For so long, universities have been considered to be the real producers of knowledge, monolithic institutions with access to the ‘meaning’ of life. In pursuing meaning, we have learnt to question everything around us. Nowadays, we can, too, question what we know about the knowledge that we consume on a daily basis; what do we know about the products that we consume? In many cases, we will have to face the fact that we do not know. In others, we will have to face the fact that not everybody is willing to know.
Back in 2018, the government of the Netherlands encouraged people to reduce their animal protein consumption. Nowadays, we discuss the outcomes of encouraging people to not consume it at all. As the concept of the future slowly becomes present, so does the urgency to act on climate change. Outcomes such as the increasing socioeconomic gaps among countries and people, and the unstoppable effect of greenhouse gases in our lives no longer can be defined as a problem of the future. Since universities are the producers of that future, we should no longer talk about it without referring to the words product and consumption. We cannot ignore the products that we consume.
‘Towards a vegan university’, an initiative happening at the UvA, aims to construct a national framework with which universities can move towards veganism. It is being organised by Eva Meijer (UvA), Jan Stoop (EUR), Floris van den Berg (UU) and others, such as Martine van Haperen (ProVeg). This move towards veganism in universities highlights the fact that this change of paradigm is possible, and that it is already happening. For example, as Eva Meijer made clear during the symposium held in the University Library, the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA), offers vegan lunches at their events. As Stoop accomplished in the Erasmus University of Rotterdam (EUR), vegetarian lunches are the norm and if desired to order a non-vegan option, a request in advance is necessary. At the University of Leiden, Vegan Challenges are encouraged as well as the implementation of vegan menus for their students. The establishment of Vegan Student Associations (VSA) in recent years and the ever-increasing incorporation of vegan products in the market tells us something: our daily consumption is changing.
The changes to be incorporated are still in discussion. Nonetheless, the integration of more vegan options and the retirement of animal products is not the only one. As Van den Berg said ‘Big changes can happen, so let’s make them happen. He also held that the banning of leather products should be encouraged while he compared it to universities not supporting the consumption of tobacco. The examples given were having vegan options in the canteens, and as is the case with the EUR, reversing the norm and making people say in advance if they truly want a non-vegan option, in many cases, people are happy as long as what they eat tastes good. People should know about the statistics of what they consume: the use of water employed for non-vegan sandwiches containing dairy and meat is estimated to employ the equivalent of eighty bathtubs of water, which is equivalent to fourteen kilos of CO2, which is the same as having a hand dryer blowing for an entire year. Facts that were investigated by Stoop during his project. Considering these facts, why has veganism not been present in the student elections yet, if the questions of equality have?
As producers of knowledge, students need to respond to the global situation: the greenhouse gases effect, but also the fact that veganism offers equal opportunities for certain human groups with some intolerances, such as lactose intolerance, or people who follow dietary laws. Along these lines, speciesism should be clearly addressed. It is not a word aligned with the future of the fair universities that we all want.
Understanding the products that we consume is an affair intertwined with this moment of history. Rather than accepting it or rejecting it, we might need to ask ourselves how to make it more ethical, sustainable, accessible and equal. We understand better when our freedom is against somebody else’s, but we often forget the fact that not all beings can give utterance to their liberty and rights. If universities truly want to become ethical spaces, we must learn to incorporate the freedom of all beings and stop exploiting them. If there is a moment for universities to truly become spaces for equality, this is it.