A Review: John Robbins’ No Happy Cows

Last Saturday night, I clicked a Facebook ad for John Robbins’ new book: No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution. I was sold as soon as I read the title, and five seconds later I purchased the book for my Kindle. Now I’m wishing that Amazon.com offered a way to refund your money if, with a half-hour of purchasing a Kindle book, you’d realized you made a mistake. [Update: It turns out Amazon.com allows refunds for Kindle eBooks if requested within seven days of purchase.]

This was not remotely the book I expected. Robbins’ first book, Diet for a New America, was the first wildly popular book to advocate veganism based on health, environmental, and ethical considerations. Since then, there have been a half dozen or so popular books covering much the same territory. They include my book Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating (1998), Robbins’ DFaNA follow-up The Food Revolution (2001), Matthew Scully’s Dominion (2002), my Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money (2005), Singer and Mason’s The Ethics of What We Eat (2006), and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (2009).

Since it’s been more than two years since the release of Eating Animals, we’re overdue for a new research-and-analysis-heavy book intended to explore the evolving dialog surrounding animal agribusiness, food politics, and factory farming. Unfortunately, No Happy Cows doesn’t carry things forward in a meaningful way. It’s primarily a collection of previously published blog entries, with some new material worked in, and the subject matter is all over the place. That’s not to say that Robbins chooses uninteresting topics. I was very interested, for instance, to hear what he had to say about the value of eating chocolate. But in a world where pink slime, ag-gag, giant meat recalls, and so forth are constantly in the news, I don’t think Robbins’ latest effort was the result of a conscious choice to select the most pressing food politics topics of our day, and to offer up a unified vision of where the food movement is at and how we can prevail over corporate agribusiness.

Robbins is a visionary guy capable of writing engaging prose, and several of the book’s essays are wonderful reading. I’m certain there will be omnivores who read this book and go vegan on the spot. But the essays feel like they were written to be published individually online, not collectively for this book. And there’s little in this book that has advanced my thinking on its subject in any meaningful way.

Robbins certainly has the talent and expertise to write the next major book on veganism and food politics, but No Happy Cows is not a serious effort to open up a new vein of conversation on the topic. If you’re enchanted with Robbins’ style of writing, you should buy this book. I can’t recommend it for anyone else. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals remains the best recent book on the topic; and let’s hope that Eating Animals is soon supplanted by a new title that brings the conversation up to date.