- [Common Ground]
Thanks to the twin drivers of personal and planetary health, our
hyper-carnivore culture may be taking a left turn
"Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by
growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined
animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume
enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate
significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of
corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the
destruction of vast swaths of the world's tropical rain forests."
A peta newsletter? No — that's from the New York Times. At the start
of this year, in a long article entitled "Rethinking the
Meat-Guzzler," Mark Bittman, a leading food writer for the paper, laid
out the environmental case against meat production.
It's no secret there's a greenrush going on — a re-evaluation of the
way our civilization works in light of certain inconvenient
environmental truths. While real change has only just begun, this new
perspective is circling us back to the wisdom of some of the oldest
concepts around. I'm particularly encouraged to see environmental
arguments for vegetarianism becoming part of mainstream conversation,
because they are the very reasons I gave up meat nearly ten years ago.
For millennia, vegetarianism has been an ethical matter, based on the
idea that living beings deserve to live. In every era, in nearly every
part of the world, the idea has percolated: imposing suffering on
living creatures diminishes one's own life. For much of our existence,
we've had to weigh that truth against the exigencies of living our own
lives. Killing an occasional pig, or living by hunting, was the best
option for generations of our ancestors.
But our modern civilization has removed many of the constraints we
once faced. It has, in effect, provided us with the means to transcend
biology — to choose how we want to be in the world. And more urgently,
the side effects of this heedless abundance will soon force us to
choose: if we keep chewing our way through rainforest burgers, then we
won't have rainforest for long.
So I became a vegan. I gave up eating anything derived from animals.
No more burgers, obviously, but also no more sushi, no more cheese, no
more honey. I stopped buying leather (although I continued to use —
and still use many years later — leather items I already owned).
It was liberating! But it was also frustrating. I had no grudge to
bear against the mass of humanity, eating meat in ignorance — perhaps
they had not heard how damaging the stuff is, on so many levels. But
my fellow environmentalists? I remember vividly, attending barbecues
and seeing real environmental heroes — impeccably-credentialed Earth
First!ers, just down from the treetops — gnawing on ribs. Bringing it
up in those circles — "how can you call yourself an environmentalist
and eat meat?"— was met with the same sort of defensive derision
vegans got from the mainstream.
After I became a vegan, a suite of changes came over me: I became
lighter, finding a new stable weight, I felt better, my bodily systems
worked more smoothly, and this: Simply because I had stopped being
complicit in their slaughter, I came to see animals in a different
way. I no longer had a need to rationalize at every meal, and I
gradually came to see the essential truths of the ethical arguments
for veganism: of course animals feel pain. How could they not? Of
course they want to live, and to enjoy life. Anyone who's lived with a
pet knows as much. But there's a difference between knowing and
feeling, and no longer having to defend my psyche against my actions
meant that I came to feel the reality of the animal experience.
Vegetarianism is the New Prius
2002 was the previous high water mark for vegetable-based diets in the
American media. In that year, TIME magazine's cover story "Should You
Be a Vegetarian?" laid out the personal health reasons to choose
vegetables over meat (there are many, starting with far lower risks of
some of the top killers in America: heart disease, cancer and
So choosing veg is wildly optimistic: it is making ourselves into who
we want to be, and proclaiming that conscious change on a global scale
is something we humans just might be able to pull off. And that would
be nothing less than an act of intentional evolution.
Think it can be done? It starts the next time you sit down at the dinner table.
Gregory Dicum lives in San Francisco, where he enjoys boosting demand
for vegan entrées at fine restaurants.
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