Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews Light, the 86-year-old vegan activist co-founder of Gentle World who has been vegan for 53 years.
It was like looking into the future.
In the last two years, I have written many articles, and in a fair amount of them, I mention the Vegan World. Having been vegan for over twenty years now, I often dream about the time that we will have advanced so much as a society, that speciesism would be completely abolished, and we will all live without harming anybody in an equal, equitable, and equanimous way where all sentient beings matter. A world where the current global heating crisis, human-made mass extinction events, world hunger, and rampant pandemics has been averted, and systematic carnism is not the prevailing ideology anymore as it has been for millennia. A world where the word “vegan” is no longer needed as most people already actively seek to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty in any situation, individually and at all levels of government. A panacean world, in the true meaning of the word.
I know, it’s just a dream, and if you are not vegan, you may think it’s a ridiculously crazy dream, but I truly believe it can be attained. In fact, I am convinced that it will be achieved, at least a close enough approximation of it. It may take much longer than we wish to get there, and it may be quite a bumpy ride, but I think the vegan world is the unavoidable consequence of the progress of global civilisation where ethical thinking has not been completely erased yet and common sense is still common.
Yesterday, I kind of felt I had a glimpse of it. Not through a very sophisticated technological advancement — although miraculous video communication software was involved —but just talking to a person who seems to have lived in that vegan future. A person who looked a bit like me in a couple of decades, but who was already vegan as far back as 1970. A person who co-founded with his wife a vegan community called Gentle World, which still goes on today, in several locations.
Light and Sun (these are their chosen names) were an American husband and wife who were pioneers of veganism in the United States, and although she left us in 2019, he is, at 86, still a young vegan activist at heart who has been promoting the idea of the vegan world for over five decades — and who has even built a small functional version of it.
Yesterday, I had the privilege to interview him, with the kind support of Angel, who helped him to connect to me via Zoom from the Big Island of Hawaii.
Light’s Vegan Journey
Light became vegan in 1970, well before the term vegan was commonly known in the US, even among the most progressive and forward-thinking dreamers of the 1960s. He and his soon-to-be wife Sun did not even know that there was a word that had already been created in the 1940s in the UK to describe the very same philosophy and lifestyle they decided to adopt. Better let him explain it:
“I was a teacher and I attended law school. At that time, I thought vegetarians were crazy. I was eating a steak and they were eating greens or something. I thought they were nuts — the propaganda back then was that the few vegetarians in the world were considered nuts. People, including my wife and I, didn’t know there was the word ‘vegan’.
In 1969 we went to a movie, and we saw the horror of four big men hitting a bull over the head with sledgehammers. We came out of that theatre, and we said, ‘Whoa, is that how they get meat?’ I was already about 29, and I had no idea. I didn’t even think about it. And at that time, like everybody else, I was actually a big meat eater. We said, ‘We can’t go on doing that’ and that was the beginning of our vegan journey.
We decided to stop eating meat. We didn’t even think about dairy, feathers, and leather. At that time, we didn’t think about that. It took us about a year before we became vegan. We were living in Woodstock in upstate New York — which is not where they actually held the festival, they held it in a town called Bethel. We were drinking the milk and eating the ice creams, thinking it was delicious, and we said, ‘Let’s go see how they do this.’ We visited a dairy farm located near us. They wanted us to go around the front, but we decided to leave the group and go behind the scenes, and we heard this cow scream, crying. Terrible. I kind of thought she was giving birth. That’s the kind of scream. And the woman who owned the place said, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry about that. We took her baby away and she’ll only do that for about two or three weeks, you’ll get used to it.’ And we said, ‘We don’t want to get used to it; we want to end it.’ And that’s been our life’s goal, really, for the last 50-odd years.
We didn’t know there was a name. We kind of thought we invented it because we never heard of it. We decided to stop all dairy and we said goodbye to milk and ice cream. We thought we’d never have it again, but it didn’t matter. The animals were more important than if we never had ice cream again.
Somebody came to visit us — I don’t even know how we met him — and he mentioned to us that what we were doing was being done by a couple called Freya and Jay Dinshah. They were in New Jersey a couple of hours away from us, and we went to visit them. They were the first vegans we ever knew. We even didn’t know what the word vegan meant, but they had already been vegan for years and years.
We actually lived in about half a dozen places. We lived in Kentucky for a while. Back then, the smoke in the air and the different negative things that were floating around kept moving us Westward.”
The Creation of Gentle World
At one point, inspired by the proliferation of communal living of the 1970s, Light and Sun decided to create a commune where they would put into practice their idea of living in a vegan world with no exploitation of animals. It moved from place to place, and it had several names over the years, but eventually, the name Gentle World stuck. Its website defines it as an “all-volunteer team that provides vegan education to those interested in a more peaceful way of life.” He explains how it all started:
“I’m an activist. Once I became a vegan, it wasn’t good enough. I knew I had to eventually persuade the whole world. In those early years, we would speak to everybody, whether it be a hitchhiker or some young person that came into our midst, and we would try to persuade them to be vegan. We persuaded, I’d say, about five young kids, and we moved to Florida. They also moved near us, and that was kind of the beginning of what in those days was called ‘a commune.’ We could hardly sit and eat with anybody who was eating the leg of a chicken, so eventually we just kind of separated ourselves from the rest of the world and these people were willing also to separate, but to be with us.
The powers that be didn’t like people getting together — they still don’t — for a good purpose, so they just propagandised against communes at that time to such a degree that people would not join. Communes were a flourishing thing in the late 60s and early 70s. It was a time when it looked like the young people were going to win, and were going to kind of take over the world, in a way, and run it humanely and reasonably.
We had 35 people at one time, all vegan of course, even our dogs were vegan. That was new. I had never considered that, and they all lived to what for a dog is a ripe old age of 16 or 17. And today, of course, we still have two rescued vegan dogs, but nowadays they have vegan dog food —we used to make their food then. That was a dream, to have vegan dog food. All of these things they have today were a dream. We’ve got pizza; we’ve now got everything from a regular so-called world food. We’ve got cakes and doughnuts, and now I hear we have Delicatessen pastrami. I’m not saying they’re all wonderfully healthy, but it’s just a miracle because whatever it is, it’s better than hitting a cow, or a bull, or a pig, or a horse even, over the head.
Half a year later we saw that we needed to educate people to the truth that we had found. I never knew there was a truth to be found before all this when I was in my teens and 20s. But this was the truth. There was no denying that. Cruelty shouldn’t even be a word in the lexicon. Once we saw what cruelty was, that was it. We were opposed to it. That became our lives and it’s been 53 years for me.”
In 1981, Gentle World was incorporated as a non-profit educational organization, and its members became a team of volunteer vegan educators and maintainers of Gentle World’s centre, which was in Florida at that time. Throughout the eighties, they spread the vegan message as far and wide as they could, holding free seminars, cooking and veganic gardening classes, and creating an educational and inspirational vegan mail-order business.
Educating the World About Veganism
Gentle World became very active in educating the world about veganism, in diverse and interesting ways. For instance, they published several books, as Light explains:
“Freya and Jay Dinshah actually got us moving our butts to publish, in 1981, our first cookbook, which was the first full-length all-vegan cookbook in America. It’s titled ‘The Cookbook for People Who Love Animals.’ We first called it, ‘the cookbook for people who really love animals,’ with ‘really’ three times underlined, but the Publishers said, ‘you can’t do that, and you can’t use the word vegan, nobody knows what it means,’ so we said, ‘totally vegetarian.’ By the way, we have sold over these years about a hundred thousand copies. That was the first book that we published. We since then published, about 15 years ago, a second cookbook called, ‘Incredibly Delicious: Recipes for a New Paradigm’, with 500 recipes. In that one, we could use the word vegan. It’s just one of the changes that have happened.”
While they’re now out of print, Gentle World also published two pioneering vegan nutrition books by Dr Michael Klaper, one of the very first vegan physicians. And recently, Gentle World has published a third book, “Vegan FAQ: Demystifying Veganism with 20 Simple Questions”, which is free to download. In 1987 and 1988, Gentle World also produced and catered two successful celebrity banquets, serving an array of international vegan cuisine, not for fundraising purposes (attendance was free), but for the purpose of “inspiring those who are an inspiration to others.” Guests included high-profile individuals such as Sidney Poitier, Danny Glover, Drew Barrymore, and many others. Light, who happens to be the uncle of the famous Oscar-winning vegan actor Joaquin Phoenix, said this about these events:
“My nephews were River and Joaquin Phoenix. Their mother is my sister-in-law. With their help, we started mailing letters to all the celebrities that we had private addresses from, and eventually, we had, I’d say, maybe 50 celebrities. We invited them to it, all free for them, and we really went with class. And back then it cost us, I’d say, $20,000, which now would be much more. And they came, they ate, we gave them free valet parking, everything was free for them. Interestingly also, on turning a negative thing into a positive, it cost us $20,000, and after we had so much food left — we had tents of Chinese food, Italian food, Jewish food, Ethiopian food, 21 different foods — that we took it to Steven Spielberg and all these big rich people in Hollywood, and he said, ‘Fill my freezer.’ He never said how much would it be, he just said, ‘Fill my freezer,’ and that’s what we did, so we ended up recovering the costs and even more, which we never thought we could — or intended to, but that’s just an example of when you do right you get right.”
Light explained to me some of the clever tactics of vegan activism they employed:
“Another thing we did is we used to put stickers on the meat in the supermarket that said, ‘The Medical Association has decided that this product will be harmful to your health’. We would also put stickers on the back of those cattle trucks that brought animals to their death.
Also, they have these planes that fly banners trailing behind them. College kids go to Florida during spring break, and they all hang out, so we flew one banner saying, ‘Thanksgiving is murder on turkeys’, and the other, ‘Give the animals a spring break.’. And they flew this over for about a half hour and then my wife and I would go and interview the college kids and ask them, ‘Did you see the banner? what do you think of it?’”
Florida, New Zealand, and Hawaii
There are currently two Gentle World education centres, one in New Zealand and another in Hawaii, US. The community initially moved from Florida to the island of Maui, but in 1999, they moved their educational centre to The Big Island of Hawaii. In 2000, Gentle World opened a second, seasonal centre in the far north of New Zealand, to serve as a model of veganic agriculture. Light explained how all this came about.
“In Hawaii, we started out on the island of Maui, and we were there for about 10 years, since 1989. We were hoping to open a restaurant, but we could never live in a city on the mainland, so we didn’t know how we could do that. When we got to Maui, you could open a restaurant in a little town, and so we had the first vegan restaurant on Maui. We had a sign over the door like the one McDonald’s has saying, ‘A billion served”, but ours said, ‘A million saved.’. We thought that had a good meaning and, on every table, we would put a piece of paper that you put the plate on, and on it, we would have all these quotes of famous people. We were trying to turn people on to veganism. We called the restaurant ‘The Vegan’. We also called our first Vegan dog ‘vegan’ because we wanted people to say, ‘Vegan, what does that mean?’, and then we would go in and give them the Spiel as to what it meant.
We served great food, there were lines outside, and we paid off the cost of that place in about a little bit over a year. Maui was at that time one of the hippest (so to speak) places in the world. Our aim was to make the food delicious. We served lasagna, we served veg rolls, we served carrot cashew pâté, which was a huge hit, and then of course we had vegan desserts. Everything was vegan, mainly to show that it was incredibly delicious. It was around 1990 or 91. We had it for about three and a half years, and it continued to be vegan after us. We sold it to people who kept it vegan.
Then, in 1999 we moved to The Big Island — but the official name is Hawaii. It’s much bigger than Maui, that it’s kind of more of an Aloha, not so much involved with money and tourism, and all that. We have a nice garden, and we grow everything — well, of course, not everything, you can’t grow everything in Hawaii. We also grow pineapples, papayas, bananas, tomatoes, oranges, etc. We also donate to people who need it, like homeless people who can’t afford to buy it. We never charge for anything, including those we had in those two celebrity Banquets that we held. Other than our books, and food, we never charged anything for something to do with learning about veganism. We didn’t want anybody to be left out because they didn’t have the money to do whatever we were doing.”
Light and Sun itinerant nature kept them pushing toward travelling, and this is how their second education centre was born.
“We were actually going to move to Australia, but they send you an interview to fill out to see if they want you, and when I was asked my profession, I said I was a vegan activist, which was a mistake back then because they refused to accept us. So, as we already had our plans to go that far around the world, we said, ‘Well, New Zealand is nearby, we’ll try New Zealand.’ And we were glad. It’s interesting, it’s a negative thing that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. because we preferred New Zealand — including the fact that they had no snakes, crocodiles, scorpions and all the things that Australia has.
We love New Zealand. We actually bought a piece of land, 450 acres, with two rivers. You bend down like in the old movies when the Native American would bend down, cup his hands and drink the water. We can do that, and it has a good taste. That centre is still going but we have a couple of New Zealanders who kind of caretake it. Between COVID and the fact that my wife became ill, she had cancer, and of course, passed away, we haven’t been there I think it’s five years, and we missed it. We don’t even know if they’ll let us go in the future with all these rules and things that they impose upon us.
I was curious about which kind of diet Light has been having all these years, as he looks great for his age, so I asked him.
“We have some processed food like Beyond beef as a treat at some point, but we don’t eat that normally. We eat mostly organic whole food. There’s no limit to what you can eat. We eat a lot of tofu, a lot of pasta, a lot of beans — and I take B12 vitamins.
Angel is the newest and youngest of the community here. She has been here since the Millennium, 23 years. The other five or six people here have been from the beginning, which means 49 years, 48 years, 40 years, and then some people we lost along the way for various reasons.”
Sun, Light’s wife and co-founder of Gentle World, is one of those initial members who sadly passed away in 2019 from cancer. Light told me that he thinks having been in contact with herbicides people spray in the countryside, such as the brand Roundup which contains glyphosate, had something to do with her passing. Light said…
“People could say, ‘Well, how come your wife passed away if she was vegan for 50 years?’ We, in the midst of it, took every test you can take of all kinds and the only thing that was out of whack was glyphosate, Roundup. Everybody who thinks, knows that that’s cancer producing.”
Building the Vegan World
I do not have many opportunities to meet people who have been vegan for over 50 years, so when I meet them, I always ask about their impressions of how living as a vegan has changed over the decades. This is what Light told me:
“The biggest thing from my 53 years as a vegan that I want to mention is the changes. It went from total obscurity to the only hope I see. I don’t know if that sounds simplistic, but I say it knowing as I do what vegan does to your consciousness. I used to throw trash out like everybody else did back then, you opened the car window and you threw out the empty pack, and I’ve gone from that to anytime we take a walk we take a hefty bag with us and pick up the trash. That’s just an example of your mind changes. Not just your physical eating change, but your whole outlook on life changes. All of a sudden, you learn what compassion is, what empathy is — and God! Are they needed now, they’re talking about nuclear war! You got to have a sense of humour here, otherwise, you’d be crying every minute.
And yet, there are more vegans than ever, so that’s the hope. I think it was Victor Hugo who said, ‘There is no force powerful enough to stem the tide of an idea whose time has come,’ and the time has come. That’s what these younger generations can do. When I was a kid, I couldn’t see what a slaughterhouse was, I’ve never been there. Nowadays, you can push a button and you can see all the horrors going on in slaughterhouses — not that they let you in, it’s got to be surreptitiously that they get these pictures — but the kids nowadays can see it. It’s exposed, and once it’s exposed, people can act.
All the Phoenix kids, by the way, not just Joaquin’s but all his siblings, not only his siblings but his kids, their kids, the grandkids, they’re all vegan, and they’re vegan from birth. Those grandkids have never tasted a piece of meat, regular milk, or whatever. They are great assets of this world, and he’s a double asset because he’s world-famous. How many celebrities get up there in the Academy Awards and say something besides thank you?”
Light was referring to Joquin Phoenix’s acceptance speech in the 2020 Oscar ceremony where, in front of millions of people, he talked about the plights of animals in animal agriculture. I also asked Light if, like me, he thinks that, in the future, there will be a vegan world. This is what he said:
“Absolutely. When I first started, I thought it would take 10 years or 12 years — my figuring wasn’t right, obviously. I think it’s got to be. On many levels got to be now, because of the ecology, and because of the methane thing with the cows. Veganism is my hope. That’s the only thing I see in this whole world, and I’ve been around a while, that is hopeful, that is going in a positive direction. Young people, that’s the hope. Revolutions started in the old days in universities. Now they can start in kindergarten.
Talking about improvements, I want to mention this welfare BS. Where they say, ‘Oh, they’re grass fed’ or ‘We give them Hershey bars every once in a while.’ It’s like saying, ‘Oh, you know, we gave the prisoners in Auschwitz mattresses.’ It’s an improvement, I agree, but I don’t think it gets at the main issue, which is the gas chambers. This is true with the animals too. I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh well, they don’t have it so bad, they’re running around in the grass, and they’ve got land,’ and all that. Just keep in mind that’s just PR stuff. It’s just they get the best public relations people in the world, and they pay them a fortune to really erase things. I just want to get that across because a lot of people are fooled by that animal welfare. There are only animal rights.
This world needs a lot of repairing. If this world were a refrigerator the mechanic would say, go get a new one because there ain’t no fixing this one. But veganism is the only one that’ll fix the world. People must change their minds. They must change the way they think. It’s not enough to change their clothing, to change their food, they’ve got to change the way they think about other people and other animals, just other than themselves, for one thing. And there’s nothing that’ll do it better than being a vegan.”
After our conversation, we both agree that, besides the physical appearance, we had many things in common. I also lived in a kind of commune for five years when I worked at The Monkey Sanctuary in Looe, Cornwall. I also grow my vegetables in a veganic way, albeit only a few in just a small patch in my backyard in London. I also mostly eat a whole plant-based food diet and take B12 supplements, and I also love dogs, as he does. Like him, I have done different forms of activism and vegan outreach, and I ended up living in a very different place than I grew up. But I never built a small replica of the vegan world of the future where many vegans have been living long lives educating people and proving that successful vegan communities are achievable.
Light is an architect of the vegan world. A vegan-world maker, if you will. A kin-spirited gentle vegan-world maker from the past living in the future paradigm. I am sure that the work that he and his wife Sun have been doing over the decades have inspired many people to become vegan-world makers too. I feel inspired now that I had just had a couple of hours chatting with him.
In him, I have seen a familiar light, and it feels warm and cosy.
It feels gentle and true, like the future we dream of.
It feels nice.