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.

Conservative Resistance and the Vegan Agenda

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

The Veggie Pride Parade is an annual event in New York City that brings vegetarians, vegans, and interested parties together. Five hundred or so folks march through the West Village and then gather at the northern end of Union Square for talks and food sampling, and to pick up literature from the assorted tables. The organizer of this festive occasion is Pamela Rice, whose 101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian we published at Lantern Books.

This year’s event had extra zest. Toward the end of the afternoon, a blond and hairy young white man stood near the assembly, brought out a banner that read “Down with the Vegan Agenda,” and proceeded to use his teeth to pull strips of raw flesh from a skinned rabbit. He soon attracted a crowd of passers-by who snapped photos and shot videos of him as folks on a nearby dais told their stories about how they’d become vegans.

I was about twenty-five feet away from the man, who goes by the name of “Mr MilkJar,” and who had the forethought to bring along a cameraman to record the proceedings. MilkJar has his own YouTube channel, onto which he’s uploaded this stunt and others like it—and which I can’t be bothered to link to. Tellingly, MilkJar’s avatar is Pepe the Frog, an otherwise blameless cartoon character who has recently become a symbol of “alt-right” nationalism that these days is welcome in the White House. Milkjar’s Twitter account extols the virtues of raw meat and milk—which has also, it appears, become a symbol of white supremacism, according (oh the irony!) to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization that has in the past also used dead animal flesh to make a point and, like MilkJar, isn’t afraid to perform stunts to attract the media and épater la bourgeoisie.

So, just what is going on here beyond the normal eccentricities of New York City, or the exercise of freedom of speech in a park that for centuries has been a public space dedicated to heated expressions of unpopular and sometimes conflicting opinions? And how might we understand this event in the light of the Vegan America Project?

On the face of it, MilkJar is simply practicing his first amendment rights. Pamela Rice asked the police in attendance if they could do anything about MilkJar. The officers, however, rightly pointed out that it wasn’t a crime to eat in public (drinking alcohol is a different matter). MilkJar wasn’t interfering with the gathering, wasn’t using an amplifier without a permit, and wasn’t physically threatening anyone. The cops did ask MilkJar to move further away from the dais, but that was all the conversation I was privy to. (Actually, I don’t think Pamela was that annoyed. In fact, she seemed to be relishing the amount of extra attention that MilkJar was bringing to her parade.)

Freedom of speech, of course, can be rude and objectionable—and MilkJar was interested in neither Socratic debate nor Demosthenic oratory.  He was out to offend the sensibilities of vegans the most direct way he knew how. And, truth be told, some attending the parade were upset and disgusted. They felt “their” special day and space had been coopted and invaded by a publicity-seeker who merely wanted to gross people out. Why pick on a poor defenseless being to make his point, they asked? Why be so willfully cruel? And it’s true: there’s something particularly Westboro Baptist Church–like about MilkJar’s self-serving assholery.

On reflection, however, MilkJar’s presence proved a fascinating (if unwelcome) addition to the proceedings—if not, perhaps, in quite the way the rabbit-eater intended. First of all, he made no effort to disguise the corpse that he bit into. He held it by its rear legs and allowed the torso to dangle in front of him. In so doing, he showed how much we gourmands rely on butchers and chefs to cut and prepare our meat to obliterate the structure and outline of the animal that the flesh originally composed. He wasn’t just eating a cut of meat; this was clearly once a living being. To use Carol J. Adams‘ terms, he made the absent referent present.

Secondly, by eating the rabbit raw, MilkJar was also demonstrating how most of us cook the land and air animals we eat. Cooking, after all, is one of the ever-diminishing markers of our distinctiveness from other animals. Indeed, Michael Pollan argues that cooking led to civilization, in that it allowed us to gather around a fire and shape the mythopoetic identities that led us to plan and organize our social groupings. (Some folks’ disgust was not simply because of the presence of the animal body but an autonomic response to the risk of food poisoning posed by eating raw meat on a warm day. This is another reason why we cook our meat—because animal flesh rots rather than decomposes.)

Thirdly, in making a case for a kind of originalism, naturalism, or authenticity to his food choices (no processed foods, or processing of foods, for me!), MilkJar was echoing many vegans who also shun processed foods and argue for a raw, plant-based diet that, so the notion goes, most accurately reflects our true identities. Aside from any health benefits cited by followers of such regimens, MilkJar and raw foodists rely on a notion that “civilization” has corrupted or removed us from a Rousseausque innocent and honest engagement with nature that can be reclaimed by returning to a pre-industrial “right” relationship—whether it’s a prelapsarian paradise or a Darwinian struggle, red in tooth and claw.

But the ironies and contradictions don’t stop there. In choosing a rabbit to eat, was MilkJar echoing the suggestion that veganism equals “rabbit food”? By eating the rabbit, therefore, was he consuming vegans and veganism at the same time as he was critiquing the social niceties, amnesia, and comforting bromides we tell ourselves about the “civilizational” qualities of cooked meat? Was MilkJar wanting to claim a savage primitivism in opposition to vegans’ effete civilizing influence; and declaring that a society that eschewed raw meat by either cooking it or not consuming it no longer had the animalistic élan vital to continue?

These questions aren’t as far-fetched as they may appear. My table shared space with a tribute to the life and work of vegan historian Rynn Berry, himself a sometime raw-foodist, and author of Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (with a foreword by yours truly). In the book, Berry tries to lay to rest the canard that the Nazi dictator was a vegetarian; in my foreword, I try to argue that, even if it were the case that the Fuhrer ate a plant-based diet, it hardly follows that eating lentils will turn you into a genocidal dictator. That MilkJar should now accouter himself with the symbols of neo-Nazi ethnochauvanism in opposition to veganism makes our points—if not in the way MilkJar may have intended.

As promoted by Goebbels, the Fuhrer’s vegetarian identity was intimately associated with his asceticism, his dedication to the Fatherland above family, and a racial purity that literally embodied the desired body politic. Yet Hitler ate meat, his own body was routinely injected with animal parts (bull’s semen, to be precise, for sexual potency), and he received a vast amount of other drugs, especially during the War. Hitler’s physical insecurity and his avoidance of animal flesh show that he may have wished to escape the bodily corruption of meat, but his belief that powerful male animal bodies would animalize and empower his own illustrates that he couldn’t escape the  carnophallologocentrism (to use Jacques Derrida’s term) that he believed the animal body would supply him with. Hitler/Germany’s pathogenic body—desperate to cleanse itself of “enemies within” (both social, racial, and biological)—collapsed because of the microbial and military invasion of the very foreign bodies that he sought to expel.

MilkJar’s protest (and PETA’s counter-argument that milk drinkers are white supremacists) highlight the dangers of naturalistic arguments or simplistic comparisons devoid of context or critical thinking.  MilkJar’s presence should likewise remind vegans of the insulting triteness of comparing animal exploitation to the Holocaust or ante-bellum African American slavery—especially as MilkJar’s alt-right paraphernalia shows us how manipulable shallow symbolism and agitprop thinking can be.

But we vegans actually have more to be grateful to MilkJar for than unpacking meat eating!  When I saw his sign (“Down with the Vegan Agenda”), I joked to a friend that not only did I not know we had an agenda, but I hadn’t even received the minutes from the last meeting. As it turns out, and as the Vegan America Project highlighted at its inception, the questions accidentally raised by MilkJar are valid: Do we have an agenda, and, if so, what is it?  An “agenda” suggests a level of organization, coordination, planning, and centralized authority that has so far eluded the various affiliations that constitute . . . what? Our movement?  Who is the “our” here and where is the “movement”—from what to what? As this blog has relayed in detail, there are many impulses, dispositions, passions, and sociopolitical orientations that drive people to stop consuming animal products. But “agenda”?

Of course, MilkJar’s goal in condemning “the vegan agenda” is to stigmatize veganism—in the same way that others attack LGBTQ activists’ attempt to protect vulnerable communities as “the gay agenda”; or how anti-Semites talk about a “Jewish conspiracy” or a cabal of “international bankers”; or how Protestant evangelicals once spoke about the Vatican; or how climate change deniers now describe scientists. They/we are the fifth columnists whose goal is to undermine society, enrich ourselves in the process, and establish a New World Order where ethnic and national boundaries are compromised and individual freedoms are quashed.

We might (very) charitably call such attempts blunt efforts by individuals to express their right to dissent and exercise those freedoms. But in every case, the  word agenda is code for those whom the ethnochauvanistic, nominally Christian right believes should know their place. It disguises, even as it proclaims to be honest (I’m not politically correct!), a pre-existing agenda that the protesters against the “agenda” have ensured isn’t even considered an agenda—because it’s normative: that white, heterosexual, Christian men who eat meat and run the country is the “natural” order of things.

It’s, therefore, not merely coincidental that MilkJar’s whiteness and masculinity is tied to his explicit consumption of the flesh of an animal. The freedom of speech that he’s championing is expressed through his control of and power over an animal’s flesh: the sexual politics of meat. MilkJar wants to offend, to counteract, to occupy another’s space, and to do so using an animal’s body. That is his right. But it is a right and it is a space that white men in the United States have always claimed for themselves, and which they have routinely denied to people of color, women, and other animals by threatening, colonizing, manipulating, and killing their bodies.

Ironically, MilkJar’s words should inspire us: to get “down with the vegan agenda.” Certainly, the Vegan America Project considers itself one draft (among many) of an outline for such an agenda. It’s an attempt to explore a genuinely intersectional approach that looks at the physical and conceptual space represented by Union Square—a location for rallies, a safe place for dissent, a spot for visionary thinking—and asks whether we can expand our notions of individual rights to allow MilkJar and the rabbit he consumed to live their own lives with a measure of each’s basic interests respected.

Finally, what does MilkJar’s protest have to say about “conservative resistance” in the Vegan America Project? I’m always struck by those who take time out of their lives to protest—and to do so in a way that could leave them appearing to onlookers to be foolish or mean-spirited. Something about that degree of commitment and energy suggests that the object of their contempt holds a fascination, a shadow (to employ a Jungian idea), that makes them fertile ground for conversion.

I’m reminded of the book of Revelation (3:15), in which the writer has strong words to say about faith: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” MilkJar is clearly not lukewarm, and nothing is being spit out of his mouth. He’s engaged and, in his perverse way, represents the case for animal rights and veganism very well—perhaps uncomfortably well, given our mutual claims to naturalism and purity of living. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him at many more such events in the future. In which case, we vegans may have to engage more seriously and profoundly with just what he portends (both for ill and good) about what a vegan America might look like.

The Irony of Origination in the Vegan America Project

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

In reading books (published and unpublished) about veganism and animals, I’m struck by how often writers want to take us to “the beginning” to ascertain a kind of ur-relationship with the natural world or diet from which we have strayed.

This pursuit of an originating myth is neither a new phenomenon nor one confined to vegans or vegetarians; nor has it been, is, or ever will be, disinterested. How, when, and why human beings domesticated certain species of animals is a contested space, because the study of the origins of human societies has always been colored by race and gender as well as notions of human difference and supremacy and the normativity of meat-eating.

Take, for instance, paleoanthropologist Richard Bulliet’s Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human–Animal Relationships. Bulliet traces human societies from “separation” (when hominins began to recognize themselves as separate from other animals) to predomesticity (when humans lived among animals), to domesticity (when they tamed some of them), and then to post-domesticity or urbanization, and the separation of humans from animals used for food or clothing. Bulliet argues that predomestic civilizations had diverse ways in which they recognized their connection to and disconnection from animals. He suggests that the arrival of agriculture didn’t necessitate the immediate domestication of some animals and the rejection of other animals as pests and predators. He further points out that, pace those who assume that economic issues were the main reasons why humans domesticated certain animals, sacramental or ritualistic needs may have played more of a role than the desire for meat, dairy, wool, labor, transportation, and so on.

In arguing that these transitions were both less uniform, specific, or dramatic, Bulliet explicitly or implicitly questions a number of long- or at least passionately held beliefs about our origins and attitude toward animals. The first is that human society had a golden age of human–animal connection that was disrupted by agriculture, which forced humans into an adversarial relationship with animals whom they’d once revered but now competed with for resources. The second is that our exploitation of animals is coexistent with, and a function of, the emergence of homo economicus—that proto-Enlightenment creature of reason and civilization rather than superstition or anthropomorphism, which itself a manifestation of the scientific method and the necessary disenchantment of nature. The third is that meat-eating was essential for the development of the human brain and that the need to hunt animals led to cooperation and organization among humans and thereby to social organization and civilization. Fourth, that gender roles (Man the Hunter; Woman the Gatherer) whether negatively or positively valorize or essentialize meat’s primacy. And fifth, that a prehistoric vegetarian, collective, matrilineal, harmonious social order was disrupted by a meat-eating, hierarchical, patriarchal, warlike social order.

The point here is not to argue that Bulliet is correct to be skeptical but to emphasize how seductive are dichotomies in Western attempts to understand human origins and, by extension, what our appropriate relationship is with other animals. Bulliet at least shows that assumptions about human social evolution following a neat trajectory (whether up or down) or even a kind of universal, axial shift in consciousness are problematic. It was in all likelihood messier, more fractured, more diverse, and more hybridized than our taxonomizing brain would like to believe.

That’s true of vegetarianism itself. As Tristram Stuart shows in his magisterial survey of the subject The Bloodless Revolution, vegetarianism has been associated with godlessness and heightened spirituality, political conservatism and radicalism, ancient religious mandates and contemporaneous understandings of physiology. From the beginnings, vegetarianism was syncretic, scientific, crackpot, philosophical, ascetical, libertine, and a host of other contradictions.

The need to complexify and problematize easy dichotomies can be represented by the views of two famous philosophers. René Descartes is widely reviled for promoting the notion that animals were mere machines and unable to feel pain, and thereby consolidating an instrumental attitude toward animals that remains the scientific paradigm to this day. Jeremy Bentham is famous for his argument that an animal’s sentience and not its intelligence or other capabilities should be the sole consideration of whether it is treated well. What is less well-known is that Descartes was a vegetarian, who believed that meat-eating was injurious to a long and healthy life, whereas Bentham not only was not a vegetarian but believed that animals killed at human hands might suffer less than their wild counterparts. Neither philosopher was being hypocritical or inconsistent.

The Vegan America Project inevitably finds itself in the middle of these paradoxes and, equally inevitably, pulled and pushed by those who believe in any of the above theories of what is the original, most natural, scientific, godfearing, consistent, equitable, or purest way to eat or live in the world. VAP can no more escape the times or the cultural milieux of its contributors than all the other scholars or activists from antiquity to the present.

And it shouldn’t try to. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to argue rationally and with the best evidence available for a cause or position, while at the same time recognizing that it won’t get to the root of all problems or satisfy our hunger to seek an originating diet, relationship, or beinghood.  This decision doesn’t spring from VAP’s anti-utopianism; it is merely the most honest position we can take.

The Quixoticism of the Vegan America Project

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

In a March 9, 2017 article in The New York Review of Books on iconic American journalist Joan Didion’s visits to the American Deep South, Nathaniel Rich concludes with three paragraphs that are worth quoting in full, because of their relevance to the Vegan America Project.

An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive. Nobody, certainly, in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, which since Didion’s reporting has only accelerated in its embrace of an ethic in which the past is fluid, meaningless, neutered by technological advancement. In this view the past is relegated to the aesthetic realm, to what Didion describes in “California Notes” as “decorative touches”—tastefully aged cutlery and window curtains. In this view the past was safely dead and could not return to bloody the land.

Two decades into the new millennium, however, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life. They still believe in the viability of armed revolt. As Didion herself noted nearly fifty years ago, their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval, particularly disapproval by the northern press. They have resisted with mockery, then rage, the collapse of the old identity categories. They have resisted the premise that white skin should not be given special consideration. They have resisted new technology and scientific evidence of global ecological collapse. The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president.

A writer from the Gulf South once wrote that the past is not even past. Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the “dense obsessiveness” of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.

In my categorizing of such an observation as “conservative resistance” (the icon I have employed at the start of this blog) my aim is neither to dismiss nor to validate Rich’s reading of Didion’s work. Instead, I want to acknowledge that I, too, am from the North and as an inhabitant of New York City (a city with two international airports) I am prey to the presumptions and prejudices that a certain kind of deracinated and flattened cosmopolitanism shares about “America.” Those prejudices are not simply a city dweller’s assumption of the cultural desert that is “flyover country”;  nor of the bland, barely repressed depression and hostility depicted in  Grant Wood’s “American Gothic“;  nor of the irruptive, religious violence of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” They are, as Rich suggests and yet shies away from, that “America” is to be found somewhere: that if you travel far enough, peel enough away of yourself, or unpack your sociopolitical baggage and settle down long enough in one place, you’ll get to the essential America.

Rich’s Didion seems to know enough about herself to recognize that you’re only ever yourself in another place. America, in that regard, is like Einstein’s space–time continuum, in which you’re always at the center of the universe and everything you see (and everything everyone else sees) is defined by their relationship to everything else. The conceit of America is that anyone anywhere can define themselves as American, while at the same time believing themselves to be more American than anyone else. You’re American because you’re a new immigrant or because you trace your ancestry back to the Mayflower and beyond. You’re American because you live in the diverse city or in the monochrome heartland, in the Unionist North or the Old South, because you believe in the Enlightenment principles of the Constitution or because you’re a product of the sacramentalized and ethnologized violence that has accompanied that project from the beginning and is written in that same Constitution. All is equally true, all is equally false; all are essential, all are contingent.

Rich’s observations make me profoundly aware of the quixotic pursuit that is the Vegan America Project. I choose that adjective advisedly—for Don Quixote’s chivalric code (outdated, naive, a projection of values onto a world that had no need of [such] values anymore) gains validity by the very tenacity with which it is held. It’s grandly absurd: its absurdity only increases its grandeur, and vice versa.

As the Vegan America Project thickens and develops, as its pieces fall into place and a strategic outline form, so also will its shadow: the feeling of a way of life being threatened; objections to the appearance of an outside telling you what to do; a resistance to the very notion of that resistance being characterized as resistance. The tendency would be either to ignore such resistance as inauthentic or simply reactionary or cling too tightly to it as the ultimate stumbling block or the kernal of the problem and solution.  That only reinforces the notion of an essentialism that everyone who goes off in search of America carries with them.

The Nation State and Borderlands

Ideas and HistoryI’ve recently finished Claire Jean Kim’s 2015 book Dangerous Crossings: an excellent analysis of three case studies of politically and culturally charged human–animal interactions. The studies are of efforts by animal activists to ban the selling of live animals in San Francisco’s markets; the Makah Nation’s attempt to assert their rights to resume whaling; and footballer Michael Vick’s criminal conviction for dog-fighting. Kim shows how animal advocates’ efforts to assert the rights and/or interests of animals in not being harmed ran into (or, more accurately, were already enmeshed in) the profoundly complex legacies of racial exploitation and prejudice, the various meanings of what it means to be (an) American, the assertion of moral power through politics and the courts, and the fundamental social norms (themselves determined by culture) of which animals are meant to be killed and which aren’t.

The book is valuable not only because of its close and sympathetic examination of these very contested and highly emotive issues but in the essays that frame the case studies. Kim observes that Nature has been viewed in the course of the American experiment in many different, and sometimes contradictory, ways. Throughout that time, race and degrees of “animality” have been constant, with white settlers viewing Native Americans, East Asians, and people of African descent hierarchically and taxonomically. The book reinforces what is turning out to be (at least so far) a central tenet of the Vegan America Project: veganism is never just about what you put in your body; animal welfare or rights can never be just about “the animals”; and there is no one thing that is “America.”

At first blush, Kim’s work would seem to discourage any notion that a move toward veganism—not killing animals for food or on behalf of culture of sport—is possible. She is careful not to dismiss out of hand the (overwhelmingly white) advocates who protested live markets, whale-hunting, and dog-fighting as politically naïve and culturally and racially insensitive—even though that may have been the outcome of aspects of their advocacy. She makes clear that the communities who felt under siege did not all agree as a body that they were being victimized and nor did they feel that those who expressed their outrage spoke for them. Indeed, she notes, in the live markets case, local politicians opportunistically used the issue to push for more power for themselves and to undermine rivals.

Kim observes that inserting the rights of animals themselves into the contest over whose rights were being (more) violated complicates these issues even more. She makes it clear that many of the victimized held speciesist assumptions about who was morally valuable in a manner that depended on as rigid a hierarchy as that which had been imposed on them by white people. She gives the reader several reasons to understand why that thinking and that rigidity might be so.

A particularly suggestive and valuable discussion in Kim’s book concerns invasive species—particularly around the live markets debate. She shows how during the long prosecution of their case against live markets, animal advocates switched from accusing the markets of being cruel to animals to suggesting these same animals posed a risk to California fauna by threatening non-native species with extinction, from disease or predation. In doing so, Kim demonstrates (to my mind very convincingly) that the advocates were not only reflecting a speciesism that they accused the perpetrators of but (perhaps unwittingly) perpetuating a notion of alien invaders that mapped how East Asians felt they’d been seen by white culture ever since they arrived on the West Coast of the United States. In addition, by aligning their arguments with environmentalists as opposed to ethicists, the advocates were expressing the profound ambivalence America as a whole has throughout its history felt about immigrants, “the enemy within,” and mongrelization of all kinds.

Kim suggests that efforts by conservationists to preserve native biota and repel invasive species is entrenched in deeply held notions of Nature and American Nature in particular as a kind of pristine place, protected from the chaos, mess, and hybridization of other countries, cities, and other races and cultures. As such, Nature is racialized, homogenized, and purified through the protection of the heroic environmentalist. Needless to say, it’s but a short step to the masculinization of this figure—whether it’s Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. Not uncoincidentally, that figure is also a killer of animals—except that the killing is called “harvesting” and the animals who are “taken” are pests, vermin, and undesirables who are harming the land and/or disturbing or impinging on other animals that, appropriately, belong to genuine Americans, such as landowners, ranchers, and farmers.

It’s evident to me that we’re now in a moment in America that, on the one hand, seems shockingly new, and yet, if I read Kim correctly, is in fact as old as the country itself, and perhaps even older. President Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico to keep out “illegals.” It may be coincidental (if not quite accidental) that the building of the Wall will also disrupt the passage between countries of larger animals, such as wolves and coyotes—animals who, as with undesirable human aliens, have been hunted and rounded up as enemies of the state. As the animalization of the people-runners “coyotes” and their victims “cockroaches” attests, the boundaries as it were between human and nonhuman, desirable and non-desirable, blur. In both human and nonhuman cases, the Wall encourages the idea that the nation’s integrity is defined by not only who is kept in and who is kept out, but how valued that animal (once in) is in relation to the animal at the top of that food chain.

In this  contrast, cities are once again outside “the natural order of things”: they are places where races mix, citizens consort with aliens, rules are broken, and disorder upends hierarchy. These unnatural “sanctuaries” (note the human and the nonhuman connotations of such a word) must be pacified and brought under control, as an ecosystem is denuded of kudzu so that real nature, American life, might flourish.

Kim offers by way of conclusion a “multi-optic” vision that fosters perspective, connections, and organic solutions rather than a contest for whose oppression “wins.” She challenges the practicability and desirability of the singular, homogeneous, and uniform in approaching relationships in America (whether between humans, between humans and animals, or between humans and the natural world). Instead, she advocates for an acceptance of America as a hybrid concept and reality—indeed, as inherently a country of invasive species that, remarkably, have discovered co-existence and can thrive off that very tangled ecosystem that was never (and can never be) pristine or contained.

Radical Hope and the Dream of a Future without a Future

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

In considering the question I asked in the previous blog, “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind?” I find myself thinking about a related question, one that is asked in considerable detail and imaginative depth by philosopher Jonathan Lear in his book Radical Hope. That question might be: “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind, when you have no means of knowing what you require?”

Radical Hope is a biography and a story of survival—one fraught with ambiguities and loss. The subject is Plenty Coups (1848–1932), leader of the Crow Nation of what is now southern Montana. The Crow’s mortal enemies before the white man came in the middle of the nineteenth century were the Cheyenne and Sioux, with whom they were frequently at war. According to Lear, the Crow constructed their entire cultural identity around their successful prosecution of these conflicts, based on their defense or acquisition of “coup sticks”—markers of a “kill” within a battle that had to be defended with one’s life. So profound was the enmity between the Crow and the surrounding Native American nations that when the U.S. government arrived, the Crow initially sided with them against the Cheyenne and Sioux. The U.S. government eventually banned the warring and horse stealing among the native nations and moved them onto reservations.

Plenty Coups was persuaded by an outdoorsman named Frank B. Linderman to write an autobiography. The Crow’s historical and cultural recollection was essentially non-literary, with arts and crafts and rituals marking life passages for both males and females. However, Linderman prevailed (in a manner of speaking, as we will discover), and Plenty Coups’ biography was published as American: The Life Story of a Great Indian: Plenty-coups, Chief of the Crows in 1930.

The heart of Radical Hope consists of an extended interpretation of a statement Plenty Coups made to Linderman (as reported by the latter):

“I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” he said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,” he added sorrowfully, “you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.”

I will come to Lear’s interpretation of Plenty Coups’ observations in a moment. But what the Crow leader’s statement reminded me of was how fully animal life was embedded within the consciousness of Native American peoples (an aspect that Lear’s book does not explore as fully as one might imagine). The killing off of the buffalo in the United States was not merely a result of an increase in white human populations demanding animal flesh, nor the result of unsustainable hunting practices among Native Americans. It was government policy to use the destruction of the buffalo as a means to cut off the food and clothing supply of the plains nations dependent on the bison and to demoralize and “deculturate” them: to destroy one meant to destroy the other.

Lear’s fundamental interest in Plenty Coups’ observation is not political or cultural so much as philosophical, even metaphysical. For Lear, Plenty Coups’ “After this nothing happened” is not only the Crow leader’s mournful recognition of cultural destruction, or his acknowledgment that, once on the reservations and after the buffalo had been brought to the verge of extinction by the white man, it was no longer possible for the Crow to act like Crow. Instead, Lear believes that Plenty Coups’ statement illuminates something deeper—a question about the meaning of meaning itself: “What is it about a form of life’s coming to an end,” Lear asks, “that makes it such that for the inhabitants of that life things cease to happen? Not just that it would seem to them that things ceased to happen, but what it would be for things to cease happening” (p. 8). What does one look for or draw upon when the entirety of one’s worldview and all that is contained within it, and shapes it in turn, are not only no longer relevant to you but to anyone?

For instance, Lear goes on, if no one is able to play the “game” where the defense or appropriation of “coups” has ultimate significance for one’s identity—and this is true of the women who married the warriors (and their children) as well as the warriors themselves (including their enemies)—then not only is it not possible to play that game, but the rules and end results of that game (the winners and the losers) are no longer relevant. Lear suggests that this loss is a function of an inability to tell a story: “The issue is that the Crow have lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative. This is a real loss, not just one that is described from a certain point of view. It is the real loss of a point of view” (p. 32). That framing, notes Lear, is not merely his interpretation, but one held by other Crow. He writes that one elder, the grandmother of Alma Hogan Snell, mourned after the nation were moved to the reservation:

“I am trying to live a life that I do not understand.” And Two Leggings, a lesser chief, gave a similar account of life on the reservation: “Nothing happened after that. We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of horses from the Piegan and the Sioux, no buffalo to hunt. There is nothing more to tell.” (p. 56)

In being unable to shape a beginning, middle, and end to their narratives, a people cannot conceptualize themselves into purpose and existence; more poignantly, they lose their place in the plot but there is no plot to tell—or plot (ground) in which the plot (narrative) makes sense. In such a situation, it’s not surprising that Plenty Coups had qualms about talking to Linderman (“Apparently, Plenty Coups did not tell Linderman everything that happened to him” [p. 90]).

 Radical Hope describes how Plenty Coups, as part of his induction into leadership as a young man, is exposed to a dream in which a chickadee offers a vision where a forest has been felled and one tree is left standing—a tree under which sits an old man (taken to be Plenty Coups as an old man). In describing Plenty Coups’ dreams and the interpretation that Plenty Coups and the Crow placed upon them, Lear avoids offering arguments along the lines of “Plenty Coups thought this and so did that”; or “because the Crow followed Plenty Coups’ advice they survived with more cultural homogeneity and with more land than others”—even though such conclusions might be possible.

Instead, Lear claims not to be particularly concerned whether the interpretation that Plenty Coups and the Crow placed upon the dream told through the chickadee was correct or not. Indeed, he emphasizes that his reading of Plenty Coups’ text may be wrong, to the extent that Plenty Coups would himself acknowledge it as such. What Lear is more interested in is that Plenty Coups’ observation opens up the space for a certain way of thinking he calls “radical hope.” He writes: “Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it” (p. 103). This hope, he observes, is not naive, because it makes no claims on the past or future. Nor is it nihilistic desperation, because through steadfast concentration on the inner resources of the self one may, indeed, find a way forward or through—even when no way forward or through currently appears conceptually possible. Lear adds: “At a time of cultural devastation, the reality a courageous person has to face up to is that one has to face up to reality in new ways” (pp. 118–119).

For all the suggestiveness of this reading, Lear could be accused of assuming that indigenous or pre-colonialist cultures are static—even though, as he acknowledges in a similar context, “there will always be a question, and thus a possibility for debate, around what counts as traditional” (p. 151). Lear quotes an anthropologist who suggests the Crow may have been agriculturalists before they migrated and reinvented themselves as warriors, which speaks of not merely a fluid cultural identity but an adaptability that pre-existed Plenty Coups’ decision to redefine what it meant to be a Crow. To that extent, Plenty Coups’ observation about history ending with the buffalo could be read as be disingenuous or ironic—or a subversive reflection back on the sympathetic colonial writer of what that writer expected the indigenous native to say.

One could, furthermore, criticize Lear and Linderman for idealizing the manner whereby Plenty Coups came to his understanding about how the Crow were to survive (through a dream). One might observe that Plenty Coups’ decision not to resist may have been wise given the superior firepower of the white man. However, as Sitting Bull himself noted, it was also potentially a supine abnegation unbefitting a warrior nation. In other words, it’s convenient to these white men to consider Plenty Coups prudent and prescient, because both ultimately affirm the assumed correctness and supposed logic of history, which is that white domination is inevitable, and that a “bellicose” people needs to be pacified and civilized (two very loaded terms).

To me, what Plenty Coups means is that his people lost their soul—although he doesn’t use that word, and that word itself may be a function of a Western aestheticization or psychologiziation of a sociopolitical reality—a kind of “noble savage” trope that itself is a cause and consequence of colonialism and imperialism. Of course, “soul” is unquantifiable, resonant in the world of depth psychology but hardly something that social scientists would employ with any credibility. Yet I don’t think it’s wholly misguided to use the notion of loss of soul in this context. I think Lear touches on it when he observes that “[m]any factors contribute to the alcoholism and drug abuse that plague the Indian reservations; no doubt, unemployment and poverty play crucial roles. But there is also the psychological devastation for young teenagers when they cannot find ideals worthy of internalizing and making their own (p. 140).

The loss of an ideal—in a Platonic as well as ethical sense—means the absence not only of a reason for being, or a feeling of one’s continuity within space and time with one’s ancestors or a sense of place, or even the habit of waking up in the morning to a world where more is possible than impossible. What “loss of soul” evokes for me is that to some extent Plenty Coups and the other Crow no longer felt in their gut they fully inhabited the world, or the worlds within and outside their skins: that these worlds’ “depths” were no longer available to them. In the eyes of others, Plenty Coups may have seemed an individual of great courage, conviction, and foresight—committed to the preservation of an identity within a rapidly changing and destructive environment. He may even have been seen as an optimist. But something had died in him, perhaps had to die in him, and it seems to me that that sense of soul (the Latin word is anima) was, for Plenty Coups, found within the buffalo. That soul was, intangibly perhaps, a transpersonal self affixed to nonhuman presences around his people that taught them what it meant to be a Crow, a human, a being-within-the-world.

That Plenty Coups nonetheless persevered in attempting to offer a vision of the future to his people is what, I believe, Lear means when, echoing Kierkegaard, he calls radical hope a “teleological suspension of the ethical” (p. 146). It’s acting with purpose without any expectation that any purpose makes sense, whereby what is “correct” or “right” is impossible to know. It’s cultivating a profound responsibility without holding onto any ethic that has genuine applicability. It’s about being true to yourself without any certainty that either you or that truth is correct. Like Lear, I cannot imagine anything braver or riskier.

In the final paragraphs of his autobiography, Plenty Coups tells Linderman that he trusts him: “I am glad I have told you these things, Sign-talker,” he says. “You have felt my heart, and I have felt yours. I know you will tell only what I have said, that your writing will be straight like your tongue, and I will sign your paper with my thumb, so that your people and mine will know I told you the things you have written down.”

As someone who has ghostwritten an autobiography myself, I know that Linderman must have felt thankful for his subject’s imprimatur. I also know that both biographer and subject may have held back certain presuppositions about the other in order to protect that relationship and safeguard their own hearts from prejudices (their own and the other’s). Plenty Coups may have performed his role as a native person—rich with presumed resentment, forgiveness, anger, and spiritual wisdom—even down to his withholding a bit of himself against the potential betrayal by the white man of that knowledge. Likewise, Linderman may have performed his role as a white man who was predisposed to question his heritage while unconsciously holding on to the privileges and prejudices associated with his sex and skin color. In fact, in Plenty Coups’ final words to his biographer you can detect the caution and, indeed, a tone of admonition in his voice.

* * *

By now, I think the implications of Radical Hope for the Vegan America Project should be obvious. As we move fully into an era marked by largest background extinction of species since the Ice Age, Radical Hope implies that soon enough all of us may be obliged to absorb the cultural losses that afflicted the Crow people, and, like Plenty Coups, reconcile ourselves to making decisions that currently lie beyond our realms of reference or exist in a conceptual and hermeneutic vacuum, with no before that is relevant and no after that is yet imaginable. Are we, too, going through the deculturation and loss of soul that affected the native peoples through our destruction of the natural world and the animals who populate it (and our imaginations)?

If so, will the kinds of experiences that indigenous and colonized peoples underwent (and still experience)—physical dislocation, abandonment of long- or deeply held cultural practices, the wholesale destruction of natural resources, the sudden irrelevance of assumptions that one has made about what constitutes the Good Life—become universal across the planet, even (or especially) in parts of the world that are deeply dependent on access to commodities, sophisticated financial mechanisms, and a globalized economy reliant on cheap labor, international trade, and stable political and economic structures?

If or when large numbers of people are forced to move because of conflicts over those resources, or a series of catastrophic weather events bring to a halt to New York, London, or other cosmopolises, will we be able to absorb the losses and adapt as Plenty Coups could, without any clear indication that our choices will be correct and the future any less dire? Which adaptive strategy might prevail in terms of policy or social behavior in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years time will no doubt mean different things to different groups of people in different parts of the world. Who will be interred and who will run the reservations then—and what will we be able to draw upon to maintain a continuity of soul when even the word American may no longer contain any meaningful association?

It’s true that extensive adaptation may be reduced by technological advances heretofore unimagined or currently too expensive to implement. Yet, 250 years of carbon-based industrialization is likely to lead to worsening scenarios over the next century and a half before the situation stabilizes no matter what we do—an existentialist dilemma that Plenty Coups would recognize all too well. Will we fight change, as Sitting Bull felt was appropriate for the heroic and defeated warrior who still plays the game appropriate to their self-definition of what it means to be (a) brave? Or will we dare to imagine something different, and jettison the past in favor of a compromised, but not wholly impossible future, as Lear argues was the choice of Plenty Coups? And what will remain of, and to, us then?

Here, too, the immediate signs don’t bode well. The new U.S. administration has all the fervor of Sitting Bull: a proud nation with a particular view of its heritage looks back to a past when its worldview made sense, when everyone knew their roles in the “game” and what it meant to win and what it meant to lose. Now that that world is under threat, from outside forces that appear incomprehensible and have arrived on their territory, the contemporary followers of Sitting Bull are doing what they know best: they are fighting. I wonder whether, deep in their hearts, they (like Sitting Bull) fight not with the expectation of winning, but with the understanding that one must lose with dignity and honor, because it is better to remain in the game you have always played and which you understand than place your faith in a game that has neither rules nor outcome you have any means of understanding.

It’s important to add here that those of us drawn to the wisdom of Plenty Coups are in no less precarious a position, for we are no more certain of the rules and outcome of the new game than Sitting Bull. After all, the old ways of life (embodied by Sitting Bull) contain much that’s attractive—as long as you’re comfortable within a culture entirely oriented to one way of being (in this case, a warrior), and when cultural, racial, and national homogeneity allow clear differentiations between who is “us” and who is “them.” So, the point of the comparison is not reductively to contrast “conservativeness/backwardness” with “liberalism/progressiveness”—since one could apply the Sitting Bull label to neoliberal materialistic capitalism as much as populist, ethno-chauvinistic, masculinist nationalism. The point is to amplify reactions to conceptual paradigms shifting to such an extent that everyone’s internal resources as well as metaphysical constructs are called into question. Under those terms, we who fancy ourselves in agreement with Plenty Coups are called upon to do something much more challenging, abstract, and tenuous than the logical and coherent choices made by Sitting Bull: we are called upon to dream.

* * *

For all its presuppositions and occasional grandiosities, Radical Hope does at least recognize the existential force latent in the question: What does it mean to live? And not simply in the sense of marking out days and surviving, but a life that is comprehensible, purposeful, and able to be given a narrative shape—even if that life isn’t entirely encompassable, the purpose seems vague or contradictory, the story has no clear ending, and the ground upon which that story unfolds is entirely unfamiliar.

In his conclusion to Radical Hope, Lear observes that one could argue that not only did Plenty Coups’ decisions following his dream interpretations prove correct, but they were prophetic:

The planting of a coup-stick in battle was symbolic of a tree that cannot be felled. Yet there Plenty Coups is, at the end of his life, sitting under an actual tree that history has proved cannot be felled. In giving up the symbol of protecting Crow territory he actually succeeded in protecting it. He used the dream to reach down to the imaginative strategies that might save Crow land; and in so doing he substituted the symbol of the tree that cannot be felled for the tree that cannot be felled. An actual tree became its own symbol. (pp. 147–148)

So, here is another way in which veganism (and the Vegan America Project) is “good to think (with)”: as a dream that foretells an impossibility, and which, through its very impossibility, makes the impossible possible; as a substitute symbol that is actualized; as an emblem of life that effloresces into Life itself. In suggesting that omnivorous human societies might dream themselves into a possible future in which they are no longer omnivorous, we might, in fact, develop the means by which we can, if not survive the Anthropocene, then at least shape some kind of future. Plenty Coups had no means to be able to imagine his future; all that he had been and knew could not be applied to all that he would need to be and know in the future. It was because he trusted the dream (imagination), that it became interpretable. In other words, it fell into meaning through Plenty Coups’ openness to the possibility that nothing could be known and might never be known. We might say the same about the vegan dream.

What Do You Take With You and What Do You Leave Behind?

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

I had the great good fortune to attend a talk at NYU in September 2016 on the environmental humanities—an effort to explore how to think or write about life in the Anthropocene amid climate change. This discipline endeavors to respond to the reality that assessing the impact of, or mitigating or adapting to, the environmental crisis is not simply about providing economic and policy pre- or proscriptions. Nor can it simply be about popularizing science or dumping data upon the public and hoping that an informed polity will pressurize politicians to pass laws that address the consequences to which those data point. Our attitudes toward the environment reflect our histories, cultures, and values—which is why environmentalism broadly conceived needs to take into account of the way we talk about and imagine ourselves as living and cultural beings within all kinds of ecosystems, biological and social.

As you might imagine, such a line of thinking is close to and expressive of the concerns of the Vegan America Project. I was particularly struck by the conversation between Rob Nixon and Ursula Heise (moderated by Una Chaudhuri) that questioned our tendency in the West to fall back on familiar tropes when we think of nature—such as the pastoral or the apocalyptic—to delineate how our social order might reflect environmental realities. Heise mentioned that an alternative to utopian or dystopian futures might be an “optopian” vision, whereby a society is neither perfectly good nor radically evil, but has optimized its possibilities and minimized its difficulties or undesirabilities.

I also very much appreciated Nixon’s use of the English poet John Clare’s phrase that we’re all being “moved out of our knowledge.” Clare (1793–1864) was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was uprooting many communities from the land and transferring them to the city and so radically changing the English countryside as a result. Nixon indicated that we’re in such a time again, and considering ourselves being “moved out of our knowledge” might help us to find means to articulate our fears and feelings. To that extent, Nixon observed that scholars at the University of Exeter in England are working with the National Trust on what is termed “anticipatory history”—an effort to use England’s records of its ancient past to anticipate whether to preserve a piece of land that will be within decades washed away by the sea or find an equivalent piece of land of equal or similar heritage value that could be saved in its stead.

Being “moved out of our knowledge” echoed for me a question that I’ve often found myself asking in recent years: “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind?” It’s a question that aims at the heart of cultural, religious, ethnic, social, and psychological identity—one that is already affecting everyone within the remotest micro-nationality and the most sophisticated and globally integrated civilization, and every polity in between.

A case in point is some of those in the Maasai community, with whom Brighter Green works. As pastoralists, the Maasai—particularly the men—have long defined themselves by the cattle they live with. Boys herd them; the traditional rite of passage for a boy to become a man is through the tracking and killing of a lion to show that you can protect the cattle; marriage dowries are determined by the exchange of cattle; and wealth in general is revealed by how many cattle you own.

The Maasai face the challenges that confront many pastoral peoples today. Their populations are increasing, and so are the number of cattle. As they do so, their traditional lands are being overgrazed and desertifying, a situation not helped by irregular rainfall patterns and hotter temperatures across the region because of climate change. Pastoralists have always contested territories with agricultural communities, and these conflicts are intensifying as water resources and grazeable land grow scarce. Because the Maasai consider themselves an indigenous community, whose traditional territories go beyond geopolitical (and colonial) borders, they find it difficult to prosecute their needs in national parliaments, which are filled with members from communities that would like the Maasai to settle down and become agriculturalists. Because tourist revenue from visitors to national parks are a considerable source of income, Maasai encroachment into such parks to graze cattle and their pursuit of lions that may have attacked their cattle, or as an initiation rite, are unwelcome—even though all recognize that these parks are often on the most fertile land and were established by white settlers and colonial forces to keep black and poor Kenyans out.

In a discussion in New York City in 2016, we heard from our Francis Sakuda that Maasai men are, like many rural job-seekers, moving to the cities, where many become guards or nightwatchmen because their visual and auditory senses are more acute (the result of having tended cattle throughout the day and night when they were children). Those men that remain are becoming agriculturalists and even raising chickens, work that is traditionally assigned to women. Francis is acutely aware of the need for his community to bypass industrial development and use clean energy to power its way into the future. He wants the Maasai to use solar technology for its energy: to power lights, so that children, for instance, can study after dark; for refrigeration (to keep vaccines and other items freezing); and to enable access to the outside world through run televisions and to charge cellphone batteries.

When I asked Francis whether it was possible for him to imagine Maasai without cattle, he shook his head. The Maasai were too identified with cattle, he said, to abandon them completely. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that his community had to move with the times and that some of the changes that had already occurred were unimaginable previously.

It’s easy for outsiders to romanticize the life of pastoralists, indigenous communities, or native peoples, and to assume that their relationship with the natural world and other animals was always one of respect and symbiosis, and unchangeable relationship extending back into the distant past. It’s also as easy as it is for any community to present themselves to outsiders as the honorable bearers of an eternal vision of Man in harmony with Nature as a way to ensure they are granted more weight in discussions at governmental level and in international forums. Sooner or later, however, as the Maasai are discovering, any fixed identity will meet the realities of cultural change, political demands, and the limits of the ecosystem. And that is what Francis and his community are trying to negotiate.

It’s my hunch that if the Maasai can give up cattle as a marker of wealth, masculinity, and identity, then Americans can do the same with the hamburger or the steak, or for that matter the cowboy and rancher can do with their cattle. These latter identities, constructed and developed throughout the nineteenth century by storytellers and showmen, such as “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and popularized through John Wayne and the Western, were always narratives that expressed the wish to be free of the constraints of the domestic and collective responsibility, and as a means of individual self-expression and stoical and singular masculinity. If they were constructed then, then they can be deconstructed and dismantled now. Or—as Francis and the Maasai are trying to figure out—they can be recoded to be something different; something more sustainable.

In the end, the question of what we take with us and what we leave behind not only asks us to think about who we are and with what or whom we identify ourselves, but to examine honestly just how attached we are to those characteristics and why they hold such a purchase on us. Environmental humanities offers a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the psychosocial complexities involved in those buzzwords of contemporary development specialists—adaptation and resilience—and our tendency to essentialize our own behavior and relativize everyone else’s. I’m sure we’ll have a lot more to say in the realm of environmental humanities in the weeks and months to come.

What’s the Project’s Goal?

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

The short answer to that question is, “I don’t know . . . yet.” Our goal with the Vegan America Project is not to answer all questions or to have a solution to every problem. It’s to generate policy papers, briefs, speculative essays, and perhaps ultimately a full-length book—or some combination of the same. We’d like to approach a university and/or institution to publish our writing and expand our material on an interactive website, assigning moderators to encourage further analysis, debate, research, and thought in and across academic disciplines—a natural correlative to Human–Animal Studies.

In this way, Vegan America can expand with the wisdom of the commons and inspire discussion among students, cultural creatives, businesses and NGOs, social change agents of all types, and policy makers to make possible a genuinely humane and sustainable American and global future: i.e., Vegan Brazil, Vegan China, and beyond. We should be encouraging innovative and creative thought around human identities and our relationship with non-human animals and the natural systems on which we all depend, and higher education can be at the leading edge of that thinking.

The second goal is to encourage artists and writers to use our material to generate possible scenarios so we as a society can imagine our way to the future. Our aim is for Vegan America to be taken up by creative types of all kinds, who could see Vegan America as a TV series, film, computer game, fiction, fan fiction, and bring them to the marketplace of goods and ideas. In other words, a vegan America would be the backdrop, the sitz im leben within which storylines, characters, scenarios, and the moral imagination would be engaged and inspired.

The Vegan America Project may seem daunting. It may well offer ideas that seem unachievable, unpalatable, and/or impractical. It may well conclude with questions that need answers, technologies and businesses that need to be developed, and political and social realignments that have yet to be achieved and seem unachievable. But that is precisely the point. We cannot change without conceiving a future; and we cannot implement that future without starting somewhere. Our planet is changing, and faster and more dramatically than we can currently imagine; our adaptive strategies will need to be larger than our current political, social, and technological resources can encompass.

Planet Earth Is Cooked—Why Bother?

Climate Change IconMartin Rowe

It’s worth addressing still one more question that might be made at this stage about the Vegan America Project: and that is what we might call the nihilistic argument. We’ve already addressed those who claim that global warming is either a conspiracy cooked up by the Powers that Be or that its risks are vastly overstated. As we argued, the skeptics might add (not necessarily inaccurately) that in the short or medium term the changes to Earth’s climate will benefit some areas even as other regions dry up or flood, leaving it a net neutral in spite of the accompanying misery that will likely descend upon tens of millions of vulnerable people or the decimation of numerous species of flora and fauna.

There are those, however, whose response to climate change might be “Bring it on!” They might comment that the human project on this planet has been one of destruction and that Earth will finally begin the much-needed “correction” to eliminate the predatory primate that has imbalanced Gaia. Earth produced (and destroyed) life for eons before the various hominins journeyed from Africa to carry out their massacres and it will do the same for eons after our sojourn here, before our sun in a couple of billion years expands and renders Earth uninhabitable.

By then, techno-utopians contend, “we” will be long gone to another solar system, or we’ll have developed space stations that will allow us to orbit our fractured planet until it’s reached a climatic equilibrium that enables some of us to return as recolonizers. Or we’ll be composites of human and machine, capable of self-generation and no longer dependent on the decayed ecosystems of our planet or our bodies. Our virtual reality will be filled with virtual animal and plant life, and be so sophisticated that it will no longer be possible to tell what is real and what is not. In fact, the distinctions will be literally immaterial.

These are terrifying, attractive, highly imaginative, and deeply privileged notions. On the way to their achievement, millions of ordinary people and billions of ordinary animals will die and the level of suffering will be immense. Political structures—and the accompanying security and peace that R&D require—may crumble, leaving us no longer able to function at all, let alone launch our spaceships or retreat to our geodesic domes. Records of prehistory on this planet have shown that Earth can survive without a human presence—although that might not be possible were our actions to instigate runaway climate change—and we are, in the end, merely one species among many. Yet those who fantasize about or conceptualize a global apocalypse—whether those who will be taken into heaven at the End of Days or whisked away in a spaceship—always seem to find a way for a chosen few to imaginatively live beyond it, and to belong to that elect bunch. Either way, it seems beyond callous simply to write off the billions of victims as merely accidental casualties of our casually fascistic, adolescent utopian–dystopian daydreams.

Such fantasies are privileged because they also assume that the only species that matters is our own (in whatever form it takes in the future), and that we can wander around the universe trashing planet after planet in our quest for whatever it is we believe our unique destiny as (former) Earthlings is to be. Have we not considered the possibility that it won’t be alien life on or from another planet that might force us to confront our lack of singularity, but the development over the next 200,000 years of another species right here on Earth that evolves a consciousness to trouble our moral senses? To return to my previous influences, that species might be one of our own making (like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica or the apes in the new version of the Planet of the Apes series)—or through some unanticipated evolutionary “turn.”

Do we really want to stop the possibility of such an evolution by wiping out all the other “higher” species on this planet? Wouldn’t it instead be a safer bet to recognize that, because of our vaunted moral awareness and the biophilia that Edward O. Wilson argues is innate in us, we need the other species around us, and that an impoverished natural world might leave our soul shriveled, our sense of purpose blunted, and even the possibilities of our own physical, spiritual, or technological evolution cut off?

Conservative Resistance

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Our final critical orientation for Vegan America is one I am terming, for want of a better phrase, “conservative resistance.” The intersectional argument above touches on aspects of this, as I have suggested. But a class analysis of food security and public health policy doesn’t cover those who refuse to acknowledge the mandates of the government (such as Cliven Bundy), libertarians, or anyone else who claims the rights of personal liberty and individual freedom to practice something that places itself against the wishes of the majority in a vegan America. Perhaps unfairly, I lump subsistence hunters and those who use animals in their religious practices in this segment—simply because they argue for a law “above” or “prior to” the laws and/or customs of the nation state.

The point of this critical orientation is not to isolate sectarians or ornery antinomians as some kind of special category. Individual freedom, religious liberty, and the right of people to do what they want on their own property (and whom or what they consider “property”) are currently constitutionally enshrined. One might go further and say that democracy only becomes genuine when it protects individual freedoms and the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority and their opinions—no matter how objectionable or bizarre those practices or beliefs may be. In a vegan America, those of us who consider ourselves vegan animal rights activists would do well to remember what felt like to be in the (despised/misunderstood/vanishingly small) minority.

It would seem to me that “vegan America” is an oxymoron if it doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has a right not to be vegan. I’m interested here in how it might genuinely be possible not to impose veganism upon a grudging populus but offer ways in which one can be vegan without having to change one’s self-identity as a conservative, traditionalist, outdoorsman.

A further value in considering this “sector” lies in a reaction to the U.S. presidential election of 2016 and in the decision by the British people to leave the European Union: a.k.a. “Brexit.” Rapid social change or a perception among a group of people that “their” country is being changed without their consent or without them benefitting can lead to backlash and retrenchment, making needed change even more impossible.

As J. D. Vance writes about in his 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, resistance to social change that might improve lives is as much psychological and sociological as a consequence of economic situation or education levels. Vance, who grew up among poor whites in Kentucky and southern Ohio, illustrates that dependency and self-defeating attitudes encourage resentments against outsiders and against those, including insiders, who are perceived to be gaming the system by not working. As he writes, “Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter’” (p. 177). Vance, a conservative, observes that familial disorder—drug-addiction, single mothers and absent fathers, ill-advised purchases, fighting within the home, and a lack of community support structures and few successful role models outside it—lead to a failure to thrive. It’s a set of circumstances that he argues approximates many communities outside Appalachia as well.

I would add that fiercely held beliefs about who “we” are, and who the “they” who are making everything worse are, aren’t confined to the underclasses in Appalachia either. As the “debate” about climate change itself has illustrated—and the fact the word debate might even require scare quotes—many of us would prefer to hold fast to values that we associate with our tribal identity and affirm our current behavior than alter either based on new realities that leave us uncertain or perceptually disadvantaged. Vegans and animal activists are no more immune to such tendencies as anyone else.

So, Vegan America must take account of that push and pull within social change, considering how it might be possible to foster self-adaptation and flexibility and allow people to feel they are gaining opportunities by changing, without them believing their core values are threatened by that change. That’s a tall order, I know, although echoes of it are found in the reasons for choice architecture. Yet vegans themselves might be the perfect example of a complete recalibration of one’s understanding—away from not thinking at all about what one puts in one’s mouth or wraps around one’s body to rarely being able to escape that thought process. To that extent, therefore, “conservative resistance” might throw up the most fascinating and revelatory ideas about how social change occurs or does not.

It’s worth addressing one final issue that might be placed within “conservative resistance”—and that is asking whether the “vegan” identity is solid enough to make any claims of a “sustainable” worldview. Let’s imagine you’re a hunter in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Each October, you walk into the woods nearby with your buddies and kill three large deer. You gut and skin the animals where they lay, and leave the hide and hooves to decompose or be used by other animals. You put the venison and offal in your freezer and eat that meat all year round, because you like to know where your food came from and you think it’s terrible what they do to animals in factory farms.

You’re certainly reducing your GHG emissions (by not eating cows or other farmed animals). You’re cutting down emitters (by killing ungulates), using a renewable resource (deer are not endangered), and you’re getting your food locally (and so further reducing your carbon footprint). You’re not exploiting workers to raise or kill the animals for you; you’re absorbing the responsibility of taking a life and opposed to industrialized animal agriculture; and you’re making sure that no part of the animal is wasted. If you’re careful, you’re not taking the strongest of the breed, so you’re improving the stock; and you’re even contributing to the welfare of other animals by providing them with raw materials they can use for their benefit.

Contrast these guys with a film producer who divides his time between Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, California. He eats no animal products, flies two hundred days out of the year, drives to get his vegetables from big supermarkets or at restaurants where he eats, lives in two large houses with central A/C, a swimming pool, hot-tub, and a sauna, and five rescued cats whom he allows to range outside. The Palm Springs house is mostly for weekend retreats, but he’s a busy man, so he doesn’t get to stay in it often. However, he keeps the A/C on for the rescued cats and the maid who comes in to feed them.

This guy produces lots of GHG emissions, which he offsets a little by not eating meat or dairy, but otherwise he’s extremely wasteful. The cats he’s rescued have a good life, but they not only consume animal products from factory farms but catch the odd gecko by the pool or bird who flies into the compound to shelter among the pesticide-saturated plants that the film producer has in his backyard to add some color to the desert landscape. Our tycoon knows he should probably keep the cats inside, but it seems cruel—especially when the weather’s so nice in Palm Springs in the winter. He’s also aware of the resources drain of the water he pulls from the ground to keep his garden green, his pool filled, and his rainforest shower refreshing, but he works hard for his money, and his high-stress job means that it’s super-important that he do all he can to maintain a healthy, organic diet, and lifestyle.

These figures are, of course, caricatures, but the contradictions and hypocrisies are clear enough—as are the class-based, regional, and social identities that accompany them. Between these extremes, who is more conscientiousness about animals floats like a ball in a game of water polo: either “team” attempt to grab it, and yet it constantly slips out of the grasp. We could, I suppose, spend time weighing up choices based on some calculation of how much suffering our hunter causes versus our film producer, and vice versa. We could also take out our calculators and add up the amount of GHG emissions or natural resources that either produces and consumes. Either one would leave us a metric toward a valuable goal—the reduction of suffering, the preservation of the natural environment, the contribution to climate change.

I wonder, however, whether it might not be possible to question the nature of the comparison in the first place, or, to revert to that initial simile, change the game entirely. At this stage, I don’t know the answer, and I’m not particularly worried about my lack of knowing. I’m open to the possibility that the Vegan America Project might, in the end, be about something very different from the various preconceptions of what I might have imagined veganism to be, and how it operates on various aspects of social change. That said, to return to an earlier reason for this project, such an outcome would only affirm my initial assumption that veganism is good to think (with).

Insectionality

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Intersectionality is a term first coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the linkages between race, class, and gender when applied to the bodies of woman of color. Crenshaw’s term has been widely adopted by ecofeminist theorists such as Carol J. Adams, pattrice jones, Greta Gaard, and Lori Gruen partly to emphasize the social justice component of a theory that critiques binaries where traditionally masculine-identified tropes are arraigned on one side and feminine-defined ones on the other (culture v. nature, human v. animal, mind v. matter, reason v. emotion, etc.), with value judgments about the worth of either falling into depressingly familiar patterns of the former being more “important” than the latter. It should be added that the cooptation or adoption of intersectionality is open to critique, from writers such as Aph and Syl Ko, and other black vegans.

Intersectionality offers a number of critical advantages to an analysis of Vegan America. First, it grapples with the political realities of a United States that struggles with endemic racism, systemic poverty, and economic and political isolation. Neither the creative destruction of the marketplace nor the levers of government and public policy are likely to get to the root of these profound, perhaps ontogenetic realities for the U.S. Intersectionality forces us to acknowledge that a vegan America might not be worthy of the name if it still involves backbreaking work in the fields for immigrant and poor communities, or where people do not have enough (nutritious) food to eat, or where there are few jobs, scarce opportunities, and social exclusion for those who are, or do not feel themselves to be, included within the shiny new “vegan” economy.

Secondly, intersectionality points us toward a model not simply of substituting vegan products for those made from animals and continuing on our consumptive way. How, we might ask, would a vegan America look if the long-deferred promise made to freed Americans after the Civil War of “40 acres and a mule” is recalibrated to acknowledge the bondage that both sets of beings have been subject to and therefore provides genuine and meaningful reparation for both? How might a vegan America reimagine its relationship with the buffalo and First Nations and descendants of both whose land was colonized and expropriated? And how might we foster a vegan America so that those who populate its territories are not merely no longer exploited, but that, collectively, we who brought about such destruction restore and replenish those biotic and human communities and make all of us richer, more diverse, and surrounded by more life than before?

Thirdly, intersectionality presents a profound challenge to the entire Vegan America Project. It asks us to remember that rapid social change, no matter how benign it might seem to those of us who benefit most immediately from it, in and of itself can disadvantage communities who are not socially, materially, or politically connected to agents of that change, and are not able to adapt to or benefit from those changes. Consider the industries, such as coal and oil, that will need to no longer exist if we are to make substantial cuts in fossil-fuel extraction. Those of us fortunate enough not to have to work in these professions may find it perverse that communities fight to keep these dirty, dangerous, and life-shortening jobs; we might say the same about communities that rely on prisons for jobs in their rural areas, or polluting industries or factory farms in their towns.

It’s true that those who are victims of the poisons, pollutants, and other negative effects may feel they have no power to determine their futures and no means to resist corporations siting their operations in their region. But a job and a profession offer more than a paycheck to individuals; they provide genuine pride and familial and regional continuity for many. Where sustainable human, financial, and natural capital is scarce, social and economic change is likely to be much scarier and more destabilizing—whether you’re in the coalfields of West Virginia or the brownfields of the South Bronx. The anxieties of economic displacement amid under-resourced communities who’ve not been invested in for generations are neither trivial nor dismissible. “We”—those of us with agency, education, opportunity, power—cannot simply dismiss these people as “collateral damage” in the creative destruction of a laissez-faire economy or as backward or ignorant losers who perversely refuse to join the March of Progress.

“We” have an added incentive to make social and environmental justice a central component of our thinking about the future of the country. Climate change will affect different regions differently. Vulnerable, isolated, and impoverished communities—whether in rural areas devastated by drought or superstorms or in cities prone to flooding—will likely lack the means to respond to any catastrophes that may befall them. We’ve already encountered this reality in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and in parts of New York City, following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The social, financial, and political costs of ignoring the multiple vulnerabilities of disadvantaged communities are likely to be even greater in years to come.

From its beginnings, industrialization has disrupted rural, settled communities; torn up local, artisanal industries; atomized and deskilled labor; privatized public lands; and placed or disposed of toxins among poor or marginalized peoples. The Environmental Justice movement has long recognized this reality, and a vegan America that simply forgets or ignores the needs and demands of such communities will either fail or not be worthy of the name.

I’m not alone in seeing a commitment to reimagining a way forward for both challenged urban communities and isolated rural communities as a way to knit together a nation where, as Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States, the working class—perceived as a threat by the landowning class—was deliberately divided along racial lines, in order to ensure that white indentured workers and black slaves didn’t find common cause in the exploitation of their labor. You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that the challenges that face communities challenged by poor health outcomes, low wages, and without the social or technical skills to thrive in a technological economy, living in locations that have been deindustrialized and where investment has fled or is stagnant require a new approach.

Public Policy and Governmental Leadership

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Technological innovation, the creative destruction of the marketplace, and personal choice all play vital roles in social change. However, pending a better system of social organization and reflecting and initiating change without breakdown or autocracy, we’re stuck with governments framing laws and the judiciary and police enforcing them and punishing those who break them. Governments make decisions about which industries to subsidize and which to tax, and by how much. They determine what is, or is not, in the national interest. Governments in a democratic society are (depending on your viewpoint) either the best expression of the collective will of individual citizens or self-contained entities where the needs of lobbyists, special interests, and politicians are satisfied instead of the will of the people. No doubt you fall somewhere along that spectrum of belief.

It may be hard in this time of political sclerosis, a political system awash in money, and profound splits in the electorate along ethnic, age, regional, and other grounds to imagine that public policy might change in the direction of a vegan America. Certainly, the two-year election cycle, gerrymandered districts, the perpetual scramble to raise money, and the power of lobbyists and “special interests” appear to harden an oppositional politics that stymies long-term policies to recalibrate the economy away from extractive industries and the fossil fuel–based economy, toward healthful eating patterns and increased rights for animals.

It’s true that individual states and big cities are proving more flexible and creative than the federal government—indeed, that may be how change has always come to America. It’s beyond the ambit of Vegan America to determine whether the law and public policy follow the will of the people or direct it (it’s probably some combination of both), but the significance of public policy on animals’ lives and veganism is undeniable—not least in establishing norms and boundaries of acceptable behavior, or entrenching current practices.

It’s my belief that we’re on the cusp of major changes in how certain species, particularly primates, dolphins, elephants, and other “higher” mammals, are viewed by society and within the law. It will soon no longer be seen as an adequate reflection of our obligations toward animals to consider all of them as merely property under the law. By 2050, non-human personhood will be extended to great apes and other species, and what, therefore, will be considered legally permissible and acceptable will change.

These changes, in turn, will alter what is socially acceptable behavior toward animals, which will in turn change laws regarding other animals, and so on. It’s likely that the resistance to providing animals any legal standing and/or to remove them from the category of property under the law is at least partly a consequence of that fear that to do so with domesticated animals, great apes, cetaceans, etc. will be the thin end of the wedge that eventually does the same for animals used for food and clothing, entertainment and zoos, and in experimentation.

The inconsistency of approach to different animals—why a breed of dog in the home is afforded different protections than exactly the same breed of dog in a lab—is only one tine in a multipronged approach that activists might use to create governmental and legal change, and, conversely, how those in government or the law might change how people view animals by enacting and enforcing legislation. All in all, we cannot ignore public policy or give up on government—not least because government and public policy is not a neutral ground that social change agents must colonize but a heavily trafficked and crowded ground of competing interests that are already demanding and ensuring that their issues or industries are subsidized, valorized, and prioritized.

The cabinet of the forty-fifth president of the United States is filled with people who are committed to a fossil-fuel based economy, who favor fast food and intensive animal agriculture, and who do not believe in anthropogenic climate change. To assume blithely that it’s not necessary to deal with government because technology and business will simply make it impossible for government agencies to subsidize old, inefficient industries and hold back new developments for as long as possible feels foolish to me.

There’s a further reason why public policy, laws, and civil society matter. Veganism, which is having its social “moment,” faces the challenge of whether it will only be viewed as a practice for elites with access to money and a range of food choices or a genuine catalyst for and of social change. Municipal, state, and national governments are always going to be the place where the following question will be addressed: What mixture of processed, value-added products (on the one hand) and whole-food, plant-based diet on the other will constitute “veganism,” and what public policy decisions will grow out of that combination—particularly in regard to food security for low-income communities, and the presence in processed (vegan) foods of large amounts of salt, fat, and sugar, which pose a huge problem for public health?

As I suggested in an earlier blog, I’ve encountered animal advocates who care nothing for the healthfulness of their diet, and vegans who care nothing about animal welfare. You can be both and care not a whit for social justice or planetary sustainability. Can veganism—or perhaps we might more accurately call them veganisms—be visualized more broadly and holistically, and how might they fit in with a food policy that is more responsive to peoples’ needs, wherever they fall on the social spectrum? Such a question can be addressed through the next form of social change analysis.

Technology and the Economics of Change

Origins & Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Technological innovation accompanied by market capitalization and efficient, mass-distribution systems can encourage very rapid changes within a society. The explosion of interest and investment in vegan products and cultured meat and dairy is a testament to how dynamic such a sector is. It’s certainly the case that some behaviors and industries that once appeared entrenched and which (it was thought) could only be ameliorated or regulated have been rendered obsolete and the social problems they raised solved because of the rapid adoption of new technology. A case in point is the automobile eliminating horse power in the early twentieth century. Mountains of ordure disappeared from city streets and general hygiene improved, through the development of a technology that was almost entirely unforeseen as a solution. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute talks about this in an interview in Vox magazine:

So in 1894 there were 175,000 horses in New York City. They were laying down 50,000 tons of manure per month. It was a mess: The streets were lined with rotting carcasses, full of manure and flies, traffic accidents from the horse-drawn carriages were constant—it was a nightmare.

In 1908, however, Henry Ford introduces the Model T, and by 1912 there are more cars than horses in the streets of New York City. And remember the ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? They were formed because of cruelty to horses. But it was technology rather than ethics that relegated horse-drawn carriages to tourist attractions.

So, naturally, a good part of what Vegan America will concentrate on are the opportunities (and disruptions) afforded by technological change and the efficiencies and speed of the market in taking innovation and making it widely available and cheaper. Just as the mayors of big cities in 1908 couldn’t imagine that within two decades the apparently insuperable problems of manure, stabling, removing dead horses from the streets, and so on would largely become irrelevant, so it’s simply impossible to know just what technologies will be developed, which ones will be adopted, and how either or both might transform social behaviors and expectations.

This inability to know the future is, of course, a fundamental flaw with all futurist endeavors, including the Vegan America Project. However, being woefully wrong, naïve, or skeptical doesn’t invalidate the Project’s speculative aims. It’s not unusual to read that inventors were inspired by speculative or fantasy fiction, or futurist ideas—just as I was by Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. We hope that the Vegan America Project opens up a space within which innovators of all kinds will feel free to play with future possibilities.

The danger/concern that faces technological development is inherent in Friedrich’s second paragraph: technologists’ supreme confidence that their product will be used appropriately and efficiently. Ford’s motorcars could have not relied on the internal combustion engine’s reliance on fossil fuels, which, in turn, would have saved the world a whole load of different troubles with GHG emissions than horse’s manure. I would also contest Friedrich’s comment that assumes that the social pressures applied by animal welfare groups—and by extension efforts to change minds and laws and attitudes—don’t matter. I’m not sure we know for sure that social pressure doesn’t create an environment of awareness that something needs to change or inspire thinking that makes that change possible. It’s true that technological change might come about without the inventor’s awareness that something needed to be fixed; but a desire to fix a perceived wrong might exist among many other motivations—and that wrong might have been highlighted by the animal welfare group. This observation, therefore, brings me to the third driver of change: public policy and governmental leadership.

Choice Architecture

Origins & Ideas IconMartin Rowe

We’ve met this idea already in the vegan Prius that Toyota produced in 2004. The architecture of choice is fundamental to the society in which we live. The so-called “free” market is rarely free, since the public sector and private industry work together to craft laws and establish outcomes that privilege access to certain goods and services and restrict access to others. Marketing and public relations influence our attitudes toward a vast array of products and lifestyles; our social networks often determine whose company we keep, the attitudes we hold, and how in general we see ourselves in the world. To that extent, freedom of choice is ultimately a matter of determining which appetites and inclinations are reinforced through which products, groups, or services. Way beyond the determination of which products are in which location in which supermarkets, choices are being made on behalf of us by others, and these choices then shape the system by which other choices come into being and are resolved.

In recent years, social theorist Cass Sunstein and others have formulated the idea that people, without feeling coerced or overly regulated, can be “nudged” by an architecture of choice into making decisions that are in their long-term interests. So, for instance, fresh fruit and vegetables can be placed at the front of a supermarket and the snacks and meat at the back, so that people will be more likely to buy the healthier products because they see them first. Of course, the theory and practice of framing choice in a capitalist, consumerist economy involves more complicated and nuanced aspects of social change than just where you put the food in the supermarket, but “architecture of choice” is a useful initial catch-all phrase by which to encompass this pervasive method of changing and reinforcing certain behaviors.

Some critics of the “nudge” theory have observed that it smacks of paternalism and elitism—who decides, for instance, what is worth nudging and to whom? They note that the technocrats and experts who’d be expected to do the nudging might get it wrong; after all, they themselves may have been influenced to come to their decisions not through objective analysis but through the exertion of pressure, or a bribe, or a prejudice regarding the supposedly unhealthful, self-destructive, or ill-informed practices of the supposedly poor, ignorant, or otherwise benighted.

We have plenty of reasons, therefore, to be skeptical about the absolute utility of choice architecture, but it does offer a means of thinking about how we go about making decisions and encouraging us to think about how Adam Smith’s invisible hand might meet the manipulations of marketers, subsidies, and a host of other imbalances in the marketplace.

Isn’t [——] More Important?

Origins IconMartin Rowe

We vegans aren’t alone in believing our issue to be the most urgent, necessary, and encompassing facing the planet. We’re also no more capable than others of genuinely listening to other people when they make the case for the urgency, necessity, and fundamental nature of their issue. It’s likely that, throughout this project, many observers and critics will believe they’ve got to the heart of the issue and located the key sticking point (GMOs, corporate power, capitalism, failure of governance, human overpopulation) or the change agent, and want to write complaints that begin, “The real problem/solution is. . . .”

My response to this is twofold. If you are one of those people, I, first, want to acknowledge the passion and knowledge you bring, but I’d like you to wait, deliberate, reflect, and generally allow the information and/or case as outlined in the Project to unfold. I don’t think there is one solution per se; it might, indeed, be the case that veganism (whatever that might look like) is neither a nor the “solution,” because there may not be “solutions” or the problems themselves will be unresolvable with the methodologies, technologies, or social and political structures we currently operate under.

You may remain unconvinced or frustrated, but it’s my belief that one of the ways that social change comes about is through paying attention to others’ concerns and arguments and either seeking common ground or adapting an argument to reflect the deeper concerns that we now recognize because we’ve genuinely heard the other person and/or point of view—and they feel heard in return. It’s not that I want to persuade you that veganism is the answer to everything; it’s that I want to allow veganism to think through difficult issues without foreshortening the process.

The second way of incorporating and honoring such responses is to bring them into the project itself. We’re going to do this through five theories of social change/organization. (The number and emphasis of these may change throughout the Project.) The next five blogs will be taken up with these five social-change orientations. The first is Choice Architecture.

What about Plants? . . . and Other Conundrums

Origins IconMartin Rowe

It’s a truth universally acknowledged among vegans that those who meet us and discover our predilection (if we haven’t told them already), will, after they’ve given us a quick eye examination to make sure we’re ethically consistent (non-leather shoes, belt, purse, etc.), raise the issue of the sentience of plants.

This is what I call a “non-question question.” The interrogator is usually not a fruitarian, let alone a breatharian and has no interest in the welfare of plants. After all, given that the animals omnivores eat are herbivores, a vegan likely consumes fewer plants than an omnivore, who consumes the corn, soy, and (if they’re lucky) the grass the animal does, as well as the vegetables that vegans eat. It may be true that we’ll discover that plants possess the ability to feel pain, to express needs and wants, and have biographies in the way that most animals do. But until then, I’ll chalk this observation to someone who’s raising an abstruse or difficult case to shift attention from our complicity in perfectly observable, measurable, and resolvable animal exploitation. Any idea can be reduced to an absurdity and no social movement should have to meet a standard of complete consistency, or politely wait until all other “more important” oppressions have been solved, before it should be taken seriously.

Yet Vegan America shouldn’t gloss over complexities or paradoxes, since they aren’t only academic. Harvesting methods that vegans benefit from accidentally kill other (smaller) animals; feral invasive species hunt native ones; outdoor cats stalk and decimate songbird populations; and our cats and dogs eat meat. We use insects (such as bees) as pollinators, and we control pests (aphids, mosquitoes, ants, rats, mice, etc.) for cosmetic and disease-carrying reasons. Animals are used in religious practices (Santeria), among native peoples (hunting as a traditional practice), or as a cultural identity (the Amish)—and these pose constitutional challenges for upholding minority rights and the individual conscience. The Vegan America Project should deal with these issues creatively, sensitively, and honestly.

A further definitional wrinkle regarding “veganism” is found in cellular agriculture (taking an animal’s cell tissue and “growing” meat and dairy through a fermentation-like process). Some would argue that veganism simply requires that no sentient being suffers or is killed; others would say that veganism stipulates that no animal or animal product is utilized in any way—that eating “grown” meat, for instance, concedes a notion of flesh-eating as normative and/or ineradicable. However, if cell-lines can be replicated in perpetuity without requiring the confinement, exploitation, suffering, or killing of any animal, then why would vegans object to it—beyond squeamishness or unfounded fears over “Frankenfood”? Or, for that matter, where would the ethical dilemma lie in wearing leather or skins made from cellular muscle, tissue, and hide?

Cellular agriculture, meats that use non-animal protein, and non-animal dairy products (made from almond, soy, hemp, coconut, rice, etc.) present game-changing opportunities to move toward a Vegan America, since it’s the food industry that exploits by far the greatest number of animals. Such developments might also obviate dietary problems associated with food allergies, vitamin deficiencies, or the health consequences of a vegan diet too reliant on carbohydrates or gluten. (It’s my hunch that a genuinely varied, plant-based diet that isn’t saturated with chemicals, pesticides, insecticides, GMOs, and antibiotics would go a long way to alleviating these allergies—although it’s questionable whether any of these intrinsically belong to a vegan analysis.)

Cellular agriculture is currently at the beginning of its pathway from development to marketplace, but already it promises meat that is significantly lower in energy consumption, GHG emissions, and the use of water. It’s free of fecal matter, antibiotics, and growth hormones. It’s much less likely to be contaminated with e-coli, campylobacter, salmonella, and listeria; and, obviously, it avoids the messy cruelty of raising animals in intensive confinement and slaughtering them—as well as the dirty and incredibly unpleasant business of killing them. Complaints that cellular agriculture is somehow “unnatural” in such circumstances would seem to me perverse.

Cellular agriculture offers a case study in why, in my judgment, the Vegan America Project should avoid setting up a distinction between “pure” and “natural” on one side, and “impure” and “unnatural” on the other. It’s not possible to return planet Earth in the Anthropocene to some tatus quo ante state of pristine ecological balance. Nor will universal veganism usher in a Golden Age or eschatological Holy Mountain where the lion will lie down with the lamb and they shall not hurt or destroy, as Isaiah prophesies. Predation and animal suffering will still occur; human–animal conflicts will be unavoidable; climate change will allow some species to survive and thrive and others to become extinct, even without human interference; zoonotic diseases won’t end—they may even increase in range and/or intensity.

I’m also aware of Cary Wolfe’s concern (in Before the Law) that veganism becomes a kind of vitalistic notion that something’s closeness to nature is intrinsically and/or essentially good—morally, physically, spiritually, politically. There’s a kind of absoluteness, even a kind of theological fascism, to the conceit that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in his poem “God’s Grandeur,” “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things” that offers Truth or absoluteness to those who can grasp or perceive it. Veganism cannot simply be a moment of revelation that leaves you basking in the light of an apperception of the ultimate quidditas of existence.

To that extent, therefore, veganism as I conceive it is not an endpoint but a journey, an orientation, a sensibility, a critical apparatus. With full awareness of the Watsons’ parsimonious definition, for me it draws into its orbit notions of nonviolence and right livelihood as found in the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures; it evokes Christian notions of mercy and planetary stewardship and the Jewish mandate of tikkum olam (“to heal the world”). From utilitarianism, it attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; from ethic-of-care feminism, veganism suggests we place ourselves in another being’s situation and ask, with Simone Weil, “What are you going through?” From rights-based and biocentric orientations, veganism calls on us to respect the bodily integrity of individual creatures and ecosystems, in which humans are but one species among millions of others, and wholly dependent on, and interdependent with, the natural world.

In not pursuing the “pure” and “natural,” I aim to avoid falling down the rabbit hole of what constitutes a “pure” or “natural” diet. It’s my preliminary judgment that too many factors (genetic, environmental, lifestyle, income level, education, access to health care, sugar and fat intake, and food insecurity, among others) influence individual health for us to claim that every American on a vegan diet will live healthy and productive lives until they’re 120. Those suffering from digestive diseases or allergies that necessitate a diet low in carbohydrates, or without sugar, soy, salt, gluten, or orthorexia remain outside the ambit as well, since too many physical and psychological factors affect these conditions to pinpoint an exact cause.

Studies show that a vegan diet would as a general rule foster lower levels of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, and mitigate problems associated with obesity. Clearly, these would, in turn reduce healthcare costs and allow more citizens to work, play, or live with a great quality of life: this is the thinking behind the health savings detailed in the Oxford-Martin and PMAS 2016 report. And, clearly, vegans need to be careful regarding deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D and omega-3 fatty acids, and so forth. However, as the links suggest, these deficiencies are also found among omnivores. Because of these many variables with individual health, it is, therefore, on public health policy that the Vegan America Project will concentrate.

I’ve raised a number of objections to this project. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll offer a few more.

“America” Is Already “Vegan”

Meat and Dairy IconMartin Rowe

Like veganism, the United States of America was founded on an impossible ideal (that “more perfect union” that the preamble to the Constitution talks about). Both aspire to a neutral recognition across barriers of class, race, and origin (in veganism’s case, across species) and both are constantly challenged by the embedded realities of racism, class identification, and suppositions regarding culture (and in veganism’s case, speciesism) that make that “work in progress” profoundly challenging.

Throughout its history the USA has been demarcated by certain groups’ relationship with the land—the Jeffersonian farmer, the cowboy, the plantation owner; the cotton-picker and sharecroppers and the promise of forty acres and a mule to freed slaves; the miners of Appalachia, the workers on the Mississippi, the pioneers and settlers; the First Nations of the prairies and the plains; the field-hands and seasonal workers from Central America; and so on. And yet America is not defined by blood or soil or ethnicity, however much blood has been spilled on that soil because of ethnicity.

Likewise, veganism’s ideal is absorbed by pre-existing cultures and identities to reflect the history of that people: Afrocentric spirituality, Hindu or Buddhist or Jain commitments to nonviolence; the ethical traditions from Pythagoreanism to Tom Regan, deep ecology to ecofeminism; native traditions of the three sisters variety, and so on.

What we have here, then, is a vegan America that reflects biological, cultural, and ethnic diversity; where microcommunities of subjects differentiate themselves within their biomes in opposition to attempts to monoculturate ethnic, culture, political, and biological systems—within a structure whereby the human or nonhuman “other” is denied the rights of movement, of being within their own society (or sociality as a whole), or of crossing boundaries into and outside the nation state. Of course, the United States, like all nation states, has set up barriers to the free movement of beings: borders, boundaries, parks, taxonomies, fishing grounds, farms, fences—these all define and establish a political theory of nature and the keeping separate of the wild from the domestic, the human from the nonhuman, and the citizen from the alien.

That kind of enforcement of appropriate relations is constantly challenged by invasive species of human and nonhuman alike, by difference and miscegenation, by the shifting patterns of migration within the country in search of niches (both ecological and natural) within which a community can flourish, and the ever-changing nature of the biological, climatic, and demographic structures that together constitute the United States of America. Under such identifications, then, “veganism”—which is really, and always has been, “veganisms”—is at once an extrinsic destabilizer of social, biological, and ethnopolitical norms and essentialisms (I’m ———. I could never go vegan”), and intrinsic to the dynamic realignments of identity and the cultural hybridization that is America.

We’ll have a lot more to say about these parallelisms and contradictions in future blogs.

Climate Change and Animal Agriculture

Climate Change IconMartin Rowe

More carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere today than at any time in the last 800,000 years. Models suggest that even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions tomorrow, the warming effects of almost two centuries of pumping tons of carbon into the air will last decades, with devastating consequences. Given that we’re neither eliminating nor reducing carbon emissions, those increasingly severe effects will likely last long into the next century and indeed may even lead to further release of GHGs independent of any anthropogenic factors.

Because of the potential for runaway climate change (the rain forests dry out and catch fire; the melting tundra releases its vast stores of methane) to reduce the ability of Earth to sustain human life at all, it’s no longer alarmist to think that 200,000 years of homo sapiens and our various civilizations may come to an end within a lifetime, unless we start genuinely thinking beyond what is currently “acceptable,” “feasible,” “sustainable,” and so on.

It’s happened before; Jared Diamond has written about human societies that fell into rapid decline and eventual extinction after consuming too many resources and being unable to sustain that consumption or replace those resources through conquest or colonization. But these losses were local and not planetary. Even a momentary consideration of this possibility offers the kind of realization that Samuel Johnson said “concentrates [a] mind wonderfully.” We must either face difficult, unpalatable, and even excruciating choices now over who gets to live where and how, or we must take the risk and potentially face challenges where there is no element of choice available.

For several years, Brighter Green has been studying the globalization of industrial animal agriculture through the lens of climate change. Animal-based agriculture—both intensive and extensive—contribute anywhere from 14.5 to 51 percent of anthropogenic GHG emissions. A March 2016 report by Oxford University and the American Academy of Sciences suggested that a vegetarian diet—and even more so a vegan one—would dramatically reduce GHG emissions, lower the cost-burden on public health, and allow human beings to be much more productive, among other benefits. So, simply as a means of reducing climate change, veganism is good to think (with).

A few people reading the above will declare that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by careerist scientists eager for government grants who for ideological reasons depress data that contradict the models. The more reasonable skeptics might point out that climate change is real but that humans don’t cause it; or, if we do, that its effects are unknowable and may, indeed, benefit some regions at the expense of others. Some of these might say that veganism is merely a personal choice—as are all diets and lifestyles—and that the rest of the world’s rush to eat more animal products shows that meat-eating is natural. They might add that denying those in the developing world the possibility of eating animal products is, in fact, unjust and imperialist—as is the effort to stop countries from industrializing using the same fossil fuel–based technologies that developed nations employed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Obviously, the Vegan America Project resists such arguments. But our purpose is not to argue the case for climate change or the validity of veganism. As my previous blog suggests, it’s not only a means of thinking about how we might mitigate or adapt to climate change, but it conceptualizes how we’ll mostly likely need to think about a host of other issues: access to potable water, land use, fossil fuels as a whole, energy sources, population pressures, and the rights of the individual and liberal democracy (broadly conceived) in a time of mass migrations and collapsing nation states. These will be realities in the future, because they’re realities now.

As I suggested in an earlier blog, it certainly could be argued that there are more moderate ways to achieve lower GHG emissions through diet, by, for instance, eating less meat, as the Chinese government is currently urging its citizens to do. Likewise, “improvements” that bioengineer food animals to stop belching or farting and producing methane, or hooking these animals up to methane-extractors to utilize their GHG emissions for energy, might help. Eating only chickens instead of cows would reduce the carbon footprint somewhat. We might bioengineer we animals as well! And these supposed “solutions” to reduce GHG emissions could, of course, be accompanied by improvements in efficiency in the energy, transportation, and building sectors so we can continue to eat more meat and dairy products and hold or reduce GHG emissions.

At the moment, a general scattershot ameliorism may be all we have available to us. The financial and short-term policy requirements for those seeking election and re-election; the need for publically traded corporations to satisfy the stock market and share holders each quarter, which may depress necessary but expensive and uncertain investments in research and development; a global population eager to consume meat and other products associated with status and success, and a rush to provide as much energy as necessary to meet those aspirations; the task of figuring out how to develop long-term and resilient infrastructure using current technology given the unforeseeable needs of greater human populations in a more uncertain physical environment in two or three decades:—all these work against the systemic change and long-term planning that are necessary in favor of a “do-able” hodge-podge of half-measures and even conflicting impulses that, the data suggest, might not be enough to avert the catastrophe that a seven-degree Celsius global temperature increase would unleash.

Now, it’s true that technology may solve some of our problems, whether we invest substantially in the short run to shift the course of climate change now, or do so through incremental change that would alter outcomes much further down the road. It’s possible that in fifty or a hundred years we may be able to engineer our way out of future warming, and even (unlikely as it may seem now) not merely mitigate but reverse the effects of climate change. But these are enormous and very risky wagers to place.

In the interim, we’re still using finite natural resources on a planet with ecological limits. Do we really want to produce food that is inexpensive and widely available only because of cheap fossil fuels, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water that are either now running out or need to be left in the ground if we are to meet even the most limited of our goals for reducing global temperature rise? Given the reality that many tens of millions of us need to eat fewer animal products, and many tens of millions want to eat more of them, who will decide who eats less and who gets to eat more? How much meat and dairy is enough for us to be well fed, or feel successful, or will be made sick by before we say “enough”? How can the real price be set, how will the externalized costs be paid for, and who will bear the burden of paying for them?

These are genuinely complicated and challenging questions, involving issues of food supply and equity. But am I wrong to feel there’s something wrong-headed or defeatist about saying that they’re too complicated or challenging to be considered? Why should we assume that human behavior and appetites are unchangeable? We’re an adaptable species: why can’t cultures evolve or change to reimagine the status we assign to meat and dairy? Why be so parsimonious and fragile in our vision of the possible when confronted with a challenge as broad and encompassing as climate change? In other words, why not insert equity, animal rights, and a bold imagination into a vision for the future? Why not toughen and tighten the demands that we assign to notions of “sustainability” and “resilience”? Why not offer proscriptions and prescriptions that might be less inadequate to the task at hand?

To that extent, might run a different kind of objection, why only Vegan America? Why not Vegan Earth? As indicated earlier, Brighter Green has conducted many analyses of the role of meat and dairy in developing and industrialized countries, mainly through the lens of climate change. So, we’re aware the world is integrated and trade and communication becoming still more globalized. We know that borders are porous and nation states combine and recombine in trading regions, political unions, and defensive or offensive blocs. Climate change will enhance the need for international cooperation and also exacerbate local, national, and regional tensions.

Furthermore, we know that air or land migration doesn’t stop at national borders, or that pollution and water usage can be contained within political boundaries. Any policy on wild birds, large predators, and marine animals will, of course, necessitate transnational engagement. Nonetheless, we thought it was necessary to choose a country (yes, our Canadian friends, we know that America isn’t a country, but Vegan USA or Vegan United States just isn’t as catchy) because it’s a defined geopolitical unit and, therefore, provides some means of delimiting what is, obviously, an enormous and expansive undertaking.

To that extent, therefore, both “vegan” and “America” are, like the Project itself, essentially heuristic: a way to think somewhere so we might think anywhere. Every nation state is going to have to grapple sooner or later with the very meaning of the nation state in a world where independent survival will require interdependent governments, industries, and peoples to think their way into the future utilizing their own cultural realities and social, natural, political, and financial capital. Vegan America offers one kind of model.

In the next blog, I offer some thoughts on why the United States might be a good place to start this project.

Veganism Is Good to Think With

Origins IconMartin Rowe

The anthropologist and social theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously said that animals are “good to think with.” This observation has been questioned. Lévi-Strauss actually suggested that animals weren’t just “good to eat” (bonnes à manger) but “good to think” (bonnes à penser; the English language, however, finds it impossible not to supply a preposition to the phrase, which is why bonnes à penser is usually translated as “good to think with.”

I like to think that in making this observation Lévi-Strauss is not offering a cheap joke along the lines of “I love animals, they’re so tasty.” Instead, he’s moving between two notions of “good”: between the sensuous pleasures of eating animals and the ethical value that ruminating about animals provides. I take Lévi-Strauss’s freighted word bonnes to suggest that animals’ conceptual value (“good”) is inextricable from their status as property to be bought and sold by human beings (“goods”). Animals’ embodiedness—whether they’re eaten, controlled, worshipped, looked down upon, or kept as a companion—not only holds our preconceptions about what those animals are worth, but the very act of (ethical) thinking itself. In other words, it’s not only impossible to imagine animals outside of their utility to us; it’s impossible to imagine us (the thinking animal, the ethical animal, thought and ethics themselves) without the utility of animals.

One premise of the Vegan America Project, therefore, is to build upon Lévi-Strauss’s observation to explore the notion that “veganism is good to think [with].” Is a contemporary economy that doesn’t involve animal products genuinely and literally thinkable? Can we disengage animals as “goods” from animals as “good” and retain the capacity to think (ethically)? What might happen to our concepts of ourselves as humans or thinking animals if we do? What might happen to our ethics?

My version of the Lévi-Strauss paradox is that it is precisely because veganism is currently unthinkable to so many that we must think (with) it. To many, on the left or right, veganism seems so extreme, so stringent, so apparently anti-civilizational (even anti-human), that it offers a radical and potentially transformative means by which we can think (with) the future. It unpacks the burden of the pack(ed) animal; the onus is now on us.

This is all well and good, might run a response to the above, but why does it have to be so extreme? We understand the ethical, human health, environmental, and animal welfare reasons why it might be better to raise and eat fewer animals, and to do so in more humane conditions? But, the objection would continue, why would it be necessary let alone desirable for everyone to conform to such a fringe philosophy that is mostly a manifestation of metropolitan elitism, decadence, faddism, and everyone who is wealthy or idle enough to afford the luxury of worrying about unimportant things.

Furthermore, the counterargument might go on, as journalist Marta Zaraska has charted in her 2016 book Meathooked, we humans love our meat: the texture; the protein; the fats, blood, and other juices. Indeed, we might love meat not in spite of our squeamishness about the life we’ve taken either directly or indirectly but precisely because it involves death and power over the nonhuman world. Meat’s added value comes precisely because we know it carries a cost, which is why it was surrounded from the outset of civilization with proscriptions, rituals, and the paraphernalia of sacrifice. As we might say with foie gras or veal, the more exquisite the suffering, the more consequential the killing, the more refined the palate.

And still the objections mount: As Zaraska delineates, some have argued that without animals—as vehicles for the protein that enabled our brains to expand and our societies to form through the enforced cooperation of hunting and ultimately the domestication of certain species; as subjects for experimentation, or as labor and as carriers of wealth—human societies wouldn’t have developed, let alone flourished. Moreover, food cultures and the culture around food mostly involve animal products: to envision a world without our utilization of animals would not only deny such cultures, but even Culture itself. What will happen to the cowboys and ranchers, the bronco riders and herders, and the fishermen and the small-scale dairy farmers—their livelihoods, their identities, and the communities (some of them poor and/or marginalized, and already threatened by globalization or urbanization) that depend on them?

It’s possible that you can already hear the anxiety, defensiveness, and anger in these questions. Surrounded by so much technological and globalized change that has uprooted entire regions of the country and their long-standing industries, and yet also delivered the world and its possibilities to your fingertips, these communities’ fierce hold on the stability provided by cultural practices (however self-sabotaging or socially destructive they may be) becomes understandable. My aim is not to dismiss these anxieties, etc., but to emphasize just how intensely they’re felt and how profound a challenge veganism is—not only to those who advocate but to those who fear what it proposes and what it might lead to. My aim is to address these objections in the coming months, and to think veganism through them. However, for the moment, let me explore just one reason for taking on this project—climate change—and one of its main drivers, animal agriculture.

Genesis 3: Ecotopia

Origins IconMartin Rowe

The more I thought about Toyota’s reasons for promoting their vegan Prius in 2004, the more it struck me that the veganism that Sharon Bernstein was talking about didn’t simply have to be about marketing a car but a literal and metaphorical vehicle by which we could “do less harm to the planet.” Veganism could be an apt metaphor for driving any change, and not simply commercial ones. By moving veganism from the periphery to the center, we might be able to address a host of other issues.

Among these, I thought, might be (in no particular order): the crisis of obesity in the United States and the many problems surrounding how we source our food; immigration (the use and abuse of undocumented workers in slaughterhouses and in fields around the country); the welfare conditions for animals in so-called factory farms, and the rights of animals in general; pollution of water and air caused by the intensification of animal-based agriculture; the precious commodities such as water and oil wasted in animal agriculture; the subsidization of inefficient and otherwise costly means of growing and harvesting food sources in the United States and the corruption of the body politic through corporate welfare; and the risk of pandemic diseases caused by animals living in close proximity to one another in intensive confinement operations. In that veganism touched—and touches—on all of these issues, and many more besides, it could act as a useful heuristic to examine resource use, environmental protection, and moral and social questions on how are we to govern and conduct ourselves in the era that some scientists have named the Anthropocene.

My immediate concern back in the mid-2000s was not only the scale of the endeavor of re-imagining the entire U.S. economy where veganism was the center of the bull’s-eye, but in trying to figure out the form that such an investigation might take. I was concerned then—as I still am today—that it would be all too easy to think of all the ways that the vision could not be realized. So many factors—from individual choice to institutional inertia, from political sclerosis to fossil fuel companies’ outsized presence in the U.S. economy, from the inherent contradictions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s mission to expand the market for U.S. meat and dairy and its supposed commitment to sound nutrition, and from globalization to neoliberalism’s ongoing expansion of extraction and massification: all these militated against the realization of such a vision. How would it be possible to begin the project without immediately finding a host of reasons why the vision would not merely be unrealizable or impractical but even undesirable or self-destructive?

I took a deep metaphorical breath. It’s a self-fulfilling failure to believe that a problem is insuperable. The essential issue wasn’t just gathering the data to describe the problem—even though it was important to ground our thinking in the real and verifiable. We also didn’t require another set of lamentations about the horrors of factory farming, although growing awareness of our responsibilities toward the other-than-human world would be a significant component of any conceptualization of a vegan America. We’d also had enough urgent pleas for moral uplift or ethical consistency. We humans should be much more rational and less cruel than we are; but that hadn’t prevented us from avidly pursuing stupid and cruel actions against our own species, let alone other animals about whom we professed to care.

No: what were required were boldness and imagination—and that turned me toward fiction as a potentially appropriate medium for the Vegan America Project. I needed a model and found one in the technologist and futurist Ernest Callenbach’s self-published 1975 fantasy, Ecotopia: The Note-books and Reports of William Weston. Set in 1999, Ecotopia tells the story of an American reporter’s experience of a country formed in 1980, when Northern California, Oregon, and Washington secede from the Union to pursue economic and social policies based on communitarianism and environmental sustainability. Callenbach depicts monorails and sustainable farms; he describes hunting parties that provide initiation rites for young males as a means of channeling and honoring masculine energy in more productive ways than gang violence or warfare; he considers America’s racial situation so hopeless that segregation is more than de facto: Oakland is a black city; San Francisco white.

What’s interesting about Callenbach’s book is that he doesn’t shy away from trying to figure out what he believes are essential human behaviors and what can be changed. I wasn’t particularly convinced that hunting and the quasi war-games were necessary male initiation rituals, yet I appreciated his taking seriously the notion that primate societies have to deal with dynamic but potentially disruptive and violent male energy. It seems to me we’re in a moment in America where what it means to be a man—to be the provider, to be employed, to be in command, to be respected—is being challenged as never before. Increasingly, across all classes and ethnic groups, girls and women are better educated, their skills are more suited to the jobs available in the economy, and they are better able to adapt to change as a whole than men. Their emotional and social intelligence and their cooperative and human management skills are more advanced.

To that extent, the Vegan America Project may find itself focusing a lot on what to do with men: their identification with meat as masculine, and their wish to ride, round up, fight, raise, or kill animals. Is it possible to offer an attractive vision of masculinity as the guardian, protector, explorer, educator, and conserver of other-than-human life—someone who’d be comfortable in a natural world (broadly conceived) that wasn’t the social biologist’s nightmare of predation and life-and-death struggle but instead envisioned as one of compromise, nested networks, and complex systems that require a multivalent approach?

 It’s my judgment that Ecotopia has been influential not because it’s a thrilling read or probing character study (it isn’t) but because it was an accurate barometer of what 1970s California counterculture was thinking. As a work of imagination, the book, which went through two further iterations, is at once absurd and visionary, dated and prescient. Like all such endeavors, it reflects its time and place. However, in daring to imagine a different post-industrial, “green” economy it’s a wonderfully suggestive document, one that had a profound effect on me when I read it in the 1990s in New York City. Some of Callenbach’s ideas have come to fruition; some haven’t; and some shouldn’t. But in that Ecotopia presented questions the U.S. needed to ask itself then and would have to ask itself in the future (What kind of society do we want to live in? How might races co-exist? How might we raise our young people? What role should technology play in society? What might sustainability look like?), the book served as a terrific container and popularizer of progressivism, broadly defined and conceived.

My initial thought with the Vegan America Project was to write a novel along the same lines as Ecotopia—with the mise en scène being America as a vegan country in 2100. What would that look like? What technologies might be involved? What political and economic structures, mythemes, and social and natural ecologies would be present? An alternative to such a scenario could be a series of “historical” essays on how America had become vegan—a set of “papers” from “academics” in 2100 examining the previous eighty years. They’d each offer a different “history”: one on a moral awakening; another on the pandemic that forced veganism on a reduced U.S. population; another on resource collapse (end of oil, drought, topsoil loss); yet another on technological innovation. For each scenario, as I imagined it, the “historian” would describe the social, political, and economic consequences—both utopian and dystopian—of each decision and how it led to the next one. From this, I thought, a body of ideas would be formed that could encourage all kinds of further “fan fiction” from writers interested in going deeper into these different vegan Americas.

Daunted by the prospect of trying to encompass any or all of this in an Ecotopia-like novel or anthology of “essays,” I then turned to the wisdom of the commons and conceived of the Vegan America Project as a website, where individuals could contribute fiction, think-pieces, and a range of essays looking at the technological, sociocultural, and political change that would need to occur or might occur as one pursued certain policies or certain innovations emerged. I envisaged the Project operating out of a university with the money and technical expertise to support an ever-growing and deepening website. The university could also utilize faculty and students as moderators to generate and follow threads. These moderators would ensure that contributors “kept it vegan” and used veganism as a disciplined means of thinking about the next steps for their ideas or speculations.

In conceiving of such a website, I realized that I didn’t know how to begin describing what I was thinking. I was also attracted to the idea of the Project as a computer game—whereby individuals make decisions on food, clothing, and resources in a set of scenarios that unfolded after they made their decisions and challenged them to remain vegan. Once again, the nature of the game (its rewards, purpose, beginning, and end goals) and the multiple decision points that bifurcate constantly remained beyond my ability to conceive of, let alone handle. I was stuck.

The years went by, and I was no nearer to figuring out the medium or beginning point. In the end, however, I decided that, like my veganism, it was better to start with the resources I had available to me in the hope that something might emerge that would direct my attention. I returned to the Ecotopia model and began to write a novel.

It was set in a U.S. in the near future. Following a devastating outbreak of an avian flu–like zoonotic disease, the food-animal population had been culled and animal agriculture ended. This drastic measure, however, had not stopped the flu from mutating to become transmissible from human to human. The resulting pandemic had killed hundreds of millions of people and had led to complete governmental and social breakdown. Once the disease had mutated yet again to become non-fatal, the remnants of homo sapiens had turned on one another in despair at the future and in the absence of any societal restraint and had further reduced the human population. As the novel begins, the city where our story is set (the U.S. having ceased to exist as any kind of political entity) is twenty years into rebuilding itself. This still traumatized city-state, never named or clearly geographically identified, is ruled autocratically, and is vegan by default in that it aggressively rids its demesne of any animals for fear of the diseases they might carry.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the story, which sits noncommittally on my laptop as testimony to my own failure to make it thrilling or an in-depth character study. In the outline of its plot, you might discern the influence of the 2011 and 2014 films in the Planet of the Apes franchise, which explore human and nonhuman relationships and which also depict a much-diminished human society following a devastating pandemic and resulting civil war. On the advice of a colleague, I also read a beautifully written and poignant post-pandemic novel called Station Eleven, by Canadian Emily St. John Mandel. Mandel, who has a firm grasp on characterization and tone, is not particularly interested in a blow-by-blow description of the collapse of civilization resulting from the pandemic. She spends much more time among the survivors (post-pandemic) and the unknowingly doomed (pre-pandemic), dwelling lovingly on the uses of memory and the imagination as a way to construct meaning and purpose when both appear to have been destroyed. It’s a beautiful work, and well worth your time and attention.

What impressed me about Mandel’s vision is how faithful she is to her construct. She doesn’t hesitate to show a society (one which would have changed unutterably and irrevocably in a matter of days) that has reverted back to pre-industrial norms and technological know-how, and where the whimsical (a wandering troupe of players) exists along with the homicidal (an apocalyptic cult leader). She captures how utterly foreign and yet how omnipresent the vanished technological and bureaucratic society upon which everyone recently deeply relied might appear in such a new world. She makes it clear how easily severed the numerous threads are that bind our civilization together, and how our species’ adaptability and versatility run in tandem with our short-sightedness and stubbornness.

I also watched four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, which likewise maroons a disparate group of individuals—some of whom might be the enemy Cylons (cyborgs who’ve turned against their human creators)—in a world that has disappeared and without any obvious future to look forward to. The show, which began airing in the year following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, explores how individual freedoms and civilian leadership survive in a militarized society pitted against an enemy that poses an existential threat. In this world, the traits that make us human (adaptability, unpredictability, and empathy; violence, subversiveness, and idealism) constitute our survivors’ greatest strengths and liabilities. I also trudged through the first season of the zombie-apocalypse series The Walking Dead to discern which qualities, characteristics, and impulses might be needed should an entire society collapse, or for that matter threaten the further survival of that society. In the end, I learned more from Mandel, and I just wasn’t that interested in Cylons or zombies!

The benefits of post-apocalyptic or post-pandemic scenarios for fantasy or futurist fiction are obvious. You can concentrate on a small group of survivors to explore group dynamics and what constitutes leadership without the reader having to deal with hugely complex and interlocking societies with many mutual and competing interests—and the many personages that would be involved with that (unless you’re planning an epic multi-volume saga, of course). You can “start” again, and discard cultural and historical connections that complicate your origination story, as well as apparently entrenched and systemic barriers (such as the ubiquity of animal products in our society and very large numbers of human beings) to getting to your central conflict.

The trouble with dystopian or utopian fictions is that the societies we’re familiar with are rarely all good or all bad. Material comfort, ethno-chauvinism, and nationalism may prove adequate for why the mass of people might go along with an autocratic regime—without being beaten down by jackboots or collective technological zombification (such as in The Matrix series). There’s something complacent about moralizing in the vacuum of vast social complexity or the messily complicated motivations and reasons why people act the way they do.

The reader or viewer, obviously, likes to imagine themselves alongside the downtrodden or plucky band of revolutionaries fighting against the overweening state or Force of Darkness—as if they are the only means of resistance, let alone the most effective; and as if their vision is obviously the best one for their nation or planet, if it is, indeed, articulated beyond merely a reposing of trust in The Good Leader or returning to a pastoral Golden Age. In my vegan America novel, the state within which we encounter our heroine has forestalled democracy (a free press, an independent judiciary, elections, the rights to assembly or speech, etc.) and is intolerant of the presence of other animals: the trauma of social breakdown is too recent, the risks of mob rule too great, the possibility of being attacked from without or undermined from within self-evident. My aim in my novel was to discomfort the pre-pandemic reader’s belief that it is obvious that personal freedoms or a more “humane” attitude toward other-than-human life would be desirable, given such a history and such overwhelming loss.

As it turned out, my instinct to start the process paid off. Completion of my Vegan America novel was overtaken by the receipt of a grant from Veg Fund to explore the complexities of a future vegan America—one, we hope, is mercifully spared a pandemic, for which epidemiologists point out, we’re overdue. (That said, it’s unlikely that a pandemic would destroy civilization in the way Mandel or I imagined it.)

I’ll have further thoughts about fiction and the Vegan America Project in later blogs. However, let me state now that although the Project as it stands won’t involve fiction, I’ve laid out its early iterations not only for the purpose of full disclosure but to encourage those who are inspired by any of those iterations to give them a go. The Project was, is, and always will be an act of imagination and speculation more than a collection and collation of data; as such it would be counterproductive not to encourage anyone who wants to think through the implications of a vegan America to write fiction or produce a game or create those “historical” essays—or utilize any other medium or art form—if they want to. As I was to find out (and as I write about later) the discipline of environmental humanities offers fruitful means of thinking about the future in a manner that still might encourage literature to be composed set in a vegan America.

In the next blog, I go further into the notion of veganism as being good to think with.