the poor use of resources that ultimately impacts humans through vegetable food sources being fed to 'livestock' rather than starving people. Veganism was the obvious next step in my ethical understanding and one that avoids supporting violent and exploitative practices.

How did your family react to your idea of becoming a vegetarian?

They reacted well actually my mother has always tried hard to support my choices. My father (who was a butcher at Smithfield market in London for many years) didn't really understand it, but he could see that many of my new ideas were having a positive impact so he was ok with it. And recently he has become more open to veganism as he has Type 2 Diabetes, which is caused by diet and lifestyle, so he is reading about how veganism (especially raw veganism) can reverse the condition.

How did your friends take it?

Well my close friends accept it of course, and could see it was a part of the path I had taken in life. Others who saw meat as part of their identity (mainly men) would argue that you need meat, they never have a clear factually based reason for this belief, but this is a common statement. Some of my friends who were not as close would take it as a personal criticism, this is another common reaction. They feel they must prove they're right to justify their own ethical position. I think when you take most debates on the subject to their conclusion you find it is just an issue of meat eaters like the flavour of meat and/or they are simply conditioned to eat meat and have never questioned it. That's really all it is, which is quite a sad reason to contribute to such suffering and large-scale waste of resources etc.

Did you feel the difference when doing sports?

Yes, I found I had more energy and my performances improved. I was a sprinter in my teens, and interestingly Carl Lewis who is one of the greatest athletes in history was vegan when he did his best performances (world record 100m etc). As a vegan I've found that my health in general is excellent - I have rarely needed to visit a doctor in my life.

Do you still do sports?

Well I did when I was living by the sea, mainly running and hiking - I do keep fit and am generally active in nature.

Was it hard for you to get your stomach full during lunch-time at school?

Well, I left school at 16 and went back later. So it wasn’t an issue. But I knew a vegetarian girl at school and she would just bring her own food with her. The food in UK comprehensive schools is really bad anyway, in those days they focused on chips and fried low quality frozen products full of sugar and salt.

Were/are you the kind of vegetarian, who spreads the word and talks with people about your views, trying to open their mind and maybe even get them to become a vegetarian, or were you just happy the way you were and nothing else?

I didn't really talk about it when I was a vegetarian, but as a vegan with more understanding of the various issues I'm more of an activist. There is a section on veganism in my book, I talk about it at lectures and seminars. I do and I was also involved in activism in the UK. Actually a friend said to me once that he liked the fact I respected his eating meat; I thought about it after and realised I should at least voice my position as I don't really respect meat eating I just feel that people don't really engage with the issues out of lack of awareness or because they are scared they might have to change. How does veganism relate to your spirituality? I see compassion as central to any spiritual philosophy. I see that animals have a life that is valid and capable of a whole spectrum of emotional experience. I see no justification to steal the life of another species for no genuine reason; we can easily live without killing. Non-violence lies at the core of my understanding of spirituality and stems from the same awareness of compassion and our kinship with other beings. I cannot therefore justify believing that it is wrong to kill or harm a human being but then feel it is legitimate to take the lives of countless innocent non-human animals. As I've mentioned I believe that ethical positions such as basic rights should be extended to all - love and compassion are at the core of veganism.

Are you a part of any organisations?

Well actually I'm getting involved in the Eesti veganid (Estonian vegans) group I've helped set-up here in Estonia and in the UK I was a member of the Vegan Society and also some smaller animal rights groups and my own Shahmai group, which focuses on the spiritual side of veganism. How did people except you being a veg(etari)an elsewhere, when travelling around and in Estonia for example? It's harder in some places, I use the Happy Cow website to find vegan friendly food places when travelling and the Vegan Passport – that helps when you don't speak the language. I've not had much trouble really, there are certain things you can usually get in most places, and some Italian and Middle Eastern food is vegan and Indian food is also often vegan; so it's not that hard. In Estonia I made an effort to meet other vegans as I'm living here now, that has worked out well, so Estonia has been one of the best places for that.

Which do you think are more open-minded and tolerant about vegetarianism, Estonians or the British?

Well Britain has a long history of vegan and vegetarian ideas. The term vegan and the first Vegan Society was started there and also the first Vegetarian Society, as well as the ALF (Animal Liberation Front). So it seems things are well known in the UK. I find that many people in Estonia are not aware of what veganism is, but things also seem to be growing here, with many small groups.

How about thinking about the environment?

Well I see veganism as a way of simplifying, using less resources and needing less to live. The environment would only benefit from more vegan ideas getting into the public imagination. Meat and dairy require so much water, land and feed to produce that it is now one of the worst environmental issues.

What do you think of PETA?

Well they are a welfare group, and I consider myself a liberationist, which means I want to see a total end to animal exploitation, not simply better welfare. So my views differ from those of PETA, although they have done some good. They also use very sensationalist approaches, which is not something I am drawn to. I want to see more awareness and they focus on getting people to join a group in a very unengaged way - it's a symptom of the TV culture through which they operate to reach the maximum amount of people.

Is there a vegan/animal activist you look up to, or have you formulated your ideas on your own?

Well there are many people I admire, like Gary Francione and ALF activists like Rod Coronado and Keith Mann. But I suppose it's the spiritual understandings that have really shaped my views. Leonardo Da Vinci was also a person I admire, he was very compassionate and was the nearest to a vegan you could be at the time. What kind of transport do you prefer? As I have always lived in cities I use public transport. I do know how to drive but somehow have never been motivated to get my license, I prefer walking or if I need to travel I get trains or buses. I do fly when I have to, but try to keep this to a minimum and keep my overall eco-footprint low. What is your opinion about smoking and usage of alcohol? My feeling about smoking is that it makes no logical sense. I think it is sad that peer pressure and other influences leads people to do something that harms themselves and often others with little in return. I feel similar about alcohol, it is a drug that can be used responsibly with little cost to health, but few in the UK seem able to do this. Alcohol is linked to many social problems such as weekend violence in the UK. As I mentioned earlier I have never smoked or used recreational drugs (including alcohol). Do you believe that every organism can adapt to vegan food without any loss? I don't think every organism needs to become vegan, nature does not work in that way. But humans are primates and physiologically there is a wealth of evidence that veganism is the optimal diet for our bodies. I also believe that as we have moral understanding we should extend this understanding to all life. The one thing that does separate us from the other animals is this sense of right and wrong, therefore to not extend such reasoning to other species is just prejudice in the same bracet as racism or sexism. Do you have any favourite quotations about veganism/animal rights? Well I do really like the quotes by Leonardo da Vinci, especially: "Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds theirs. We live by the death of others: we are burial places! I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look on the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men." - Leonardo da Vinci Also  Tom Regan's famous defense of animal rights statement: Animal Rights - Tom Regan speaks Any recommendations for new vegans or those interested in the subject? Well just to read and learn as much as you can, animal liberation vs. welfare is an important issue, and in terms of the health the China Study is important, also the film Earthlings.