New York City Bans Wild Animals in Circuses: A Vegan America Analysis

Public PolicyMartin Rowe

The decision on June 21st by the New York City Council to end the use of wild animals in circuses within the five boroughs offers, I believe, valuable lessons in thinking about how change happens in society—and perhaps some insights into the Vegan America Project. New York City wasn’t the first major city in the U.S. to ban wild animals (Los Angeles was, in April), and many other places have done it already and on a larger scale. Furthermore, the ban is not effective immediately (there’s a one-year phase-in), wild animals can still be used for entertainment (such as in The Tonight Show‘s longstanding segment), and the circuses could set up camp on Long Island, in Westchester County, and over the Hudson in New Jersey, and still draw a sizable audience. Yet, in the wake of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s closing, the vote (by the substantial margin of 43 to 6) is a further step toward kindness and respect and away from exploitation and cruelty.

I should confess to a personal stake here. When I first arrived in New York City in the early 1990s and became interested in the plight of animals in the human environment, I joined the regular protests outside Ringling. Thirty to forty of us would stand with our placards and hand out literature to people passing by or entering Madison Square Garden, where Ringling set up shop. The police regularly corralled us into certain areas (so we’d avoid advocating on private property) and we’d do our best to model appropriate behavior—some of us well-socialized, others more feral. It’s impossible to know how many audience-members we dissuaded: when you’ve bought your tickets and your kids are excited, you’re heavily invested in avoiding posters depicting  violence and enchainment and block your eyes and ears to the imprecations of demonstrators. But, I find it hard to believe we made no difference at all. And here’s the first lesson.

1. It’s important to show up.
It’s a blindingly obvious point that, if you’re an advocate, you turn up: you protest, you write letters, you call your representative, you lobby, you vote, you sign a petition, you . . . advocate. It’s easy to be cynical about politics; one can be fashionably jaded about how venal or mercenary politicians are and rightfully infuriated about gerrymandered districts and the power of money and lobbyists to shape change. But politics has always been about the application of pressure in favor of a group’s interested; disinterestedness and the public good are usually only recollected in tranquillity. Because while showing up isn’t the only reason why change happens, change isn’t complete until laws are made and enforced, and that means showing up.

Leaving aside any clear link between advocacy and results, I believe it’s right to bear witness. Bearing witness says to those passing by that what is taking place has not gone unnoticed, that some find it objectionable, and that even if you may disagree with those protesting, you should ask yourself on what basis you agree with what is being protested—whether that’s active support or tacit accommodation. None of us likes to be confronted with our own privilege or moral shallowness; we much prefer to think we’ve figured everything out. It pains us (or should pain us) to know that not only have we failed to consider an issue, but that we’re so comfortable with our assumptions and prejudices.

2. Public policy matters.
The reason why Ringling Bros. closed are many and various. People have more contemporary, digital means of being entertained than the old-fashioned circus—including TV documentaries and even 3D representations of wild animals. We’re more aware as a society about the inner and outer lives of wild animals, and of how threatened they are in the natural world, so their representations in the circus as “performers” may feel forced or belittling. Nostalgia, custom, tradition—the words by which supporters of the socially unacceptable often justify their previously unexamined practices—ultimately cannot hold our wallets. I’m sure poor management and the rising costs of transporting animals from one place to another also had an effect.

To that extent, public policy—the passing of legislation to enshrine a set of principles—doesn’t drive change so much as reflect it. Nonetheless, public policy can also galvanize further change. That the two largest cities in the U.S. now are limiting the market for circuses that use wild animals presents a raison d’etre for other cities and municipalities to follow suit, which will put financial pressure on the remaining wild-animal circuses. Social stigmatization will likely follow. Furthermore, activists will turn their attention to other  animal-welfare issues as change occurs.

3. Build relationships and form alliances.
The passion and commitment of activists are only worthwhile if both are turned into action. Action means persuading others who are in positions of power to make that change happen, and that depends on building relationships and forming alliances. In the case in point, Joyce Friedman, John Phillips, Allie Feldman, and others cultivated like-minded councilmembers, such as Rosie Mendez, to sponsor legislation and rallied advocates to support them. The advocates didn’t ask for the moon, they didn’t over-promise, and they offered a sharply defined deliverable. They took their defeats in their stride, they kept positive, and they kept at it. It’s hugely to their credit that this bill was passed.

It’s far from accidental also that many of the supporters of the bill, both activists and legislators, were LGBTQ-identified. It’s possible that “out-groups” are naturally more empathetic or in tune with the marginalized or abused, although I shy away from either essentialism or “victimology.” But the passage of Intro. 1233 provides confirmation that alliances across social justice movements help rather than hinder progressive causes. The animal rights cause hampers itself when its members don’t show up for other causes. Not only is there strength in numbers, but there’s organizational, strategic, and public policy wisdom in genuine solidarity.

4. Victories are essential.
I know very well how impossible the Vegan America Project may seem. Even I consider it absurd, utopian, rife with exceptions, and potentially oxymoronic. Indeed, it may seem an indulgent fantasy and merely an onanistic thinkpiece to those who oppose it—among whom may well be animal advocates and vegans who share the ideal. I have two, apparently contradictory responses to VAP’s impossibility.

As Tobias Leenaert argues in How to Create a Vegan World, his persuasive and pragmatic new book from Lantern Books, while “veganism” itself may feel impossible or a vegan identity may seem undesirable to many, “vegan food” or a “vegan meal” appears much more encompassable. On the long journey to animal rights, he suggests, victories—especially on behalf of those animals whom the vast majority of our fellow citizens aren’t deeply interested in eating—may incrementally but inevitably change the landscape for those animals whose welfare or rights we are currently not interested in protecting. So, while it may be hard for us to imagine now, the circus ban makes a vegan America that fraction more likely.

My other response is that a vision matters. Many of us who stood outside MSG or the Barclays Center on a bitterly cold morning a few years ago to protest Ringling had no idea that change was around the corner. In many cases, change seems impossible until it becomes inevitable, even foreordained. We look back at the struggles at the past and not only does it seem obvious that those injustices would end, but we find it astonishing that people like us held contrary views. We forget about the indifference to, ridicule of, ostracism of, or even physical violence meted out on the activists. We forget that their vision of equality,  shared wealth, or common justice was once considered by the opposition and even well-meaning supporters as too great an ask, too big a lift, or too much too soon.

So, while we activists should not be frightened of pragmatic change, incremental steps, and concrete (if minor) victories to encourage supporters, alter the situation on the ground, and develop more credibility within the halls of power, so we shouldn’t be shy of laying out a vision—even if it seems far-fetched or intimidating to others. After all, leaving wild animals out of circuses seemed that way once.

5. Individual animals matter.
All social justice movements know that it’s important to register victories—and not just to raise money or prove to your backers that you’ve got clout. Celebrations are markers of achievement: they honor the sacrifices of the past and fortify activists for the challenges of the future. Because animal advocates are surrounded by an apparently unrelenting cataclysm of slaughter, abuse, and extinction, we sometimes fail to acknowledge our achievements. It seems indulgent to honor the saving of a few animals from cruelty when so many billions more are suffering.

Honestly, I don’t think we help ourselves in the movement when we ask everyone to concentrate on reducing the suffering of farmed animals above all, since they are by far the greatest number abused. I’m a fairly level-headed individual, but I am moved to tears by the plight of primates in laboratories, animals bored out of their minds in zoos, and magnificent megafauna beaten, shackled, and tortured so they will offer a few minutes of distracted amusement to circus-goers. I don’t see how it helps those like me who are drawn to these individual animals to tell us we’re wasting time, resources, and money on these few when we should be alleviating the suffering of billions of chickens in factory farms.

First, I don’t see why they have to be mutually exclusive; and, secondly, I think the heart has a role to play in changing attitudes and not simply calculating reason. When I think back to my fellow protesters of the 1990s, and even to the ones of a few days ago, I’m struck by how motley a crew we were and are. We weren’t on the same page on every social justice or even animal advocacy issue. Some of us weren’t ready for prime time. And a few—judging by their disruptive and aggressive attitudes—were probably agents provocateurs (or might as well have been). But seeing them yesterday—after all that work and the countless and often thankless hours they spent holding their posters, handing out their leaflets, and calling for change—I found my heart warming  to their idiosyncratic and deeply held passions for these animals who will never know what they tried to do for them. (Or, more particularly, the animals of the future who will never be mistreated in such a way. The fate of those animals currently in circuses may not be as kind.)

As Pascal observed, the heart has its reasons that reason cannot understand: pragmatism, strategy, and the law have their place, but so does care, empathy, and compassion. Incremental victories are essential, but so is a vision to inspire and challenge. Economics and technology can shift societies dramatically, but public policy instantiates social change and catalyzes it also. Coalitions and organizations are essential, but we can’t lose sight of individuals—human or otherwise.

We Need to Talk about Phosphorus

MeatMartin Rowe

When the scattered human communities of the twenty-second century tell their various stories about just how badly we screwed up the planet in the previous century, alongside the emergence of factory farming, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and our failure to move on from our addiction to “cheap” energy from fossil fuels, they might reflect on the use and abuse of one mineral: phosphorus.

Phosphorus, as the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Program dryly puts it, “is an essential element for plant and animal growth,” and mainly used in fertilizers. The site goes on to state that once the element runs off the land into the waterways it (along with the nitrogen in the fertilizer) is responsible for eutrophication, which, observes the site with admirable sangfroid, causes “increased growth of undesirable algae and aquatic weeds, as well as oxygen shortages resulting from their die-off and decomposition,” restricting “water use for fisheries, recreation, industry, and drinking.” These are the “dead zones” where no aquatic life exists and bacterial infestations make water poisonous for everyone.

The website goes on to describe how best to apply phosphorus to avoid run-off and eutrophication. However, noticeably absent from this site geared to farmers is the  fact that phosphorus is a finite resource, of which ninety percent is only available in five countries: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. The U.S. imports most of its phosphorus, since it has only 25 years’ supply left. As Renee Cho of the Earth Institute of Columbia University notes,  “Morocco . . . controls up to 85 percent of the remaining phosphate rock reserves. However, many of Morocco’s mines are located in Western Sahara, which Morocco has occupied against international law. Despite the prevalence of phosphorus on earth, only a small percentage of it can be mined because of physical, economic, energy or legal constraints.” She continues:

With a world population that is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and require 70 percent more food than we produce today, and a growing global middle class that is consuming more meat and dairy, phosphorus is crucial to global food security. Yet, there are no international organizations or regulations that manage global phosphorus resources. Since global demand for phosphorus rises about 3 percent each year (and may increase as the global middle class grows and consumes more meat), our ability to feed humanity will depend upon how we manage our phosphorus resources.

Unfortunately, most phosphorus is wasted. Only 20 percent of the phosphorus in phosphate rock reaches the food consumed globally. Thirty to 40 percent is lost during mining and processing; 50 percent is wasted in the food chain between farm and fork; and only half of all manure is recycled back into farmland around the world.

Let’s be clear here. Phosphorus is non-negotiable necessity. We need it in our bodies, we need it in our soils, and we need it to grow all the things we eat. Yet, not only are we using up the precious available resources rapidly, but we are wasting a lot of it in run-off and on growing vast acreages of crops to feed to animals—a process that is itself a deeply inefficient and wasteful use of land, water, fertilizer, and fossil fuel energy.

Now, it may be the case that in thirty years time humankind will have found a way not to need so much phosphorus to grow its food. Certainly, as Ruth DeFries argues in The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, the harnessing of phosphorus and nitrogen in the use of fertilizer radically altered how food was grown and how much of it could be grown. It ensured that the Malthusian fear of vast, starving populations has yet to be realized. That “pivot” (as DeFries calls the technological shift) in the face of the need to feed a population of 9, 11, or even 13 billion might occur again.

But that’s a very, very big gamble. In the meantime, surely, rather than rely on magical thinking about human ingenuity rescuing us from our own short-sightedness, we should apply a precautionary principle and move away as quickly as possible from using artificial fertilizers to grow massive monocultures of crops to feed to ever-increasing numbers of animals whom we eat. And even if we can’t have that conversation among policy makers at the moment, at the very least it would help if extension services, governments, and agencies concerned with food security faced up to the reality that phosphorus is only theoretically abundant and acted accordingly.

Closing the Conservation/Animal Advocacy Gap

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

Two weekends ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Rethinking Animals Summit in New York City. As is the way with events such as this, panelists were alotted a brief amount of time for their presentation, during which most of them pitched their organization’s work (in one way or another), and then responded to questions and answers. In spite of the limitations of the format in engaging discussion and going more deeply into issues, however, two main themes stuck out for me.

The first is that conservationists—individuals who are primarily concerned with ecosystems, species survival, the wild, and “Nature” writ large—are finally recognizing the significance that the consumption of animals has for all of their concerns. From the outset, animal advocates (who’ve over the decades tended to focus on the welfare of individual animals within the human environment, and whose movement has defined itself through moral and social reform rather than environmentalism’s scientific analysis or transcendentalist aesthetic of the sublime) have found themselves at odds with those who’ve considered animals raised for food either as “unnatural,” or an invasive species, or a subject best not talked about for fear of appearing sentimental, unscientific, ideological, or insensitive to the realities that face subsistence farmers and the malnourished around the world.

The impact of globalized factory farming and monocultures of feed crops on fragile, vital ecosystems (either directly in terms of deforestation, resource use, pollution, and biodiversity loss or indirectly through adding to GHG emissions) is making it impossible to claim that our food preferences are merely personal choices with no policy or economic ramifications. This is a welcome realignment, offering the genuine possibility that we’ll finally see large environmental and social justice organizations start to work with animal protection organizations to offer a new vision of protecting the planet.

The second theme of the conference was the vital importance of the oceans. Anna Cummins of talked about the five major sites of plastic debris in the oceans; Carter and Olivia Ries, the dynamic 16- and 14-year-olds who run One More Generation, described their One Less Straw campaign, in which they are trying to make a dent in the percentage of the 500 million straws used each day in the U.S. alone that end up in the ocean and animals in that ocean. Others talked about the loss of tropical reefs and trophic cascade collapse.

Until recently, it has been hard for animal advocates to talk about fish: unlike land and air animals raised for food, fish caught and eaten are measured by the ton and not individually. Fish don’t look like us, they don’t rear their young like us, and their medium is alien to us. Furthermore, their emotional and social lives were unfamiliar, until scholars like Jonathan Balcombe gathered the research. Even so, advocates have tended to talk about high mercury and other toxic elements in fish and overfishing rather than no longer eating fish, whether wild caught or raised in tanks, because of the pain they feel or the societies we disrupt.

After this conference, it’s my judgment that animal advocates and environmentalists need to be much more forthright in how we approach the subject of eating fish. Even if it might not be possible to extend cetacean rights to fish, it seems self-evident now that those of us who can afford not to eat marine protein should stop doing so—to protect ecosystems and to allow those communities in the developing world who depend on them for their major source of protein to do so. We should argue that we need to do all we can to allow the fish populations to rebound—not just for us, but for all the other species that depend on them for survival.

Climate Change: A Moment of Truth

Climate ChangeMartin Rowe

A couple of weeks ago, members of Brighter Green attended the Sustainable Energy for All Forum (SE4All) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Like many parts of the New York City shoreline, the Navy Yard has been undergoing considerable (re)development—not only in terms of converting old warehouses or brownfield sites into high-priced condominiums or tech start-ups, but also in industry (a new loading dock/pier was being built outside the Duggal Greenhouse, where the Forum was staged).

As a colleague and I waited at the entryway to the Greenhouse for the bus to take us back to the subway station, we fell into conversation with a man standing by a heat vent (it was a chilly morning). His name was Antoine Faye and he is Chief Resilience Officer for Dakar, the capital of Senegal in West Africa. He was set to go to Manhattan to meet with his counterpart, Daniel Zarilli. Both New York City and Dakar are part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. The aim of the initiative is for major urban centers to develop strategies to cope with the effects of climate change over the next several decades.

Mr. Faye was in a gloomy mood. His appointment, he said, was only for two years, during which time he had to forge a viable future for Dakar, which (like many cities in the developing world) was growing rapidly as populations moved from climate-stressed rural areas into informal settlements nearby in search of work and a livelihood. He told us that one of his major tasks was to figure out how to relocate inland tens of thousands of people from low-lying regions along the shoreline. This was difficult as institutions like the university were already packed with four times the number of people they were built for. He mordantly noted that a further influx of still more unemployed young men would only lead to trouble. Even more depressing from his point of view, he added, was that even were he to come up with a plan for the city, it could simply sit in a drawer and not be implemented precisely because it required forced removal of populations, unemployment, and the kind of tough decisions that not only could end someone’s time in office but throw the entire country into political turmoil.

As he looked out at the bustling Navy Yard, Mr. Faye observed that resilience for a city like New York was a much easier prospect. It had political structures, a private sector, and a civil society that might support the kinds of systemic changes that would enable a city to cope with a meter or so of sea-level rise. (I kept my mouth shut.) Dakar did not, he observed, and so would have to cede part of its land to the sea—perhaps those very areas that formed the more desirable parts of town.

At that point, our bus arrived and we parted ways, but not before my colleague and I had been given much food for thought. It would, indeed, be comforting to believe that New York City’s plans for the next century offer a genuinely resourceful (in both senses of the word) means of responding to climate change (especially in low-lying areas of the Rockaways, Staten Island, lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens that were most affected by Superstorm Sandy). But it’s only human to retain a connection to the sea, to want to rebuild in the same spot you’ve always lived, and to defy nature and the odds: that’s no different in Dumbo or Dakar.

It’s an irony that SE4All took place in industrial Brooklyn—a place that for decades (like so much of New York City’s shoreline) was a place that the well-to-do and respectable avoided. As On the Waterfront or Last Exit to Brooklyn attest, for much of the twentieth century, the harbor and industrial areas were locations where organized crime, violence, prostitution, and the bodies ended up. When NYC developer Robert Moses ringed Manhattan and other boroughs with roads, he reinforced the separation of the shore from the interior, the poor from the rich. Now the shore is being reclaimed for the wealthy—even as it is threatened once again by violence and disruption, this time from climate change.

One final observation: SE4All serves as a forum for philanthropists, investors, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and civil society activists to collaborate on meeting the energy needs of the world’s populations while also reducing our carbon footprint to levels in the timeframe agreed upon by the United Nations. Despite the positive vibes and can-do spirit emanating from the participants on the panels, the globe is failing to meet any of the goals allotted.  And even were renewables to become even cheaper and more widely available, and even if the grid delivery systems and storage capacities improved, and even if governments set a carbon price that pushed the market further away from fossil fuels, and even if developing countries leapfrogged old-school industrialized development based on extraction and the externalization of environmental costs—even if all this happened, it still wouldn’t obviate the terrible decisions that face Dakar now and New York City in the future. That will require the kind of political leadership, civil society engagement, long-term thinking, and realignment of values of what it means to live well that we are woefully ill-equipped for.

Under such circumstances, “resilience” acquires an altogether deeper psychological and even moral underpinning than building climate-surge barriers or phasing in our withdrawal from the coast. It means basing our decisions on equity and shared sacrifice, closing the gap between rich and poor and learning to live with uncertainty and scarcity. To that extent, the Vegan America Project can only offer gestures of support and solidarity, recognizing (humbly) that dietary and lifestyle change will only take all of us (human or otherwise) so far. Much of the remainder is, because of our behavior, now out of our hands.

Conservative Resistance and the Vegan Agenda

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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?”