Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating,
Erik Marcus,
1998, McBooks Press, ISBN 0-935526-35-8.

Once in a while in a social movement a critical, defining book is published that argues the movement's basic tenets in a manner accessible to the general public. Vegan is such a book for vegetarianism, a must-read book for anybody interested in understanding reasons to consider vegetarianism or, for us vegetarians, to solidify and reinforce our facts.

Some say that John Robbins' Diet for a New America (Walpole, NH: Stillpoint Publishing, 1987) is the classic reference on vegetarianism and, after reading its compelling arguments (see, for example, a web version of Realities 1989), has convinced them to become vegetarian for environmental, ethical, or health reasons. Like John Robbins' book, Vegan provides strong arguments for vegetarianism (in particular, veganism), but unlike earlier books, Vegan carefully documents its claims with thorough references.

Erik starts discussing the impact of animal foods on human health and cites work from well-known doctors and nutritionists like Dean Ornish, our own Suzanne Havala, and Terry Shintani. He goes on to give an excellent introduction to the issues behind "Mad Cow" disease (BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and the story of Howard Lyman, president of the International Vegetarian Union, whose comments on the Oprah Winfrey television show about BSE and how some cows are ground up and fed to other cows caused the Cattlemen's Association to unsuccessfully file suit against Oprah and Howard).

Erik presents stark and ghastly glimpses into modern factory farming, and the unbelievable cruelty that farm animals are subject to. He focuses on chickens and eggs, pigs, milk (I was surprised to read that "in 1967, a typical cow produced less than 9,000 pounds of milk per year. Today, a cow averages close to 16,000" [p.126]) and beef, and the business of slaughter. He ends the book with chapters about world hunger and the devastation of America's rangelands, with shocking statistics such as that cattle graze about 70% of the land in the U.S. West and that the fee in 1997 for grazing a steer on government-owned land was only $1.35 per month.

The book itself is a pleasure to read, with wide and sometimes curved margins, margin quotes, and bold phrases. The quotes and hilighting allow a meaningful preview browse and quick post-read recall. The writing style is non-confrontational and humble. Blurbs hilight personal anecdotes, whether of the man whose life was probably saved by turning to Dean Ornish's low-fat vegan diet or of Erik's experiences with the animals saved by Lorri and Gene Bauston of Farm Sanctuary. The wealth of carefully referenced statistics (e.g., "between 1980 and 1991, the weight of the average U.S. adult increased by over seven pounds" [p.45]) is a great resource. Readers wanting related information can visit the web site that is frequently updated by Erik's publicist, Alka Chandna, the president of the San Francisco Vegetarian Society.

The book isn't without its faults. Any one of the arguments presented seems to me to be overwhelmingly convincing. However, I think that Erik could have developed some of the ideas in significantly more depth, without necessarily increasing the book's length, and thereby making the book that much more powerful. Often, I found that I was "left hanging" when I came upon a chapter end. There was also not enough integration of the various threads of discourse, which a good summary chapter could have provided. Each chapter is left in isolation - weighty strands, perhaps, but a missed opportunity to knit together a sturdy sweater. As a minor point, there were a few small black-and-white pictures, but perhaps some more pictures depicting the condition of factory farms would have been very effective.

Nevertheless, this is certainly an important book that people need to read. We vegetarians need the current references and correct facts. Non-vegetarians need to read Vegan even more urgently - it speaks to critical issues about the sustainability of our dietary choices and even our world, and reveals harsh truths that people need to understand about food, ethics, and the environment. If you're looking for a gift to inspire a friend or relative to move toward a vegetarian lifestyle, Vegan would be an excellent choice. It belongs on everybody's bookshelf.