Running Out of Things to Talk About

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

It’s been several months since my last blog, and there are a number of reasons for that. Work and life are two. A third is that the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have set off an avalanche of accusations against other men in Hollywood and politics, that has now engulfed the animal advocacy movement. Meanwhile, the current administration continues to generate more  outrage, seemingly every day—even though the US (and global) economy grows and the US unemployment rate remains low.

These three factors (#metoo, politics, and the economy) respectively reinforce introspection and retrospection, preoccupy us in day-to-day scandals, or lull us into believing that good times will last forever. To speculate now about the future can seem indulgent, even a flight from a difficult reality, even if all three of these portend potential realignments. The #metoo revolution promises to upend gender relations and power dynamics within society and politics. The danger is that it becomes only about weeding out obvious bad actors while leaving “good” men in charge, or supplanting male leadership but leaving organizations without policies that support whistleblowers or foster a healthy working environment that ends unprofessional or potentially criminal behavior. The large number of women running for political office in 2018 suggest momentum for systemic change, but it’s far from obvious that more women in power will mean a new way of conducting politics—or, more importantly, different policies altogether.

The daily churn of news makes it hard to look beyond the current administration’s  reactionary policies on energy and land use to anticipate whether, for instance, the renewable energy sector is now robust enough to continue growing even when public policy is oriented toward fossil-fuel extraction and expanding markets for dirty energy. A roaring economy, driven by quarterly earnings reports, also obfuscates signs of another crash—either from the bursting of a housing bubble, banking malfeasance, rising inflation, or political instability—and how or whether we should imagine systemic change emerging from a crisis or from a confident, buoyant market with access to considerable liquidity.

That said, I see signs of change everywhere, and in the next few weeks, I’ll talk about them. Here’s one from a slightly unusual source. In a “Shouts & Murmurs” (i.e. humor) column in the February 12 & 19, 2018, editions of The New Yorker magazine, entitled “What Will Food Be Like in the Future,” Mia Mercado has fun speculating how, “In the future, food will be similar to what it is today, only bigger and with much better Wi-Fi,” and “there will be no more hunger, because hunger will get rebranded as ‘opposite full.'” She concludes her piece with the prognostication: “Everyone will be vegan in the future, so eventually we’ll all run out of things to talk about.”

On one level, Mercado is responding to the fact that, as the joke has it, “‘How do you know if someone’s vegan?’ ‘They’ll tell you.'” Veganism here is the ultimate “talking point,” the catalyst for numerous, socially embarrassing or irritating intimate or public conversations about food choices, etc. On another level, however, Mercado is perhaps echoing my own intuition that veganism is not merely a talking point but “good to think with“: that it offers us a chance to reflect on resources, culture, nutrition, sustainability, race, justice, and resilience. To “be vegan,” therefore threatens or promises the possibility of difference or distinctiveness that encourages conversation or makes life interesting—depending on your perspective.

So is the vegan future a mic-drop gag or throwaway last line? Perhaps it’s both, or neither. At the very least, much like a joke, it’s entered the conversation with all its destabilizing tendencies and threat-grins of social anxiety.