In the summer of 2019, I travelled to the river Ardèche in the south of France, where prehistoric cave drawings were discovered. 30,000 year ago, groups of hunter-gatherers called Cro-Magnons lived there. These ancestors of ours already stood on two feet and had their hands free. They wore jewellery, used weapons, and controlled fire. At the foot of the Ardèche, they descended into the darkness of a cave system with the residue of burnt wood, charcoal. On the deepest cave walls, they drew a world with hundreds of deer, horses, mountain lions and cave bears. The rocks come to life under their confident lines. The sublime quality of the drawings shows the bond between the artists and the animals that surrounded them: it was not a peaceful bond but clearly a close one.
I cycle almost every day to my studio in the west of Amsterdam. I often have to wait at a red light with the sticker “meat = murder” on it. Even though I have not eaten meat for many years now, the text still irritates me. Arrogant self-righteous idiots! Next, I ride past a former slaughterhouse. I can still smell the pervasive smoke and hear the screams that startled me. There would be a truck in front of the gate. Behind the wooden bars, pigs would be piled up on top of each other, the snouts pressing between the bars in vain. The wide-open eyes darting wildly and angst-ridden. I cycled past while the gate slowly opened. These days the slaughterhouse has been moved and become invisible, along with the terror-stricken pigs.
We keep eating away – in Amsterdam 750,000 animals each month – while a tragedy is unfolding. It is up to us to confront it, as the animals are unable to. Art and literature can help us by calling us individually to look and act empathetically. At the same time, the worldwide animal tragedy demands large-scale thinking. If I think about it with imagination, from an artist’s mindset, then I see many opportunities for change. I call these The Meat Free City. More about that later.
Bio-industry is a giant step from prehistory. It is a U-turn in the relationship between animals and humans caused by many cultural and technological factors. If anyone deserves the dubious honour of inventing the bio-industry, then it is Celia Steele, a farmer from Delaware. Back in 1923, she ordered fifty chicks – in that time a typical number – but received five hundred by mistake. She was able to keep the birds alive indoors through the winter with help of nutritional supplements and lamps. Three years later, she built a shed for ten thousand chickens. After a hundred years of progress thanks to antibiotics, growth promoters and debeaking machines, two hundred and fifty million broiler chickens are produced annually in Delaware. Jonathan Safran Foer describes this in Eating Animals, his book about the dull life and harsh death of American factory farm animals. Foer started researching while his wife was pregnant. What food, what world view, would they like to give to their child?
In the Netherlands we also breed and slaughter animals on an industrial scale. Hermien the cow made it into the media in 2018 when she escaped on her way to the slaughterhouse, and disappeared without a trace in the forest. Hermien is one of our five hundred million high-yield animals. Luckily there is also organic livestock farming. It began a century ago – in the time of Celia Steele – when troubled farmers approached Rudolf Steiner. They saw that progress (fertilizers, mechanization, expansion) meant that spiritual values were being lost. Inspired by Steiner, organic agriculture and livestock farming flourished. Non-anthroposophists like me are now also reaping the benefits. Despite this, a video surfaced at the beginning of 2020 in which Dutch slaughterhouse workers beat pigs, with the inspectors participating. They were organically raised pigs, destined for the meat shelves at the Ekoplaza organic shop, with three stars from the animal protection agency. Shouldn’t they start awarding stars for “better deaths”?
As city dwellers, we have outsourced the violence to businesses and farmers. And even if you try to live as a vegetarian or vegan, you can hardly escape the meat system. Who knew, for example, that most books are bound with glue made of animal bones? The meat regime is worldwide and disheartening in scale.
It will soon be over
Art and literature can make us more sensitive to the lives and suffering of animals. They enrich our daily interaction with animals, as does the knowledge that scientists such as Frans de Waal provide. Baboons discuss where they will hunt tomorrow, fish use tools, elephants have a word for people (similar to their word for danger) and mourn their dead relatives.
In the beginning of 2020, I saw at the Dutch Funeral Museum Tot Zover, the exhibtion “The Last Pet,” about our two-faced attitude towards the death of animals. In one space, a documentary about an animal crematorium where a crying couple choose an urn for their dead cat. But in the hall next door, I was confronted with the anonymous deaths of farm animals. The artist Herman de Vries had made a burial mound out of twenty tons of cow bones. And in Tineke Schuurmans’ photo exhibit, ‘Face to Face’, pig’s eyes in close-up stared at me penetratingly. Each of the 64 pig portraits seemed to say: look at me, don’t kill me. But it is difficult to confront this appeal because it demands change, individually and for society.
What happens when you as an artist or a writer – or simply as a human being – notice the animal tragedy? Empathy can create loneliness. Nobel Prize winner Coetzee showed this with his alter ego, the writer Elizabeth Costello, who is also an animal rights activist. In his novel The Lives of Animals, the elderly Costello receives a lifetime achievement award at the university where her son and daughter-in-law also work. Secretly they both hope that mother’s visit will be over quickly. Mom won’t go on about her old pet subject, the animals, will she? But yes, her lecture is about animals as prisoners of war, about Kafka’s animal stories, and about the Treblinka concentration camp. The public is outraged, and question time gets out of hand. During dinner with her son and daughter-in-law, you could have cut the tension with a knife. Elizabeth doesn’t even get to see her grandchildren – they’re eating chicken elsewhere in the house. The next morning her son drives his exhausted mother to the airport. In tears, she defends her lecture about the systematic destruction of animal lives and public indifference to it. Coetzee describes the farewell between mother and son: “He pulls the car over, switches off the engine, takes his mother in his arms. He inhales the smell of cold cream, of old flesh. ‘There, there,’ he whispers in her ear. ‘There, there. It will soon be over.'”
How can we escape this loneliness? Eva Meijer turns to the animals themselves. This Dutch philosopher, novelist and artist gives me hope. Where the animal rights movement focuses on ending exploitation, Meijer asks in her philosophical essays where we go from here, how we can develop better relationships with animals. She emphasizes kinship. ‘Just like other animals, we have bodies, we grow, we dream, we love and lose those we have loved. We are dependent and fragile.’ Meijer wrote Birds Cottage, a subtle novel about the bird researcher Len Howard; she lived in the English countryside halfway through the last century, together with birds in her house with the windows always open.
One of the most striking animals in the caves in the Ardèche is a mysterious owl. For the Cro-Magnons who scratched the owl on the walls of the caves, life must have been more that eat-and-be-eaten, hunter-or-prey. Meijer leads us on a search for contemporary variants of the Cro-Magnons’ attitude towards animals, with renewed depth but no longer violent.
For me, the medium of – wordless – drawing is important. For the last few years, I’ve been drawing the animals in the neighbourhood of my studio in the outskirts of Amsterdam. I draw the birds and the handful of cows and pigs that live there. The line of a shoulder blade, a wet snout, the soft undulation of a breathing pig’s underbelly. And the look in their eyes: curious, indifferent or vigilant. As soon as my eye detects kinship, my hand can start drawing.
An empathetic attitude towards other animals is often a personal matter but we have to create new social norms together. Meijer also asks herself: “Can we listen to animals and see them as fellow citizens?” That goes a big step further than the “go vegan” subculture that our liberal capitalist society now offers. We can refer back to the world’s very first civil rights movement: in 1787, the owner of an English slave ship had 133 sick people thrown overboard so that he could collect an insurance premium. This news made 12 Londoners so angry that they published an inflammatory pamphlet calling for the abolition of slavery. In that time, England was the most important world power with an economy driven by slavery, so its abolition seemed a laughable thought. Besides, slavery in England was invisible. You didn’t see slave drivers with prisoners in chains. The philosopher Adam Smith clarifies: “Slavery has hardly any possibility of being abolished. It has been universal in the beginnings of society, and the love of dominion and authority over others will probably make it perpetual.”
The historian Adam Hochschild tells in his book Bury the Chains about how the abolitionists tipped the balance of power and turned public opinion. They came up with the means which we continue to use: flyers, petitions, letters to the editor, lectures, debates, demonstrations and boycotts. They believed that people could sense the suffering of others, even when it was distant or when change was not in their immediate interest. For example: thanks to the slave plantations, sugar was finally affordable for all the English. Still, around 1825, local women’s societies were able to persuade hundreds of thousands of women to boycott bakery products made from cheap slave sugar. Later, they went even further: they completely boycotted all bakeries that still used slave sugar. Local, passionate protests against exploitation grew into a broad, tenacious popular movement. In 1838, slavery was abolished in England. What once applied to the liberation of enslaved people is now also possible for enslaved animals.
A Meat Free Amsterdam in 2030
I will not elaborate on the relationship between the animal industry and corona, nor on the catastrophic consequences of livestock farming for the climate. But we seem to be at a tipping point. On the one hand, the global animal industry wants to grow indefinitely, but on the other hand more and more people, especially young people, are turning away from eating and exploiting animals. Even my nine-year-old niece Jora has told her parents that she doesn’t want to eat meat anymore. Let us therefore, just like the Londoners in 1787, get to work and start local, in my case with Amsterdam. My city has many reasons to lead the way: her progressive population, her history, her welfare and her level of meat consumption (including 750,000 animals per month).
In parallel with the fossil-fuel-free city – and at least as urgent – we are making a roadmap towards the meat-free city. With arguments, actions, humour and art. This ten-year plan begins in the autumn of 2021, when we invite the now 82-year-old Coetzee to Amsterdam to give the very first Elizabeth Costello lecture. He tells us about the old lady who, in her struggle for animal rights becomes alienated from her family and intellectual environment. He says his novels about animal rights are logical extensions of his books about the apartheid regime. How should one write and act from a privileged position? Referring to the farewell letter by terminally-ill Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan – ‘Take good care of our city and of each other’ – Coetzee also calls animals Amsterdamers. Apart from the scornful reactions of a few mansplaining columnists, the direction has been set for a debate that can no longer be silenced.
Public organizations are going to change. At the Odin cooperative supermarket members are leading the discussion. In 2022, its Amsterdam branches will be the first to stop selling meat. The Triodos Bank is also shifting direction: it is going to help the restaurants and farms it finances to go meat-free within ten years.
The coalition for a meat-free capital city is growing. In 2023 there will be a local referendum. A minority would like to make Amsterdam meatless immediately, but the idea of “within ten years” is supported by half of the voters. Famous Amsterdamers are coming out of the closet as meat avoiders. More and more people are getting used to the idea of animal rights and a meat-free future. Jonathan Foer is giving the Costello lecture. Young fathers who register their babies at city hall receive his book Eating Animals as a gift. Young climate protesters occupy the first school cafeterias, and a group of teachers join in. The next school year, the first meat-free school will be a fact.
As a part of cultural education, high school students combine a visit to Rembrandt’s Night Watch with a visit to a slaughterhouse. After protests from concerned parents, young designers will make a glass abattoir in 2024. Without any actual killing, virtual reality will give young people a penetrating picture of what meat eating implies. The glass abattoir is touring all the neighbourhoods in the city. It is financed by the Meat Transition Fund that in turn is financed by a meat tax of ten euros per restaurant meal. There are further initiatives flourishing, such as The New Food, the Meat-Free Week, and the Ottolenghi Award for young vegetarian chefs.
2025. The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard delivers the fourth Elizabeth Costello lecture.
Ricard wrote Why I Don’t Eat My Friends. Meatless eating was already the norm in western Buddhist circles, but from now on young Buddhists are holding daily sit-ins at McDonald’s and the five-star Amstel Hotel. These will go on for years, until the abolition of meat has been achieved. Needless to say, Richard Gere and other Hollywood stars are joining up fast, along with Jort Kelder and other Dutch celebrities.
In the run-up to the local elections in 2026, the progressive parties have all stated that meat eating will be abolished in the long term. Resistance from the private sector nears its boiling point. The Chamber of Commerce argues that businesses, tourists and residents would flee the city in the case of a meat ban. Housing prices would stop rising and the number of tourists would plummet to the 2019 level. But the election results show that many residents are relieved about this doomsday scenario. The counter-lobby has passed its peak.
In 2027 the city council will launch the meat-free city centre action plan. Meat- and fish-free restaurants will be exempt from taxes, and their numbers will increase exponentially. City hall will try to make all its cafeterias meat-free, causing division among its own civil servants, until it was revealed that all its croquettes had been secretly purchased at the Vegetarian Butcher for years.
From 2028 the vocational colleges begin retraining programmes. Kebab shops become Mediterranean caterers and butchers retrained to install solar panels. The city negotiates a veggie covenant with fast food suppliers and supermarkets. Going against this stream, a new shop opens in the suburbs: the Carnivorous Cheese Shop. The Carnivorous Cheese Shop sells chicken that looks like Gouda cheese. After a brief media storm, the shop is forced to close its doors.
In 2029, during the ninth Elizabeth Costello lecture, the term “vegetarian” is abolished in a playful ceremony. Together, we look back with compassion to the time when the refusal of meat was seen as a marker of individual identity rather than as a social issue. Would organic food ever have become popular if its buyers called themselves ecotarians?
2030. We made it. Or far from it? What about dairy products, leather, birds’ gizzards full of plastic, and, in Amsterdam, the rats? Even back in 2019 there was an initiative in Amsterdam West to burn old bread (which according to the Koran should not be thrown away) to heat the neighbourhood mosque, instead of scattering it at the water’s edge. Yet in 2029 we still experience the rats as a plague. To this end, we appoint Eva Meijer as professor of Humanimalistics at the University of Amsterdam. She and her department broaden the debate on how we can coexist with animals differently in our cities. And so, at the end of 2030, we can celebrate Amsterdam being a Meat Free city.