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).

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.

Climate Change and Animal Agriculture

Climate Change IconMartin Rowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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