Vegan Food & Culture: Featuring Jesse Farrell

Hi, Jesse! Thank you so much for offering your thoughts and inspiration today. To start, what does being vegan mean?

It’s really simple, and somewhat boring: to not exploit animals in any way, or at least to give it your best shot. 

It’s not simply a diet, or a “food allergy” as it’s often categorized on menus and nutrition-info databases.

It’s also not easy: there are animal products in everything from tires to McDonald’s french fries. Seemingly unrelated things like commercial real-estate development can be construed as exploiting animals by depriving them of (or poisoning) part of their habitat. The needs of commerce and taxation for a strip mall, or for strip mining, for instance   can trump their existence.

When did you become a vegan?

In 2010, when I began cooking more of my meals, I fell back on vegetarian recipes. I’d been vegetarian on and off since I was 16. But I also had a couple of vegan cookbooks, dating back to when I was experimenting with a gluten-free, casein-free diet, though still an omnivore at the time. Becoming vegan was simply a matter of combining vegetarianism with GFCF. (I would later drop the gluten-free part.)

A few months later I began to understand that it wasn’t simply about food or diet; until then I only had a vague sense that veganism was good in some larger context.

You know the DC/Baltimore area, which many people come to at some point. So, would you have any local vegan businesses to recommend?

All food-related:

There are also lots of good vegan-friendly fast-casual places –  a particular favorite these days is Rice Bar – plus a couple of very vegan-friendly, regional natural-foods supermarket chains: Mom’s Organic Market and Roots Market (the owners of the latter also own Great Sage).

Beyond food, how have you changed by adopting a vegan perspective?

I have a better sense of the autonomy and sentience of animals. My previous experience of living with a dog with a very strong, colorful personality helped cement that. I’ve progressed beyond “animals should not be food or commodities” to “animals have lives, and that should be respected.”

Jesse, could you describe how veganism and culture intertwine, from your perspective? How does veganism fit in with human social and economic striving? 

Your veganism doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a whole world out there, where you should be applying that same compassion you have for animals, who exist solely to become part of someone’s meal or clothing or entertainment, to human animals, near or far, like factory or garment workers halfway around the world (or just a stone’s-throw away), working under difficult conditions for wages you likely wouldn’t wish upon yourself. Your choices, as a consumer or voter, may help reinforce or (better) tear down the bad aspects of the status quo.

There’s no need to overlay some elaborate belief system. Just apply the Golden Rule to all creatures on the planet, and to the planet itself. As one of my heroes, Wavy Gravy, puts it: We are all the same person trying to shake hands with our self.

Amazon took over CreateSpace, a platform for indy authors, and folded it into Kindle Direct Publishing. And Patreon, which sustains independent creators, relies on Amazon’s AWS platform to guard creators against fraud. There’s some weird irony here. We rely on this massive, famously exploitive company, with a CEO who has accumulated $147 billion, to carve out some measure of creative independence in our lives, maybe even escape gig work. Is the quest for living on our own terms an illusion? 

This ties a little into not being able to avoid random animal products in your life; if you interface in some way with any kind of commercial entity including many companies providing your vegan goods –  you are going to find yourself at odds with what some CxO says or does, or what the company itself does. Your organic vegan milk may come from a company far more invested in factory farms than it is in some vegan niche.

My work in IT had been cloud-adjacent for the last few years, and my current job is more directly cloud-related, plus I have side projects that involve even more cloud work. I’ve made my peace with it for now, but would like to find (or even found) a right-sized cloud platform that isn’t owned by a massive, for-profit entity. What we now know as Linux has roots in earlier projects started to create a cooperative, non-commercial version of the expensive proprietary Unixes of the day. Maybe something similar will happen for cloud computing.

I try not to enrich some large corporation if there’s a good alternative. It’s also important to recognize that we’re enriching various oligarchs and modern-day robber barons (whether it’s Bezos, Zuck, Bill Gates, or some Walton or Koch family offspring) with our choices of how we spend our time and money, and they’re all quite happy to use the power that accompanies their wealth to do things that may not be in our best interests.

And maybe we should, as voters, also be more concerned about un-sexy things like antitrust law than we have been in the past. 

What would you say to people who are curious about becoming vegan, and has anyone become a vegan because of your influence?

No one has ever done anything because of my influence 🙂

There are many different good reasons to go vegan — for animal rights, against animal cruelty, for health reasons, etc. But there’s also the negative effect on the planet that animal agriculture has. If we’re quietly careening toward a climate emergency, maybe the positive effect of reducing global warming could be an incentive in ways that other angles and rationales have not been.

 I live in the US, which has long been beset with elected officials for whom gratuitous cruelty toward marginalized groups and individuals is a core part of their branding. That’s not sustainable for a country, and, additionally, things like war, and greed, and a host of other forms of human folly endanger humanity’s long-term existence. Earth will go on just fine without human life; the reverse isn’t true. So being vegan should be  or should be thought of as – one of many things in one’s toolkit that exist as a counterweight to our various destructive tendencies.

What is an example of what you like to eat at home, how do you make it? 

I used to consume a lot of protein: I had a six-day-a-week yoga practice and also did a lot of powerlifting, and I had trouble keeping my weight up. So I would eat lots of tofu, tempeh, and seitan, and gulp down protein shakes. I’ve scaled back, partly due to the pandemic, but I still don’t eat enough actual vegetables sometimes. I try to fix that by grabbing a vegetable-centric cookbook, or an omnivore one with lots of vegetable recipes.

But I have a lot of fun improvising marinades for tofu/tempeh, and also like to incorporate various leftovers into batches of seitan say, some unused beans, or wilting kale, or almost-forgotten mushrooms sitting in the back of the fridge.

Seitan Improv

1. Soak 1 cup Textured Vegetable Protein in 1-1.5 cups broth or marinade to rehydrate the TVP. Set aside the excess liquid

2. Coarsely puree about a cup’s worth of stuff — beans, mushrooms, greens….

This week I used 1 cup of cooked black beans that were sitting in the fridge; 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast;  2 tablespoons of jerk seasoning (you could instead use salt/pepper, cumin, sage, smoked paprika, rehydrated hot peppers, etc., to taste).

3.  Add enough liquid (maybe taken from the TVP soaking) to help puree all of this in a blender or food processor.

4. Combine 1 cup of Vital Wheat Gluten in a bowl with the above. Work it into a dough for a few minutes; it may take a little trial-and-error over several improvised batches to get a sense of how wet/dry/stretchy/firm the dough should feel before the next step.

5. Form into individual pieces  e.g., burgers, meatballs, cutlets  and wrap each in parchment paper, then in aluminum foil. Steam for approximately 90 minutes. Allow to cool, and put everything in the refrigerator overnight, to firm.

Then…fry up your burgers (or cutlets, or whatever), or crumble into a stir-fry or pasta sauce.

Mayo for Your Future Seitan Sandwich

  • 1 box (likely 12.3 oz) silken tofu
  • 1/4 cup white miso
  • 1 dehydrated Chipotle or New Mexico pepper, rehydrated
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 teaspoons dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup oil (e.g., olive, avocado, coconut, peanut… maybe in combination)

Combine the non-oil ingredients in a blender or food processor. If your blender/processor allows the dribbling-in of the oil, do that until everything is blended well, with something resembling the consistency of mayo. Some time in the fridge will likely help thicken a thin result. If you can’t incrementally add the oil, that’s fine — just add it all, and continue blending.  Use as-is or as the basis for a sauce.

Thanks for sharing your recipe ideas, Jesse! It seems this creativity comes naturally to you. Do you consider everyday vegan life easy now?

Very easy for me, as a resident of an advanced industrialized country, with many options for cruelty-free food, clothes, and other products. Food-wise, it’s better now than ten years ago, when I started — more shopping options, more restaurant options. The hardest part might be for a newly-ex-omnivore to give up some favorite food(s). I’ve yet to find an adequate substitute for every situation that I might have, in the past, used cheese or eggs, though the situation is also much improved over the last decade. 

Any ideas that may be helpful to others who might experience similar struggles?

One thing that worked for me, on the ex-omnivore front, was noticing that food tastes better when I’m hungry. That’s not much of a solution, I understand, but sometimes quibbles about some vegan dish not being “as good” as something you’ve given up are lost when your food is, in some way, simply good. It may take a little time, or a little work, to find or cook consistently good vegan meals.

Thank you for the gift of your thoughtful and thought-sparking writing, Jesse. Greatly appreciated.

Vegetarianism Is Fertile!

I post this as I’m about to go off to see 600 or so other Vegetable People at the North American Vegetarian Society’s annual Summerfest.

I love being part of the vegetarian movement. Vegan comprises the beginning and ending letters of vegetarian. The vegans have always been around the movement, insisting that it apply its principle consistently.  In 1944, a few members the Vegetarian Society in England went out on a limb and publicly objected to the confusion in the wider Vegetarian Society membership about the use of animal milk. They formed the vegan offshoot expressly to bring vegetarianism to its logical conclusion.

The vegans weren’t discussing “food choices”; they were talking about commitment. They aspired to a society in which no one would think of oppressing or not as a choice. They refused to take a seat on the throne over all creation. They rejected our identity as Earth’s grand apex predator—a role that has never belonged to us.

John Wesley, vegetarian founder of Methodism, articulated the vegetarians’ rejection of all forms of human-privileged bullying:

I am persuaded you are not insensible to the pain given to every Christian, every human heart, by those savage diversions, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, horse racing, and hunting. Can any of these irrational and unnatural sports appear otherwise than cruel, unless through early prejudice, or entire want of consideration and reflection?

Readers interested in a broad-brush yet brief history of the vegetarians can take a look at the overview I wrote a few years back for the Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice.

2014_LargeSummerfestBannerSo this week, in keeping with the best of vegetarian thinking, the North American Vegetarian Society’s annual Summerfest, a five-day conference in Johnstown, Pennsylvnia which draws upwards of 600 people, expressly dedicates itself to helping vegans and aspiring vegans find friendship and support.  I’m giving several presentations this week, and two will be audio-visual. Below, two brief summaries. Looking forward to seeing some of you. Whether or not you come to Johnstown, please feel welcome to comment here.

Love and liberation,


Farms and Fish: Is “Organic, Sustainable” a “Step”?Summerfest classroom

Thursday 3 July at 10.00 a.m.

Everyone’s talking about reducing  their “footprint” (or “foodprint”). “Local” and “sustainable” are the buzzwords of the day.  But what changes are actually occurring; and are they meaningful? Turns out the changes are often meaningful, but not in a good way.

Half of people questioned in a survey said they are willing to pay more for “sustainable” labels—quite a few of these folks were willing to pay a 20% markup. So companies want to get in on the action, and this sector, which is supported by charity heavyweights, has actually displaced old methods and is driving a damaging global market for fish feed crops, as fish farming is poised to double by the middle of the century.  I’ll explain the difference between, on one hand, buying “sustainable seafood” and “local” or “free-range”  or “grassfed” or “organic” animal products, and, on the other hand, opting out in terms of real effects. This presentation will show the effects of our decisions with the varnish of corporate hogwash removed.

Vegetarian Responses to Climate Change, and How to Explain Them in Ordinary Conversations

Saturday 5 July at 10.00 a.m.

Completing a second law degree, this time in environmental law, has informed me intensively on climate change.  Being vegan has also informed me; the first climate talk I gave at Summerfest was a plenary ten years ago. Now, to put all this together, with up-to-the-moment climate knowledge, for a one-hour session (including participants’ questions and feedback)!

Climate is a big subject. But we can focus it with a few key insights and ideas. In this session I’ll provide some easy-to-remember conversation points, and bring the latest knowledge into a format useful for everyday decisions. This session will also include a discussion of why the main purported solutions—whether high technology, cutting back, or eating “local”—aren’t cutting it at all, and what kind of grassroots leadership is needed and possible at this point.


Thanks to Robin Lane of the London Vegan Festival for unearthing John Wesley’s quote, which comes from WORKS: Rev. J. Wesley’s Journal (1756) at page 612. Photo credit: Jason Pompilius.


A Dozen Objections to Authentic Vegan Advocacy—Heard Out

Image“Our members are pronounced individualists, not easily scared by criticism, and filled with the spirit of pioneers.” – Donald Watson.

Suddenly this pioneer thing is catching on. Whether for health, for climate justice, or for animals, we’re hearing a lot about famous people going vegan. But do they know what they’re really getting into? Will they be able to face the criticism? Let’s see how scary their mission will be, should they choose to accept it.

Every vegan’s heard this criticism, so it’s first on the list:

1. “You’re a vegan? Fine; just don’t push your views on others.”

Yes, we know. People have the legal right to exploit other animals. Humans have spent centuries writing that into laws, regulations, constitutions, and judicial opinions. And most people, for much of our lives, can and do look away from the hurtful traps our laws create. Our capacity for wishing each other “peace on Earth” while allowing ourselves to be treated as consumers of institutionalized violence is remarkable.

But until vegans press the point, are people ever challenged to acknowledge that the hierarchy is a human creation—that we made it up? Anybody involved in any facet of social progress or justice, would, logically, do well to grapple with the question. (We vegans also make great cupcakes.)

2. “Traditional societies hunt; only modern privileges allow for vegan living.”

I’m for hearing people out. After all, none of us, except perhaps a few vegan-organic growers, can claim to essentially do no harm.

I’d also observe that animal use has been important to just about everyone’s culture and family history.

And some people in indigenous communities (homeless people as well) are vegan.

The significance of an elk’s death to an indigenous community is similar, at essence, to the importance of the body of a turkey (complete with its age- and gender-specific stuffing and carving customs, prayers and toasts) in an affluent suburb. Every one of us has a history flowing back through ancestors who, at some critical time, decided that their safety depended on subduing other animals, and our forebears killed off large carnivores en masse. Natural resources managers are still doing it.

We are all in this ethical question together: Is the group of primates known as Homo sapiens entitled to keep killing, or else dominating, selectively breeding, using and consuming the rest of the planet’s inhabitants?

3.  “People aren’t all going to go vegan, so why not get them to make some changes?”

What changes are they making? Do their baby steps allow companies to sustain animal agribusinesses through greenwash (or hogwash)? Cartons of organic milk are now adorned with pictures of farmers embracing their cows. And shoppers think they’re doing a good deed, given that these cartons look nothing like the latest undercover video at this or that horrible supplier, and they buy into the humane myth. 

The current issue of Rolling Stone reveals “the price we pay for cheap meat.” A professional advocacy spokesperson quoted in the article says investigators of factory handling and slaughter aren’t “trying to end meat or start a panic. But there’s a decent way to raise animals for food, and this is the farthest thing from it.”

Although advocates might hope some readers will consider going vegan because of the hideous corporate animal abuse they saw in the Rolling Stone, here’s what will most likely occur:

  • Some readers will donate to the advocacy group they noticed in Rolling Stone.
  • Husbandry standards may ultimately change because of the outcry. With dubious effect. After all, regulation has been going on since Upton Sinclair published The Jungle.
  • Those “decent” sources of animal products will advertise themselves and profit accordingly.
  • Husbandry adjustments will, problematically, be equated with animal advocacy the world over.

Admittedly, the vast scale of animal use can be overwhelming. Anxiety might lead us to ask whether pressing for industry reforms is the best we can do. But whether reforms are granted or not, suffering isn’t reduced when animals are unnecessarily bred or brought into an exploitive system.

Let’s be clear: Vegans wouldn’t disapprove of true husbandry improvements, if and where they might be possible. And in the human-rights sphere, it’s acceptable for serious activists to pursue reforms. For instance, prison abolitionist Angela Davis has stated that reforms are also necessary.

But in the case of animal agribusiness, ordinary food shoppers hold the prison keys. By divesting our kitchens from the system that commodifies other animals, and encouraging others to do so, we exercise direct power to spare animals from being brought into that commodified existence.

4.  “Won’t supporting both veganism and industrial concessions help us go further than we would if we said only one is worthwhile?”

The wealthy animal-protection charities will keep working with corporations for concessions no matter what we do. The big charities support the use of animals in human society, as long as some minimum standards of treatment are established. The people who are expected to propose these standards will get hired, and will produce them.

Jobs abound for those who promote state-of-the-art slaughter techniques or roomier sheds, but this will not raise the status of animals. It won’t enable us or free-living animals to survive on this precious planet.

The lure of compromise can be turned around—to start a conversation about why it takes so long for us Homo sapiens to give up our privileges, even the ones that are bad for us and that we could stop indulging in today.

5.  “Aren’t vegans anti-social scolds?”

Some might be born contrarians, but most vegans are socially engaged and learning from others every day. We tend to notice the red lights more than the green.

Some of the most helpful people I’ve met out hiking, for example, are vegans. They will speak their minds when necessary; yet they are, I’m glad to report, invariably quick to show to kindness to others of various experiences and opinions. To be vegan is to experience the pleasure of looking after our health, the planet, and every conscious being alive. Sure, there will always be a few people who mischaracterize social haters gonna hatemovements. Expect resistance, and stay kind.

6. “Your impossible standards are making it worse for animals.”

Ouch. Here’s the heavy artillery that comes out when we ask for accountability from a group that’s bargaining away other animals’ most basic interests. No: vegans make nothing worse for animals. Vegans live as though animal rights were a reality right now, and thereby bring animal rights into existence (enacting the central point of Gandhi’s famous recommendation that we ourselves be the change we wish to see in society).

In fact, just being vegan (not counting the talks, writing, rescuing, and public demonstrations or performances many vegans additionally carry out) makes a significant difference.

In a somewhat less accusatory appeal, some will insist, “If I were one of the animals involved, I would want this [bigger stall, better slaughter method, etc.].”  Now, surely it’s fair and logical to say the animals would not want to be slaughtered at all. We know they’d try to avoid being harmed; it’s manifestly obvious. By extension, it seems logical and fair to say on behalf of other animals that they would appreciate vegan campaigning—that is, they’d appreciate our not consuming them. Not agreeing to victimize them in any way. But to suggest that we are speaking for other animals when we compromise their interests (and in reality animals cannot come to the meetings to represent themselves) is troubling.

And as we know, wolves, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and others get killed to protect live animals in sprawling commerce—so we can’t limit the argument to what the given cow or chicken would say. What about the other animals who are pushed out of the way for the less concentrated, more  “humane” farming businesses? What would they want?

7. “Our event should be vegan? Oh, right. If you want to be some kind of ivory-tower idealist who makes the movement as small as possible.”

This one might be based on an intuition that excluding people is unwise. Yet insofar as it suggests that vegans aren’t offering a viable movement (or even helpful event planning), it frames vegan values as outlandish—and that’s a kind of exclusion too.

Granted, the advocate usually needs to cultivate allies in advance of suggesting vegan events. But even if you’re on your own, or one of a small group, preparing and passing out delicious desserts goes a long way. Good cooks are rarely mistaken for killjoys. (I’m serious about the cupcakes.)

8. “Vegans harm animals too.”  

Right. The gentlest gardener will likely displace some animals. When our homes were constructed, many mice and other small animals lost their spaces. Bike components and book glues are not always vegan; the list is long. It’s sensible to acknowledge this, but it doesn’t mean we all need to continue allowing the selective breeding and training and breaking and buying and selling and eating of animals.

Being vegan means we strive as diligently as possible to avoid harming and manipulating conscious life, and we do the best we can to ensure other living beings are enabled to thrive in their ways.

9. “You just don’t understand business.”  

Good try. No one understands business better than those who’ve soberly assessed corporate conduct and figured out that compromises will be rejected or co-opted according to how the shareholders’ return can be maximized.

Nor is it true that higher prices for animal products leads in the direction of animal rights. It leads to people seeing animal products as desirable items, even if fewer animals are sold.

We can’t know how many people are steered away from vegan living if they can obtain “humane” or “local” products (here we might recall our own journeys and the questions we asked: Do fish who swim freely suffer so badly? Is eating eggs better if I look for the free-range brand?).

When we resolve to simply opt out, we help liberate our culture from its psychological ties to animal use. This is entirely practical. On a planet of limited land and water, humanity breeds so many animals into existence as food and usurps so much arable land for animal feed that the free-living animals are pushed to the margins of the land and biodiversity is ruined. But through vegan movements, such as vegan-organic farming, we’re proposing a simpler, more sustainable, decentralized and life-affirming future for human and non-human beings alike.

10. “How popular will your materials be if you insist on promoting them as vegan?”

Just as some people avoid creating a vegan event because they genuinely think people won’t come, some vegan starter guides don’t use the word “vegan” and some people say “veg” or write veg*n—inching the word “vegan” back to a less specific vegetarian idea. Here’s a badge using the globally known vegan sunflower trademark—and imposing an asterisk on it. v[asterisk]ganism

It’s an understandable attempt at all-inclusive friendliness for an environmental cause. But applying the term vegan with the “a” blotted out, so that it becomes merely a short form of vegetarian, blurs some key points.

Figures applicable to the United States show that each vegan spares the atmosphere an equivalent of greenhouse gas emitted from 8,100 miles driven annually. Yes, go vegan and it’s like not driving your car more than 8,000 miles each year. Simply changing from some animal products to others won’t do this. Fish production goes right up with the flesh of cows to top the list of highest possible all-around energy uses. And milk products are derived from ruminant animals, who emit high amounts of methane—an especially potent greenhouse gas.

It’s important to prevent veganism from appearing as an optional variation within some apparently more popular position. Respecting the environment—just like respecting ethical principles—means more than cutting out steak and hamburgers. So the simple, powerful word vegan is more important than it’s ever been. It already respects vegetarian ideals: Taken from the first and last letters of the word, it brings vegetarian to its logical conclusion.

Grocers, restaurateurs, and ranchers claiming to sell humane animal products frequently attempt to sponsor rescue-related, vegetarian, and green events. Whole Foods Market has honed this into a major marketing technique. Animal-rights ideas get pushed aside as advocates sit down to business and give concession agreements their full and immediate attention. Then they call attention to their influence, and call the conscientious objector’s holdout stance divisive because, in effect, it’s not the view of the majority of society. Well, let’s face it: People who renounce dominion over other animals are outside the majority.  We regard a viable movement for a new ethic as having to resist the majority’s hydraulic pull. We can expect part of our work to involve persuading potential compromisers to commit instead to conscientious objection.

If we are not living according to the vegan principle and imparting to others this same principle, veganism doesn’t exist.  Objections will be many, and people will try to dilute the vegan principle and blur the word. Yet our example is generally accepted by the animal-advocacy community as positive, without drawbacks of any sort, except that it’s thought by some to be a slow approach. Although it might be slow, a lot of things are; and respect for animals clearly advances when people “renounce absolutely their traditional and conceited attitude that they had the right to use them to serve their needs.”

11. “It’s just too hard to be vegan.”

Given all that’s going on in climate science and ethics studies, I think we’re swimming with the tide—but yes, we’re swimming faster, and that takes stamina.

Yet I find it is easier for me to be vegan than not. My mind can rest easy at night. I used to be one of the humans who exerted dominion over other animals, but I no longer have to maintain that worldview. I can walk along the streams and through the woods knowing a real peace with other beings. I find it a wonderful relief to understand myself as a simple co-worker in this planet’s life and story.

12. “Come on, how can we possibly get up in the morning, with the human population growing daily by more than 211,000 people, drones flying, governments spying, polar bears drowning, 100 million people people living in the streets, and think this vegan stuff is going to work?”

Good question. The symbolic Doomsday Clock, maintained since 1947 through the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to represent minutes to the midnight of our destruction, weighs threats posed by nuclear weapons, new developments in life sciences, and climate change. It was first set at seven minutes before midnight, and as of this writing is set at five minutes to midnight. The clock can be, and has been, set back in time, too—in response to political decisions humans have made. The message? Human-induced global warming and war are no accidents. Nor are they foisted upon us by nature, fate, or God. They are the results of human decisions. As long as we’re here, we can decide in new ways, and help offer that power to others—balancing our sober discussions with good news, enjoyable walks and teas and great recipes, a sense of generosity and joy in being alive.

Cormac Cullinan, author of the book Wild Law, offers a sound reason to be optimistic about the future of human law and culture. Proposing it’s entirely possible to have ecologically respectful law, Cullinan reminds us of the paradigm shift; the term, as Thomas Kuhn introduced it in the 1960s, means a transformation in the scientific worldview. Consider the Copernican revolution: When it became clear that our planet revolves around the sun, we ceased to be the focal point of creation. What had once seemed obvious and eternal was something else entirely: an error of the past. Humanity’s perspective changed.

Likewise, the vegan principle challenges an old view that we’re central and that everyone and everything revolves, eternally, around us. Environmentalists have discovered how incorrect the all-for-us view is, from a biological perspective. Earthworms and bees and other supposedly insignificant beings are now understood as enormously influential in the bio-community.

Meanwhile, vegan advocates assert that all are entitled to live on their own terms, bees and earthworms included.

Note that the Copernican revolution wasn’t the result of change in increments to the old system. No one was asked to accept that the sun was a little closer to the central point over time. Astronomy charts didn’t show Earth moving gradually outward as new editions were printed. So let’s not say, “Well, OK, start with eggs from hens who were given more room.” No quest for a “decent way to raise animals for food” is necessary when each of us, and everyone we meet, has the power to commit to vegan principles right now. There is a bright-line psychological difference, and not a continuum, between accepting human dominion and rejecting it.

Vegans reject human dominion. It’s a radical idea; a paradigm shift is radical by definition. It will not happen overnight, and it will be met with resistance (Galileo’s books were banned, and the great scientist was placed under house arrest for having accepted the position of Copernicus, which was deemed contrary to biblical authority). But the cultural shift, once the new paradigm is presented and acknowledged, is unstoppable.

We don’t know the tipping point; it could be a small number of people who are working on a problem now, and the next generation could be the one for which everything falls into place. And that’s good. By most indications, we have little time to spare.


Question marks: Oberazzi, on Flickr. Bee photographed by Steb1, published on Flickr. The source of information on food miles and emissions for this article is the study of greenhouse gas emissions by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews,“Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” – 42 Environmental Science Technology, at 3508-13 (2008). High impacts of fish commerce was noted by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin (2006). Thanks to Victoria Hart for the term authentic vegan

George D Rodger’s Interview With Donald Watson (December 2002, Unabridged)

Here’s an intriguing retrospective with many fascinating thoughts well worth exploring in detail, from time to time, at Vegan Place. I was delighted to post this piece to the Internet in June 2009, and now re-post it here in celebration of World Vegan Month 2013.

Appreciation to George D Rodger, both for conducting this interview in the first place, and for subsequently permitting me to publish it so that others might read and enjoy it. If you wish to copy this page, please cite the source (this site), show the courtesy of leaving this note intact; and know that while George has offered it to the public sphere, it would be appreciated if you would note its source as George D Rodger, chair of the Vegan Society.  It can be freely quoted, but it is important that Donald’s words not be altered. As George Rodger explains, Donald Watson used the word “orthodox” not in a religious sense, but simply to mean “conventional” or “traditional.” The word “Man” means humankind, not only the male gender. Donald did not regard “propagandist” as a pejorative term, which is how many people nowadays use it. Donald’s use of English was normal for someone educated in the early decades of the twentieth century.

– Lee Hall.


Recorded by George D Rodger

GDR: To start off with, could you just say a few words, to check the sound level.

DW: Before you ask me any questions, I’d like to make two brief statements, which I think are relevant.

Donald WatsonThe first is that, at the age of 92, speaking as a person who still has vivid recollections of the First World War, and even before that, you must feel perhaps that I’m past my best as a speaker, but the fact that I’m still here at all, nearly 20 years older than the average age of death of males in this country, suggests that there is something in long term veganism, particularly as I’m still able to do all the things I want to do, or most of them, able to climb mountains on fine days, and that I’ve gone through a long life virtually without pain or illness or any kind of medicine, orthodox or fringe, and even without dietary supplements, apart from those that nowadays find their way into proprietary vegan products like soya milk and so on, as a result of which, having outlived all my critics, I’m a keener vegan now even than I was when I started! And I do feel we’re onto something really big! I don’t want to turn this preliminary comment into a soliloquy, because I know you have questions to ask, but my overall feeling is one of great gratitude to veganism as I’ve interpreted it. I’ll say no more about that.

Now the other comment that I think deserves to be recorded, I think this is something of enormous importance to all people who feel that Man should have a closer, and a kinder, affiliation with the rest of Creation, and this story concerns a wild bird, and the incident happened just outside this conservatory where we now sit. This is the story, and I hope that those who compile stories – unusual stories – of animal behaviour, and even, I would include, their gratitude, will agree it deserves a place in any such anthology.

Soon after we came here, in 1951, the front of this terrace was a lovely unbroken stretch of wall, covering this house and the end house. And living in the middle cottage, where we now sit (and which I had to sell to pay for all the expenses of conversion and removal and so on) was an elderly retired nurse who was dying of cancer, and she asked my wife and me whether we would have any objection if she had a conservatory built, so that she could spend her latter days sitting in the sun. Well, we hated the idea, quite frankly: to lose the lovely straight stretch of the wall of the property going along the continuous terrace; but since life doesn’t always give us easy choices, we said “Oh, go ahead, we don’t mind”. So she had the conservatory built, and I doubt very much if she ever sat in it – she died first. However, this was where the interesting bit starts.

The day after the conservatory was glazed, I was weeding the garden, and I found a dead blackbird – a male blackbird – whose flight path along the front of the terrace had been baulked by this new structure, with invisible glass. Well, we buried the blackbird, and, I don’t know whether it was the next day, or the day after that, very, very soon after that, we came and found a female blackbird – the brown one – lying in the same place, not dead, but virtually dead, with one eye hanging out, on what seemed to be like a little tube, it was hanging an inch, or an inch and a half, away from her face. Well, I suppose many humanitarians would have thought the best thing we can do in a case like this was to put it out of its misery, but my wife and I had never killed anything, so we lifted it up, carried it into the greenhouse, gave it a saucer of water, closed the door, and left it there for the night, knowing that no predator could reach it. We fully expected the next morning to find it dead of course. To our surprise, there it was, sitting up, the eye had gone back into place, we opened the door, and it flew out. That’s not the end of the story! The really important part was still to come. A couple or so days later, my wife was hanging clothes out on the line, which went across the bottom side of our lawn. This blackbird flew parallel with the clothes line, and, in front of my wife, as it went by, it dipped in flight. Well, Dorothy came in, and told me this story, she said it must have remembered what we did and this was a “thank-you”. And even that’s not the end, because this was repeated time after time. My wife didn’t hang clothes out every day, but, when she did, this blackbird, that was living somewhere in the garden, came along, did its little loop of gratitude, as it went by. Knowing, as we did, that birds and all creatures have feelings, it was news that even a bird, a wild bird, could show a sense of gratitude. And I’ve thought about it since. Perhaps this is why the stories of Saint Francis and other people, long ago, had such an intimate relationship with creatures they lived among. I think, if I’ve done justice to the story, that needs recording, even if more briefly than I have described it. Well, we’re at the scene of that event! It was that window there!

GDR: This is George Rodger recording an interview with Donald Watson on the afternoon of Sunday 15th December 2002. What you’ve just heard was what Donald said when I asked him to say a few words for a sound check, but it was so fascinating I just let it run on. We’ll now start the interview proper.

GDR: Where and when were you born?

DW: I was born on the 2nd of September, 1910, at Mexborough, in South Yorkshire.

GDR: Tell me about your family.

Denaby MainDW: My father was the headmaster of a big school at nearby Denaby Main. He started life as a poor farm boy, three miles away, and by hard work and study managed to become a headmaster, I believe at the age of about 30. And, although in every respect he was a good parent, he was orthodox in all his ways, so I was part of a meat-eating family, a church-going family, and part of the moral instruction we received as children (my brother, my sister and I) was that we must never steal, we must never trespass, but we may swear if we felt like it, but, only when we heard him swear, which we never did. That, very briefly, in a few words, comprises my family background. I could write a book on the whole subject, but, as I often feel, who on earth would be remotely interested in it now, when people are living from day to day with pressing economic problems, feeling their various body parts from day to day, for suspected lumps which shouldn’t be there, questioning everything that’s been traditionally accepted, chiefly through religion, as being true and honest and of good report. Well, I don’t know whether further questions will concern that, but they’re hardly relevant to veganism, which I suppose the bulk of your questions will relate to.

GDR: Would you like to say any more about your childhood?

DW: This is a story – I can only give it in precis, otherwise it will take the whole of the afternoon to report, but, very briefly:

I suppose I was one of millions of children with a very similar, orthodox, background, and one of my earliest recollections in life was being taken for holidays to the little farm where my father had been born. It was run by my grandmother and her son, George, who was the elder son of the family and therefore inherited the farm. And my first impression of those holidays was one of heaven. As a little boy, living in a town, I was surrounded by interesting animals. There was the big Shire horse, who pulled the plough. There was a horse of lighter build, that pulled the trap, which in those days was the equivalent of the modern motor car, which took my granny into local markets to sell her butter and eggs. There were the cows, there were the pigs; there were no sheep on the farm – they lived in a field hundreds of yards away. There were hens, there was a cockerel, there were two cats, the farm dog, Rover, and all these creatures gave me an insight into the kind of life I’d never seen before, and I realised that they all “gave” something. The farm horse pulled the plough, the lighter built horse pulled the trap and the wagonette, which was a bigger wagon, carrying at least half a dozen ladies to market with their butter and eggs every Saturday. The cows “gave” milk, the hens “gave” eggs, the cockerel was a useful “alarm clock” – I didn’t realise at that time that he had another function too!

The sheep, I knew, “gave” wool and my impression was one of heaven, especially since my granny used to allow me to help make the butter – I turned the churn and, when she patted the butter into little rolls, ready for the market, and placed the butter on the sheet of muslin, she allowed me to wield the little gadget across, which had some leaf patterns on the wheel, which was transferred to the butter, and after this had finished, the buttermilk was put in a separate receptacle and added with all the kitchen waste and some meal from a bag, and it was fed to the pigs. The whole structure, by the way, I learned had been built by one of my ancestors, several generations before, who had six daughters, and they made the bricks in moulds from local clay, mixed with straw, and they baked them on huge wood fires, to build the house. My great-great-great-grandfather had designed it, no planning permission needed of course in those days and I could draw a plan of that farm now and, as an example of functional planning, I can’t fault it.

The toilet was an antiquated affair. It was a structure in wood, it was an earth closet of course, with a raised section, with two holes in the top, and then a lower section, with three holes, for children. And the contents deposited there periodically were shovelled out from the back, by my Uncle George, who wheeled them all to a part of the garden, not the part where food was being grown, but a part where the food would be grown in years to come. Ecologically, this was the system that had prevailed for centuries, in tens of thousands of little farms, where I believe about three quarters of the population of this country, and probably of others, made their living.

I could never understand what the pigs did – all the other animals “gave” something, but I couldn’t for the life of me see what the pigs “gave”, and they seemed – there were usually two – such friendly creatures, always glad to see me, and grateful for almost anything that was thrown to them in the sty. Well, the day came when I came downstairs for breakfast, and Granny wasn’t alone in the kitchen – there were two women there I’d never seen before, and they were very busy boiling an enormous amount of water, one pan after another, on the fire. What was all this about? Soon after, I saw two men cross the path in front of the kitchen window, carrying what seemed to be like a trestle, with handles on each end, and they took it through to the little yard where the pigsty was. It wasn’t long before the business of killing one of the pigs began. No attempt was made to keep me away from the scene, I just went there, full of interest, to see what all this was about. And I still have vivid recollections of the whole process from start to finish, including all the screams of course, which were only feet away from where this pig’s companion still lived. And then, when the pig had finally expired, the women came out, one after another, with buckets of this scalding water, and the body of the pig was scraped – all the hairs were taken away.

A porcine pairThe thing that shocked me, along with the chief impact of the whole setup, was that my Uncle George, of whom I thought very highly, was part of the crew, and I suppose at that point I decided that farms, and uncles, had to be re-assessed. They weren’t all they seemed to be, on the face of it, to a little, hitherto uninformed boy. And it followed that this idyllic scene was nothing more than Death Row. A Death Row where every creature’s days were numbered by the point at which it was no longer of service to human beings.

There is much more I could say about my life on the farm. I remember at harvest time, when a field was due to be mown, a man used to go round with a scythe, opening it up, that meant making a space near the hedge, where the horse that would pull the reaper could go without trampling on the corn. And then the reaper came. I heard that there was a new machine, called a binder, which automatically collected the straws into sheaves, and threw them out – but my uncle wasn’t rich enough to have one of those. He just had the old-fashioned reaper. And, as the reaper went round, the standing corn became smaller and smaller and at that point the farm hands came with their guns because the rabbits had all been driven into this ever-diminishing area of safety until there was none left and then they fled, and of course they were shot. Another aspect of idyllic family life that didn’t seem all that it had been cracked up to be, and afterwards of course the sheaves of corn were all stacked and the farmers hoped for two or three days of fine weather so that the rain wouldn’t come and make the wheat wet so that it sprouted. They had to get it into a straw stack as quickly as possible. Well, the straw stack was built on a structure of old tree branches and logs to keep it off the ground and when it was finally built, it was thatched, not with the same care as a cottage of course, but there were no plastic sheets in those days. And this straw stack was absolutely heaven for mice – they were free from predators, they were warm, they had a food supply. Until threshing day came of course, by which time they’d all had their families, and as the sheaves of corn were forked off, and thrown into the thresher, everyone available was there with their sticks, to kill the mice and the young mice as they lay there in their nests. I’m told that, in the old days, sparrow pie was one of the national dishes among the peasants, the reason being the easy way by which they got the sparrows – it was to put a net round the straw stack, and, as they fluttered out, they were killed. And they got enough sparrows to make a pie quite quickly. And so the story goes on, as our past on which our present civilisation is built. And, quite early in life, I came to the conclusion that, if I was to report on Man’s progress, I had to settle for the comment beloved of schoolteachers: “could do better”. And from that, The Vegan Society was formed.

Well, that’s a bit of the story and then going back home, I lived at home for 21 years. In the whole of that time, I never heard a word, from my parents, or from my grandparents, of from my 22 uncles and aunts, or my 16 cousins, or my teachers or my vicar, on anything remotely associated with any duties we may have to what the religious people call “God’s Creation”.

GDR: So that was your childhood. Would you like to go on and say something about your adolescent years and your early adult life?

DW: Oh yes. That’s another story entirely. When I was 14, my father asked me what I wanted to do. And I didn’t say anything, I was afraid of offending him, because my older brother had been to college and become a teacher and there was nothing I wanted to do more than make things. I wanted to be a woodworker. And it took a long time before I plucked up enough courage to tell him this. The result was that, since I’d never been happy at school, I went to be an apprentice with my uncle in a little village three miles away. And there I got an insight into village life which strengthened all my earlier convictions about our relationship with the rest of Creation. Our workshop was down a yard adjacent to the local inn and the innkeeper had been the village butcher, and living there was the old bachelor who had been his assistant, I suppose for most of his life. And old Albert spent his days looking after the hens and the geese and a few pigs and a little garden. He kept his corn bin in our workshop. And he also used the workshop to kill the hens – he brought them in every week or so, wrung their necks, hung them up on a row of pegs and left them there, fluttering until they died. Well, among the denizens of this farmyard was a gander, to whom I became quite attached. It used to come into the workshop, as I was having my lunch, sitting on the sawing stool, it would share my lunch with me, and we became very friendly. I’ve still got a photograph of him somewhere. Well, one day, after I suppose two or three years, old Albert came into the workshop with this gander under his arm and then put the body between his legs and the gander was rebelling, not knowing what was going to happen, and I heard Albert say “Not this time, boy”. The gander went the same way as all the hens, and he was hung up, fluttering for I suppose the best part of five minutes, and that was the end of my friendship with him. On another occasion, when Albert was called in by one of his friends to kill a pig, he came into the shop and said to my uncle (in broad Yorkshire), “Would t’lad (me) give them a hand with this awk’urd pig?” This “awk’urd pig” was rebelling, not surprisingly, at being killed. My uncle, who knew that I was a vegetarian, he said “No – my lad doesn’t believe in murder”. So I was let off that! This town where I lived, like all other towns at that time, had a succession of butchers’ shops along the main road, about four in half a mile. I can remember Wagstaffs, Law’s, Biggin’s, Beaumont’s; Hillerby’s, the fishmongers, who also sold rabbits, and all these butchers did their own killing. They had two doors alongside their shop, and, as the animals were delivered, they went in and the doors closed behind them. And Mrs Biggins once said to my mother, who traded there, since we were meat-eaters, in her broad Yorkshire, “T’little calves do cry when Charlie (her husband) kills ’em”.

As I went to school each morning, on many mornings, a van would arrive at Law’s, the pork butchers, with two or three pigs – they needed those for the day’s supply – and they were pulled out, with their tails, squealing, and pushed up the passage. And so, several of the school staff passed that way on their way to school and I remember on one of my reports the French mistress gave a very cutting comment, “He does not even know his verbs!” And I thought, on reading this, “No, and she does not even know what is happening down the road! Or, if she does know, she doesn’t care.”

That was the very brief background of my upbringing. I must add just one other thing – the vicar, a Dr Briggs, who was a Doctor of Divinity (Mexborough was very proud to have a Doctor of Divinity as a vicar) ran a Bible Class for youths, boys by the way, not girls, every Sunday afternoon, and I was one of the youths who went to this Bible Class, and the only reference he ever made as a Doctor of Divinity to any kind of compassion for the Animal Kingdom was that if we did collect birds’ eggs, we were to take only one from each nest. That just shows how far we’ve gone in the last 70 or 80 years. If any vicar now said that, he’d soon find himself before the Court, wouldn’t he?

GDR: You did, in fact, train as a woodworker, which you said just now was your ambition, and you worked at that for some time. How and why did you switch to teaching, as you did later on?

DW: Oh, that’s an easy one! When I was 21, and due to become a craftsman, I presumed for the rest of my life, we found ourselves in the middle of an economic slump, which went on for several years in the early 1930s. And millions of people had no work. And I discovered that craftsmen could become woodwork teachers without going to college by qualifying through City and Guilds, providing they became of an acceptable standard. So, I enrolled. I took correspondence courses, I passed my first examination, which qualified me to teach for three years, during which time I was expected to take the final, which would give me the same status as a college-trained teacher. I don’t think I found any difficulty in this, because during the whole of my adolescence, I was reading books – “The Origin of Species”, Gilbert White’s “Natural History of Selborne”, Hudson’s “A Shepherd’s Life”, Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop”. A Shepherd's LifeMy main problem was maths, but with a bit of trouble I managed it and I got a job in Leicestershire as a peripatetic teacher, teaching all over the county, going there by bike, by the way, sometimes leaving home at half past six to reach distant places like Ashby-de-la-Zouche and Castle Donington, Shepshed, Hugglescote, Cosby, Hinckley, Sileby – the list goes on. By the way I was claiming bus fares, quite legitimately, and the bus fares came to nearly half my wage, which helped. And after three years of this I was appointed to a new school on the outskirts of Leicester, where life became very much easier. And then, I liked the job so much, I never tried to get any kind of promotion, because I couldn’t think of a more useful job than training what was, over the years, thousands of boys in the art of using tools. But I did move to do the same job here in Keswick.

And when I became sixty I felt so fit and able that I couldn’t think of retiring, so I kept on for another three years, after which I took a job for seven years, as a guided walks leader, when I led parties of visitors to Keswick out on the fells. There was no charge in those days – they charge five pounds a time now, I believe, and sometimes the parties numbered as many as seventy. And over the summer and autumn, we covered about five hundred miles at least. And I suppose I took out nearly a thousand people. I must be in photograph albums in many parts of the world.Cumbria pub

GDR: You are 92 years and 104 days old as of today. To what do you attribute your long life?

DW: Oh, am I? I did another calculation this morning, with the help of my calculator, and I found out that I’d lived nearly 34,000 days, and I had a strange thought. Since I must die in the next few years I thought 33,600 times I’ve gone to sleep at night and in a way I’ve died, always assuming I’m going to wake up again, and the day must come when I won’t, and I thought, what a crowning glory that must be for anyone who’s lived without illness or pain, and kept out of police hands, by the way, to just go to sleep one day, or one night, and not wake up, as we all do, every day of our lives.

GDR: So you’ve lived all those thousands of days – to what do you attribute your long life? Is it because of being vegan, or is it because of choosing the right parents, or is it just good luck?

DW: I can answer that in several ways, but, twice a year, I go to a dentist in Bangor in North Wales. We lived down there, nursing my sister-in-law for three years and we got in with this dentist – who is a very good dentist. I go for my checkup, and last time I went, he asked if I minded filling up a form – apparently dentists now have to be very careful how they administer anything to patients, in case it militates against any medicines they might be taking – and this form was a long form and it went “Do you ever have this or that or the other”, and I kept putting ticks under the “no”s, right down to the bottom, and it was a long row of “no”s. And my dentist looked at this and said “I wish I had more customers like you! To what do you attribute it?” I said, “Well, that’s a long story, but 57 years ago, I married a Welsh girl, who taught me a Welsh saying, ‘When everyone runs, stand still’, and I seem to have been doing that ever since.”

And that must be part of the answer to the question, because so many people are running towards what I see as suicide. They’re performing habits which everyone knows are dangerous, and I really believe that the commonest cause of death now in this and several other countries, is slow suicide, by people doing what they, and every authority in every school of medicine, is agreed to be wrong, smoking, taking alcohol, turning night into day, promiscuity, sleeplessness, lack of exercise, you know I recently made a list, it was about twelve reasons that came into my mind, straight away.

“When everyone runs, stand still.” And, in that sense, although I’ve done a lot of travelling about, mainly by bicycle, and on foot, I’ve been standing still.

Veganism, of course, probably leads all the rest, because I’ve always accepted that Man’s greatest mistake throughout all recorded history, is through trying to turn himself into a carnivore, which is absolutely contrary to natural law. As long ago as 1863, T H Huxley wrote his book, “Man’s Place In Nature”, in which he listed all the reasons where Man differs from the carnivores and is similar in his anatomy and in his habits to those of the anthropoid apes. The structure of our body and all the juices that create this miraculous process of digestion are those of a frugivore. 200 years before Huxley wrote his book, which must be one of the most significant books on medicine ever written, John Ray said very much the same thing. So, we’ve had plenty of sound, incontrovertible evidence to work on and, although, in 1944, the few of us who were working to form this new movement, felt we were the first out on the frozen pond, as it were, and wondered whether the ice would hold, and everything that’s happened in the 60 years since has proved that all our hopes and precepts and aspirations have been fulfilled.

GDR: You’ve already mentioned that you were a vegetarian when you were a lad. When, and why, did you first become a vegetarian, and at what age?

DW: It was a New Year Resolution in 1924. Did you ever hear anyone say there’s no point in making New Year Resolutions because they’re always broken? You can quote me as an exception to the rule, because, since 1924, I’ve never eaten any meat, or fish. How long ago is that – 78 years is it? 78 years!

GDR: Of course, you invented the term “vegan” in 1944, which was 20 years after that Resolution, but you had already been a vegan for two or three years before that. So why did you actually go vegan?

DW: A year or two before the Society was formed, I was corresponding with a very small number of people, scattered far and wide. Leslie Cross, who founded the Plant Milk Society, was a great friend of mine. He died comparatively early, well, in his early 70s, I think, and, in a letter he sent me, shortly before he died, he mentioned that, as a child, he’d fallen heavily from a gate and the authorities thought he might not recover and, I think, if he had an early death for a vegan, it may have been the consequence of that. He was certainly one of the outstanding people who have served the movement and, in retirement, he went up and down the country, giving his lecture, “Milk of Human Kindness” – all voluntarily of course, paying his own expenses, and co-ordinating Frey Ellis and others, medical people who were interested in the idea of creating a plant milk that was acceptable – some of the earlier efforts were pretty crude! But it was not until 1965 that my great friend, Arthur Ling, who has devoted most of his adult life to creating and propagating the vegan idea, especially with regard to dairy produce, felt able to market an acceptable alternative to cows’ milk. And of course, he’s gone on from there, and, apart from running the Plamil firm, he’s taking a great interest in the feeding of vegan infants. Because, of course, if any diet fails to produce healthy children, well, we must find a reason for it, and proceed from there, not taking “no” for an answer. But now, thanks to Arthur’s work and those of many others, we’ve reached a point where the only safe way to rear children is on a vegan diet, which obviously must conform to a few well-proved requirements, and that’s why Plamil and certain other vegan proprietary products now are fortified with vitamin B12, which, although it’s a vitamin that we need an infinitesimally small amount of, we must have, and some people have lost the capacity to produce it in their own gut, so now we feel that, since B12 is a vegan product, produced quite cheaply fortunately, unlike some of our modern wonder drugs, so-called, we take it as part and parcel of our normal food intake.

I would bracket: of all the many people who have subscribed to the vegan cause, I hesitate to single out anyone, but I would say Leslie Cross and Arthur Ling must be put in the records as being the two outstanding, faithful, contributors to our cause. I hesitate to include my own name, as the Society’s obstetrician; I leave it to others to say whether I made a good job there, but I think I must have done, because, in the two years before we decided to officially form a democratic Society, I literally ran the show. I was the Secretary, the Treasurer, the Auditor, and the Banker, not that we’d ever very much to bank, in fact the flow of money very often went the other way, and I remember on one occasion, after I’d produced my first duplicated copy of the “Vegan News”, which had four pages, out of the blue someone sent me two pounds, which was eight times the contributions of five shillings I was charging as the annual fee to be informed about the progress that was being made.

And with that two pounds I rushed out and bought enough foolscap copying paper to enable me to enlarge the “Vegan News” to twelve pages. And, reading them recently, I think that these must now be what we might call “The Dead Sea Scrolls” of the vegan movement, because they describe how the whole idea was started, at a most difficult time. And from the response I had – thousands of letters, sometimes as many as 30 or 40 a day – I sometimes feel that we had reached a watershed and if I hadn’t formed the Society, someone else may have done it, very soon, although it may have had a different name. I did appeal to my readers to suggest what the name might be, and I had a list of very bizarre suggestions, which some people may already have heard of – I won’t list them now – but, in an inspired moment, I settled for the word “vegan”, which was immediately accepted and, over the years, became part of our language and is now in almost every world dictionary, I suppose.

GDR: That’s very interesting stuff about the early days of the Society. Can you tell me why you, yourself, first decided to give up on all animal products – in other words, became vegan, before the word was invented?

DW: Well, I think if an open-minded, honest person pursues a course long enough, and listens to all the criticisms, and in one’s own mind can satisfactorily meet all the criticisms against that idea, sooner or later one’s resistance against what one sees as evil tradition has to be discarded. About the time the Vegan Society was formed, Archbishop Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said, or wrote, or reminded his flock, of what I think was a great truth, that, throughout history, good and devout people have pursued evil practices, in the firm belief that they were doing nothing wrong. And I thought, well, that applies to what I’m doing. I seem to be taking on the world virtually single-handed, with no recognised qualifications other than a conviction that, with all the conceit I can muster, I am right, and they’re all wrong! It’s a dangerous state of mind, but one which, sooner or later, one can’t dispel, and one has to go that way. I remember one of the sayings that convinced me at the time when I was in the throes of what I saw as a struggle, I read somewhere that the Norwegian poet and dramatist, Ibsen, had said, “The strongest man in the world is the man who can stand alone”, and I thought that the way people are worn down by the traditions of the cultures in which they’ve been born, this must be a great truth. Ibsen died in 1906, four years before I was born, and I thought what better service can I give to this man who wrote such a great truth than include it in my answer to any appropriate question that I might now be asked. So I say: “Well said, Ibsen!”

GDR: In addition to being vegan, I believe you’re a lifelong teetotaller, a lifelong non-smoker. . .

DW: I have tasted wine, and I once tasted champagne, at a wedding, and I thought it was poor stuff, compared with grape or apple juice, but I’ve never tasted beer. I suppose there are very few men in this part of the world who can say they’ve never tasted beer, and I must have saved quite a lot of money – and quite a lot of tax!

GDR: You were also, I believe, a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and a few other things of principle, and I just wanted to ask you, one at a time, how all these relate to your veganism. We’ll start with teetotalism, since you’ve already started on it – how does the following relate to your veganism – being a lifelong teetotaller?

DW: I don’t think that links particularly with the ethics of veganism, especially since one can now buy wines that are vegan, not treated with a fish product to make them clear. I think it was more that I’d seen so many people destroyed by alcohol that I felt this was a slippery slope that, as a sensible chap, I’d better not put my foot on it.

GDR: In the same way, can you comment on being a non-smoker in relation to veganism?

DW: Well, I always thought that smoking was so utterly daft – a person with a little fire hanging out of their mouth. It was neither food nor drink, and, although in those days there wasn’t strong medical evidence, I thought to draw chemically-loaded gases into the lungs couldn’t possibly be doing them any good. Many doctors smoked, in fact one or two even said it was beneficial, because it killed germs. Well, now, all that nonsense has gone, and we know that tobacco is a killer and sensible people don’t do it. And morally inclined people don’t inflict it upon other people. I sometimes think now we’re protecting children against the evils of paedophiles and it is still legal, unbelievably legal, for a pregnant woman to smoke, and inflict this poison on an unborn child, impairing it probably for life. I think, to use a religious expression, we must accept that the physical body is the “temple of the spirit”. It mustn’t be abused in any way. Everything we do must be to try to preserve it and feed it properly and give it everything that’s necessary to prosper and live as long as possible so that, whatever the purpose of life is, we fulfil it to the best of our abilities.Cigarette ends

You did ask me a question earlier about conscientious objection. I’d like to mention, very briefly – it isn’t really the subject of this interview – that vegetarians, and vegans, were placed in a dreadful position at the beginning of the last War. We were faced with an evil regime that was executing people who didn’t fully agree with the Nazi philosophy. They were exterminating the Jews by the million.

And we had to decide whether to fight in the only way that seemed practical, to fight this evil, and overcome it in the hope that something better would result, although it never had from previous wars, and my own feeling was that, if I enrol, and I’m allotted to any branch of the Services, I immediately become liable to military law. Suppose they direct me to work in a slaughterhouse? Or anywhere else, where I’m expected to conform to orders from above. What do I do? I refuse, I’m put on a charge of insubordination, and I’m faced with punishment, goodness knows what. I knew what happened to “awk’urd” types like that in the First World War, I think 307 of them were shot! And I thought, surely since Churchill had said there was to be no witch hunt of conscientious objectors, I thought, well, there must be a place somewhere during this crisis, where I can work for the life of the nation, and not kill people I’d never met, and leave their descendants bereaved, and, as it turned out, bomb cities like Dresden where 50,000 people died in one raid and the bodies had to be piled in the streets and burnt. My great friend Douglas Eld, who was a keen member of the Leicester Vegetarian Society, of which I was the Secretary, was so moved by the evil stories of what the Nazis were doing, that he renounced his pacifism and joined up. And he joined a bombing crew and he was one of the thousands who never came back. And so was a keen member of my night school in Leicester, Clifford Ginetta; he never came back. And my school friend, Harold Platt, he joined up and he never came back. And my cousin John Smith died in the last week of the war. He wasn’t a conscientious objector, or a vegetarian, he was just one of the millions who paid the price of war. It was a terrible dilemma for anyone with high principles to see thousands, millions of people, killed, because the whole idea was so mad that Man should still, at this late stage in his evolution, be trying to solve his problems by this evil method. But that was the dilemma, so, after much thought, for right or wrong, I became a CO. My terms for being given this privilege – which it was, of course – was that my salary as a teacher was reduced to two pounds a week – the pay of the lowest-serving member of the Forces, who were, of course, fed and clothed. My night school pay was stopped too, because the Leicester City Council said that the terms were that I mustn’t have more than two pounds a week. Well, as a thrifty young man, I’d saved 500 pounds, which was a lot of money in those days, and so, with the two pounds a week, and this 500 pounds, I was able to stagger my way through the war without getting into debt. I carried on with the night school, which was always filled by men, many of them working in the shadow factories on good money. (The shadow factories where bits and pieces were made to be assembled elsewhere into tanks and guns and whatever. No-one was supposed to know what these shadow factories were making, in case they were bombed.) It was difficult for me to serve all these people on big money, and, among all the rest, there were evacuees from London and there were two men sent for occupational therapy. They’d been rescued at death’s door from the Burma railway, and they were as near to death as I’d ever seen anyone – they could hardly speak, and over the weeks and the months, they gradually came back to life and started making simple articles.

I was also in the AFS – the Auxiliary Fire Service – where, on two days a week, I had to go down and spend the night at the Granby Halls, in my full fireman’s regalia, in case we had a bombing raid. Fortunately we didn’t. The raid on Coventry, I understand, was intended to be on Leicester, but Leicester, in a valley, or a saucer-shaped dent in the landscape, filled with mist, on the night of the Coventry raid, and the planes that flew over Leicester thought it was a lake. They thought it was Swithland Reservoir. So poor Coventry had the raid that was intended for Leicester. And if it had been Leicester, I might not have been here today. It’s a longer story than that, but that, very briefly, is the dilemma. And I’m left with the thought how lucky these young people are today not to have this terrible choice to make, of whether they should go to war or not. War as we knew it then, of course, will never return, it will be a different kind of war, push-button, where civilians will be as much in it as anyone else for much of the time.

GDR: How did being a Conscientious Objector affect your working and social life?

DW: Veganism always had an effect on my social life. I think that’s an inevitable price we had to pay and which people, especially young people, have to pay today. But, if one is going to be out of step with all the catering that is done for people who are different from oneself, one must accept a certain amount of excommunication, as it were, from the rest of society – that is where I think the Vegan Contacts work is so absolutely essential, why vegans, especially those who live isolated from other vegans, must have some contact with the rest of our movement, which is now, of course, an ever-growing world movement, I like to think the greatest movement that ever was! Because it’s the only one, now, that can save Mankind. All the lesser movements for doing good work in themselves, in a limited sphere, are only, to use the common cliche, like the people re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, instead of helping us to guide the searchlight on the iceberg which is going to be the end of the whole show. And, when I think that the world population, which was about 2 billion people in 1944, is now more than 6 billion people, in spite of all the losses in war, disease, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, all the things that wipe out people by the tens of thousands. It has still become this astronomical explosion of over 6 billion, along with, I would say, a corresponding explosion of animals to feed most of them. And those animals are there, fed on food that should be growing for the Third World, where people are having big families, because they have to, they’ve no social security, they have to have many children because many of them in every family are likely to die and that, I think, may be the reason for this explosion. Well, we know that, throughout history, nature rebels against any species that becomes too numerous, usually by food shortage, or by disease, both of which are now rampaging ahead in the human community without – I won’t say without a thought, but without anyone except the vegans having a possible solution to this crisis.

AIDS, to mention just one, is now affecting a third of the population in many African countries and spreading to other countries. This is the Black Death of our modern age and no-one knows where it’s going to stop. Apart from that I might add all the diseases that are infecting Man from eating animal food, with its ever-growing list of diseases, so that in parts of the world, including our own, even farming is now under such threat that another visitation of foot and mouth disease, or BSE, is still so frightening that farmers daren’t risk it – they can’t be insured against this enormous risk. So livestock farming is on the way out, as we’ve always known it, and, looking on the bright side, this could, in a properly organised world, create a labour force big enough to do all the jobs that we so desperately need doing – coping with drought, coping with floods, coping with disease, of course. And perhaps, most critical of all, reafforestation, stopping the ever-growing growth of the deserts and the ever-decreasing amount of fertile land on which Man lives and we know now that even the so-called harvest of the seas, through Man’s avarice, interfering in a region where he has no business to go, has reached such a point of depletion that many species have almost become extinct. Again, one must admit, leading to unemployment of all the people employed in the fishing industry, but one is reminded of the reply given by somebody when slavery was abolished and one of the people against abolition said “What on earth is going to happen to the families of the people who make the whips, if slavery is abolished?” Well, the obvious answer to that: they are given more profitable and humane work to do! And that is the great challenge facing TreeMankind. Carrying on St-Barbe Baker’s work – “Men of the Trees”, restoring the deserts, so that we don’t get these great areas of land where the temperature rises and it upsets the whole weather pattern that spreads throughout the world, whereas a world covered with trees would have a more controlled climate, one that was safer, and sustainable, in which Man could work out his destiny. Oh – I’m turning it into a soliloquy, aren’t I? I have to say, next question.

GDR: How does your veganism relate to any religious beliefs you may have?

DW: I never had very deep ones. Some theologians, I believe, think that Christ was an Essene. And if he was an Essene, he was a vegan. If he were alive today, he’d be an itinerant vegan propagandist instead of an itinerant preacher of those days, spreading the message of compassion, which, as I see it, is the only useful part of what religion has to offer and, sad as it seems, I doubt if we still have to enrol our first priest as a member of the Vegan Society. I understand that there are now more vegans sitting down to Sunday lunch than there are Anglicans attending Sunday morning service. That is the way things are moving. I also think that Anglicans should rejoice at this good news that somebody at least is practising the essential element in the Christian religion: compassion.

When I received all my thousands of letters in the years preceding the formation of the Society, I don’t remember ever having one from any student or lecturer at a university. And I think, at that time, about two percent of our most intelligent youths were going on to university. I thought, “What am I up against here? Here are the top two percent of the people I’d like to convert and they aren’t even interested in this idea!” My letters came from atheists and agnostics and people who couldn’t care less about any of the religions. I think the only vicar who ever wrote a book on the subject was Holmes Gore, who wrote his excellent book, “These We Have not Loved”. Good for him! But, if any priest of any denomination wants to distinguish himself – or, nowadays, I must add “herself” – the opportunity is open for them to join the vegan movement and really express the core element of what they are professing to stand for. I think we can say to the religious movement, “Yes, the meek will inherit the Earth, if anyone if going to, because the violent people will exterminate themselves, and not before long, as things are going.”

GDR: I think, in fairness, I should remind you of religious organisations like The Order Of The Cross, The Followers Of The Way, these are religions which are very much in line with the vegan philosophy.

DW: When I was in Leicester, running the Leicester Vegetarian Society, I had several members of The Order Of The Cross among my members, including our Chairman. I went to one or two of their meetings. Todd Ferrier, their leader, was making a lifetime job of trying to introduce other Christians into this idea of spreading the Gospel, but they were all vegetarians, not one was a vegan. In fact, at that time I think I was the only one, in Leicester anyway. And, as the vegan idea developed, we saw, or some of us did, that, although vegetarianism was a very useful “stepping-stone” to veganism, and one which we had all used to get to where we were, unless the consumption of dairy produce was limited, it could be an even more cruel diet than the orthodox diet, where the meat came from a large animal like a cow which was feeding one meat-eater for a year or two, whereas the milk drinkers – they were going back to the cow suckling (what a bizarre idea that is!) at virtually every meal and claiming to be leading the way to a more humane life! So, although I’m still a member of the Vegetarian Society, I send my one pound fifty a month by direct debit, I do so to keep in touch with the movement, because I came from it and I am tremendously interested to be kept informed about the way it’s moving and I was delighted to learn recently, at the IVU Conference in Edinburgh, that the diet was a vegan diet and that the delegates had no choice. That is the influence of the vegan idea. This little seed which I planted 60 years ago, and has been worked on by now thousands of people ever since, is making its presence felt in a world that is dying for salvation, to use again the religious expression.

Holman Hunt’s famous picture, “The Light Of The World”, shows the Christian sitting beside the globe, implying that Christianity was the only way there. Well, if it’s the form of Christianity that the Essenes knew, we’ll say “yes”. Holman Hunt sent a famous message:  veganism!

GDR: I think you may consider you’ve already answered this question, but to what extent do you think your veganism relates to your still being alive and healthy at the age of 92?

DW: Well, again I repeat what I said earlier, an hour ago: “When everyone runs, stand still.” That, one day, will be out-of-date, because, when everyone is running towards veganism, I wouldn’t say “Stand still”!

GDR: What do you find most difficult about being vegan?

DW: Well, I suppose it is the social aspect. Excommunicating myself from that part of life where people meet to eat, and the only way this problem can be eased is by having veganism more and more acceptable in guest houses, hotels, wherever one goes, until one hopes one day it will become the norm.

GDR: And, the other side of the coin. What do you find easiest about being vegan?

DW: Easiest? I suppose it must be the great advantage of having a clear conscience and believing that scientists must now accept conscience as part of the scientific equation. A stricken conscience is not a health measure for anyone. We have to believe our finer feelings of this guilt and proceed from there as stronger men and women. Whenever I look across a graveyard and see all the stones, I think what enormous agony all the people who are buried there – most unnecessary agony – must have gone through during their lives and all the herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and shoals of fish went into the lives of every one of them to keep their little show on the road, believing, as Lang said, they were doing nothing wrong.

The tragedy of the whole existence of Mankind is that, long ago, Man went from his home in Africa, into climes where he had to eat animal food to keep himself alive, and then he invented weapons, to kill animals, to safeguard his food supply, and then he invented fire, to make the unnatural food edible, and then he invented the means of domesticating animals, to further safeguard his unnatural food supply and so the great mistake went on until now, of course, we have refrigeration and other methods of food preservation, to make animal food available, with our systems of transport, anywhere in the world. Not that vegan food can’t be taken anywhere in the world – it can, now, daily. Wherever Man lives, he can have a vegan diet.

When I went to be an apprentice woodworker, one of the first things I learnt was the enormous difference between the hardness and the toughness of wood from slow-growing trees like oak, and all the other hardwoods, compared with that from fast-growing trees like spruce. And I did think, and I have thought, many times, afterwards, slow-growing wood can be compared to slow-growing animals. If we make an animal, especially in its young days, grow faster than the rate nature had planned, the cells are bigger, and the flesh is less durable and that is precisely what happens if we feed babies on milk with a higher protein content than mother’s milk. We get big, bouncing babies, or six-foot six teenagers, as we see now, walking our streets, bodies that are bigger than nature ever intended which, throughout the ages, seems to have been about between five feet and five feet six, and, will these bodies that have been subjected to this accelerated unnatural growth stand the test of time? Like oak does, compared with pine. I’m not a scientist; all my theories about veganism have been developed from using my conscience and my common sense and my observation of events that have been happening all around me and so often my conclusion has contested with that of tradition. I remember one of the thousands of boys I taught – early in my career, in Leicester – frequently if I told him anything, he would look up at me and say, “How d’you make that out, Sir?” I often wonder where that boy finished up in life – he must have gone far. He wasn’t accepting what the teacher said, he wanted it saying another way round, or a simpler way, or stronger proof, before he was willing to accept. “How d’you make that out, Sir?” I’ll never forget that boy.

GDR: I know you have a fairly large garden and several compost bins. How important has gardening been in your life?

DW: Well, shall I tell you how it started? I was always keen on growing things – I thought it was magic to put something in the ground and not do anything else except look at that bit of ground, day after day, until, as if by magic, something had grown. And I remember the house where I was born, one of a row in South Yorkshire, had a little back garden about the area of this conservatory where we are now sitting. It was surrounded by bricks, put on end, forming a zig-zag pattern, as people did in those days and, every year, my mother used to buy a packet of Virginia stock seed, and she let me scatter these seeds right round the border. And, after a week or two, little green sprouts seemed to appear and then, suddenly, the first flower appeared. Well, Virginian stocks, as you know, are little flowers that come in many colours, white, blue, red and perhaps other colours too. I shall never forget going in the house and announcing the Escaped Virginian Stockgreat news that the first Virginian stock was in flower. That’s how my gardening started.

I never became a flower gardener – I was more attracted to the more practical side of gardening, which was growing food, especially compost-grown food, and among my many friends in Leicester was a young man, a member of my Vegetarian Society, his name was Tom Rawls, and he had several theories, and one of them was, if you want anything, don’t ask how you’re going to get the money to buy it, visualise it, and, if you visualise it strongly enough, it will come about. I thought, well, as a practical man, this seems a bit far-fetched, but I did visualise having a kitchen garden outside my back door, so that I didn’t have to cross Leicester to an allotment which a friend let me use. And, when the crops matured, I had to wheel them back four miles from Thurmaston, right across Leicester, to the other side of the city, and I was so keen on getting this food, apart from not having to buy it (because, remember, I was on two pounds a week), that I did it for, certainly, two or three years, and then, lo and behold, when I was lucky enough to get a job in Keswick, which I think must be one of the loveliest places in the world, I also got a big house – not that we wanted a big house, we wanted a big garden, but it had an acre of garden with it, including an orchard, and a lawn, and a kitchen garden, which was walled on two sides, which was a dream come true, and I thought of Tom, I said, Tom first told me about visualising what I wanted, and I did, and it’s come true! And, another thing, based on my comments about religion, my vicar, as a young man, when I went to his Bible Class, told us one day, “There’s nothing wrong with inventing your own prayers – don’t limit your prayers to those in the Prayer Book. If you can think of any prayers that you would like to see fulfilled, just invent one, and say it, as often as you think appropriate.”

So I went away with this idea, I thought, fair enough, I’ll make my shopping list. I thought then that prayer was an appeal to some Higher Force to give one what one wanted, a rather rudimentary idea which many people still hold. They pray for what they want. Anyway, that was my stage in my evolution at that time so I thought, what do I want, and I made my “shopping list”. It was that I should have health, wealth, wisdom, long life and happiness. And a few years ago I went through this list, and I ticked them off. I thought, well, I’ve always, after a poor start as a child, had good health. I am not in debt, which is wealth indeed these days. Wisdom, well, that’s for other people to judge, but I think at least I have had the wisdom to avoid doing all the suicidal things that so many people find attractive. At nearly 93 years old I have had long life. But what about happiness? That’s more difficult in such an evil, crime-ridden world. The stuff seems to be everywhere. I cannot accept the concept that there is a ” Happy Land, far, far away.” Nor can I accept that evil can only be overcome by more evil. We need to fight evil in a way never before tried – veganism, and all it implies.

I’ve never been clever enough to be an atheist – an agnostic, yes, over big spheres of life, where the problems seem debatable and insuperable, but I could never believe that Creation could ever have happened without some sort of Creative Force and that, after the Big Bang or whatever it was that started the whole system off, there must be some Driving Force, some Evolver, to enable everything as we know it today to have developed from simple forms. That doesn’t mean anything personal in the way we think of old men with beards, or prophets, or people who have only sons born without the usual process of reproduction, it means some Force which we are quite incapable of fathoming and, behind all this is the frightening thought which I daren’t think about it too deeply – I understand some people have been driven mad by trying to conceive what it means – and it is that eternity in time and space, by definition, must go on forever; and these astronomers, who talk about the edge of the universe, are myopic :  the universe can have no end; by definition, there must be something beyond any boundary, and so with time: there is no end to the eternity in which we may have to pay for all the errors we make, to correct all the errors we make, through departing from natural law, about which we can do nothing.

If pious people step over the edge of a cliff, down they go. Their piety does not save them because they are ignoring a law of nature:  gravity. If there are similar immutable laws – spiritual laws – these too must be obeyed. No excuse is made for ignorance of spiritual laws any more than there is for physical laws. We suffer if we disobey them. Piety does not excuse us. In veganism we can see that something happens that is beyond our wildest dreams and if I am asked what do I think about the progress of the Vegan Society after 60 years of struggle, by thousands of workers in it, here and throughout the world, I would say a brief comment that progress has been better than I expected. Next question.

GDR: Well that question was on gardening, but the answer was over a very wide area. What are your views on organic gardening and agriculture, and by “organic” of course I mean “veganic”?

DW: You’ve seen my row of compost heaps, each with wire netting round the sides, to let the air in, covered with a roof. Those compost heaps have never had any animal manure on them. Not that I have any objection to animal manure – it’s all been part of the natural scene since the beginning of time – only to animal manure coming from exploited animals. My compost heaps are filled with all the weeds, grass mowings, vegetable waste from the garden, dead leaves, except for privet leaves. I once tried one packet of some activator, I forget what it was called, I thought it was terribly expensive, I tried this on one of the sections of the compost heap, and I felt the compost wasn’t any better the next year, so I never used it again.

There is also a huge leaf hopper, which I built of brick, early in my retirement. It’s about ten feet high and six feet square, and the bricks are set with spaces between for the air to go through, and when we have more compost than the usual compost heaps will hold, or the compost needs more than a year to decompose, we simply throw it in that bin which has a little trap door at the bottom, where, several years later, the compost can be shovelled out and taken back to the garden. All my digging was done with a fork, not a spade, so as not to harm earthworms.

GDR: Do you feel that all food production should be grown organically?

DW: Well, ideally, yes. I think in a vegan world, of course, there wouldn’t be any animal manure on the scale that we have it now. I suppose we could always have a few animals, oh it would be a dangerous experiment to use, because we’d have the problem of the surplus males, as all the people who’ve tried goat keeping have found, but they could be allowed to live in a wild state over tracts of land, there’d be plenty of land to house them, of course, if it wasn’t used for growing crops largely for animals, as at present.

Every vegan knows, of course, that the units of nutrition that can be got from any area of fertile land are many times greater if that land is devoted to plant crops than to animals and even in this age when the seas are overfished, I’m told that fish farms are not the answer to the question, because for every ton of fish that comes from them, between one and three tons of fish, smaller fish, according to the kind of fish they’re farming, has to be used to feed the salmon or whatever else. So, this attack on the sea must still be used, in order to feed this terribly unnatural means of creating an unnatural food. And one further point about fish and fishing, which has always been accepted as a very peaceful occupation, one to encourage young children to adopt, because it takes their mind off other nefarious things that young people fall into – these creatures can never be a threat to man, because they’re trapped in their environment. Unlike any other animal pests, they can never over-run the dry land – they’re trapped there, and, when caught, they can never relieve their feelings with a scream, like other animals do. What agony they die in, in their millions, will never be known. So much for the pacifist view of fishing, and fish farms.

GDR: Moving on from fish farms to genetically modified organisms, in fact a lot of farmed fish are genetically modified, what are your views on genetically modified organisms, plants or animals?

DW: Well, it seems to me, as an ordinary, not-very-scientific person, the whole thing seems too good to be true – that we can alter the genetic make-up of any animal or plant by clever working in the laboratory, so that genes taken from fish can produce strawberries that have a longer shelf life. As the old saying has it, if a thing seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true, and I’m sure this is a classic example, quite apart from the irreversible genetic nature of what is our basic food supply in the future. We mustn’t “play God”, to use a religious expression. Science must realise that there must be commonsense bounds to whatever they do, otherwise they may find themselves with irreversible problems, which science can’t solve. When H G Wells, late in life, wrote his book, “The Fate of Homo Sapiens”, which I read recently, towards the end of that book, he said, “There is only one invention that I can think of that didn’t create more problems than the one it sought to solve.” Now that may have been an exaggeration; the example he quoted was chloroform. What seems to be a wonderful innovation makes problems that alter virtually the whole of Man’s life, in every respect. I suppose if he were alive today he would use the motor car as a classic example. We can’t reverse it now. I was thinking the other day of the recent series on television of the hundred greatest Britons who had ever lived, I thought someone ought to say what are our greatest inventions and mine would be the bicycle. I can’t think of a single bad thing about the bicycle which was my main source of transport until I was the age of fifty, when I bought a car, for reasons I needn’t go into now. And it was invented by a blacksmith, who lived just across the Solway Firth.Kirkpatrick Macmillan's Workshop

GDR: What are your views on blood sports? I presume you’re agin them! You know, fox hunting, shooting, you’ve already spoken about angling.

DW: I think it’s the bottom of the barrel. However necessary we may feel that, having got into this mess, we have to kill some creatures for their own good, to kill creatures for fun must be the very dregs. And to think that much of the “sport” is led by the so-called aristocracy, I think prompts the idea, who are the aristocracy? Well, I think we choose ourselves whether we’re going to be in the aristocracy. The aristocracy are the people who live by high moral principles, who try to keep themselves healthy, who don’t gossip about other people, by saying things that they wouldn’t say to their face, which constitutes most of what we call gossip. The aristocracy are the people, certainly, who don’t kill for fun, of all things, and the people who refuse to join the long queue to their own extermination and to the gutter.

Someone once said, “The way to Heaven is the first turning to the right and keep straight on.” Well, whatever sort of place Heaven might be, I consider veganism is, as near to that aspiration that we, as fallible humans, can get. Someone also said, “Heaven is a temper, not a place.” and I hope most vegans would believe in that. But, whilst I’m referring to wise things that other people said, may I quote four lines of poetry that have always impressed me, by that very prolific poet, Anon.

Someone ought to write a book of a collection of all the wise things that Anon said, and this one, my word, it’s true. These are the four lines.

We are all blind until we see that, in the human plan,

Nothing is worth the making, that does not make the man.

Why build these cities glorious, if man unbuilded goes?

We build a world in vain, unless the builder also grows.

What wisdom there is there! At this time, all our cities are under threat, needlessly, because Man has taken a wrong turning, early in his history, and throughout all recorded history, even throughout all his early battles. I read recently about the Battle of Agincourt. At the end of the day, the corpses of horses and men were lying six feet deep. Why should one creature have suffered as the horse has done, in the service of such a fallen creature as we are? And remember, we’re all descended from tens of thousands of generations of these violent people. The miracle is that any of us, at this late stage, could find in our make-up, the wherewithal to have this latent wisdom, to see the folly, and to act upon it and to spread the gospel so that other people may be infected as the same way as people are infected with evil in all its forms.

One thing the first vegans decided upon early in our experiment, shall I call it, is that we should try to avoid what annoys us in propagandists in other fields and we decided that the first person singular, “I”, should not be repeated too often, because it can make a barrier, like a fence, cutting us off from those we would convert. So, in all my early writings, I doubt, if I ever used the first person singular and another thing we thought would be wise, would be not to exaggerate before we had proved our point, because we couldn’t escape the fact that we were taking on the world, unlike any other reformers before – we were in this tremendously responsible position of saying to virtually everyone else, “You are just plain wrong, in so many aspects of the things you are claiming in your life style.”

GDR: What are your views on animal experiments?

DW: I said that cruel sports were the bottom of the barrel. I think I’ve got to move even them one up, and put vivisection at the bottom. It is probably the cruellest of all Man’s attack on the rest of Creation. Particularly since it hopes to give benefits. Even if it does, we must ask the question, after millions of lives have been sacrificed, if all this effort had gone into other fields of investigation, like simple reformed living, would not the results far outweigh the benefits of vivisection, whatever they may be. I think one question vegetarians and vegans should always ask when we think that cruelty, these days, is largely delegated to the people who perform it, is the simple question, if these butchers and vivisectors weren’t there, could we perform the acts that they are doing? And, if we couldn’t, we have no right to expect them to do it on our behalf. Full stop! That simply compounds the issue. It means that we’re not just exploiting animals – we’re exploiting human beings. So that, day after day, year after year, they’re doing their job, to think again of Lang’s famous words “in the firm belief that they are doing nothing wrong.”

GDR: OK. What are your views on direct action?

DW: I’ve never become involved in it, except in the general way of being a propagandist, which is the most direct action of all. I respect the people enormously who do it, believing that it’s the most direct and quick way to achieve their ends. If I were an animal in a vivisection cage, I would thank the person who broke in and let me out, but, having said that, we must always remember: is it just possible that our act could, just could, be counter-productive? I’d rather not say “yes” or “no”, because I don’t know the answer to that.

I’ve respect for all the people who do it, but my own personal feeling is that I wouldn’t do it. To use an analogy, I sometimes see, when on my walks, people climbing up vertical cliffs with their ropes and I sometimes think, there is an alternative way of getting to the top and getting the view, by just going a few hundred yards sideways, and walking up a valley. A rock-climber would, of course, say that idea is nonsense, we don’t do it for the view, we do it for the challenge! But, if people want challenges, there is no shortage of sensible, humane, safe, challenges to get engaged in. I would never take up rock- climbing, and dangle on the end of a rope, that might be weak in one spot. The strength of a chain is its weakest link, and so is the strength of a rope, and if that rope breaks, as inevitably, I think it will, sooner or later, I would probably get killed. And then I wouldn’t be able to proceed with whatever peaceful work I’m on earth to do. So, rock-climbing is out, as far as I’m concerned. But, at least, it isn’t hunting innocent animals and I don’t stand on a soapbox to condemn them – it’s their own business, let them get on with it. (As long as they don’t disturb peregrines’ nests on the way up!)

GDR: What are your views on vaccination?

DW: Vaccination? I wasn’t vaccinated as a child. I was always too weak!

GDR: So weak that you’re now 92 years old?!!

DW: Yes. I was a weakling, I suffered from constipation, I’d a weak heart, I’d anaemia. For a long period in my schooldays I had to go down to Boots with my weight card, on doctor’s orders, to have my weight registered. So, I wasn’t vaccinated. My brother was, and my sister was, and my sister had a terrible arm, I remember. She was eight years younger than I was, but I wasn’t vaccinated, and I didn’t get smallpox. There is a story, by the way, about vaccination, which tells us how careful we have to be about statistics. It dates from the days of the Raj in India, where a company of recruits went out to serve in the army, and they were lectured by the Medical Officer of Health, warning them that they should be vaccinated. It wasn’t compulsory but the evidence was very strong that they’d be in dire danger if they weren’t. In the last company, who’d gone out the year before, half of those who were not vaccinated had died. But when someone pursued the records, they found that only two were not vaccinated, of whom one never got smallpox, and the other one was killed by a tiger, so his claim that fifty percent of the soldiers who weren’t vaccinated were completely wiped out was absolutely true, but one needs to know all the facts before falling for statistics, especially from those who have something to sell. I like to think that vegans are less naive and gullible than most people and, more often than other people, they comment, when they read an advert, by saying “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

What do I think about vaccination? That was the question. I keep going off the point! Of course, smallpox was a terrible killer and it wasn’t surprising that scientists sought some kind of antidote, to protect the people from it. We shall never know, of course, whether smallpox, like all the other zymotic diseases, came about not through lack of prophylactics but through wrong living, which so reduced the natural resistance of Man that he couldn’t meet the attacks of pathogens, which were there all the time, in his environment. And I pin my faith now to building up our natural resistance against disease.

GDR: Of course, the point is that most, if not all, vaccines, are cultured on things like chick embryos, and other animal materials.

DW: Oh, yes! And I may add that most orthodox medicines are also proved, or tested, on animals, and this perhaps is the greatest inconsistency in vegetarians and vegans who may try to conform to the rules of their societies, but take orthodox medicines, hoping that they’ve not been produced as a result of animal tests. And that is one reason I’ve never taken them. And, in my view, that is a more serious inconsistency even than wearing leather or using wool, because these are by-products of industries that are primarily there to provide meat. I know, in a vegan world, these products wouldn’t exist. But we mustn’t fuss about what are obviously the lesser evils of a life in which we’re trying to cope with situations that are brought about by a world designed to cope for people who don’t hold our principles. We must try to find another way round the back, and, hopefully, I think we must do it over the years and perhaps over the decades by bringing back our natural resistance. I sometimes feel we must all accept that, in nature, the law of the fittest prevails – the weakest go to the wall and the strong carry on the story. The strong breed and Man is the only exception where we give precedence to the weak, instead of letting them go to the wall. But I would add, we must also match nature’s system by eliminating the weak by making them strong. That is the ultimate answer. And that can only come about, probably, over generations, by correcting these dreadful mistakes that Man has made throughout the whole of his history. That is why veganism must come first among all our noble causes we support and nearly all of us, I suppose, subscribe to many of them. I know in my case, my pension, or quite a substantial part of it, goes to causes which are tackling the problem in a fragmented way, but I see the point of their limited approach to what is inevitably a much wider and more difficult problem.

GDR: What do you think of the way the Vegan Society has developed since you were running it? You’ve already partly answered that, and you also said you wanted to talk about the magazine. So, perhaps you could develop that now.

DW: Well, better than expected, certainly. One wonders how far it will go, now that we have the machine all set up, at great expense and work on behalf of thousands of people, hundreds of them already earning a living, catering for the vegan idea in one kind or another. The fact is that it is still here, growing stronger all the time, now spreading to many parts of the world. This 2003 calendar, with my picture on it, is from a vegan society in New South Wales. I think the genie is now out of the bottle; no-one can ever put it back to the ignorant days before 1944, when this seed was planted by people full of hope, full of aspiration that surely this idea would attract enough followers for it at least to survive.

And now, of course, we have our attractive quarterly magazine. I can’t help comparing it with my humble “Vegan News” which I produced at great labour before the Society was first inaugurated. Normally I spent a whole night assembling the various pages, and stapling them together. I’d limited the number of people who subscribed their five shillings a year to five hundred, because I couldn’t cope with a bigger number.

I had my own life to live, which wasn’t easy at that time, and to produce five hundred copies of a twelve-page newsletter meant running six thousand pieces of paper slowly through my Roneo and inspecting each one to see that every line was clear and readable, because there would have been no point in all my work if what I sent out wasn’t readable! Even one word missing from a sentence can make the reader wonder about the whole sense of that sentence. This brings me to the only criticism I have of our present attractive magazine. I hesitate to make it but it is made constructively in the hope that we will have a yet better magazine. There is a little jingle, you know, that must have been invented long ago, for children, which went “good, better, best, never may I rest, till my good is better, and my better best”. That is not only good advice to children, it’s good advice to all of us, and to those who produce magazines, propagating ideas in the hope that they’ll convert readers, but how can they convert anyone if they leave the reader in doubt of what was written?

And so I come to my only criticism and I’m going to quote the misuse of colour, which can add so much to the attractiveness of any periodical. If the printer uses his art to make anything that’s printed difficult to read then he must be told that this is not desirable and I’m going to quote, however pretty his art might make a periodical appear, an article that appeared in the Summer 2002 “Vegan”. It’s called “Carrots and Cannibals”. It was printed in the usual spidery type, which I feel, for the benefit of those who are growing old, could be one step larger, to make the type easier to read, but it’s printed on a coloured background so that, in my case, I found it so hard going to read that I missed it out and about a fortnight later I went back, with the help of a hand glass, and I read this article, which was one of the best articles I have ever read in “The Vegan”, written by Anne Philbrow. I thought what a pity if other people like me, older people, have not read that article that was so carefully constructed, just because it was simply too difficult to read. Compare that with this clear printing on the front of the Summer “Vegan” – white letters on a dark background, standing out clearly. And yet, in the latest magazine, we get the contents in white letters on a virtually white background – most difficult to read for most people whose eyesight is not as good as it was.

So, I say there’s nothing wrong with colour printing providing it doesn’t obliterate the words or make them more difficult to read, especially for older people who may, for all we know, be the very people who leave legacies to the Society. The legacies don’t come from teenagers or young people who’re struggling, day by day, to live, and pay the basic living expenses, to keep their business, and their educations, going. The legacies come from older people, not rich people, but people with no dependents, very often, who can leave thousands of pounds as a kind of blood transfusion to keep our message still available for those who are drawn to read it. I suppose there may be people who will object to that, or any other, criticism, but I felt, early in my life as a propagandist, in vegetarian societies especially, and, in the early days of the Vegan Society, we were sometimes unfortunate enough to find, on our committees, people who seemed to object to everything, relishing it, at last, because of frustrations elsewhere in their own lives, in their jobs or in their marriages. At last they’d found a platform where other people had to listen. These people are few and far between, but they mustn’t be allowed to destroy the peaceful atmosphere of people who travel far, and very often at their own expense, to deliver what they see as a fair judgement on the problems that we have to face as a movement. I won’t say that they must be swatted, but they must be told, or made to see, in the nicest possible way, that this isn’t the way to behave in any committee. I’ve never been at a Vegan Society Council meeting, I don’t know the people on it, it’s no reflection on anyone there, but I’ve seen it happen in my early experience, and I suppose it happens on all committees – people who relieve their frustrations, created by factors elsewhere in life, and glorifying the fact that at long last they have a vote and people have to listen. May such people always be outvoted by the more sensible members of any committees, anywhere, where we try to make the difficult process of democracy work. Compared with democracy, dictatorship has obvious advantages. I know, from the work I did, in the two years before the Vegan Society was formed, when I’d no-one to consult, I could do everything my own way, I don’t think in those years I could have survived, if I had to write to the few people concerned, and ask for their opinion. I had no telephone, I’d no motor car, I could only hope that they would see my point, until the point arrived when I had to hand over the work to a committee and to people paid to do the job. All the early work was done by volunteers.

In a way everyone whom the Society has ever paid to do the office work, to answer all the thousands of enquiries, that a growing movement, bursting with contacts, receives, all those people have necessarily been underpaid, so that, when their so-called salaries have been used, to pay their basic expenses, in a way they’ve all been volunteers. Even our Chief Executive is on a wage at the very bottom of anything else that is paid in the commercial sector. Because we can afford nothing more. And we’re enormously grateful to these people, because heaven knows what would happen if they all packed in, and got jobs stacking supermarket shelves or something as menial as that, in order to keep the show on the road. So, my own opinion must be to say a big “thank you”, you won’t be there for ever, you can’t be, by the nature of the job you have. And that job, in my view, is the most important job in the world. I wrote a letter when our last Chief Executive was appointed, reminding him that he had the most important job in the world, but unfortunately not the highest paid. So the Vegan Society has always, in that sense, been supported by voluntary labour. May there always be people who apply for vacancies in the office, who are willing to make this sacrifice, even for a brief period in their careers. We’re all indebted to them. Next question.

GDR: In what direction do you think the Vegan Society should go in the future?

DW: I hesitate to suggest anything to a movement which seems to be going well, and spreading world-wide, and silencing critics, still surviving, still around. Speaking from my old age, I sometimes think I’ve outlived my critics, and I can’t remember the last time that I encountered one. The edifice, if that’s the right word, that survived all attacks before we started our work, now is crumbling, because of the inherent weakness of its own structure. Even farming, which for centuries was our basic industry, employing more people than any other, seems now to be on the way out. Farmers can no longer get insurance against diseases like BSE, foot and mouth disease, all the rest of the afflictions that farmers need to handle, usually at great expense, through the service of vets, and as we saw in the foot and mouth debacle, having their whole animal populations wiped out, destroying not only their own industry, but, certainly in many parts of the country, the tourist industry too. People were no longer willing to come to the Lake District, for instance, if they couldn’t walk on the fells. So, the tourist industry, which was far more valuable than the farming industry, suffered. I won’t say irretrievably, because, even after one year, it is now, slowly, getting back to normal, but if we had a return of the foot and mouth disease, any government in power would have to have a different policy altogether from that applied in the last time. Farmers are diversifying, but there is a limit to the extent that this can go. They need to be ingenious, hard-working, living on a lower income than they’ve ever had before, and wondering whether their children could carry on their farms, as they have done for centuries before, when the parents were no longer able to run them.

GDR: Do you have any regrets about your life?

DW: Well, after a slow start, I married the right woman, at the ripe old age of 36, and we remained happily married for 47 years, until her death nine years ago. That certainly wasn’t anything I regretted, although we live in different times now, and whether, if I were young today, I would ever dare to commit myself for life, for better or worse, to anyone else, I hesitate, but that’s a hypothetical situation, which fortunately I’ll never have to meet. But the marriage vows, for better or worse, were necessary in centuries past, when, if a man walked out on a woman, she was bereft of an income, and, especially for those who had passed the first flush of attractive youth, they had a very bleak future indeed. I’m not an opponent of marriage, because it worked well for me, but I do think that, when it doesn’t work, it can be a most cruel affliction, especially on the innocent party. That isn’t directly associated with veganism, it can happen to anyone on any diet, of course, or life style. But, because things are changed, we have to take a more tolerant view of those who feel that, when young, they made a mistake, and they deserve to be given a fresh start, either with a new partner, married or not. I mustn’t say more on that subject because it doesn’t, strictly speaking, relate to veganism any more than it does to any other life style.

GDR: It doesn’t have to be related to veganism, Donald. But thank you for that answer.

DW: I’ve been lucky in that I chose the right job, and, as I said in my little speech when I retired at the age of 63, as a woodworker I’d been a square peg in a square hole and that I’d never seriously thought of doing anything else. That indeed is luck which many people, alas, never have. So, I had the right wife, I had the right job, I’ve lived in the right place which I can’t fault, except there aren’t enough vegans in it, but one lesson we have to learn in life is we mustn’t expect too much. We have to say, “So far so good, I’ve been lucky, I appreciate it, and, indeed, what have I done to deserve it?”, when things repeatedly go right, while for so many other people they go wrong. Is that luck? Or is it something that happens inevitably if one pursues a course that one feels is right? And, having made that commitment, day by day, one feels one’s way as one goes along.

GDR: What do you consider your greatest achievement in your life?

DW: My greatest achievement? Well, it’s in succeeding, I think, although I mustn’t be the judge, in my own estimation, in achieving what I set out to do. One can hardly rise higher in one’s opinion of one’s life in general, than to feel I was instrumental in starting a great new movement which could even, not only change the course of things, for Humanity and the rest of Creation, but alter Man’s expectation of surviving for much longer on this planet.

GDR: If you had your life to live over again, what changes would you make, if any?

DW: There is one little thing that I would change. In my early days, before I was married, I had a succession of digs, or lodgings, and, sometimes, when I went away at the weekend, I would ask for a reduction on the weekly rent I paid, because obviously I hadn’t been there, eating the food. I always got it, but I feel now that I niggled about something which a more generous person would have forgotten about. I wouldn’t niggle about money any more, if I had my time again.

GDR: Donald, do you have any message for the many thousands of people who are now vegan?

DW: Yes. I would like them to take the broad view of what veganism stands for. Something beyond finding a new alternative to, shall we say scrambled eggs on toast, or a new recipe for a Christmas cake. I would like them to realise that they’re on to something really big, something that hadn’t been tried until sixty years ago, and something which is meeting every reasonable criticism that anyone can level against it.

And I would say that this doesn’t involve weeks or months of studying diet charts or reading books by so-called experts. It means grasping a few simple facts and applying them, just as the early sailors, who were at sea for months, found they developed scurvy because they were lacking in vitamin C, because they were living on dried meat and biscuits, and when they made port, and had access to fruits like limes, their illnesses vanished. Simple proof, like that, that someone once wrote a book, I think his name was Otto Carque and he called the book “Vital Facts About Food”. That was written a long time ago, and we could add to it today, with many things that have been discovered by trial and error, over the last sixty years. I think all vegans should make themselves familiar with these very simple facts and remember, all the time, what an awful lot of danger they’re avoiding. In the early days our critics used to say, “You don’t know what you’re missing!” We know now! We’re missing an awful lot that they’re having! Conditions so serious that it shortens their life by many decades, gives them pains and illnesses very soon after the first flush of youth has passed, and ties them to that medicated regime for the rest of their lives. That is what vegans are missing, providing, as I say, they obey a few simple, commonsense, rules. That’s my message to vegans who have not been long in the cause.

GDR: Do you have any message for vegetarians?

To vegetarians, I would say, accept, as, if you’re honest you must, that vegetarianism, whilst being a necessary stepping-stone, between meat eating and veganism, is only a stepping stone. We all use this stepping stone; I’ve not met a vegan who didn’t approach the movement by that route. There may be vegans I’ve never known, over the last sixty years, who made the change all in one leap, but I’m sure that, being a realist, I accept that vegetarianism is a necessary staging-post in the evolution of humane dietetics. All my early work was in the vegetarian movement. I ran the Leicester Vegetarian Society for many years. I organised their monthly meetings. I met virtually all the speakers at that time, who were anybody in the movement. I got a unique insight into what was then considered as far as anyone might be expected to go towards a plant-based diet, but, of course, we’ve now moved on from there and vegetarians must realise that – although they might find it inconvenient at times, to go the whole way, that is, the path that our experience shows that they must go.

George D Rodger (L), in London’s Rootmaster “bustaurant” with long-term Vegan Society members Dean Bracher, Caroline McAleese, Lee Hall, and Patricia Tricker. Are those Virginian Stock flowers on the table?

George D Rodger (L) in London’s Rootmaster “bustaurant” with Vegan Society members Dean Bracher, Caroline McAleese, Lee Hall, and Patricia Tricker.  Are those Virginian Stock flowers on the table?

GDR: Do we have your permission to publish an edited extract of this interview in “The Vegan” and a longer version of this interview on the website?

DW: Yes, you have my full permission. I do fear the consequences of publication because it could lead to the kind of correspondence I had in the early years – far too many letters, or perhaps even callers, that I could possibly deal with. That is my only fear. I suppose I could reply by directing them to 7 Battle Road.

GDR: That’s the thing to do. In fact, there’s not likely to be all that many letters nowadays, but there’ll be floods of emails. You can’t receive emails anyway, so that lets you off the hook! And the office can easily deal with emails.

DW: Since all these new methods of communication have led to the virtual extinction of letter-writing, which someone once said was the gentlest art, my letters now are few and far between. I’m always delighted to have them – providing they don’t need replies!

I might say there that when I was producing the “Vegan News”, the hard work really was not producing the newsletter, but the avalanche of correspondence that followed, most of which needed answering, many of which didn’t include a stamped addressed envelope for the reply, which I hardly knew how to deal with, being on two pounds a week, and yet the questions were so sensible and those who wrote them were so sincere, that usually, and I think always, I did reply to them. I can’t think of, ever, not replying to a serious enquiry, but I can’t guarantee that now, in my old age, that would still be possible.

GDR: One last question. Won’t you please come and visit the office in St Leonards? I’ve asked you before, and you haven’t come! I would be very pleased, in fact I’d be honoured to collect you from here, and drive you down there myself – I suggest not in the wintertime, but maybe in the springtime when the milder weather comes along.

DW: You are rather out on a limb, aren’t you, for anyone living up here in the far north – not as far north as you are, of course, but then you’re, what is it, thirty years younger than I am. Would you do it in thirty years’ time? That’s the point. I’m a sociable person – I seem to have been mixed up with crowds of people all my life, and I do like, now, to meet them one at a time. I feel that one of my anathemas in life is what is called “the lively debate”, where so many people all talk together, across each other, so that no-one can tell what anyone says. I think when one person is speaking, the rest should listen and that, nowadays, is expecting a lot of people when they assemble.

And another thing I’ve noticed, especially in the last few years, people on television seem to be speaking faster and faster all the time, and I feel if only they’d slow down, and think a little bit more before they say it, there’s a saying, if I can remember it, “People who say what they think, should think what they say”, because so often people say what they think, and then they regret it. That is one of the dangers of being a propagandist.

GDR: Well, you know what they say – if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

DW: Yes, that’s very true. And yet, the propagandist has to get the message across somehow. In my early days I accepted that the pen is mightier than the sword, and the pen in my case was a typewriter, which I had to buy second-hand along with my Roneo in order to get started, and I had to learn how to use them.

I sometimes think, well I’m thinking non-stop, all the day, just sitting down with my comfortable body, well fed, and not short of sleep, at long last, I’ve no commitments, I just think, and providing I’m warm, I think of the future as Man has always done, of course, and, sometime, inevitably, I suppose within the next ten years, one morning I won’t wake up. What then? There’ll be a funeral, there’ll be a smattering of people at it, and, as Shaw forecast at his own funeral, there’ll be all the spirits of all the animals he’d never eaten. In that case, it will be a big funeral!

And I certainly don’t seek fame in any form, except when I’m dead and then, only because the idea I spawned will be progressing, generation after generation, learning how to be healthy, how to avoid all the pitfalls that are bringing other people down, and leaving one satisfied in the sense that one has gone as far as one could with the limited mental and emotional equipment we have. Further than that, I can’t think that mortal Man can travel any further always keeping our ears open for those who have new ideas as we expect our would-be converts to listen what we have to say. Veganism certainly can’t stand still, it must move on, perhaps in the direction of more raw food when we all know the destructive power of heat on food, how its nature is changed and perhaps its value too. Finally, if this is the last question, I think we should accept that although enormous strides have been made by our workers over the last sixty years, science hasn’t got the complete answer.

I doubt if anyone really knows how our digestion works. They might think they know, but the whole thing is so wonderful, that food can be converted into flesh and blood, bone and hair, as well as energy, mental processes, and even into spiritual enlightenment, that science has hardly got round to accepting as a possibility. We don’t know the spiritual advancements that long term veganism – I mean not over years or even decades, but over generations – would have on human life. It would be certainly a different civilisation, and the first one in the whole of our history that would truly deserve the title of being a civilisation. Full stop.

GDR: Which, I think, is a very positive note on which to end the interview. Thank you, Donald.

Image sources: Denaby MainA Shepherd’s Life; Katie & Kari (a porcine pair at For the Animals sanctuary), a pub in Cumbria, and a tree on Hampstead Heath all photographed by Lee Hall; cigarette ends; Virginian Stock flowers; bicycle inventor Kirkpatrick Macmillan’s workshop. For a nuanced note on the invention of the word vegan, see “A Note on World Vegan Day 2013.”

A Note on World Vegan Day 2013

It’s today! Plenty of delicious vegan dinners are about to begin; at 7 o’clock tonight I’ll be at SuTao in Malvern, Pennsylvania, joining a celebration buffet with the house full of vegans, aspiring vegans, and potential vegans of the Delaware Valley.

Isn’t it great how the vegan word is getting out? Next year, the vegan movement turns 70. In the span of a human lifetime, much has been accomplished.

During November especially, I like to appreciate the people who started things off.

They were a small, focused group. Originally they’d called themselves the non-dairy vegetarians. They weren’t breaking away from the vegetarian movement that (drawing on a much longer history spanning Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian, and African regions) arose in Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century; they were the ones, rather, taking its mission most seriously.

For the original principle and thSunflower at old shede definition of vegetarianism was indeed vegan.

John Davis, historian for the International Vegetarian Union, writes of the first vegetarian society in England: “In the early 1850s the magazine representing the Society had quite clearly defined it as: ‘Vegetarian: one who lives on the products of the vegetable kingdom.’” In the early 1900s, the Vegetarian Society’s Vegetarian Messenger, citing ethics and human health, reaffirmed its support for a diet free of eggs and dairy.

In the 1940s, the vegans emerged to underscore the “non-dairy” aspect of the vegetarian platform. Nor was free-range farming a step in the right direction in the vegan paradigm; in fact, it was the free-range farms of England that the founding members had found unacceptable. In the Vegan Society’s first newsletter, Donald Watson wrote: “We can see quite plainly that our present civilization is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilizations were built on the exploitation of slaves…”

Defining veganism in 1951, Vegan Society VP Leslie Cross wrote that the concept “possesses historical continuity” with the anti-slavery movement, and further explained:

…veganism is not so much welfare as liberation, for the creatures and for the mind and heart of man; not so much an effort to make the present relationship bearable, as an uncompromising recognition that because it is in the main one of master and slave, it has to be abolished before something better and finer can be built.

And so began a movement, explicitly connecting vegetarianism with a liberation call, based on a stated conviction that humanity has no right to exploit other creatures for our own ends. The vegan’s diet—which can be absolutely exquisite as chefs will reaffirm tonight at SuTao and many other restaurants and kitchens worldwide—would come entirely from “fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and other wholesome, non-animal products” and exclude “flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey and animal milk and its derivatives.” Encompassing the diet is the principle. The early vegans took the war-resister’s principle of conscientious objection and expanded it to encompass all conscious life.

Essentially, some two dozen people set out to activate a paradigm shift in the human identity. Donald Watson, who pointed to the Essenes as one example of a group that had conscientiously avoided animal exploitation, was doubtless also inspired by the uncompromising opposition to vivisection demonstrated by Frances Power Cobbe, founder of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Also present at the time of the Vegan Society’s formation were opponents of “cruel sport”; the vegans merged the separate anti-exploitation movements together into comprehensive animal-rights advocacy with personal commitment as its basis, and an emphasis on continuous public outreach to raise awareness of, and challenge, humanity’s ordinary uses of animals, whether for human food, work, “sportsmanlike” pursuits, product testing, or any other reason.

“If the vegan ideal of non-exploitation were generally adopted it would be the greatest peaceful revolution ever known,” said Donald Watson, “abolishing vast industries and establishing new ones” in the better interest of human and non-human animals alike. This is a simple ideal, but it is far from easy, for in order to emancipate other animals, vegans “renounce absolutely their traditional and conceited attitude that they had the right to use them to serve their needs.”

No revolutionary idea appears, of course, without attracting people who’d like to blend it into something else. The humane charities’ Big Tent prefers not to see veganism as a movement, instead referring to it as a “tool” for opposing the “horrors of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses”—although veganism came not to challenge factory farms, but to challenge animal farms.

Admittedly, the vast scale of animal use and the ubiquity of animal products can be overwhelming. Anxiety, driven by the thought that assaults on animals won’t end in our lifetimes, might lead us to ask whether pressing for industry reforms is the best we can do. Reforms or no reforms, suffering isn’t reduced when animals are unnecessarily bred or brought into an exploitive system.

The call for animal-husbandry reform, “compassionate standards” for agribusiness, etc. is an appeal to politicians and the owners of animal enterprises to do something helpful for a principle. Ordinary people who sit down to our dinners, not these authorities, have the real power. Veganism is both direct action and a genuinely humane agriculture.

Why November?

There’s something noteworthy about the designation of this day and month itself. When people at the Vegan Society resolved to set a special time to celebrate the movement, they first considered September. The 2nd of September was the birthday of Donald Watson, who put together and sent out the first copy of Vegan News—and many copies to follow. But Donald said the day shouldn’t be focused on any particular person; so rather than Donald’s birthday, the members agreed to pick November—anniversary of the first issue of the Vegan News. 

I thought of this recently, when Natasha Lennard in Salon discussed a political commentary made on television by Russell Brand. Brand called for political change at a deeper level than our prevailing voting system can reach. Lennard agreed, but rightly pointed out that people were, maybe a little absurdly, making Brand into an idol for saying it. Weary of Brand’s “famous-person” stature, Lennard explained: “I love much of what the boisterous comedian says, but this Great Man narrative lets sexism slide and has to go.” Lennard then asked:

Would he be willing to destroy himself — as celebrity, as leader, as `Russell Brand`?

Evident in the vegan scene today are efforts by some self-styled leaders to develop specific approaches to ending animal exploitation or spreading vegan ideas. We do, I’d say, have to deal with the Great Man narrative in the vegan movement. (That narrative is not the same thing as outright misogyny, which Lennard also discusses—but the narrative is both a facilitator and a result of the gender-infused hierarchy within which all of us are obliged to live and work.)

Anyone turned off by famous-person figures in the vegan sphere can take heart, knowing that the vegan principle has a long history, in no need of reinvention, in no need, even, of leading spokespersons. There’s no reason to throw the bathwater out with the babies. The idea that we need to follow any person’s “abolitionist animal-rights” or “ethical vegan” approach is redundant: those concepts are the core of veganism and have defined it from the start. This is not about advancing a personality. This is about advancing a social movement. Every vegan is this movement’s representative.

Next thing for today: Not only did Donald Watson eschew the famous-person mantle, but Donald actually did not take credit (sorry, Wikipedia) for coining the word vegan.

How did they get the word vegan?

The term vegan was adopted in 1944 by Vegan Society founding members Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley. Dorothy (Morgan) Watson thought up the term and offered it to Donald—at a dance they both attended. (I thank Patricia Tricker and George D. Rodger of the Vegan Society in Birmingham, England for this intriguing piece of information.) The word came from the first three and last two letters of vegetarian—because veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.

To be a vegan is to adopt a revolutionary worldview. We have found that that egg, flesh, and dairy production and consumption can be hazardous to the planet and our bodies; and that animal husbandry, whether pasture-based or assembly-line, involves exploitive treatment of other conscious beings. We don’t want to play a role in that; nor do we wish to be at war with free-living animals.  As vegans, we strive to live harmoniously with the planet and all its inhabitants.

Some of those inhabitants, of course, are other humans. And in the year ahead, in addition to noticing the word “vegan” all over and maybe getting a slideshow or two done on this blog that others can use, I hope to be engaged in discussion of the meaning of veganism as a movement, and also the way it encompasses kindness, solidarity, and respect. People who become vegan don’t all embark on this journey from the same starting point, and are not always going to agree with each other as we proceed along the path; but we can strive with integrity to work through things. It’s really important that we figure out how to disagree without hurting, and to agree without competing. I welcome further dialogue here on all of the above thoughts.

Love and liberation,


Is a Vegan Humanity Possible?

Life on Earth is getting stranger. When the vegans started out in 1944, they noticed that our population, even then, weighed heavily on the planet. In seventy years, we’ve gone from two to seven billion human beings, with the number of animals bred into existence to feed many of these people—the land animals alone!—numbering in the many tens of billions.

The easy thing to do is be pragmatic and figure other animals are losing their habitat forever as fast as we can grab it, that we are incorrigible domesticators, and that life is everywhere commodified, so the best we can do, given that other animals are always going to be in some sort of relationship with us, is to be as easy as possible on all the other animals we control.

And yet I feel sure a world with room for animal rights is a world that’s still possible. Our dominion will be overthrown at some point anyway. Should we exhaust our planet, the force of life will rearrange itself accordingly.

The question for us, then, is whether we want to swim with the tide—with conscious awareness. Whether we grasp that we—scared little primates with big weapons, as Harold Brown has called us—are not in charge of this planet; whether we acknowledge that our lives unfold within a bio-community; whether we value, and will strive to increase, our capacity to respect other communities on this Earth.

Animal law generally misses these questions. It’s become part of North American social and educational life, with the model often involving pressure for courts to recognize, as animal law professors tend to put it, other animals’ true value and special place in our homes. But to me the radical hope was expressed when law professor Catharine MacKinnon (in the 2004 essay “Of Mice and Men: A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights”) called for a new way of understanding animal advocacy, observing that the primary model of animal rights to date “misses animals on their own terms.”

Vegans have risen to the occasion and refused to be consumers of animal commodities. This general opting-out is the broad base for dissolving the for-sale status of other animals, and (because being vegan isn’t just about what we don’t want) letting them thrive on their own terms in untamed spaces.

Consider the free-roaming horses. They, at least in the United States, are continually rounded up and auctioned off. Some have been trained as border guards, others for display in circus-like shows. Some have been sent to die. Many animal advocates are focused on closing horse-slaughtering plants. From the vegan perspective, confronting slaughter makes sense—but only as part of a broader, autonomy-seeking perspective.

Nor is the answer to impose birth control on free-roaming horses while cattle ranches expand.

There is a law—the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971—that set out to let free-roaming horses and burros do just that: roam free. It hasn’t worked out. What horse advocates need, I believe, is to link to a vegan ethic: the permanent boycott of flesh and dairy products so animal agribusiness doesn’t push these horses and burros off the land.

An enormous segment of the human economy is based on taking habitat out from under other animals, yet each one of us has the power to change this structure. What’s more, we all know and constantly encounter other people with this same potential. People can and do respond to reasoned optimism.

May we stay mindful of the ideal and strive for it, so that wolves, coyotes, horses, bison, deer, elk and moose may freely roam their habitats. So that bears flourish, bees flourish, and horses live freely on Chincoteague, Assateague, the western ranges…Nova Scotia and the Nemaiah Valley. So that no one is calling for roundups, because the products of cattle ranching are no longer in demand. So that jaguars, pronghorn, and nectar bats, humans as well, have the right to move across the face of the earth. So that Earth’s CO₂ balance is restored, its wildlands are recovering, its air and its waters are clean and clear. So that pesticides are things of the past and the only lethal traps, snares, birdcages, guns, fishing poles and spurs left in the world are in antique stores.

Love and liberation,