Conservative Resistance

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Our final critical orientation for Vegan America is one I am terming, for want of a better phrase, “conservative resistance.” The intersectional argument above touches on aspects of this, as I have suggested. But a class analysis of food security and public health policy doesn’t cover those who refuse to acknowledge the mandates of the government (such as Cliven Bundy), libertarians, or anyone else who claims the rights of personal liberty and individual freedom to practice something that places itself against the wishes of the majority in a vegan America. Perhaps unfairly, I lump subsistence hunters and those who use animals in their religious practices in this segment—simply because they argue for a law “above” or “prior to” the laws and/or customs of the nation state.

The point of this critical orientation is not to isolate sectarians or ornery antinomians as some kind of special category. Individual freedom, religious liberty, and the right of people to do what they want on their own property (and whom or what they consider “property”) are currently constitutionally enshrined. One might go further and say that democracy only becomes genuine when it protects individual freedoms and the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority and their opinions—no matter how objectionable or bizarre those practices or beliefs may be. In a vegan America, those of us who consider ourselves vegan animal rights activists would do well to remember what felt like to be in the (despised/misunderstood/vanishingly small) minority.

It would seem to me that “vegan America” is an oxymoron if it doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has a right not to be vegan. I’m interested here in how it might genuinely be possible not to impose veganism upon a grudging populus but offer ways in which one can be vegan without having to change one’s self-identity as a conservative, traditionalist, outdoorsman.

A further value in considering this “sector” lies in a reaction to the U.S. presidential election of 2016 and in the decision by the British people to leave the European Union: a.k.a. “Brexit.” Rapid social change or a perception among a group of people that “their” country is being changed without their consent or without them benefitting can lead to backlash and retrenchment, making needed change even more impossible.

As J. D. Vance writes about in his 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, resistance to social change that might improve lives is as much psychological and sociological as a consequence of economic situation or education levels. Vance, who grew up among poor whites in Kentucky and southern Ohio, illustrates that dependency and self-defeating attitudes encourage resentments against outsiders and against those, including insiders, who are perceived to be gaming the system by not working. As he writes, “Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter’” (p. 177). Vance, a conservative, observes that familial disorder—drug-addiction, single mothers and absent fathers, ill-advised purchases, fighting within the home, and a lack of community support structures and few successful role models outside it—lead to a failure to thrive. It’s a set of circumstances that he argues approximates many communities outside Appalachia as well.

I would add that fiercely held beliefs about who “we” are, and who the “they” who are making everything worse are, aren’t confined to the underclasses in Appalachia either. As the “debate” about climate change itself has illustrated—and the fact the word debate might even require scare quotes—many of us would prefer to hold fast to values that we associate with our tribal identity and affirm our current behavior than alter either based on new realities that leave us uncertain or perceptually disadvantaged. Vegans and animal activists are no more immune to such tendencies as anyone else.

So, Vegan America must take account of that push and pull within social change, considering how it might be possible to foster self-adaptation and flexibility and allow people to feel they are gaining opportunities by changing, without them believing their core values are threatened by that change. That’s a tall order, I know, although echoes of it are found in the reasons for choice architecture. Yet vegans themselves might be the perfect example of a complete recalibration of one’s understanding—away from not thinking at all about what one puts in one’s mouth or wraps around one’s body to rarely being able to escape that thought process. To that extent, therefore, “conservative resistance” might throw up the most fascinating and revelatory ideas about how social change occurs or does not.

It’s worth addressing one final issue that might be placed within “conservative resistance”—and that is asking whether the “vegan” identity is solid enough to make any claims of a “sustainable” worldview. Let’s imagine you’re a hunter in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Each October, you walk into the woods nearby with your buddies and kill three large deer. You gut and skin the animals where they lay, and leave the hide and hooves to decompose or be used by other animals. You put the venison and offal in your freezer and eat that meat all year round, because you like to know where your food came from and you think it’s terrible what they do to animals in factory farms.

You’re certainly reducing your GHG emissions (by not eating cows or other farmed animals). You’re cutting down emitters (by killing ungulates), using a renewable resource (deer are not endangered), and you’re getting your food locally (and so further reducing your carbon footprint). You’re not exploiting workers to raise or kill the animals for you; you’re absorbing the responsibility of taking a life and opposed to industrialized animal agriculture; and you’re making sure that no part of the animal is wasted. If you’re careful, you’re not taking the strongest of the breed, so you’re improving the stock; and you’re even contributing to the welfare of other animals by providing them with raw materials they can use for their benefit.

Contrast these guys with a film producer who divides his time between Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, California. He eats no animal products, flies two hundred days out of the year, drives to get his vegetables from big supermarkets or at restaurants where he eats, lives in two large houses with central A/C, a swimming pool, hot-tub, and a sauna, and five rescued cats whom he allows to range outside. The Palm Springs house is mostly for weekend retreats, but he’s a busy man, so he doesn’t get to stay in it often. However, he keeps the A/C on for the rescued cats and the maid who comes in to feed them.

This guy produces lots of GHG emissions, which he offsets a little by not eating meat or dairy, but otherwise he’s extremely wasteful. The cats he’s rescued have a good life, but they not only consume animal products from factory farms but catch the odd gecko by the pool or bird who flies into the compound to shelter among the pesticide-saturated plants that the film producer has in his backyard to add some color to the desert landscape. Our tycoon knows he should probably keep the cats inside, but it seems cruel—especially when the weather’s so nice in Palm Springs in the winter. He’s also aware of the resources drain of the water he pulls from the ground to keep his garden green, his pool filled, and his rainforest shower refreshing, but he works hard for his money, and his high-stress job means that it’s super-important that he do all he can to maintain a healthy, organic diet, and lifestyle.

These figures are, of course, caricatures, but the contradictions and hypocrisies are clear enough—as are the class-based, regional, and social identities that accompany them. Between these extremes, who is more conscientiousness about animals floats like a ball in a game of water polo: either “team” attempt to grab it, and yet it constantly slips out of the grasp. We could, I suppose, spend time weighing up choices based on some calculation of how much suffering our hunter causes versus our film producer, and vice versa. We could also take out our calculators and add up the amount of GHG emissions or natural resources that either produces and consumes. Either one would leave us a metric toward a valuable goal—the reduction of suffering, the preservation of the natural environment, the contribution to climate change.

I wonder, however, whether it might not be possible to question the nature of the comparison in the first place, or, to revert to that initial simile, change the game entirely. At this stage, I don’t know the answer, and I’m not particularly worried about my lack of knowing. I’m open to the possibility that the Vegan America Project might, in the end, be about something very different from the various preconceptions of what I might have imagined veganism to be, and how it operates on various aspects of social change. That said, to return to an earlier reason for this project, such an outcome would only affirm my initial assumption that veganism is good to think (with).

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.