Whenever I’m reminded (I’m reminded quite often) that people knew, before I was even born, the horrifying future we were going to have because of climate change but did nothing monumental to stop it, I get very upset. Whenever I’m reminded (I’m reminded quite often) that we knew a pandemic was coming as a result of capitalist-production-fueled ecological destruction, I get very upset. All this time was stolen from us, I think, when we could have just lived differently.
Then I remember that we are standing on the precipice, indeed may have made the leap already, toward irreversible warming that will leave the planet unlivable in the near future, and I still don’t know what to do to really inspire the monumental changes to stop it. (We will be ok if we can truly cut global emissions to zero.) And so I understand; I forgive. I bought Cheerios, simply because I wanted to, and then read that they have “bioengineered ingredients,” a way, it seems, for General Mills to avoid the now well-known phrase “genetically modified ingredients.” Who am I to judge?
The other night, my fiancé had to remind me that Karl Marx and Jesus Christ didn’t succeed as much as they would’ve liked in their purposes, either (in this case, my main goal is to get people to stop eating industrial meat, not even to own the means of production or love thy neighbor—this is a step down from my hope that people would stop eating meat altogether). I’m, of course, not so delusional that I think I’m like Marx or Christ, but it does help to put things in perspective.
He said this because I was having a meltdown about my book and whether it would really succeed at anything, then a spat with a Twitter user (ah, yes, back on the hell site) made me realize I can’t write for vegans. I can write more about that specifically in the future, but it was just a basic realization: My book can’t seek to make vegans happy, because I’m a vegetarian, a dreaded ex-vegan, and thus can’t make anyone happy anyway, and because my goals just aren’t as radical as they once were, because I’ve seen—I’ve experienced—how difficult it is to make people’s behavior change. I’m tired, and being hardline doesn’t inspire me, and while trying to write during a pandemic, the inspiration needs to be strong. The world isn’t giving me the usual constant sparks. The world is only taking my energy from me.
But just because my goals aren’t as radical (or one could say “punishing”) as they once were doesn’t mean I’m no longer trying to be as radical as I can be while living under capitalism. Indeed, I focus on crisis after crisis: the climate, coronavirus, capitalism, endless extractive consumption, white-supremacist insurrections on the Capitol, the chefs who feed cops in the aftermath. It’s hard for me to be nice to people, to talk to people at all, when these are the focal points of my day-to-day living.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with the books in Verso’s coronavirus series, especially Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century by Andreas Malm (I’ve confirmed with those in the know that he’s a vegetarian). He makes clear that the pandemic and climate change are one crisis, combined with capitalism’s requirement of colonialist extraction from the global south:
“...a body of literature has demonstrated that if developing countries rely on export to developed partners, they tend to cut down their own forests faster to serve up the commodities in demand. Such relations would not, of course, have come about if it weren’t for colonialism…Out of the clearings the commodities can then come gushing: the American appetite for hamburger is satisfied from pastures carved out of the Amazon. The import of coffee to the North presupposes deforestation in the tropical belt. Chocolate, consumed in the most tremendous quantities in Switzerland, Germany and Austria and supplied by a mirroring top trio of Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia, comes from cocoa trees grown where wild forests once stood: and the shopping list goes on.”
I come alive when I meet someone (in life, on paper) as obsessed and upset as I am with how humans in the global north choose to live, for whom they choose to vote, the lack of imagination they espouse when it comes to the economic system in which we live. I prefer conversation with anyone who can disabuse me of the notions that Europe is doing anything right at all. The fascism, it’s everywhere; we’ve known this.
What’s interesting is that in the United States, the fascists, for the most part, deny climate change. They are not ecofascists (a word that originally applied mainly rhetorically to hardcore environmentalists, the way people used to say “feminazi”), who want strong borders because of xenophobia but also to protect resources in the coming decades of global-warming-induced scarcity. As Kate Aronoff pointed out in 2019 for Dissent, a Democrat in the U.S. gets applause simply for saying, “I believe in science” despite neither enacting nor supporting policy changes that would drastically (as is required) inhibit the use of fossil fuels, the production of plastics, the overdevelopment of land, and restrict industrial meat and dairy production.
I dug further, though, and saw that the right-wing here has been espousing greener notions, even attempting to infiltrate mainstream environmental organizations to mold them into their hateful image. Matthew Phelan wrote about “the menace of ecofascism” for The New York Review of Books in 2018: “there have also been some strange recurring bloopers in which environmental activists have haplessly stumbled into casual alliances with dangerous members of the far-right radical fringe.” (This piece also includes a lot of prescience on pandemics.)
That this is able to happen is owed to the automatic empathy and assumptions of goodwill whiteness is privileged to under white supremacy. People can be tricked into allowing white supremacists into their fold simply because they’re white, and so white supremacists adopting what sound like radical notions as a means of promoting xenophobia is intensely dangerous. That’s what the right has done in Europe to a much greater extent, and though in the U.S. these people continue to be a bit less “with it,” let’s say, they could get on this bandwagon with the right charismatic idiot leader who sees racist, nationalist opportunity in no longer denying climate change.
White supremacists have been pushing veganism, too, and it’s no wonder when I’ve heard so many vegans espouse ideas around population control and not having children that easily spin into racism about which kind of people are having a more detrimental environmental impact by having “too many” kids. (Anyone should think twice about such statements considering the use of forced sterilizations against women in Puerto Rico and, more recently, in immigrant detention.) Alexis de Coning in this 2017 piece for Vice looked at successful vegan neo-Nazi YouTube channels:
By romanticizing white people's inherent connection to the land and nature, "blood and soil" also underscores notions of racial purity and nobility. Dietary commitments, then, become a means to prove one's racial superiority.
What makes me depressed about these is, yes, the hateful nationalism of right-wing ideology, but also the idea that the left hasn’t succeeded at the same level to show why capitalism is at the heart of climate change, at the heart indeed of the pandemic, and that the level of industrial meat and dairy we consume is a large chunk of the issue here. Why is environmentalism such an easy fit for racists, for the kind of people who get let into the Capitol building to have their way?
Why is an ideology of hate more appealing than one of love and respect, of shared resources and common spaces? Of being kind to the earth for the earth’s sake, as well as for all its creatures? Why don’t we want to (and I’m about to sound very Catholic) sacrifice somewhat for the greater good? This is why I focus on industrial meat, I guess. It should be an easy fight, considering its detrimental impacts on workers and the environment, not just animal rights. But it’s not.
Ecosocialism and anti-capitalist degrowth movements exist, of course, but the broad population’s imagination is stuck on capitalism, on putting a green veil over the same old tendencies. It’s the age-old question, right? Why do people go right with more ease than they go left? Why is the right able to agree and why is the left so factionalized? (Because we’re smarter, but.) This is all to say I think about crisis all the time; I think about how to make people change their behavior around food all the time. I’m not as good at is as these ecofascists. I’ll keep trying.
Relevant to the topic at hand, Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will be with Nicola Harvey, a farmer and writer based in New Zealand. She recently produced the podcast “A Carnivore’s Crisis” and is at work on a book about “food citizenship.” We discussed land use, the global perception that New Zealand has its shit together, tech meat, and more.
For Guernica, I talked to translator Alistair Ian Blyth about working with Moldovan writer Iulian Ciocan, whose work I am obsessed with (his only novel available in English is Before Brezhnev Died). We’re planning to have coffee at some point when the world isn’t a mess, and I really look forward to that. It was nice to write about books again—I’d love to do that more.
I got news that two indie print magazines that I wrote pieces for last year will actually be coming out soon. The best piece I wrote in 2020 won’t be out till this year, in Fields & Stations.
All those Verso books, a bunch of texts on veganism and vegetarianism, and for pleasure? Far Country: Scenes From American Culture by Franco Moretti.
Israel and I made pizzas for Three Kings’ Day, the process of which our friend Ricky photographed, and I also baked a banana-chai cake that I had to take out of the oven too quickly because of the pizzas—our day started late because of a flood in the bathroom that I caused and that almost drowned our Roomba. What a holiday! The chai masala I used is from Spicewalla. Pictured above are some nachos with amarillos and some extremely inauthentic guacamole left over from tacos.
Alicia, this really hit home -
your fiancé is a wise man, please don’t beat yourself up;
having struggled with this for almost 55 years, I agree completely with your sentiments, what greatly troubles you - it is a real challenge, getting more people to recognise corporate capitalism as at the root of the problem, but then also what the truly just solution could be;
in the late 60s and early 79, ‘participatory democracy’ was the most basic ideal that inspired me: everyone should be able to democratically participate in the decision making for all the institutions in their life (schools, workplaces, communities, ...), and although I have to confess I was more than a little romantic insofar as thinking this could be achieved in, oh, maybe a decade or so (ok, it felt at the time ... for some of us ... that real revolution might actually be at hand 🤭), it was Rudi Dutschke’s advocating of a ‘long march through the institutions of power’ to create radical change from within society and government that finally kept me going, as something to hold onto ... but then came the really big problem: what did it mean to actually do this, to lead a life in this way? after all, Rudi’s idea is, well, awfully vague, none of the grimy details noted, and vulnerable to all kinds of fatal, self-justifying compromises ... and so I have to also confess I have yet to figure this out to anything remotely approaching satisfaction ... it seems the ‘figuring out’ is endless but still absolutely necessary ... and everything you write seems — to me — to be amazingly honest and reflecting on how to try to do this, and always gets me thinking;
on vegetarian, vegan, ‘Industrial meat’ - your story was quite helpful to hear - I started out trying to be a vegetarian because of horror about how the animals we have domesticated for our food supply were being treated, were raised and slaughtered under horrific conditions, the whole brutal ‘industrial meat’ system ... and yet I gave a pass to wild seafood because at least fish had a ‘free’ life in the sea, and on Thanksgiving agreed with my dear carnivore wife of 50 years that we could eat turkey if I could see how the one we bought was truly raised in a pasture and ‘humanely’ slaughtered ... but then I had to painfully recognise (working for an international NGO on sustainable fishing) that the fishing industry is as ‘industrial’ as they come, so then ‘vegan’ seemed both more consistent with my anti-industrial capitalism and humane (treating all creatures with kindness) ideals ... yet I failed to sustain consistent veganism (back to eating the odd fish and a ‘humanely raised’ turkey at holiday time) ... so now it’s a daily debate with myself;
anyway, please keep sharing your amazingly honest thoughts