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From Skinny Bitch to Bill Clinton: The Rise of Veganism

Veganism might just be the holy grail of personal activism.

Have you noticed the word "vegan" lately? If you live in America and you read a newspaper or popular magazines, the chances are you have. If you watch television, you probably even know how to pronounce it properly. Yesterday I inadvertently channel surfed to a program called Entourage, with the plot description: "Vince embarks on a romantic fling with a vegan."

If you peruse the shelves at a local bookstore you have probably spotted vegan, too. The Barnes & Noble bookstore near me has a whole section on "Vegetarian Cooking" and about a quarter of the volumes have vegan in the title. Many, such as "How It All Vegan," "Veganomicon," and "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World" are among a host of bestselling vegan cookbooks. Others became New York Times non-fiction bestsellers such as Tal Ronnen's "The Conscious Cook" and Rory Freedman's and Kim Barnouin's 2005 smash No. 1 hit "Skinny Bitch," while unabashedly advocating strictly plant-based eating. Having some extra time between flights recently I ducked into an airport bookstore and told myself I couldn't leave until I found the word vegan. It took just four minutes.

Originally coined in 1944 by a Briton named Donald Watson (1910-2005), the word "vegan" was only gradually seeping into popular use until recently. I first learned of it in the late seventies, when someone mentioned that a family of vegans had visited my summer camp. They were described as pale, frail and dread-locked. It wasn't a savory image. Veganism has now dropped its weakling status with credit to professional athletes such as Mike Tyson (no ear jokes, please), former lightweight mixed martial arts champion Mac Danzig, and former NHL tough guy Georges Laraque.

Veganism is rapidly shedding its ascetic mantle. It is becoming chic, thanks to celebrities like Alicia Silverstone, Joaquin Phoenix and Ellen Degeneres. And a symbol of power, witness vegan business icons like Ford Motors Executive Chairman Bill Ford, Twitter founder Biz Stone, and Las Vegas entrepreneur Steve Wynn. Even former President Bill Clinton is now a disciple following the medical science of Drs. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dean Ornish, who are reversing heart disease.

Perhaps the most important aspect of veganism's rising star is its emergence in discussions of climate change. As the ravages of animal agriculture on the environment gain notice, veganism might just be the holy grail of personal activism not just for animals and human health, but for the planet. A number of analyses have fingered meat and dairy as leading culprits driving global warming. Perhaps most notable is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore), whose report concluded that animal agriculture contributes more to global greenhouse gas emissions (about 18%) than the whole transportation sector (13.5%). In just the past fortnight veganism has appeared twice (favorably) in articles on climate change published in the Washington Post.

Ironically, world leaders seem to be ignoring the message. In one of the above-mentioned Post pieces reporting on the recent climate change summit in Mexico, nothing about food choices was mentioned from the discussions of world leaders and policymakers. But the accompanying photo showed activists outside the venue urging people to "Be Veg, Go Green 2 Save the Planet!"

You might wonder what all this has to do with The Inner Lives of Animals? Everything. Picture sitting on a hay bale in a barn amongst a menagerie of creatures: a couple of pigs, a pair of sheep, a goat, a flock of chickens and a few turkeys. A cow approaches and sniffs your hair. You hold out a hand and feel her warm breath against your fingers. These are the animals you spare each year when you become vegan. About ninety-five animals in all. If everyone went vegan, there would of course be a lot fewer farmed animals. That's a good thing as most are born into lives of misery. Those remaining would be given a decent life with the chance to experience the inner lives nature intended for them-like the lucky ones who ended up here, and here, and here.