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.