By Jon Wynne Tyson
From The Vegan (Spring 1977 edition)
There is an urgent
need to realise the common bond by which all forms of life are united.
The science of ecology is proving the existence of this bond on a purely
material level, but at a spiritual level such a concept has hardly got
off the ground. Lip-service has been paid to it in most religious
systems of the world, but the sad fact of the matter is that organised
religion has been one of the most divisive, compartmentalised and
bond-breaking influences of all time.
Our present search for
understanding as to where our environmental and ecological
responsibilities lie could lead to a new ethic based on controlled
intolerance of cruelty, greed, blind habit and devisive thinking, and
the unhappiness that comes from these and other failings.
little known passage by the 19th Century poet, Victor Hugo, indicates a
vision that is extraordinarily modern -
'It was first of all
necessary to civilize man in relation to his fellow man. That task is
already well advanced and makes progress daily. But it is also necessary
to civilize man in relation to nature. There, everything remains to be
done...... Philosophy has concerned itself but little with man beyond
man, and has examined only superficially, almost with a smile of
disdain, man's relationship with things, and with animals, which in his
eyes are merely things. But are there not depths here for the thinker?
Must one suppose oneself mad because one has the sentiment of universal
pity in one's heart? Are there not certain laws of mysterious equity
that pertain to the whole sum of things, and that are transgressed by
the thoughtless, useless behaviour of man to animals?.... For myself I
believe that pity is a law like justice, and that kindness is a duty
like uprightness. That which is weak has a right to the kindness and
pity of that which is strong. Animals are weak because they are less
intelligent. Let us therefore be kind and compassionate towards them. In
the relations of man with the animals, with the flowers, with all the
objects of creation, there is a whole great ethic (toute une grande
morale), scarcely seen as yet, but which will eventually break through
into the light and be the corollary and the complement to human ethics."
From that 'complement to human ethics', that 'grande morale' our
pattern of eating is inseparable. For when we think about it, what we
eat several times a day is possibly the most important material,
behavioural aspect of our lives. Ingestion, digestion and rejection -
whether we like it or not, our bodies are slaves to these daily
necessities from birth to death. Most people will defend with passion
the habits of eating to which they have become accustomed.
for omnivorous Westerners, the world is changing rapidly. We are being
made aware that the food we shall be eating in the future may no longer
be a matter of whim and choice. We are beginning to be bombarded on all
sides by the facts of a world situation where populations have got out
of hand, and in which the distribution of resources is grossly
inequitable. We are being told - and it is nothing less than the truth -
that the disgracefully wasteful and unnecessarily expensive habit of
eating meat must inevitably be phased out of our lives in just the same
way as other practices which have simply become obsolete.
of us have not taken kindly to this news. To the dyed-in-the-wool
meat-and-two-veg school the prospect brings horror and despondency, and
numerous 'dinosaurs' have written to the newspapers deploring the
assumed threat to the future of haute cuisine. "Plastic steaks!" the cry
goes up, as on every hand we read of such innovations as meat analogues,
and the reception is hardly more welcoming for those nutritionists who
dare to suggest that we should be consuming beans, nuts and other
protein-high foods at source rather than through the decomposing
carcasses of slaughtered animals.
What is going to win, however,
are not the plethoric wails of outraged gourmands, but the rumbling
bellies of hungry children. The world conscience - if that is what one
can call the politically-activated decision-making that is prompted by
the major problems of population and dwindling resources - is not going
to allow for much longer the squandering and greed we have for so long
taken for granted in the West. Cynically, perhaps, one may feel that the
squandering and greed are still a long way from being eradicated from
our species in general, but in the near future it is likely to be less
concentrated in our own portion of the earth's surface.
gradually, at long last, we are beginning to realise that we can no
longer live in separate compartments. The common bond is the common
predicament. Victor Hugo's "whole great ethic" that is becoming the
complement to human ethics was what we today call environmental
responsibility. Our newfound understanding of ecological truth, because
of the pressures due to the environmental crisis, is forging between our
species a bond that may bring collaboration and understanding between
peoples more rapidly than any of the achievements of organised religion.
Do not, please, assume from this that I am an anthropocentric
humanist and eager to see the values of science take over from those of
the spirit. The final bond between men, and between mankind and all
other forms of life, cannot be maintained without the realisation of the
spiritual basis to the unity of all being. But this fact need not
prevent us from rejoicing that on some levels science and spiritual
evolution are working in parallel, as it were - reaching similar
conclusions from different standpoints, and emphasising the necessity
for collaboration and accord rather than division and rivalry.
The thought I would like to put to you is that the new science of
ecology stands for a concept of life and values in which the practical,
the ethical and the philosophical elements can be given equal weight. If
this is happening, and if the exploitation of nature by man is at least
being seen to be inextricably linked to the exploitation of man by man,
are we perhaps standing on the threshold of a new age in which the
understanding that we term ecology may develop into something very
similar to that compound of wonder, knowledge, faith and fierce inner
need for a sense of direction and a framework of behaviour that first
prompted the notion of a supreme God?
Could science have helped
to prompt a vision that is nothing less than a modern yet essentially
eternal philosophy for contemporary and future existence? A vision that
may destroy division, perhaps helping to build the much-needed bridge
between science and those less material concerns that provide the main
evidence that mankind is (or at least can become) more than a race of
clever but unregenerate apes.
In short, are the old religious
concepts, which satisfy so few of us today, due to be absorbed by the
new unity of concern - a concern, only half thought out as yet, that we
call ecological responsibility? Or is this concern going to level off to
a plateau no higher than that of expediency? Is science so totally sold
on the materialistic hypothesis that it is unrealistic pie-in-the-sky
even to consider the possibility of a scientific viewpoint and the
instinct for spiritual growth finding common ground?
fairly deep waters, but I believe they need to be explored.
Reproduced with thanks to the Vegan Society
Jon Wynne-Tyson Interview
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