Arguments for Veganism from a Dutch Futures Anthropologist

Once Upon a Time We Ate Animals: The Future of Food by Roanne van Voorst, translated from Dutch by Scott Emblen-Jarrett (SecondSale.com)

It’s getting harder to ignore the ethical issues behind what we eat and what it’s doing to the environment, as well it should be. It’s something I really struggle with, because it’s very tough to argue at this point that our consumption of meat and animal products isn’t detrimental and unsustainable, especially since, as Dutch author Roanne van Voorst points out in the recently translated Once Upon a Time We Ate Animals: The Future of Food, the world population is projected to hit 9 billion by 2050.

Van Voorst is a Netherlands-based futures anthropologist, an interesting-sounding career which means her research is centered around how to make humanity sustainable. She’s also a vegan, and this book includes her research into the effects of various animal product industries over the long term.

I didn’t find her tone as grating or aggressive as other readers seem to or as sometimes comes across in books like this that make a case firmly for one way of life; I found it pretty straightforward and honest, actually. She acknowledges that it’s indeed a struggle for many of us to square our values with what we know about the industries that process animal products and how the animals are treated.

She’s unlikely to convert anyone with this book, but I also don’t think that was exactly or at least entirely the purpose, since we’re generally pretty divided on this issue until each person has their own pivotal mind-changing moment. I think it’s more helpful for people like me, who do try to limit animal products and can use the forceful shove or reminder to stick to and increase that behavior, as well as the message that what you purchase is like a vote and you need to consider that just as carefully.

What I really didn’t like were the two “intermezzos,” these bizarre fictional future-stories of people living with everything high-tech in a fantasy after-time where we don’t eat animals anymore. It was just very, very dumb. This is her field I suppose, but I think any kind of future fantasying on this kind of specific level is always going to sound very weird.

She also skirted an issue I consider pretty dangerous in a chapter about animal rights and how we treat and legislate them in general, not just only as food sources – and I agree, we do all this abysmally – but she hints that spaying/neutering is fundamentally changing a house pet and making you the owner of an animal that’s bent to your every whim and will and this isn’t really what the dog is, etc.

No. Just stop. I can’t even believe I’m hearing this argument. She dives into ethics and morals all over the place on a million different issues but completely ignores any discussion of them when it comes to whether it’s ethically justifiable to let domesticated house pets breed willy-nilly however they like? Wtf? Not one look at what the implications of THAT might be?

It also could’ve been more comprehensive in general. The book that first changed my entire outlook on food, animal rights, and food production and related industries was Fast Food Nation (and I don’t even eat fast food, but it drives home so much about the evils of meat consumption) so I feel like I’m always looking for a book that does more of what that one can do and have yet to find it.

Some good points made here if not always entirely convincing, but it’s a quick and easy read, and more likely to be useful to those who already share some of her thinking and could use the extra nudge. I did have some significant takeaways from it around sustainability and consumption that I’ve found myself mentally returning to quite often, so it feels worthwhile for that.

I also love that it’s translated nonfiction on a topic I feel we don’t get so much of in translation, aside from some foodie memoirs. I found it really valuable and interesting from that different perspective.

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15 thoughts on “Arguments for Veganism from a Dutch Futures Anthropologist

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  1. I so agree with you on the cats and dogs point. The impredations of uncontrolled cat populations are decimating our birds, along with all the other things like habitat loss and pollution. It’s a perfect storm.

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  2. I don’t think that I will ever become vegan but I do believe that animals should be treated humanely and that we should eat sustainably. I also agree with you that as responsible pet owners we need to spay our pets.

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  3. I’m not sure this particular book is right for me, but I really appreciated your statement “I think it’s more helpful for people like me, who do try to limit animal products and can use the forceful shove or reminder to stick to and increase that behavior [….]” — are there any other books or articles along this line that you’d enthusiastically recommend? (I have also read and enjoyed Fast Food Nation.)

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    1. I’m wracking my brain but I can’t really think of one…to be fair, this one *does* do that which is why I felt like that was worth saying. It uses plenty of data along with affecting interviews with farmers and people who are in the animal products industry that really drive the point home. It’s just not nearly as comprehensive and demonstrative as Fast Food Nation, but unfortunately my search for something like that continues as well!

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  4. I think the stuff about domestic pets would irritate me enough to undermine a lot of her other arguments, because it suggests to me that she’s cherry-picking her evidence (as you say, the impact of a tonne of unneutered cats and dogs would be pretty terrible on the environment). I try to eat relatively little meat, so that I can buy from higher-welfare/more sustainable places when I do. Admittedly I am not always consistent, so I would be keen to read a book with tips about the best way to do this – but I don’t think this is the book for me!

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    1. It did feel like some cherry-picking, and it made me suspicious of some other arguments as well because it felt a bit extremist. I do the same as you, try to limit meat as much as possible so I can make better choices when I do. But it can be tough to maintain, I think especially when it extends to other animal products and not only meat. I’d be interested in other books on that topic too, but the search continues!

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  5. Ooh, interesting. The intermezzo thing sounds SUPER cringe and I can’t even begin to follow that bizarre point about domesticated animals, but otherwise this sounds like it might be a worthwhile read for me. I’m a lifelong vegetarian (not quite vegan but I rarely eat animal products), but I’ve yet to read a book about the meat industry because it’s something I’ve done a lot of sporadic independent research on, and I’m positive that reading a whole book on the subject will feel grueling and disheartening. So I’m not quite ready for the heavy hitters like Fast Food Nation, lol, though I would love to read that some day when I’m up for it.

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    1. It was SO CRINGE. But all my complaints aside I do think it was a worthwhile read. I tend to give myself a pass for eating as little meat as possible but still eating cheese, yogurt, and sometimes eggs, but this helped me realize how detrimental even that consumption is. Sigh. But the more you know the better you can do.

      It’s been some years since I read it, but what I remember of Fast Food Nation is that it wasn’t so much emotionally devastating and grueling, just very much a wake-up call to me in terms of how the meat industry actually works. It’s been out for so long and the research and information in it collated elsewhere so often that you’ve probably already encountered it in your own research. But it was the end for me ever eating beef, period. I had been very naive about it up until that point so I was really grateful to how it presented that information!

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