Archive for the ‘Vegan Activism’ Category
If you are a committed vegan you have likely thought to yourself that you cannot believe you ate how you once ate, much less lived how you once lived. In a way, this is an excellent emotion to experience. It provides honest affirmation of your new, healthier, and more compassionate way of life. It validates your choice of the road less traveled. In another way, though, it can be a dangerous feeling to nurture because, if not treated with due respect, or if understood as a source of shame, it can lead to the sort of alienating smugness that too often gets vegans sent to the office for having a bad attitude.
What I mean here is that, while we may very well see our former selves as reflections of a fundamentally different being, existential continuity dictates that, lo and behold, your old meat-eating, gluttonous, sybaritic self was still you—the same person you are now— and, truth be told, there is great value in not only owning up to that former aspect of your identity, but also to embrace it and recall what that mindset and former identity was like. The benefit of making this self-empathic leap into the past is that it makes us better able to relate to people who have not, and could not even consider, making the leap we have since made. It brings us back to a past that, for most people around us, remains the present.
George Orwell, who I’m gradually coming to appreciate as the last century’s greatest essayist, fully understood the ideological power inherent in keeping emotional ties to former selves. In 1940, he wrote an essay called “My Country Right or Left,” in which he explored his own transitional experience to liberalism in the face of the horrific aftermath of World War One. Undoubtedly pleased with his evolution toward enlightenment, he nevertheless rued those who acted as if that they were born into it, virgin-like in their liberalism, requiring no such transition and thus having no past to disown.
He wrote, “To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God Save the King.’ That is childish, of course, but I would soon have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions. It is exactly the people who hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes.”
I love this. What Orwell is saying is that the power of an enlightened ideology derives from the power of transition, and that transitions lose their source of strength if we pretend our less enlightened former selves never existed. How else to understand the “most ordinary emotions”—such as a desire to eat animals? Orwell was not writing about veganism, of course, but his message could not be more relevant. He goes on to praise “the power of one kind of loyalty to transmute itself into another” as an element for positive change for which “no substitute has yet been found.”
If true, Orwell’s observation, as well as my interpretation of it, raises future issues for vegan activism as more and more vegans raise children to be vegans from the start. What impact will the lack of transition have on those who never knew what it was once like to sing war songs in honor of the Union Jack? Or, lacking such perspective, will vegans from birth, seeking the power of transition, be more prone to make the change in the other direction, toward eating animals? This is a question for which I have no answer (although lots of thoughts).
Last week I wrote about what I thought to be a poor decision on the part of HSUS to give Burger King the Henry Spira Humane Corporate Progress Award for the company’s progress in ending the extreme confinement of farm animals in small crates and cages. My issue was not with the improvements, however nominal, for factory farmed animals (that still end up celebrated and consumed as Whoppers). Instead, it was with the implication, via an award in honor of Henry Spira no less, that less confinement was enough to warrant a public accolade. In other words, my problem was the ongoing failure to explicitly identify a vegan worldview as the ultimate end goal, something I suggested was all too common.
It generated feedback.
This came from Matt Rice, director of investigations at Mercy for Animals:
Big fan of your writing. Not sure if you have ever expressed this sentiment with Mercy For Animals, but one of the many reasons I am proud to work with MFA is because we do make the end goal clear (an end to all animal exploitation), even when praising companies or individuals for making positive strides in the right direction.
You may notice that at the end of any MFA blog post about an incremental welfare improvement, we say the best thing people can do to help animals is go vegan. Example:http://www.mfablog.org/2013/04/breaking-news-canadas-top-grocery-chains-ditch-gestation-crates.html
While we do encourage companies to make welfare improvements, our first suggestion for people who want to help animals on our Get Active page is to go vegan:http://www.mercyforanimals.org/action-center.aspx
On our ChooseVeg.com website, we have an entire page devoted to explaining the humane myth: http://www.chooseveg.com/free-range.asp
At the same time, we realize that our message has to resonate with mainstream, omnivorous Americans. So we are strategic in our messaging. For example, we often start the conversation about veganism with the word vegetarian, because that word is more accessible to most people. More on that here: http://www.mercyforanimals.org/v-word.aspx
My point is I think it is possible for organizations to praise companies that make some improvements, in the same way we may praise someone who takes the first step toward veganism by exploring Meatless Monday, but still be clear that the goal should be to end the exploitation of animals. Although some vegans seem to think we have to say “go vegan, go vegan, go vegan” all the time or it is implied that some forms of animal exploitation are okay, I don’t think that is the message most Americans take away. For example, here is an interview I did with an Ag News Radio station about MFA’s campaign to ban gestation crates in which the host seems to think he could call me out on our “secret” vegan agenda. He was surprised to find I had no problem admitting we want people to stop exploiting animals full stop:http://brownfieldagnews.com/2012/07/19/mercy-for-animals-works-to-abolish-animal-agriculture/
Anyway, I guess I am just saying that it is possible to be strategic with our messaging, but also clear about the end goal. And I think MFA is a good example of that.
HSUS was in touch as well (privately).
They note—and I’m summarizing— that Henry Spira frequently praised companies that thrived on animal exploitation for making progress in animal welfare. The source of the Spira award–or at least the idea of it—came from none other than Peter Singer, who knew Henry Spira well and still oversees the group Henry founded (ARI). HSUS added that Ethics into Action (Singer’s biography of Henry) paints a clear picture of the pragmatic advocate that he was. They go on to add that BK has made very real progress, so much so that it’s been condemned by a number of Big Ag groups. All of this strikes me as quite important, evidence of HSUS effectiveness, and a good reminder that methods of advocacy will never be perfect and that there is no avoiding some level of engagement with the enemy.
But, for the record, I still think a corporate award is going too far, Singer notwithstanding.
There’s a famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan tells Alyosha a parable. In it, Christ comes back to earth but is exiled by the Catholic church for failing to restrict free will when, fifteen hundred years earlier, he had the chance to do so. The message that Ivan is trying to send to his brother Alyosha (he presents the message as the basis of a poem he’s writing about Christ’s return) is that humans are incapable of handling moral freedom. In turn, they must reject Christ and allow the Church to do what Christ would not.
[F]or nothing has ever been more unsupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though forever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread. But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread?
I’m riveted by the passage (book V, chapter 3). It speaks directly and powerfully to a tension that I consider all the time when writing about animal rights: can humans realistically seek universal acceptance of a basic moral truth in the face of a commercial freedom that sedates consumers with a false sense of choice? The aisles of a generic grocery store might appear to be the epitome of what free will can create: abundance, endless options, freedom galore. But as we well know the doors of the store are where our freedom evaporates. We enter and make “choices” that have been predetermined by alien entities that rely on systematic abuse and suffering. The whole act of buying food has become equivalent to Ivan’s reference to humanity’s dependence on bread. We tremble at its loss.
Pondering this paradox, I’m drawn to the idea of prefigurative politics. This term was used a lot during the Occupy Movement as a way to suggest that the movement’s political structure—essentially anarchic—should prefigure the system it seeks to achieve: anarchic socialism. How would prefigurative politics look for veganism? I’m not at all sure, but when I consider how my personal sense of freedom not only expands but becomes more compassionate as I become less enamored and dependent on the trappings of commercial culture, I’m made aware of something critically important. Veganism, which is so often characterized as a sacrifice of freedom, is in fact a radical embrace of it. What Ivan failed to understand is that, by giving up the hidden source of unseen violence, we gain the freedom that, in his biblical telling, Christ entrusted us to use for the purposes of justice.
His answer to this objection might be this passage, which follows the one supra:
But what happened? Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?*
To which I would respond: our current freedom is not real. It’s a chimera. Only in lifting the veil can we recognize and express its truest power for goodness. It’s amazing to think about how the simple choice to not eat animals, in its rejection of the commercial status quo, furthers that noble goal, one that Alyosha, who lives as a monk, would have understood.
NB: My copy of this book, pictured above, was a gift to me in 1987 by my high school English teacher, Bert Mobley. In it, he wrote, “They say if you read this, you’ll know everything you ever need to know. I doubt that but it’s a great book.”
Indeed it is.
*One wonders if Fyodor Dostoevsky had Edmund Burke’s exclamation in mind—”Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!”—when he wrote this passage.
A common flaw in many animal welfare efforts is that the proposed welfare measure continue to perpetuate, and in some cases even spawn, forms of oppression that the welfare measures were intended to address in the first place. This paradox can take many forms. It’s often noted, for example, how improvements in living conditions for factory farmed animals–when undertaken without the articulation of the end goal of animal liberation–end up merely affirming the production models that thrive on systematic exploitation.
When I was writing The Politics of the Pasture, this was a theme that I’d hoped to hammer home with ruthless clarity. As if scripted, the actors in the Bill and Lou drama behaved in ways that made it ridiculously easy for me to do this. They exemplified my point (well, not just mine) with a concrete case of oppression of oxen leading to oppression of people.
What follows is a version of a section of my conclusion, followed by a link that will—shameless self-promotion alert!—enable you to buy the book, just released by Lantern Books as an e-book. All proceeds go directly back into this blog.
. . . . . . . . . .
Green Mountain College, from the founding of Cerridwen Farm in 1997 to its decision to kill Bill and Lou in 2012, was seeking to do what it genuinely thought best to do: farm in a way that modeled an environmentally sound alternative to industrial agriculture. The school loved the idea. The students loved the idea. The media loved the idea. It was extremely popular in every progressive corner. Replacing industrial agriculture with sustainable agriculture has become one of the most inspiring goals of the twenty-first century. GMC, through 22 acres known as Cerridwen Farm, aimed to play a direct role in this emerging revolution. As farm manager Kenneth Mulder once said about his Farm and Food Project, it wasn’t just talking the talk, it was “practicing the solutions.” In this quest their identity was tightly sealed. It was an identity, moreover, formed independently of industrial or state involvement in local agriculture.
When animal advocates seized upon a controversy—the decision to kill and eat Bill and Lou—to argue that GMC’s pursuit of “sustainable agriculture” obscured basic moral consideration for animals, an unusually high-profile debate unfolded. That debate explored something that has, for the most part, enjoyed a free pass through an otherwise bramble-ridden landscape of agrarian discourse: the intensifying role of animal exploitation in “sustainable agriculture.” This book has tried to sketch out and analyze the depth and breath of that debate. As I hope has been made clear, animal advocates have made a strong case for not raising animals to slaughter and eat. They have effectively highlighted the ethical problem of killing sentient beings for unnecessary purposes. Repeatedly, and with varying levels of respect, they have demanded, sometimes forthrightly, that this quandary be acknowledged and explained by the advocates of small-scale animal agriculture at GMC.
In response, GMC never provided a serious answer. Ever. They provided excuses, but never did they make a sufficient ethical case in favor of killing the animals they supposedly loved for food they merely wanted rather than needed. More often than not, their primary battle tactic was to hyperbolize a few incendiary comments made by a few hotheads in the animal rights movement and deem themselves the innocent and helpless victim of vicious intimidation. I don’t buy for a moment that anyone at GMC ever felt truly in danger, but, as we’ll see, they put on an Oscar-worthy performance promoting their own victimhood.
As an advocate for animal rights and social justice, I’ve come to believe something very strongly: when a group seeking to reform an oppressive institution (in this case industrial agriculture) does so by relying on the exploitation of other sentient beings (in this case, two oxen), that group will eventually assume the tactics of the oppressors. They will, in other words, take the low road to perdition despite their articulated intentions to elevate themselves in the name of a nobler mission. To put a finer point on it, when a group of agricultural reformers seeks to dismantle industrial agriculture and its state sponsorship while simultaneously encouraging the single most important habit required to sustain industrial agriculture—eating animals—that group will find itself aligned, in the end, with the oppression of industrial agriculture.
Well, we’re at the end. And, in ways that could not be more affirmative of my thesis had I scripted them, GMC, in the wake of Lou’s death and the resulting vituperation that followed, has explicitly and implicitly aligned itself with American agribusiness. Indeed, GMC and Big Beef hopped in bed, divided the world into those who did and did not eat animals, and proceeded to do what those who exploit animals for a living do so very well: they consolidated their power and exploited the weakest.
Lately I’ve been feeling the need to articulate a mission statement of sorts. Or at least clear space in my mind for doing so, kind of like you clean your desk before sitting down to work. That is what this post is: a shuffling of papers in preparation for the pursuit of a concrete outcome.
This creeping desire to pin down my quest derives, I suppose, from a nascent awareness that my core identity is gradually moving away from my work as a history professor to that of an activist blogger and writer who seeks to . . . . well, there’s the need for articulation.
What I’m struggling with intellectually is precisely where to situate myself between theory and reality. If I’ve learned anything from my immersion in animal rights literature and activism it’s that, at best, we—if I can even use that pronoun—are united only insofar as we share a sliver of space where theory and reality bump into each other. This is fine. The small overlap leads to vibrant discussions and it forces us to constantly reassess our intellectual foundations. Consensus is dull.
But the sliver of commonality also creates confusion, the sort of confusion that might cause stagnation when it comes to the larger (and shared) effort to help animals. Let me be perfectly clear: I certainly would love to live in a world where a cultural mentality free of speciesism prevailed, where there was no sense of fundamental human exceptionalism, and where it was considered universally wrong by every secular or religious moral standard to treat animals as instruments. I really, really, really want that. I would also love world peace.
Which is to say: this is a remote reality that I have a very hard time imagining ever coming to fruition. This resignation, of course, may be the result of my own lack of imagination. I tend to think, however, that it comes from an honest (if reluctant) assessment of the world around me. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t pursue the Big Dream. Or that I personally won’t pursue it as an essential backdrop to a more accessible mission that strikes me as more likely to be grasped by the general public.
And that mission? At the risk of marginalizing myself and my message, I will be honest and admit that I see my current task as this: to convince people to stop eating animals. That goal strikes me as realistic, pragmatic, and consistent with the larger discussions we are already having about food, agriculture, health, and the environment. From there, it’s an easy step to start discussions about exploiting animals for clothing, entertainment, and research. Put another way, I’m more interesting in changing behavior within the existing frameworks of discussion before changing fundamental mentalities that demand an entirely new, currently non-existent framework. It is this perspective, for those who care, that allows me to get animal issues into the mainstream media.
I guess this means that I have more immediate faith in helping to change habits as a pretext to changing minds rather than changing minds as a pretext of changing habits. Of course, this habit/mind dichotomy is overstated; they necessarily evolve in tandem. But for the purposes of helping to clarify for myself the project I contemplate daily, it helps to separate them, however temporarily. Plus, we are, as humans, more aware of our habits than we are of their underlying ideologies. We often think we believe what we don’t believe, and vice-versa. It’s harder to trick ourselves when it comes to visible habits.
Having just returned from a forum where discussions were much more centered on how to get dairy out of the diet rather than the comparative existential status of humans versus non-humans, I’m quite convinced that there is every justification to focus on the logistics of habitual change before hitting people over the head with liberationist ideology. The liberationist ideology may or may not follow right away. But, fortunately, it’s not required for a profound shift in behavior to be initiated.
I realize this pragmatic moral hedging will anger and alienate a lot readers. But one thing I’ve never done here at Eating Plants is write what people want to hear. Vegans don’t need a Michael Pollan—someone who tells everyone what they want to hear. Plus, rest assured that in choosing an emphasis I’m rejecting nothing, including the remote chance that humans will universally overcome speciesism and human exceptionalsim and stop, once and for all, the exploitation of the most vulnerable in our midst.
In any case, desk cleared.
Are you still a vegan?
The question comes up a lot. It’s intended to be supportive, and could even be called a tacit expression of admiration. What it leaves me feeling, though, is frustrated by a common misconception of why people might choose not to eat animals. I’m not in any way criticizing those who ask the question. I’m only using it as a pretext for strategic thought about how to present our message. In any case, the question is, if you are vegan, one you’ve likely fielded. Happened to me on Thursday.
The immediate implication behind the question is that one would only become a vegan to serve ephemeral, human-centered goals such as weight loss or reduced cholesterol. While I realize that many people do become vegan for these reasons (and, in many cases, end up gaining weight), my sense is that they are the minority. Still, for those who become vegan because we’ve recognized, though whatever means, that the animals we currently eat have basic moral standing, these reasons are essentially irrelevant, if not sort of mildly insulting to the ethical mission we’re undertaking.
For what it’s worth, my answer to the question is invariably “why wouldn’t I be?” And then I’ll say something to the effect of “I care too much about animals to eat them” or “the way we treat animals is awful.” The simplicity of this justification, I’ve noticed, can be disarming. Perhaps because I write about these issues a lot, or am employed as a professor, or occasionally toss off some fancy-pants language, there’s a sense that my choice, if it’s not for my health, must be for some obscure reason that my supposed access to some rare realm of expertise could only explain. But it’s not. Even my nine-year old daughter gets it. When her friends ask her why she doesn’t eat meat, she tells them, matter-of-factly, “I love animals.” And it’s true.
When we advocate for veganism, or when we have a chance to explain it to a non-vegan, we would be well advised to recall the elegant simplicity and intuitive truth of this justification. What amazes me when I encounter ethical arguments for eating animals is how utterly tortured they can be. In light of the “animals matter” or the “I love animals” defense, the muddled nature of these defenses makes perfect sense. Defending animal consumption, because the counter argument is so piercing in its clarity, requires some smoke and mirrors.
It seems that we could do a much better job sticking to our ethical guns (bad phrase), when the opportunity to do so presents itself. We have to take what we opportunities can without being an asshole about it. Advocating for a way of eating that runs counter to the roiling rapids of convention is hard enough work on it’s own terms. Nobody wants to be told that they’re doing it wrong. Nobody likes to think you’re saying you’re more moral than they are. Nobody likes to be told that they have to give up grandma’s meatloaf.
But it they ask, we should at least give them the ethical meat of the matter.
Here are two stories that, taken together, are kind of thought provoking. First: The other day, while running, a friend told me that he was recently at dinner with a colleague whose daughter is vegan. When the topic of her veganism came up, the colleague said, “the problem now is that I know I shouldn’t eat meat and so, when I do, I feel really badly about it.” This awareness, in it’s way, kind of annoyed her. She now knew too much. Which can be very inconvenient.
Second: Last night, I got an e-mail from another friend with a Psychology Today blog post attached. The post was written by Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, and the topic was “why are there so few vegetarians?” The article quotes the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, on why so many humans find it difficult to forgo animal products. After reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, Haidt’s consciousness was raised. But note his reaction: “Since that day, I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farming. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed the after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.”
As vegan advocates and activists, our initial inclination to such a confession might be to castigate it as confirmation of weak character. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed? I mean, come on. Lame, pitiful, cowardly, etc, etc. A more generous and productive tact, however, might be to first acknowledge that even the dimmest awareness that the act of eating animals carries moral implications is, albeit regrettably, a sign of moral progress and, next, to bore into why a man as intelligent and morally cognizant as Haidt could say what he said and not be guillotined by the logic police. Ditto for the woman—a professor—who feels bad about eating animals but still continues to dig in. What’s really going on here?
My very strong sense is that neither of the two reluctant meat-eaters noted here would apply their moral/behavioral dichotomy to other situations involving animals. If an organization of psychopaths who derived genuine euphoric pleasure from tossing kittens into the dryer declared that they were morally but not behaviorally opposed to the gratuitous torture of kittens because, you know, it made them laugh hard and feel really good, I seriously doubt Haidt and the professor would grant their approval. So then, why is the moral-but-not-behavioral opposition culturally acceptable when it comes to doing something arguably much worse—like, say, killing and eating animals? It is, I think, a critical question, one we overlook by simply castigating the people who say such things.
I’ve used the term “tyranny of taste” in other contexts. Well, I think we’re seeing it here as well. In fact, I think we’re seeing an especially virulent strain of it. When it comes to our treatment of animals, there’s something different and fundamental about the basic act of putting an edible substance in your mouth (or not, I guess) and declaring pleasure from it. In an odd but understandable way, it becomes less an animal rights issue than right to my body issue, veering perilously into the pro-choice politics and the abortion debate lane. Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do to my body. That’s my business. Keep your laws off my mouth, vegan! [Please note that I am not agreeing with this perilous lane weaving. I'm just bringing it up, reluctantly, since, the last time I did, I was nearly dragged to another guillotine.]
If I’m at all correct in the claim that humans are arbitrarily quick to subsume animal rights to a false sense of a basic right to taste whatever we please, perhaps even as a right to body issue, it is worth highlighting that we do not sanction the arbitrary satisfaction of other desires, such as, most notably, sexual ones. We cannot go out and engage in sexual acts wherever and whenever and whomever we want to because it feels so good to do so. But still, the right-to-the-taste-my-mouth belief strikes me as very real and perhaps helps explain Haidt’s position. It also highlights a philosophical issue that we must bring into the public sphere.
The other thought I had is that we are, as a culture of meat eaters, working from a basic misunderstanding of pleasure. Of taste. I hear it over and over again, even from people I love and respect, that meat just tastes too good to give up. This is said, again, with a nascent awareness that there are moral implications to the act of eating animals, which only makes the assertion of the culinary euphoria of flesh that much more convincing. But I must ask: does meat per se really taste good? I’m not entirely sure we can even answer questions about something as subjective as taste with objective information, but given the work being done on sugar, salt, and fat—and our physiological response to these substances—I think it’s possible.
I’m sure there’s a lot of research out there on the physiological logistics of deriving pleasure from meat. Or not. But from what I remember, it was never the flesh of a burger that I liked so much as the texture of the bun, the condiments, the creaminess of the cheese, the smokiness of the grill, and, maybe more than anything else, the cultural message that eating a burger satisfied something deep and primordial. But even back then, in the prehistoric pre-vegan days, the idea of chomping down a naked burger was not appetizing.
I do wonder, then, whether we really do enjoy the taste of meat or, instead, have merely been sold a bill of goods wrapped in a good story and stamped with approval from those immoral and behaviorally decrepit cretins who profit from the sale of animals. But I wonder about a lot of things.
The Slate article got a lot of traction yesterday. It was nice to see many familiar names and such powerful points made in the comments section. Thank you. And thank you. It is critical that vegan writers and activists continue to make headway into the intelligent mainstream media. Infiltration and all that. This is an important locus of change, one that reverberates beyond the immediate venue. Corby Kummer, who is often referred to as the best food writer alive, tweeted the piece to his multitude of followers. Even if they all disagree with the piece, they at least saw it.
An article that takes me so long to write leaves me feeling queasy after it drops. So, comments and clarifications. First, the clarification. A reader had a hard time understanding why this statement of mine was relevant:
Cows live up to 20 years of age, but in most grass-fed systems, they are removed when they reach slaughter weight at 15 months. Cheating the nutrient cycle at the heart of land regeneration by removing the manure-makers and grass hedgers when only 10 percent of their ecological “value” has been exploited undermines the entire idea of efficiency that Savory spent his TED talk promoting.
Briefly, here’s my clarification, which I hope helps:
If your goal as a farmer is to use animals for manure and hoof action in order to regenerate land, you’d be well advised to use the animal for the full course of his natural life. The energy consumed in replacement–-breeding, medicated feed, vaccinations, etc—is enormous. The decision to replace, however, directly exposes the fraudulence of the system. The reason ranchers replace, of course, is that they do not primarily want to regenerate land. They want to profit from value-added beef. An analogy: it’d be more efficient to purchase a car to drive from A to B for 20 years than (assuming no drop in performance) to purchase a car, drive it for a year, sell the parts, and buy a new one, every year, thereby fueling an industry that uses enormous energy to replace cars in rapid succession.
Well, perhaps it’s not the best explanation, but it’ll have to do because there’s another point I want to get to. A bigger one. One of the things that I tend to do when I write is second guess myself. Over and over. And over. After publishing this piece, which I worked on for over three weeks, I found myself having second thoughts over this selected quotation of Allan Savory: “You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries.”
Do note that the quote is perfectly accurate and, I do believe, placed in responsible context. My post-publication hesitation is that, well, I kind of agree with Savory on this point. At least in spirit. And at least when it comes to promoting veganism. The future of veganism is far more dependent on creative people than it is on objective discoveries made through applications of the scientific method. If you want to see how adherence to the scientific method can suck the sap out of ethical consideration, take a few minutes and read the comments to the Slate article. Lots of bean counting and appeals to hard verification—both of which, incidentally, I used to debunk Savory’s save-the-world-with-beef argument.
Vegans should be bean-eaters, but not bean counters. Sure, hang on to your calculators; I’m not saying we should ignore the hard data on GHG emissions and good cholesterol. So much of it, alas, provides a knock out punch in that rare world where people shed their biases and follow the dictates of logic. More often, though, our mental worlds are more circumscribed; numbers are countered by numbers and, more to the point, they lack emotion and emotion—the stuff that inspires a genuine change of heart—is what will ultimately sustain any vegan movement that plans to stick around longer than bell bottoms or acid wash denim. That’s why I like Savory’s appeal to creative people.
It’s creative people who question standards and feel the emotional impact of cracking the hard armor of the status quo. It’s creative people who read an obituary about a woman who saved rhinos in Africa and, noting that one rhino followed her around like a companion dog, spends time trying to figure out what that means and how they feel about it. It’s creative people who look at the world as it is and have some inkling about how to make it better. Vegans are creative people.
It’s sort of a popular conceit these days for food writers to cross the line into vegan territory and tell tales from the culinary netherworld. As the following recent stories (here, here, and here) demonstrate, one unintended consequence of these accounts is the subtle demotion of “steak” to a product that, however implicitly suggested, is best left untouched. Carol Adams has written widely about the “absent referent” when it comes to the degrading (and violent) connection between meat and gender production. What I see happening, in an interesting referential reversal, is steak becoming a kind of degraded referent, one that, while rarely dismissed with bold ethical declarations, is nonetheless increasingly characterized as a dangerously compromised substance by those who, even while taking a momentary vegan plunge, profess to otherwise salivate over it.
The devaluation of steak in the popular media—however indirect the insults—evokes for me the very recent historical downfall of the cigarette in our selectively health-conscious culture. It wasn’t too terribly long ago that advertisements for cigarettes showed doctors puffing away in assurance of these weight-loss inducing, nerve-calming cancer sticks. Of course, nowadays, smokers are pariahs. They huddle like lepers in condemned social corners, getting their fix as pink-lunged passers-by heap unarticulated scorn on these nicotine addicts. Bottom line: with few exceptions, it’s not considered very cool to smoke.
Will steak reach the status of the cigarette? I actually think it will. Not only are the health reports grim, but red meat has been enduring dust storms of environmental bad news. Plus, you’d have to be living under a rock (or inTexas) to think that you need red meat to get your protein. In any case, for better or worse, this is how change will happen—through glacially slow but perceptible shifts in public opinion about the place of animal products in our lives. The popular condemnation of steak as the moral equivalent of the cigarette is one of the few signs of progress I plan to witness.