When Will the World Become Vegan?
With Veganuary over for 2020, it is natural to reflect on the future of veganism and wonder what that future looks like. Veganuary this year was a resounding success with over 400,000 people signing up. But where does veganism go from here? More importantly, when will the world become vegan?
Is the Future Vegan?
The world is very likely to become vegan eventually, and even many non-vegans do admit this when pressed. But, as with many issues pertaining to veganism, its futurology also requires balanced consideration and the right mental attitude: the transition to a vegan world will be a very long one; nonetheless, in our own lifetime we will continue to see change, and that change will continue to become gradually more and more substantial.
As with historical reflection, seeing the world in transition through the narrative arc of our own lives helps us to see where its final destination will lie in the future. So, simply observing the increased popularity of plant-based products, the glacial but progressive change in attitudes, and the increased discussion of pertinent ethical and environmental concerns, should be cause for hope.
In many parts of the world, a human being is first fed with animal products at a very early age, most likely within the first few weeks of life. As she grows older, she acquires a “taste” for such products and learns that they are a linchpin of her diet, eventually being unable to remember the time when she was given these foods repeatedly until she became accustomed to them. It seems difficult to imagine life without them – in fact she doesn’t even try to imagine life without them because they are an inextricable part of her socially constructed reality which she has been conditioned to regard as “normal”. Abstaining from their consumption would be like foregoing clothes or furniture. Those who abstain are painted as strange characters and regarded with a kind of nebulous suspicion. Although she is somewhat dimly aware of the existence of other animals and doesn’t want them to suffer any more than she would want anyone else to suffer, she doesn’t feel particularly connected to all that suffering that is spoken of by the strange people; after all, how can food suffer? How can an object or a product suffer?
The product aspect of the animal-product chimera is that which doesn’t feel pain. And yet the two aspects are inextricably intertwined: a shoe is just an object; but, a shoe made of anything other than “true” leather, supposedly isn’t a worthy item of footwear; a burger made of anything other than the pulped musculature and internal organs of an innocent, thinking, feeling being, murdered in the prime of its life, is not a genuine burger, and so on. And like many other such dualities that chimerically unite inherently different natures, this one is of a paradoxical substance. Through such intoxicating contrast and with a bit of introspective honesty, the animal side of the chimera might raise its head and be seen and our human being may seek to become a vegetarian; after all, it’s not that unusual – it only makes you a bit strange, and such strangeness may even be taken for character rather than genuine eccentricity.
To many, especially vegans and vegetarians, such a concern may seem excessively superficial, but it is not. After all, the most primitive weapon that human societies have in their arsenal is ostracism. For when a group of social animals abandons a member of the group for its own good, it essentially leaves her to the mercy of the elements. It is not a coincidence that abandonment is one of the most fundamental sources of fear in social animals and that ostracism constitutes (at least) a serious threat of abandonment. The primary mechanism of this weapon and the clearest contemporary vestige of this aspect of our past is shame. So, it is perfectly logical that our human being should be so concerned with how she appears to others, regardless of the incredibly high ethical stakes.
It may be the case that the true horror of the situation eventually becomes clearer to our new vegetarian, and that she sees and actually understands the inextricable coupling between the vile practices of the meat industry and the production of other animal products. Perhaps she finally reaches the point where she understands that all of these forms of animal exploitation involve doing great harm to sentient beings, who suffer just as we do and who yearn to continue living their lives just as we do. Perhaps she sees the very real evil of the industries that imprison, use, abuse, and murder sentient beings, and so she ultimately becomes a vegan.
After some time passes, like almost all humans following a plant-based diet, she completely loses the taste she had initially acquired for animal products and finds the sight, smell, and thought of such products physically disgusting – not just unpleasant from a moral perspective, but viscerally disgusting, as a matter of pure, sensory instinct. Belief in the risible notion that animal products are necessary in our diet for some reason then dissipates, long after the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus left town, but nonetheless bound for the same abyss. At the same time, she has acquired many new tastes and has discovered a plethora of wonderful plant-based foods. She realizes that not only is veganism viable, but also that it is trivially easy – and actually very enjoyable – to live as a vegan.
On a societal scale, in a world increasingly free of animal product consumption, where alternatives to animal products were increasingly available and consumers increasingly well informed, anyone trying to increase the consumption of animal products would be more likely to appear dated in her attitudes and maladjusted in her mentality. Such actions would increasingly provoke distaste in wider society through a mechanism of intersubjective reinforcement. Take the extreme case: if society were entirely plant-based and had never been carnist at any point in time, anyone who out-of-the-blue decided to go and kill an animal and eat its flesh in front of other people would be swiftly spirited away to an institution and declared non compos mentis. A person free of any genuine or perceived need to consume products derived from murdered animals and free of societal influence would be very unlikely to consume such products; indeed, social conventionality creates an imperative to consume the flesh and secretions of animals far more than any other factor. This societal tension between that which is clearly right and the great wrongdoing that is clearly being done, however opaquely it might be being done, can only continue to grow. And as it grows, it will provide ever greater impetus for society itself to change.
We can have some foresight then: it appears that the two major factors that will allow this societal change to both resist the inertia and also to gather and maintain the necessary momentum are the commercial success of plant-based products and the ability of consumers to more clearly apprehend the ethical dimensions of their behaviours. Market penetration by plant-based brands alongside the widespread success and high quality of such brands demonstrates to a typical, even fairly sceptical, consumer the viability of a plant-based diet and provides her with a clearer choice than she would have had in previous times. In addition, raising and cultivating awareness among consumers is now possible in a way that would not have been even plausible in any previous era, thanks to the ubiquity and influence of mass communication mechanisms such as social media.
Some attempt to advocate for veganism with reference to our history, although they usually approach the subject naively. Contemplating our origins, the important thing to become conscious of, is not, as some people claim, that our prehistoric ancestors were all strictly herbivorous, because this is simply not the case. Neither is it relevant. It is true that when we look at our australopithecine ancestors, we see quite clearly that they were almost certainly herbivorous or frugivorous. And we can see that during the Pleistocene era a vast expansion of the distribution of early hominid species occurred. Many hominid populations were significantly affected, as with other animals, by the encroaching glaciation, and great tracts of land were left depleted of flora, as occurred at other points in time through aridification. These events undoubtedly had great influence on hominid evolution and migration. In fact, during this period of time, we, meaning our cumulative human evolutionary heritage, acquired one of our most striking attributes – one of the attributes that have facilitated us the most in our establishment and continued evolutionary progress – our alimentary versatility. Our great dietary flexibility appears to have been maintained, even in the presence of factors that would normally act as drivers of reduced dietary range, due to our prodigious development and utilization of tools and our possession of the linguistic and cultural means to perpetuate such practical knowledge. We are left with at least two fundamental facts: A. we are ultimately descendants of herbivorous or frugivorous organisms; B. a basic attribute of our species is vast dietary adaptability. Our base diet can be understood to be primarily frugivorous; however, it’s also fair to say that we have the ability – thanks to our alimentary versatility – to exercise flexibility in respect of we eat, something which has greatly benefited us evolutionarily.
This flexibility translates into choice in the context of modern, western nations, in which, due to innovation and the economics of food production, our diet is not limited excessively by topography or climate, nor by any other environmental factors. Therefore, we are free to consume whichever foods we want, without external constraint. Rather, the main limiting factor is internal restraint: we can choose to eat certain foods and to avoid others for reasons of taste or fashion, or alternatively for more serious, noble, and important reasons, such as ethicality in the treatment of animals, and such as care and concern for the environment, our fellow humans, and our own health. It seems fair to observe that the ice age has ultimately played a very important role in determining our diet, one critical, defining aspect of which is its potentially enormous range. It seems – in the West at least – that many have now realized that they can consume more ethically and leave their Pleistocene-addled cuisine behind. This, as a trend, is gathering momentum and is changing the world. This change, while glacial, is also momentous, and is very slowly applying increased socio-evolutionary pressure on society, as the ice sheets encroached upon man’s early world.
However, there is a common question, possibly an even anxiety, among those of us who choose to consume more ethically – especially those of us who attempt to do so with the specific goal of avoiding giving our support to the barbaric treatment of non-human animals, to the wholesale extermination of ecosystems, to the further worsening of the global climate crisis, and to the continued privation of basic nutrition to millions of people due to an inefficient global food production economy. And that concern, understandable given the practically incalculable degree of harm being done and the resulting sense of urgency, relates – rather predictably – to timescales.
When will the World be Vegan?
According to Google Trends, interest in veganism as a topic has grown approximately fourfold between 2016 and 2020, whilst interest in vegetarianism has remained roughly the same with some slow growth over the same period. Interestingly, whilst the plant-based diets topic has grown very recently, its growth is relatively very low in comparison with veganism.
To many commentators, a clear reason for the success of the movement in recent times which also constitutes a critical prerequisite for continued conversion to veganism, is sustained commercial exploitation of and investment in the domain of plant-based products. To some, this is an irrelevance, merely a broadening of the gamut of products on the market. In reality, this doesn’t constitute a separable, parallel trend as some of these commentators wrongly suggest. While true that the growth in plant-based products is not directly reciprocally associated with the growth in veganism, the moral shift toward the avoidance of animal products and the increased commercial exploitation of plant products should be seen as being in a state of symbiosis. In fact, the new world that is emerging from this interaction is increasingly being perceived by the meat and dairy industry as genuinely minacious. Take the case of the Irish Farmer’s Association (IFA), who recently expressed vitriolic opposition to billboards promoting veganism. The billboards from Go Vegan World simply told the truth about the way in which animals are violated by the dairy industry, but this was enough to trigger a reaction of lunatic proportions from the industry. These supporters of the animal exploitation industry demanded to know where the funding for the ad campaign was sourced, which seems rather rich considering the decades of industry and government funding of propaganda promoting milk consumption, without regard to the moral, environmental, and health implications.
Furthermore, a very common, if irrational and fallacious, reason people react with either shock or amusement at the idea of abstaining from consuming animal products is that they imagine a diet without animal products is not really viable. In fact, some recent studies claim to show that such concerns tend to dominate others in the minds of consumers. Therefore, a clear demonstration that it is viable, and that familiar cuisines and flavours can live on regardless can be very effective.
What really matters to people is how food makes them feel. Non-vegans tend to assume that they would need to sacrifice the special feelings that they associate with their favourite foods and live like modern day ascetics should they shun animal products. They assume that they would lose the subjective sense of sustenance or “heartiness” that is strongly psychologically associated with consumption of their favourite foods, and which is in reality far more significant to them than the supposed nutritional concern that it often masquerades as. It is not a coincidence that those who pursue a plant-based diet for purely nutritional reasons often don’t last the course: for even though people deceive themselves into thinking that one type of food or another is “nutritious”, what matters to them in reality is how the food interacts with their identity not with their metabolism. In fact, the concept of nutrition is often nothing more than a mere pawn in a game of self-deception. Hence, for example, the vast quantities of protein being consumed by many people in the form of protein-shakes and other similar bodybuilding fad products, without regard for the impact of such excessive protein consumption on kidney health, digestion, or cardiopathic and oncological risk. Heartiness can be associated with almost any foodstuffs and cuisines, and may be rooted in how “natural” a certain type of food is perceived to be, how filling it is, how nutritious it is perceived to be or actually is, how traditional it is perceived to be, how much it is associated with wholesome family occasions and human fellowship, and how ethical it is.
For instance, to many contemporary consumers in the West, organic potatoes are more “hearty” or “wholesome” than non-organic, because they are more traditionally produced, and they are produced in a way that is to a greater degree “in harmony” with the natural world, fostering a sense of direct connectedness with the land, the world, and other people. Likewise, innovation in planet-based foods acts as a guiding light for many consumers, allowing familiar cuisines, textures, flavours, and, in almost all cases, culinary traditions to be perpetuated, whilst also allowing consumers to feel that what they are consuming is wholesome, and perhaps, in light of its ethicality, more wholesome. In any case, plant-based products are going strong and gathering commercial momentum, and the reality of this is evidenced by the real fear shown by the meat and dairy industries themselves as well as any other indicator.
For those who are filled with angst at the thought of the excruciatingly slow pace of progress, it may give comforting perspective to bring to mind the trials and tribulations of previous rights movements. George Fox and Wilberforce alike knew that human beings are not and never can be rightly called the property of others, to be dealt with according to the whims and venal desires of their supposed owners. We know that the same fundamental truth also applies to non-human animals. And we need to remember the historical context in which the abolitionists of yore, as with the suffragists, and the Chartists, and others, were operating, and the derision and intolerance with which their ideas were met. In fact, as an aside, the very fact that such people were called radical should lead us to consider that the word perhaps ought to be regarded as the single greatest honour that can be bestowed upon a human being. Such comparisons have already been made many times before in order to provide reassurance to supporters of animal liberation. But like so many other fundamental truths that are discussed in the context of this subject, it must be repeated. In fact, a noticeable feature of animal liberation discourse in wider society is that the same incontrovertible facts, arguments, scientific evidence, ethical points, and simple affirmations of basic compassion and empathy, all must be repeated. In fact, however ironic such a circumstance might be, we should revel in the relentless repetition of these same basic truths; they should be chanted, in perfect chorus, and must ultimately become slogans that demand justice. This repetition ought to be the pulse that keeps the animal liberation movement alive so that it endures and with its vibrance attracts ever more support.
We should not get snagged on the obstacles thrown down by big industry, nor should we allow ourselves to be demoralized by the failings of government; we should understand that these are desperate attempts to save what cannot be saved. Likewise, we should not provoke the insecurities of the ignorant and the belligerent; we should understand that this is a subject that brings them into a state of internal conflict. It is normal, given the mechanisms of social evolution and the great duration of corresponding socio-evolutionary epochs, for us to fail to see that change is possible. However, a serious contemplation of human history tells us not only that it is possible, but also necessary, and often unavoidable, but that this is something that materializes only over sufficiently great timescales. In that respect, many or perhaps even most of us are like socio-evolutionary creationists, naively failing to see the big picture and assuming that social evolution doesn’t happen because it doesn’t occur rapidly enough to be a palpable phenomenon. In the meantime, we should show our support for mainstream commercial, technical, and societal innovations that support ethical consumerism, and in particular those that pertain to plant-based products. We should do this not because we care about ephemeral matters like share prices and such. There are more important matters at hand: the lives of sentient beings and the future of life on Earth. Another great flexibility inherent in the human condition is our unique and very special ability to construct worldviews that guide us by giving meaning and direction to our lives, even during times of great misfortune – perhaps especially during such times. We can choose to be victorious, and to realize success in our daily trials and tribulations to some mean degree, but most of all we should be willing to accept victory in absentia, in the future that we wish our descendants, generations ahead of us, to behold.
In short, there is good reason for hope but none for complacency.
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