by Christopher Frederic Lapinel
“No poet, no artist of any art, has [their] complete meaning alone…The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. [They] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.”
-T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent
Shift Toward a New Paradigm
Veganism is rising. It’s indisputable. In the past few years, it experienced explosive growth. Even if you aren’t a vegan, you have probably tried vegan cuisine and know some vegans— maybe even on purpose.
The movement gained critical mass in 1944 with the formation of the Vegan Society. Now, however, it has grabbed hold within the mainstream and picking up steam as it goes. In the US alone, people who report becoming vegan jumped 600% (from 4 million in 2014 to 19.6 million) in 2017. Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Germany, however, lead the way, exhibiting the highest percentage of vegans and vegan products. As a result, you can now wander into practically any food store on three continents and get products meant for the vegan-curious. If you can diminish cruelty and still treat yourself to tasty meals, after all, why not? This growing call for vegan cuisine, however, has not merely carved a culinary niche but further re-mapped how the public relates to issues as varied as food, nonhuman rights, climate change, and human rights. Thus, as this movement toward veganism continues, we see legislation evolving too. This is the power of incidental activism intersecting with direct action.
In this respect, Ecuador, Bolivia, New Zealand, India, and Colombia are showing the way, establishing to varying extents what’s now known as Earth Law: a legal framework recognizing that Earth as a whole (particularly the biosphere and the individual species sustaining and depending upon the ecosystems within it) possesses inherent rights that the law must protect.
Even as you’re reading this, Earth Law Center partners with local organizations plus PETA, the Nonhuman Rights Project and the United Nations and others to effect a paradigm shift in legal protection of Nature. The central assertion of this international partnership is that modern laws treat the natural world as human-property, destined for exploitation and degradation, rather than as an ecological partner with its own right to exist, thrive, evolve.
You’re probably thinking at this moment: “Earth Law? Sure, sign me up! But how do we get there from veganism?”
You’d be surprised.
By going vegan and enacting a legal framework to a) protect Earth’s biosphere from exploitation while b) funding initiatives to restore and replenish its biodiversity we might reverse climate change. The World Wildlife Federation reported that: “Today species are going extinct at an accelerated and dangerous rate because of non-natural environmental changes caused by human activities.”
Some of the activities have direct effects on species and ecosystems, such as habitat loss and degradation, overexploitation (such as overfishing), and the spread of non-native species and diseases. Some human activities have indirect but wide-reaching effects on biodiversity as well, including climate change and pollution.
All of these threats have put a serious strain on the diversity of species on Earth. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), globally about one-third of all known species are threatened with extinction. That includes 29 percent of all amphibians, 21 percent of all mammals, and 12 percent of all birds.
If we do not stop the threats to biodiversity, we could be facing another mass extinction with dire consequences to the environment, and human health and livelihood.” This rapid dwindling of biodiversity — beyond the issue of losing so many species of flora and fauna we haven’t even begun to understand yet — is terraforming Earth, but not in a good way. It creates an environment hostile to the existence of life as we know it.
Kurt Vonnegut explores a bittersweet potentiality for human survival on Earth in his novel Galápagos, wherein due to an accident of fate our species survives for another million years into the future, but having evolved fur and flippers. The ghost of Leon Trout, Vonnegut’s narrator, reassures us that humanity will be much happier in this future. No longer able to use tools, our imagination and capacity for language diminish as does our ability to reason and to lie. We swim by day, hunting fish, which we eat raw. By night we huddle for warmth beneath the stars, much like seals.
Veganism benefits Earth
With regard to human rights, a study sponsored by Oxford Martin estimated that conservatively if everyone went vegan now we could save eight million people, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds, and that healthcare-related and climate damage related savings would equal $1.5 trillion by 2050.
A statement put out by the United Nations Environmental Programme declared: “Our use of animals as a food-production technology has brought us to the verge of catastrophe,” and added that the consumption of meat is “the world’s most urgent problem.” Veganism and Earth Law can address this issue as well. A decreased reliance on animals and animal by-products will make more efficient use of our agricultural resources: conserving potable water, increasing food production, and bringing down the associated costs.
The United Nations has further stated that going vegan could even end world hunger by eradicating food inequality and waste, saving the lives of 2.5-3 million children under the age of five yearly. Just to get a dim idea of the magnitude of food waste in the US, watch the documentary Just Eat It.
The Incidental Activism of Becoming Vegan
So there you have it. The many reasons to at least try veganism, even if you ultimately go vegetarian. Yet maybe you find yourself asking: “What does it really mean to be a vegan though?” Maybe the answer to that is up to you, as an incidental activist. The incidental activists, the ones who make their ethical journey part of daily life, are the real leaders. It’s from their ranks that everyone else steps forward. And that’s why if Earth Law is to succeed, you must accept your part in ending the exploitation that’s brought us a minute to midnight in our time on Earth. We need incidental activism. In fact, it’s more important than anything else. Yes, social change requires in-the-streets activists, community organizers, entrepreneurial visionaries, spiritual leaders, and legislators. But that’s a whole-lot of nothing without you.
At its most basic, veganism is about swearing off food that’s made from or by animals. That’s the short answer. At the next level, one also stops wearing clothes or using products that exploit or abuse animals. Maybe you know people who’ve chosen this path for health. Maybe you know people who’ve chosen it out of compassion; or for ethical, spiritual, or political reasons. Or more likely, each of them has chosen it based on individual desires, an intersectional web pulling from all of the reasons above and reweaving itself repeatedly over time. In fact, the Vegan Society (founded in 1944) only arrived at following definition as of 1988:
“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Is it really possible or feasible, however, to ‘be’ a vegan? In my opinion? Bluntly? No. Philosophically speaking, perhaps there can be no stable vegan identity or label one should rightfully claim. After all, is there an ‘essential’ vegan-ness to any individual? Is there an achievable moral summit at which you can be utterly certain you aren’t indirectly exploiting animals? Not really. You should also consider that you could compromise your health. Or your efficacy, by unconsciously perpetuating class, racial, or cultural schisms. Khushbu Shah covered the implicit biases of mainstream veganism in her article The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Color.
“[Donald] Watson, lauded by many as the father of mainstream veganism, went on to found The Vegan Society, which helped solidify veganism’s place as a lifestyle. But these ideologies and traditions had flourished in communities of color for centuries prior, if not longer. Eastern religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism all advocate eschewing animals and animal products in some format because of the belief systems centered around nonviolence.” Shah added Rastafarianism and the Black Hebrew Israelites to this list of vegan and vegan-esque (vegan-ish?) communities shaping the global movement.
So, I ask this, can’t it be that veganism is an unending process of perpetual creation— a process of becoming? Can’t it be that it’s in this process of veganizing that we map out and evolve the legislation that’s shaping Earth Law?
Perhaps, if you will, grant philosophical latitude, veganism could be defined as a process of expanding one’s immanent awareness, based on principles of compassion and non-violence. Maybe? Could it be that your subjective interaction with and experience of a concept, such as veganism, is how said concept propagates itself, evolving into a workable paradigm, a new reality? And if so, what would the implications be? How could this reshape our legislation, our planet?
If we can use this broader vision of veganism, can we affect the actuality of environmentalism, or more specifically the Earth Law movement, more effectively? By making veganism more exploratory and inclusive (less proscriptive), veganism’s social flow can reshape the entirety of humanity’s relationships. With animals, each other, ecological systems, our planet— even our solar system.
To better illustrate this grassroots take on veganism, which is doubtless raising hackles, let’s look to nature itself and the roundabout manner with which highly specialized species evolve. We have been taught, for instance, by the likes of the BBC that the hammer orchid tricks the male thynnid wasp in order to propagate itself. The idea of trickery is tongue-in-cheek. What do flowers and insects know of lying, fakes, or forgery? Biologists, on the other hand, describe how the orchid mimics the appearance and pheromones of female wasps to lure male wasps seeking mates. A useful description, I guess. Yet can an orchid mimic something that it cannot directly perceive? What’s more, this so-called mimicry suggests that the wasp-attractive pheromones or labellum are not integral or genuine features of these orchids. And how does this reductive answer address the process, the art of mutual identification and the co-creation of each other, again and again across a gazillion generations? Don’t these flippant answers betray the glitch in our thinking? The glitch that has us isolate two subjects (ie wasps and orchids) and analyze them as though their relationship weren’t a crucial aspect of their existence? Is this why we humans struggle so to perceive our own interconnectivity with Earth’s ecosystems?
In A Thousand Plateaus, the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari elegantly reevaluate the wasp-orchid symbiosis described above. “The orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it forms a map with the wasp…What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious.”(A Thousand Plateaus, 12)
The orchid does not trick the wasp or mimic the wasp. They evolved together. The lifecycle of the wasp is woven into the lifecycle of the orchid and vice versa. You could liken this relationship to a personal conversation such as you’ve had in which you and your counterpart push and pull at each other’s unconscious, shaping it within that moment into a shared map— a mirror of reality on a small scale, intimately subjective. Pushing this metaphor a little further, when you walk away from such a conversation you could consider yourself “pollinated” because you walk away with concepts and desires you otherwise wouldn’t have had. This affects how you behave, what you say, and what connections you can make with others. In the same passage, Deleuze and Guattari go further. Expounding on the concept of the map, the shared unconscious relationship, they illustrate its power: “The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation.”
For the bulk of human existence, we have existed within the bounty of nature’s balance. Rapid technologic advances in the past two hundred years have psychologically alienated a significant minority of our species from our natural habitat (our ecosystem), allowing for hyper-industrialized exploitation, pollution, disease, and mass extinctions— with exponentially compounding consequences. For the majority of our population, who while reaping little to no reward from the technologic advances, still live in close contact with nature and deal most closely with the causes and effects of climate change (floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, refugee migrations, fracking, toxic spills, monoculture, theft of natural resources, slavery, etc) right now could not seem like a better time to organize for Earth Law. And we have seen just this as indigenous people from around the world have mobilized. Whether as Water Protectors in the US, in North Dakota or Louisiana. Or at the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, when indigenous activists took to the Seine in kayaks to protest rights their rights being stricken from the pact. And of course, we must recognize those who have adopted Earth Law or some form of it. Like the aforementioned nations Ecuador, Bolivia, New Zealand, India, and Colombia. But also cities like Mexico City, Marseille, Pittsburgh, Crestone, and Santa Monica; as well as several townships across Scotland. Many of whom have signed on to help conserve biodiversity not just of Earth’s terrestrial surface but also its waterways.
Arguably, that which does not affirm your inmost desire denies your autonomy. Denies your freedom. Denies your existence. Such a relationship is sterile. Should we attempt rigid compartmentalization of nature’s place in our lives, then we deny the flow of our ecosystem’s demands, deny its value, and deny its wildness until our gradual alienation from its complexity blocks our capacity to affirm our own existence and live fruitfully. To reverse this, we need to take stock of ourselves as a species (and as individuals with personal agency) and realign ourselves with the flow of the planet. By becoming vegan we take an initial step to unfold our awareness (ethically, compassionately, and with clear-eyed reason) to the other animals and living systems that share this intimate space on Earth with us; co-evolving with and mapping us, even as we map them. The next step is to shape new laws from our newfound awareness: Earth Law.
Legally ending the countless iterations of arrogance and cruelty bound-up in the business of where our food and clothing comes from (and by what means) — not to mention where it goes as we discard it all — we will gradually ease the damage done. And one day, several generations from now, perhaps Earth will mediate for us in the shared unconscious; allowing it to redraw the map that has our species circled in red. Maybe then we can be the wasp to the splendid orchid we call Earth.