Good Causes, Lost Effects (Part One)

Wander through any British city centre on a shopping day without your hands thrust objectionably into your pockets or sporting something approximating a "fuck you" kind of scowl, perhaps a resting a bitch face and pair of shades, and if you're not paying attention, you'll come away with hands stuffed full of leaflets, mouth full of free samples and, unless you're being really really careful, a brain converted to some new religion.  If you're not taking the morning's twenty-eighth selfie right that second too, someone might also nick your phone.  This actually happened to me once: true story.  Luckily I caught the caffeine-starved scallywag by earlobe the before he could scarper: less luckily, he only agreed to give me back my phone if I converted to Mormonism on the spot.  Turns out the clean-shaven, not polygamist any more, bespoke-suited smiley missionary smiley smilers have switched to a more guerilla form of evangelism in recent years.  I really needed my phone back - I've got loads of good porn on it - so now I'm a Mormon now.  They made me delete all the porn, but I got my phone back.  And a new religion.  These things happen I suppose.  Like I said, true story.  All of this is par for the assault course, of course, of petitions to be signed, market research questions to be answered, electricity suppliers to switch (back) to, buskers to ignore, evangelical diatribes to power-walk past, and all the diversity of causes and unhidden agendas in your headspace and face, competing for your ever-shortening attention in the marketplace of life in a multicultural, consumer capitalist (neo)liberal democracy.

Saturday 23rd April was the day of the Northern Vegan Festival, a pleasingly popular event I attended for the first time last autumn, spread across several sites in the centre of Manchester.  At the same time, Manchester Animal Action was taking the sensible opportunity to promote its "World Day of Action for Animals in Laboratories".  Vegan activists from across the country converged on Piccadilly Gardens, dressed predominantly in black, to reflect the "funeral theme" of the protests, which were to converge on the University of Manchester Buildings where vivisection and various forms of animal testing are conducted.  Needless to say, not everyone concerned was entirely happy with this.

Now I preface everything I am about to say by declaring my own veganism and firm belief in the value of animals as individuals who have rights for all the same reasons human beings do.  The use of animals as food and property is one of the single most important issues facing the human race today.  It is causing devastating, and perhaps irreversible, damage to the only planet we all have to live on, as well as our health both bodily and spiritually.  Life as we know it is at stake.  It's still controversial to claim that the way one species (us) exploits so many others is not only destroying our world, it is also a great moral evil in and of itself - perhaps the greatest evil of which we are, collectively, still guilty.  Yet, as far as I can tell, any serious philosophical examination of the enlightened principles that brought our civilization to this stage of its development, necessarily entails veganism.  For many billions of animals (and a fair few billion humans as well) life is nothing but misery from impoverished beginning to premature end.  This is largely our fault.  (Please go vegan immediately.  It will help).  So, all criticism I'm about to give is meant constructively, even if I do lapse into polemic or vitriol.  I do that sometimes.  I can't help it.  (It's also fun).

Queue on Oldham Street outside Sasha's Hotel, 10:45am.
The festival ran from 10am to 6pm, based mainly at Sascha's Hotel and Methodist Central Hall in the city centre.  When I arrived at 10:45am, there were already large queues outside Sascha's.  I was worried I might not make it inside in time to look around a bit and get back to Piccadilly Gardens for 12pm to hear the speakers scheduled to rally the crowd before the protest march, but the queues moved quickly and the sun was shining and everything was good.  It felt good to see so many people - some vegan, some vegan-curious, some just curious, some probably just hungry - turn out for an event celebrating a movement still dismissively tagged along with the lunatic fringes of society.  Occupying so much space and so many people's attention in the centre of a major city on a Saturday morning made being a vegan feel anything but "fringe".  It felt positively mainstream.

These fuzzy feelings began to fade once I made it inside.  The queues filed in to rows of stalls, arranged in such a way as to allow for a mostly one-way flow of people around the room in a clockwise direction.  There were stalls selling vegan food, promoting various vegan products and displaying literature on various animal rights causes.  The latter, I hasten to add, were in the minority.  For every stall inviting you to sign a petition to stop badger culling, or illegal whaling, there were three stalls selling vegan cookies and cupcakes, vegan hot dogs, vegan popcorn, vegan burgers, vegan pet food, vegan cheese - one oriental food stall was even selling "vegan crispy duck".  I wished I'd asked them what this really was.  It looked and smelled very much like, um, traditional crispy duck.  (Of course it wasn't, and I'm not suggesting for a moment that it was.  Some of the "cheese" looked and smelled very much like cheese too).  As well as food, other vegan consumables competed for cash and attention: soap, tee-shirts, bags, shoes, embroidered accessories.  Vegan "skin care" seems to be a particularly saturated market.  (I'd always been led to believe that long as you have a wash about once a day, your skin pretty much takes care of itself, but apparently not).

It hit me then - a market - not a festival - was exactly what this was.  Consumerism poisons everything.  To me, veganism is intimately connected with anti-consumerism: we refrain from consuming animal products not only because of our moral objections to their origin, but also because of the wider environmental concerns into which the animal industry ties.  The vegan alternative to a hot dog doesn't have to be a vegan hot dog: it could just be a baked potato, or a nice big plate of fried mushrooms.  If you're a vegan and you miss eating cheese, well, tough.  Remember how cheese is made.  Your cravings are irrelevant.  Just stop eating cheese.  Have a bag of peanuts.  It's really not necessary to scour the market for the most cheese-like vegan cheese substitute to satisfy your cravings.  Cravings go away on their own.  Crass consumerism isn't going anywhere.

But what's wrong with vegan cheese? you may be thinking.  Well, nothing is wrong with that as such.  But nothing is really right with it either.  If you're going to play the capitalist game, why not play it well?  Imagine if every vegan cheese business in the country merged into a single conglomerate, produced vegan cheese on a massive scale that was tastier, healthier and cheaper than traditional cheese.  Imagine if every organic vegan pastry chef pooled their resources into a business model for the vegan alternative to Greggs!  Cheaper, healthier, more ethical and environmentally friendly food shouldn't be a hard sell.  Except of course, when sold on a small scale, marketed only at those who would already be inclined to buy it anyway as a general show of solidarity with a vegan comrade, when produced by enterprising young entrepreneurs who need to cover their own costs of production and promotion, a hard sell is exactly what it is.  There were vegan burgers on sale at the festival for £5.00 each.  There were vegan bars of soap on sale for a similarly uncompetitive price.  Three minutes walk away, in the recently opened MacDonald's in Piccadilly Gardens, you can buy two Big Macs for the same price.  A few doors down at Superdrug, you can buy 4 bars of (non vegan) Imperial Leather for £1.35.  For all its many, many shortcomings, one truth of consumer capitalism is irrefutable: the customer is always right.  Lower prices attract the most customers, and competition drives down prices.  Is a non-vegan going to choose one vegan burger over two non-vegan ones?  The crowds at the vegan festival were there for a twice-annual event.  MacDonald's serves crowds incomparably larger every day.  What if there was a vegan MacDonald's right next door?  How many more animals could be saved then?

My mind wandered in this way, my eyes onto my watch, my feet then back outside.  12 noon was ticking on, and protesters were gathering in the Gardens.  By 12:30, an impressive turnout of around 200 activists had assembled.  Megaphones were tested and banners were distributed.  Then the first speaker echoed inaudibly out of a microphone.  I checked with an adjacent bystander: she couldn't hear either.  The applause from closer to the front of the crowd than I, suggested at least some people could hear what was being said, but from only 20 feet away I couldn't make out a single word.

A stone's throw away, crowds of lunchers munched their meatburgers in the sunshine, oblivious or indifferent to the spectacle of earnest activists straining their ears to hear a man tell them things they most likely already knew and agreed with anyway.  It was preaching to the converted at its finest.  I applauded in the right places, perhaps I even dutifully cheered, but inside I just felt sad.

Continued in Part Two