Veganism’s Historical Home
How should we situate veganism in the historical flow of time? This question might seem a bit moony but, despite several stellar histories of vegetarianism and veganism, the fact remains that we still know very little about veganism’s place in our dominant intellectual-historical bookshelf. History doesn’t dictate the future, but it certainly suggests what’s possible. So a thumbnail sketch is in order. Ot at least a dusting.
Answering the question is harder than it looks (not the least because I’m no historian of ideas—but ignorance has never stopped me). The Enlightenment—that transformative embrace of liberty and rights and legal protection in the eighteenth century western world—strikes me as the most obvious place to start. It is undoubtedly the case that the decline of tribal and dogmatic religiosity, in accordance with the rise of secular liberalism and the scientific method, established fertile ground for an animal rights turn. From the 1790s through the 1820s in particular, the Atlantic world found itself awash in the literature of animal welfare, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals founded in 1824. The flip side of the Enlightenment, however, was a perverse confluence of liberty and science, a merging that precipitated, among other developments detrimental to the fate of animals, a hubristic mentality of genetic control buttressed by amoral breeding programs and hybrid corn.
Evolutionary biology, certainly an important outcome of the Enlightenment, provides a similarly cross-eyed frame of reference. On the one hand, beginning with Darwin, it reiterated that our shared physical heritage with animals has emotional and cognitive counterparts, thereby undermining the generally unquestioned premise of human exceptionalism that dominated human thought for much of our brief existence. On the other, the legacy of evolutionary biology was never satisfactorily reconciled with human moral development, a failure than every vegan is reminded of when some knuckle-dragging Neanderthal points to his incisors and declares that “humans were meant to eat meat.”
It remains to be seen if the animal rights movement will find a secure purchase in the post-modern and post-human critique of the enlightenment. There would certainly seem to be potential for great gains to come from a mentality that questions and, ideally, tosses Molotov cocktails at pre-exiting signifiers of power (such as, notably, species) and clears space for a radical peripheralization of the human animal. But the critique as it’s thus far been delivered is scrambled and cold and alienating to most activists without academic tenure and a rare tolerance for stupefying jargon.
Finally, there’s the legacy of deep ecology and the Carson-like environmental tradition. As many vegans now argue, this is the essential tradition, the intellectual loft that fosters a critique of animal exploitation as part of a larger and more humane ethic grounded in warmth for mother earth and human health. The problem, though, is that deep ecology too often yields to shallow environmentalism, leading to such utter drivel as the idea that we can save the earth by grazing cattle and drinking raw milk.
I’m sure I got all this only half right at best. But here’s my last thought: failure to find a secure intellectual legacy isn’t a problem. More so, it’s an opportunity to establish animal rights as a basis for a fundamentally new way of thinking, one that’s able to synthesize the best that these traditions have to offer while laying the basis for something new under the sun.