Man’s Do­min­ion

The ben­e­fits of ve­g­an­ism have made the prac­tice a part of our wider cul­ture, not to men­tion daily menu plans. ex­am­ines the ethics, emo­tion and logic be­hind this life­style choice

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - Bert Archer

Will go­ing ve­gan change the planet or your life?

VE­G­ANS WERE ONCE seen as the ex­treme arm of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, yip­pies to its hip­pies, Va­lerie Solanas to its Glo­ria Steinem. The prac­tice of not only not eat­ing meat (which is veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and also in­cludes eat­ing dairy and eggs), but not eat­ing or wear­ing any­thing that caused harm to a liv­ing crea­ture, in­clud­ing not only eggs, but­ter and milk but leather, wool, pearls, honey and, ac­cord­ing to some, figs (which con­sume wasps when in flower form be­fore de­vel­op­ing into fruit) seemed, for a long time, a lit­tle ex­tra.

Then Pres­i­dent Clin­ton went ve­gan, which prompted a flurry of sto­ries point­ing out that, ac­tu­ally, so was Ellen DeGeneres and James Cromwell, Bryan Adams and “Weird Al” Yankovic, at least 10 NBA play­ers and a whole pas­sel of no­table mil­len­ni­als. Even Bey­oncé an­nounced she’s go­ing ve­gan for 44 days be­fore her Coachella per­for­mance this year, the third time she’s gone tem­po­rar­ily ve­gan as a sort of cleanse. She even sells a 22-day ve­gan meal plan that boasts “lifechang­ing health ben­e­fits.”

Some­thing’s hap­pen­ing here. Is this a fad, like gluten-free food? A life­style choice, like be­ing a goth? Or is it a moral move­ment? When your kid asks for meat-free meals and starts buy­ing vinyl shoes, do you tell her to smarten up and eat her kofte or re­spect her de­ci­sion the way you would if she were boy­cotting Chavez’s grapes or P.W. Botha’s lemons?

The truth is, of course, it can be any of th­ese things. There are peo­ple who be­come ve­g­ans to lose weight, be­cause lambs are cute or for less well-thought-out rea­sons. RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, for in­stance, seems to thinks it doesn’t make sense to “put dead flesh” into a “live body.”

But whether or not it’s a fad, it is most def­i­nitely a trend. In 2015, Ip­sos found that mil­len­ni­als are

twice as likely to be ve­g­ans as the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, and that 18- to 24-year-olds are as much as 50 per cent more likely still.

It’s usu­ally easy enough to trace the roots of fads and life­styles (the gluten thing to a diet-book in­dus­try built on the back of a poorly done and quickly re­futed study, goth to the chance in­ter­sec­tion of post­punk rock and Bela Lu­gosi’s ghost). Ve­g­an­ism is not nearly so straight­for­ward but, given the rapid in­crease in adop­tion rate and the po­ten­tial ef­fects on agribusi­ness, the en­vi­ron­ment, the culi­nary arts and our re­la­tion­ship to the an­i­mal king­dom, it’s worth a look.

Though ve­g­an­ism has a long his­tory (Syr­ian philoso­pher/poet Abu al-Ala al-Maarri was ad­vo­cat­ing it as early as 1000 AD), the term “ve­gan” was only coined in 1944 by English­man Donald Wat­son, who made it up out of the first three and last two let­ters of “vege­tar­ian,” say­ing “ve­g­an­ism starts with veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and car­ries it through to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion.”

Wat­son traced his own di­etary de­ci­sions back to hear­ing a pig scream while be­ing slaugh­tered on his un­cle’s farm when he was a child, though later in life he seemed at least as in­ter­ested in the health ben­e­fits – boast­ing at one point that he’d never taken medicine – as he was in the an­i­mal moral­ity of it. But th­ese re­main the two big­gest rea­sons peo­ple turn to ve­g­an­ism and, while both have a good deal of sub­stance to them, they both have some prob­lems as well.

THE RISE OF VE­G­AN­ISM has roughly tracked with the fall of the fam­ily farm and the re­place­ment of lo­cal and do­mes­tic sup­ply chains with the al­go­rith­mic so­phis­ti­ca­tion of to­day’s trade routes. Though he re­acted poorly to it, Wat­son’s hav­ing a rel­a­tive with a farm was far more com­mon in 1944. As late as my own child­hood 40 years later, I had a farm­ing aunt and un­cle who sent me out in the morn­ings into moist, pil­lowys­melling chicken coops to reach un­der roost­ing hens for the warm eggs and I learned early to equate an empty nest with that evening’s chicken din­ner. Wat­son’s re­ac­tion was, I’m sure, not unique: in or­der to stave it off among my cousins, my Aunt Alison in­sisted that if the kids wanted to name the live­stock, as they al­ways did, they had to pick from a list of ap­proved names that in­cluded Ham­burger, Ba­con and Lamb Chop. But it was far more com­mon to see it as how the world went. If you were Chris­tian, the Bi­ble told you God had given you do­min­ion over the an­i­mals and when those an­i­mals were tasty, well, it only stood to rea­son you’d eat them.

Even if you didn’t have a di­rect farm hookup, the gro­cery stores un­til re­cently had work­ing butch­ers, of­ten with car­casses hang­ing be­hind glass. Though some higher-end ones still do, for the past cou­ple of decades, as those mil­len­ni­als were grow­ing up, the Met­ros and Safe­ways and No Frills have out­sourced the butcher­ing or at least keep it be­hind closed doors, show­ing shop­pers only the tidy, blood­less por­tions pressed be­tween Sty­ro­foam and plastic wrap. The age of the tidy por­tion was pre­ceded and com­ple­mented by the age of the nugget, traced by food writer Michael Pol­lan in his book The Om­ni­vore’s Dilemma to Tyson Foods’ work for McDon­ald’s in 1983. Both the nugget – which has roughly the same re­la­tion­ship to a cluck­ing chicken as an Easter Creme Egg sun­dae – and the tidy por­tion give kids the sense that meat is like pota­toes or bok choy, set­ting them up for the di­etary equiv­a­lent of Freud’s neu­ro­sis-in­duc­ing pri­mal scene when they first learn that beef comes from a cow and pork from a pig.

The trend has been mir­rored in cities them­selves, where the ma­jor­ity of the North Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion now lives, with slaugh­ter­houses, once in the ur­ban in­dus­trial cores, moved out to trans­porta­tion hubs well away from the gen­eral pop­u­lace, like the Maple Lodge chicken slaughterhouse in Bramp­ton, Ont. The odd throw­back, like the Toronto Aba­toir and Qual­ity Meat Packer on Te­cum­seth Street in Toronto (which closed in 2014), has tended to pro­duce dis­gust, out­rage and anti-abor­tion­style protests, al­beit from the op­po­site end of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

But it’s not just the killing and the car­casses we’re re­moved from th­ese days, it’s the very con­cept that things not only die but are killed. The am­biva­lence to death that hu­man­ity has al­ways felt is start­ing to harden into some­thing very much like de­nial. Even as the in­ter­net has the­o­ret­i­cally made not only the fact but ac­tual im­ages of death more ac­ces­si­ble than ever, main­stream me­dia – which, by now, has to in­clude Google, YouTube and In­sta­gram – are eras­ing them, at least from North Amer­i­can screens. In 1978, when Karl Wal­lenda, pa­ter­fa­mil­ias of the fa­mous Fly­ing Wal­len­das circus fam­ily, died do­ing a promo stunt in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the net­work evening news ran the full clip of him slip­ping, hang­ing on to the wire, los­ing his grip and smack­ing into the pave­ment. The footage wasn’t anoma­lous. To­day we’d call that gra­tu­itous, the same word we used to use for nu­dity be­fore Game of Thrones and Al­tered Car­bon. Ac­cord­ing to some et­y­mol­o­gists, the word “ob­scene” de­rives from the an­cient Greek skene, or stage, and was used for things that were kept off-stage for dra­matic or tech­ni­cal rea­sons. We used to think nu­dity and sex were ob­scene and so we kept them out of frame. Now, we think death is.

Death is, of course, part of life in the most fun­da­men­tal way pos­si­ble, as is killing. And though it’s ba­sic to say that killing is part of na­ture –

birds do it, bees do it – it’s pos­si­bly even more sim­plis­tic to sug­gest that some­thing so el­e­men­tal could some­how be wrong. And this is where the an­i­mal-cen­tred mo­ti­va­tions be­hind ve­g­an­ism get fuzzy. The videos Pamela Anderson presents of hor­ri­fy­ing treat­ment of bat­tery chick­ens, the sto­ries of peo­ple be­ing ar­rested for try­ing to give pigs swel­ter­ing in the back of a truck on the way to slaugh­ter a last sip of wa­ter are not about killing but cru­elty, and less di­rectly, bad man­age­ment, cheap food, and ex­cess. We tend to think we need to eat what­ever we want when­ever we want to in what­ever quan­ti­ties we feel like at prices that are not only the low­est pos­si­ble but slightly lower than pos­si­ble. If we can get our act to­gether, grow up, and ramp up our im­pulse con­trol, the re­volt­ing scale of in­dus­trial farm­ing, which adds eco­log­i­cally dis­as­trous meth­ane and de­for­esta­tion to the cru­elty, would not be nec­es­sary.

But ve­g­an­ism, im­por­tantly, is not about eat­ing cru­elty-free food. If it were, ve­g­ans would pre­sum­ably be in favour of hunt­ing, which re­quires no an­i­mal to be bred, im­pris­oned or have any in­ter­ac­tion with hu­mans at all un­til the mo­ment of its death. And if killed by a skilled hunter, that death would, more­over, in­volve a good deal less pain and suf­fer­ing than the most prob­a­ble ways the an­i­mal would oth­er­wise die: star­va­tion, de­hy­dra­tion or be­ing con­sumed alive by preda­tors.

When I phoned up ve­gan Do­minika Pi­asecka to talk about hunt­ing, she was no shades of grey.

“Ve­g­an­ism is a life­style choice that avoids harm­ing an­i­mals in all as­pects of life, such as food, cloth­ing, en­ter­tain­ment and any other purpose,” she re­sponded by email. “Ve­g­ans are thus nat­u­rally op­posed to all forms of hunt­ing.” Killing, she said later by phone, is in­her­ently cruel, and an­i­mals that kill “don’t have the moral­ity that we do.” I tried to stick to hunt­ing. It’s a vi­tal part of many cul­tures, in­clud­ing many in­dige­nous to North Amer­ica, and the moral op­pro­brium is un­set­tling. But Pi­asecka kept go­ing back to in­dus­trial farm­ing, the ve­gan sweet spot, say­ing they “re­ject the idea of an­i­mals be­ing seen as prod­ucts” and point­ing out that “free-range, grass-fed, or­ganic, hu­manely killed – those are all tricks.” One ar­gues cru­elty in dis­cus­sions of ve­g­an­ism; one sim­ply states an op­po­si­tion to killing. Per­haps it’s sim­ply rhetor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. When Mor­ris­sey, another fa­mous ve­gan, early on with the Smiths sang, “Death for no rea­son is mur­der,” he sounded more than a lit­tle fatu­ous. Food, even when we have other choices, is ac­tu­ally a pretty com­pelling rea­son.

Ve­g­an­ism re­quires death it­self to be ab­sent, but in ar­gu­ing that, the or­ga­ni­za­tions that rep­re­sent it al- ways take an ex­tra step that con­flates two re­lated but dif­fer­ent con­cepts – cru­elty and death – in a way that ap­peals to ethos and pathos in or­der to do an end-run around lo­gos, to use the an­cient terms for ethics, emo­tion, and logic, the three best ways of per­suad­ing peo­ple. It’s a com­mon strat­egy and an ef­fec­tive one; the NRA uses the same de­vice with free­dom and as­sault ri­fles.

But what if an­i­mals are not your main con­cern here? What if it’s your own health? Broad and longterm stud­ies have been done, by Loma Linda Univer­sity in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia among oth­ers, that have shown a di­rect re­la­tion­ship be­tween ve­g­an­ism and good health. Ac­cord­ing to Ve­santo Melina, a ve­gan di­eti­cian in Van­cou­ver and coau­thor of Be­com­ing Ve­gan, th­ese stud­ies have found re­duc­tions in car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease (32 per cent), hy­per­ten­sion (75 per cent), Type 2 di­a­betes (62 per cent), can­cer (16 to 19 per cent) and even cataracts (40 per cent), and that all th­ese fig­ures are higher among ve­g­ans than veg­e­tar­i­ans, of­ten sig­nif­i­cantly. And for any­one who might think ve­g­an­ism keeps you healthy but a lit­tle fri­able, she points to Olympic fig­ure skater Mea­gan Duhamel, weightlifter Pa­trik Baboumian and those NBA play­ers as ev­i­dence that ve­g­an­ism is no bar­rier to phys­i­cal fit­ness at the high­est lev­els.

One pos­si­ble caveat with the Loma Linda find­ings, and it’s the big­gest and most quoted of th­ese stud­ies, fol­low­ing tens of thou­sands of peo­ple over half a decade, is that all the peo­ple stud­ied are Sev­enth Day Ad­ven­tists. Loma Linda is a ma­jor Ad­ven­tist cen­tre, and the univer­sity is part of the church or­ga­ni­za­tion. There is much good to be said for their faith-based, so­cially net­worked diet that in­cludes both veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and ve­g­an­ism but does not re­quire it, and diet books are try­ing to cap­ture its essence for non-be­liev­ers.

How­ever, many in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity pre­fer what are called pop­u­la­tion-based stud­ies that fo­cus on peo­ple from the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. The big­gest of th­ese was re­cently con­ducted by sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney in Aus­tralia. It fol­lowed 267,180 women and men over the age of 44 for an av­er­age of six years and found “no ev­i­dence that fol­low­ing a vege­tar­ian diet, semi-vege­tar­ian diet or a pesco-vege­tar­ian diet has an in­de­pen­dent pro­tec­tive ef­fect on all-cause mor­tal­ity.” Though the fig­ures re­fer to veg­e­tar­i­an­ism rather than ve­g­an­ism, a 2009


Ox­ford Univer­sity meta-study or re­view – an over­view of sci­en­tific con­sen­sus at the time – that did in­clude ve­g­ans came to a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion.

But even if you de­cide you feel bet­ter on a ve­gan diet, there’s the is­sue of our mor­tal­ity. When it comes to health, we tend to pre­fer it with a side of longevity. We don’t want to be like Jim Fixx, pop­u­lar­izer of run­ning, who was ex­tremely healthy right up un­til he died of a heart at­tack at 52. And longevity with­out health is ev­ery mid­dle-aged per­son’s nurs­ing home night­mare. We want to live to be 100 and be healthy right up un­til the mo­ment we drift gen­tly off, tap­ping our still ag­ile feet to some tune that was pop­u­lar 84 years ear­lier.

Ac­cord­ing to Prof. Michel Poulain, who stud­ies longevity at the Univer­sity of Lou­vain in Bel­gium, though the se­cret to long life is still elu­sive, he is sure about the role of ve­g­an­ism and veg­e­tar­i­an­ism in liv­ing into ex­treme old age. “There is no re­la­tion­ship,” he says.

One of the two orig­i­na­tors, along with writer Dan Buet­tner, of the con- cept of blue zones – which is what they’ve called five spots they dis­cov­ered around the globe where peo­ple live a lot longer and a lot health­ier than they do any­where else – he says that only in one, Loma Linda as it hap­pens, are there any peo­ple who don’t eat meat. In the oth­ers, peo­ple ac­tu­ally eat a lit­tle more meat than av­er­age for their re­spec­tive re­gions.

Poulain says it’s far more likely that the even­tual key to longevity will be epi­ge­netic, genes that get ac­ti­vated by cer­tain be­hav­iours and con­texts, like lifelong mod­er­ate phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, con­tin­ual so­cial en­gage­ment and sus­tained calo­rie re­stric­tion (i.e., eat­ing less of ev­ery­thing).

Ul­ti­mately, the prob­lem with ve­g­an­ism is not fuzzy think­ing on an­i­mal rights. Our treat­ment of live­stock in fac­tory farms is very likely to be one of those things gen­er­a­tions in the not-so-dis­tant fu­ture see as so ob­vi­ously evil that they can’t un­der­stand how their great-grand­par­ents could have turned a blind eye. And it’s not over­stated health claims, ei­ther. The fact that what health ben­e­fits there are, are as likely to be due to caloric re­stric­tion as choice of food is of lit­tle con­se­quence.

The real trou­ble with ve­g­an­ism, at least as prac­tised by Euro­pean-de­scended North Amer­i­cans, is that it is less phi­los­o­phy than faith but won’t ad­mit it. Phi­los­o­phy is dis­cur­sive, not only al­low­ing but invit­ing dis­sent and even am­biva­lence. If ve­g­an­ism were an ad­mit­ted faith, like Jain­ism, ap­peal­ing to ul­ti­mately un­prov­able higher pow­ers or deeper truths, then fine; there’s a spe­cial place in sec­u­lar dis­course for the faith­ful. But ve­g­an­ism, with its rhetor­i­cal eli­sions and in the face of con­trary ev­i­dence, in­sists on an ab­so­lute line; its pro­scrip­tions, were they for­mu­lated in an ear­lier era, are per­fectly suited to ex­cla­ma­tions be­gin­ning with the words “Thou shalt not.”

So far, sec­u­lar study tends to sup­port a less emo­tion­ally and rhetor­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing but pos­si­bly more help­ful way for­ward. Eat less – of ev­ery­thing; avoid sup­port­ing cru­elty to the ex­tent your bank ac­count al­lows and come to terms with death, and killing.

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