Thursday 9 January 2020

A brief history of Veganism

George Higgins
MA History
Veganism, the lifestyle and diet choice that avoids all animal derived products, has seemingly sprouted out of nowhere in the last few years, and managed to become one of, if not the buzzword of 2019. It is making headlines almost daily, its proponents and critics appear routinely on talk shows and podcasts, and businesses are cashing in on the hype.

Fig. 1: Google trends spike in searches
for ‘plant-based’ following the release
of the ‘Game Changers’. Source: Google Trends.
A quick glance at Google analytics’ trends (Fig. 1) shows an astonishing rise in those searching for ‘vegan’, ‘vegan diet’, ‘vegan recipes’ etc reflecting a rise in interest over the last 4-5 years, but especially since 2018. Moreover, supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s have published reports that demonstrate the huge demand for vegan and ‘plant-based’ products that is set to continue rising exponentially. The recent release of the James Cameron produced Game Changers movie also saw Google searches spike dramatically, with the film also becoming the best-selling iTunes pre-order documentary of all time. Veganism is clearly here to stay and looks set to continue its dramatic rise in 2020, with ‘Veganuary’ leading to a surge in adherents. Yet where did this movement that has now concreted itself in the public psyche originally come from? This article looks to explore the lesser known origins of modern veganism.
Fig. 2: Cover of a 1945 issue of The Vegan.
As most would be correct to assume, veganism derives from a vegetarian diet. As Colin Spencer’s extensive monograph The Heretic’s Feast on the history of vegetarianism has shown, diets free from animal flesh have been around for centuries. From Pythagoras to Tolstoy, many historical figures have a vegetarian diet in common. The modern iteration of veganism, however, can be seen as emerging in 1944, stemming from a recurring debate in the Vegetarian Society’s newsletter on the consumption of eggs and dairy. After the Society’s refusal to publish a dedicated column for those choosing to additionally restrict their diet from eggs and dairy, as well as animal flesh, rogue member Donald Watson tasked himself with establishing a separate organisation. This event, not many are aware of, marks the origin of the word ‘Vegan’ as Watson set up his Vegan Society in Leicester. It was a far cry from the extensive movement we see today, and with its humble, amateurish magazine, in 1944 the Vegan Society consisted of merely 25 members. Early issues of the magazine (Fig. 2) concerned discussion of various issues, from the science relating to the health risks of milk, to the ethical plight of the vegan movement.
Fig. 3: Donald Watson memorialised by a blue plaque.
Source: culture/
Overall, this first modern approach to veganism comes across as overwhelmingly motivated by ethical reasons, something that certainly drives many that adopt the lifestyle choice currently. The character of Donald Watson (Fig. 3) himself, as the man who coined the term and began the Vegan Society, can reveal a lot about the ethics of the vegan movement. As an agnostic, he brought a particularly spiritual element to the movement, stemming from his beliefs about our tentative connections to the natural world, but unlike previous vegetarian movements, he was not religiously motivated. Moreover, Watson was driven by his first-hand experiences of animal slaughter, something that reflects more recent motivations for choosing veganism, as many abhor the realities of modern animal agriculture practices from an animal rights stance. In essence, Watson viewed veganism as the next moral step from vegetarianism, with him explaining the etymology of the term as meaning “the beginning and the end of vegetarianism” (veg)etari(an). Watson passed away in 2005 at 97 years old and he has left the legacy of establishing a movement that is now defining some of the most interesting discourse of current times in philosophy, sociology, history and society in general. Moreover, the principle tenet of a moral and ethical driving force for the movement also has held strong over the years. This is evidenced by the fact that, even with environmental factors drawing substantial attention to the vegan lifestyle, recent studies still suggest a moral and ethical stance as the core motivation for adopting veganism.

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