Running for the Revolution: An Interview With Vegan Activist and Ultramarathoner James McWilliams

August 21, 2012


A few weeks ago, Alex and I lifted weights and did push-ups together while cheering each other on with reminders of all the personal and political empowerment that comes along with physical and mental health. As the only tattooed, scruffy-haired vegans at the gym, it felt bold and empowering to take back the image of strength we’d so often lost through implicit and explicit messages: that vegans don’t even possess baseline health, let alone strength; that there’s too much work to be done to waste time taking care of ourselves physically and mentally; that we simply don’t matter as much as the nonhumans and humans around us. We got to talking about how important it is to be strong and healthy if you’re going to work for justice. How you’ve got to stay present for the future—to have the strength required to get things done now, as well as to hold, with calmness and compassion, all the hope, vision, and space that’s required for a beautiful future to take shape. After all, you’ve got to have a strong body, heart, and mind to start a revolution.

In that spirit, we had the honor to pick the brain of somebody whose body, heart, and mind have figured all this out: James McWilliams. McWilliams is a vegan activist, historian, author, professor, and ultramarathon runner. You can find some of McWilliams’ wonderful writings at his Eating Plants blog.


CZ: Many folks know your work as an historian and vegan advocate, but many of your readers are probably not aware that you are an extremely accomplished runner. Can you talk about your history with running, why you started, why you continue, and what your current practice looks like?

JM: I ran in high school but, for some unknown reason, quit doing so when I went off to college. Eventually, I fell out of shape physically. I also fell out of shape mentally and emotionally, which was worse. Too much beer, bad food, inexcusable behavior. Then came my running epiphany, one of the few genuine epiphanies I’ve experienced, and my life changed.

One afternoon, after a physics exam (bombed it), I decided to go for a run. I’m not sure why. I left at five in the afternoon with the intention of running a few miles, but something happened.  A mysterious switch flipped and I entered a zone and decided I liked this zone. I lived in Washington, DC at the time—a beautiful city, especially at night. I ran until the sun went down and kept going. I couldn’t recall ever having run so far, ever feeling so present, so alive, so unified with my ideas. I got home at about nine PM having run about twenty miles.

I ran my first marathon a year later in San Francisco and I’ve run at least two a year, plus ultramarathons, since 1992. It’s now a central part of my identity. What’s perhaps the best part about running is that I enjoy it more as I get older. Everyone tells me my knees are going to quit, but until they do, I think they’re wrong.

CZ: I’m a big fan of the idea that the personal is the political—that our relationships to our bodies and food can’t be separated from politics and society. What connections do you make, if any, between your life as a runner and your life as a vegan?

JM: I ran for twenty years before going vegan, so for a long time, there was no obvious connection.  In retrospect, running proved to be excellent training for my transition to and advocacy of ethical veganism.

Long distance running is personal and political, but even more, it’s transcendental. You transcend “normal” behavior as well as your own expectations. Over time, this serial transcendence plateaus at a different idea of “normal.” Through this beautiful, empowering process, you locate and relocate your identity. You constantly create new conceptions of what’s possible and those new concepts become part of you. The key here is this: You then become more involved with the world as an agent of change. You rage a bit. And this entire process is modeled. Others witness it; many are moved by it—they change for the better.  In this ongoing empowerment and transcendence, you are a public model, whether or not you think so. When you start running seventy miles a week, the people around you will eventually take notice and become curious. It’s an exceptional thing.

A very similar scenario—this internalizing, identifying, witnessing, and modeling— happens with vegan advocacy. My chances of convincing a non-runner to run by declaring “run!” are the same as convincing a non-vegan to go vegan by declaring “go vegan!”  Basically zero. Yes, you have to make your case, and there are a million ways to do it, but ultimately you have to do so while putting yourself out there, by allowing yourself to be witnessed. It’s risky as all hell, but there’s really no choice. A long distance runner cannot hide her running identity any more easily than a vegan advocate can hide his vegan identity. Nor should they hide it. Exposure has its costs, for sure, but the rewards are sublime; just ask any ethical vegan or self-identified marathoner. In these ways, both long distance running and ethical veganism etch positive standards—personal and political—into the pantheon of unrealized possibilities.

CZ: Mental and physical health and its relationship to revolution: discuss.

JM: I may have touched on this connection in the last answer a bit, so let me swerve in a related direction. A revolutionary mentality demands several qualities: the ability to waver between individualism and community, the ability to not care when people you admire love or disagree with you (or end up hating you), the ability to choose peace over force whenever possible, and the ability to admit when you’re wrong and not gloat when you’re right.

I think running religiously has a way of imparting and nurturing the emotional preconditions of many revolutionary-minded qualities. I won’t go into precisely how for each, but I will say: In general, running teaches humility; greed for what’s good; inestimable self-assurance (but not arrogance); and a deep sense of what really matters. These attributes strike me as critical for any effective revolutionary mentality, whether collective or individual.

CZ: What do you say to folks who want to start running but don’t have the slightest idea how?

JM: There are a gagillion books out there that can answer this question better than me, but I can share an anecdote. I had a friend who never ran but, inspired after watching the Marine Corps Marathon in his home town of Washington, DC, decided he wanted to run a marathon. He consulted me for guidance. Our first run was a block and a half, and it left him keeled over, wobbling for air. I thought to myself, forget it. A year later he completed a marathon. What I failed to appreciate was my friend’s persistence. Not strength or power, but persistence. He ran regularly (not daily), gently nudged up his distance, listened to his body, ate and slept well, and stuck with it until that magic moment occurs when you run far and get high.

CZ: I’m sure you have some super inspiring running stories. Can you tell us one?

JM: You are right, I have a lot, and I often go back to them for inspiration. Running, for me, often inspires peak moments. When this happens, I often have to stop running because the force of the experience overwhelms me so much. It’s as if you cannot be more present in the world at that moment.  And the beauty is, you don’t need to do anything. Just exist. Every distraction evaporates and you feel completely, fully alive. This last happened to me while running trails alone in the mountains around Eugene, Oregon, about two years ago. (Actually, I had one two weeks ago on the Golden Gate Bridge, but I’ll hold off on that one, as I’m still processing it… boy it was amazing.)  It was an impossibly crisp day. My run began in the city and, as I dealt with traffic and noise, my mind started to clutter with the data of daily life: work, bills, deadlines. I was dealing with a sore foot at the time and feeling sorry for myself as I entered the woods. When I hit elevation, my breathing picked up. As I reached about twelve miles, I turned this corner on the trail. Next thing I knew I was so high-jacked by the beauty of the forest around me that I found myself leaning against a Douglas Fir tree in tears. Joyful tears. I get chills even writing about it.

(Of course, when I returned and told a friend about the run, she noted that those woods were full of mountain lions. I’m glad I found this out afterwards!)

CZ: Any book recommendations for folks, particularly vegans, who want to be healthy runners?

JM: Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run is a wonderful book on veganism and running.

CZ: What are your favorite vegan foods for staying a healthy, strong runner?

JM: Oh, the list would be virtually endless. I’ll put it this way: My recovery from long runs has improved dramatically as a result of eating a diverse array of nutrient-dense foods. It used to take me a week or longer to get over an ultramarathon while non-vegan. Now, as a vegan, I can typically go out and run the next day.  I seek out beans, greens, and nuts of all sorts, whole grains, fruit, seeds, nutritional yeast; lots and lots of avocados and blueberries; a ton of root vegetables; nut pastes;  burritos, porridges, and so on. In a good day, I’ll eat 20-30 different kinds of nutrient-dense foods (and on a great day, 40.) All the while, I try to avoid junk food and anything too processed—I go easy on vegan cheese and meat substitutes. I eat tofu regularly, but in small quantities. That said, I’m no food purist. I drink a boatload of beer and love coffee and chocolate with a rare fervor.

CZ: Obligatory minimalist running discussion: At this blog we’re pretty critical of anything that stinks of paleofantasy and use of the naturalist fallacy to justify ideologies and behaviors, as so many people do with carnism. To me, it seems like the recent trends in minimalist and barefoot running lend themselves to being embraced by animal-food-obsessed paleodieters and, by extension, advocates of “humane” animal farming. What do you think? Is minimalist running legit?

JM: You’re right that barefoot running, inspired by the book Born to Run, is a bit of hokey trend, and one very likely linked up with sordid pornographic paleofantasies involving endurance and  hunting game across the dusty tundra with self-fashioned spears. Personally, I think it’s all rather silly. As my friend from Burundi, who grew up running barefoot because he couldn’t afford shoes, says: “Why would anyone willingly do that?” That said, I do run barefoot on grass for a couple of miles a week to stretch out my foot. I find the experience to be pleasant and effective. Needless to say, I don’t dream about hunting a leopard as I go; I just want to keep my Achilles tendons healthy. Ultimately, though, when it comes to running, I say do whatever works. I once met a guy—a doctor—for an early morning run before he had to be at work for his 6 AM shift. As he got out of his car, he realized he’d left his running shoes at home. He thought about running barefoot but, recalling all the patients he saw with torn calves from barefoot running, decided against it. He ended up running ten miles in a pair of rubber Wellingtons from the trunk of his car. Whatever works.

CZ: This society kind of doesn’t want to admit that vegans can be strong and healthy. A lot of vegans internalize this message and it doesn’t even occur to us that we, too, can be bad-ass runners. Any words of wisdom for us?

JM: There’s no need to rush out and become sculpted models of athletic prowess. The health that vegans should want to share is a health that unifies a state of mind and a state of physical being, both of which are intimately connected. Running is one the purest and most authentic things I do. I hope the way I present myself physically to the world naturally reflects this—not through superficial markers like musculature or leanness or whatnot, but through overall bearing and presence. I realize that this all wades into the choppy waves of body-image, and in no way do I wish to downplay the complex turmoil of that concern. It’s just that I know many long-distance runners who you’d never guess, by standard conceptions of what runners are supposed to look like, were avid marathoners. On the contrary, no matter what their bodies look like, what’s always evident in their physicality is a quiet security and confidence. That’s what strong and healthy vegans should, in my opinion, seek to model.

 

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Processed food: What are you talking about?

August 14, 2012

Can we start really thinking about what we’re saying when we use the term “processed food”, and when we reject or moralize about foods based on that phrase? This phenomenon has become central to anti-vegan discourse.

Just because it’s a vegetarian “meat-substitute” (although it might behoove us to just see it as good plant-based protein that exists in its own right, apart from the existence of meat) doesn’t mean it’s processed, folks– at least, not processed in the evil way neocarnist discourse always refers to. You know the conversation: processed = bad, not processed = good. I can’t really offer a definition of “processed” beyond that, as it’s currently used, because there doesn’t seem to be one.

Let’s break down some examples of foods that are currently trendy to preach against based on their “processed-ness”:

-Tofu. Let’s clear this up, folks: Tofu is made with a blender and cheesecloth from three to four ingredients including water, an emulsifier (a big word, but something that is used in countless simple foods, both vegan and non), and a bean. You can buy that bean GMO-free very easily; many, if not most, explicitly vegetarian products like tofu which involve soy are GMO-free now. What’s non-GMO as far as soy goes are a) those soy fillers in all kinds of other food products, including many animals products, and b) the unbelievable amount of soy that’s fed to farmed animals.

You can even get soy from sustainable farms like Vermont Soy and Eden Soy. Those farms might even be local (gasp!!!) depending on where you live.

Actually, you can make this kind of tofu product with many different beans, as I learned while living with Burmese folks, who often make and eat tofu from lentils.

Right in your own kitchen. Right next to those vegetables you process by… cutting and cooking them.

-Similarly fallacious is all the moralizing about the “process” that goes into making wheat gluten or tempeh. These are products that actually have very few simple, healthy ingredients and can be made easily. You don’t need a Bunsen burner or a mask.

-And to make an alternative “milk” such as soy or almond, the idea is similar. Two or three ingredients plus a blender. Same with any “cheese” alternative that’s made with these things. All of these products are less processed than even the most organic and “happy” cheese.

I’m not sure why so many neocarnists take a moral stance against these plant foods, but most likely it has something to do with things like unblinking Michael Pollan-ism and the Weston A. Price Foundation’s government lobbying, reactive anti-science, and fear-mongering (particularly in regards to soy). Some well-meaning folks, I think, often lump in foods made from Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) with simpler foods made from tofu, nuts, or wheat gluten. TVP is made from soy flour and a significant number of steps are involved in its creation. Some TVP makers use hexane, which is controversial. But whatever one’s ideas about TVP, the current dialogue about it being an evil “processed” food cannot be removed from the influence of Michael Pollan’s hyperbolic, pseudo-scientific diatribe against TVP in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Additionally, hexane is used in multitudes of animal foods. As always, do your own research and use your critical thinking skills.

From the minute you rip a vegetable out of the ground, to the minute you collect rice grains from a stalk, to the minute you bring them home and clean, peel, cook, cut, ferment, freeze, marinate, combine, and flavor them, you are processing foods. You process them in your mouth, too, as saliva breaks them down, and then in your gut, where they are dissolved into their component parts. Life is a process and so is the food that enables it.

If you want to talk about foods with ingredients that are made in labs, talk about that. If you want to talk about GMOs, environmentally unfriendly packaging, huge industries, awful companies, and how complicated that all is across huge realms of both plant and animal foods, please do. But don’t conveniently muddle those concepts with the mere existence of vegetarian foods for the sake of a political agenda or a romantic, lazy paleofantasty about what’s “natural” and what’s not. In short, it is incoherent to consider these veg foods processed yet not consider foods processed that require creating, artificially inseminating, squeezing, prodding, torturing, then slaughtering an entire animal. If you want to talk about excessive food processing–by which I mean the actual time, physical and psychological energy, and other resources that go into the creation of a food–and how it might have moral implications, talk about this: We literally destroy huge pieces of the planet to actually raise entire huge, individual, sentient, ambulatory beasts!!! We artificially inseminate them by putting sperm into their vaginas with poles or our gloved arms, cut off their inconvenient body parts such as penises, testicles, tails, and beaks while they’re still alive, kill them with complicated weapons and machines, drain their blood and cut off all their skin, cut off and throw away their heads, cut out and throw away their organs, pull their reproductive secretions out of them (often after starving and blinding them into laying), squeeze and prod them with hands or machines til the insides of their bodies finally give you inevitably puss-and-blood laced milk which is then turned into convoluted dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Yet, incredibly, it’s a  loaf made of beans and water–no cutting off and throwing away a head involved–that’s called Frankenfood! While plant foods and agriculture are indeed complicated, there is absolutely no plant-food processing comparable–ethically, practically, environmentally, physically, psychologically–to the necessary extremities that must be visited while “processing” individual sentient animals for food. If they’re not the most processed food of all, I don’t know what is.


The basic must-knows of carnism and neocarnism

March 7, 2012

Melanie Joy’s celebrated presentation on carnism and the psychology of meat-eating is finally online in its entirety. If I could have people watch or read one thing about animal rights, it would probably be this. It’s about an hour long and truly worth engaging with if you’ve got some free time. Melanie Joy is an extremely articulate and brilliant animal, and I believe her work is at the forefront of animal liberation philosophy and practice.

I think it’s important to note that in some societies meat-eating is not a choice, but truly a matter of survival. We have to discuss this carefully. Many people are frankly offensive when they talk about what “survival” does and doesn’t mean in terms of food. In my experience, many folks use the word “survival” not to connote actual, literal life-and-death situations, but to justify chosen behaviors. The classic carnistic protein myth–that one needs protein to survive and that meat is the only good source of protein–is a perfect example of this. One simply needs protein to survive and, save extremely rare physiological conditions that you almost definitely don’t have, one can get all of the protein they need from plants. Another good example of the faulty invocation of food-related survival is when we use words like “omnivory”, a necessary practice, to refer to what is actually carnism, a set of choices and beliefs. We’re calling upon the naturalist fallacy here to justify chosen behaviors and beliefs. Biologically speaking, we are not obligate omnivores. We will not die or get sick without meat. Therefore it is more accurate to refer to meat-eating as an ism or ideology, just as we do with veganism.

So when I say that some peoples use meat for survival, I don’t mean folks debating whether human teeth were “made” for slicing and chomping meat and deciding in the affirmative; I don’t mean the oft-spouted fallacy that we must eat meat to get all of our essential nutrients and amino acids; I don’t mean various vague, often new-age, often inexplicable “intuitions” that it just feels better to eat meat and that this is the only information one should need to make ethical decisions. By “survival”, I mean that a person has no other choices. Some Inuit peoples might represent an example of this: in most Arctic climates plants cannot grow, and for some traditional Inuits, it is virtually impossible to even get to locations where there is access to a larger variety of foods. Unfortunately, and absurdly, many meat-eaters use this extremely harsh survival situation to justify their first-world meat-eating. I’ll draw another example from current personal experience: right now, I am a teacher for Burmese refugees and political exiles who, at times, have had to escape into the forest for long stretches with no food at all. If they come upon meat and eat it, that is survival. Survival is pre-moral because survival is not a choice and is therefore not based on beliefs and ideology.

So, to talk about both carnism and veganism, we must recognize the differences between survival and the luxury of choice.

These survival scenarios couldn’t be more different from a person– like most of us reading this blog– in the “developed” world who has some level of informed choice over what they eat.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to have chickens in their front yard in Brooklyn or Boulder instead of growing a vegetable garden.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different than a farmer making the choice to farm animals instead of plants.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to buy flesh or eggs instead of legumes and vegetables at the grocery store or farmer’s market.

These scenarios couldn’t be more different from somebody who chooses to eat locally slaughtered pigs instead of locally grown vegetable products.

I have a bias: I feel flustered and offended that such situations are framed as survival to so many meat-eaters, when there are about a billion people in the world who have no food at all, and the mass existence of non-necessary, first-world carnism is so destructive to the world and everyone’s food supply at large. Let alone the fact that with the luxury of choices comes the incredible ability to enable the survival of others by not eating them.

The point is this: Basic survival is not a matter of ethics. Chosen behaviors, including most meat-eating, are. They have their roots in complex ideology. For most people, meat-eating is based on carefully-constructed, mutually-reinforcing cognitions and actions. And since most people are good people who don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, to unnecessarily eat meat requires complicated feats of cognitive dissonance. Simply put, the core identity as a nonviolent person, on one hand, and the behaviors, on the other, of most carnists don’t match up. Not even the kindest person in the world can eat meat without engaging in violence. Carnists must use complicated defense mechanisms to navigate this disconnect. Those defense mechanisms become the basis of an entire ideology structured around meat-eating. This ideology, like all ideologies of the dominant culture– patriarchy, white supremacy, ecocide, capitalism, heterosexism– remains largely invisible and taken for granted.

This is, in my eyes, the core of Melanie’s research and teachings: that almost all people identify, consciously or not, as non-violent people. They would generally never harm another human except in perceived self-defense; they wouldn’t harm the vast majority of most nonhumans, either. They only harm those seven or eight species–out of hundreds of thousands–who fall into the tiny, culturally-constructed group of “edible animals” (in US culture, this groups consists basically of cows, pigs, lambs, a couple types of bird, and a couple fish and crustacean species. The “edible animals” group changes from culture to culture but always remains tiny.) We are compassionate, empathetic, and creative creatures, yet we make choices several times a day–some people, every time they eat–that have unnecessary suffering and death at their core; we are gentle and full of love, yet for some of us, the only contact we ever have with fellow creatures is literally as so many dead body parts on a plate. We use the ideology of carnism and its attendant defense mechanisms to maintain this disconnect. We shut down, we justify, we deny, we intellectualize, we look away, we naturalize, we objectify, precisely because we care and are good people.

Since Melanie talks about this in much more detail and with much more eloquence, you should watch the video to learn more about the intricacies of how we, as cultures and individuals, banish the realities of meat from our awareness so successfully. I think both carnists and vegans and everyone in-between will get a lot out of it.

Melanie has also recently published an illuminating article that touches on many of the issues in this blog, entitled Understanding Neocarnism: How Vegan Advocates Can Appreciate and Respond to “Happy Meat”, Locovorism, and “Paleo Dieting”.  She breaks down the psychology, cognitive dissonance, and defensiveness behind three issues central to neocarnist ideology: compassionate carnism (humane meat), ecocarnism (carnism for ecology’s sake), and biocarnism (carnism as biological imperative). She frames neocarnism as a backlash against veganism– which, in some respects, we should take as a positive sign that veganism is working as a movement. Unsuccessful movements do not inspire backlash.

Watch it. Read it. Love you.

C


Let’s move this conversation forward; or, (another) study: pasture-raised cows produce four times more methane emissions than feedlot cows

January 23, 2012

A new study confirms higher rates of methane emission from grazed cows over feedlot cows. Abstract and full study available here:

Direct measurements of methane emissions from grazing and feedlot cattle

This study, citing and building on studies which already demonstrate that cattle farming represents a mass contribution to the emission of methane–one of the most consequential greenhouse gasses–examined and measured output from large samples of cattle in undisturbed (non-laboratory/non-constructed) settings.

Its main conclusion: “These measurements clearly document higher CH4 production (about four times) for cattle receiving low-quality, high-fiber diets than for cattle fed high-grain diets.”

To advocates of pasture-raised beef and dairy: Please start discussing this kind of information and please stop spreading the myth that pasture-raised beef is good for the environment. That there are a lot of problems with agriculture-in-general, including plant agriculture and monocultures, is not in dispute. But from the mass destruction caused by grazing, to the mass methane emissions, raising animals on pasture is not simply detrimental; it’s more detrimental than on feedlots, in terms of land/habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions.

This article by Mike Tidwell was recently brought to my attention, and impressed me as a very good, simple overview of the environmental impact of carnism, on humans as well as ecosystems and individual animals. Tidwell points out that even many folks’ beloved fall-back, “free range” and “sustainable” chicken and egg farming, produces far more greenhouse gas emissions than its terrible factory-farming sibling– 14 percent more!

This is to say nothing of the myth of “humane” meat that we have discussed elsewhere.

We’ve listened to the “humane” meat-ers. We’ve listened to the Weston A. Price Foundation’s non-scientists and non-nutritionists misconstrue information about teeth, soy, cholesterol, and raw meat. We’ve listened to Lierre Keith straight-up hate on vegans and paint caricatures of health and sustainable agriculture. We’ve listened to Michael Pollan and Joe Salatin’s carefully (and conveniently) constructed happy-meat, return-to-pasture narratives. We’ve listened to people who don’t come from gatherer-hunter cultures say, “let’s hunt, then!” and we’ve tried not to be dicks when we’ve pointed out that, if even a fraction of billions of today’s non-tribal humans started hunting for their meat, ecosystems would almost immediately shatter. We’ve listened to Barabara Kingslover as she drives 3,000 miles in her car to eat another location’s local food. We’ve listened to really excited ex-vegan bloggers talk about how they literally feel the energy of nutrients x, y, and z rushing through their body the minute they eat meat again for the first time (something which isn’t physiologically possible.) We’ve gotten a good share of what anti-vegans–both the subtle and the not-so-subtle ones–have to say. For all our faults and snark, we’ve tried to listen–we actually really have.

And for all of this, there’s one thing they all seem to say some version of, and I agree with it: We need better, more diverse, more creative, less mono-culture based farming methods. Nobody here is saying otherwise.

But it’s time to move the conversation forward: the ethics of, and cognitive dissonance that is necessary for, “humane meat”, grass-fed meat, and pasture farming are highly questionable; and we have to contend with those questions now if we want to deal with the crises of ecology, psychology, and ethics that are literally destroying the earth.

There is, at this point, simply too much available information to ignore regarding the destructiveness of animal farming and the unnecessary suffering of animals. There is too much information to ignore regarding the existence of viable, healthful, plant-based alternatives to meat diets and animal farming. We can’t continue to ignore this information if we want to have conversations about diet that aren’t disingenuous. We can’t refuse to discuss the fallacy, the gaping logical inconsistency, of “humane” captivity and slaughter, and the environmental destruction of animal farming–the latter of which is an issue for both entire species and their individual bodies. We can’t keep falling back on the simplistic vegan straw man of “but monocultures–but soy–but the paleocene–but protein”. These straw-men have been debunked to death. Healthful, animal-friendly plant-based alternatives to this mess of meat agriculture and carnism exist, right now, today. Just because these plant-based alternatives are inconvenient to a Western culture that is steeped in the ideologies and practices of meat, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Our refusal to look at them does not erase their reality.

If you need more information about any of these issues or about striving towards sustainable plant-based lives, we’ve discussed it a lot in this blog. Please refer to other posts such as those here and here, do a quick google or JSTOR search, or refer to our resources page or our sustainable vegan agriculture page. You might also consider checking out The Humane Myth.


PaleoVegan say it’s curtains for the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis; Carolyn jams out on sociobiology and violence

November 29, 2011

This is worth a re-post. Once again the brilliant pre-frontal cortex over at PaleoVeganology has done some wonderful reporting and analysis. This time it is regarding a new study that appears to put the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis to rest once and for all. He also discusses, among other things, the history of this hypothesis and how it was never meant to encompass such simplicities as “meat made us smart” or “meat made us human”. Alas, as ideologies compete to be representative of the most “natural” and therefore most “normal” and “necessary” way to be, many paleodieters and other carnists have relied heavily on this hypothesis for their arguments.

But as we leave ETH’s funeral, we shouldn’t just clap our hands and embody everything we argue against by saying, “SEE? It’s NATURAL to be vegan! Science has proved it!” That’s not what this is about. Rather, the way that the ETH has been used by carnists represents a phenomenon: Our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our choices, or to even admit that we have choices. This Normal, Natural, Necessary brand of logic has been used to uphold almost every type of unnecessary violence in human history, and pseudo-science has often accompanied it. We’ve written about this extensively elsewhere in our blog including here, here and here. Science is wonderful and liberating when it’s used how it’s supposed to be used (as Paleovegan uses it): as a method; as a critical thinking tool, as a path by which to ask questions, open doors, admit we’re wrong, assess, reassess, make connections, get awestruck, and hopefully figure out a thing or two in the process. But leaving our complicated social and psychological choices to vague arguments about “nature” and cherry-picked data isn’t science; it amounts to little more than sociobiology, rationalization, and dangerously lazy thinking.

We don’t need to say “veganism is natural” or “meat eating is not natural” in order to make good arguments for veganism; if we do that, we are falling prey to dangerous and convenient sociobiological arguments. Sociobiology is the study of the “biological sources of social behavior.” And sociobiology should always be questioned, for it has generally not amounted to much more than biological determinism. It is the editorializing of science. It is taking objective biological facts and assuming that certain subjective behaviors can and do extend from them. From there, there’s usually some kind of sticky, subtle moral leap: This ancestor ate meat, so we should too, in fact we’re stupid if we don’t. Men are bigger than women, and women are reproductive machines, so that’s why men rape. Animals kill each other, so it’s natural for us to be at war, and we’ll never not be at war because we are just naturally aggressive.  Homosexuality is an aberration because it doesn’t lead to reproduction (OR homosexuality is evolutionarily smart because it staves off overpopulation… how about homosexuals just exist because they love each other?) Women have smaller brains, so of course they’re not as intelligent. There’s a scientific explanation for everything, right?? But many people believe that sociobiology is little more than racism, sexism, and other violence wearing science’s clothes.

In short, we should carefully distinguish between science and sociobiology, and the latter should, if not scare the pants off anybody who wants to change the world, at least make them really weary.

Now, here’s some actual science: Humans have big brains relative to other species, and in particular, a big frontal cortex. When you have the kind of frontal cortex a human does you are able to make all kinds of complicated assessments and choices. And here’s my wish, given that fact: Let’s work with what we have, and celebrate our ability to make conscious choices, and our ability to do the least harm…and let’s stop worrying so much about which of our ancestors ate what and who and when. While we’re at it, let’s stop worrying about a gold-standard perfect diet and, by extension, perfect health and immortality, because those things don’t exist, and never have.

Anyways, the historical truth about food, as usual, is messy; some humans ate some types of meat at some point, others ate other things, and there are a thousand scenarios, motivations, and ecologies to be accounted for. But even if there were one answer as to what our paleolithic ancestors ate, it would be irrelevant. Because we are not paleolithic. Because we have to worry about ourselves, now. Today. 7 billion humans, industrialization, capitalism, ecocide, 2011, hundreds of billions of unnecessary nonhuman deaths, constant war. And, among other things, a whole bunch of us who deny that we are regularly making choices–not just being whipped around by some mysteriously undefined inkling called, conveniently, “nature”. Like it or not, this is what we’re working with. Let’s be present with our situation instead of copping out by slipping into simplistic, irrelevant, and ultimately impossible fantasy re-creations of the past.


On the Holy Grail of Nutrition

November 1, 2011

There isn’t one. Move on. First world humans spend undue energy searching for a perfect nutritional formula that will turn us into bronzed, teutonic gods. This is a little silly considering the fact that a fair percentage of the human population doesn’t get enough of anything to eat.

Getting enough calories is important. Getting enough vitamins is important. Not eating foods that make you sick is important. Beyond that, people are pretty adaptable. Most of us are just making do with what we can get. As a vegan, I could argue that dairy products are “bad for you” and “unnatural.” But clearly millions of people survive, many of them quite healthily, while consuming dairy. So I don’t make arguments about what a person should or shouldn’t eat based on nutrition. I make them solely on ethical grounds. I refuse to eat dairy not because it’s bad for me, but because it’s bad for cows.

The Paleo Diet: Not the Way to a Healthy Future

The Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past.

Eat with your ethics. Because you can.


Changes to the blog!

May 29, 2011

Hey, friends.

Carolyn and I just wanted to let you know that we’ll be making some changes to the way we run our blog over the coming weeks. We initially started this project because we were so disturbed by the intellectual dishonesty of The Vegetarian Myth. As frustrating as it has been at times to engage with such willfully obtuse writing, we feel like we’ve done a credible job of deconstructing much of the text. Our past posts will stand as a contribution to a growing knowledge base compiled by those who are skeptical of the ecological sustainability and ethical legitimacy of paleo-diets.

Food politics are more of a national conversation than ever now and that is a good thing. Even if they’re not sure what the answer should be, more and more people are trying to shake off the nightmare of agribusiness cartels, monocrops and CAFOs that have typified the last century’s food production systems. As radical vegans, we feel compelled to take part in this conversation on how to transition away from a manifestly unsustainable system. Specifically, we want the world to understand that there is no such thing as an “ethical” mode of food production that depends on the systematic murder, reproductive and sexual domination, castration and confinement of nonhuman animals.

Naturally, the marketing agencies employed by those aforementioned agribusinesses want to have their say as well. With budgets in the millions, you can bet that their voices will be heard. Major corporations seeking to appear ahead of the curve are aggressively selling us images of “happy” meat and dairy and, with them, a lower threshold of guilt. Carolyn and I have been at turns disturbed and disheartened by recent trends in what seems to be an anti-movement of reactionary ex-vegans and vegetarians. What made Lierre Keith’s book infuriating enough for us to dedicate so many hours of our lives to its deconstruction is that (presumably) she’s not on the take from corporate marketers! Rather, she purports to come from within our own movement: a self-described ecofeminist who nevertheless believes that other creatures actually appreciate her desire to violate their bodies owing to a connection she projects upon them.

But at the end of the day, though we feel the need to debunk her neurotic and manipulative narrative, we don’t find her personal contribution to food politics all that noteworthy. There comes a point with projects like this at which you either have to change topics or write a book. The Vegetarian Myth does not merit a rejoinder on that level.

What follows from here is going to be our contribution to the ongoing discussion of what our food should be, where it should come from and how it should get to us. We will be lending context to the status quo account of current affairs with the hope of enlivening our readers’ understandings of the ongoing relevance of radical veganism. We’ll be making connections between animal liberation, anti-capitalism, human rights, feminism, and other modes. We’ll be continuing to expand upon the conversation about ecology, agriculture, veganism, and carnism– especially carnism that’s wrapped in radical language. We will also be soliciting essays and articles from outside contributors on their own personal stories of ethical living and ecological wisdom. And if Lierre Keith says anything that’s just too dumb to pass up, we’ll probably comment on it.

Check back here soon for new content.

Peace,
Carolyn and Alex