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.

The Vegan America Project

Origins Icon Martin Rowe

For over a decade, as a writer, reader, and publisher, and in my two decades as an animal advocate and vegan, I’ve found myself reflecting on a question that even Sigmund Freud couldn’t bring himself to ask: “What do vegans want?” Those of us who don’t eat or wear animal products have set
ourselves athwart factory farming, criticized the Standard American Diet, and fought the entrenchment of animals’ bodies in vivisection and product testing, sports and entertainment, zoos and aquaria, and clothing, such as fur and leather. Our advocacy ranges from changing public policy through referenda and ballot initiatives to writing books, directing movies, composing songs, and handing out literature on the street. We’ve arranged cooking demonstrations, potlucks, and vegfests and developed alternative products. We’ve protested outside stores and disrupted businesses. In some cases, folks have infiltrated industries to expose cruelty and taken direct action against abusers.

Most of us vegans know what we’re against and what we abhor; we have strong beliefs and trenchant views of how animals should be treated. Some of us are motivated by a general abhorrence, others by particular abuses; some of us approach the issue as a systemic injustice created by an unthinking and selfish humanity, others blame the behavior of our fellow human beings on ignorance or naiveté and believe that, with information and education, a thoughtful person will make the “correct” choice. To that extent, therefore, some consider veganism a personal choice, others a political one; some present veganism in a positive and affirming spirit, others look at it as an urgent matter of social justice that cannot wait for personal revelations or the supposed good will of people.

Within the very diverse approaches and standpoints that encompass veganism, however I’ve yet to hear an articulation of what we’re for. It can’t just be (more) vegan options in restaurants or cafeterias or a chance to have our (vegan) cake and eat it, can it?—with everything else merely incidental to our wish not to harm animals. It’s surely not just making the world a little less cruel—bigger cages, less suffering, or a kinder death—although these would be nice. Do we have to wait for the “inevitable” downfall of capitalism or technological development or ecological destruction or a zoonotic pandemic for this vegan world to be realized? Between the unlikely extremes of catastrophic social collapse and universal enlightenment, what is our dream, our vision?

Of course, this question begs many others: What do you mean by a vision? How encompassing would that vision be? What do you mean by “vegan”? Does veganism necessarily entail a commitment to animal rights, let alone other social justice issues? Does veganism even presuppose a progressive worldview? And what do you mean by “our”? And how far might that veganism go? Where on the spectrum of nonviolence toward other living beings might we end up? And does it matter? The purpose of this blog is to explore these questions, and many others, over several months as we analyze what that vision might be, whether it is desirable, and if so, how we might achieve it.

To start, let’s provide a definition. The word veganism and its cognates were coined by Donald and Dorothy Watson in Great Britain in 1944, when they and a few others began the Vegan Society. The founders recognized the ethical problems associated with the continued consumption of eggs and dairy products: veal calves taken from their mothers soon after birth, chickens forced to lay eggs until they were spent, the fact that these animals were laboring for us and not for their own benefit that they would eventually be slaughtered. For the Watsons and their friends, animal exploitation wasn’t simply the direct consumption of their flesh; vegetarianism alone was an inadequate response to animal suffering.

The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is that it is

a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Radical although such a “way of living” may appear, I find this definition of veganism more interesting in what it doesn’t say about veganism. It doesn’t claim that vegans will live forever, never commit harm, or end all suffering. It doesn’t draw on a theological or spiritual principle to justify itself; it doesn’t articulate a theory of change or demand that you follow any particular ideology. It doesn’t require you to adopt politically liberal positions on other social issues. It doesn’t call for a return to a “natural” existence devoid of technology or modern conveniences. It doesn’t insist on abstention from alcohol, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and/or processed food. It doesn’t say you will lose weight or run faster or be a more considerate or potent lover. It doesn’t say that adopting the lifestyle will turn you into a better or kinder or better-looking human being, or someone more in contact with feelings—either their own or someone else’s. Nor, for that matter, does this definition claim that veganism suits all circumstances (“as far as is possible and practicable”). As such, it’s remarkably modest, non-judgmental, and open to integration into pre-existing notions of what a “good” life might entail. The word practice in the final sentence emphasizes that veganism means nothing as a theory unless it is engaged in: its raison d’être and its philosophy can only be discovered in action. Nor, in this case, does practice make perfect.

In spite—or maybe because—of the parsimony of that definition, however, what veganism entails and where it ends have become contested areas. As we’ll see when we move further into the Vegan America Project, what or who one doesn’t eat or wear can be as much a litmus test for which group you belong to, and what attitudes you hold toward a whole basket of sociopolitical issues, as what you do eat or wear. Those attitudes in turn embody and reflect the nation’s complex legacies of race, class, and cultural identity. The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism makes no promise that you will have to jettison any of those prior prejudices before becoming a vegan, or that you will shuck them off when you adopt the lifestyle.

So, in this first blog and at the outset of the Project, I’m emphasizing not absoluteness and clarity, but nuance and contradiction—however uncomfortable that might make any reader coming to this blog expecting the answer to every issue and/or a rigid ideological purity. I say this as someone who is himself a basket of contradictions. For at least a year before I stopped eating sea animals in 1990, I called myself a vegetarian. I knew this wasn’t strictly true, since I was consuming fish, but even then I believed that the aspirational weight I applied to the word would nudge me in the direction of greater consistency. I’ve called myself a vegan since 1993, when I moved in with my partner and I stopped buying animal milk, butter, and cheese. Since, then, however, I’ve used honey, worn wool and silk, eaten many products that have contained casein, whey, and cochineal, and drunk beer made using bone char: and those are just the animal products that I’m aware of. In short, I have not been perfect. But, “as far as is possible and practicable,” I’ve kept my eye on the goal, and I am (touch wood) still alive and well, and I still consider myself a vegan.

In those nearly twenty-five years, I’ve met folks for whom veganism is part of a “clean” lifestyle that emphasizes exercise, eschews alcohol, and is connected to a spiritual practice, but possesses little purchase on political or social change. I’ve encountered others who view veganism as a mark of moral seriousness and consistency when it comes to animal rights or a commitment to the environment, and yet who are young enough not to care about what they put in their bodies. Indeed, they may have no interest in appearing healthy or fit. Some have insisted that veganism means nothing without a commitment to racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and feminism. Others have averred that veganism necessitates the protection of human fetal life or the ending of male circumcision.

Many vegans I know are not religious, and yet they’ll use the language of the confessional and of conversion when describing to others their life journey toward veganism. Some vegans champion the role of the marketplace in developing and bringing more vegan products to the broader public; others feel that capitalism is the fundamental reason for the systemic oppression of animals. Some vegans want to fit in; others veer toward separatism. Most vegans of my acquaintance align their beliefs with liberalism and tolerance, but some of us can be punishing and judgmental should others fail to follow a party line or find themselves for whatever reason unable to maintain a vegan diet.

Although I used to be as assertive as any new convert in policing the margins, I don’t blame vegans for contradicting themselves or being inconsistent with their diet, nor in thinking about other issues. Like many causes that start from a few committed souls with strong convictions, veganism offers space to reformers who want to redefine the tenets in order to invite more people to join, as well as to zealots who guard against the ideological impurity that greater visibility and more members threaten. Some claim that veganism is a moral baseline; others that veganism is a means to an end to reduce suffering.

These are contestations over cause and effect, identity and claims of lineage that I imagine all movements undergo as they grow. A similar decision faced the Jesus Movement following their founder’s death: whether to keep the new covenanters few in number, Jewish, and centered in Jerusalem, or to allow Paul of Tarsus’s ideological flexibility to grow the movement beyond Judaism and the Middle East. Schisms form; offshoots develop; organizers and reformers attempt to return the growing flock to the fold. So, veganism is like a religion in that regard, too. It’s also similar in that it’s no more immune than any other worldview to hypocrisy and inconsistency, evangelism and inquisitional intolerance, genuine compassion and hucksterism.

Now, one could, I suppose, dismiss veganism as simply another sub-culture that is partly a response to our increasingly urbanized society’s distance from food production and animal agriculture and partly a wish to reconnect with the wild and nonhuman when both are rapidly disappearing because of industrialization and monoculturation. The “animal turn” in philosophy and ethics that has taken place over the last fifty years may also stem from that dissociation from an agrarian world, the growth in pet-keeping, and advances in our understandings of the inner and outer worlds of nonhuman animals.

There’ll be plenty of time and space later to go into depth on why and how veganism and animal rights have grown into passionately held and visible causes—mostly in Anglophone countries, but now increasingly around the world—drawing upon the longstanding Asian religious traditions of ahimsa and plant-based diets. We’ll also have opportunities to explore animal advocacy’s connections to (and disconnections from) movements to conserve wildlife, protect the environment, and save endangered species. It’s enough for me to say at this point, however, that whether one’s veganism is a personal choice or a political act, a vocation or just something you do, a mark of discipline or radically antinomian, an encompassing vegan vision would seem to be worth thinking about, even if currently it seems about as far off from realization as imperial reach was to the Jesus movement in the early years of the second century of the Common Era.

* * *

This is the Vegan America Project. Over the next eighteen months, under the auspices of Brighter Green—a public policy “action” tank based in Brooklyn, New York, of which I am a senior associate—a group of us will be gathering research, consulting experts and thought-leaders, convening seminars, crunching numbers, delving into data to extrapolate trends, and presenting possibilities. Our aim, simply put, is to present a vision of a United States that doesn’t systemically exploit animals—marine, land, or air—for human use.

Now I’m sure, based on the above, that you’ve got a load more questions about this project, even as I’ve yet to address the ones I’ve already stated. If so, then keep reading this blog—because I’m going to try to dig as deeply as I can into all the doubts, conundrums, and contradictions that will arise. I’ll attempt to unpack my thinking, as honestly and as thoroughly as possible, to explore the ramifications of such a vision and the process by which we gather information and think about the future. In the course of compiling this blog, I’ll no doubt head off in wrong directions and end up in intellectual cul-de-sacs or deep in the weeds. I may have to backtrack many times to return to the straight and narrow, and in the process get my socks wet in the turbulence of either mainstream or underground currents of thought. But sometimes it’s worth taking the road less traveled: for different perspectives, unexpected encounters, and the clearings or open vistas that one might stumble across.

In the next few blogs, I’ll talk about the origins of this project, as a way of giving you more insight into my motivations and some of my preliminary thinking.