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.

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.

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.