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Will we see change in our lifetime?

November 30, 2011

Change [in the direction of veganism] will come. This I believe. But (for those who live in sophisticated urban centers with large populations of enlightened vegans this will be harder to accept): we shouldnít plan to see much of it in our lifetimes.   ó James McWilliams, East Texas Blues

Most vegans, while dedicated and determined to advance the principles of compassion and dietary reform, are pessimistic about the future of vegetarianism and veganism. They see change coming in small increments: one change piled on top of another, until some day in the far distant future, our great-grandchildren may see the stirring of awareness.

I have some good news and some bad news! The bad news is that we are looking at the collapse of industrial civilization. But the good news is that vegetarianism, veganism, and plant-based diets have a bright future, simply because they are the only plausible or possible way to eat in a world of limits.

James McWilliams is depressed because of pro-hunting attitudes in conservative East Texas, where Confederate flags and hunter culture dominate the landscape. Iím not that worried about East Texas. Iím more worried about liberal, Democratic Denver, where people casually invest their future in myths about backyard chickens and grass-fed beef. Iím more worried that the most enlightened among us, including most vegan activists, have only the dimmest knowledge that we are past sustainable ecological limits, and that this has already stopped the economy dead in its tracks.

Our economy runs on oil. But growth in oil supplies, on which a growing economy depends, has stalled since 2005. Funny thing, so has the economy. Attempts to get the economy going again with hundreds of billions of bank bailouts and stimulus spending have done exactly ó nothing. If anything, we are worse off than we were in 2005.

Crises are hard to see in advance, and easy to see in retrospect. If you had asked someone in the United States in 1858 what the next decade would bring, they would have probably predicted more political fallout, possibly even a series of violent protests, over the issue of slavery in the territories. They would have seen tensions rising between North and South, a divided Democratic party, continuing investment in "internal improvements" in the North, and continued preoccupation with agriculture in the South. Virtually no one would have foreseen hundreds of thousands killed in a bloody civil war, slavery as a formal institution completely abolished, and the South devastated into an economic depression that would literally last a lifetime. When reading the history of the U. S. today, it is easy to see the signs of civil war, but this was not evident at the time.

Today we stand at a similar juncture. Massive social changes are coming soon because we have hit the limits to growth. Oil is simply the most well documented of numerous limits to growth. Climate change, mineral depletion, soil erosion, water pollution, deforestation ó these are the fruits of our industrial civilization. Because our economy depends on growth, the collapse of the financial system and social and political chaos are all on the table.

And because our agricultural system depends on the "green revolution" and on fossil fuels, any crisis with fossil fuels automatically translates into a crisis with our agricultural system. We saw a foretaste of this in 1973, 1979, and 2008, when high oil prices translated into rising food prices and world hunger. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, and the rest of the "Arab spring" were driven in large part by food riots and dramatic rises in food prices. It is only a matter of time ó and not that much time, either ó when other parts of the world will be affected as well, when desperate people will control the destinies of nations. And what kind of agriculture will a resource-constrained world turn to? A turn to plant-based diets is inevitable.

Donít think it will be your grandchildren that will have to deal with all of this. You and I will likely see it all in our lifetimes. There is a whole community of people (the "energy descent" community) which is actively trying to unpack what all of this means. Most vegans, alas, have largely stayed out of this discussion. That's unfortunate, because agriculture is the single area of our lives most likely to be affected by peak oil.

Historians are in an ideal place to understand how this is likely to unfold. We need only look at the great crises of the past to understand what is happening ó the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II ó to see the basic outline. We need only an understanding of basic physics to see the problem of "limits to growth." The vegan community and the energy descent community need to be talking to each other. Letís work together for a vegetarian world, in our lifetime.