Transcript of Hope(lessness) Talk

The Hope(lessness) of a Vegan Future

Calvin Neufeld
Vegfest Guelph 2016
Guelph, Ontario

I would like to thank the organizers of Vegfest Guelph for inviting me to come speak. I have chosen to speak today about the hope and the hopelessness of a vegan future. And I wrestled with this talk, I can’t even tell you how I wrestled. As this talk unfolds – quite literally – you’ll get a sense of just how much I wrestled. I could have easily called this “The hope and the hopelessness of writing a talk on the hope and the hopelessness of a vegan future.”

You see, not only is the topic itself immensely challenging – I had no idea – but I’m also a full-time Daddy to a three year old, and holding a train of thought is not what it used to be. But you know, I found my way through, I lived through the impossibility, and here we are.

Before I came up with this topic, I had many other ideas about the kinds of things that I would be interested in talking about. I thought maybe the intersectionality of oppression is something that I’m quite passionate about. Or vegan parenting is something that’s on my mind all the time. And every time, I would call up my mom, who’s sitting right here, to say “What do you think of this idea?” And she would always say good, great, interesting, wonderful. And then as our conversation would progress, we would invariably find ourselves talking about hope and hopelessness. Particularly for my mother. So while I was trying to think my way through to a topic, she was living her way through actual lived experience. One moment hopeful that change can and will come, enlivened by the victories, and the next moment despairing at an unchanging world, or worse, a worsening one.

So finally, after a couple of weeks of this, it finally clicked for me, that was my topic. It’s not what I wanted to talk about but what I need to talk about. There are all kinds of very interesting topics, and then there’s the actual daily lived experiences that we have as people who have awakened to animal suffering, who have let that suffering touch us, and then don’t know what to do with it. Or, like we have experienced it, being helpless to stop the horror, hopeful that my small contribution will help, but ultimately standing hopeless before a great stone giant.

Three years ago, while my mother and I were immersed in the process of writing, editing and publishing her book Suffering Eyes: A Chronicle of Awakening, my mother had a dream. She rarely dreams vividly, but when she does, it’s a dream of deep significance. In this dream she stood before a great stone giant, representing the colossal challenge that she was up against. A world of indifference, hardness of heart, impossible to tear down or to topple. So in her dream she stood paralyzed before the stone giant. Paralyzed with fear and hopelessness. And then I entered the dream, and I said to her, “Don’t worry mom, I know what to do.” And I walked towards the giant with confidence and calm, and the dream ended.

Something about that dream captures for me the hope and the hopelessness of a vegan future. There is a great stone giant standing in between us and that future. What do we do with that? In my mother’s dream, I knew what to do, although the dream rather inconveniently didn’t reveal what that was. In reality, I don’t know what to do about that stone giant any more than my mother did or any more than you do. But, I think, knowing what to do isn’t what matters.

So is there hope for a vegan future? Well of course there is. It just makes sense. For the animals, for ourselves, our bodies, our wellbeing, it makes sense for the environment, for social justice, for the very sustainability of the earth itself. It just makes sense.

There are victories, every minute of every day. There is an army of justice and right-heartedness and redress sweeping the world. My mother and I have the joy and the privilege of working with farmed animal sanctuaries, supporting them through the Suffering Eyes Project, and not a day goes by that I don’t see a victory. A pig falls off of a truck headed for slaughter, and finds sanctuary. 4,000 chickens saved from a farm that was abandoned, leaving 50,000 chickens to die of starvation and disease. So 4,000 chickens found sanctuary. There is no way for me to express the hope that farmed animal sanctuaries alone represent. In my opinion, if there is any hope for a vegan future, farmed animal sanctuaries are at its foundation.

But on the tails of hope follows hopelessness. The rest of the pigs on that truck, unlucky enough not to fall, or unlucky enough not to survive the fall, they’re gone. And the 40,000+ chickens who were not rescued from that farm are gone. And the 4,000 that were saved from the industry, they’ll be replaced by 4,000 more. Or more. As Robin Lamont writes in her captivating fiction novel, The Chain, about an undercover investigator who looks into allegations of abuse at a pig slaughterhouse, the slaughterhouse worker says to her quite simply: “Don’t you know by now? Nothing stops the chain.”

For every animal rescued and brought to sanctuary, that animal is replaced on the chain and a billion more are lost in the meantime. So if saving the life of a single animal is grounds for hope – and it is – then there’s at least a billion times more grounds for hopelessness.

This is not an exaggeration. We are shielded and we shield ourselves against the enormity of our crimes. Right now as we sit in this comfortable room, the animal world is being ripped apart on a scale that no adjective can touch. However wide open our eyes may be, we will only ever catch the tiniest fleeting glimpses of mere fractions of the whole.

Here is one fraction: a single pig slaughterhouse in Toronto. Trucks arrive every day filled with pigs to be slaughtered there. 210 pigs are packed onto each truck. 50 trucks arrive per day. 10,000 pigs killed per day at a single slaughterhouse in Toronto. There are approximately 200 pig slaughterhouses in Ontario. Some large, some small, but the numbers… the numbers… And if you expand beyond Ontario, and beyond pigs to include cows, chickens, fish… there is no accounting. No accounting. Not even numbers can keep up with the enormity of our crimes.

And yet those of us who see it are the minority. Who see the horror of it are a minority. And there’s that stone giant again.

And then there’s the planned facility in China – have you heard about this? – that will be cloning a million cows a year to convert into beef after a brief and wholly unnatural lifespan. The demand for meat has surpassed the capacities of farmers to sustain through conventional farming of any scale. We are dishing out more death than can be sustained through birth. As my mother writes in her book, “This is who we are.” And still these are mere fractions of the whole of the suffering for which we are responsible.

The situation that we face is summed up quite well in this book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka. They sum up the dilemma. They look at the victories of the animal rights movement, and they say:

“Viewed this way, the movement can be seen as a success, cumulatively building on its victories. But there is another, darker side of the story. In a more global perspective, we would argue that the movement has largely failed. The numbers tell the story. World meat production has tripled since 1980, to the point that humans today kill 56 billion animals per year for food (not including aquatic animals). Meat production is expected to double again by 2050. These global trends are truly catastrophic, dwarfing the modest victories achieved through animal welfare reforms, and there is no sign that these trends will change.”

And in their conclusion they reiterate this: “While the animal advocacy movement has won some battles over the past century, it has essentially lost the war. The sheer scale of animal exploitation continues to expand around the globe, and the occasional ‘victory’ in reforming the cruelest forms of animal use simply nibbles at the edges of the systematic human mistreatment of animals.”

So what is hope? Well, for one thing, hope is a word that we use all the time and rarely define. I found one interesting definition in this book, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi who was a neurosurgeon who died at a relatively young age from a very aggressive form of cancer. He wrote this memoir in the last year of his life as he grappled with his own mortality. Here he wrestles with hope, and what is hope? He writes:

“The word hope first appeared in English about a thousand years ago, denoting some combination of confidence and desire. But what I desired – life – was not what I was confident about – death. When I talked about hope then, did I really mean ‘Leave some room for unfounded desire’? No. So did I mean, ‘Leave some room for a statistically improbable but still plausible outcome’? Is that what hope was? Could we divide the curve into existential sections, from ‘defeated’ to ‘pessimistic’ to ‘realistic’ to ‘hopeful’ to ‘delusional’? Weren’t the numbers just the numbers?”

So for some people, perhaps hope is a combination of confidence and desire. Looking in my biblical correspondence, I found hope defined as “confident expectation.” Specifically in salvation in the afterlife. It’s a mixture of confidence and expectation. To the pig on the truck, I imagine that hope might be a combination of expectation and desire that the suffering will end. So confidence, expectation, desire – do any combination of these things equal hope?

Everywhere I look, I see different meanings and manifestations of hope, yet the closer I look, the more skeptical I become of it all. It doesn’t satisfy. What is hope? Actual hope? Not hope in the afterlife, not hope in a utopian future, not hope invested into any imagined future whatsoever. To me, that’s not hope at all, that’s just a combination of imagination and desire. What we need is hope that is present, not as a future-directed thing. The salvation that we need is here, now. Salvation means healing. Salve. Heal. We need hope for healing here, now. For me, there is no room to be concerned with the afterlife or even some distant future when the needs of this world are so immediate and so terrible.

I wonder if we create these imagined forms of hope to plaster over our debilitating awareness of what is. Jiddu Krishnamurti, the thinker and teacher, emphasizes that “Hope has no meaning at all because what is important is what we are, what we actually are, not what we think we are or what we think we should be, but actually what is. If we know how to look at what is, that will bring about a tremendous transformation.”

But how do we look at what is without despairing? Theologian Douglas John Hall urges that “real hope can begin where illusions end.” He writes – and this is challenging for me at least to follow his thoughts, but if you’ll bear with me I’ll try to read them slowly. And what I call a stone giant, he calls an “impasse.” He writes:

“We stand at the edge of a metaphorical Red Sea, where an open acknowledgement of our ‘impasse’ could become the catalyst for the courage we need to seek passage into a better future; where living through the impossibility could open us to a new possibility. Yet there can be no admission of the impossible, no recognition of our subtle suffering under the yoke of a dream-become-illusion – we must repress it – unless a frame of reference were given, on whose basis we could feel the permission forthrightly to face our limits. Without such a point of vantage, exposure to our real condition – our ‘poverty’ – would only prove debilitating.”

We do need hope. But not hope as a “dream-become-illusion.” Not hope as desire. Not hope as expectation. Not hope as emotion. It’s not about feeling hopeful – hope is not the same thing as hoping – it’s about being able to move forward in life. How do all of us who care about animals find the courage to keep going in the face of overwhelming suffering, and in light of our apparent incapacity to do anything about it?

There is a revolt. All around the world there is a revolt on behalf of animals. But many or most of us don’t know what to do. Don’t know how to be effective in the revolt. And in that not knowing there is fear. And out of that fear come both hope and hopelessness.

But we don’t have to be afraid of not knowing. Knowing what to do doesn’t matter. You can stay with what is. You see the suffering and you don’t know what to do about it, you don’t know how to stop it happening, again, and again, and again, and again. But you see it. Stay with that. You see it and because you see it you are transformed, you become alive, sensitive. When you hear someone talking about turkey bowling, instead of laughing you cringe, because you see actually what it is. That cringing is intelligence. That awakening of intelligence is what transforms society. That is the revolt.

Veganism is not a belief system to adopt or to impose onto anybody else. It’s just seeing what is, and don’t you see it too?

I think it’s not only the victories and the losses out in the world that are the deepest source of our wrestling with hope and hopelessness. It’s the stone giant in our own hearts. Why did it take me so long? Why didn’t I see? Why does everyone around me see but not see? There is more hopelessness in the beloved meateater and your own table than there is in all the systematic atrocities in the world. Changing a system takes time and due process. Changing a heart happens in an instant. Why hasn’t that instant happened for you?

My mother wrote this beautiful book in the hope that it would make a difference. Has it? My mother thought that surely now that I see, the people I care about will see too. Have they?

I expect that this is what many or most of us struggle with. That fretful cycle between hope and hopelessness. Between believing that I can and will make a difference, to despairing that I am not and cannot make any difference. With the hope, we are energized. With the hopelessness, we are paralyzed. We go from being on fire to burning out, then relight the flame and begin the cycle again.

Everywhere I look, I see a common approach to the problem of hopelessness. Writers, preachers, TED talk speakers… the solution? Have hope. Discover hope. Fill yourself with hope. Cultivate hope. Hope as the antidote to hopelessness.

But hope and hopelessness are not two separate things that can be pitted against each other. One doesn’t triumph over the other. They are two sides of the same coin. You might walk around with one side of that coin face up in your palm, but where you carry one you carry the other.

Hope is precarious. Hopelessness is debilitating. I would not build my foundation on either.

Hope does not matter. If I see an animal suffering before me, I don’t have to hope that she will survive to do what I can to help her. I don’t have to hope that she will understand to show her that I care. Hope and hopelessness are irrelevant to action. What is good and right and just and true is independent of whatever future or outcome we envision or desire.

Does this mean that we should relinquish hope for a vegan future? By all means no. There is another way of looking at this. Recently, the website Free from Harm published an article exploring the importance of long-term goals in vegan advocacy, demonstrating how “specific and difficult goals lead to greater behavioral change.” To quote their article:

“All of the large mainstream animal advocacy groups take great pains to reach out to non-vegans by enticing them with meatless alternatives, promoting ‘Meatless Monday’ campaigns, cutting down on meat, etc., but they miss the most important component of any behavioral change strategy—a clearly defined end goal. It is surprising how rarely veganism is a stated goal in animal advocacy efforts. One need only envision an anti-domestic violence campaign that promotes ‘abuse-less Mondays’ or ‘more humane abuse’ to see how some methods of persuasion used for animal advocacy are not logical from a behavioral change or social justice standpoint. No other social justice movement has suffered such a lack of a clearly identified end goal.”

So the hope of a vegan future as a long-term goal, combined with the desire to attain it and the confidence that it can be attained, is imperative. Whether or not we ever attain it, that’s what will get us closest, and we must never compromise that goal.

This also got me thinking: Is a vegan future our long-term goal as animal advocates? At first I thought so, now I’m not so sure. When I think about other social justice movements, like the civil rights movement – what is their end goal? Is it a peacefully integrated multiracial culture? Or is it to end racism? The women’s movement – is the end goal a feminist future or is it to end sexism? The queer movement, queer advocacy – is the goal a queer future or is it to end heterosexism and cissexism? So if I look at the animal advocacy movement in the same way, is our goal a vegan future? Or is it to end speciesism and carnism? Ending the kind of thinking that justifies our unjust treatment of animals. The future we desire is not the end goal but the consequence of ending harmful, false, conditioned ways of thinking. In that sense, the end goal of every social justice movement is the same.

I am a trans person, I was born genetically female, and I do education around sexual and gender diversity. After talking one day, a university student asked me whether I thought that there was any hope that one day the whole world would be fully accepting of people who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and that prejudice and discrimination would be entirely a thing of the past. I thought about it and I said, well, yes and no. I mean, yes, we’re already well on our way, we’re worlds away from where we were a generation or two ago. But then again, new people are born every day, and they’ll make the same old mistakes anew. So I don’t think the fight will ever be over. And if it is, or if it seems to be, that’s when we should be most vigilant. It is a common pattern in history to see tremendous progress lapse back. Rights granted only to be taken away again. We must never grow complacent believing that we have “arrived.”

Like the recent National Geographic article on the return of fur farms, being back in fashion now that the farms are being considered more “humane.”

Old ideas resurrect. One generation rebels against the teachings of the generation that came before. A strict generation will likely give way to a lenient one. A lenient generation may produce offspring craving structure and tradition. Out of the Dark Ages explodes an enlightenment. Out of the Enlightenment came the Gothic response, exploring the darkest recesses of the human soul, the duel nature of humanity, light and dark existing together.

Not unlike hope and hopelessness.

There is another problem with a vegan future as our end goal. It’s speciesist. Veganism is a human privilege. The world is not vegan. The edenic image in the Bible of the lion lying down with the lamb is unrealistic. So in that sense there is truly no such thing as hope for a vegan future. Unless we’re thinking only of ourselves.

Nonetheless, the best of the ancient and modern mythology and moral teachings of our species at least point us in that direction. From Biblical prophecy of a return to Eden (“They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain”) to the golden rule whose variation appears in every major religious tradition: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Add to this our modern mythology. I can’t talk about a vegan future without referencing Star Trek as arguably the single most influential science fiction prediction of our future – and that future is vegan! Every Trekkie in the world should be vegan! Unless you’re Klingon. But jokes aside, every Trekkie in the world should be vegan.

Commander Riker: “We no longer enslave animals for food purposes.” Captain Janeway in an episode called “Scientific Method,” she says: “What you’re doing isn’t self-defense, it’s the exploitation of another species for your own benefit. My people decided a long time ago that that was unacceptable – even in the name of scientific progress.” The creators and writers of the show had to envision a future of positive progress for humanity. Our exploitation of animals has to be one of the things dropped in the course of the improvement of our species.

At the very heart of Star Trek is reverence for life. “To seek out new life…” And wherever they encounter life, their prime directive kicks in. To do no harm. To not interfere. To preserve life. It doesn’t matter if that life is human or humanoid or organic or photonic for goodness sake. Their prime directive is fundamentally a reverence for life. Albert Schweitzer would have been a Trekkie.

So is there hope for a vegan future when all of our major religious traditions and even Star Trek fundamentally support it? Of course there is!

But what if we reach the year 2363 or whatever it may be and find that we are still mired in the primordial mud and blood of the present? Do we give up? Do we despair? No, of course not. We keep on. We keep speaking. We keep going. We keep advocating. We keep on, not because of the hope that things will change but because of the knowledge that things can. And because not acting and not responding to the suffering of the world is unthinkable. We must do what must be done whether or not there is hope for the future.

But there is always hope for the future. It’s unwritten. So write it well.

Do you see, though, how hope and hopelessness keep us in a limbo of the imagination? How they draw us away from the world as it is and project us into the world as it could be, or as we think it should be, or as we fear it may never be? And do you see how all of this puts me and my hopes and my fears and my longings, expectations, desires centre stage?

I have grave concerns about hope and hopelessness. We’re kept at their mercy. They fuel us and they drain us. We get caught in a cycle that has no resolution. And humans have taken centre stage too long already. Do we need to make mountains out of our fragile individual hopes and fears too? So much suffering in the world and I respond to it by turning it into a crippling battle within myself, wanting to find purpose, wanting to find meaning, wanting to see a good direction to it all, wanting to feel like I make a difference, wanting to see how I make a difference? Is this whole question of hope and hopelessness all part of our human self-obsession? Is it yet another manifestation of the megalomania of our species?

I have grown skeptical, even weary, of hope and hopelessness. They don’t matter. I don’t need hope to help a hurting animal. I don’t need hope to speak truth to lies. When I experience the joy of a sanctuary, it’s not because there is hope that the whole world will one day be sanctuary, but because here is sanctuary, and there is joy.

Hope and hopelessness are irrelevant to our obligation as living beings in relationship with other living beings. Where there is suffering, do what you can to ease it or end it. Where there is joy, enjoy it. And don’t see that as a betrayal of the suffering of the world. The world needs more joy.

I have hope, not because a vegan future is possible, but because the change was possible in me.

I have hope, not that everyone will see the truth, but because everyone can.

And yet most people don’t. Which brings us right back to the question of what to do with that great stone giant.

When I told my mom I was thinking of making her dream a central metaphor for this talk, she remembered, she said, “I’m not sure but I think in the story The Pilgrim’s Progress, despair was a giant.” So we looked it up. We found my old children’s version, The Pictorial Pilgrim’s Progress, and sure enough, there it was, Giant Despair.

I would assume most of you are familiar with this story, it’s an allegorical story written quite a long time ago. The main character, his name is Christian – it was a Christian story, but really about the story that anybody goes through in life, the victories, the losses, the distractions, the pitfalls, temptations – and at this point in the story he’s travelling with a companion, Hopeful. And Christian and Hopeful become trapped by Giant Despair, and he casts them into the dungeons of Doubting Castle. There he beats them mercilessly. But they endure and they comfort each other, which frustrates Giant Despair who goes up to his wife, No Faith, and says, “What shall I do?” She says, “Bid them destroy themselves. Convince them they have no hope.” So he goes back down and beats them and says to them that there’s no chance that you will ever get out of here alive, you might as well take your own life. But they endure and they comfort each other. So next the giant takes them out to see the bones of the ones who didn’t make it out, convinces them that that too is their fate and they might as well kill themselves. But they endure and comfort each other.

And on the third day, Christian remembers something, that he has a small key called the Key of Promise. And he’s sure that it will open any door in Doubting Castle. He takes out the key, unlocks the door, and out they go. Giant Despair comes after them and crumbles under his own weight.

It would be nice to think that the moral of this story is that despair can be conquered. But it isn’t. As far as I can tell, the moral of this story is that you have to go on. You have to persist. Even if you’re trapped. Beaten. Fearful. Doubtful. Despairing. You have to persist. Never surrender to Giant Despair.

This reminds me of another passage in this book When Breath Becomes Air, and here, as his illness has progressed, he finds it harder and harder to go on. And see if you can see the parallels to this story.

“The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening. Everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day, no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought. And immediately its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words: I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

And that’s what we have to do.

I also thought it was interesting that they don’t defeat the giant. It may be that the giant cannot be defeated. And yet, eventually, it crumbles under its own weight. And here I found another interesting connection in this book Zoopolis. They write:

“Indeed, some commentators have argued that the system of animal exploitation will inevitably collapse of its own accord, even without any change in moral sensibilities. As Jim Motavelli puts it, ‘We won’t stop eating meat simply because it’s the right thing to do. He thinks that arguing people to give up meat is a losing proposition, but nonetheless we’ll be forced to stop. UN studies have shown that by 2025 there simply won’t be enough water or land needed to sustain a meat diet for 8 billion people, so meat will disappear except as a luxury available to few.' Motavelli predicts that there will eventually be a shift to an ethic that rejects eating animal flesh, but this will follow, not precede, the environmental collapse of the meat industry.”

And then that last piece of the Pilgrim’s Progress story. The Key of Promise. I got thinking about that. For animal advocates, for compassionate vegans, what is the Key of Promise that will unlock any door in Doubting Castle?

To me, for the compassionate vegan, that Key of Promise is simple reverence for life. When I am despairing or hopeless, all it takes is lifting a dragonfly from a pool of water, and I am lifted out with it. That is the simple Key of Promise that is always in our possession, returning to a relationship with life. So when we find ourselves hopeless, it is only because we have forgotten that we have the key.

I’m going to share with you a brief reading from my mother’s book, and I’m going to begin with an excerpt from the afterword that I wrote. My mother wanted to end her book on hope, but she didn’t know how. She couldn’t find her own way there. So she asked if I would try. So this is a portion of my afterword, “Hope”:

“Perhaps it is easy, after reading this, to despair. Despair being consumption by grief. But that is not the intention of Suffering Eyes. This is a book about hope. It is a chronicle of awakening, and in awakening, there is hope.

Like Mary weeping at Jesus’ grave, consumed by grief, my mother writes to herself: ‘Look behind you – hope is more real than the grave.’ Turn, turn from the grief. Why? What’s behind you? Hope?

No, not hope, but life. Life goes on. It’s life that matters. Grieve at death, yes, then turn. There is always more life, with all its solemn responsibility and desperate need and tenderness and truthfulness and grace, so, as the song says, ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ But when you turn from grief, be sure that your eyes are wide open, that in your vision is included all life, none of it shut out of your consciousness. Shut not your eyes. Awaken. See the life in your garden, the life in your home, the life everywhere. That seeing is compassion.

Compassion is total, it is a relationship with life. Compassion that has limits, or compassion that is selective, is not compassion, it’s just an abstraction. The real thing is total, a simple relationship with everything that lives: 'your suffering is my suffering, your peace, my peace.' Compassion is not a command to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Compassion is the inability to do to others as you would not have done to you because your pain is my pain because I see you.

Suffering Eyes is not an appeal to hope, it is an appeal to awakening that relationship with life. Hope is simply the consequence.”

As people who see, everything that you do is the change. Everything you do is the hope. While hopelessness is a sinking into inaction in the face of impossibility. And any action whatsoever brings back hope because it’s a turning back to life.

And I’ve saved the very best for last. I will read now two brief reflections from my mother’s book, that to me capture actual hopelessness and actual hope.

The first is a reflection called “despair.” It’s accompanied by a quote that she chose by Shusaku Endo: “Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent?”

And then turning the page, we find her reflection “sanctuary.”

We don’t know what has the power to take down the stone giant. But knowing what to do doesn’t matter. What matters is not how or even whether the giant can be defeated but that we rise up to meet it wherever it stands. That is the hope. The rising up. That’s where the dream ends, and that’s where our vegan future begins.