Writer and Publicity Coordinator
UCSB Sustainability Program
Veganism has become very popular in health-conscious America. However, what seems to be a new and trendy diet has existed for centuries. Dr. Renan Larue, an Assistant Professor of French at UCSB, researches the history of vegetarianism and veganism in Western culture, “more specifically in France,” Larue states.
Larue was not raised vegan but transitioned into vegetarianism as a teenager after learning about its history. “I turned vegetarian when I was in high school after reading a text on antiquity,” Larue says. Heavily influenced by the practice’s principles, Larue changed his lifestyle. “For me, vegetarianism was not like a fashion but it was a very deep, interesting and old ideology,” he adds.
As a student, Larue studied vegetarianism and the antiquity of the Greeks and Romans. “After a couple of years, I did my Master’s degree in Classics because I was influenced by philosophers and poets from Antiquity. I was also very interested in Jonas’ work,” Larue says. Hans Jonas, a German philosopher, wrote many philosophical works related to ethics and the moral responsibility of human beings towards future generations. “I am French and in France, there were not a lot of books about these issues so I thought I could make a difference by participating and promoting vegetarianism, animal rights, and ethics,” he explains. Larue believes that “We [humans] should consider them [animals] as individuals with rights, we may have some duties towards them.” Depending on the person, these duties could range from not consuming animal products in every meal to not consuming nor using animals and their by-products at all.
Larue’s PhD dissertation focused on the rise of vegetarianism in 18th-Century France. “I wrote articles about the compassion towards animals during the Enlightenment period,” Larue explains. During this era, the rights of animals became a serious debate among philosophers such as Rousseau and Voltaire. “Famous philosophers and writers during this period advocated vegetarianism,” he reveals.
Larue’s research also examines the relationship between religion and veganism. “There are a lot of intersections with food (and especially animal products) and religion because, from the early ages of our civilization, the priests had to give theological justifications to the suffering endured by livestock,” Larue says. “It is one of the origins of anthropocentrism, the idea that the human species is at the very center of the Universe and at the top of the food chain. It can seem cruel and unfair to torture, kill and eat God’s creatures; we needed to believe that it was the way things are, we needed to think that animals were meant to be eaten by us. The religion provided answers to those questions,” he explains. Larue’s book “Vegetarianism and its Enemies” discusses Christianity’s involvement in animal rights.
Why should animals have rights to begin with? To that Larue asks, “What’s the pillar of rights? Do we give rights to people because they have the ability to think? To reason? To speak? Or do we give rights to people because they can feel pain? If we give rights to individuals because they can feel pain then why wouldn’t we give rights to animals?”
Like in the 18th century, animal rights remain a vital part of veganism. In modern society, veganism has broadened its objective and developed into a social movement that is more environmentally oriented. “The new powerful argument in favor of veganism is the environment,” Larue says. Larue believes that veganism will allow generations in the future to live in a healthier environment. Large scale livestock production takes a toll on available resources and, as a result, degrades the environment. Although veganism is well-known among Western populations there are a few things that omnivorous consumers may not know. Since veganism is not a part of the curriculum taught in primary or secondary schools, the lack of awareness on veganism is understandable. “Consumers don’t see the link between dairy and deforestation, between the drought and beef,” Larue says. “Most of the water we use is for the livestock. We waste a lot of cereal [crops], we waste a lot of water. We are destroying our soils because we use a lot of pesticides to produce so much food for the animals,” Larue states. The cereal crops used to feed domesticated animals could instead be used directly for human consumption.
As a French researcher, Larue offers a unique perspective of America’s role in veganism globally. “America’s culture values the consumption of meat, but is also at the forefront of veganism and animal ethics since the end of the 19th century. It is one of the paradoxes of America,” he says.
In the future, Larue hopes to explore veganism in African and Asian cultures and other religions like Islam.