The Tipping Point and Tiptoeing around the Problem of Climate Change

Climate ChangeMartin Rowe

A January 2017 report by the UK Global Food Security (GFS) programme provides sobering reading for incrementalists, ameliorists, and technologists everywhere. I’m surely not alone in imagining climate change as a series of stepped intensifications and unusual temperature alterations—manageable (if you’re in a rich, developed economy) but not necessarily catastrophic, especially if measures are put in place to mitigate or adapt to those changes.

The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Instead of incremental changes, the report argues, there are tipping points. The organization BBSRC puts it this way:

 

Environmental tipping points occur when a biophysical system experiences a shift from one stable state to another, thereby altering its function. These ‘step-changes’ deviate from the linear way we might usually expect a system to behave, and pose a serious threat to global food security because they could bring about profound changes in the provision of environmental goods and services that are difficult to reverse, which in turn could have serious effects on global food production.

Professor Tim Benton of Leeds University, and an author of the report, adds:

Most people think we live in a “linear world” where small changes have small effects and can be reversed. This report highlights that this may be far from the case: sometimes small changes can have big effects. Climate change may not be about gradual adaptation to a globally changing climate: it might “tip” suddenly into a new and very different state, for example, incremental degradation of soils leading to large scale soil loss under certain conditions, as happened in the Midwest Dust Bowl.

So, my imagination (along with that of many others) is not commensurate with the evidence: which is that a series of ecosystemic shocks and collapses may define the next several decades. In other words, the proverbial and apocryphal frog won’t be slowly heated up over a stove; it will be tossed into a pot of boiling water without its legs. One stable state—comfortable cool—to another—insufferable heat. Adaptation, schmadaption.

Given this reality, the Global Food Security programme offers some recommendations: these involve including food systems in risk management, conducting more research on how to tell when a tipping point is being reached, and doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether it would be better to act now or wait until later to prevent that tipping point.

If these “solutions” strike you as remarkably weak responses to what is clearly a profoundly alarming analysis, then you’re not alone. There is neither  retreat from a tipping point nor is there management: it’s a systemic destruction that, as the report suggests, leads to paradigm shifts and potentially further cyclical changes that are themselves impossible to forecast in their impact. The Dust Bowl was a stable state; so is nuclear winter. Neither is desirable.

Yet, blithely, we—global citizens—continue to consume more animal products and set aside more land, water, fossil fuel, topsoil, and phosphorus for this wasteful and environmentally devastating addiction. All the while we pretend to ourselves that a little more organic farming here or a little more rotational grazing there will slowly and surely ameliorate the situation. This report—like so many others—continues the mantra of “further study and more analysis,” which itself is part of a consciousness that believes, somehow, that someone somewhere will make a decision or invent something that will make climate change “go away” before any “tipping point” is reached, or any public policy is required to force necessary change. Ribbit. Ribbit.

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.

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.

Humane Meat and Sustainability

Martin Rowe

MeatSeveral years ago, Jenny Stein and James LaVeck of Tribe of Heart produced Peaceable Kingdom, a documentary film about Farm Sanctuary, the animal protection organization and farmed animal sanctuary. They wanted to put a face to the creatures who end up as shrink-wrapped slabs of meat in our supermarkets. Shortly after Peaceable Kingdom‘s initial release, Jenny and James they decided to revise the film. Their reasons were several, but one they articulated  to me was that in Q&A sessions after a screening, the first or second inquiry invariably went something like: “What animal products would you recommend?” Jenny and James were frustrated that the conclusion they felt was obvious from the film—that we should stop eating and exploiting animals—was being ignored. They reshot the film so its message was more clearly vegan.

Now, I don’t know whether the new film stopped all such questions, but I was surprised neither by their frustration nor the audience’s reaction. Jenny and James’ annoyance mirrored that of Upton Sinclair’s following the publication of The Jungle, his 1906 novel that exposed the horrors of the stockyards of Chicago. Sinclair had wanted to highlight the plight of the mainly Eastern European immigrants stuck in dangerous and disgusting jobs killing animals. The book caused a sensation. However, people weren’t revolted by the labor violations (or for that matter the cruelty of the treatment of animals) but by the unsanitary conditions in which their meat was being processed. President Theodore Roosevelt called for changes to be made and the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 came into being. Sinclair ruefully responded, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

I wasn’t surprised that bourgeois audience members of 2006 should be the same as those in 1906 in wanting to find a way to maintain their lifestyle in the face of discomforting information about the simultaneous exploitation of workers and animals. Nor do I believe it’s merely faintness of heart or ideological bad faith for animal protection organizations to encourage people to eat more “humanely raised” animals or vegetarian organizations to encourage people to eat less meat, or go veggie once a week, or for a whole month, or reduce their intake—which was one of the other reasons why Jenny and James wanted to revise Peaceable Kingdom.  You have to meet people where they are, and most of us don’t want to change, don’t want to be considered weird or different or anti-social, and we’d rather avoid information about our lives that requires personal examination. It’s a rare person who decides on the spot to radically alter their diet because of animal exploitation or the wretched labor conditions for workers in slaughterhouses (or, for that matter, in intensive agriculture as a whole). It usually takes time, further persuasion, and a kind of reorientation of our inner landscape toward a different mode of being for such a decision. That’s certainly how it was with me.

The Vegan America Project was conceived to get beyond the messiness of the incrementalisms that, for all the attractiveness of their packaging and (I’ve no doubt) their necessary presence in the marketplace of ideas, aren’t adequate to addressing the issue of meat and dairy’s effect on climate change. Nor, it turns out, do they address factory farming; in fact, they rely on it.

I reach this latter conclusion via a book by historian James McWilliams, entitled The Modern Savage (St. Martin’s, 2015).  McWilliams’ reason for writing was, in essence, because he was as frustrated by conscientious omnivores’ response to the raising and slaughter of animals as James LaVeck and Jenny Stein were by the demurrals of the audience members for their film. What reasons might thoughtful, decent, passionate people—who loved animals, wanted to do the right thing for the environment, and cared about healthful food—give to avoid the logical response to the information placed before them? This book is his answer.

McWilliams decided to interrogate the notion that the solution to Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is to switch to pasture-raised, free-range, and extensive systems. He argues that not only is the central ethical issue of whether we should kill animals for food not avoided by this switch (what he calls the “omnivore’s contradiction”), but the sustainability of such ventures is questionable (to say the least) and the realities of rearing animals outside are far from idyllic. (Indeed, as the New York Times reported on January 31, 2017, the labeling of products as “humane” or “natural” is not only barely regulated, but often very misleading.)

McWilliams goes into some detail about how difficult it is to be consistently “humane” or “natural,” even if your aim isn’t to scam the consumer. He relates that chickens raised in extensive systems are preyed upon because they don’t have enough space or the genetic ability to seek shelter in trees, assuming they don’t succumb to a wide range of diseases because they’re outside rather than in a controlled indoor environment. He shows that so-called sustainable ranches rely on industrially grown seed and can only survive where there’s abundant rain, solid drainage, and good amounts of sunshine—assuming, all the while, that you possess enough acreage to allow your animals to roam without degrading the soil or adding inputs. He talks about pigs digging up fields and falling ill, and sows rolling over on their piglets—even when they’re given a chance to range free.

McWilliams notes mordantly that even if your animal survives the life outside, at the end of it all she or he still ends up dead—either at a cruel, mechanized slaughterhouse that is almost as brutal as it was in Sinclair’s day or at your own hands. (He devotes a segment of his book to the self-justifying and occasionally horrified reactions of various urban homesteaders to killing their own animals—several of whom make a hash of it and arguably bring more suffering to the animal than the killing line of an industrial abattoir.)

Just over the brow of the hill from my mother’s house in Salisbury, England, is a farm I call “pig town.” About two hundred pigs live in rows of little Quonset-like farrowing huts, which are filled with straw bedding, and there’s a group feed hut as well. The pigs can seek shelter and warmth; their tails aren’t docked and they have access to the field, which because they don’t have nose-rings to make it painful for them to root, over time they turn into mud. The field slopes and as the grass disappears water pools at the bottom. However, before it turns into a quagmire, the pigs are moved to another field, allowing the meadow to recover and, indeed, flourish with wild flowers and whatever seeds blow in.

Now I don’t know about the inner workings of this farm. I assume the stock-to-land ratio is adequate so the pigs don’t catch diseases from their own fecal matter or the pooled water (although I can’t be sure); the smell of manure is not overpowering, which suggests there aren’t too many pigs in too small a space. I assume the huts keep the pigs warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer and the straw is changed often enough so it isn’t contaminated. The male pigs, no doubt, are castrated almost certainly without anesthesia so the meat isn’t tainted; I would hope the feed isn’t laced with antibiotics or growth hormones, although it might be, since the farm is not listed as organic; and these animals—like all farmed animals—are killed when they are young, so their lives are curtailed. But you’d have to be particularly hard-hearted not to find pleasure in the seemingly contented snuffling and grunts of the pigs as they go about their day and ideologically very rigid not to admit that these animals’ lives are not measurably better than those of their conspecifics in factory farms.

McWilliams is at pains to point out that he doesn’t deny that extensive systems are more humane than the moral abomination of CAFOs. He himself, he notes, has supported measures to increase animals’ welfare. Nonetheless, as he illustrates, the “humane” system only survives because of the industrial model’s remarkable efficiencies and its supply of breeds and feed: it allows consumers with enough money to salve their consciences without changing their eating habits, although if they knew just what goes on on free-range farms less apparently worthy than the English farm near my mother their consciences may be pricked once again. (McWilliams describes several farmers who aren’t in a hurry to let consumers willing to pay top dollar for their meat know about the discomforting realities lurking behind the labels.)

To his credit, McWilliams admits that he might be accused of selecting the worst “humane” farms, but he observes—I think appropriately—that animal farming is inherently a business and ultimately violent act. My English pigs need to pay their way for their short lives, and they still end up dead.

The Vegan America Project needs to take equally seriously some of the issues that might be raised against it by conscientious omnivores: the animals killed in harvesting plants, the use of insecticides and pesticides, the need for animal manure, and so forth—which is beyond the scope of McWilliams’ book. We also need to recognize that if these pigs weren’t on the land, that land might become a housing development or shopping mall. My mother’s farm is under such pressure. Also beyond the scope is the notion, also to be investigated by the Vegan America Project, that it might be valuable (for the soil and aesthetically) to let pigs to live on the land in small numbers in sanctuaries—without ending up as meat.

McWilliams touches on an important point I find missing from arguments regarding food security, environmental sustainability, and extensive animal-raising operations: and that is the fact that it’s simply impossible for everyone to eat as much meat and dairy as they do in the U.S. using only extensive systems. Either we must consume much less of it per person (which I assume is the wager of organizations and campaigns that want us to cut down rather than cut it out) or we’ll need many, many more vegans to allow everyone else to remain the same. And that, ultimately, might be how James and Jenny could have responded to those who resisted the message of Peaceable Kingdom: “Either you stop eating animals, or you ask ten of your friends to go vegan instead, so you can continue. Which will it be?”

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?