Radical Hope and the Dream of a Future without a Future

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

In considering the question I asked in the previous blog, “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind?” I find myself thinking about a related question, one that is asked in considerable detail and imaginative depth by philosopher Jonathan Lear in his book Radical Hope. That question might be: “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind, when you have no means of knowing what you require?”

Radical Hope is a biography and a story of survival—one fraught with ambiguities and loss. The subject is Plenty Coups (1848–1932), leader of the Crow Nation of what is now southern Montana. The Crow’s mortal enemies before the white man came in the middle of the nineteenth century were the Cheyenne and Sioux, with whom they were frequently at war. According to Lear, the Crow constructed their entire cultural identity around their successful prosecution of these conflicts, based on their defense or acquisition of “coup sticks”—markers of a “kill” within a battle that had to be defended with one’s life. So profound was the enmity between the Crow and the surrounding Native American nations that when the U.S. government arrived, the Crow initially sided with them against the Cheyenne and Sioux. The U.S. government eventually banned the warring and horse stealing among the native nations and moved them onto reservations.

Plenty Coups was persuaded by an outdoorsman named Frank B. Linderman to write an autobiography. The Crow’s historical and cultural recollection was essentially non-literary, with arts and crafts and rituals marking life passages for both males and females. However, Linderman prevailed (in a manner of speaking, as we will discover), and Plenty Coups’ biography was published as American: The Life Story of a Great Indian: Plenty-coups, Chief of the Crows in 1930.

The heart of Radical Hope consists of an extended interpretation of a statement Plenty Coups made to Linderman (as reported by the latter):

“I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” he said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,” he added sorrowfully, “you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.”

I will come to Lear’s interpretation of Plenty Coups’ observations in a moment. But what the Crow leader’s statement reminded me of was how fully animal life was embedded within the consciousness of Native American peoples (an aspect that Lear’s book does not explore as fully as one might imagine). The killing off of the buffalo in the United States was not merely a result of an increase in white human populations demanding animal flesh, nor the result of unsustainable hunting practices among Native Americans. It was government policy to use the destruction of the buffalo as a means to cut off the food and clothing supply of the plains nations dependent on the bison and to demoralize and “deculturate” them: to destroy one meant to destroy the other.

Lear’s fundamental interest in Plenty Coups’ observation is not political or cultural so much as philosophical, even metaphysical. For Lear, Plenty Coups’ “After this nothing happened” is not only the Crow leader’s mournful recognition of cultural destruction, or his acknowledgment that, once on the reservations and after the buffalo had been brought to the verge of extinction by the white man, it was no longer possible for the Crow to act like Crow. Instead, Lear believes that Plenty Coups’ statement illuminates something deeper—a question about the meaning of meaning itself: “What is it about a form of life’s coming to an end,” Lear asks, “that makes it such that for the inhabitants of that life things cease to happen? Not just that it would seem to them that things ceased to happen, but what it would be for things to cease happening” (p. 8). What does one look for or draw upon when the entirety of one’s worldview and all that is contained within it, and shapes it in turn, are not only no longer relevant to you but to anyone?

For instance, Lear goes on, if no one is able to play the “game” where the defense or appropriation of “coups” has ultimate significance for one’s identity—and this is true of the women who married the warriors (and their children) as well as the warriors themselves (including their enemies)—then not only is it not possible to play that game, but the rules and end results of that game (the winners and the losers) are no longer relevant. Lear suggests that this loss is a function of an inability to tell a story: “The issue is that the Crow have lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative. This is a real loss, not just one that is described from a certain point of view. It is the real loss of a point of view” (p. 32). That framing, notes Lear, is not merely his interpretation, but one held by other Crow. He writes that one elder, the grandmother of Alma Hogan Snell, mourned after the nation were moved to the reservation:

“I am trying to live a life that I do not understand.” And Two Leggings, a lesser chief, gave a similar account of life on the reservation: “Nothing happened after that. We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of horses from the Piegan and the Sioux, no buffalo to hunt. There is nothing more to tell.” (p. 56)

In being unable to shape a beginning, middle, and end to their narratives, a people cannot conceptualize themselves into purpose and existence; more poignantly, they lose their place in the plot but there is no plot to tell—or plot (ground) in which the plot (narrative) makes sense. In such a situation, it’s not surprising that Plenty Coups had qualms about talking to Linderman (“Apparently, Plenty Coups did not tell Linderman everything that happened to him” [p. 90]).

 Radical Hope describes how Plenty Coups, as part of his induction into leadership as a young man, is exposed to a dream in which a chickadee offers a vision where a forest has been felled and one tree is left standing—a tree under which sits an old man (taken to be Plenty Coups as an old man). In describing Plenty Coups’ dreams and the interpretation that Plenty Coups and the Crow placed upon them, Lear avoids offering arguments along the lines of “Plenty Coups thought this and so did that”; or “because the Crow followed Plenty Coups’ advice they survived with more cultural homogeneity and with more land than others”—even though such conclusions might be possible.

Instead, Lear claims not to be particularly concerned whether the interpretation that Plenty Coups and the Crow placed upon the dream told through the chickadee was correct or not. Indeed, he emphasizes that his reading of Plenty Coups’ text may be wrong, to the extent that Plenty Coups would himself acknowledge it as such. What Lear is more interested in is that Plenty Coups’ observation opens up the space for a certain way of thinking he calls “radical hope.” He writes: “Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it” (p. 103). This hope, he observes, is not naive, because it makes no claims on the past or future. Nor is it nihilistic desperation, because through steadfast concentration on the inner resources of the self one may, indeed, find a way forward or through—even when no way forward or through currently appears conceptually possible. Lear adds: “At a time of cultural devastation, the reality a courageous person has to face up to is that one has to face up to reality in new ways” (pp. 118–119).

For all the suggestiveness of this reading, Lear could be accused of assuming that indigenous or pre-colonialist cultures are static—even though, as he acknowledges in a similar context, “there will always be a question, and thus a possibility for debate, around what counts as traditional” (p. 151). Lear quotes an anthropologist who suggests the Crow may have been agriculturalists before they migrated and reinvented themselves as warriors, which speaks of not merely a fluid cultural identity but an adaptability that pre-existed Plenty Coups’ decision to redefine what it meant to be a Crow. To that extent, Plenty Coups’ observation about history ending with the buffalo could be read as be disingenuous or ironic—or a subversive reflection back on the sympathetic colonial writer of what that writer expected the indigenous native to say.

One could, furthermore, criticize Lear and Linderman for idealizing the manner whereby Plenty Coups came to his understanding about how the Crow were to survive (through a dream). One might observe that Plenty Coups’ decision not to resist may have been wise given the superior firepower of the white man. However, as Sitting Bull himself noted, it was also potentially a supine abnegation unbefitting a warrior nation. In other words, it’s convenient to these white men to consider Plenty Coups prudent and prescient, because both ultimately affirm the assumed correctness and supposed logic of history, which is that white domination is inevitable, and that a “bellicose” people needs to be pacified and civilized (two very loaded terms).

To me, what Plenty Coups means is that his people lost their soul—although he doesn’t use that word, and that word itself may be a function of a Western aestheticization or psychologiziation of a sociopolitical reality—a kind of “noble savage” trope that itself is a cause and consequence of colonialism and imperialism. Of course, “soul” is unquantifiable, resonant in the world of depth psychology but hardly something that social scientists would employ with any credibility. Yet I don’t think it’s wholly misguided to use the notion of loss of soul in this context. I think Lear touches on it when he observes that “[m]any factors contribute to the alcoholism and drug abuse that plague the Indian reservations; no doubt, unemployment and poverty play crucial roles. But there is also the psychological devastation for young teenagers when they cannot find ideals worthy of internalizing and making their own (p. 140).

The loss of an ideal—in a Platonic as well as ethical sense—means the absence not only of a reason for being, or a feeling of one’s continuity within space and time with one’s ancestors or a sense of place, or even the habit of waking up in the morning to a world where more is possible than impossible. What “loss of soul” evokes for me is that to some extent Plenty Coups and the other Crow no longer felt in their gut they fully inhabited the world, or the worlds within and outside their skins: that these worlds’ “depths” were no longer available to them. In the eyes of others, Plenty Coups may have seemed an individual of great courage, conviction, and foresight—committed to the preservation of an identity within a rapidly changing and destructive environment. He may even have been seen as an optimist. But something had died in him, perhaps had to die in him, and it seems to me that that sense of soul (the Latin word is anima) was, for Plenty Coups, found within the buffalo. That soul was, intangibly perhaps, a transpersonal self affixed to nonhuman presences around his people that taught them what it meant to be a Crow, a human, a being-within-the-world.

That Plenty Coups nonetheless persevered in attempting to offer a vision of the future to his people is what, I believe, Lear means when, echoing Kierkegaard, he calls radical hope a “teleological suspension of the ethical” (p. 146). It’s acting with purpose without any expectation that any purpose makes sense, whereby what is “correct” or “right” is impossible to know. It’s cultivating a profound responsibility without holding onto any ethic that has genuine applicability. It’s about being true to yourself without any certainty that either you or that truth is correct. Like Lear, I cannot imagine anything braver or riskier.

In the final paragraphs of his autobiography, Plenty Coups tells Linderman that he trusts him: “I am glad I have told you these things, Sign-talker,” he says. “You have felt my heart, and I have felt yours. I know you will tell only what I have said, that your writing will be straight like your tongue, and I will sign your paper with my thumb, so that your people and mine will know I told you the things you have written down.”

As someone who has ghostwritten an autobiography myself, I know that Linderman must have felt thankful for his subject’s imprimatur. I also know that both biographer and subject may have held back certain presuppositions about the other in order to protect that relationship and safeguard their own hearts from prejudices (their own and the other’s). Plenty Coups may have performed his role as a native person—rich with presumed resentment, forgiveness, anger, and spiritual wisdom—even down to his withholding a bit of himself against the potential betrayal by the white man of that knowledge. Likewise, Linderman may have performed his role as a white man who was predisposed to question his heritage while unconsciously holding on to the privileges and prejudices associated with his sex and skin color. In fact, in Plenty Coups’ final words to his biographer you can detect the caution and, indeed, a tone of admonition in his voice.

* * *

By now, I think the implications of Radical Hope for the Vegan America Project should be obvious. As we move fully into an era marked by largest background extinction of species since the Ice Age, Radical Hope implies that soon enough all of us may be obliged to absorb the cultural losses that afflicted the Crow people, and, like Plenty Coups, reconcile ourselves to making decisions that currently lie beyond our realms of reference or exist in a conceptual and hermeneutic vacuum, with no before that is relevant and no after that is yet imaginable. Are we, too, going through the deculturation and loss of soul that affected the native peoples through our destruction of the natural world and the animals who populate it (and our imaginations)?

If so, will the kinds of experiences that indigenous and colonized peoples underwent (and still experience)—physical dislocation, abandonment of long- or deeply held cultural practices, the wholesale destruction of natural resources, the sudden irrelevance of assumptions that one has made about what constitutes the Good Life—become universal across the planet, even (or especially) in parts of the world that are deeply dependent on access to commodities, sophisticated financial mechanisms, and a globalized economy reliant on cheap labor, international trade, and stable political and economic structures?

If or when large numbers of people are forced to move because of conflicts over those resources, or a series of catastrophic weather events bring to a halt to New York, London, or other cosmopolises, will we be able to absorb the losses and adapt as Plenty Coups could, without any clear indication that our choices will be correct and the future any less dire? Which adaptive strategy might prevail in terms of policy or social behavior in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years time will no doubt mean different things to different groups of people in different parts of the world. Who will be interred and who will run the reservations then—and what will we be able to draw upon to maintain a continuity of soul when even the word American may no longer contain any meaningful association?

It’s true that extensive adaptation may be reduced by technological advances heretofore unimagined or currently too expensive to implement. Yet, 250 years of carbon-based industrialization is likely to lead to worsening scenarios over the next century and a half before the situation stabilizes no matter what we do—an existentialist dilemma that Plenty Coups would recognize all too well. Will we fight change, as Sitting Bull felt was appropriate for the heroic and defeated warrior who still plays the game appropriate to their self-definition of what it means to be (a) brave? Or will we dare to imagine something different, and jettison the past in favor of a compromised, but not wholly impossible future, as Lear argues was the choice of Plenty Coups? And what will remain of, and to, us then?

Here, too, the immediate signs don’t bode well. The new U.S. administration has all the fervor of Sitting Bull: a proud nation with a particular view of its heritage looks back to a past when its worldview made sense, when everyone knew their roles in the “game” and what it meant to win and what it meant to lose. Now that that world is under threat, from outside forces that appear incomprehensible and have arrived on their territory, the contemporary followers of Sitting Bull are doing what they know best: they are fighting. I wonder whether, deep in their hearts, they (like Sitting Bull) fight not with the expectation of winning, but with the understanding that one must lose with dignity and honor, because it is better to remain in the game you have always played and which you understand than place your faith in a game that has neither rules nor outcome you have any means of understanding.

It’s important to add here that those of us drawn to the wisdom of Plenty Coups are in no less precarious a position, for we are no more certain of the rules and outcome of the new game than Sitting Bull. After all, the old ways of life (embodied by Sitting Bull) contain much that’s attractive—as long as you’re comfortable within a culture entirely oriented to one way of being (in this case, a warrior), and when cultural, racial, and national homogeneity allow clear differentiations between who is “us” and who is “them.” So, the point of the comparison is not reductively to contrast “conservativeness/backwardness” with “liberalism/progressiveness”—since one could apply the Sitting Bull label to neoliberal materialistic capitalism as much as populist, ethno-chauvinistic, masculinist nationalism. The point is to amplify reactions to conceptual paradigms shifting to such an extent that everyone’s internal resources as well as metaphysical constructs are called into question. Under those terms, we who fancy ourselves in agreement with Plenty Coups are called upon to do something much more challenging, abstract, and tenuous than the logical and coherent choices made by Sitting Bull: we are called upon to dream.

* * *

For all its presuppositions and occasional grandiosities, Radical Hope does at least recognize the existential force latent in the question: What does it mean to live? And not simply in the sense of marking out days and surviving, but a life that is comprehensible, purposeful, and able to be given a narrative shape—even if that life isn’t entirely encompassable, the purpose seems vague or contradictory, the story has no clear ending, and the ground upon which that story unfolds is entirely unfamiliar.

In his conclusion to Radical Hope, Lear observes that one could argue that not only did Plenty Coups’ decisions following his dream interpretations prove correct, but they were prophetic:

The planting of a coup-stick in battle was symbolic of a tree that cannot be felled. Yet there Plenty Coups is, at the end of his life, sitting under an actual tree that history has proved cannot be felled. In giving up the symbol of protecting Crow territory he actually succeeded in protecting it. He used the dream to reach down to the imaginative strategies that might save Crow land; and in so doing he substituted the symbol of the tree that cannot be felled for the tree that cannot be felled. An actual tree became its own symbol. (pp. 147–148)

So, here is another way in which veganism (and the Vegan America Project) is “good to think (with)”: as a dream that foretells an impossibility, and which, through its very impossibility, makes the impossible possible; as a substitute symbol that is actualized; as an emblem of life that effloresces into Life itself. In suggesting that omnivorous human societies might dream themselves into a possible future in which they are no longer omnivorous, we might, in fact, develop the means by which we can, if not survive the Anthropocene, then at least shape some kind of future. Plenty Coups had no means to be able to imagine his future; all that he had been and knew could not be applied to all that he would need to be and know in the future. It was because he trusted the dream (imagination), that it became interpretable. In other words, it fell into meaning through Plenty Coups’ openness to the possibility that nothing could be known and might never be known. We might say the same about the vegan dream.

What Do You Take With You and What Do You Leave Behind?

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

I had the great good fortune to attend a talk at NYU in September 2016 on the environmental humanities—an effort to explore how to think or write about life in the Anthropocene amid climate change. This discipline endeavors to respond to the reality that assessing the impact of, or mitigating or adapting to, the environmental crisis is not simply about providing economic and policy pre- or proscriptions. Nor can it simply be about popularizing science or dumping data upon the public and hoping that an informed polity will pressurize politicians to pass laws that address the consequences to which those data point. Our attitudes toward the environment reflect our histories, cultures, and values—which is why environmentalism broadly conceived needs to take into account of the way we talk about and imagine ourselves as living and cultural beings within all kinds of ecosystems, biological and social.

As you might imagine, such a line of thinking is close to and expressive of the concerns of the Vegan America Project. I was particularly struck by the conversation between Rob Nixon and Ursula Heise (moderated by Una Chaudhuri) that questioned our tendency in the West to fall back on familiar tropes when we think of nature—such as the pastoral or the apocalyptic—to delineate how our social order might reflect environmental realities. Heise mentioned that an alternative to utopian or dystopian futures might be an “optopian” vision, whereby a society is neither perfectly good nor radically evil, but has optimized its possibilities and minimized its difficulties or undesirabilities.

I also very much appreciated Nixon’s use of the English poet John Clare’s phrase that we’re all being “moved out of our knowledge.” Clare (1793–1864) was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was uprooting many communities from the land and transferring them to the city and so radically changing the English countryside as a result. Nixon indicated that we’re in such a time again, and considering ourselves being “moved out of our knowledge” might help us to find means to articulate our fears and feelings. To that extent, Nixon observed that scholars at the University of Exeter in England are working with the National Trust on what is termed “anticipatory history”—an effort to use England’s records of its ancient past to anticipate whether to preserve a piece of land that will be within decades washed away by the sea or find an equivalent piece of land of equal or similar heritage value that could be saved in its stead.

Being “moved out of our knowledge” echoed for me a question that I’ve often found myself asking in recent years: “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind?” It’s a question that aims at the heart of cultural, religious, ethnic, social, and psychological identity—one that is already affecting everyone within the remotest micro-nationality and the most sophisticated and globally integrated civilization, and every polity in between.

A case in point is some of those in the Maasai community, with whom Brighter Green works. As pastoralists, the Maasai—particularly the men—have long defined themselves by the cattle they live with. Boys herd them; the traditional rite of passage for a boy to become a man is through the tracking and killing of a lion to show that you can protect the cattle; marriage dowries are determined by the exchange of cattle; and wealth in general is revealed by how many cattle you own.

The Maasai face the challenges that confront many pastoral peoples today. Their populations are increasing, and so are the number of cattle. As they do so, their traditional lands are being overgrazed and desertifying, a situation not helped by irregular rainfall patterns and hotter temperatures across the region because of climate change. Pastoralists have always contested territories with agricultural communities, and these conflicts are intensifying as water resources and grazeable land grow scarce. Because the Maasai consider themselves an indigenous community, whose traditional territories go beyond geopolitical (and colonial) borders, they find it difficult to prosecute their needs in national parliaments, which are filled with members from communities that would like the Maasai to settle down and become agriculturalists. Because tourist revenue from visitors to national parks are a considerable source of income, Maasai encroachment into such parks to graze cattle and their pursuit of lions that may have attacked their cattle, or as an initiation rite, are unwelcome—even though all recognize that these parks are often on the most fertile land and were established by white settlers and colonial forces to keep black and poor Kenyans out.

In a discussion in New York City in 2016, we heard from our Francis Sakuda that Maasai men are, like many rural job-seekers, moving to the cities, where many become guards or nightwatchmen because their visual and auditory senses are more acute (the result of having tended cattle throughout the day and night when they were children). Those men that remain are becoming agriculturalists and even raising chickens, work that is traditionally assigned to women. Francis is acutely aware of the need for his community to bypass industrial development and use clean energy to power its way into the future. He wants the Maasai to use solar technology for its energy: to power lights, so that children, for instance, can study after dark; for refrigeration (to keep vaccines and other items freezing); and to enable access to the outside world through run televisions and to charge cellphone batteries.

When I asked Francis whether it was possible for him to imagine Maasai without cattle, he shook his head. The Maasai were too identified with cattle, he said, to abandon them completely. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that his community had to move with the times and that some of the changes that had already occurred were unimaginable previously.

It’s easy for outsiders to romanticize the life of pastoralists, indigenous communities, or native peoples, and to assume that their relationship with the natural world and other animals was always one of respect and symbiosis, and unchangeable relationship extending back into the distant past. It’s also as easy as it is for any community to present themselves to outsiders as the honorable bearers of an eternal vision of Man in harmony with Nature as a way to ensure they are granted more weight in discussions at governmental level and in international forums. Sooner or later, however, as the Maasai are discovering, any fixed identity will meet the realities of cultural change, political demands, and the limits of the ecosystem. And that is what Francis and his community are trying to negotiate.

It’s my hunch that if the Maasai can give up cattle as a marker of wealth, masculinity, and identity, then Americans can do the same with the hamburger or the steak, or for that matter the cowboy and rancher can do with their cattle. These latter identities, constructed and developed throughout the nineteenth century by storytellers and showmen, such as “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and popularized through John Wayne and the Western, were always narratives that expressed the wish to be free of the constraints of the domestic and collective responsibility, and as a means of individual self-expression and stoical and singular masculinity. If they were constructed then, then they can be deconstructed and dismantled now. Or—as Francis and the Maasai are trying to figure out—they can be recoded to be something different; something more sustainable.

In the end, the question of what we take with us and what we leave behind not only asks us to think about who we are and with what or whom we identify ourselves, but to examine honestly just how attached we are to those characteristics and why they hold such a purchase on us. Environmental humanities offers a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the psychosocial complexities involved in those buzzwords of contemporary development specialists—adaptation and resilience—and our tendency to essentialize our own behavior and relativize everyone else’s. I’m sure we’ll have a lot more to say in the realm of environmental humanities in the weeks and months to come.

Genesis 3: Ecotopia

Origins IconMartin Rowe

The more I thought about Toyota’s reasons for promoting their vegan Prius in 2004, the more it struck me that the veganism that Sharon Bernstein was talking about didn’t simply have to be about marketing a car but a literal and metaphorical vehicle by which we could “do less harm to the planet.” Veganism could be an apt metaphor for driving any change, and not simply commercial ones. By moving veganism from the periphery to the center, we might be able to address a host of other issues.

Among these, I thought, might be (in no particular order): the crisis of obesity in the United States and the many problems surrounding how we source our food; immigration (the use and abuse of undocumented workers in slaughterhouses and in fields around the country); the welfare conditions for animals in so-called factory farms, and the rights of animals in general; pollution of water and air caused by the intensification of animal-based agriculture; the precious commodities such as water and oil wasted in animal agriculture; the subsidization of inefficient and otherwise costly means of growing and harvesting food sources in the United States and the corruption of the body politic through corporate welfare; and the risk of pandemic diseases caused by animals living in close proximity to one another in intensive confinement operations. In that veganism touched—and touches—on all of these issues, and many more besides, it could act as a useful heuristic to examine resource use, environmental protection, and moral and social questions on how are we to govern and conduct ourselves in the era that some scientists have named the Anthropocene.

My immediate concern back in the mid-2000s was not only the scale of the endeavor of re-imagining the entire U.S. economy where veganism was the center of the bull’s-eye, but in trying to figure out the form that such an investigation might take. I was concerned then—as I still am today—that it would be all too easy to think of all the ways that the vision could not be realized. So many factors—from individual choice to institutional inertia, from political sclerosis to fossil fuel companies’ outsized presence in the U.S. economy, from the inherent contradictions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s mission to expand the market for U.S. meat and dairy and its supposed commitment to sound nutrition, and from globalization to neoliberalism’s ongoing expansion of extraction and massification: all these militated against the realization of such a vision. How would it be possible to begin the project without immediately finding a host of reasons why the vision would not merely be unrealizable or impractical but even undesirable or self-destructive?

I took a deep metaphorical breath. It’s a self-fulfilling failure to believe that a problem is insuperable. The essential issue wasn’t just gathering the data to describe the problem—even though it was important to ground our thinking in the real and verifiable. We also didn’t require another set of lamentations about the horrors of factory farming, although growing awareness of our responsibilities toward the other-than-human world would be a significant component of any conceptualization of a vegan America. We’d also had enough urgent pleas for moral uplift or ethical consistency. We humans should be much more rational and less cruel than we are; but that hadn’t prevented us from avidly pursuing stupid and cruel actions against our own species, let alone other animals about whom we professed to care.

No: what were required were boldness and imagination—and that turned me toward fiction as a potentially appropriate medium for the Vegan America Project. I needed a model and found one in the technologist and futurist Ernest Callenbach’s self-published 1975 fantasy, Ecotopia: The Note-books and Reports of William Weston. Set in 1999, Ecotopia tells the story of an American reporter’s experience of a country formed in 1980, when Northern California, Oregon, and Washington secede from the Union to pursue economic and social policies based on communitarianism and environmental sustainability. Callenbach depicts monorails and sustainable farms; he describes hunting parties that provide initiation rites for young males as a means of channeling and honoring masculine energy in more productive ways than gang violence or warfare; he considers America’s racial situation so hopeless that segregation is more than de facto: Oakland is a black city; San Francisco white.

What’s interesting about Callenbach’s book is that he doesn’t shy away from trying to figure out what he believes are essential human behaviors and what can be changed. I wasn’t particularly convinced that hunting and the quasi war-games were necessary male initiation rituals, yet I appreciated his taking seriously the notion that primate societies have to deal with dynamic but potentially disruptive and violent male energy. It seems to me we’re in a moment in America where what it means to be a man—to be the provider, to be employed, to be in command, to be respected—is being challenged as never before. Increasingly, across all classes and ethnic groups, girls and women are better educated, their skills are more suited to the jobs available in the economy, and they are better able to adapt to change as a whole than men. Their emotional and social intelligence and their cooperative and human management skills are more advanced.

To that extent, the Vegan America Project may find itself focusing a lot on what to do with men: their identification with meat as masculine, and their wish to ride, round up, fight, raise, or kill animals. Is it possible to offer an attractive vision of masculinity as the guardian, protector, explorer, educator, and conserver of other-than-human life—someone who’d be comfortable in a natural world (broadly conceived) that wasn’t the social biologist’s nightmare of predation and life-and-death struggle but instead envisioned as one of compromise, nested networks, and complex systems that require a multivalent approach?

 It’s my judgment that Ecotopia has been influential not because it’s a thrilling read or probing character study (it isn’t) but because it was an accurate barometer of what 1970s California counterculture was thinking. As a work of imagination, the book, which went through two further iterations, is at once absurd and visionary, dated and prescient. Like all such endeavors, it reflects its time and place. However, in daring to imagine a different post-industrial, “green” economy it’s a wonderfully suggestive document, one that had a profound effect on me when I read it in the 1990s in New York City. Some of Callenbach’s ideas have come to fruition; some haven’t; and some shouldn’t. But in that Ecotopia presented questions the U.S. needed to ask itself then and would have to ask itself in the future (What kind of society do we want to live in? How might races co-exist? How might we raise our young people? What role should technology play in society? What might sustainability look like?), the book served as a terrific container and popularizer of progressivism, broadly defined and conceived.

My initial thought with the Vegan America Project was to write a novel along the same lines as Ecotopia—with the mise en scène being America as a vegan country in 2100. What would that look like? What technologies might be involved? What political and economic structures, mythemes, and social and natural ecologies would be present? An alternative to such a scenario could be a series of “historical” essays on how America had become vegan—a set of “papers” from “academics” in 2100 examining the previous eighty years. They’d each offer a different “history”: one on a moral awakening; another on the pandemic that forced veganism on a reduced U.S. population; another on resource collapse (end of oil, drought, topsoil loss); yet another on technological innovation. For each scenario, as I imagined it, the “historian” would describe the social, political, and economic consequences—both utopian and dystopian—of each decision and how it led to the next one. From this, I thought, a body of ideas would be formed that could encourage all kinds of further “fan fiction” from writers interested in going deeper into these different vegan Americas.

Daunted by the prospect of trying to encompass any or all of this in an Ecotopia-like novel or anthology of “essays,” I then turned to the wisdom of the commons and conceived of the Vegan America Project as a website, where individuals could contribute fiction, think-pieces, and a range of essays looking at the technological, sociocultural, and political change that would need to occur or might occur as one pursued certain policies or certain innovations emerged. I envisaged the Project operating out of a university with the money and technical expertise to support an ever-growing and deepening website. The university could also utilize faculty and students as moderators to generate and follow threads. These moderators would ensure that contributors “kept it vegan” and used veganism as a disciplined means of thinking about the next steps for their ideas or speculations.

In conceiving of such a website, I realized that I didn’t know how to begin describing what I was thinking. I was also attracted to the idea of the Project as a computer game—whereby individuals make decisions on food, clothing, and resources in a set of scenarios that unfolded after they made their decisions and challenged them to remain vegan. Once again, the nature of the game (its rewards, purpose, beginning, and end goals) and the multiple decision points that bifurcate constantly remained beyond my ability to conceive of, let alone handle. I was stuck.

The years went by, and I was no nearer to figuring out the medium or beginning point. In the end, however, I decided that, like my veganism, it was better to start with the resources I had available to me in the hope that something might emerge that would direct my attention. I returned to the Ecotopia model and began to write a novel.

It was set in a U.S. in the near future. Following a devastating outbreak of an avian flu–like zoonotic disease, the food-animal population had been culled and animal agriculture ended. This drastic measure, however, had not stopped the flu from mutating to become transmissible from human to human. The resulting pandemic had killed hundreds of millions of people and had led to complete governmental and social breakdown. Once the disease had mutated yet again to become non-fatal, the remnants of homo sapiens had turned on one another in despair at the future and in the absence of any societal restraint and had further reduced the human population. As the novel begins, the city where our story is set (the U.S. having ceased to exist as any kind of political entity) is twenty years into rebuilding itself. This still traumatized city-state, never named or clearly geographically identified, is ruled autocratically, and is vegan by default in that it aggressively rids its demesne of any animals for fear of the diseases they might carry.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the story, which sits noncommittally on my laptop as testimony to my own failure to make it thrilling or an in-depth character study. In the outline of its plot, you might discern the influence of the 2011 and 2014 films in the Planet of the Apes franchise, which explore human and nonhuman relationships and which also depict a much-diminished human society following a devastating pandemic and resulting civil war. On the advice of a colleague, I also read a beautifully written and poignant post-pandemic novel called Station Eleven, by Canadian Emily St. John Mandel. Mandel, who has a firm grasp on characterization and tone, is not particularly interested in a blow-by-blow description of the collapse of civilization resulting from the pandemic. She spends much more time among the survivors (post-pandemic) and the unknowingly doomed (pre-pandemic), dwelling lovingly on the uses of memory and the imagination as a way to construct meaning and purpose when both appear to have been destroyed. It’s a beautiful work, and well worth your time and attention.

What impressed me about Mandel’s vision is how faithful she is to her construct. She doesn’t hesitate to show a society (one which would have changed unutterably and irrevocably in a matter of days) that has reverted back to pre-industrial norms and technological know-how, and where the whimsical (a wandering troupe of players) exists along with the homicidal (an apocalyptic cult leader). She captures how utterly foreign and yet how omnipresent the vanished technological and bureaucratic society upon which everyone recently deeply relied might appear in such a new world. She makes it clear how easily severed the numerous threads are that bind our civilization together, and how our species’ adaptability and versatility run in tandem with our short-sightedness and stubbornness.

I also watched four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, which likewise maroons a disparate group of individuals—some of whom might be the enemy Cylons (cyborgs who’ve turned against their human creators)—in a world that has disappeared and without any obvious future to look forward to. The show, which began airing in the year following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, explores how individual freedoms and civilian leadership survive in a militarized society pitted against an enemy that poses an existential threat. In this world, the traits that make us human (adaptability, unpredictability, and empathy; violence, subversiveness, and idealism) constitute our survivors’ greatest strengths and liabilities. I also trudged through the first season of the zombie-apocalypse series The Walking Dead to discern which qualities, characteristics, and impulses might be needed should an entire society collapse, or for that matter threaten the further survival of that society. In the end, I learned more from Mandel, and I just wasn’t that interested in Cylons or zombies!

The benefits of post-apocalyptic or post-pandemic scenarios for fantasy or futurist fiction are obvious. You can concentrate on a small group of survivors to explore group dynamics and what constitutes leadership without the reader having to deal with hugely complex and interlocking societies with many mutual and competing interests—and the many personages that would be involved with that (unless you’re planning an epic multi-volume saga, of course). You can “start” again, and discard cultural and historical connections that complicate your origination story, as well as apparently entrenched and systemic barriers (such as the ubiquity of animal products in our society and very large numbers of human beings) to getting to your central conflict.

The trouble with dystopian or utopian fictions is that the societies we’re familiar with are rarely all good or all bad. Material comfort, ethno-chauvinism, and nationalism may prove adequate for why the mass of people might go along with an autocratic regime—without being beaten down by jackboots or collective technological zombification (such as in The Matrix series). There’s something complacent about moralizing in the vacuum of vast social complexity or the messily complicated motivations and reasons why people act the way they do.

The reader or viewer, obviously, likes to imagine themselves alongside the downtrodden or plucky band of revolutionaries fighting against the overweening state or Force of Darkness—as if they are the only means of resistance, let alone the most effective; and as if their vision is obviously the best one for their nation or planet, if it is, indeed, articulated beyond merely a reposing of trust in The Good Leader or returning to a pastoral Golden Age. In my vegan America novel, the state within which we encounter our heroine has forestalled democracy (a free press, an independent judiciary, elections, the rights to assembly or speech, etc.) and is intolerant of the presence of other animals: the trauma of social breakdown is too recent, the risks of mob rule too great, the possibility of being attacked from without or undermined from within self-evident. My aim in my novel was to discomfort the pre-pandemic reader’s belief that it is obvious that personal freedoms or a more “humane” attitude toward other-than-human life would be desirable, given such a history and such overwhelming loss.

As it turned out, my instinct to start the process paid off. Completion of my Vegan America novel was overtaken by the receipt of a grant from Veg Fund to explore the complexities of a future vegan America—one, we hope, is mercifully spared a pandemic, for which epidemiologists point out, we’re overdue. (That said, it’s unlikely that a pandemic would destroy civilization in the way Mandel or I imagined it.)

I’ll have further thoughts about fiction and the Vegan America Project in later blogs. However, let me state now that although the Project as it stands won’t involve fiction, I’ve laid out its early iterations not only for the purpose of full disclosure but to encourage those who are inspired by any of those iterations to give them a go. The Project was, is, and always will be an act of imagination and speculation more than a collection and collation of data; as such it would be counterproductive not to encourage anyone who wants to think through the implications of a vegan America to write fiction or produce a game or create those “historical” essays—or utilize any other medium or art form—if they want to. As I was to find out (and as I write about later) the discipline of environmental humanities offers fruitful means of thinking about the future in a manner that still might encourage literature to be composed set in a vegan America.

In the next blog, I go further into the notion of veganism as being good to think with.