Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, by Tristram Stuart

You read a history of vegetarianism, and you wonder throughout about the author’s dietary habits. Would a meat eater write such a book? This did have me scratching my head, until I was about 300 pages into The Bloodless Revolution and I had to satisfy my curiosity.

I found a few articles, and a podcast, where he tells everyone in the audience that the sausages that are provided for nibblies at his book launch contain meat from a deer he shot! It turns out that Stuart is what you’d call a freegan, someone who forages in bins and in the wild for free food, and who claims to have boycotted the global meat industry due to their parlous environmental record.

(Speaking of meat industry, you should listen to this podcast interview with Laurie Garrett about the origins of swine flu.)

Stuart supports the culling of wild animals that are overpopulated, and sees this as an environmentally responsible practice. In fact, at the end of the book he describes himself as an ecologist. He makes the valid argument that agriculture, using huge swathes of land for the planting of crops, robs native animals of their freehold and livelihood. He also argues that by letting certain species over populate, it upsets ecosystems and causes damage to other animals. This of course is a very complex and involved argument.

No doubt certain vegetarians will not like a book on vegetarianism written by someone who has bloodied his hands with killing deer, but that should not stop vegetarians and meat eaters alike from reading this remarkable book. Indeed, Stuart almost brokers a compromise between meat eaters and vegetarians. He would like everyone to eat meat much more sparingly, for ‘special occasions’ shall we say. For realistic vegetarians who know the world will not go fully vegetarian, he provides a good argument for vastly reducing meat consumption.

What of the book? This is a serious, erudite and well researched history of the ideas, religious beliefs and philosophies that have prompted people to become vegetarian. More to the point, it’s a history of European ideas on vegetarianism from 1600 to the present day, culminating in the twentieth century’s two most famous vegetarian political figures – Hitler and Gandhi.

As you’d expect, going by those two last figures, the narrative of European vegetarianism (Gandhi got his revolutionary ideas after studying in London and discovering the British vegetarian society) is one that is deep and complex. The book is not a long list of fringe players and quacks on the world stage. We’re talking the main religious, philosophical, literary and political figures of the times. Even the economist Adam Smith is frequently discussed in light of these debates, for he conceded that meat eating was not necessary and was an expensive food to produce.

This is a challenging and serious book that will keep you thinking long after you have finished reading. Meat eating is certainly a complex and fraught issue. As this book shows, vegetarianism was often a protest movement, and a challenge to the status quo. This probably explains why meat eaters can be hostile to vegetarians, as they see it as raising a question over what they like to eat.

High recommended! Check out this site for articles by Tristram Stuart and a podcast.

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