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 5Gyres.org 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.

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.

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?”

Climate Change and Animal Agriculture

Climate Change IconMartin Rowe

More carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere today than at any time in the last 800,000 years. Models suggest that even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions tomorrow, the warming effects of almost two centuries of pumping tons of carbon into the air will last decades, with devastating consequences. Given that we’re neither eliminating nor reducing carbon emissions, those increasingly severe effects will likely last long into the next century and indeed may even lead to further release of GHGs independent of any anthropogenic factors.

Because of the potential for runaway climate change (the rain forests dry out and catch fire; the melting tundra releases its vast stores of methane) to reduce the ability of Earth to sustain human life at all, it’s no longer alarmist to think that 200,000 years of homo sapiens and our various civilizations may come to an end within a lifetime, unless we start genuinely thinking beyond what is currently “acceptable,” “feasible,” “sustainable,” and so on.

It’s happened before; Jared Diamond has written about human societies that fell into rapid decline and eventual extinction after consuming too many resources and being unable to sustain that consumption or replace those resources through conquest or colonization. But these losses were local and not planetary. Even a momentary consideration of this possibility offers the kind of realization that Samuel Johnson said “concentrates [a] mind wonderfully.” We must either face difficult, unpalatable, and even excruciating choices now over who gets to live where and how, or we must take the risk and potentially face challenges where there is no element of choice available.

For several years, Brighter Green has been studying the globalization of industrial animal agriculture through the lens of climate change. Animal-based agriculture—both intensive and extensive—contribute anywhere from 14.5 to 51 percent of anthropogenic GHG emissions. A March 2016 report by Oxford University and the American Academy of Sciences suggested that a vegetarian diet—and even more so a vegan one—would dramatically reduce GHG emissions, lower the cost-burden on public health, and allow human beings to be much more productive, among other benefits. So, simply as a means of reducing climate change, veganism is good to think (with).

A few people reading the above will declare that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by careerist scientists eager for government grants who for ideological reasons depress data that contradict the models. The more reasonable skeptics might point out that climate change is real but that humans don’t cause it; or, if we do, that its effects are unknowable and may, indeed, benefit some regions at the expense of others. Some of these might say that veganism is merely a personal choice—as are all diets and lifestyles—and that the rest of the world’s rush to eat more animal products shows that meat-eating is natural. They might add that denying those in the developing world the possibility of eating animal products is, in fact, unjust and imperialist—as is the effort to stop countries from industrializing using the same fossil fuel–based technologies that developed nations employed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Obviously, the Vegan America Project resists such arguments. But our purpose is not to argue the case for climate change or the validity of veganism. As my previous blog suggests, it’s not only a means of thinking about how we might mitigate or adapt to climate change, but it conceptualizes how we’ll mostly likely need to think about a host of other issues: access to potable water, land use, fossil fuels as a whole, energy sources, population pressures, and the rights of the individual and liberal democracy (broadly conceived) in a time of mass migrations and collapsing nation states. These will be realities in the future, because they’re realities now.

As I suggested in an earlier blog, it certainly could be argued that there are more moderate ways to achieve lower GHG emissions through diet, by, for instance, eating less meat, as the Chinese government is currently urging its citizens to do. Likewise, “improvements” that bioengineer food animals to stop belching or farting and producing methane, or hooking these animals up to methane-extractors to utilize their GHG emissions for energy, might help. Eating only chickens instead of cows would reduce the carbon footprint somewhat. We might bioengineer we animals as well! And these supposed “solutions” to reduce GHG emissions could, of course, be accompanied by improvements in efficiency in the energy, transportation, and building sectors so we can continue to eat more meat and dairy products and hold or reduce GHG emissions.

At the moment, a general scattershot ameliorism may be all we have available to us. The financial and short-term policy requirements for those seeking election and re-election; the need for publically traded corporations to satisfy the stock market and share holders each quarter, which may depress necessary but expensive and uncertain investments in research and development; a global population eager to consume meat and other products associated with status and success, and a rush to provide as much energy as necessary to meet those aspirations; the task of figuring out how to develop long-term and resilient infrastructure using current technology given the unforeseeable needs of greater human populations in a more uncertain physical environment in two or three decades:—all these work against the systemic change and long-term planning that are necessary in favor of a “do-able” hodge-podge of half-measures and even conflicting impulses that, the data suggest, might not be enough to avert the catastrophe that a seven-degree Celsius global temperature increase would unleash.

Now, it’s true that technology may solve some of our problems, whether we invest substantially in the short run to shift the course of climate change now, or do so through incremental change that would alter outcomes much further down the road. It’s possible that in fifty or a hundred years we may be able to engineer our way out of future warming, and even (unlikely as it may seem now) not merely mitigate but reverse the effects of climate change. But these are enormous and very risky wagers to place.

In the interim, we’re still using finite natural resources on a planet with ecological limits. Do we really want to produce food that is inexpensive and widely available only because of cheap fossil fuels, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water that are either now running out or need to be left in the ground if we are to meet even the most limited of our goals for reducing global temperature rise? Given the reality that many tens of millions of us need to eat fewer animal products, and many tens of millions want to eat more of them, who will decide who eats less and who gets to eat more? How much meat and dairy is enough for us to be well fed, or feel successful, or will be made sick by before we say “enough”? How can the real price be set, how will the externalized costs be paid for, and who will bear the burden of paying for them?

These are genuinely complicated and challenging questions, involving issues of food supply and equity. But am I wrong to feel there’s something wrong-headed or defeatist about saying that they’re too complicated or challenging to be considered? Why should we assume that human behavior and appetites are unchangeable? We’re an adaptable species: why can’t cultures evolve or change to reimagine the status we assign to meat and dairy? Why be so parsimonious and fragile in our vision of the possible when confronted with a challenge as broad and encompassing as climate change? In other words, why not insert equity, animal rights, and a bold imagination into a vision for the future? Why not toughen and tighten the demands that we assign to notions of “sustainability” and “resilience”? Why not offer proscriptions and prescriptions that might be less inadequate to the task at hand?

To that extent, might run a different kind of objection, why only Vegan America? Why not Vegan Earth? As indicated earlier, Brighter Green has conducted many analyses of the role of meat and dairy in developing and industrialized countries, mainly through the lens of climate change. So, we’re aware the world is integrated and trade and communication becoming still more globalized. We know that borders are porous and nation states combine and recombine in trading regions, political unions, and defensive or offensive blocs. Climate change will enhance the need for international cooperation and also exacerbate local, national, and regional tensions.

Furthermore, we know that air or land migration doesn’t stop at national borders, or that pollution and water usage can be contained within political boundaries. Any policy on wild birds, large predators, and marine animals will, of course, necessitate transnational engagement. Nonetheless, we thought it was necessary to choose a country (yes, our Canadian friends, we know that America isn’t a country, but Vegan USA or Vegan United States just isn’t as catchy) because it’s a defined geopolitical unit and, therefore, provides some means of delimiting what is, obviously, an enormous and expansive undertaking.

To that extent, therefore, both “vegan” and “America” are, like the Project itself, essentially heuristic: a way to think somewhere so we might think anywhere. Every nation state is going to have to grapple sooner or later with the very meaning of the nation state in a world where independent survival will require interdependent governments, industries, and peoples to think their way into the future utilizing their own cultural realities and social, natural, political, and financial capital. Vegan America offers one kind of model.

In the next blog, I offer some thoughts on why the United States might be a good place to start this project.

Genesis 2: The Plot

Origins IconMartin Rowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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