What Does Your Utopia Look Like?

One of the ways people are against veganism is by pointing out problems that may arise were the world to go vegan. Leaving aside that many of these criticisms often aren’t valid or that the world’s population would never adopt veganism overnight, this is not even a sensible way to argue against veganism in principle. Being vegan and promoting a vegan lifestyle doesn’t commit you to a specific vision of the ideal world.

Sam Harris has criticized the term “atheist” as remarkably empty in contentit identifies very little about a person’s philosophy. “Vegan” is similar in that it doesn’t offer specific guidance on many important questions of food policy. While many assume that vegans want to live in a vegan world, it is by no means a prerequisite.

Most people who have thought deeply about the modern western diet agree that we eat entirely too much meat and we need to cut down, not just for the sake of our health, but for the sake of our planet. I wonder why this simple sentiment doesn’t lead more people to veganism. It’s entirely possible to be a vegan that believes that people ought to eat meat a few times a week. However, if you follow your principles in the present context, then you’re part of the problem. It makes sense to go vegan to compensate for vast swath of the population that eat a meat heavy diet.

As to what our food policy looks like in an ideal world, it isn’t an easy question. Feeding the world’s population with nutritious and cheaply available food is a tall order. Conventional agriculture has provided us with a glut of cheap (though not necessarily nutritious) food. Unfortunately, it’s not cheap in considering the hidden costs to our health, our environment and our climate. The most prominent critics of conventional agriculture argue for organic farms, humane meat, and local food. Michael Pollan and Dan Barber are eloquent defenders of this worldview.

Vegans find ourselves caught in the middle of these two camps. We are reviled in the conventional agriculture community and merely tolerated by the Michael Pollans of the world. Pollan at least gave vegetarianism a try, famously kicking off this experiment by reading Animal Liberation while having a steak. Still, he ultimately concludes that humanely produced meat can exist and that livestock have too great a role in agriculture to eschew meat.

To make matters more complicated, there is no set vision of how organic food should work. “Industrial organic” food, as Pollan puts it, is often trucked or flown vast distances to reach your local Whole Foods. A more broad criticism of the organic movement is the amount of land required to create yields comparable to the ones we get from the monocultures of conventional agriculture.  Unnatural Vegan points out myriad unintended consequences of organic growing methods.

My point is that these issues are complicated. To my knowledge, we don’t have a significant vegan writer putting forth a vision of how best to feed the world efficiently and ethically. Veganism doesn’t seem like a hard case to make in our present context. The really difficult questions come in defining exactly how we should feed the world. I hope to see more discussion from vegans on these really hard questions. And I hope veganism can become a big tent where many viewpoints can coexist and bump against one another.

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