People, Plants and Animals: A Conversation with Imogen Robertson

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BRIG Newspaper talks to Imogen Robertson about freedom, growing up in Ayrshire, and what the University's Plant-Based Motion really means

Imogen Roberston’s impeccable eye make-up, red buzzcut and earrings shaped like bat wings give the impression of someone powerful. So does their credentials. A member of Veganism and Rights for Animals (VERA), Imogen is a main brain behind the University of Stirling’s Plant-Based Commitment Motion, planning for certain University outlets to serve only plant-based food by 2025. The motion was passed with Plant-Based Universities, a group dedicated to ‘just and sustainable’ catering to resolve climate change.

But Imogen argues for more.

“It was useful to use the mantle of Plant-Based Universities when putting forward the motion. I think it’s good to be part of a broader campaign.  It attracts momentum, it mobilises people, and obviously it’s useful when we get to the press,’ Imogen explains. I think marrying the climate politics of Plant-Based Universities with our total liberation framework makes it accessible. 

“We’re actually getting rid of the vegan moniker. VERA will be Total Liberation Stirling.”

But what is total liberation? Could a plant-based system be the key to true equality?

Imogen makes its case.

Growing up in Ayrshire, surrounded by dairy farms, animal agriculture has been part of the furniture all my life. As a fellow Ayrshire resident, Imogen agrees.

“I went vegan eight years ago when I was 14, and I didn’t start the transition because I was particularly thrilled by animal rights.  I have digestive issues so I was cutting out things, like dairy. One of the reasons I cut out dairy was because I thought it was kind of gross to think about,” they grin.

“I saw this speech by Gary Yourofsky, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, he’s not a nice person or anything like that, called The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear. He was basically just being very uncompromising with his framing of animal agriculture. That made me think ‘oh, I’m offended by this, why am I offended by this?’

“I realised I was so antagonistic towards him because a lot of the things he was saying were true.

“At the Plant-based Universities Summer Camp, where I met people who kind of scared me with how committed they were to veganism. I felt like in some ways I wasn’t taking it seriously enough. They were educating me about why it was important to see it as another form of oppression, rather than just treating it like a sort of hobby. I started marrying it with my approach to injustice as a whole.  I started seeing animal rights as an extension of my left wing beliefs.”

As a socialist and a life-long meat-eater, I’m intrigued. I’d never considered the possibility of animals being oppressed. I had never considered that a plant-based diet may just be the right thing to do. 

Which, I suppose, is rather the point.

“There’s just a sort of apathy towards the suffering of animals,  and what animates that is similar to what animates other forms of oppression,” Imogen explains, sitting up straighter.

“We put animals in this category of the other, and when you’re other-ising a group of individuals, that otherization has its roots in many other forms of historical oppression.

“Upholding the systems of oppression ties directly to upholding capitalism and other horrendous things. I felt like advocating for it was the logical next step for me. It felt really important and really neglected.

“It’s just another way of resisting oppression.”

Image Credit: Total Liberation Stirling

Now, the theory of the political other isn’t exclusive to veganism. It isn’t even new. The idea of distinguishing humans as a superior, political creature is a musing of Aristotle, since humans are sociable, have a sense of justice, and are capable of speech.

However, University of Colorado academic Cheryl Abbate points out that “many social nonhuman mammals have demonstrated that they are, in fact, political in the Aristotelian sense, as they possess a sense of both general and special justice.”

And, as Imogen tells me, it doesn’t seem to just be animals.

“I do have digestive issues, and my dad almost died from Crohn’s disease, so it’s hereditary,” Imogen states frankly.

“Diseases that rise from animal agriculture make up 70 per cent of infectious diseases. COVID-19 arose from interactions between humans and animals. It has ruined the lives of millions of people across the globe.

“Now we have avian flu, which has emerged from chicken farming. There is evidence of the passing over to humans, and we could have another mass disabling event on our hands because of our subjugation of animals.

“There’s this really great book called Beasts of Burden,” Imogen said. “The author draws parallels with the otherization of disabled people and the otherization of animals. The author’s argument is that neither are considered autonomous, or dignified.

“There’s a lot of parallels between the subjugation of disabled people and animals, as well as the actual direct consequences.”

As I scribble again on the growing list of recommendations, I feel compelled to ask about making plant based food accessible.

Imogen walks the walk.

They spearheaded Stirling’s Plant-Based Community Pantry, stocking freely available plant-based staples, which “was always empty by the end of the day.” Imogen is also is in the process of applying for funding to run it again this year.

They also consulted with Made in Hackney, a London non-profit providing free plant-based meals for the past ten years, to make union meals affordable and nutritionally balanced.

“I think with proper education and empathy, we can have a just and sustainable plant-based system. It shows solidarity with disabled people and other marginalised groups, and I think it’s one of the key ways of unlocking climate solutions.

“It has solutions to all our crises. Well, at least a lot of them,” Imogen said, laughing.

I have since checked the Instagram page of VERA-as-was. A red background, helpful information. A paw and fist logo, raised in solidarity.

It looks good.

Featured Image Credit: Imogen Robertson

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