Twenty-one years ago, I became an ethical vegetarian. It started when I picked up a leaflet that someone had placed on my seat in a rock concert hall.
My effort to find the leafleter resulted in my meeting Londoner Robin Lane, who gently but persuasively explained the position of vegans. As the door leading to the auditorium opened and shut, and waves of music ebbed and flowed in and out of the hallway, it became clear to me that all my desires to see good done in the world by those in a position to do it — that even my serious social and environmental activism — would be undermined as long as my money went to the breeding and trading and killing of other conscious animals.
Through Robin, I also became aware the profound commitment that motivated this idea called animal rights, and understood that I could be part of the problem faced by a group of deeply empathetic people, or I could be part of the solution. And I understood that my response mattered that very day.
After twenty-one years, The Golden Grill is still open at Camberwell Green in South London. It is the last place I can recall ordering meat. The window displays a faded menu of eggs and bacon, sausages, fish and chips, kebabs, and cheeseburgers. “[B]ut for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh, we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.”
A basket of flowers hangs over the walkway; I noticed it just this year. It ocurred to me that someone from the city must arrive to water the flowers in the hanging basket every day. I had thought about finding a flower to leave outside this place, but the flowers in the basket are alive, and that seems better. For I had come to London for a life-affirming event. This was the week of this year’s Vegan Festival, promised by its sponsors to be “the greatest gathering of vegans anywhere in the world.”
Sunday at the Town Hall
Kensington Town Hall, in London’s busiest shopping district, was the perfect venue. Approximately 1,500 people came, saw, and participated, filling the hall from ten o’clock in the morning until about six in the evening. There was live music, a workshop presented as part of a mission to open a fair trade café, and even an aromatic head-massage booth. A champion vegan body builder offered an introduction to training, nutrition, and supplements. The basement became not only a speakers’ hall but also a playroom for children — although most of the youngsters were just as absorbed in the sights and sounds as the adults. Sally & Jaimie’s Face Painting was a hit for the style-conscious of all ages, and young people also attended workshops where they created their own art works.
Educational tables featured about 70 groups, with a variety of focuses from raw cuisine, to nonhuman rights, to networks for vegan runners. Some of the groups featured chefs, and visitors were invited to choose their own combinations of ingredients for fresh drinks at a juice bar.
Festival of Life
Diana West tells of being diagnosed with an immediately terminal illness two years ago. About the raw food diet, West says simply, “It saved my life.” At the London Vegan Festival, West made fresh raw nori rolls, and served them with lettuce leaves and nama shoyu (a light and delicious organic soy sauce; in Japan, “nama” means raw or unpasteurized). West has since facilitated the Festival of Life, the gathering of raw food and holistic healing workshops held in London in September.
Patrick Browne of the Vegan Organic Trust looks forward to a milestone: Farmers who learn the vegan organic method can apply to have their produce specially certified, beginning just this year. At last, people who work with organics without using nonhuman animals in their growing cycles will be able to show the consumer that it really is possible to find a way of living that is free of violence to other animals.
The goals of the Vegan Organic Trust, Browne explained to visitors at Kensington Town Hall, also serve to help reverse the enormous damage that humanity does to our surroundings. Browne, who is working on an M.A. degree at Lancaster University in the subject of Values and the Environment, notes that the vegan organic farming method addresses virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening all life on our planet: climate change, air and water pollution, the spread of disease, and the instability of communities throughout the world.
Browne’s message takes on an undeniable urgency in a society which, person for person, has doubled our consumption of animal flesh in only 50 years, even as our population continues to rise. The reliance on fossil fuels in animal agriculture, along with the devastating effects of chemical fertilizers, means that meat-eating is simply as unsustainable as it is unethical from an animal rights standpoint.
Materials provided by the group Rights for Animals describe this interconnected dynamic:
Likewise, in the conversion of grain into meat, 96% of the calories are lost. Thus, the production of meat implies an enormous waste of food, in a world where millions die of starvation. As much more land is needed to produce the same amount of food, meat eating ranks as the main cause of desertification and deforestation … Millions of hectares of rain forests are cut down to make way for plantations of grains and soybeans to feed farm animals, or to make pastures. This has devastating consequences for millions of animals, who, if they survive the destruction, find their habitats gone, together with their source of food. Hence, the problem is not the suffering of the ecosystems, as these are not sentient beings. What ecosystems are is the space where not just humans, but all animals, live.
Oscar Horta of Rights for Animals, who arrived from Spain on the day before the London conference, was one of several international activists present at the festival. Increasingly it appears that a global vegetarian network can effect the most powerful form of direct action.
Changing the World of One Person
Each person who stops relying on products of animal origin spares many lives — more lives, indeed, than are salvaged by most any of the world’s sanctuaries. By going to a concert hall to distribute leaflets, does an activist have an idea that even one person will read the information and be changed by it, and that, thereby, hundreds of animals will be spared?
Now it’s clear that vegans are filling our own halls and attracting diverse audiences. The success of the London Vegan Festival owes much to its faciliators: Robin Lane and partner Alison Coe, who are also the long-time co-ordinators of the London-based Campaign Against Leather and Fur (CALF). Contributing sponsors of the festival include Veggies, a catering group known for its remarkable veggieburgers and gourmet desserts. Along with Veggies, the Vegan Society — celebrating its 60th anniversary this November — has been a faithful sponsor all seven years of the festival.
The success of the 2004 Vegan Festival in filling one of London’s major town halls will undoubtedly inspire ethical vegetarians in other towns and cities to plan for increasingly successful festivities of their own. Veganism is coming of age — hopefully in time to save our planet; certainly in time to spare some souls that proportion of life and time they have been born into the world to enjoy.