I’ve written about why I became a vegetarian and vegan in my 2013 book The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Reflection, so I won’t bother to rehearse the reasons here. Suffice to say, I was raised an omnivore and enjoyed honey-roasted ham, oxtail soup and sausage rolls, mincemeat and pig’s liver, Stilton cheese and cow’s milk. I was never viscerally appalled by animal products or unclear as to their origin. On some Saturdays, my father would take my brother and me to the butcher’s shop in the nearby village and we’d watch as he chose the beef and lamb from the carcasses that hung next to the counter and the locally produced sausages and cutlets in the window. I liked the taste and that was enough for me as a child. (One of Lantern’s authors, Alex Lockwood, writes movingly of the same experience he had as a child, in his book The Pig in Thin Air.)
I was very fortunate in that my father was a military officer at a rank that entitled him to free accommodation in a substantial house, which came with a garden that afforded me plenty of room to run around in and get fresh air. When my parents eventually bought their own home, we had a sufficiently large enough garden for us to grow our own vegetables (my mother’s domain) and cultivate tomatoes and herbs in the greenhouse (my father’s realm). Come the appropriate season, I’d join my mother and dig up the potatoes, clip the lettuces, and unearth the carrots. I trimmed leeks, plucked marrows and courgettes (zucchini), pulled green beans, and shelled peas. After the harvest, my father would blend the excess vegetables into a soup, which he’d freeze and we’d eat through the winter.
Although our home was in a village and we lived next door to a farmer who raised cows, it would be a stretch to call our existence rural. Nonetheless, throughout these years, our family composted the peelings, skins, and husks, as well as the few uneaten scraps from our dinner table and the grass cuttings from our lawn. Once nature had completed its task over the autumn and winter, we added manure and hay from the next-door farm and mixed the concoction into the soil. I was involved in that redolent task as well.
Our family took it as a given not to waste food, either in making it or when the meal was over. My father had grown up in central England during the Depression; my mother was a child during and after World War II; in the early to mid-1970s, when I was a pre-teen, the oil crisis led to energy shortages and work stoppages. My brother and I were told to switch lights off when we left a room and pull plugs from sockets at night to save electricity. We were encouraged to leave no food on our plates, because, we were informed, people in other countries weren’t as fortunate; we saved all sorts of scraps for charity fund-drives. When something was broken, my father tried to fix it; when clothing needed repair, my mother brought out her sewing machine or darning kit and got to work. During the drought of the summer of 1976, we took turns in the bathtub before siphoning the (very gray) water through the bathroom window on second floor to the garden below. To this day, my mother has a barrel to collect rainwater from the roof of her garage; she maintains a compost bin and keeps a cloche greenhouse for herbs. She still hangs her washing on a clothesline to dry and meters her electricity consumption.
On one level, my decision to go vegan was a consequence of meeting others who’d become vegetarians and realizing I really couldn’t justify contributing directly to an industrialized system that treated animals so cruelly simply because I liked the taste of meat and dairy products. However, more deeply, I believe my veganism was, and remains, an extension of my parents’ essential conservatism. They believed that thrift is self-evidently virtuous; that the natural bounty of the land shouldn’t be squandered; and that it’s nonsensical to throw something away when it can be reused, repurposed, or recycled. To that extent, my veganism is about resisting the wasteful extravagance of lives thrown away cheaply, of land polluted and communities decimated by factory farming, and by the gift of life on this planet so destructively misspent.
It’s probably also no coincidence that the Vegan Society met for the first time with the United Kingdom in the middle of an existential struggle, undergoing rationing and daily bombing raids, and with Nazism not yet vanquished on the continent. The Watsons were pacifists (Donald was a conscientious objector) and, as such, in spite of no declarations of political or social orientation in the definition of veganism, one can place veganism within the English reformist movements steeped in the dissenting (Protestant) traditions of John Wycliffe, John Wesley, Luddism, Fabianism, and the feminist and temperance movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Thrift, of course, can slip easily into parsimony, a scarcity mindset that can be self-punishing and needlessly self-abnegating. Likewise, abundance and excess can be liberating and pleasurable as well as burdensome and anxiety-inducing (should you worry about whether you’re keeping up with the Joneses or spend too much time protecting or upgrading your material possessions). Amid the greater affluence, increasing globalization, and rapid technological change of the 1980s and 1990s, my family was no different from many other households in enjoying the high-tech gadgets, packaged and processed convenience food, and cheap goods that flooded into Britain. So, it’s not as if any of us were especially virtuous, resistant to change, or anti-materialistic. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for my family’s (perhaps inadvertent) legacy of a connection to plant-based whole foods that’s remained with me.
In 1991, I moved to New York City, where I’ve lived ever since. In 1994, I cofounded a grassroots magazine called Satya, to cover connected issues within animal advocacy, vegetarianism, environmentalism, and social justice. In 1999, I left Satya to begin a publishing company, Lantern Books, which has published many books on the same subjects, and which I currently run. Over the last few decades, I’ve been fortunate to read and publish many books on what might be broadly called sustainable living, based on principles of reducing and ending violence toward other beings. I hold a bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in English Literature and Language and a master’s degree from New York University in Religious Studies: I am, therefore, not an economist, agronomist, social or natural scientist, public policy expert, or futurist.
That’s my history, and it must necessarily color my perspective on a vegan America. Given the vastness of this continent-sized country, and its many and varied cultural, political, and geographical biomes, my perhaps very WASP-y “Yankee” quasi-homesteading relationship to the land might seem not merely old-fashioned but retrogressive, even quaint, beyond some Nearing-esque, notional New England of Shakers, Quakers, and residents of Fruitlands. Some might question whether it bears any relevance for urban populations and climates less hospitable to growing crops, let alone the very different typologies of cattleman and deep-sea fisherman that exist across the country, or the experiences of those who because of food deserts or poverty have no choice but to deny themselves the pleasures of the flesh. Furthermore, such critics might point out, there’s nothing that directly links my childhood experience of the land and food with my adult decision to be a vegan. I could have remained omnivorous and been just as connected with that early response to whole foods.
I don’t deny the validity of these responses or either the particularity or generic nature of different aspects of my childhood. All of us are to some degree a product of our pasts and the land from which we arose or into which we plunged our spades. But I think there’s not only value in being straightforward about our etiology but it’s right and proper to be honest about the values we bring with us into any analysis. I also consider it appropriate to recognize my non-academic status and to admit that the Vegan America Project is not—indeed, cannot be—definitive. But why should these negate any effort to explore it? As I’ll explain in a later blog, my goals for the Project itself are as direct and realizable as my ambitions are expansive and perhaps utopian: to imagine a future that honors the Earth, helps communities of beings thrive, and enables our country to be resilient and adaptable in the face of the considerable, even existential challenges it will face in the twenty-first century.
There are, as we will see, good reasons to do this. However, before we get into them, let me rehearse yet another genesis point for the Vegan America Project—one more immediate than my childhood. I write about this in the next blog.