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The Vegan Paradigm Shift:
Reasons for Optimism in the New Year
By Lee Hall
Climate change, the human population rate, human decisions, and shifting the current grid. Reading and understanding the science.
What’s in store for the year ahead – and the new decade that will quickly follow? Well, first let’s look at the really alarming news. Then, some reasons for hope.
Some climate scientists have already predicted that we’ll find ourselves having passed the point of no return with climate change. Recent studies of Greenland and Antarctica have forced a UN expert panel to conclude that widespread ice sheet loss might now be inevitable. If you’re like me, sometimes you’re up late thinking about the deforestation that’s killing our planet. To make matters worse, you’ve read about climate change’s choking effect on plants, how the rising temperature is making the vegetation we have less able to absorb the carbon pollution pumped out by human activity.
This does not mean we have a pessimistic view. There’s really nothing pessimistic about reading these scientific studies, and understanding what they indicate.
If one presents the vegan commitment as the answer to the world’s most pressing problems, plenty of well-informed people will ask, “Come on, how can we possibly get up each day, with the human population growing by more than 211,000 people every day, wars everywhere, polar bears drowning, an extinction crisis, kids and dogs in the global south living in the streets and think this vegan stuff is going to work?”
This is going to sound demanding… but yes, I do believe vegans hold the key to the future if anyone does. If we’re to live up to our promise and potential, we must do more than predict; we must work. Deadly weapons and global warming, like animal exploitation, are not accidental occurrences, and not inevitable. They are not foisted upon us by nature, fate, or God. They are the results of human decisions. As long as we are here, our work is to decide in new ways, and to help others to do likewise.
Animal farmers and others who perpetuate faulty decisions are not to be hated or unloved or disrespected; nor are they entitled to win any further support. We can work with this in mind, yet live our lives knowing each day is a gift, surrounding ourselves with people who are alive, engaged, and passionate lovers of life. As Quentin Crisp put it, “The fact that someone may drop the Bomb in the middle of our mad tea party should in no way deter us from serving the best tea and the best conversation in our best manner – for ever.”
Such wonderful advice. I can only add that the tea would best be served with vegan biscuits.
A Paradigm Shift
Cormac Cullinan, author of the book Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, offers a sound reason to be optimistic about the future of human law and culture. Insisting on the possibility of having ecologically respectful law, Cullinan reminds us of the dynamic of the paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn introduced that term in the 1960s to mean a transformative shift in the scientific worldview.
Usually, a paradigm shift provides a more coherent perspective than we had before, and this is well highlighted by the example Cullinan picks out: Before the Copernican revolution, everyone took for granted that Earth was central in the cosmos; everything revolved around us. But here came Copernicus, with a demonstration that Earth revolved around the sun.
And here is the good news. Relatively quickly in the course of human history, what first seems obvious and eternal can become something else entirely: an error of the past.
In much the same way, veganism challenges an old view that we’re central and that everyone and everything revolves, eternally, around us. Environmentalists have discovered how incorrect that view is, from a biological perspective. Earthworms and bees and other supposedly insignificant beings are now understood as enormously influential in the biocommunity. Meanwhile, vegan advocates, starting with Donald Watson, have shown that we cannot give animals some kind of moral rank; all are entitled to live on their own terms, bees and earthworms included.
Note that the Copernican revolution wasn’t the result of people accepting change in increments. Although some communities understood the news sooner than others, no one was asked to accept that the sun was a little closer to the central point over time. Astronomy charts didn’t show the Earth moving gradually outward as new editions were printed.
Nor is such a continuum necessary in the vegan case – for each of us, and everyone we meet, has the wonderful potential to commit to vegan values right now. Nor is such a continuum even possible; to promote a switch to egg companies without traditional battery cages and other “free-range” concepts is to forget the reality that planet Earth’s land is finite. The spread of pasture-based animal agribusiness uproots free-living animals and snuffs out their lives. The argument for incremental steps within industry fails to notice the communities of animals being displaced every day by industrial landscapes and buildings.
It takes a complete paradigm shift to stop thinking of animals as objects and start thinking of humanity as contributors in an interconnected biocommunity. There is a bright-line psychological difference, and not a continuum, between accepting human dominion and rejecting it. Those who founded The Vegan Society in 1944 clearly knew this.
A paradigm shift is radical by definition. It will not happen overnight, and it will be met with resistance (Galileo’s books were banned because the great scientist accepted the position of Copernicus, which was deemed contrary to biblical authority). But the cultural shift, once the new paradigm is presented and acknowledged, is unstoppable.
To be sure, a vegan person today experiences a lifetime of striving, and is -- at least at the beginning and possibly throughout life -- a member of a minority group in a given place. For a vegan, there’s a profound feeling of connection with life, yet a feeling of otherness within society, a lasting sort of non-citizenship. The animals we spare from a commodified life can’t pat us on the back or give us a promotion for it.
Committed vegans will tell others this truth, then create nurturing social environments where new vegans feel a sense of community, a sense of being in the majority. This will empower us to show others how to think in a new way.
When the idea of ourselves as -- in Cormac Cullinan’s words -- the “master species” is understood as an untenable and destructive myth, it will be replaced by a new paradigm. By learning to cook and to get involved in vegan-organic farming, many people are preparing for that shift today. The change could become apparent relatively quickly in society and the law, and that’s good. By most predictions, we have little time to spare.
Lee Hall is legal director for Friends of Animals. Check out their latest work at Vegan Means.
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