The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


'Dietethics - an ecological priority?'

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.
A 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.
But 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.
Some 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.
For 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?
These are fairly deep waters, but I believe they need to be explored.
Reproduced with thanks to the Vegan Society
See: Jon Wynne-Tyson Interview 


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