Celebrating the Cycle of Life with Death

Alemany Farm, San Francisco’s largest urban farm,  is celebrating Earth Day this year by roasting a pig, as they do every year. When vegans have questioned this in the past, their response has been “circle of life”. So while spring is in bloom and the air is full of the scent and colors of life bursting forth, Americans celebrate the circle of life with death. 

Meanwhile, Iranians are currently celebrating our new year. Norooz falls on Spring Equinox and revolves around the sacredness of the circle of life. Before Norooz, we grow sprouts (sabzeh) for the haftseen, a table with symbolic items which will be laid until the end of the celebration. 

The cyclical renewal of life is celebrated with the vibrancy of life growing from seeds and creating a lush tapestry of green. On our haftseens we also place hyacinths, apples, and other symbols of abundance, health, life and nature. Norooz is celebrated for thirteen days, during which time the haftseens are a joyful backdrop, and people take pride in the beauty they’ve created. Then comes Sizdah Beh Dar (“thirteen to the door”); on the thirteenth day of the new year, friends and families spend the day in nature. The sabzeh is brought along for a final ritual. People tie little tufts of sprouts into knots as they make a wish for the new year and then throw them into a river, looking forward to the gifts that the river will bring back to them. 

All the while in my city, young Americans are choosing to honor the Earth and the circle of life by gathering around the body of an animal who will have wanted nothing more than to stay alive. This pig’s life will be violently ended by people who have absolute power over him or her and who have no need to kill to sustain themselves, but who choose to do so anyway because their entitlement trumps their empathy. Domination and death are the values upheld as Alemany gathers around another broken body. 

These daily choices and rituals call upon us to question our culture and the connections between the local and the global, the individual and the collective. 

Consider that the United States military is a bloated killing machine that receives more than a third of total global military spending. With bases around the globe and the wanton slaughter of civilians in criminal wars, it is the main source of terror in the world. Consider that last year American police killed a thousand of their own citizens and this year we’re already close to 300. This is summary execution at home as abroad, condoned by the legal system and the masses. Consider that in a country of extreme wealth, many die from lack of access to housing, healthcare and basic healthy foods. 

As parks became parking lots, as processed and packaged foods replaced fruits plucked from a backyard tree, humans are not the only ones to have suffered. Insects are dying off, the fish are dying off, mammals are dying off. Every corner of the Earth is poisoned as we pursue domination and profit.   

Tomorrow for Sizdah Beh Dar, I will bring a plant-based picnic to Golden Gate Park and will spend the day enjoying the sun, the grass, the trees, the flowers, the birds. I will take my sabzeh to Mission Creek and make a wish of liberation for the hundreds of thousands of pigs who are killed every day in the US, most of whom never see sunlight or touch the earth. I will reflect on how we can foster a culture in which we meet life with awe and tenderness, not destruction. If we are serious about Earth Day, nothing else will do. Those who attend pig roasts dressed in feel-good language think that the artisanal butchery of an individual pig raised outdoors can not be compared to the grotesque excess of industrial animal farming. They are wrong.

This equation of destruction and killing with the cycle of life, the logicking out of one’s own compassion, the rituals of domination that make up the fabric of American social life: these are the very basis of the culture of violence that has spawned horrors at home and abroad. The entitlement over the life of another is the same entitlement that drives the trashing of the planet, as we commodify every last part of nature. Kindness is the basis of sustainabilityany true celebration of Earth Day will require genuine soul-searching as we begin to change our culture at its very core.

 

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Car Culture and the Right to the City

A Cyclist Rants 

Yesterday some car was speeding towards the intersection to make a right turn while aiming to come into the right lane, where I was on my bike. Instead of just slowing down and merging behind me like someone who isn’t sociopathically entitled, the driver almost hit me from the left. My only recourse was to glare at him and proceed. At the red light, he rolled down his window and demanded what my problem was. I answered that my problem was that he almost hit me. His answer: “You need to stop smoking and put the bike down.” (huh?)

Riding a bike in SF is incredibly stressful and it’s really when people get in their cars that – sorry to say – they put on display the ignorance and entitlement that make up the American stereotype.

I say ignorance because most drivers here are completely clueless about the rules of the road. They’ll throw tantrums about cyclists running red lights (which I don’t condone) but drivers flout the rules of the road at a much higher frequency, posing a very real danger to people on bikes, pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.

I say entitlement because even if they do know the rules, they don’t care. There is a sense that the road is for drivers, the crosswalks are for drivers, the bike lanes are for drivers to double park in, etc. There’s a tangible attitude of “gimme ALL the space” and when people’s entitlement is challenged, they often become aggressive.

It’s not just biking that’s stressful. I live in a neighborhood with heavy traffic where there is no concept of pedestrian right of way. Getting almost hit at crosswalks, or being forced to walk into traffic because the crosswalk is blocked by cars, is a normal daily occurrence. People in wheelchairs are even more vulnerable to this anti-social prioritization of speed over safety and decency.

The dude yesterday was big, burly, aggressive and straight up intimidating. I’ve had drivers shout out me, honk at me, accelerate within inches of me, just for being on the road. As a pedestrian, I’ve been called a bitch for simply walking on a crosswalk when I had a green light, because it forced a driver to have to slow down. When I was recovering from pneumonia and couldn’t walk fast, trying to cross the street within the allotted number of seconds was a nightmare. I don’t know how people with less mobility deal with it.

Reclaiming the city and reclaiming the streets is not just about land trusts, public parks, urban farms and so on. It’s also about ditching this car culture, funding public transit (I’ve been to plenty of “third world” countries with better transit than SF), funding better infrastructure for people who walk and bike, driver education (SF bike coalition, a large and influential bike advocacy organization, does not prioritize this but I am convinced it is key and can be effective if done properly), and probably, unfortunately, better enforcement. (Of course, a big problem with enforcement is the anti-poor and anti-cyclist bias of SFPD.)

Because at this point it’s pretty damn difficult for people to get from Point A to Point B without spending money or putting themselves at risk. Our daily movement is taxed, mostly to support the fossil fuel industry. We live in a tiny city with great weather, we could make it into a paradise if we prioritized the needs of the many instead of those of the few.

entitled driver
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Farmers’ Love and Soy Myths: More Nonsense to Retire in 2018

No, veganism doesn’t require destroying the Amazon, and no, farmers’ “love” for animals doesn’t justify killing them.

The Guardian published an article titled Cows are loving, intelligent and kind – but we should still eat themIt follows Rosamund Young, a farmer who wrote The Secret Lives of Cows. She bonds with her cows, observes the richness and complexity of their social and inner lives, and even provides this memorable quote “The animals themselves are by far the most qualified individuals to make decisions about their own welfare.” She also brings her cows to the slaughterhouse, despite this being the most extreme and violent opposition possible to the decisions that cows would make for their own welfare.

Allgäu Ruminant Dairy Cattle Cows Cute CowThis trope of the farmer who loves their animals and has a zen-like maturity about death has been fed to us for a loooong time. Already in 2000, I remember meeting a guy who, upon learning I was vegan, told me he had been vegan for a while. He had started to eat meat again when he met a farmer who really, really loved his animals – but would kill and eat them. He figured that if the farmer, who really, really loved his chickens, still ate them, it was a green light for him to also eat animals. We’re supposed to see farmers as the example to follow, since they are actually in close communion with animals whereas us urban folks have led a disconnected life of Disney movies and supermarket food.

It would be just as ludicrous to look to men who beat and rape their wives as experts on the validity of women’s emancipation or on how to treat women. They live with them right? And they love them. So if they think patriarchy and male domination of women is ok, then it is. There is so much to deconstruct here in the concept of “love” when applied by a dominant class, but what I want to comment on is the soy – yet something else that is peddled out like truth again and again.

Rosamund Young justifies killing animals because “Britain’s climate and geography make meat production the only truly sustainable land use on its grasslands. Her slopes are too steep to grow crops and vegan diets dependent on imported soya beans from ex-rainforests don’t appear to be sustainable”.

First, vegan diets do not necessarily depend on soy. I spent most of my years as a vegan living in Switzerland and for the most part I ate very little soy. When I did, it was not imported from monocultures in South America; it was organic soy that was grown in Europe. When small farmers and other anti-vegans of that milieu speak of the evils of soy in the Amazon, they conveniently omit that most of that soy goes to feed cattle. Granted, they are not advocating for European cows to be raised on soy either, but that is the inevitable result of the consumption levels in the West today. Grass-fed “beef” is land-intensive. Its proponents sometimes give lip service to the idea of decreasing meat consumption but never center that message in their work.

512px-Ful_medames
Egyptian breakfast with the fava-based ful medames. Delicious, vegan, and lo and behold! Not a soybean in sight.

Going back to soy, people love to wag the finger at vegans but genetically engineered soy is ubiquitous in processed foods consumed by non-vegans. On the other hand, even in the United States, many of the soy products marketed specifically to vegans are non-GMO. And it’s not like pulses don’t grow in the UK. Before they were snubbed as low-class, beans and peas were staple British foods. They’re still grown – now as feed for cattle and for export. Britain is one of the largest exporters of fava beans and Egypt, of all places, is one of its main markets. It’d be wiser for the British to learn to make the delicious Egyptian ful medames and keep their fava beans at home.

You can run around in circles justifying cruelty, but the litmus test is this: would you be ok with dogs being raised and slaughtered like cows? If not, it befalls you to explain why you draw a line between cows and dogs.

There are plenty of veganic growers in the UK, in fact I’ve been told that one of the reasons veganics are more accepted and developed in the UK than in the US is precisely because of the relative lack of land. I hope to see the Guardian start covering their proposal for a compassionate and sustainable food system.

Visit Veganic World for interviews with veganic farmers.

Read my short Defense of the Humble Bean.

 

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#YesAllBurgers

Brown Calf
This picture was originally captioned as “veal”. This is an intelligent social animal who feels pain, fear and love. Not a commodity, not a food, not “veal” or future “beef”.

The food movement has long been pushing for small-scale, local and organic animal agriculture. Their idea is that while factory farming is obscene and harmful, traditional forms of animal agriculture are a whole other ballgame. The message that not all meat is equal has morphed into the enthusiastic endorsement and promotion of animal agriculture.

This summer, Friends of the Earth (FoE) launched The Better Burger Challenge. They’re calling upon chefs, food advocates and all eaters to grill up “better burgers” that replace at least 30% of regular burgers with vegetables and the rest with local organic, grass-fed or pasture-raised beef. FoE does not present this move as a way to cause less damage to the environment. Instead, they label Better Burgers as “environmentally friendly” and the ranching practices that produce them as “sustainable” and “regenerative”. They go so far as to trumpet that Better Burgers can “transform the iconic, resource-intensive American hamburger into a force for better personal health, good farming practices and animal welfare”.

This is total nonsense.

Yes, not all burgers are equal in terms of environmental impact. That’s true, and more vegans should understand this because you can better refute a point if you are first willing to understand it. But burgers are never good for the environment. Before industrial agriculture, animal agriculture was already destructive simply because it uses more resources. That’s why it always was – and remains today – a food for the relatively well-off. Add to that the fact that cows are an invasive species in the Americas and you start to see that this is about protecting culture, not the environment.

Image from The Vegan Outreach Project
Image from The Vegan Outreach Project

Secondly and far more importantly: ALL burgers are equal in that they are all made from the flesh of animals who did not want to die. If you wouldn’t eat local, grass-fed, holistically grazed, humanely slaughtered dogs, why do you do so with cows? How are they different? [Commence sound of crickets.]

The vegan movement also needs to be clear that our movement is not fundamentally about food or agriculture, any more than it is about fashion or entertainment. We are a movement that aims to change how we relate, socially, to other beings. And because those beings are currently exploited in food and agriculture (as well as fashion, entertainment and so on), it just so happens that animal liberation changes the parameters within which we choose what we eat and how we farm. So to the endless chorus of #NotAllBurgers, I emphatically counter #YesALLBurgers. Because animals’ lives are what matter.

Cows Sonoma
In the Bay Area, local organic meat and dairy companies present the agricultural region north of San Francisco as a pastoral paradise. In reality, ranching is driving the disappearance of native wildlife and biodiversity.

 

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Earth Day at Alemany Farm

 

“In the spirit of earth day bring reusable cups…” but let’s go ahead and roast a pig.

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 10.31.01 AM

When Seed the Commons organized the first People’s Harvest Forum, I invited one of the founders of Alemany Farm to come speak about land and urban gardening in San Francisco. I explained that this was a forum that promoted veganic farming, and he was ok with veganics as long as it isn’t promoted exclusively, or in his own words, as long as it was “without dogma”.

Compassion is such a very dogmatic thing, of course. No, wait, it’s only dogmatic when it’s the compassion of the minority. The compassion that the majority has for dogs and cats is not seen as “dogmatic” (even though the majority second-guesses themselves much less). When vegans apply our ethics to our actions in the very same way that the majority does, we get dismissed as dogmatic.

This is a double standard that serves to insult us and to detract from the challenge that we present to dominant social norms. Because the question that needs to be answered is this: why should we treat a cow or pig differently than a dog? If there is no good answer to this question, it follows that we should farm veganically, and it is no more dogmatic than farming without dogs or cats. To maintain the status quo of animal commodification, the question is skirted.

We must liberate the class of animals known as “farm animals”. People will resist and insult and try to avoid ever engaging in a discussion on why farm animals are uniquely suited to their lot. This is normal. We are fighting to change social norms, and it’s always an arduous task. Humans protect the status quo and especially their own privilege. Those who farm, roast or eat pigs want to protect their entitlement to pigs’ lives and bodies, and all the better if they can be self-congratulatory about it. At Alemany Farm, they justify their celebration of domination with the trope of the “circle of life”, but nobody uses this argument to justify cruelty to animals that are deemed to matter.

All of these clichés – “the circle of life”, the rejection of dogma, the wisdom of moderation – have the veneer of sophistication, but they simply provide a knee-jerk defense of the way things are. I grew up in Switzerland, land of the middle ground. Rejecting “extremes” and lauding moderation is a national pastime. It’s not enlightenment, it’s conservatism. When people urge for moderation, they conveniently draw the contours of that moderation around what is normal to them. But if we persevere, veganism and veganic farming will become the new normal.

I’ve heard people – especially vegans – moan that vegans aren’t active enough around the political or social justice issues of our food system. I knew a vegan who used to volunteer at Alemany Farm and who left because every year they would roast the dead body of a sentient, intelligent, sensitive being. We should not have to betray our ethics to be able to engage in important community activism.

As vegans, we must set up our own urban and community gardens. Urban agriculture is too important for us to hold back until we achieve widespread animal liberation. Let’s reclaim the streets, grow our own food systems with a vegan ethic, and help build up a genuine people’s movement for land reform and a better world.

 

 

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