Technology and the Economics of Change

Origins & Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Technological innovation accompanied by market capitalization and efficient, mass-distribution systems can encourage very rapid changes within a society. The explosion of interest and investment in vegan products and cultured meat and dairy is a testament to how dynamic such a sector is. It’s certainly the case that some behaviors and industries that once appeared entrenched and which (it was thought) could only be ameliorated or regulated have been rendered obsolete and the social problems they raised solved because of the rapid adoption of new technology. A case in point is the automobile eliminating horse power in the early twentieth century. Mountains of ordure disappeared from city streets and general hygiene improved, through the development of a technology that was almost entirely unforeseen as a solution. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute talks about this in an interview in Vox magazine:

So in 1894 there were 175,000 horses in New York City. They were laying down 50,000 tons of manure per month. It was a mess: The streets were lined with rotting carcasses, full of manure and flies, traffic accidents from the horse-drawn carriages were constant—it was a nightmare.

In 1908, however, Henry Ford introduces the Model T, and by 1912 there are more cars than horses in the streets of New York City. And remember the ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? They were formed because of cruelty to horses. But it was technology rather than ethics that relegated horse-drawn carriages to tourist attractions.

So, naturally, a good part of what Vegan America will concentrate on are the opportunities (and disruptions) afforded by technological change and the efficiencies and speed of the market in taking innovation and making it widely available and cheaper. Just as the mayors of big cities in 1908 couldn’t imagine that within two decades the apparently insuperable problems of manure, stabling, removing dead horses from the streets, and so on would largely become irrelevant, so it’s simply impossible to know just what technologies will be developed, which ones will be adopted, and how either or both might transform social behaviors and expectations.

This inability to know the future is, of course, a fundamental flaw with all futurist endeavors, including the Vegan America Project. However, being woefully wrong, naïve, or skeptical doesn’t invalidate the Project’s speculative aims. It’s not unusual to read that inventors were inspired by speculative or fantasy fiction, or futurist ideas—just as I was by Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. We hope that the Vegan America Project opens up a space within which innovators of all kinds will feel free to play with future possibilities.

The danger/concern that faces technological development is inherent in Friedrich’s second paragraph: technologists’ supreme confidence that their product will be used appropriately and efficiently. Ford’s motorcars could have not relied on the internal combustion engine’s reliance on fossil fuels, which, in turn, would have saved the world a whole load of different troubles with GHG emissions than horse’s manure. I would also contest Friedrich’s comment that assumes that the social pressures applied by animal welfare groups—and by extension efforts to change minds and laws and attitudes—don’t matter. I’m not sure we know for sure that social pressure doesn’t create an environment of awareness that something needs to change or inspire thinking that makes that change possible. It’s true that technological change might come about without the inventor’s awareness that something needed to be fixed; but a desire to fix a perceived wrong might exist among many other motivations—and that wrong might have been highlighted by the animal welfare group. This observation, therefore, brings me to the third driver of change: public policy and governmental leadership.

What about Plants? . . . and Other Conundrums

Origins IconMartin Rowe

It’s a truth universally acknowledged among vegans that those who meet us and discover our predilection (if we haven’t told them already), will, after they’ve given us a quick eye examination to make sure we’re ethically consistent (non-leather shoes, belt, purse, etc.), raise the issue of the sentience of plants.

This is what I call a “non-question question.” The interrogator is usually not a fruitarian, let alone a breatharian and has no interest in the welfare of plants. After all, given that the animals omnivores eat are herbivores, a vegan likely consumes fewer plants than an omnivore, who consumes the corn, soy, and (if they’re lucky) the grass the animal does, as well as the vegetables that vegans eat. It may be true that we’ll discover that plants possess the ability to feel pain, to express needs and wants, and have biographies in the way that most animals do. But until then, I’ll chalk this observation to someone who’s raising an abstruse or difficult case to shift attention from our complicity in perfectly observable, measurable, and resolvable animal exploitation. Any idea can be reduced to an absurdity and no social movement should have to meet a standard of complete consistency, or politely wait until all other “more important” oppressions have been solved, before it should be taken seriously.

Yet Vegan America shouldn’t gloss over complexities or paradoxes, since they aren’t only academic. Harvesting methods that vegans benefit from accidentally kill other (smaller) animals; feral invasive species hunt native ones; outdoor cats stalk and decimate songbird populations; and our cats and dogs eat meat. We use insects (such as bees) as pollinators, and we control pests (aphids, mosquitoes, ants, rats, mice, etc.) for cosmetic and disease-carrying reasons. Animals are used in religious practices (Santeria), among native peoples (hunting as a traditional practice), or as a cultural identity (the Amish)—and these pose constitutional challenges for upholding minority rights and the individual conscience. The Vegan America Project should deal with these issues creatively, sensitively, and honestly.

A further definitional wrinkle regarding “veganism” is found in cellular agriculture (taking an animal’s cell tissue and “growing” meat and dairy through a fermentation-like process). Some would argue that veganism simply requires that no sentient being suffers or is killed; others would say that veganism stipulates that no animal or animal product is utilized in any way—that eating “grown” meat, for instance, concedes a notion of flesh-eating as normative and/or ineradicable. However, if cell-lines can be replicated in perpetuity without requiring the confinement, exploitation, suffering, or killing of any animal, then why would vegans object to it—beyond squeamishness or unfounded fears over “Frankenfood”? Or, for that matter, where would the ethical dilemma lie in wearing leather or skins made from cellular muscle, tissue, and hide?

Cellular agriculture, meats that use non-animal protein, and non-animal dairy products (made from almond, soy, hemp, coconut, rice, etc.) present game-changing opportunities to move toward a Vegan America, since it’s the food industry that exploits by far the greatest number of animals. Such developments might also obviate dietary problems associated with food allergies, vitamin deficiencies, or the health consequences of a vegan diet too reliant on carbohydrates or gluten. (It’s my hunch that a genuinely varied, plant-based diet that isn’t saturated with chemicals, pesticides, insecticides, GMOs, and antibiotics would go a long way to alleviating these allergies—although it’s questionable whether any of these intrinsically belong to a vegan analysis.)

Cellular agriculture is currently at the beginning of its pathway from development to marketplace, but already it promises meat that is significantly lower in energy consumption, GHG emissions, and the use of water. It’s free of fecal matter, antibiotics, and growth hormones. It’s much less likely to be contaminated with e-coli, campylobacter, salmonella, and listeria; and, obviously, it avoids the messy cruelty of raising animals in intensive confinement and slaughtering them—as well as the dirty and incredibly unpleasant business of killing them. Complaints that cellular agriculture is somehow “unnatural” in such circumstances would seem to me perverse.

Cellular agriculture offers a case study in why, in my judgment, the Vegan America Project should avoid setting up a distinction between “pure” and “natural” on one side, and “impure” and “unnatural” on the other. It’s not possible to return planet Earth in the Anthropocene to some tatus quo ante state of pristine ecological balance. Nor will universal veganism usher in a Golden Age or eschatological Holy Mountain where the lion will lie down with the lamb and they shall not hurt or destroy, as Isaiah prophesies. Predation and animal suffering will still occur; human–animal conflicts will be unavoidable; climate change will allow some species to survive and thrive and others to become extinct, even without human interference; zoonotic diseases won’t end—they may even increase in range and/or intensity.

I’m also aware of Cary Wolfe’s concern (in Before the Law) that veganism becomes a kind of vitalistic notion that something’s closeness to nature is intrinsically and/or essentially good—morally, physically, spiritually, politically. There’s a kind of absoluteness, even a kind of theological fascism, to the conceit that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in his poem “God’s Grandeur,” “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things” that offers Truth or absoluteness to those who can grasp or perceive it. Veganism cannot simply be a moment of revelation that leaves you basking in the light of an apperception of the ultimate quidditas of existence.

To that extent, therefore, veganism as I conceive it is not an endpoint but a journey, an orientation, a sensibility, a critical apparatus. With full awareness of the Watsons’ parsimonious definition, for me it draws into its orbit notions of nonviolence and right livelihood as found in the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures; it evokes Christian notions of mercy and planetary stewardship and the Jewish mandate of tikkum olam (“to heal the world”). From utilitarianism, it attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; from ethic-of-care feminism, veganism suggests we place ourselves in another being’s situation and ask, with Simone Weil, “What are you going through?” From rights-based and biocentric orientations, veganism calls on us to respect the bodily integrity of individual creatures and ecosystems, in which humans are but one species among millions of others, and wholly dependent on, and interdependent with, the natural world.

In not pursuing the “pure” and “natural,” I aim to avoid falling down the rabbit hole of what constitutes a “pure” or “natural” diet. It’s my preliminary judgment that too many factors (genetic, environmental, lifestyle, income level, education, access to health care, sugar and fat intake, and food insecurity, among others) influence individual health for us to claim that every American on a vegan diet will live healthy and productive lives until they’re 120. Those suffering from digestive diseases or allergies that necessitate a diet low in carbohydrates, or without sugar, soy, salt, gluten, or orthorexia remain outside the ambit as well, since too many physical and psychological factors affect these conditions to pinpoint an exact cause.

Studies show that a vegan diet would as a general rule foster lower levels of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, and mitigate problems associated with obesity. Clearly, these would, in turn reduce healthcare costs and allow more citizens to work, play, or live with a great quality of life: this is the thinking behind the health savings detailed in the Oxford-Martin and PMAS 2016 report. And, clearly, vegans need to be careful regarding deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D and omega-3 fatty acids, and so forth. However, as the links suggest, these deficiencies are also found among omnivores. Because of these many variables with individual health, it is, therefore, on public health policy that the Vegan America Project will concentrate.

I’ve raised a number of objections to this project. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll offer a few more.