In 2011, Oprah Winfrey asked her staff at Harpo Studios to take a vegan challenge: eat no meat, fish, eggs, dairy, or any other animal products for seven days. The episode, which has since enjoyed a robust afterlife on YouTube, included a visit to a Cargill meat processing plant, cooking advice from “veganish” self-help advocate Kathy Freston, an interview with best-selling author Michael Pollan, and testimony from the 300 staffers, who, it was reported, lost a total of 444 pounds.
Oprah is not alone in publicly dabbling in veganism. Beyoncé and Ellen DeGeneres have both advocated for the health benefits of a vegan diet, and fast food chains such as Chipotle and Johnny Rockets now feature plant-based menu items. Clearly, veganism has reached a crossroads.
Two possible futures present themselves. Historically motivated both by ethical concerns for animals and by the promise of better health, veganism has, in the past two decades, achieved mainstream popularity as a lifestyle geared toward weight loss, athletic achievement, and all around self-improvement. As Oprah’s experiment reveals, veganism has experienced a boom among middle-class Americans, and now fits comfortably within mainstream consumer culture. The second path is the continuation of vegan political activism, as advocates try to improve the lives of animals raised for slaughter. There seems to be little overlap between these two groups.
However, a third possibility may be emerging: veganism could be a motivating force for left-wing populism. A series of recent books link vegan consumerism to a broader array of concerns focused on human welfare, such as wage equity, health care, and feminism. To understand how we—vegans and non-vegans alike—might seize this moment, we must review the economic and cultural forces behind the recent vegan hoopla, and assess veganism’s broader potential to inspire social change.
Laura Wright’s The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror (2015) describes a radical movement tipping into the mainstream. An appealing exploration of veganism in the popular culture of the very recent past, it ranges across films, television shows, blogs, books, and advertising. Wright shows how the compulsive, angst-ridden vampires on display in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, and the Twilight novels and films encode vegan ethics as they negotiate the rules of their existence. A chapter on the zombie apocalypse genre teases out the serious and satirical treatments of cannibalism, cruelty, and ethics of food consumption imbedded in texts like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009).
However, Wright also points out that other cultural discourses around veganism are far less subversive. In chapters on veganism in post-9/11 culture, the gendered politics of disordered eating, vegan celebrities, and the aggressive new style of masculinity known as “heganism,” Wright provides a genealogy of veganisms’s co-optation by cultural ideologies supporting powerful corporate interests.
When actresses such as Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel adopt and discard the diet, or when vegan Ellen DeGeneres advertises Cover Girl makeup, which is tested on animals, they erase a potentially off-putting defense of animals and normalize veganism for US consumers. As Wright observes, the sacrifice of ethical commitment for greater visibility transforms veganism from radical fringe practice to an apolitical lifestyle. Where a subculture dies, a new norm is born.
History shows that vegetarian and vegan high points coincide with economic crises and ensuing movements for workers’ rights.
Wright’s book draws on a longstanding body of work that challenges the meat-eating status quo. A recent example is the neologism “carnism,” coined by Melanie Joy in Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows (2009). Carnism inventories the intellectual deflections meat-eaters make when they ignore or downplay the suffering involved in animals’ slaughter for human uses. Vegans, who usually have to explain their oddball behavior, can now label the dominant ideology and demand that it account for itself. The term “Carnist” gets straight to the point in a way that the more widespread “omnivore” does not. The issue is not grazing widely, because vegans arguably enjoy greater dietary variety than those whose choices typically boil down to beef, chicken, or salmon. Rather, carnists are devoted to eating animals, and incorporating the residue of their violent slaughter into their flesh at a cellular level.
A second of Wright’s sources, Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990), similarly turned the meat-eating world upside down to confront its true commitments. Adams demystified “meat” as the term and concept that metaphorically remakes individual animals and women into material for implicitly white, masculine, violent, and sexualized consumption. She examined the realization, common to many childhoods, that the meat on one’s plate was once a feeling, thinking animal, and the equally familiar ideological shrug with which many continued chewing and swallowing.
To persist eating meat, one must continually avert one’s eyes not merely from animals’ suffering, but from its relation to patriarchal and racist violence. Wright’s book taps into this rich genealogy of scholarship, bringing Adams’ and Joy’s insights to bear on the new cultures of veganism in the 2000s and 2010s. Recalling this critical tradition, Wright reminds readers of veganism’s grounding in animal rights—a position that is vanishing as the diet goes mainstream.
To fight this watering down of historical objectives, Wright’s audacious gambit is to posit “vegan studies”: a new field for economic, social, philosophical, aesthetic, and other kinds of analysis. Jodey Castricano and Rasmus R. Simonsen’s edited volume, Critical Perspectives on Veganism (2016), takes up this task. A title in the new series on animal ethics from Palgrave-Macmillan, it reflects the surging academic popularity of Critical Animal Studies, a field formed in part from recent scientific investigations into non-human sentience, cognition, awareness, and social formations. Those studies suggest that animals, even uncuddly ones like fish, lead richer and more complex lives than we ever knew.1
The volume dazzles with critical questions. How might in vitro meat made of stem cells alter the Mi’kmaq people’s tradition of honoring the moose by hunting and consuming it? How can veganism expand beyond its historically white constituency? Are there good anthropocentric—or human-benefitting—arguments for veganism? Such timely new questions suggest that “vegan studies” —like veganism itself—will continue to expand beyond its traditional base in animal welfare, providing a new vision of human animality and fellowship with animals.
To invent the future, one must of course understand the past. Adam D. Shprintzen’s The Vegetarian Crusade writes the history of vegetarianism in the 19th-century United States. One must read between the lines to see the vegan history within that of vegetarianism, but it is there, for example in Bronson Alcott’s short-lived Socialist utopian commune Fruitlands, where inhabitants ate fruit, grains, flax, and other plant products, and avoided tea and sugar, which were made with slave labor.
Compared to Wright, and Castricano and Simonsen, Shprintzen’s politics are muted, and yet his book’s historical details both resemble and depart from our own vegan moment in surprising and meaningful ways. Vegans, for example, have long supplied material for parody, such as in Louisa May Alcott’s “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873), which skewered Fruitlands. But having to extract vegan history from within the larger category of vegetarianism makes one wish for a cultural history of veganism itself, beginning with the term’s invention by Donald Watson in Britain in 1944.Though accomplished, Shprintzen’s book cannot fully account for this very different historical moment, one that was powerfully shaped by World War II (to which Watson conscientiously objected), food rations, and the Holocaust. Yet “vegan studies” is certainly poised to uncover this history, a crucial step in imagining and realizing the practice’s political potential.
What major 21st century events have begun moving veganism from radical politics to mainstream lifestyle? Wright, Castricano and Simonsen, and Shprintzen help us assemble the history leading up to our vegan moment; but none fully explores the effects of 9/11 and the Great Recession, to which I will now turn.
In one of the stranger twists of logic following 9/11, characteristically peace-loving vegans were recast as violent terrorists. Wright documents the UK’s red-flagging of tens of thousands of travelers to Britain as potential terrorists in part because they requested vegetarian meals. For the first time, an animal rights activist was placed on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list—along with Osama bin Laden. And the headline of an article defending 2004 Democratic Presidential primary candidate Dennis Kucinich declared, “He’s a Vegan–Not a Menace.”2 Apparent extremists, vegans seemed to share the terrorists’ rejection of western modernity’s definitions of the good life.
Accusing vegans of a lack of patriotism is a time-honored American practice. Shprintzen documents how in the 1850s xenophobic, jingoistic discourse disparaged vegetarians—declaring them “weak and cowardly, like the Hindoos”; their festivals, “feasts of [t]reason”—in language reminiscent of the War on Terror. In the 19th century, meat for all—made possible through industrialized slaughterhouses, canning, and, at century’s end, refrigeration—symbolized modernity. To abjure it suggested the barbarism of peasants that middle-class mass culture thought it had shaken off.
After 9/11, history repeated itself. Vegans and radical Islamic terrorists both seemed to hate McDonalds, an icon of globalized American life that now required militant defense. Terrorized, Americans sought comfort in the soft carbohydrates and chewy animal proteins that reflected their cultural heritage, such as macaroni and cheese, and bacon.3 Since the 18th century, pork had been more engrained in US food culture than beef. Languishing in the shadows of the boneless and skinless chicken fad of the 1980s and 1990s, pork by the 2000s was priced low enough for a comeback. Appearing as a topping on hamburgers, the most iconic American dish, it now entered a new period of increased consumption and cultural prominence. Bacon became the culinary analogue of the American flag, wrapping a host of other foods in its salty folds. Its source, the pork belly, could be found on the tables of elite restaurants in every city. From 2004 to 2014, the bacon industry grew by $4 billion; in 2014, 11 of every million children were christened Bacon.4 After the Great Recession of 2008, hot dogs, an even cheaper pork food, enjoyed a revival.5 Upscale dining turned from ethnic cuisines to virtuosic renditions of simple, familiar dishes. Red meat even made an unlikely comeback in the realm of diet advice. The Atkins diet, which deprived the body of carbohydrates to force it to burn its own fat, made meat a staple; Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, first published in 1997, crested in popularity in 2003.6
Yet just when they were gobbling meat at a rate three times the global average, Americans also drank in a steady stream of media stories about their obesity epidemic.7 The nation’s poor diet of cheap, processed fast foods was enfeebling its health, and in 2002 reports appeared that one-third of Americans were obese.8 Morgan Spurlock’s gonzo documentary, Supersize Me! (2004), demonstrated the ill health effects of an all-McDonalds’ diet for just one month, and the vegan antidote. Just as working-class unfitness for military service in the Boer Wars had led to hand-wringing over the future of the British Empire, so did American obesity represent a fatal weakness in its waging of the War on Terror. At a Summit on Obesity sponsored by Time Magazine and ABC News in 2004, Surgeon General Richard Carmona made the much-circulated remark that obesity was “every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist threat we face today. It is the threat from within.”9 News articles reported studies rife with dire statistics, such as that almost 12 percent of men and 35 percent of women of military age were too obese to enlist in the military, preventing it from “recruiting a sufficient number of new high quality service members in the midst of combat operations overseas.”10 Us-versus-them thinking had linked vegans to terrorists; but this connection, which made vegans powerful enough to be feared, also made them models to emulate. Since veganism was synonymous with health and weight loss, the reckoning with obesity created a space for new vegan voices, cultural figures, and products.
One of these, per Wright, was the “hegan”: the macho athlete, firefighter, or executive who represented American might, and whose secure heteronormativity and masculinity could accommodate a stereotypically feminine diet.11 Mixed Martial Arts fighter Mac Danzig, triathletes Brendan Brazier and Rich Roll, casino mogul Steve Wynn, and former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson were all examples. Pro-triathlete-turned-firefighter Rip Esselstyn wrote the best-selling The Engine 2 Diet (2009) about his “plant-strong” lifestyle. YouTube videos of the vegan bodyweight calisthenics expert Frank Medrano performing superhuman feats fueled only by plants garnered hundreds of thousands of views. Ultimate Fighter Nate Diaz, comparing his veganism to the Paleo diet—which eschews foods of civilization such as grains—boasted, “Who’s the real caveman here?” adding that eating plants and raw food is “more … animalistic than anything. [M]eat’s gonna slow you down.”12
Shprintzen’s account suggests that today’s hegans descend from the “muscular vegetarianism” of century-old figures such as bodybuilder and gay icon Bernnarr Macfadden, who touted vegetarianism as yielding “better quality of blood.” The novel aspect of 21st century men’s veganism was its aggressive style, which suited Americans’ new willingness to be hectored into health by military-style fitness “boot camps” and television reality shows such as The Biggest Loser. Websites for “vegan boot camps” dispensed with the traditional imagery of the nature-loving vegan, while fitness guru John Lewis launched a lifestyle site called “Badass Vegan.”13 The tough-talking vegan could even be heard haranguing women carnists in the blockbuster diet guide Skinny Bitch (2005).
As the United States reacted to 9/11 and the obesity epidemic with a cultural turn toward military-style fitness regimes, veganism adapted, borrowing the military allure of heightened masculinity and self-discipline to gain footholds in popular culture. By the time of Oprah’s vegan episode, US viewers were ready to try a diet formerly associated with ascetic, effeminate hippies. Now that it spoke in the gruff terms of a drill sergeant, it seemed compatible with the masculine, defensive military strength required in uneasy times.
Accusing vegans of a lack of patriotism is a time-honored American practice.
In the 2000s, veganism also benefited from scares over infectious diseases linked to factory farming. Meat-processing plants had sprung up in the 1820s and 30s. By the 1850s, they had already repulsed consumers who complained that “meat was diseased, processed to the point of disaster,” according to Shprintzen—half a century before Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), and 160 years before Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (2009). Foer’s thick descriptions linking the Fordist brutality of breeding, feeding, transportation, and slaughter processes to the distasteful conditions of meat bulked up with water, coated in feces, and ignored by inspectors, ignited fears of illness and heartbreak in equal measure. He raised the specter of more frequent epidemics that would rival the Spanish Flu of 1918, an anxiety intensified by the 2009–2010 H1N1 pandemic, also known as “swine flu.” Likewise, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film Contagion depicted, in bureaucratic detail, how a global pandemic could originate on a pig farm supplying a Hong Kong restaurant. The resurgent genre of the zombie apocalypse also links global disease and destruction to the mindlessness of meat-eating. Since 2010, the AMC television serial The Walking Dead has made veganism look very attractive to viewers, as well as cast and crew, without ever mentioning the word.14
And these are not the only global disasters veganism could forestall: recent research suggests that, if widely adopted, the diet could slow climate change by 70 percent, compared to 63 percent for vegetarianism.15 This would result from reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with the meat and dairy industries, which stand at 14.5 percent of the global total–more than that of transportation.16 Veganism has thus emerged as a straightforward practice that individuals can adopt to strengthen and defend themselves against the threats of globalization: both the visceral ones of disease and the more abstract event of climate change.
But perhaps the largest factor leading to our vegan moment—and the one most critical to its left-wing political potential—was globalization’s economic disaster, the Great Recession. History shows that vegetarian and vegan high points coincide with economic crises and ensuing movements for workers’ rights, such as just after the French Revolution, during the “Hungry 1840s,” and during the rise of Socialism at the end of the 19th century. The Occupy Movement of 2011–12 and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Democratic primary campaign created new left-wing links between veganism, health care rights, and the minimum wage. The connections are straightforward: workers can only afford cheap, processed, animal-based convenience food, a diet that makes them ill and raises health care costs. Boosting their wages and ending meat and dairy subsidies would improve their quality of life. This logic is so intuitive that some Sanders supporters were surprised to discover in 2016 that the Bern was not only not a vegan, but so ardent a carnist that he once developed gout.17
Left-wing leadership on the issue could be more robust; yet some gains have been made. While the Obama administration notably failed to reform US food policy, Michelle Obama’s initiatives on children’s fitness created wider awareness of non-nutritious school lunches and inner city “food deserts.”18 Black veganism has also gained some visibility as a political claim for health, for example in A. Breeze Harper’s blog and book, Sistah Vegan (2009), the website Black Vegans Rock, and media mogul Russell Simmons’ marketing and advocacy. New approaches could highlight the diet as the true food of the people, since rice, beans, lentils, and many vegetables compete for cheapness with government-subsidized industrial meat. Moreover, the hegan phenomenon indicates veganism’s power to appropriate the aesthetics of working-class masculinity, a powerful cultural force. Perhaps most promisingly, veganism—like sobriety, exercise, and other lifestyle reforms—makes its positive effects on mind and body felt fairly immediately, a kind of personal proof that can cut through the nausea of conventional politics.
Yet, for most Americans to view the practice as a real possibility, and to revitalize its left-wing populist potential, the bourgeois culture of veganism must dissipate. More fast-food chains must follow the examples of Chipotle and Johnny Rockets by adding vegan options. And we must challenge the age-old association of meat with right-wing populism and misogyny. This will be no small feat: former Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew F. Puzder made his fortune in fast-food franchises and opposed workers’ rights. Puzder’s nomination withstood his loud defense of the noxious bikinis-and-burgers advertisements for his Carl’s Jr. chain—precisely the equation of women with meat that Adams lambasted in 1990.
According to Shprintzen, by 1916 vegetarianism was poised, as veganism is now, between its past as a subculture and a mainstream future. Then the world descended into fascism and global warfare, events that boosted meat industries. Is our vegan moment coming to an end? Or can we enlist it in the fight for a more rational future?
- See, for example, Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). ↩
- Vance Lemkuhl, “Dennis Kucinich: He’s a Vegan – Not a Menace,” Philly.com, October 16, 2003. ↩
- On macaroni and cheese, see Kiri Tannenbaum, “The Decade in Food: Trends from 2000 to 2010,” Delish, November 17, 2009. ↩
- See David Sax, “The Bacon Boom Was Not an Accident,” Bloomberg, October 6, 2014. See also Ariel Knutson, “Ten Recipes that Defined the 2000s,” The Kitchn, February 28, 2014. ↩
- John Kell, “We Are Eating a Ton of Hot Dogs,” Fortune, July 23, 2015. ↩
- Vanessa Barford, “Atkins and the Never-Ending Battle Over Carbs,” BBC News Magazine, April 17, 2013. ↩
- Carrie R. Daniel et al, “Trends in Meat Consumption in the United States,” Public Health Nutrition, November 12, 2010. ↩
- K.M.Flegal et al, “Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2000,” Journal of the American Medical Association (2002), pp. 1723–1727. ↩
- See Deb Burgand et al, “Are We Ready to Throw Our Weight Around? Fat Studies and Political Activism” in The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther D. Rothblum and Sondra Solovay, (NYU Press, 2009), pp. 334–340, 335. ↩
- John Cawley and Johanna Catherine Maclean, “Unfit for Service: The Implications of Rising Obesity for US Military Recruitment,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper, No. 16408 (September 2010). ↩
- Kathleen Peirce, “Men Leave their Mark on Veganism,” The Boston Globe, March 24, 2010. ↩
- Kenny Herzog, “Why UFC’s Toughest Fighters are Going Vegan,” Men’s Journal (accessed December 9, 2016). ↩
- See “The Beautiful Vegan—Boot Camp” and “The Badass Vegan.” ↩
- Rebecca Davison, “Cast and Crew on Zombie Show The Walking Dead are ‘Turning Vegetarian After Grisly Scenes Put Them Off Eating Meat,’” Daily Mail.com, October 19, 2014. ↩
- Fiona Harvey, “Eat Less Meat to Avoid Dangerous Global Warming, Scientists Say,” The Guardian, March 21, 2016. ↩
- Rob Bailey et al, “Livestock—Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector,” Energy, Environment and Resources, December 2014. ↩
- Elise Viebeck, “Sorry, Vegans: Bernie Sanders Likes Eating Meat,” Washington Post, February 2, 2016. ↩
- Michael Pollan, “Big Food Strikes Back: Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take on Corporate Agriculture?,” New York Times, October 5, 2016. ↩