James E. McWilliams, PhD, is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, and an associate professor of history at Texas State University. In Just Food, McWilliams argues that there is one thing everyone can do to shrink the carbon footprint of their dinner: Take meat off their plates.
He specializes in American history, and in the environmental history of the United States. He writes for the The Texas Observer and the History News Service, has a regular column in The Atlantic, and has published op-eds on food in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today.
He will make his presentation, An Alternative to the Alternatives — Why Sustainable Animal Agriculture Is No Answer to Industrial Agriculturefrom 2:30-3:45 p.m. on April 29 at Veg Fest.
NCVA volunter Dee Campbell-Giura grilled him recently with some questions so we can all get to know him a bit better.
Dee: When did you become a vegan? Was it a process from omni to veg, or were you raised vegan?
Dr. James McWilliams: I became a vegetarian in 2007, largely for ecological reasons, while doing research on animal agriculture for my last book Just Food. I became a vegan a year later, largely for ethical reasons this time, after reading Gary Francione’s Animals as Persons, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, and watching a video of how a mother cow reacts after her calf is taken from her. The interesting thing about both of these choices is that, momentous as they were in life, I made them with little reflection. The truth of the matter seemed immediately obvious. There was little deliberation (which is highly out of character for me). I simply trusted my instinct and am glad that I did.
Dee: What do you say to people who worry that going vegan will be too hard?
McWilliams: I get a little annoyed when vegans say going vegan is easy. That’s like an accomplished athlete saying that what she does is easy. Every worthwhile decision comes with a learning curve. Every confrontation of the status quo comes with challenges. Making responsible ethical and environmental choices comes with challenges. All that said, eating a plant-based diet, when done properly, provides so many benefits–tangible and intangible– that these challenges eventually fade. Many non-vegans think of veganism as making a sacrifice. But most committed vegans who center their diets on a broad diversity of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes experience a brave new world of unexplored flavors. New culinary possibilities open. I currently eat a far wider range of foods than I did when I ate meat and dairy.
Naturally, traveling, social events, and holidays can pose unique challenges–they always will. There’s no formula for dealing with them. What I have found, though, is that these challenges provide useful opportunities to reify why you eat the way you eat. They inspire reflection and reinforce the intentionality of eating. They can, regrettably, also inspire unsupportive reactions from people who don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, your commitment to avoiding animal products. I deeply believe, however, that one should never compromise his or her belief system for the sole purpose of avoiding conflict. Still, the vast majority of my experiences as a vegan in a non-vegan world have been overwhelming affirmative of the basic goodness of humanity. I know that sounds a little overblown, but it’s true.
Many potential vegans think that they’ll become weak, tired, and malnourished. It is for this reason that I am especially happy to note that I’m a marathoner and ultra-marathoner, and that my times and my workouts have improved dramatically since becoming a vegan. Hell, forget me–look at Scott Jurek, the world’s best ultra-runner!
Dee: Which of your achievement(s) makes you feel the most proud?
McWilliams: Honestly, none. I’m my harshest critic, which is saying a lot if you consider the criticism sent my way by advocates of animal agriculture. One aspect of my work that I am a little pleased about, though, is the fact that I was able to bring a serious consideration of animal ethics to a venue as mainstream as the Atlantic. In this case, though, I’m more proud of the Atlantic than myself.
Dee: You have said that as long as we live in a society that believes it’s okay to eat meat, we’re always going to have factory farming. Give us hope, or a reality check: is the tide turning?
McWilliams: I’m afraid it’ll have to be a reality check. It’s natural to seek hope when you’re deeply engaged in a cause. However, when it comes to animal agriculture, which is growing exponentially in the developing world, I see little hope. (If you doubt this, take a road trip across the United States.) As you suggest in your question, the major voices in agricultural reform today are so ideologically wedded to the implausible notion of small scale, environmentally sound, and welfare-oriented animal farms that they refuse to confront the underlying ethics of what these farms are doing.
Many of these writers and filmmakers think that they’re exploring the ethical foundation of their actions, but they aren’t. They’re under the burden of justifying the unnecessary suffering of sentient beings, and they refuse to make that justification (probably because it cannot be done). I believe this point more than anything I’ve ever written:until eating animals is stigmatized, factory farms will dominate the production of animals. I don’t even think small, welfare-oriented systems are a step in the right direction. After all, they ultimately reify the act that’s at the core of factory farming: eating animals.
Dee: If you could produce a TV ad to promote vegan advocacy, who would you cast?
McWilliams: Rip Esselstyn, of The Engine 2 Diet. He “works” as an advocate of veganism not only because he’s an articulate and compassionate guy, but because, well, he’s a guy. And he’s a fireman guy. And he a big muscles guy. Not to sound flip or shallow, but we are talking about a TV ad after all, and the hardest demographic to reach with veganism includes men who think eating animals (and sometimes killing them themselves) in integral to manhood. Rip oozes masculinity, and reminds us that real men (whatever that means!) can be vegans.
Dee: You specialize in American history. How and when did you merge your interest in American history with food sustainability?
McWilliams: I’ve spent my career writing and researching the history of American agriculture. Very little about this history is pleasant. Very little. It’s marked by human and animal suffering, disease, ceaseless exploitation, and environmental degradation. So, about ten years ago, when advocates of small scale agriculture started saying we needed to return to pre-industrial agricultural models, I decided it was time to step out of the ivory tower and start shouting. When I wrote a piece critical of the locavore movement in the New York Times in 2007, a number of opportunities rolled my way. Protected by academic tenure, I decided to embrace them. In time, I become a rarity: an academic activist. It’s a role I’m still warming to, and juggling with the normal rounds of academic responsibilities (like, uh, teaching).
Dee: You recently posted PETA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad History of Killing Animals on The Atlantic, and it sure is getting attention! What other button-pushing topics are in the hopper?
McWilliams: The list is endless.😉
Dee: As a new vegan, I often meet resistance and derision by family and friends. I’d love to hear how you respond(ed?) to this in your own life. Yes, I know Dr McWilliams isn’t a self-help columnist, but most vegans experience this and well, it saves me asking him on April 29.
McWilliams: I touched on that in my answer to question #2, but what I would add is this: be empathic of others’ intolerance, never apologize, stick to your values, remember that animals need your voice to be strong, and, most important, maintain a sense of humor. Really, a sense of humor goes a long way.
Dee: Can you give us a glimpse at what you’ll be talking about at Ottawa Veg Fest?
McWilliams: I’ll be speaking about the environmental, economic, and ethical problems with the alternatives that have been proposed to industrial animal agriculture. Many consumers believe that if they source their animal products from small-scale, organic, pasture-based farms then they are making a genuine choice against factory farming. I will argue that this opinion is wrong, thereby reiterating that the most powerful choice we can make to oppose industrial animal agriculture is to go vegan.
Think you’d like to try a vegan diet, but not ready to commit? Try the Ottawa 31-Day Vegan Challenge. The NCVA will support you along the way, with recipes, tips, resources, movie nights, meet-ups and more!