Researcher Network member, Catherine Oliver, introduces her new book on vegan geographies.
In August, Routledge published my book, Veganism, Archives, and Animals: Geographies of a Multispecies World. It is the first book of its kind published on vegan geographies and it synthesises and pushes forwards ongoing debates about animals and activism in geography. In this blog, I share with The Vegan Society’s research page readers a preview into the book’s findings and conclusions.
In November 2013, when I was in the final year of my undergraduate geography degree, I watched the documentary ‘Earthlings.’ This film has a notoriety amongst vegans, sometimes referred to as ‘the vegan-maker,’, because of the disturbing footage it contains. The film shows undercover footage of the exploitation, lives, and deaths of animals in puppy mills, factory farms, research labs, entertainment, and the fashion industry. I couldn’t reconcile this new knowledge with who I believed I was, and my body rejected this in a visceral outpouring of disgust: I vomited. Up until this point in my life, I had been a vegetarian. The next morning, I went to the fridge in my student house and removed everything that contained dairy or eggs, telling my housemates I had decided to become vegan. For months after, at random times, I would feel waves of horror and disgust come over me. My transition to veganism was riddled with guilt, confusion, and a lot of strange meals.
I began researching vegan geographies in 2015 for my PhD, when the field was much smaller than it is today, and veganism was by no means as mainstream in society as it is six years later. I had noticed during my undergraduate degree that there was a distinct lack of research in geography about veganism. While there is a rich history of geographical thinking about animals, this work often places non-human animals as part of the landscape, rather than affording them agency. In the book, I hope to begin to rectify this. I work across the pasts, presents, and futures of veganism and animal activism in Britain. The book takes place over three parts: one in the archives of Richard D Ryder held at The British Library; part two is based on in-depth interviews with vegans across Britain; and part three focuses on a multispecies ethnography with ex-commercial chickens, exploring what vegan cohabitation with other species might look like.
A “British” Animal Ethics
The book is primarily concerned with veganism and animal activism in Britain, not least because of the location of the archival sources and interviewees that I had access to. Britain has long declared itself a ‘nation of animal lovers.’ Evidence for this is claimed at least as far back as Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century, when bloodsports became outlawed, and such practices became associated with the lower classes. National animal loving has also been attributed to the Victorian era with the rise of pet-keeping, prior to which “‘pets were often seen as an elite extravagance, [often appearing] in satirical prints of aristocratic ladies”,,’ writes Jane Hamlett. The rise of dogs and cats as domestic companions changed the status of some animals in Britain. The founding of the world’s oldest animal protection society, the RSPCA, in 1824, is also used to qualify Britain’s animal-loving history but, as Joe Wills writes, “‘the frequent claim that Britain is a ‘nation of animal lovers’ can be hard to reconcile with the reality of how we often treat our fellow creatures”.’ This British ‘“love’” for non-human animals has long been troubled by animal activists, even as they themselves often reproduce species hierarchies.
In Diet for a Large Planet, Chris Otter explores the history of humans and animals that powered Britain’s industrial revolution. Notably, the ‘nutrition transition’ and ‘meatification’ of the British diet in the 19thnineteenth century led to Britain’s food production moving outside of the national borders and implicating great swathes of the world as the British agricultural hinterlands. Alongside this meatification and distancing of Britain from the production of animals for food were the early roots of a burgeoning new way of living: vegetarianism. In September 1857, The Vegetarian Society was formed by a group of social reformers in Manchester, performing a contestation of a society where eating animals was on the rise, according to James Gregory. This early vegetarianism was deeply entangled with religion, especially Christianity, as well as other social reform causes such as poverty alleviation, food reform and even socialism. However, it was not until 1944 with the founding of The Vegan Society that vegetarianism was formally split into those who ate dairy and eggs, and those who did not.
After founding the Vegan Society with Dorothy Watson, Donald Watson wrote in Tthe Vegan Society’s magazine, The Vegan News, how these spiritual elements of eating were important to veganism. He proposed that:
“Even though the scientific evidence may be lacking, we shrewdly suspect that the great impediment to man’s moral development may be that he is a parasite of lower forms of animal life.”
A few years later, in the same publication, we also find the origins of the environmental roots of veganism to soil, national security and self-sustenance from another founding member of the vegan society, Douglas Semple, who wrote that:
“the question of growing health foods is of real national importance, for no nation can be well which ignores the cultivation of its soil. We are taking a long time to learn that although we have a most fertile soil, we are practically a landless people.”
My book begins with this ‘“British’” history, exploring how animal activism, vegetarianism, and veganism have long been entangled with British history, society, and cultures, not as an alternative way of living, but as deeply ingrained within and responding to wider social, cultural, and political issues.
Animal Activist Histories
The first part of my book focuses on histories of animal activism, rather than veganism specifically. I draw on research in the uncatalogued and, at the time, not publicly available, archives of Richard D. Ryder at The British Library to think about the histories of animal activism in Britain and how these relate to veganism as we know it today. I particularly focus on how white, upper and /middle-class men have staked a claim on the animal activist movement across all typologies of activism (radical, organisational, and academic), seeking to ‘legitimise’ human care for non-human animals by distancing it from sentimental women’s work.
I am especially concerned with friendship in these histories, and how the friendship of an elite group of activists, known as The Oxford Group, have shaped contemporary and historical networks of animal activism, erasing other actors. The first part of the book forms a historical-geographical intervention that critically engages with a long and important political and social movement for animals in Britain. I argue that this elite friendship has defined the kinds of knowledges we use and develop in veganism today, such as the idea of ‘speciesism,’, and the dominant narratives used in veganism.
In the second part of the book, I explore how historical legacies of animal activism affect contemporary vegans and discuss how vegans live and move through a non-vegan world. Contemporary vegan activism encompasses a spectrum of approaches from extraordinary events of protest and liberation to quiet and consistent ‘ways of life’ resistance. It is also informed by historical animal activism, shaping visions and shared definitions of different forms of activism. When I raised the question of defining activism in interviews, a historical imaginary of the activist subject was persistent. One interviewee explained that: “‘everyone has this image of the 80’s and 90’s activist, handcuffed to a tractor, without being there back then. To call myself an activist I would be doing more than just being vegan, but that could be as simple as bringing vegan food to work or inviting non-vegans to events or having an Instagram.”’ Becoming vegan often leads to people feeling that their world, and social relationships, have become ‘“disturbed’” by this new knowledge, and I explore how worlds are unmade and remade in this part of the book.
I was particularly taken, during my research, with how vegans spoke about their transitions to veganism as discovering ‘“the truth’,” and I dedicate a significant amount of space in the book to understanding what truth means, and how it travels, in veganism. The people I interviewed talked to me about how when they became vegan, it was not a rational decision, but an embodied one. They felt in their bodies that eating animals was wrong and changed their lives accordingly. Interestingly, this was something I connected with in my own experience of becoming vegan. I contend that veganism has a particular relationship to ‘“truth’” that disturbs the spaces and norms of meat-centric society and cultures. However, veganism is not a homogenously experienced identity or practice. I try to represent a variety of experiences for contemporary vegans, all of whom are bonded together through their shared ‘“truths’..”
The last part of my book is dedicated to the question of how we might live with other animals in a vegan world. In 2017, my mum rescued six chickens who had been born into a commercial hatchery and were destined to become egg-laying hens. Instead, they came to live in a coop in her garden. Over the next three years, I got to know and care for these six birds. They transformed not only my life, but my veganism. In an ethnography with these chickens and other animals, I ask how animals themselves might be included in vegan visions of the future. These questions are, of course, entangled with a suite of other social, cultural, and political issues around who has the space (and land ownership) to live with animals; who has the knowledge and time to adapt their lives; and how this is possible on a mass scale.
I focus particularly on how this chicken-human relationship changes the space in which we live together, but also how this challenges what we think we know about chickens in industrial agriculture. In 2020, with the Covid-19 lockdown in Britain, domestic chicken-keeping incurred a huge surge in interest, with rehoming charities receiving unprecedented numbers of requests. The rehoming of ex-commercial birds has the potential effect of disrupting the usual spatial separations between human and animal spaces to reshape ‘belonging,’ Living with chickens emphasised that we still have a series of spatial, ethical, and practical questions around our relationships with other species, around knowing them ‘“well enough’,” and about what our futures might look like.
Vegan Pasts, Presents and Futures.
Veganism has received little critical attention in geography. Despite its long history, its socio-political force, and its recent surge leading to new global and local geographies, veganism remains marginal to serious geographical consideration. Contemporary veganism incorporates health, the environment, and compassion for animals. It is a growing spatio-temporal force that seeks to engage with and offer part of a solution to global crises such as climate change, pain, and modern nutrition. Veganism as an organised political movement has since its inception responded to a changing world and a world in crisis. In this book, I trace the pasts, presents, and futures of this vegan responsiveness.
Animals have always been a part of geography, and geography has always been multispecies and implicated non-human actors. The work of veganism is a fundamental part of a continuing to develop a geography that matters, and one that makes a difference. Even when it has seemed impossible, humans and animals have – and continue to – build community, negotiate space, and live together in new ways to enact uncertain futures. It is my hope that this book will engage the geographical community with veganism in new ways, seeking to solidify veganism as both a serious subject for geographical scholarship and an important ethic with which to undertake research with other animals.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.