Beyond Resistance

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

The recent decision by the USDA to remove animal welfare reports from its website (the agency argues that these can be obtained by Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests, which, notoriously, take a long time to process) is a further example of how those industries that exploit animals want to hide what they do from the American people. “Ag-gag” laws have sought to criminalize those who video or photograph what goes on in slaughterhouses or factory farms and efforts are currently underway on a federal level to override state-wide initiatives that improve animal welfare. In such circumstances, anyone coming to these pages for the first time might find the notion that America might be vegan not merely idealistic but delusional.

I’m neither surprised nor appalled by the government’s actions. Industry—whether it’s big tobacco, big oil, big pharma, or agribusiness—is going to do what it can to hold on to its privileged, subsidized, or otherwise governmentally  sanctioned position in the marketplace. It will restrict access to information; it will generate confusion among policy-makers and the public by funding studies that contradict an overwhelming consensus among scientists and thus making it a “debate” rather than an actionable item; and it will attempt to discredit those segments of society it considers a threat to its monopoly.

At the moment, it’s more my belief than a proven reality that this strategy will only  delay the inevitable. But I feel there’s  too much money to be made in alternatives,  the price of those alternatives is now so competitive, and the costs associated with shoring up fossil-fuel technology and agribusiness continuing to rise to keep things the same. The U.S. is no longer the only global economy that matters; green jobs around the world are growing at an enormous rate in comparison with either fossil-fuel or agribusiness; and the efforts (however manipulative and lacking in transparency) to disguise the inevitable collapse of the old-fashioned behemoths of corporate America will fail. Too many people are circling the bodies for them not to.

Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute notes in his presentations about the future of cellular agriculture that one of the benefits of a technology where cultured meat is grown in fermenters is that there will be no need to hide how animals get raised and then turned into meat. No blood will need to be swabbed off the floors or viscera swept up; there’ll be no shrieking or flailing of animals’ limbs; no scalding tanks will depilate the pigs and no chickens will hang, flapping their wings uselessly, from hooks on conveyer belts; no electric prods will shock animals up the chute to be stunned by a bolt through the temple. None of this will be necessary to hide under the cover of food safety or anti-terrorism legislation; the citations of abuse won’t need to be hid because they won’t happen any more.

As that point nears, you can bet the animal agriculture industry will do countervailing things. It will continue to increase its investments in technologies that no longer raise or kill animals. At the same time, it will call cellular agriculture “unnatural” or “un-American.” Food “experts” will be rolled out to cast doubt on the safety of these products. They will lament that this “unproven” new technology threatens the livelihood of the American farmer (by which is always meant the rancher or dairyman rather than the grower of broccoli or kale). Chefs will ridicule the new meat as lacking the body and texture of “real” meat, even though the cellular meat will have exactly the same components and be an improvement on the processed dreck that makes its way into beef patties, chicken wings, and other forms of fast food, and which is how the vast majority of meat is eaten in the U.S. Urban hipsters will be encouraged to speak to their generation about how cool it is to raise a real animal and kill “it” rather than have everything manufactured by a fermenter, even though their artisanal beers grow in such a manner. And we will waste several years “debating” the merits of one versus the other before the safer, cleaner, ethically superior, more transparent, and ultimately cheaper form of food production takes over.

I am in favor of transparency and accountability, and want the USDA to be honest about the violations. I hope the courts force the government to retreat. But, for me, this decision to hide is a sign of weakness not strength; and the notion of a new vision for agriculture is not quite as delusional as it currently seems.

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.

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.

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.