“There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.” Victor Hugo
Sometimes it can be nearly impossible to see the big picture because, as advocates for animals, what we are looking at is pretty bleak. Speaking personally, it is never far from my mind how much needless suffering, barbarism and destruction is happening and, with each moment, how much more is to come. Each second, babies are stolen from mothers, innocent beings suffer in confinement, bolts are shot into brains, knives are slashed across necks. The despair from knowing just how easily it could all be prevented if people simply acknowledged the injustice of the violence and decided to give a damn is difficult to mitigate. Those of us who are awake to what is happening feel the senseless pain of it so deeply, and because of this, we are not always aware of its counterpart: the slow-but-steady grassroots shift that is occurring in tandem. Just as stop-motion photography reveals dramatic transformations due to subtle metamorphoses that are imperceptible to the human eye, the vegan movement has been making strides in recent years but we often need a something different – an altered perspective, a fresh lens - in order to notice it.
I have been vegan since 1995, a time when I would gasp and spontaneously erupt into a happy dance if a café had soymilk. With my nature being much more inclined to enthusiastic outbursts rather than, say, doing the professional poker circuit, I’m sure I startled many a coffee shop patron deeply engrossed in that new Sartre biography but I didn’t care. Even though I have always very much disliked the taste of coffee (the word swill comes to mind), I would hold my nose and suffer through a sip or two just so I could enjoy the novelty of coffee with milk in a café like a normal person. (This is pretty much where my desire to be normal begins and ends.) In 1995, even in a large, multicultural city like Chicago, vegans didn’t have much but it was just beginning to trickle in. The landscape has transformed before my eyes since then. I wish I had stop-motion photography to illustrate this. In retrospect, we were on the cusp of a sea change that is really still in its infancy. The wave of change has just begun gathering strength, but, have no doubt, it is happening and nothing can stop it.
If 1995 had a vegan pastry mascot, it would be dense, beige, heavy and could best be described as “roughly muffin-esque” but my activist friends and I would still be turning cartwheels in the streets for it. Contrast that with my son’s experience 17 years later. Over the summer, we went to a cute West Coast-based cupcakerie that opened an outpost here. I was struck when my son initially turned up his nose at the pretty red velvets, sniffing, “They only have one vegan flavor?” Despite being one of the most distinctly unreserved children I know - the spontaneous happy dance gene is inheritable, apparently - you still have to get up pretty early in the morning to impress my born-and-bred herbivore with your vegan culinary creations. This is how much the environment around us has changed. When my son seems a bit too comfortable with the easy-peasy vegan world he was born into sometimes, I make him listen to my equivalent of the old “I used to walk ten miles barefoot in the snow to school” saw, telling him that there was a time not too long ago when vegans couldn’t just walk into any ol’ bakery and expect to find a pastry they could eat. (“Imagine the hardships your stoic forebears faced.”) And we may not have been barefoot in the snow but our poorly constructed, plastic-y shoes came from catalogues that were archaic even at the time. Except for those who could afford expensive imported shoes from England, we may as well have been barefoot in our porous boots in Chicago in January but we didn’t complain because at least we had vegan shoes finally, for god’s sake, and they weren’t Converse, either.
Of course, the changes are not just better access to higher quality cupcakes and shoes. I am not one who puts much stock in “humane” meat or animal products, but the fact that this is a subject so many people are bringing up in defense of their meat-eating shows something encouraging. While the industry may provide another layer of fantasy and self-denial for omnivores to delude themselves with, the fact that people want to think that they are seeking out “more humane” animal products means that the personal discomfort with the status quo of eating animals is now something people are acknowledging out loud. This is a profound shift. No one was talking about this 17 years ago, certainly not in the widespread way that it is talked about today. Although I think that the happy meat sphere is a serious obstacle to compassionate living that wasn’t there before, the urge to reconcile this internal discomfort actually is cause for hope.
People are still eating ten billion land animals every year in the US alone, though, as if it is our birthright, as if the burgers and nuggets people eat were in fact grown in the patches shown in the old McDonald’s commercials. We may be eating less meat in the United States but international trends show an increased consumption throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa as animal products become less expensive, more accessible and a new generation of children develops an expectation of meat at nearly every meal. We are decimating our oceans, practically dredging them of life. Our addiction to cheap protein is altering this very planet. We have put our habits in the driver’s seat, and they are actively steering us toward a frightening future. Fabulous cupcakes and stylish shoes will not dull the sting of that reality.
The world is changing but not quickly enough. We need to go out and be great examples of being vegan and we’ve got to proudly own it. We are not doing the animals any good, nor are we slowing the ecological destruction of animal agriculture, by silently minding our own business. If speaking out about needless killing and destruction isn’t our collective business, I don’t know what is. We need to become empowered to use our voices, talents and passion for creating the world we want to live in because, quite simply, we are the ones to do it and the world needs us to step forward.
This doesn’t mean shouting. This doesn’t mean shaming. This means being honest, being humble, being inclusive, giving people the tools to make it easier for them and empowering them to make positive changes. On our own front, we should celebrate the small victories (so many great cupcakes!) but expect to keep shouldering on: creating a massive cultural shift of the one we are pioneering is not going to happen through anything but conviction and sheer endurance. This is how waves happen. Keep pushing forward with certainty that the world needs what you are creating and full of gratitude that you have this amazing opportunity to be building something so fundamentally good, kind, just and necessary.
If no one has said this lately, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you. You are amazing.
Now let’s get back to work. We’re building that wave, bit by bit.