New York City Bans Wild Animals in Circuses: A Vegan America Analysis

Public PolicyMartin Rowe

The decision on June 21st by the New York City Council to end the use of wild animals in circuses within the five boroughs offers, I believe, valuable lessons in thinking about how change happens in society—and perhaps some insights into the Vegan America Project. New York City wasn’t the first major city in the U.S. to ban wild animals (Los Angeles was, in April), and many other places have done it already and on a larger scale. Furthermore, the ban is not effective immediately (there’s a one-year phase-in), wild animals can still be used for entertainment (such as in The Tonight Show‘s longstanding segment), and the circuses could set up camp on Long Island, in Westchester County, and over the Hudson in New Jersey, and still draw a sizable audience. Yet, in the wake of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s closing, the vote (by the substantial margin of 43 to 6) is a further step toward kindness and respect and away from exploitation and cruelty.

I should confess to a personal stake here. When I first arrived in New York City in the early 1990s and became interested in the plight of animals in the human environment, I joined the regular protests outside Ringling. Thirty to forty of us would stand with our placards and hand out literature to people passing by or entering Madison Square Garden, where Ringling set up shop. The police regularly corralled us into certain areas (so we’d avoid advocating on private property) and we’d do our best to model appropriate behavior—some of us well-socialized, others more feral. It’s impossible to know how many audience-members we dissuaded: when you’ve bought your tickets and your kids are excited, you’re heavily invested in avoiding posters depicting  violence and enchainment and block your eyes and ears to the imprecations of demonstrators. But, I find it hard to believe we made no difference at all. And here’s the first lesson.

1. It’s important to show up.
It’s a blindingly obvious point that, if you’re an advocate, you turn up: you protest, you write letters, you call your representative, you lobby, you vote, you sign a petition, you . . . advocate. It’s easy to be cynical about politics; one can be fashionably jaded about how venal or mercenary politicians are and rightfully infuriated about gerrymandered districts and the power of money and lobbyists to shape change. But politics has always been about the application of pressure in favor of a group’s interested; disinterestedness and the public good are usually only recollected in tranquillity. Because while showing up isn’t the only reason why change happens, change isn’t complete until laws are made and enforced, and that means showing up.

Leaving aside any clear link between advocacy and results, I believe it’s right to bear witness. Bearing witness says to those passing by that what is taking place has not gone unnoticed, that some find it objectionable, and that even if you may disagree with those protesting, you should ask yourself on what basis you agree with what is being protested—whether that’s active support or tacit accommodation. None of us likes to be confronted with our own privilege or moral shallowness; we much prefer to think we’ve figured everything out. It pains us (or should pain us) to know that not only have we failed to consider an issue, but that we’re so comfortable with our assumptions and prejudices.

2. Public policy matters.
The reason why Ringling Bros. closed are many and various. People have more contemporary, digital means of being entertained than the old-fashioned circus—including TV documentaries and even 3D representations of wild animals. We’re more aware as a society about the inner and outer lives of wild animals, and of how threatened they are in the natural world, so their representations in the circus as “performers” may feel forced or belittling. Nostalgia, custom, tradition—the words by which supporters of the socially unacceptable often justify their previously unexamined practices—ultimately cannot hold our wallets. I’m sure poor management and the rising costs of transporting animals from one place to another also had an effect.

To that extent, public policy—the passing of legislation to enshrine a set of principles—doesn’t drive change so much as reflect it. Nonetheless, public policy can also galvanize further change. That the two largest cities in the U.S. now are limiting the market for circuses that use wild animals presents a raison d’etre for other cities and municipalities to follow suit, which will put financial pressure on the remaining wild-animal circuses. Social stigmatization will likely follow. Furthermore, activists will turn their attention to other  animal-welfare issues as change occurs.

3. Build relationships and form alliances.
The passion and commitment of activists are only worthwhile if both are turned into action. Action means persuading others who are in positions of power to make that change happen, and that depends on building relationships and forming alliances. In the case in point, Joyce Friedman, John Phillips, Allie Feldman, and others cultivated like-minded councilmembers, such as Rosie Mendez, to sponsor legislation and rallied advocates to support them. The advocates didn’t ask for the moon, they didn’t over-promise, and they offered a sharply defined deliverable. They took their defeats in their stride, they kept positive, and they kept at it. It’s hugely to their credit that this bill was passed.

It’s far from accidental also that many of the supporters of the bill, both activists and legislators, were LGBTQ-identified. It’s possible that “out-groups” are naturally more empathetic or in tune with the marginalized or abused, although I shy away from either essentialism or “victimology.” But the passage of Intro. 1233 provides confirmation that alliances across social justice movements help rather than hinder progressive causes. The animal rights cause hampers itself when its members don’t show up for other causes. Not only is there strength in numbers, but there’s organizational, strategic, and public policy wisdom in genuine solidarity.

4. Victories are essential.
I know very well how impossible the Vegan America Project may seem. Even I consider it absurd, utopian, rife with exceptions, and potentially oxymoronic. Indeed, it may seem an indulgent fantasy and merely an onanistic thinkpiece to those who oppose it—among whom may well be animal advocates and vegans who share the ideal. I have two, apparently contradictory responses to VAP’s impossibility.

As Tobias Leenaert argues in How to Create a Vegan World, his persuasive and pragmatic new book from Lantern Books, while “veganism” itself may feel impossible or a vegan identity may seem undesirable to many, “vegan food” or a “vegan meal” appears much more encompassable. On the long journey to animal rights, he suggests, victories—especially on behalf of those animals whom the vast majority of our fellow citizens aren’t deeply interested in eating—may incrementally but inevitably change the landscape for those animals whose welfare or rights we are currently not interested in protecting. So, while it may be hard for us to imagine now, the circus ban makes a vegan America that fraction more likely.

My other response is that a vision matters. Many of us who stood outside MSG or the Barclays Center on a bitterly cold morning a few years ago to protest Ringling had no idea that change was around the corner. In many cases, change seems impossible until it becomes inevitable, even foreordained. We look back at the struggles at the past and not only does it seem obvious that those injustices would end, but we find it astonishing that people like us held contrary views. We forget about the indifference to, ridicule of, ostracism of, or even physical violence meted out on the activists. We forget that their vision of equality,  shared wealth, or common justice was once considered by the opposition and even well-meaning supporters as too great an ask, too big a lift, or too much too soon.

So, while we activists should not be frightened of pragmatic change, incremental steps, and concrete (if minor) victories to encourage supporters, alter the situation on the ground, and develop more credibility within the halls of power, so we shouldn’t be shy of laying out a vision—even if it seems far-fetched or intimidating to others. After all, leaving wild animals out of circuses seemed that way once.

5. Individual animals matter.
All social justice movements know that it’s important to register victories—and not just to raise money or prove to your backers that you’ve got clout. Celebrations are markers of achievement: they honor the sacrifices of the past and fortify activists for the challenges of the future. Because animal advocates are surrounded by an apparently unrelenting cataclysm of slaughter, abuse, and extinction, we sometimes fail to acknowledge our achievements. It seems indulgent to honor the saving of a few animals from cruelty when so many billions more are suffering.

Honestly, I don’t think we help ourselves in the movement when we ask everyone to concentrate on reducing the suffering of farmed animals above all, since they are by far the greatest number abused. I’m a fairly level-headed individual, but I am moved to tears by the plight of primates in laboratories, animals bored out of their minds in zoos, and magnificent megafauna beaten, shackled, and tortured so they will offer a few minutes of distracted amusement to circus-goers. I don’t see how it helps those like me who are drawn to these individual animals to tell us we’re wasting time, resources, and money on these few when we should be alleviating the suffering of billions of chickens in factory farms.

First, I don’t see why they have to be mutually exclusive; and, secondly, I think the heart has a role to play in changing attitudes and not simply calculating reason. When I think back to my fellow protesters of the 1990s, and even to the ones of a few days ago, I’m struck by how motley a crew we were and are. We weren’t on the same page on every social justice or even animal advocacy issue. Some of us weren’t ready for prime time. And a few—judging by their disruptive and aggressive attitudes—were probably agents provocateurs (or might as well have been). But seeing them yesterday—after all that work and the countless and often thankless hours they spent holding their posters, handing out their leaflets, and calling for change—I found my heart warming  to their idiosyncratic and deeply held passions for these animals who will never know what they tried to do for them. (Or, more particularly, the animals of the future who will never be mistreated in such a way. The fate of those animals currently in circuses may not be as kind.)

As Pascal observed, the heart has its reasons that reason cannot understand: pragmatism, strategy, and the law have their place, but so does care, empathy, and compassion. Incremental victories are essential, but so is a vision to inspire and challenge. Economics and technology can shift societies dramatically, but public policy instantiates social change and catalyzes it also. Coalitions and organizations are essential, but we can’t lose sight of individuals—human or otherwise.

Conservative Resistance and the Vegan Agenda

Conservative ResistanceMartin Rowe

The Veggie Pride Parade is an annual event in New York City that brings vegetarians, vegans, and interested parties together. Five hundred or so folks march through the West Village and then gather at the northern end of Union Square for talks and food sampling, and to pick up literature from the assorted tables. The organizer of this festive occasion is Pamela Rice, whose 101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian we published at Lantern Books.

This year’s event had extra zest. Toward the end of the afternoon, a blond and hairy young white man stood near the assembly, brought out a banner that read “Down with the Vegan Agenda,” and proceeded to use his teeth to pull strips of raw flesh from a skinned rabbit. He soon attracted a crowd of passers-by who snapped photos and shot videos of him as folks on a nearby dais told their stories about how they’d become vegans.

I was about twenty-five feet away from the man, who goes by the name of “Mr MilkJar,” and who had the forethought to bring along a cameraman to record the proceedings. MilkJar has his own YouTube channel, onto which he’s uploaded this stunt and others like it—and which I can’t be bothered to link to. Tellingly, MilkJar’s avatar is Pepe the Frog, an otherwise blameless cartoon character who has recently become a symbol of “alt-right” nationalism that these days is welcome in the White House. Milkjar’s Twitter account extols the virtues of raw meat and milk—which has also, it appears, become a symbol of white supremacism, according (oh the irony!) to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization that has in the past also used dead animal flesh to make a point and, like MilkJar, isn’t afraid to perform stunts to attract the media and épater la bourgeoisie.

So, just what is going on here beyond the normal eccentricities of New York City, or the exercise of freedom of speech in a park that for centuries has been a public space dedicated to heated expressions of unpopular and sometimes conflicting opinions? And how might we understand this event in the light of the Vegan America Project?

On the face of it, MilkJar is simply practicing his first amendment rights. Pamela Rice asked the police in attendance if they could do anything about MilkJar. The officers, however, rightly pointed out that it wasn’t a crime to eat in public (drinking alcohol is a different matter). MilkJar wasn’t interfering with the gathering, wasn’t using an amplifier without a permit, and wasn’t physically threatening anyone. The cops did ask MilkJar to move further away from the dais, but that was all the conversation I was privy to. (Actually, I don’t think Pamela was that annoyed. In fact, she seemed to be relishing the amount of extra attention that MilkJar was bringing to her parade.)

Freedom of speech, of course, can be rude and objectionable—and MilkJar was interested in neither Socratic debate nor Demosthenic oratory.  He was out to offend the sensibilities of vegans the most direct way he knew how. And, truth be told, some attending the parade were upset and disgusted. They felt “their” special day and space had been coopted and invaded by a publicity-seeker who merely wanted to gross people out. Why pick on a poor defenseless being to make his point, they asked? Why be so willfully cruel? And it’s true: there’s something particularly Westboro Baptist Church–like about MilkJar’s self-serving assholery.

On reflection, however, MilkJar’s presence proved a fascinating (if unwelcome) addition to the proceedings—if not, perhaps, in quite the way the rabbit-eater intended. First of all, he made no effort to disguise the corpse that he bit into. He held it by its rear legs and allowed the torso to dangle in front of him. In so doing, he showed how much we gourmands rely on butchers and chefs to cut and prepare our meat to obliterate the structure and outline of the animal that the flesh originally composed. He wasn’t just eating a cut of meat; this was clearly once a living being. To use Carol J. Adams‘ terms, he made the absent referent present.

Secondly, by eating the rabbit raw, MilkJar was also demonstrating how most of us cook the land and air animals we eat. Cooking, after all, is one of the ever-diminishing markers of our distinctiveness from other animals. Indeed, Michael Pollan argues that cooking led to civilization, in that it allowed us to gather around a fire and shape the mythopoetic identities that led us to plan and organize our social groupings. (Some folks’ disgust was not simply because of the presence of the animal body but an autonomic response to the risk of food poisoning posed by eating raw meat on a warm day. This is another reason why we cook our meat—because animal flesh rots rather than decomposes.)

Thirdly, in making a case for a kind of originalism, naturalism, or authenticity to his food choices (no processed foods, or processing of foods, for me!), MilkJar was echoing many vegans who also shun processed foods and argue for a raw, plant-based diet that, so the notion goes, most accurately reflects our true identities. Aside from any health benefits cited by followers of such regimens, MilkJar and raw foodists rely on a notion that “civilization” has corrupted or removed us from a Rousseausque innocent and honest engagement with nature that can be reclaimed by returning to a pre-industrial “right” relationship—whether it’s a prelapsarian paradise or a Darwinian struggle, red in tooth and claw.

But the ironies and contradictions don’t stop there. In choosing a rabbit to eat, was MilkJar echoing the suggestion that veganism equals “rabbit food”? By eating the rabbit, therefore, was he consuming vegans and veganism at the same time as he was critiquing the social niceties, amnesia, and comforting bromides we tell ourselves about the “civilizational” qualities of cooked meat? Was MilkJar wanting to claim a savage primitivism in opposition to vegans’ effete civilizing influence; and declaring that a society that eschewed raw meat by either cooking it or not consuming it no longer had the animalistic élan vital to continue?

These questions aren’t as far-fetched as they may appear. My table shared space with a tribute to the life and work of vegan historian Rynn Berry, himself a sometime raw-foodist, and author of Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (with a foreword by yours truly). In the book, Berry tries to lay to rest the canard that the Nazi dictator was a vegetarian; in my foreword, I try to argue that, even if it were the case that the Fuhrer ate a plant-based diet, it hardly follows that eating lentils will turn you into a genocidal dictator. That MilkJar should now accouter himself with the symbols of neo-Nazi ethnochauvanism in opposition to veganism makes our points—if not in the way MilkJar may have intended.

As promoted by Goebbels, the Fuhrer’s vegetarian identity was intimately associated with his asceticism, his dedication to the Fatherland above family, and a racial purity that literally embodied the desired body politic. Yet Hitler ate meat, his own body was routinely injected with animal parts (bull’s semen, to be precise, for sexual potency), and he received a vast amount of other drugs, especially during the War. Hitler’s physical insecurity and his avoidance of animal flesh show that he may have wished to escape the bodily corruption of meat, but his belief that powerful male animal bodies would animalize and empower his own illustrates that he couldn’t escape the  carnophallologocentrism (to use Jacques Derrida’s term) that he believed the animal body would supply him with. Hitler/Germany’s pathogenic body—desperate to cleanse itself of “enemies within” (both social, racial, and biological)—collapsed because of the microbial and military invasion of the very foreign bodies that he sought to expel.

MilkJar’s protest (and PETA’s counter-argument that milk drinkers are white supremacists) highlight the dangers of naturalistic arguments or simplistic comparisons devoid of context or critical thinking.  MilkJar’s presence should likewise remind vegans of the insulting triteness of comparing animal exploitation to the Holocaust or ante-bellum African American slavery—especially as MilkJar’s alt-right paraphernalia shows us how manipulable shallow symbolism and agitprop thinking can be.

But we vegans actually have more to be grateful to MilkJar for than unpacking meat eating!  When I saw his sign (“Down with the Vegan Agenda”), I joked to a friend that not only did I not know we had an agenda, but I hadn’t even received the minutes from the last meeting. As it turns out, and as the Vegan America Project highlighted at its inception, the questions accidentally raised by MilkJar are valid: Do we have an agenda, and, if so, what is it?  An “agenda” suggests a level of organization, coordination, planning, and centralized authority that has so far eluded the various affiliations that constitute . . . what? Our movement?  Who is the “our” here and where is the “movement”—from what to what? As this blog has relayed in detail, there are many impulses, dispositions, passions, and sociopolitical orientations that drive people to stop consuming animal products. But “agenda”?

Of course, MilkJar’s goal in condemning “the vegan agenda” is to stigmatize veganism—in the same way that others attack LGBTQ activists’ attempt to protect vulnerable communities as “the gay agenda”; or how anti-Semites talk about a “Jewish conspiracy” or a cabal of “international bankers”; or how Protestant evangelicals once spoke about the Vatican; or how climate change deniers now describe scientists. They/we are the fifth columnists whose goal is to undermine society, enrich ourselves in the process, and establish a New World Order where ethnic and national boundaries are compromised and individual freedoms are quashed.

We might (very) charitably call such attempts blunt efforts by individuals to express their right to dissent and exercise those freedoms. But in every case, the  word agenda is code for those whom the ethnochauvanistic, nominally Christian right believes should know their place. It disguises, even as it proclaims to be honest (I’m not politically correct!), a pre-existing agenda that the protesters against the “agenda” have ensured isn’t even considered an agenda—because it’s normative: that white, heterosexual, Christian men who eat meat and run the country is the “natural” order of things.

It’s, therefore, not merely coincidental that MilkJar’s whiteness and masculinity is tied to his explicit consumption of the flesh of an animal. The freedom of speech that he’s championing is expressed through his control of and power over an animal’s flesh: the sexual politics of meat. MilkJar wants to offend, to counteract, to occupy another’s space, and to do so using an animal’s body. That is his right. But it is a right and it is a space that white men in the United States have always claimed for themselves, and which they have routinely denied to people of color, women, and other animals by threatening, colonizing, manipulating, and killing their bodies.

Ironically, MilkJar’s words should inspire us: to get “down with the vegan agenda.” Certainly, the Vegan America Project considers itself one draft (among many) of an outline for such an agenda. It’s an attempt to explore a genuinely intersectional approach that looks at the physical and conceptual space represented by Union Square—a location for rallies, a safe place for dissent, a spot for visionary thinking—and asks whether we can expand our notions of individual rights to allow MilkJar and the rabbit he consumed to live their own lives with a measure of each’s basic interests respected.

Finally, what does MilkJar’s protest have to say about “conservative resistance” in the Vegan America Project? I’m always struck by those who take time out of their lives to protest—and to do so in a way that could leave them appearing to onlookers to be foolish or mean-spirited. Something about that degree of commitment and energy suggests that the object of their contempt holds a fascination, a shadow (to employ a Jungian idea), that makes them fertile ground for conversion.

I’m reminded of the book of Revelation (3:15), in which the writer has strong words to say about faith: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” MilkJar is clearly not lukewarm, and nothing is being spit out of his mouth. He’s engaged and, in his perverse way, represents the case for animal rights and veganism very well—perhaps uncomfortably well, given our mutual claims to naturalism and purity of living. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him at many more such events in the future. In which case, we vegans may have to engage more seriously and profoundly with just what he portends (both for ill and good) about what a vegan America might look like.

Genesis 2: The Plot

Origins IconMartin Rowe

I’ve written about why I became a vegetarian and vegan in my 2013 book The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Reflection, so I won’t bother to rehearse the reasons here. Suffice to say, I was raised an omnivore and enjoyed honey-roasted ham, oxtail soup and sausage rolls, mincemeat and pig’s liver, Stilton cheese and cow’s milk. I was never viscerally appalled by animal products or unclear as to their origin. On some Saturdays, my father would take my brother and me to the butcher’s shop in the nearby village and we’d watch as he chose the beef and lamb from the carcasses that hung next to the counter and the locally produced sausages and cutlets in the window. I liked the taste and that was enough for me as a child. (One of Lantern’s authors, Alex Lockwood, writes movingly of the same experience he had as a child, in his book The Pig in Thin Air.)

I was very fortunate in that my father was a military officer at a rank that entitled him to free accommodation in a substantial house, which came with a garden that afforded me plenty of room to run around in and get fresh air. When my parents eventually bought their own home, we had a sufficiently large enough garden for us to grow our own vegetables (my mother’s domain) and cultivate tomatoes and herbs in the greenhouse (my father’s realm). Come the appropriate season, I’d join my mother and dig up the potatoes, clip the lettuces, and unearth the carrots. I trimmed leeks, plucked marrows and courgettes (zucchini), pulled green beans, and shelled peas. After the harvest, my father would blend the excess vegetables into a soup, which he’d freeze and we’d eat through the winter.

Although our home was in a village and we lived next door to a farmer who raised cows, it would be a stretch to call our existence rural. Nonetheless, throughout these years, our family composted the peelings, skins, and husks, as well as the few uneaten scraps from our dinner table and the grass cuttings from our lawn. Once nature had completed its task over the autumn and winter, we added manure and hay from the next-door farm and mixed the concoction into the soil. I was involved in that redolent task as well.

Our family took it as a given not to waste food, either in making it or when the meal was over. My father had grown up in central England during the Depression; my mother was a child during and after World War II; in the early to mid-1970s, when I was a pre-teen, the oil crisis led to energy shortages and work stoppages. My brother and I were told to switch lights off when we left a room and pull plugs from sockets at night to save electricity. We were encouraged to leave no food on our plates, because, we were informed, people in other countries weren’t as fortunate; we saved all sorts of scraps for charity fund-drives. When something was broken, my father tried to fix it; when clothing needed repair, my mother brought out her sewing machine or darning kit and got to work. During the drought of the summer of 1976, we took turns in the bathtub before siphoning the (very gray) water through the bathroom window on second floor to the garden below. To this day, my mother has a barrel to collect rainwater from the roof of her garage; she maintains a compost bin and keeps a cloche greenhouse for herbs. She still hangs her washing on a clothesline to dry and meters her electricity consumption.

On one level, my decision to go vegan was a consequence of meeting others who’d become vegetarians and realizing I really couldn’t justify contributing directly to an industrialized system that treated animals so cruelly simply because I liked the taste of meat and dairy products. However, more deeply, I believe my veganism was, and remains, an extension of my parents’ essential conservatism. They believed that thrift is self-evidently virtuous; that the natural bounty of the land shouldn’t be squandered; and that it’s nonsensical to throw something away when it can be reused, repurposed, or recycled. To that extent, my veganism is about resisting the wasteful extravagance of lives thrown away cheaply, of land polluted and communities decimated by factory farming, and by the gift of life on this planet so destructively misspent.

It’s probably also no coincidence that the Vegan Society met for the first time with the United Kingdom in the middle of an existential struggle, undergoing rationing and daily bombing raids, and with Nazism not yet vanquished on the continent. The Watsons were pacifists (Donald was a conscientious objector) and, as such, in spite of no declarations of political or social orientation in the definition of veganism, one can place veganism within the English reformist movements steeped in the dissenting (Protestant) traditions of John Wycliffe, John Wesley, Luddism, Fabianism, and the feminist and temperance movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Thrift, of course, can slip easily into parsimony, a scarcity mindset that can be self-punishing and needlessly self-abnegating. Likewise, abundance and excess can be liberating and pleasurable as well as burdensome and anxiety-inducing (should you worry about whether you’re keeping up with the Joneses or spend too much time protecting or upgrading your material possessions). Amid the greater affluence, increasing globalization, and rapid technological change of the 1980s and 1990s, my family was no different from many other households in enjoying the high-tech gadgets, packaged and processed convenience food, and cheap goods that flooded into Britain. So, it’s not as if any of us were especially virtuous, resistant to change, or anti-materialistic. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for my family’s (perhaps inadvertent) legacy of a connection to plant-based whole foods that’s remained with me.

In 1991, I moved to New York City, where I’ve lived ever since. In 1994, I cofounded a grassroots magazine called Satya, to cover connected issues within animal advocacy, vegetarianism, environmentalism, and social justice. In 1999, I left Satya to begin a publishing company, Lantern Books, which has published many books on the same subjects, and which I currently run. Over the last few decades, I’ve been fortunate to read and publish many books on what might be broadly called sustainable living, based on principles of reducing and ending violence toward other beings. I hold a bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in English Literature and Language and a master’s degree from New York University in Religious Studies: I am, therefore, not an economist, agronomist, social or natural scientist, public policy expert, or futurist.

That’s my history, and it must necessarily color my perspective on a vegan America. Given the vastness of this continent-sized country, and its many and varied cultural, political, and geographical biomes, my perhaps very WASP-y “Yankee” quasi-homesteading relationship to the land might seem not merely old-fashioned but retrogressive, even quaint, beyond some Nearing-esque, notional New England of Shakers, Quakers, and residents of Fruitlands. Some might question whether it bears any relevance for urban populations and climates less hospitable to growing crops, let alone the very different typologies of cattleman and deep-sea fisherman that exist across the country, or the experiences of those who because of food deserts or poverty have no choice but to deny themselves the pleasures of the flesh. Furthermore, such critics might point out, there’s nothing that directly links my childhood experience of the land and food with my adult decision to be a vegan. I could have remained omnivorous and been just as connected with that early response to whole foods.

I don’t deny the validity of these responses or either the particularity or generic nature of different aspects of my childhood. All of us are to some degree a product of our pasts and the land from which we arose or into which we plunged our spades. But I think there’s not only value in being straightforward about our etiology but it’s right and proper to be honest about the values we bring with us into any analysis. I also consider it appropriate to recognize my non-academic status and to admit that the Vegan America Project is not—indeed, cannot be—definitive. But why should these negate any effort to explore it? As I’ll explain in a later blog, my goals for the Project itself are as direct and realizable as my ambitions are expansive and perhaps utopian: to imagine a future that honors the Earth, helps communities of beings thrive, and enables our country to be resilient and adaptable in the face of the considerable, even existential challenges it will face in the twenty-first century.

There are, as we will see, good reasons to do this. However, before we get into them, let me rehearse yet another genesis point for the Vegan America Project—one more immediate than my childhood. I write about this in the next blog.