Hindsight is not always 20/20 because of Whig history. Whig history, or Whig historiography strictly speaking, tells the story as one of progress from a terrible past to a wonderful present, heading in the direction of current affairs. It isn’t true. For instance, just to pluck a random example out of the air, before the imperial period, the republic of Rome was more democratic and only achieved its expansion by dispensing with the “fairer” characteristics of its polity, and it almost goes without saying that after 1979 CE everything went to shit and has been doing so fairly steadily ever since. Therefore, I’m telling this story from the position of how my diet is now and how it changed in October 1987. Although it seems unlikely that I’ll ever deliberately eat meat again, you never know, and if I do I may be able to tell another story about how I got there which, nonetheless, I manage to make look like steady progress. Also, you could probably look into the past of a lot of people who are still carnist and could tell of the same kinds of things in their childhood and early adulthood as I would, and also people who temporarily went plant-based or vegetarian before returning to eating meat. Maybe, then, these are not the real causes of my veganism, but have nothing to do with them and I’ve just rationalised them into a narrative.
I want to say one more thing before I launch into this. Although I consider veganism to be both a good thing and inevitable if the species is going to survive, or rather a plant-based diet is, I absolutely don’t judge others for not being vegan. If you think of veganism as not intentionally causing suffering or death to members of other species, the vast majority of individual organisms’ injury or death, when caused by other organisms, dwarfs the number inflicted on behalf of humans, and therefore from a utilitarian perspective it makes no sense to judge anyone for the proportionately minute part they play in contributing to this. It’s about my will and not being part of causing that pain. Other people have their own perspectives and stories to tell. I absolutely do not judge them. This is my own story. Also, although I’m talking about veganism here, for the purposes of this post I’m defining it more narrowly than I usually do because I’m only really thinking about being a party to the avoidable intentional killing and inevitable causation of suffering in non-human animals, which is not what veganism really is. I do think the wider definition of veganism is relevant, but I don’t want to define it out of existence.
In fact I will start with something wider. Going back to quite early childhood, I was very concerned about conservation, endangered species and environmental damage. One story which stuck in my mind was the treatment of American Buffalo by White settlers, officially but confusingly known as American bison. There are also Eurasian bison of course, and they interested me but I didn’t know much about them. My understanding, and I’m doing this from memory, was that in the nineteenth century CE, White people used to travel out to the Plains by train, shoot them, take their hides and tongues and leave the rest to rot. In the books I read about this, this was contrasted with the Native American attitudes towards them, where all of the carcasse was used for something and they were treated with great reverence. This issue of treating prey animals with reverence – I also remember Inuit with seals – made a lasting impression on me.
Another notable aspect of my childhood was my choice of reading matter. I used to read a lot of books on the subject of such animals as skunks, dogs and cats. For instance, I devoured ‘A Skunk In The Family’, ‘Incredible Journey’, ‘Ring Of Bright Water’, ‘The Travels of Oggy’, ‘Charlotte’s Web’, ‘All Creatures Great And Small’ and its sequels, and ‘Watership Down’. A couple of these are probably less well-known than the others. ‘A Skunk In The Family’ by Constance Taber Colby is an entertaining non-fiction book about a skunk whose scent glands were removed kept as a pet by a New York family, published in 1973 and sufficiently obscure that it has no reviews on Goodreads. ‘The Travels Of Oggy’, a 1976 book by Ann Lawrence, is surely better-known but again I can find no reviews there. It’s about a hedgehog and is fictional. I haven’t read ‘Plague Dogs’, ‘Shardik’, ‘Tarka The Otter’ or ‘Vet In A State’, which I suspect is just an attempt to cash in on James Herriot’s success. I don’t know if I’m unusual in focussing on “animal” books as a child, but basically my reading matter apart from the likes of popular science books before I got into science fiction consisted very substantially of stories about animals aimed at older children, so far as I can tell. There was never a point at which I was into fantasy or mainstream fiction, and I find it a huge struggle to read most of that. If this is unusual, it might indicate a kind of proto-vegan approach.
Another couple of incidents I remember as a child included watching a show where someone attempted to drown puppies – you probably know this, but as far as I’m aware it used to be normal to drown kittens and puppies, and in the former case just keep one, because they were surplus to requirements. Another phenomenon which seems to have disappeared is that nobody would dream of actually buying a cat because there were just so many kittens around that they couldn’t be given away. I presume this didn’t apply to purebred cats or any dogs. Anyway, I found it extremely distressing that anyone would simply drown puppies and kittens. Another companion animal related incident which stuck with me was of a man who took a dog to be put down because it’d be cheaper to buy another one than put him in kennels while he was on holiday in Spain. This probably would appal most people though.
As for members of other vertebrate species who passed through our house, these would include four cats, a rabbit, two mice and three hamsters who were regular residents, a canary after I left home, and a number of others of whom we took care while people were away, including a parakeet, two gerbils and a dog. I remember getting very upset when the first cat developed a kidney problem and had to be put down, and missing that cat terribly until my parents relented and acquired another one plus a hamster. Most of the time there were two cats. And yes, my mother did indeed tell me the cat who was put down had “gone to live on a farm in Wales”. I think children remember these things and find it hard to trust their parents later. I also took some flatworms and leeches from the river and kept them for about six months, which distressed my mother because she thought they needed feeding. Flatworms actually benefit from fasting as it causes them to rejuvenate, but I used to feed them on scraps of meat. There was also a series of fish from the river, including minnows and a bullhead. There’s a possibly quite formative incident connected to the last. With some friends, I took the bullhead from a faster-flowing part of the Great Stour along with some loaches and took care of the former in a washing up bowl. This was also, incidentally, the last time I saw my elder brother, who happened to visit on that day. I still remember his Afro and attempt to bond with me over the fish, which that last time was rather successful. The next day, my “friends” poured the bowl containing the loaches off a high bridge into the river, which would’ve killed them, and threw the bullhead as far as they could up the river off the same bridge. They seemed completely oblivious of the animals’ suffering, and this along with several other incidents is the reason I don’t believe that cruelty to “animals” during childhood is a reliable marker of a psychopath or sociopath because it was just so very widespread. I lost my temper with them and tried to ‘phone the RSPCA, although my adult self realises that the RSPCA wouldn’t have cared one jot about it as they were, at least at that time, excessively focussed on mammals and to a lesser extent birds. I gained some notoriety at my school for losing my temper at their cruelty. I had another friend who used to take fish out of the water and leave them to suffocate, and on one occasion I put them all back when he wasn’t looking. He became a keen angler and proceeded to kill fish humanely after he’d caught them. It always mystified me, even back then, that people just seemed to accept angling as if it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
I wasn’t above capturing animals myself. I did this with water boatmen and backswimmers, and also freshwater shrimp. On two occasions I kept frogspawn and waited for it to mature. The newly-hatched tadpoles reminded me of human embryos. Most of them died but it isn’t clear to me even now whether this was due to a high mortality rate or the conditions I kept them in. They tended to fall prey to leeches, not the kind I was keeping, since they were very separate, but ones which had already been present in the water. Looking back on this now, I wonder if they were in fact nematodes. I also used to look at stream and river water through a microscope, in which there were protists such as Vorticella and Amœba. I don’t know what to tell you about this phase of my life. It shows a burgeoning interest in wildlife, biassed against mammals and birds which persisted for quite a while, but there’s also a sense of entitlement there, that I simply assumed I could take animals from their habitats and keep them captive. I also did this with a number of privet hawk moth caterpillars and one other species of butterfly whose name escapes me, and also earthworms and snails. Come to think of it, there was a long sequence of animals I caught out of interest and simply observed. The only tetrapod I remember doing this with was a slow worm. On another occasion, my mother rescued an injured house martin who died after a few hours, possibly an RTC or a victim of a cat.
This is a rather ambivalent set of activities from my now-vegan perspective, and I think it also opens up a wider issue about the ethics of childhood and parenting. Thinking about the natures of the various nervous systems involved, and the nature of the environments they’re accustomed to living in, some of these seem entirely acceptable and others don’t. For instance, the flatworms and leeches would have been accustomed to living in stagnant, low-oxygen water and that’s how they lived when they were in my jam jars. I don’t have an ethical problem there. The water boatmen and backswimmers simply flew away, which is fine. I captured them and they escaped. The shrimp died, and that’s not good. So did all of the fish, and I think this may have been because the water wasn’t suitable for them and hadn’t been left to stand to reduce dissolved air, which may have formed into bubbles in their gills and suffocated them. This is not good. The slow worm also escaped. The hawk moth flew away but I was planning to release her into the wild near some privet, which didn’t come together because she escaped into the house and ended up mating and laying eggs on the double glazing, which hatched out and then I was unable to care for the caterpillars of the next generation because they were nowhere near any vegetation and too fragile to move without killing them. My mother found the lives of the hawk moths depressing since they seemed to consist simply of reproducing and eating, and at the time I thought the adults didn’t eat, which for her made it worse. I sometimes wonder if this reflects on her perception of her own life.
I was of course also surrounded by cattle (nameless beasts) and sheep, whom I saw shorn and giving birth. My secondary school had its own sheep on which we were supposed to practice various things like inspecting for parasites. I never actually did this. I would also say that there’s a link between gender rôles and cruelty to animals or indifference to their suffering, so the fact that I wasn’t may be significant. There also seemed to be a markèd change at secondary school age in a number of ways which I would characterise as a layer of bigotry and intolerance which is maintained among boys of that age. Broadly, this issue belongs on another blog of mine, but with respect to cruelty this was also encouraged by my peers and I had the mickey taken out of me for not wanting to cause them suffering. There was also quite a lot of attachment to gore, with many boys looking forward to dissections.
At some point during my childhood, and I really cannot place this, I asked my mother if I could become vegetarian. I may have been motivated by my interest in Yoga, which would probably date it to about 1980, when I was twelve to thirteen. I remember thinking that the problem would be difficulty giving up bacon and bizarrely my mother assured me that I wouldn’t have to give up bacon to be vegetarian, an assertion I really don’t understand to this day. However, nothing came of this while I was still a child. Apart from bacon, I actually didn’t like meat and only ate it out of a sense of moral obligation, because I believed that it was better for the animals concerned to exist than not to do so. You can probably see that I was very oriented towards the idea of the interests of entire species rather than individual organisms.
As was normal for someone of my generation who did O- and A-level Biology, I dissected various animals including mice and frogs. I didn’t feel even slightly squeamish about this and didn’t consider it problematic that the animals had been killed. I may, however, have been less involved than average in doing this kind of thing because many years after I’d left school I learned that one of my Biology teachers was vegetarian for ethical reasons, and tried to minimise the use of animals in his lessons. I also became aware that there was an opt-out available for pupils who had ethical objections to dissection on some syllabi, but had no interest in pursuing this. Generally then, in my late childhood my interest in vegetarianism could have been just a phase.
At a point which is difficult to date, I read an article in, of all places, the ‘Reader’s Digest’ which discussed how to reduce one’s risk of cancer, and pointed out that vegetarianism would make a major difference. In fact I no longer think this is strictly true but only if one gets one’s meat from wild animals and eats the offal, which few people do. At the time, the idea of going veggie seemed a massive and undesirable step I was unwilling to take. I think I was twelve at the time, so the period between this and taking up Yoga more seriously must have been quite brief.
I became aware of veganism when I was twelve but believed it to be largely fatal because that’s how it had been presented to me. Therefore I ruled it out for many years to come. I was probably about ten when I learned of the Draize Test, which led to a long-term hostility to cosmetics and a sense of outrage that this was done. I’m not sure when I became aware of LD50, although I knew about drug testing on other species in general. The fact that I didn’t use cosmetics at a time when they were quite popular, for instance among punks, goths and New Romantics, is probably connected to my opposition to the way they were tested and not due to gender stereotyping pressures, although I also disapproved of women wearing makeup because I considered it to be an excessive focus on personal appearance rather than character. Remember, these are the views of an adolescent and there is an element of envy in them too.
It wasn’t until I left home and went to university that I began to think seriously about becoming vegetarian. This went through two phases. In my first term, a school friend at another university decided to go veggie because of tropic levels, i.e. that it’s inefficient to produce food in this manner. Oddly, although I’d been aware of tropic levels since the age of seven, I hadn’t made the connection with animal farming before. He exhorted me to do the same but I persisted in eating meat, and crucially made the point that it isn’t in the animals’ interests that they exist given the nature of their farming. I accepted the tropic levels argument on an intellectual level but it didn’t change my diet. In the second term, I began to study animal liberation in philosophy, particularly the works of Peter Singer, Tom Regan and Mary Midgley, and was persuaded that there were pressing ethical reasons for giving up meat, and also that veganism was a necessary step in the long run. I was just about pescetarian after that, in that i ate fish on one occasion and scampi on another, my justification being the phosphorus bottleneck as popularised by Isaac Asimov, but this only persisted for a few months. I actually went veggie on 9th March 1986, when I was eighteen, and regarded it as a transitional phase into veganism. Personally, I never saw lacto-ovo-vegetarianism as a justifiable permanent state. My actual precipitating event was to annoy a friend when we were about to eat out. I went vegan in October of the next year, when I accidentally ate some chilli con carne and wanted to get something positive out of my mistake.
I suppose I would describe myself as an animal lover as a child. I don’t know think of myself in that way because I simply see it as morally incumbent upon me not to be involved in their suffering and death, and I can watch a film like ‘The Animals Film’ or ‘Earthlings’ and it completely leaves me cold. This probably makes me unusual among vegans and animal rights activists, as nowadays I completely lack passion about it. I simply see it as wrong and therefore something I need to avoid doing. But the purpose of today’s post is not to examine the rights and wrongs of the position, but to look at my past and try to work out whether the events of my childhood have any link with later becoming vegetarian and vegan. It’s hard to say really. I certainly think my rage at discovering animal cosmetic testing and the behaviour of my friends towards fish are quite unusual and didn’t seem to be anticipated by others. It was enough to get me ridiculed, which strongly suggests it was abnormal, and there may also have been some gender politics involved there.
So, in yet another attempt to get some kind of reponse from my readers, I have a question to ask you, bearing in mind that this isn’t really a post about the ethics of veganism so much as the relationship between childhood and adulthood. If you eat meat, and I’m not judging here, can you recall events in your childhood which were particularly similar or unlike mine? If you chose to become vegan or veggie at some point, can you see aspects of your life as a child which pushed you in that direction or prefigured it? Are there other aspects to your value-based decisions whose seeds you can see in your childhood?