Should the Revolution Have a Vegan Option?

French people don’t give a shit about lifestyle politics.

Okay, it’s a generalization, but—despite my short residence and limited language skills—there’s some truth to it. I saw it on May Day, among the anarchists selling Coca-Cola products and candy bars, and I saw it at a “zero waste” conference where the attendees couldn’t manage to get their paper plates into the recycle bin. But mostly, I see it every time I go to an activist event with food—and, being France, there’s always food—and am confronted by the wholesale lack of anything vegetarian. Even the incredibly low bar of having something that is not pork, in a country with a sizeable Muslim population, is rarely reached.

As someone coming from the Bay—the land of gluten-free, of re-useable shopping bags, of farmers’ market parking lots crammed with Priuses—this has been a bit of a jolt. But being in France has challenged me to re-evaluate my politics: in the face of climate change, of billions of animals slaughtered, of global labor exploitation, does the way I live actually matter? I’m pretty sure the chain-smoking, sweatshop-buying French communists I know would say “no.” In fact, in my (usually disastrous) forays into the French language, I’ve learned that talking about “la politique” makes no sense without referencing political parties or the state. In French, “lifestyle politics” is a bit like talking about “non-political politics.”

Much like universal healthcare, what is taken for granted in France is up for debate in the U.S. In fact, hating on lifestyle politics is totally huge on the left right now.* There’s the old Derrick Jensen article, “Forget Shorter Showers,” and the more recent “Stop Worrying About Your Carbon Footprint” that I’ve been sent three times. And—thankfully—sociologists have finally added their ever-weighty opinions to the matter. Exhibit one is Samatha MacBride’s (fantastic) Recycling Reconsidered, which pretty much dismembers the idea that recycling has any impact beyond making us feel good. Her conclusion that we need to “relegate notions of personal commitment and responsibility…to the backburner” pretty much sums up the post-lifestyle zeitgeist. It’s not just that buying local is useless—it’s that it actively detracts from useful things, be it direct action or harassing our Congressperson.

Okay, I get it: the old premise behind my veganism—that each of us could save 95 animals a year, starting today, thanks to the magical power of supply and demand—is bunk. Regardless of what the economists tell us, the world is not an aggregate of individual consumptive choices. But I still want to be vegan, and I’d like a reason a bit more utilitarian than just saying it’s the right thing to do.

Fortunately, even France managed to furnish a justification. I was at an anti-waste event the other week, sitting with a group of dumpster divers on the margins (scoffing at the respectable people in suits and their power point presentations and, you know, real political program for change), and one of the caterers on his break sat next to us. “Do you see how many beer bottles they’re leaving half-full?” he observed, “And they’re telling me I need to waste less?” Whatever we think of lifestyle politics, we have to acknowledge that, even as political actors, we are increasingly judged on personal criteria. We live in an age of heightened scrutiny, and our consistency matters—not because being consistent changes the world in itself, but because inconsistency is an easy excuse to discredit us.

There are other reasons, too, to keep taking shorter showers. We need to acknowledge the profound disempowerment that most people—even privileged people—feel today, and recognize that the one area where people do feel they have some efficacy is in their consumptive choices. If we are serious about the movement-building maxim of “starting where people are at,” we need to acknowledge that most people approach problems in their lives by purchasing something. What’s more, the glorying in the irrelevance of personal choices leaves me wondering  how many activists actually want to live in the world they claim they’re trying to create through direct action and political organizing. Because guess what: you really are going to have to take shorter showers and eat less meat and buy less shit in our future utopia, even if you don’t see any of these as tactics to get us there.

Having a vegan option isn’t going to precipitate a revolution. But, to do a great injustice to Emma Goldman, it isn’t a revolution if I can’t have something ethical to eat.

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* I mean this, of course, referring to the tiny leftist echo chambers in which I exist. It’s kind of like how my punk friends and I thought the Dropkick Murphy’s were a “huge” band in 2003 because more than two people at my high school had heard of them.

The 90% Rule

Last night, I met someone who produces no waste. Now, you could quibble over the technicalities—in an obvious biological sense, we all make some waste—but I was still impressed. She eschewed all food that came in disposal containers, bought things in packaging only if she could reuse it, and got all of her clothes second-hand. This woman literally did not have a trash-can in her house. There were a few fudges—think, “hygiene products”—but as far as I’m concerned, she was close enough that we could round down to “zero”.

Every time I encounter someone like this—who only eats local or fair-trade food, who exclusively gets clothes and other goods from thrift stores or freecycle, who strictly adheres to veganism—I always flirt with the idea of having a go at it myself. There’s something tempting about perfection, about the moral acuteness of “all” or “none” as opposed to “a little” and “a lot”. I’m certainly inspired enough by my encounter that I’m taking another look at everyday practices that, although I’ve rarely reflected on them, produce waste unnecessarily.

I’m pretty sure, though, that I’ll stop before I get to zero. Maybe I’m just lazy. But I have another justification, which I call the “90% rule”, or perhaps, the “law of diminishing returns to ethical consumption”. With any sort of lifestyle politics, you can get 90% of the way to where you want to be relatively easily, but afterward, progress is painful. Most of us could easily cut out 90% of our clothes purchases if we learned to take better care of them and sew (I’m speaking mostly to myself here). But when all of your boxers have holes in them (again, self-referential), it’s hard to find a fix that doesn’t involve buying something new.

When I first went vegan, I studiously read labels and spurned anything that “may contain less than 1% eggs or milk”. I religiously declined non-vegan food in all circumstances. I cut myself zero slack on special occasions. And, for all my efforts, my panic only deepened as I learned about the trace amounts of cow bones in refined sugar or rodents killed in the production of vegan crops.

Eventually, I just gave up. I still consider myself a vegan, but I know many militant animal rights activists who would challenge my application of the label. I rarely read ingredient labels; I cheat shameless on holidays; when I dumpster dive, all bets are off when it comes to baked goods. Like I said, maybe I’m just lazy. But I’ve also realized that our time is limited, and time spent finding soy cheese without trace amounts of whey is time not spent protesting or educating others.

We need moral exemplars—people like the woman I met—who show us that we can push the boundaries in our lives and our ethics. But I also think we need people (I’m not actually including myself here) that show us that living as a vegan, or non-waster, or locavore is more-or-less attainable without Herculean efforts. Maybe the biosphere has space for No Impact (Wo)Man and Some Impact Man.

Still Eating Quinoa

I’ve been meaning to return to blogging for a while—in fact, since I made it a New Year’s Resolution and, immediately thereafter, abandoned it as quickly as a new exercise regime.

Leave it to a not-at-all veiled attack on veganism to bring me back.  Periodically, friends forward me links obliquely encouraging me to reconsider my veganism.  First, it was the idiotic vegan parents who deprived their kid of breast-milk (“You wouldn’t make your kids be vegan…would you?”).  Then it was soy plantations causing deforestation in the Amazon.  Now it’s Bolivians going hungry, supposedly, because demand for quinoa from Western vegans has made the grain prohibitively expensive for them.

Just so we’re clear: the quinoa article is a complete farce.  Vegans are less than one percent of the U.S. population, so it’s not clear why “vegans”, as opposed to “people who eat quinoa”, are singled out.  The article’s follow-up claim that vegans should also feel bad about eating soy – because it “drives environmental destruction” in the Amazon – is actually so off-base that The Guardian added a footnote pointing out that 97% of soy imports go to animal feed.  Presumably, some of that soy goes to feed the cows that the author smugly concludes we can eat with a clear conscience.

This editorial wouldn’t even be worth talking about if it didn’t make a logical mistake that vegans, fair-trade enthusiasts, and farmers-market junkies do as well.  It’s the notion that our individual consumer choices actually cause and, in turn, can solve social problems.  The implicit narrative of the article—that I should feel bad for eating quinoa—assumes that there is some invisible hand that snatches the grain from someone else and gives it to me.

Take this to its logical conclusion, and apply it to a food that isn’t associated with a tiny, much-maligned dietary minority.  From 2005-2008, prices for wheat spiked 80%.  The absolute number of hungry people worldwide increased for the first time in decades.  So should we blame people who continued to eat bread during the crisis for the fact that others starved?  We could, but to do so would be naïve to the political and economic realities of our food system.  The food price spikes of 2008 happened because Goldman Sachs and other investment banks figured out they could make money by betting on grain futures, essentially cornering grain for which they had no real need.  Wheat prices went up in 2008 even though wheat farmers posted record harvests, making a mockery of your introduction to microeconomics textbook.

I’m not writing this as a defense of veganism.  If anything, the article reminds us that finding just commodities in an unjust system is impossible.  So long as 30-50% of food production winds up in the dumpster, you can be confident that your decision to abstain from quinoa / meat / gluten / whatever means that more of said commodity winds up in the trash – not that less is produced.  It’s also, then, a reminder that our “food politics” should involve more than just buying one thing over another.   In the meantime, berating for people for doing their best in a fucked-up situation simply offers comfort to those who would rather do nothing.

Barnard’s Law

Pursuant to a conversation I had at our departmental drinks night last Wednesday—by which I mean, a conversation I’ve now had with shockingly little variation about four-hundred times since I went vegan—I have decided to officially coin my first sociological theory:

Barnard’s Law: In any heated discussion between a vegan and a non-vegan over animal rights, the non-vegan will eventually begin listing his or her favorite types of meat (usually, though not always, beginning with bacon).  At this point, the non-vegan has officially conceded that he or she lacks any compelling argument, but the vegan should probably give up on the debate anyway.

Example (rough transcription of this Wednesday):

Me:  “…and that’s why I believe that the morally relevant distinction should be sentience, not species.”

Non-Vegan Coursemate: “The other night I had lamb with pears.”

Cf. Godwin’s Law

PETA vs. the Feminist Blogosphere

Offended yet?

Periodically, animal advocates get torn to shreds for daring to suggest that the suffering of animals deserves our consideration alongside the suffering of humans.  Last year, Natalie Portman had the audacity to ask, “If we don’t tolerate rape, why do we tolerate meat eating?”—and was promptly pounced upon by feminist bloggers.  More recently, twitter called my attention to a feministing post saying “Fuck you very much” to a PETA display that pointed out the eerie similarities between contemporary justifications for animal abuse and past justifications for slavery, eugenics, child labor, and women’s subjugation.

I’m not surprised to see that the PETA display received such a negative reaction.  When a group I helped found, the Princeton Animal Welfare Society, brought a similar exhibit to campus my junior year, I was labeled a “racist” by numerous student groups—groups which had repeatedly ignored my attempts to reach out to them and hear their objections prior to the display coming to campus.  As a result, I’m sensitive to the kind of attacks being made on PETA, which is why I feel the need to launch into the blogosphere my own explanation of why, even if you don’t care at all about animals, you should think that comparisons between the justifications for animal and human abuse are appropriate and defensible.

Part of my problem with the kind of objections feministing raises is the complete lack of empathy it suggests—not empathy for animals, but for animal advocates.  If you take the inferiority of animals to be axiomatic, comparisons between animals and humans are offensive, because they entail dragging humans down to the level of animals.  But even a half-hearted attempt to put oneself in the shoes of an animal advocate makes it obvious that this is not what we are trying to do.  PETA’s goal is to raise animals up to the level of humans: displays like this are not “quite literally dehumanizing”, as feministing insists, but “quite literally humanizing.”  Even if animal rights activists didn’t have the slightest concern for women’s equality or racial justice, there still would be no conceivable reason for them to make any argument that debases women or racial minorities.

What disturbs me more about the recent outrage, though, is the parochial attitude towards social justice it suggests.  As one blogger, Anna North, wrote about Natalie Portman, “I cannot hear meat-eating and rape in the same breath without feeling that the enormity of the rapist’s crime is being minimized.”  North admitted that Portman was probably not trying to trivialize rape—but she nonetheless felt that Portman was upsetting a hierarchy of wrongs that insists that time spent worrying about animals is time spent not addressing more important, human issues.  What bothers me, though, is the suggestion that our commitment to justice for one group detracts from justice for others; that compassion is something finite which must be hoarded for our own particular, pet causes.

I submit that our concern for the suffering of one subjugated group is precisely what makes us likely to reevaluate our prejudices towards another.  Is it coincidence that movements for civil rights, gender equality, gay liberation and—dare I say it—animal rights emerged around the same time?  Or is it perhaps that the same activists’ involvement in one cause led them to think critically about their preconceptions towards another?  With that in mind, how, exactly, does my being vegan make me a less effective advocate for social justice for humans?  If anything, abstaining from animal products reminds me—three times a day—to challenge the received wisdom of which kind of inequalities and injustices are natural and unchangeable.

All this is very different from arguing about whether comparing the slaughter of cattle for meat to murder or the milking of cows for milk to rape is tactically effective.  It probably isn’t.  There are some injustices about which we cannot be rational: the visceral reactions of people of color to comparisons between factory farming and slavery, or that of Jewish groups to analogies between slaughterhouses and gas chambers, should be respected, even if—as a privileged white male with no oppression to speak of in my personal history—I cannot entirely undertand them.  But my own experience as an animal activist makes me aware of why these tactics are inevitable: because most people—including many, many people on the left—are completely unwilling to challenge their own biases towards animals, and simply dismiss arguments out of hand.  To those continuously outraged about PETA’s attention-grabbing (and, yes, at times sexist and misguided) tactics, I offer this paraphrasing of JFK: those who make thoughtful advocacy for animals impossible make stupid, offensive advocacy for animals inevitable.

On the Need for a Huaorani A.L.F.

I’ve often wondered whether people who live their entire lives in places with really fantastic National-Geographic-esque animals still get excited when they see them.  Are elephants still cool if you live in Kenya?  And are squirrel monkeys equally entertaining for Amazonians as they are for me, or are they just like, well, squirrels?

For their part, the Huaoranis still seem pretty excited about the Amazon’s animal life, to the extent that their monkey-related-enthusiasm rivals my own.  There were times during my trip that it seemed as if we talked about little except for animals: our entire day’s journey was filled with observations of animals, mimicry of their calls, discussion of their ways of living.  When Bartolo’s father offered to tell me some “Huaorani stories,” every single one was a tale of the forest’s animal denizens.  For the Huaorani—just as for me—the wildlife of the Amazon seemed to be inexhaustible sources of entertainment, wonder, and interest.

This appreciation for animals, though, is a bit hard to reconcile with some of the incidences of incredibly wanton animal cruelty I witnessed during my time in Huaorani territory.  One evening one of the wives of the guides was fishing with chilapa eggs, and chucked her catches onto the beach.  Not content to let the fish asphyxiate in peace, though, her kids came up and started playing with them; chucking them around, knocking them against each other, poking them with sticks.  When Mom finally finished, she started flaying the fish, still wriggling.  I wanted to say something—“Just cut it’s head off, please”—but instead I retired to my tent.  We researchers can’t be culturally insensitive, right?  (Even when we’re studying social justice—oh the irony!)

The next day, we were motoring along when Bartolo announced that he had seen a sting ray, and insisted that I take a photo with it.  When I saw him grab a spear, I knew that this interaction was going to end poorly, but I once again failed to stop him.  A few seconds later, he had skewered the ray and lifted it into the air, a huge smile on his face.  I snapped the obligatory photo and sank back into the boat, feeling read to vomit.  Bartolo threw the ray back in, but with a laugh, said that it would die because it couldn’t swim anymore.  Coming from the culture that invented factory farms, I realize I am in little place to judge.  Nonetheless, I’m almost glad that we westerners at least hide our cruelty behind slaughterhouse walls; otherwise, I’m not sure I could get out of bed in the morning.

For those of you who don’t believe that fish can feel pain, I should throw out there that the mammals of the forest don’t fare much better with the Huaorani.  Somewhat to my surprise, the Huaorani villages we visited are teeming with dogs.  Always looking to make friends, I approached a few, only to have them shy away.  I quickly saw why: they are the constant objects of kicks, and targets for rocks and trash thrown by everyone, from children to adults.  For the best, I suppose, that I couldn’t touch them; I would have only felt their ribs, and realized that they are not only abused, they are starving.  Dogs are only one of a huge number of pets the Huaorani keep around.  Among those that I saw around Bartolo’s house was a juvenile squirrel monkey, which was tethered to a pole by a string, wrapped around its stomach, no more than two or three inches long.  For the entire time I watched it, it was spinning crazily around, struggling to free itself: the result was a bloody belly stripped of its hair.

And there is the contradiction: the Huaoranis—who spend all day talking about animals, smile the second they spot a bird flying above, and keep monkeys around just for the company—are also the authors of this unmitigated cruelty.  For the Huaorani, there is a huge gulf between appreciating animals and actually respecting them, just as with the “animal lovers” of my own country who donate to the Humane Society and eat battery cage eggs.  This leads me to think that the dominant strategy of the animal rights movement—that by rendering animal suffering visible, we will convince people to change their behaviors—is a bit silly.  In the Third World, animals suffer in full view, and people are entirely indifferent.  Creating an animal ethic is a project that is much, much more complex than simply generating sympathy and awareness.

Of course, there is no better place than the Amazon to be reminded that animals eat other animals, and that even bothering to write this post—my third about animal ethics while here in Ecuador—confirms me as one of those “crazy animal people.”  There is nothing more natural, I suppose, than humans contributing to a grisly end of other sentient beings.

But that still doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Africa Beards, Expat Guilt, and Mac’n’Cheese

Last summer, it was a beard.  This summer, it’s Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Almost exactly one year ago, I arrived in Uganda, expecting to see some elephants, learn a bit of Luganda, raft down the Nile, and maybe, in between visits to national parks, do a bit of economic research on agricultural cooperatives.  It didn’t quite work out as expected.  I spent the next seven weeks working eighteen hours seven days a week, all the while battling against the implausibility of our research design, the madness of my coworkers, and all manner of comical medical problems.  I left fifteen pounds lighter, even counting the quite hideous beard I had managed to grow.

Mock me.

There were a handful of reasons why I went razor-free for the summer.  For one, the truly hideous fuzz was a source of humor for me and my fellow RAs even in the darkest of times.  The guest house where I stayed had neither hot water nor a mirror, so looking sharp seemed like an overly daunting challenge (Never mind that my Ugandan co-workers were inevitably dressed to the nines and squeaky-clean every day).  More than anything, though, growing a beard was a bit symbolic of the mentality I took with me to Africa.  It’s a mindset of relaxed personal standards that I think many Westerners carry, packed in alongside their guidebooks and bug repellant, when the travel to the developing world.  The third world is, we tell ourselves, a bit freer and a tad less disciplined—which is part of our justification for making drunken asses of ourselves in Cancun or visiting hookers in Bangkok.

This summer, though, there will be no prolonged facial-hair-growth.  I have interviews with government ministers and NGO presidents, and as a result, I’m taking a page out of my Ugandan friends’ grooming book.  In fact, I think I’ve worn a button up shirt for more consecutive days then any time previously in my life, an experience I’m—rather surprisingly—enjoying.  Who could have possibly guessed that not looking like hell would provide a jolt of confidence?

Instead, my weakening of personal standards has come in a different form, which is, I am afraid to say, a bit direr: for the past two weeks, I have been a lacto-ovo-vegetarian.  I decided I would be loosening up my usual veganism before I even arrived, having been warned by nearly everyone I talked to that survival as a vegetarian in Ecuador was going to be hard enough, without added restrictions.  I suppose there’s an element of truth to their cautioning: I’ve already received several lectures from my host mother about how I’m going to become feeble and fragile if I don’t start eating meat, and most waiters just seem puzzled when I ask if there’s a vegetarian dish.  Still, though, I’m surviving, and, for the most part, content with the moral compromise I have made in the name of minimizing my already nearly unmanageable stress levels.

This weekend, though, I think I took “compromise”to a new level.  I needed change for a $20 bill, a massively large denomination that is almost impossible to break in Ecuador.* Feeling the need to compensate the local corner store for cleaning out all of their small bills, I bought a seriously overpriced box of authentic, fantastically overprocessed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Consuming an entire family sized box in one sitting—replete with a cup of milk and a few ounces of butter—was, I think, a culmination of the animal-product binge I’ve been on since I got here.  If I’m breaking the rules a bit, I suppose, I might as well break them a lot: hence, an endless stream of pizza, cake, cookies, omelettes, and yogurt.

I’ve written before about how being vegan anchors my sense that, yes, I am in fact a moral being, and yes, I do occasionally live those morals.  Here, though, I’ve been thinking more about how my decision to go from vegan to vegetarian appears to other people.  I’ve explained to a handful of Ecuadorians that “Yes, I’m usually vegan—but while I’m here, I’m just vegetarian.” From the relativist perspective of anthropology, temporarily suspending my veganism is a Good Thing, because it indicates that I am not trying to impose my Western idiosyncracies on a foreign culture.  It strikes me as a bit awkward, though, because here I am, offering that same expat mentality: “Hi, I have morals in my country, but they don’t really apply when I’m here.”  It is, in a sense, no less diresprespectful than growing a really, really ugly beard.

In the name of my own sanity, I think I’m going to postpone my return to level-seven veganism until I get back to a country where tofu is a household word.  In the meantime, though, I’m trying to sort out the right way to live in a foreign country—to balance the openness of anthropology with my own ethical beliefs, and to find an equilibrium between high standards and the fact that I am, sort of, on vacation.

* Remember how one time the U.S. Government released a bunch of Sacagawea dollar coins… and then they were never seen again?  That’s because they’re all in Ecuador.