Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, speculates about whether the vegan world would be reached through revolution or evolution.
I must confess, not until last week I had ever heard of it.
I had heard about the Plant Power Planet Magazine (and I wrote articles in it) and the Plant-Powered Expo (and I gave talks in it), but not about the Plant Power Day. Apparently, it’s the 7th of March every year.
Well, I say every year, but this has only been true since 2018 when this day was created. By whom, you may be wondering? So did I, so I looked it up. Interestingly, I discovered that it was created by the plant-based products company ALPRO, in collaboration with the vegan recipe business BOSH!, to “encourage people to eat more vegetables and other plant-based foods as part of their daily meals and beverages.”
Is that the popular plant-milk company based in Belgium that, in 2016, ended up being bought by Danone, the French company known for exploiting millions of cows for their milk, collecting some 7.5 billion litres of cow’s milk a year (which is nearly 1% of the worldwide milk collection)?. Is ALPRO now owned by the company that is to cows what McDonald’s is to bulls? Yes, that’s the one.
On the website about this day, you can read this: “It’s not necessarily about cutting out animal products entirely, but rather about making plants the centerpiece of your diet and considering plant-based options first, either just for the day itself or longer term!” It’s not about veganism, as I suspected. It’s not about the philosophy — and the social movement it generated — that seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation for any purpose (not just for food). It’s about reducetarianism (only advocating for the reduction of animal products in food, not their exclusion), or, at most, about plant-based-ism (only about the diet vegans have).
When I learnt about this day, I thought about two things: Firstly, about the use of the term “power”, which implies the ability to apply a force that can change things, that can move items and can fuel both machines and social movements. Secondly, about the fact that considering who created it, Plant Power Day is not about the philosophy of veganism that generated a socio-political movement set up to build the Vegan World, but about commercialism and perhaps even vegan-washing — like Mothers’ Day is not about motherhood anymore, as Anna Jarvis agreed when started to campaign against this very day she created in 1908.
Combined, these two thoughts made me wonder about this: what will be the power that would transform society into the vegan world we want to build, a powerful socio-political explosion like a Revolution that will transform everything in just a few years, or a gentle breeze that would push the sails of change leading to a gradual evolution instead? Would the people of that world celebrate World’s Vegan Day as a symbol of the beginning of the vegan revolution, or will celebrate Plant Power Day as a symbol of the vegan evolution?
After several future generations will have finished building the vegan world we have already started — although we just placed a few brigs so far — what would future historians say got us there in the end, sudden big changes that make significant transformations “turning” the world around (that is where the word “revolution” comes from, from “revolving”, turning around), or gradual small changes that make hardly noticeable transformations keeping the world on its current course? Who would these historians think won the race, Marxist Veganism or Darwin’s Veganism?
I thought these questions deserve an article.
Do Revolutions Work?
It was the German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, and journalist Karl Marx who in the 19th century theorised about how people would inevitably revolt when facing the injustices of the capitalist society. He postulated that in a capitalist industrialised society (like the one he and most people in the West were living in at the time), a revolution of the oppressed class against the ruling class would be inevitable. After the publication of his 1867 book “Das Kapital”, his theories influenced many revolutionaries (such as Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, etc.)
If the passing of decades has not proved all his theories yet, it has not disproved many of them either, as many of the capitalist societies he was talking about ended up experiencing a revolution of the oppressed people (be that the working class, the slaved race, or the invaded ethnic group). Indeed, revolutions sparked by a sense of social injustice have liberated many oppressed people over the centuries. In fact, many of today’s main democratic capitalist regimes are the product of successful revolutions. I would even dare to say that the majority of today’s nations had revolutions in their history that significantly marked their current identity — for instance, I am Catalano-British and both Catalonia and the UK had a fair share of revolutions that built them or dismantle them in different degrees.
There have been many revolutions historians have labelled and analysed, but not all of them seem to have lasted the same amount of time to be able to easily class them all as the “burst of sudden change” the concept suggests. However, if we consider “short time” anything less than two decades or so, we have many examples in the last few centuries: the English Revolution (1642-1649), the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the French Revolution (1789–1799), the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the Spanish American Revolutionary Wars of Independence (1808–1826), the European Revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution (1917-1923), the Chinese Revolution (1927-1949), the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Iranian Revolution (1978-1979), and the East European Revolutions of 1989.
Some of these revolutions only lasted a couple of years (the actual revolution, rather than the new regimes they created), but for those that lasted up to two decades, although this seems a long time, in historical terms, it’s a blink of an eye — and in biological terms, it’s the beginning of the possibility of the thought of blinking an eye). Therefore, timewise, I do believe all these qualify as revolutions, but as far as changing the world is concerned, moving it away from the direction it was going, have these been transformative enough to deserve the title of revolution?
I think so — within their geographical scope. They all have changed the countries and regions where they took place in a significant manner, and the results of the transformation can still be seen today. From those I mentioned above, the permanent change they set up to achieve has not been reversed yet. The English Revolution of 1642-49 broke the power of the monarchy and the feudal aristocracy and opened the door to the parliamentary rule the UK still is run by. The USA still is an independent country from Britain and does not have a monarchy. The French monarchy has not returned, and France continues to be a Republic. Haiti remains independent from France. All the Latin American countries that achieved independence from colonial Spain are still independent republics. With very few exceptions (Spain being one) the monarchies that were abolished in most European countries have not returned. Although the Soviet Union collapsed, the czarist imperialist Russia has not come back (despite attempts from some notorious politicians to change that), both Cuba and China have retained their Communist country status, and the European countries that became independent at the end of the 20th century still are (although some, just about).
It does seem that many revolutions work because the objectives of those running them could be achieved relatively quickly, the societies where they took place changed significantly, and the changes last a long time (some may last forever). However, there is a price for a quick change, though. Many of these revolutions were bloody and came about fast because violence was used to propel them.
Is violence necessary to achieve the goal of any revolution? Not really. Historians also use the term “revolution” for other revolutions that took much longer than a few decades, and that were not directly associated with arm conflicts or violence between humans. For instance, the Agricultural Revolution (lasting about 1000 years in the Neolithic period), the Commercial Revolution (11th Century-18th Century), the Scientific Revolution (1543-1687), the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) the Digital Revolution (1960 and still going), and the Artificial Intelligence Revolution (which just started but I think will last for a long time). All of these have transformed the world in a way that seems permanent (although nothing is really permanent in this Universe). So, these longer revolutions also seem to work in terms of transforming the world.
Although some revolutions may have failed (such as the Peasant War in Germany of 1525, the several Catalan Revolutions against Spain, or the many of the 1848 European revolutions), others have succeeded (the ones we most remember tending to be those that succeeded). They may not be perfect revolutions. They may have only achieved part of what their leaders wanted to achieve. Some might have not completely changed the political system as intended but they manage to topple the political regime and change the ruling class (like the Russian revolution, perhaps?). Others evolved and could be said are still in progress (like maybe the Chinese revolution). Others change their objectives along the way so perhaps did not fail as some may think (the French revolution could be an example). In any event, I am not a historian, but I do think that revolutions work, although they may not necessarily be easy, cheap, efficient, or even ethical.
Which Type of Revolution will Be the Vegan Revolution?
There are many types of revolutions in addition to the sudden and violent political revolutions that seek to establish a new political system but not necessarily to transform an entire society, and the slow but sweeping transformations of the entire society that take several generations to come about. There are intellectual revolutions (like the Enlightenment), religious revolutions (like the Reformation), scientific revolutions (like the DNA revolution), technological revolutions (like the electricity revolution), social revolutions (like the anti-slavery revolution), cultural revolutions (like the printing revolution), and psychological revolutions (like the Freudian revolution), which they all transformed some aspects of society in a relatively quick way — either by design or by their influential nature.
Which type of revolution would the Vegan Revolution be? It would be a non-violent global socio-political revolution that would significantly change the norms of how people will behave with each other and others, making ahimsa (nonviolence) the moral baseline of any interaction, decision, and policy.
It would be non-violent because the very nature of veganism is based on nonviolence (transforming a violent world into a peaceful world); it would be global because it would affect the entire planet (transforming a carnist world into a vegan world); it would be social because would change the values of people making them more respectful to themselves, each other, other sentient beings, end the environment (transforming a humancentric world into an earth-centric world); it would be political because it will change the laws and rules of all jurisdictions to prevent people harming others (transforming the unequal misogynistic imperialist patriarchal racist human rights world into an egalitarian non-speciesist animal rights world).
The Vegan Revolution does not need to follow any pattern of previous revolutions. It does not need to be inspired by powerful ideologues like the French revolution was. It does not need to be spearheaded by military leaders like the American revolution was. It does not need to be run by political parties like the Chinese revolution was. It does not need to be led by charismatic figures like the Indian revolution was. It does not need to be driven by new technology like the industrial revolution was. It does not need to be restricted to particular cultures like the Iranian revolution was. It does not even need to use the label “revolution” to be a revolution.
However, it will only be a revolution if it happens quickly enough, in just a few decades, or a couple of centuries at most. If not, if it is a matter of many generations and even millennia, we may be talking about evolution, though.
Has Significant Social Change Ever Come from Evolution?
There have been many intellectuals and scholars theorising about revolutions before and after Karl Marx came along, as there have been many theorising about the evolution of the components of Nature (atoms, galaxies, stars, planets, continents, mountains, rocks, live organisms, or societies) before and after the English naturalist, geologist, and biologist Charles Darwin came along. However, after the publication of his famous book “The Origin of Species” in 1859 in which he explained how the evolution of living organisms we see was possible through a simple process called natural selection, he has become a symbol of the concept of Evolution.
We now know that everything we see in the Universe evolves from a simple state to a more complex state, or vice versa, through gradual incremental changes that are almost imperceivable at any given time. We know our sun, being a G-type main-sequence star, is gradually evolving to become a red giant star that would look very different than it looks today (bigger and redder). It is getting there by gradually fusing the hydrogen of its core into helium. The Sun will spend a total of approximately 10 to 11 billion years before the red giant phase will begin. That is a long time. That is evolution, not revolution.
We also know that the evolution of the human family of different humanoid species, what we call the Hominids, started about 6 or 7 million years ago in Africa, but those initial human ancestors did not start from a vacuum but were themselves the product of biological evolution that started about 3.8 billion years ago with the first life forms that, gradually, with the natural selection process Darwin discovered, diversified in all the species we see today. Even if we only look at the evolution of anatomically modern humans of the species Homo sapiens, we first appeared from other hominids between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago, and we are still evolving. All these (living organisms, animals, vertebrates, mammals, primates, hominids, and humans) are the product of many years of gradual change only detectable when we look at them over hundreds of thousands of years, rather than centuries or millennia. This is also, indeed, evolution rather than revolution.
However, have any of the social changes we have seen in human societies since the hominids have existed been the gradual product of evolution, or has society only changed rapidly with revolutions? Well, I can think of several examples of social changes that evolved gradually. For instance, when Homo erectus left Africa about 2 million years ago and began expanding through the continents, the migrating nature of humanity (a social characteristic of our species which still manifests itself today with the concept of immigration — all humans living today are descendants of immigrants) has been evolving gradually in all cultures (each developing different technological means to migrate).
Another good example is the evolution of human language, which started about 200,000 years ago and has not stopped yet, creating new languages from the gradual accumulation of small changes over millennia (for instance, languages such as Catalan, Italian or French are in fact evolved forms of Latin, which was, in turn, one of the many evolved forms of a proto-European language).
The use of money (or currency) to buy stuff is another interesting human social phenomenon that gradually evolved over millennia, probably starting about 30,000 years ago. So was the evolution of law and legal systems, war, transport, metallurgy, writing, and even the concept of companion animals (it probably started with the domestication of dogs also about 30,000 years ago). Patriarchy, slavery, religion, art, music, storytelling, cities, civilisations, trade, and so many parts of human societies we still see today all evolve gradually over millennia. Nobody “invented” them as such (they might have invented some of their components) and no revolutions made them mainstream, they all evolved gradually, possibly simultaneously in different parts of the world, and then merged when meeting each other to continue evolving through cultural selection (like natural selection in biological evolution).
Even Carnism evolved gradually in all human societies. The American psychologist Dr Melanie Joy coined the term “carnism” in 2001, and she defined it as “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals.” Today, it is mostly used to mean the opposite of veganism, the dominant ideology that indoctrinates people into exploiting animals and consuming animal products, following certain rules (such as you can only eat certain animals in certain places).
Arguably, carnism started a few million years ago when early hominids left the trees (the providers of the fruit needed for their ancestral frugivorous diet) and tried to be scavengers in the African savanna which probably moved them towards omnivorism. Later on, by migrating north to colder climates with the need for better heat-isolating clothes (such as fur), and later with the first domestication of animals for food and clothing (goats were probably the first animals to be domesticated about 10,000 years ago, followed closely by sheep), carnism consolidated its hold on humanity, even if human bodies were still better adapted to hot climates and to consume plant-based food (as they had evolved for a longer time doing so).
The question is, if carnism, the opposite of veganism, ended up dominating humanity through evolution, not revolution, should we expect that veganism, and its ultimate expression of a complete vegan world, would also come about via evolution, not revolution? Would the world become vegan by individual uncoordinated small steps that happened organically without design, as the world became carnist this way? Would the world become vegan in millennia, rather than decades, via evolution?
Has the Vegan Revolution Already Started?
These days you hear a lot about the vegan revolution. There are several Facebook groups with this title, and if you Google it, you will find plenty of articles with this expression in the title (over 72,000 search results came up last time I checked). If you have been vegan for over 20 years — as I have — you most likely will feel that, in the last few years, the number of vegan options and people identified as vegans has grown considerably, enough to consider this explosion a kind of revolution. But, is it really?
Remember that two things had to happen to consider something a revolution. Firstly, it would have to happen relatively quickly, in years, decades, or centuries (millennia would be too slow). In this regard, if we achieve a vegan world in the next century or two, I think it would still qualify as a revolution (if we count 1944 as the birth of the vegan movement after centuries of the vegan philosophy being developed). Secondly, it would have to change society significantly to the point that we could say it has “changed direction”. Has that happened? I don’t think so — not yet, anyway.
Despite the offer of vegan-friendly alternatives having increased considerably in the last few years, they remain a minority of options compared with the vegan-unfriendly ones. In 2020, sales of plant milk in the US accounted only for 15% of all retail sales of milk, and plant-based milk is the vegan-friendly alternative that has been growing faster. Although there was a lot of excitement in 2019 when makers of plant-based meat alternatives began going public in several stock exchanges, today many say that bubble has busted. In 2019, one of these companies, Beyond Meat, was valued at over $10bn but today is valued at just over $900m. In August 2022, Beyond Meat laid off 4% of its workforce after a slowdown in sales growth.
Despite the growth of the vegan community over the last few decades, we have never reached more than 5% of the population even in the most vegan countries, especially considering that many of the people counted as vegan may just be plant-based people that eat what vegans eat. It may well be that, because the human population is growing, the percentage of ethical vegans is not actually growing that much and has remained less than 1% for centuries. We may feel that the number of vegans is growing very fast as we meet more and more vegans, but this may be an effect of an improvement in meeting other vegans due to social media, rather than an increase in the percentage of vegans in the population. And the many polls that have shown a clear increase do not differentiate ethical vegans (true vegans) from plant-based people. The number of ethical vegans is probably increasing, but the number of people in the world may be increasing faster, keeping the percentage down.
Despite we like to think that boycotting animal products is having an impact on the animal exploitation industries, the truth is that the number of animals exploited in the world not only has not stopped, but continues to increase (the numbers are mind-blowing: every year, 80 billion land animals are slaughtered for food, 2 trillion silkworms are boiled or baked to produce silk, 2.8 trillion fishes are killed every year by people, 5 trillion animals are killed by people, and 6.5 trillion bees are exploited on farms). This does not mean that we should give up being vegan, but what means is that there are not enough of us in enough important decision-making positions to make a significant impact yet — it may be noticeable in some sectors, but not significant enough overall.
We are indeed building the vegan world by increasing everything vegan that is needed in it, but we are doing it at a very slow pace, and the carnist direction the world has been taking for the last tenths of thousands of years continues undisturbed. We cannot say that we have turned the corner yet, so using the term “revolution” to describe what the vegan community is doing may be a bit premature. If we are honest, at best what we are seeing is a vegan evolution that is gaining some momentum.
Who will Win, Marx or Darwin?
The initial question posted in this article was not if we are experiencing a vegan revolution right now, but if in the end, when we have finished building the vegan world, we would have done it through evolution or revolution. In other words, if today we are only experiencing a vegan evolution, would we need to wait millennia before this slow pace leads to the vegan world (if we ever make it that far considering the current climate and pandemic crises), or sometime in the future the vegan revolution will begin and achieve the vegan world much faster?
I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball, and I would not give much credence to any prophet-like person out there claiming to know. But what I fear is that, if we leave it to evolution alone, we may be too late. We may manage to build the vegan world in a few millennia, but only from the ashes of a planet we almost destroyed, killing many sentient beings in the process. Perhaps the few survivors of climate Armageddon can build the vegan world from the rubble, but is this the vegan world we are dreaming about right now? No, it’s not. Our vegan world is the world we build to save the current world with all its inhabitants from the global crises we have initiated. Our vegan world is a solution from the best of humanity, not a consequence of the worst of it.
If we haven’t started the non-violent vegan revolution yet, we must get our acts together and probably start it soon, because time is ticking fast, and when you are running out of time, revolutions are what you need.
Darwin did not know many of the things we know about biology today (for instance, genetics had not been developed yet at that time, so he did not know about genes or DNA), but generations later these discoveries were incorporated into his theories, and the Neo-Darwinists were born. Marx did not know many of the things we know about economics and politics today (for instance, the effects of global markets on developing countries or how society can be lied to and manipulated using mass social media), but generations later these discoveries were incorporated in his theories, and the Neo-Marxists were born.
Perhaps neither Darwin nor Marx will lose this race, but they both will arrive together at the finish line. Perhaps everything we have been learning about evolution and revolution may give rise to a new concept where both happen at the same time, and gradual change is accelerated with periods of fast growth (in fact, the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium postulates precisely that, and its been gaining credence in the last few years). Perhaps we should call this new concept Re-evolution.
If that is the case, if re-evolution will be the method that will guarantee us success, the role of our current vegan movement should be to nourish both evolution and revolution at the same time, so by the time the revolution is enacted, everything will be in place. We need to keep fostering every small progress on any front (social, commercial, scientific, political, legal, etc.), including single-issue campaigns, ignoring that, right now, it may look like they are not having any significant effect in the bigger picture (remember that evolutionary progress is normally undetectable at any given time). However, simultaneously, we should keep continuing building the foundations of a peaceful revolution, reinforcing the integrity of the vegan philosophy and its core principles (by preventing its conceptual dilution with the right gatekeeping), and ensuring that the vegan movement is strengthened and looked after properly (by increasing its size, diversity, and resilience).
We need to continue vegan outreach helping people to make the small steps that the Vegan Evolution needs (like veganphobic meat-eating carnists becoming questioning omnivorous, then pre-vegan vegetarians, then dietary vegans, and finally ethical vegans), but also encourage people to make the big steps that the Vegan Revolution needs (like making influential ethical vegan politicians and decision-makers from carnists and start changing the system from within). But we also need to disrupt the animal exploitation industries with effective tactical pressure campaigns that aim for systemic change, so the revolution will have less turning to do when the time comes.
To get to the vegan world soon, we need the vegan infrastructure, the vegan people, but also the vegan power, because this is what it takes to move society around quickly.
Perhaps one day would be Vegan Power Day.