Veganism and the problems with eating animal products have been getting tons of media coverage lately. Jonathan Safran Foer and Alicia Silverstone have both written books about it, and there have been lots of articles including a great one about the environmental impact of animal farming in Forbes. I think this is so great–anything that makes people consider the impact of eating animal products on animals, their body and the whole world is so fantastic.
I’ve been thinking about this issue a ton recently, and it kind of came to a head when posting on a thread on Yelp. (Did you know I’m Yelp Elite? Yeah, I’m a pretty big deal.) The question was, is it ok to give a restaurant a worse review because they don’t have vegetarian or vegan options? There were plenty of people on both side of the debate: people who said that no, restaurants don’t have to accommodate everybody, and people who said that restaurants who accommodate people with special diets should get more stars. And it’s really nice that people who weren’t vegan were saying that vegan options at a restaurant were a good thing because they wanted their vegan friends and girlfriends and moms to be able to eat there too, but there was something that was bothering me a little bit. Being vegan is not like having a gluten allergy or keeping kosher. I’m not saying those things shouldn’t be accommodated at restaurants–I think it’s great when they are. But it’s not that I’m really worried about whether a restaurant has an option to accomodate my “special diet.” It’s that I think vegan food is inherently more sustainable and ethical than nonvegan food so of course I think restaurants should offer it. (And yes, we can discuss the vegetable shipped from across the world and the cow in your back yard if you want, but vegan food can be local just as easily as nonvegan food can so that’s a false dichotomy.)
Sometimes I think that in some ways, the concept of “vegan” as a personal identity, and a subculture, is ultimately harmful. Think about the people who post comments on vegan recipes that say things like “This looks great! I’m not vegan so I would just use regular milk.” They could use soy milk or rice milk or almond milk just that one time and it would be a more sustainable choice. But because they don’t identify as vegan, it seems pointless.
My veganism is not a personal choice. It’s not about my identity. I’m vegan because that’s the word we use to describe waking up every morning and reaching for the choice that’s better for the earth. It’s not who I am, it’s how I live. Eating meat isn’t a personal choice either. If you eat meat, it does not just affect you and your body. It affects animals, it affects the earth, it increases global warming, it changes the world that will exist for your children and my children. We (and by we I mean me and the people I interact with on a daily basis) live in a highly individualistic society where we like to talk about how everyone has personal freedom, which is great sometimes, but I don’t respect someone’s personal choice to inflict violence on another, and so I can never respect someone’s personal choice to eat meat.
I think this might be surprising to people who know me in real life because I do try to come off as an easygoing vegan. I have friends who aren’t vegan and yes, sometimes I watch them eat meat, and no, I don’t grab hamburgers out of their hands and throw them on the floor and call them murderers.
But here’s my big secret. If I thought doing that would make them go vegan, I would. But I know that’s not the way to change minds so I do my best to live as an example and share my knowledge and help people who are considering consuming fewer animal products.
You don’t have to call yourself vegan to live more sustainably. You don’t have to learn a secret handshake, join the Post Punk Kitchen (though it’s really helpful) or ride a fixie. You can do it one step at a time. If you are too attached to cheese, you can give up other things first. You don’t have to ask the question, is it vegan? You can just ask, is it right? What kind of impact is this going to have on the rest of the world? Is it worth it? I think that’s a really good question to ask about anything you’re going to consume.
None of us are perfect. I’m certainly not. I’m not trying to claim that I live my life in the most environmentally-friendly way possible (I use electricity, after all). But not eating animals is an easy step with a big impact.