Genesis 2: The Plot

Origins IconMartin Rowe

I’ve written about why I became a vegetarian and vegan in my 2013 book The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Reflection, so I won’t bother to rehearse the reasons here. Suffice to say, I was raised an omnivore and enjoyed honey-roasted ham, oxtail soup and sausage rolls, mincemeat and pig’s liver, Stilton cheese and cow’s milk. I was never viscerally appalled by animal products or unclear as to their origin. On some Saturdays, my father would take my brother and me to the butcher’s shop in the nearby village and we’d watch as he chose the beef and lamb from the carcasses that hung next to the counter and the locally produced sausages and cutlets in the window. I liked the taste and that was enough for me as a child. (One of Lantern’s authors, Alex Lockwood, writes movingly of the same experience he had as a child, in his book The Pig in Thin Air.)

I was very fortunate in that my father was a military officer at a rank that entitled him to free accommodation in a substantial house, which came with a garden that afforded me plenty of room to run around in and get fresh air. When my parents eventually bought their own home, we had a sufficiently large enough garden for us to grow our own vegetables (my mother’s domain) and cultivate tomatoes and herbs in the greenhouse (my father’s realm). Come the appropriate season, I’d join my mother and dig up the potatoes, clip the lettuces, and unearth the carrots. I trimmed leeks, plucked marrows and courgettes (zucchini), pulled green beans, and shelled peas. After the harvest, my father would blend the excess vegetables into a soup, which he’d freeze and we’d eat through the winter.

Although our home was in a village and we lived next door to a farmer who raised cows, it would be a stretch to call our existence rural. Nonetheless, throughout these years, our family composted the peelings, skins, and husks, as well as the few uneaten scraps from our dinner table and the grass cuttings from our lawn. Once nature had completed its task over the autumn and winter, we added manure and hay from the next-door farm and mixed the concoction into the soil. I was involved in that redolent task as well.

Our family took it as a given not to waste food, either in making it or when the meal was over. My father had grown up in central England during the Depression; my mother was a child during and after World War II; in the early to mid-1970s, when I was a pre-teen, the oil crisis led to energy shortages and work stoppages. My brother and I were told to switch lights off when we left a room and pull plugs from sockets at night to save electricity. We were encouraged to leave no food on our plates, because, we were informed, people in other countries weren’t as fortunate; we saved all sorts of scraps for charity fund-drives. When something was broken, my father tried to fix it; when clothing needed repair, my mother brought out her sewing machine or darning kit and got to work. During the drought of the summer of 1976, we took turns in the bathtub before siphoning the (very gray) water through the bathroom window on second floor to the garden below. To this day, my mother has a barrel to collect rainwater from the roof of her garage; she maintains a compost bin and keeps a cloche greenhouse for herbs. She still hangs her washing on a clothesline to dry and meters her electricity consumption.

On one level, my decision to go vegan was a consequence of meeting others who’d become vegetarians and realizing I really couldn’t justify contributing directly to an industrialized system that treated animals so cruelly simply because I liked the taste of meat and dairy products. However, more deeply, I believe my veganism was, and remains, an extension of my parents’ essential conservatism. They believed that thrift is self-evidently virtuous; that the natural bounty of the land shouldn’t be squandered; and that it’s nonsensical to throw something away when it can be reused, repurposed, or recycled. To that extent, my veganism is about resisting the wasteful extravagance of lives thrown away cheaply, of land polluted and communities decimated by factory farming, and by the gift of life on this planet so destructively misspent.

It’s probably also no coincidence that the Vegan Society met for the first time with the United Kingdom in the middle of an existential struggle, undergoing rationing and daily bombing raids, and with Nazism not yet vanquished on the continent. The Watsons were pacifists (Donald was a conscientious objector) and, as such, in spite of no declarations of political or social orientation in the definition of veganism, one can place veganism within the English reformist movements steeped in the dissenting (Protestant) traditions of John Wycliffe, John Wesley, Luddism, Fabianism, and the feminist and temperance movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Thrift, of course, can slip easily into parsimony, a scarcity mindset that can be self-punishing and needlessly self-abnegating. Likewise, abundance and excess can be liberating and pleasurable as well as burdensome and anxiety-inducing (should you worry about whether you’re keeping up with the Joneses or spend too much time protecting or upgrading your material possessions). Amid the greater affluence, increasing globalization, and rapid technological change of the 1980s and 1990s, my family was no different from many other households in enjoying the high-tech gadgets, packaged and processed convenience food, and cheap goods that flooded into Britain. So, it’s not as if any of us were especially virtuous, resistant to change, or anti-materialistic. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for my family’s (perhaps inadvertent) legacy of a connection to plant-based whole foods that’s remained with me.

In 1991, I moved to New York City, where I’ve lived ever since. In 1994, I cofounded a grassroots magazine called Satya, to cover connected issues within animal advocacy, vegetarianism, environmentalism, and social justice. In 1999, I left Satya to begin a publishing company, Lantern Books, which has published many books on the same subjects, and which I currently run. Over the last few decades, I’ve been fortunate to read and publish many books on what might be broadly called sustainable living, based on principles of reducing and ending violence toward other beings. I hold a bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in English Literature and Language and a master’s degree from New York University in Religious Studies: I am, therefore, not an economist, agronomist, social or natural scientist, public policy expert, or futurist.

That’s my history, and it must necessarily color my perspective on a vegan America. Given the vastness of this continent-sized country, and its many and varied cultural, political, and geographical biomes, my perhaps very WASP-y “Yankee” quasi-homesteading relationship to the land might seem not merely old-fashioned but retrogressive, even quaint, beyond some Nearing-esque, notional New England of Shakers, Quakers, and residents of Fruitlands. Some might question whether it bears any relevance for urban populations and climates less hospitable to growing crops, let alone the very different typologies of cattleman and deep-sea fisherman that exist across the country, or the experiences of those who because of food deserts or poverty have no choice but to deny themselves the pleasures of the flesh. Furthermore, such critics might point out, there’s nothing that directly links my childhood experience of the land and food with my adult decision to be a vegan. I could have remained omnivorous and been just as connected with that early response to whole foods.

I don’t deny the validity of these responses or either the particularity or generic nature of different aspects of my childhood. All of us are to some degree a product of our pasts and the land from which we arose or into which we plunged our spades. But I think there’s not only value in being straightforward about our etiology but it’s right and proper to be honest about the values we bring with us into any analysis. I also consider it appropriate to recognize my non-academic status and to admit that the Vegan America Project is not—indeed, cannot be—definitive. But why should these negate any effort to explore it? As I’ll explain in a later blog, my goals for the Project itself are as direct and realizable as my ambitions are expansive and perhaps utopian: to imagine a future that honors the Earth, helps communities of beings thrive, and enables our country to be resilient and adaptable in the face of the considerable, even existential challenges it will face in the twenty-first century.

There are, as we will see, good reasons to do this. However, before we get into them, let me rehearse yet another genesis point for the Vegan America Project—one more immediate than my childhood. I write about this in the next blog.

Genesis 1: Toyota’s Vegan Prius

Origins IconMartin Rowe

In 2004, Toyota produced a “vegan hybrid Prius”: i.e. one without leather seats or furnishings. On the one hand, this was an extreme measure, since, according to a 2016 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, vegans currently constitute about half of the 3.2 percent of Americans who call themselves vegetarians. (That number would likely have been lower—although not, instructively, by much—thirteen years ago.) On the other hand, as Sharon Bernstein of the Los Angeles Times reported (September 5, 2004) on Toyota’s decision, “Pleasing vegans, the theory goes, is key to reaching a wider group of consumers—affluent shoppers who worry about the environment and who are willing to pay extra for food, clothing and even automobiles, if they are made in ways that do less harm to the planet.”

In reporting the same story, the Los Angeles Times quoted Bob Kurilko, vice president of marketing for the automobile website “‘As a marketer you want to identify with the passionate group. . . . The middle of the bull’s-eye is where you want to focus your marketing, and then you want to expand your message around that. If you draw these concentric circles, the middle of the bull’s-eye right now is the vegan.’” Assuming that Bob Kurilko is correct, then veganism—for all its minuscule presence in the culture at large—is a central identity marker and this story presents an interesting case study in how and why apparently peripheral ideas move to the heart of social change.

When I read about Toyota’s decision, I was struck by the logical illogicality of it. By simply making veganism the default option, and forcing all other consumers to make an active decision to, in this case, purchase a leather interior, Toyota (to my mind, at least) was in effect asking industry and society to question what it considered normative. Nobody’s rights were being infringed or choices denied. Instead, Toyota was, in effect, banking on the great majority of their customers (whom one would assume weren’t vegan) not caring enough to choose to purchase a leather interior. Simultaneously, the company was encouraging others who might not be vegan but liked a company that promoted an identity affiliated with environmental awareness, care for animals, and a commitment to values to buy the Prius.

Now, I wasn’t immune to cynicism in 2004: it’s great marketing to get folks to pay more for a product by trumpeting exclusivity and conscientiousness. As we saw with the scandal over Volkswagen’s rigging of its tests for its “green” diesel vehicles, the trumpeting of virtue can be a cover for corporate greenwashing. It’s entirely possible that some parts of the car weren’t vegan: the rubber tires, for instance, probably contained stearic acid, the asphalt those vegan Priuses drove on almost certainly had trace elements of glycerin, and the bugs splattered on the windshield or small mammals under the carriage wouldn’t have particularly cared whether they were killed or run over by a vegan or non-vegan Prius. That’s no doubt true of the 2016 vegan version as well. But, leaving aside the fact that most vegans would admit that it’s impossible to survive without negatively impacting animals in some way or because we live in an imperfect world, I didn’t believe then—and don’t now—that the vegan Prius was merely a slick marketing ploy directed at credulous consumers with an overly inflated sense of their own worthiness.

But even if it was mainly or solely a marketing ploy, my interest in the Prius wasn’t then—and isn’t now—as a car or a consumer item. (I have never owned a car.) As I read the story back in 2004, I began to wonder what it would be like if “the vegan option” was the default across every sector of society. What if products containing animals weren’t on the shelves at supermarkets but kept in a storage room around the back? What if you had to ask a manufacturer for a fur-lined collar on your jacket? What if we took all those externalized costs to human health, the environment, and animal welfare associated with industrialized animal agriculture and placed them on the meat and dairy products that people consume and then made those prices visibly comparable and contrasted with in restaurants and in supermarkets? How much more money would people be willing to pay? And how much effort would we wish to expend to acquire those products?

A tax, such as on cigarettes or plastic bags, would no doubt depress demand. Those who’d fight an economy-wide “meat and dairy tax” would likewise employ the same arguments the tobacco, plastics, and soda manufacturers made against policy-makers who wanted to restrict the use of their harmful products: that the science was ambiguous and that a tax would be anti-choice and regressive—hurting the poor the most. In the case of meat and dairy, critics would claim it would negatively affect farmers, American exports, and the restaurant and food business as a whole—and the resistance would be intense. However, a tax against meat is no longer beyond the realms of possibility.

Even more interesting to me than the public policy dimension of Toyota’s decision, however, or the uses of choice architecture to bring about change, was that it suggested that veganism could be a useful device to make the unthinkable, thinkable. And it was that notion—of veganism as being good to think with—that stimulated me to conceive of the Vegan America Project. I’ll discuss more about veganism being good to think with in a later blog. In the next one, I talk about another genesis for the Project.

The Vegan America Project

Origins Icon Martin Rowe

For over a decade, as a writer, reader, and publisher, and in my two decades as an animal advocate and vegan, I’ve found myself reflecting on a question that even Sigmund Freud couldn’t bring himself to ask: “What do vegans want?” Those of us who don’t eat or wear animal products have set
ourselves athwart factory farming, criticized the Standard American Diet, and fought the entrenchment of animals’ bodies in vivisection and product testing, sports and entertainment, zoos and aquaria, and clothing, such as fur and leather. Our advocacy ranges from changing public policy through referenda and ballot initiatives to writing books, directing movies, composing songs, and handing out literature on the street. We’ve arranged cooking demonstrations, potlucks, and vegfests and developed alternative products. We’ve protested outside stores and disrupted businesses. In some cases, folks have infiltrated industries to expose cruelty and taken direct action against abusers.

Most of us vegans know what we’re against and what we abhor; we have strong beliefs and trenchant views of how animals should be treated. Some of us are motivated by a general abhorrence, others by particular abuses; some of us approach the issue as a systemic injustice created by an unthinking and selfish humanity, others blame the behavior of our fellow human beings on ignorance or naiveté and believe that, with information and education, a thoughtful person will make the “correct” choice. To that extent, therefore, some consider veganism a personal choice, others a political one; some present veganism in a positive and affirming spirit, others look at it as an urgent matter of social justice that cannot wait for personal revelations or the supposed good will of people.

Within the very diverse approaches and standpoints that encompass veganism, however I’ve yet to hear an articulation of what we’re for. It can’t just be (more) vegan options in restaurants or cafeterias or a chance to have our (vegan) cake and eat it, can it?—with everything else merely incidental to our wish not to harm animals. It’s surely not just making the world a little less cruel—bigger cages, less suffering, or a kinder death—although these would be nice. Do we have to wait for the “inevitable” downfall of capitalism or technological development or ecological destruction or a zoonotic pandemic for this vegan world to be realized? Between the unlikely extremes of catastrophic social collapse and universal enlightenment, what is our dream, our vision?

Of course, this question begs many others: What do you mean by a vision? How encompassing would that vision be? What do you mean by “vegan”? Does veganism necessarily entail a commitment to animal rights, let alone other social justice issues? Does veganism even presuppose a progressive worldview? And what do you mean by “our”? And how far might that veganism go? Where on the spectrum of nonviolence toward other living beings might we end up? And does it matter? The purpose of this blog is to explore these questions, and many others, over several months as we analyze what that vision might be, whether it is desirable, and if so, how we might achieve it.

To start, let’s provide a definition. The word veganism and its cognates were coined by Donald and Dorothy Watson in Great Britain in 1944, when they and a few others began the Vegan Society. The founders recognized the ethical problems associated with the continued consumption of eggs and dairy products: veal calves taken from their mothers soon after birth, chickens forced to lay eggs until they were spent, the fact that these animals were laboring for us and not for their own benefit that they would eventually be slaughtered. For the Watsons and their friends, animal exploitation wasn’t simply the direct consumption of their flesh; vegetarianism alone was an inadequate response to animal suffering.

The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is that it is

a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Radical although such a “way of living” may appear, I find this definition of veganism more interesting in what it doesn’t say about veganism. It doesn’t claim that vegans will live forever, never commit harm, or end all suffering. It doesn’t draw on a theological or spiritual principle to justify itself; it doesn’t articulate a theory of change or demand that you follow any particular ideology. It doesn’t require you to adopt politically liberal positions on other social issues. It doesn’t call for a return to a “natural” existence devoid of technology or modern conveniences. It doesn’t insist on abstention from alcohol, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and/or processed food. It doesn’t say you will lose weight or run faster or be a more considerate or potent lover. It doesn’t say that adopting the lifestyle will turn you into a better or kinder or better-looking human being, or someone more in contact with feelings—either their own or someone else’s. Nor, for that matter, does this definition claim that veganism suits all circumstances (“as far as is possible and practicable”). As such, it’s remarkably modest, non-judgmental, and open to integration into pre-existing notions of what a “good” life might entail. The word practice in the final sentence emphasizes that veganism means nothing as a theory unless it is engaged in: its raison d’être and its philosophy can only be discovered in action. Nor, in this case, does practice make perfect.

In spite—or maybe because—of the parsimony of that definition, however, what veganism entails and where it ends have become contested areas. As we’ll see when we move further into the Vegan America Project, what or who one doesn’t eat or wear can be as much a litmus test for which group you belong to, and what attitudes you hold toward a whole basket of sociopolitical issues, as what you do eat or wear. Those attitudes in turn embody and reflect the nation’s complex legacies of race, class, and cultural identity. The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism makes no promise that you will have to jettison any of those prior prejudices before becoming a vegan, or that you will shuck them off when you adopt the lifestyle.

So, in this first blog and at the outset of the Project, I’m emphasizing not absoluteness and clarity, but nuance and contradiction—however uncomfortable that might make any reader coming to this blog expecting the answer to every issue and/or a rigid ideological purity. I say this as someone who is himself a basket of contradictions. For at least a year before I stopped eating sea animals in 1990, I called myself a vegetarian. I knew this wasn’t strictly true, since I was consuming fish, but even then I believed that the aspirational weight I applied to the word would nudge me in the direction of greater consistency. I’ve called myself a vegan since 1993, when I moved in with my partner and I stopped buying animal milk, butter, and cheese. Since, then, however, I’ve used honey, worn wool and silk, eaten many products that have contained casein, whey, and cochineal, and drunk beer made using bone char: and those are just the animal products that I’m aware of. In short, I have not been perfect. But, “as far as is possible and practicable,” I’ve kept my eye on the goal, and I am (touch wood) still alive and well, and I still consider myself a vegan.

In those nearly twenty-five years, I’ve met folks for whom veganism is part of a “clean” lifestyle that emphasizes exercise, eschews alcohol, and is connected to a spiritual practice, but possesses little purchase on political or social change. I’ve encountered others who view veganism as a mark of moral seriousness and consistency when it comes to animal rights or a commitment to the environment, and yet who are young enough not to care about what they put in their bodies. Indeed, they may have no interest in appearing healthy or fit. Some have insisted that veganism means nothing without a commitment to racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and feminism. Others have averred that veganism necessitates the protection of human fetal life or the ending of male circumcision.

Many vegans I know are not religious, and yet they’ll use the language of the confessional and of conversion when describing to others their life journey toward veganism. Some vegans champion the role of the marketplace in developing and bringing more vegan products to the broader public; others feel that capitalism is the fundamental reason for the systemic oppression of animals. Some vegans want to fit in; others veer toward separatism. Most vegans of my acquaintance align their beliefs with liberalism and tolerance, but some of us can be punishing and judgmental should others fail to follow a party line or find themselves for whatever reason unable to maintain a vegan diet.

Although I used to be as assertive as any new convert in policing the margins, I don’t blame vegans for contradicting themselves or being inconsistent with their diet, nor in thinking about other issues. Like many causes that start from a few committed souls with strong convictions, veganism offers space to reformers who want to redefine the tenets in order to invite more people to join, as well as to zealots who guard against the ideological impurity that greater visibility and more members threaten. Some claim that veganism is a moral baseline; others that veganism is a means to an end to reduce suffering.

These are contestations over cause and effect, identity and claims of lineage that I imagine all movements undergo as they grow. A similar decision faced the Jesus Movement following their founder’s death: whether to keep the new covenanters few in number, Jewish, and centered in Jerusalem, or to allow Paul of Tarsus’s ideological flexibility to grow the movement beyond Judaism and the Middle East. Schisms form; offshoots develop; organizers and reformers attempt to return the growing flock to the fold. So, veganism is like a religion in that regard, too. It’s also similar in that it’s no more immune than any other worldview to hypocrisy and inconsistency, evangelism and inquisitional intolerance, genuine compassion and hucksterism.

Now, one could, I suppose, dismiss veganism as simply another sub-culture that is partly a response to our increasingly urbanized society’s distance from food production and animal agriculture and partly a wish to reconnect with the wild and nonhuman when both are rapidly disappearing because of industrialization and monoculturation. The “animal turn” in philosophy and ethics that has taken place over the last fifty years may also stem from that dissociation from an agrarian world, the growth in pet-keeping, and advances in our understandings of the inner and outer worlds of nonhuman animals.

There’ll be plenty of time and space later to go into depth on why and how veganism and animal rights have grown into passionately held and visible causes—mostly in Anglophone countries, but now increasingly around the world—drawing upon the longstanding Asian religious traditions of ahimsa and plant-based diets. We’ll also have opportunities to explore animal advocacy’s connections to (and disconnections from) movements to conserve wildlife, protect the environment, and save endangered species. It’s enough for me to say at this point, however, that whether one’s veganism is a personal choice or a political act, a vocation or just something you do, a mark of discipline or radically antinomian, an encompassing vegan vision would seem to be worth thinking about, even if currently it seems about as far off from realization as imperial reach was to the Jesus movement in the early years of the second century of the Common Era.

* * *

This is the Vegan America Project. Over the next eighteen months, under the auspices of Brighter Green—a public policy “action” tank based in Brooklyn, New York, of which I am a senior associate—a group of us will be gathering research, consulting experts and thought-leaders, convening seminars, crunching numbers, delving into data to extrapolate trends, and presenting possibilities. Our aim, simply put, is to present a vision of a United States that doesn’t systemically exploit animals—marine, land, or air—for human use.

Now I’m sure, based on the above, that you’ve got a load more questions about this project, even as I’ve yet to address the ones I’ve already stated. If so, then keep reading this blog—because I’m going to try to dig as deeply as I can into all the doubts, conundrums, and contradictions that will arise. I’ll attempt to unpack my thinking, as honestly and as thoroughly as possible, to explore the ramifications of such a vision and the process by which we gather information and think about the future. In the course of compiling this blog, I’ll no doubt head off in wrong directions and end up in intellectual cul-de-sacs or deep in the weeds. I may have to backtrack many times to return to the straight and narrow, and in the process get my socks wet in the turbulence of either mainstream or underground currents of thought. But sometimes it’s worth taking the road less traveled: for different perspectives, unexpected encounters, and the clearings or open vistas that one might stumble across.

In the next few blogs, I’ll talk about the origins of this project, as a way of giving you more insight into my motivations and some of my preliminary thinking.