In 1782, the Scottish soldier John Oswald arrived in Bombay eager to fight for the East India Company. But after witnessing Britain's savage treatment of the natives, Oswald quit his post and went on a walkabout among the Indians. Under the influence of his newfound Hindu hosts, Oswald cast aside the haggis and roast beef of his homeland and converted to vegetarianism. With ideological fervor he attacked the human oppressors who were guilty of exploiting both humans and animals alike.
In his own country, he realized, the Scottish Highlanders were being forcefully evicted by the meat-gorging rich in a greedy quest to provide their animals with more grazing.
By the time Oswald finally returned to Britain, he had become, according to one contemporary, "a convert so much to the Hindu faith, that the ferocity of the young soldier of fortune sunk into the mild philosophic manners of the Hindoo Brahmin."
Oswald's next career move was to join the French Revolution with a proclamation that the republican fraternite should be extended to the animal kingdom, before grape-shot laid him and his utopian dreams to rest.
Oswald was one of many revolutionary vegetarians, from the 18th century to the 21st, who imbibed the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1755, Rousseau had argued that because animals shared with humans the capacity for sensation, they at least had the right to be protected from "unnecessary" maltreatment. The majority, meanwhile, maintained that animals had no value except insofar as they were useful to humans.
In Jewish and Christian societies, this animal-unfriendly view had been bolstered by the Bible's testimony of God's words to Noah: "the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth ... Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you" (Genesis, 9:2-3).
Two-and-a-half centuries after Rousseau's declaration, vegetarians and carnivores are still locked in battle. But there is a pressing case for these warring camps to lay aside their differences and unite against a problem that affects us all. For one of the greatest threats to the welfare of animals, to biodiversity and to humans comes from the same single source: the perverse state of the modern meat industry.
Viewed from a holistic ecological perspective, some meat -- such as conscientiously hunted animals -- involves less suffering and environmental damage than arable agriculture; while both of these are significantly less harmful than indiscriminately purchasing meat on the market.
Vegetarianism and veganism remain powerful protests against modern society's disregard for the interests of other animals. But even among the most sincere defenders of animal rights there is no room for self-righteousness. Though the stomachs of vegetarians may not be graves for dead animals, the purest vegan is still indirectly complicit in hidden forms of slaughter. To use the phrase of one early 19th-century carnivore, apparently innocent vegetarian foods "are ushered into the world on the spoils of the slain."
Let us ignore for the moment the lives of microbes and invertebrates. Seasonally ploughing and harvesting crops will mash up a few moles, slice through a burrow of field mice and crush any ground-nesting bird chicks. Far more significant, though, is the creation of the field in the first place: an act that replaces entire ecosystems, along with all their animal inhabitants.