Are Vegans Low in Irony?

by Sara Gottfried, MD

I’m flirting with veganism, again.

Seems every Spring I feel a recurring stirring. I consider the sweet mother cows whose babies are taken from them so they can produce tons of milk for you and me (and not their calves).

But before I go all Alicia Silverstone on you, I need to confess that I find most vegans insufferable. And the more vegans understand this sentiment, the more effective they’ll be at promoting their mission. I’m behind the mission: but I come at it from the health benefits, and those benefits may be an easier sell.

Sure, I love the PETA campaigns. George Clooney’s girlfriend. Pam Anderson. Very funny and titilating, with a great message. Ironic. But the strident, brow-beating lectures proffered by vegans I know – no, thank you. Let me make my own damn decisions about what to eat without hearing the misery of Food, Inc scenes recreated to proselytize me toward not eating animal products. Let me dose myself on the misery, thanks.

How about I don my medical hat for a moment? Vegan diets rock. There’s significant data showing that vegans have significantly lower rates of heart disease compared to Americans on the Standard American Diet (SAD!). Dr. Caldwell Esselyne has published convincing data on the topic and even helped Bill Clinton become vegan after his recent brush with heart disease. Check out Bill! He lost 24 pounds and now rocks his high school weight! And that’s not all! Vegan diets are associated with far less inflammation, the precursor to all things bad such as cancer, achey joints, bad aging!

But it’s one thing to go vegan because of health benefits. Most of those folks still have a healthy sense of irony intact. It’s quite another to go vegan for ethical and/or environmental reasons.

My husband, David Gottfried, is the founder of the US and World Green Building Councils, and wrote the white paper on LEED, an international benchmark for how green a building or home can be, in 1993. Arguably, his nonprofits have done more to mitigate carbon than any other in the world because the building industry has an even worse carbon footprint than the meat industry. He’s an environmental zealot. What metric made him go veg? The water story.

Here’s the persuasive metric: how much water does it take to produce a pound of meat versus a pound of vegetables? As you might imagine, there are some folks answering that question with a conflict of interest. Most estimates range around 2500 gallons of water per pound of beef. Or as Newsweek put it, the amount of water to produce a 1000-pound steer would float a destroyer.  Ask the beef industry, and they put the figure at 441 gallons.

What about gallons of water per pound of veggies? Take potatoes. The metric is put at 2 gallons of water per pound of potatoes. Now I don’t know exactly how fuzzy this math might be. I’m an engineer by training, and we have an organic vegetable garden. We capture rainwater to irrigate our garden and our veggies seem to need much more than 2 gallons of water to produce a pound. And I haven’t even touched the carbon footprint of other aspects of meat production, and the energy consumption needed to pump and treat water. Oy.

If you seek more rigorous data, you find rather consistently that regardless of the absolute numbers, it takes about 200-fold more water to produce a pound of beef than a pound of potatoes. Persuasive.

In any case, we both went veg last year: David for 3 months as a vegetarian and I went vegan for 6 months. Yes, it was temporary. We’re both O+ blood types, if you believe the eat-for-your-blood-type hype. I must say it was hard to persist.

And yet here I am again, feeling the pull toward veganism. I imagine the mama cow. I imagine looking in her eyes with a bowl of organic yogurt in front of me. Milk intended for her baby, not me. I harken back to my breatfeeding days, when I felt remarkably cow-like, and can’t fathom myself in a similar position – a milk prostitute.

Oops, there goes the irony. I get all serious, earnest and downright irritating. But irony is a great tool for the under-powered to use against the over-powered. Let’s get some supplemental irony to these vegans!

Yet I’m still motivated to go vegan, but with buckets of irony and humor. No taking myself too seriously. Let me know if I become insufferable!

Thanks to Leo Babauta for triggering the thoughts behind this post. You rock! Vegan?

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Erin Feb 2, 2014 11:41pm

Live and let live. I'm sorry you find certain vegans insufferable. I could care less about what other people eat and why they eat the way they do. I mostly just worry about what I eat. But what you find insufferable in other people is probably just a reflection of yourself, so you must see something you don't like about yourself in "insufferable" vegans.

oz_ Jun 13, 2013 8:00am

As an engineer, I would have hoped for an analysis that did not engage in the 'false dichotomy' fallacy I see so often in pro-vegan pieces like this one.

You compare veganism only with the SAD – when the fact is that almost any diet you could choose short of eating raw toxic waste would look healthful by comparison.

This says more about the unhealthful nature of the SAD than it does about veganism.

If in fact your goal is evidence-based wisdom, I'd suggest giving the following a read:

The water argument also suffers from the fale choice fallacy: as long as all you compare to is CAFO-produced meat, then your point is valid. But what about non-feedlot meat? For example, truly free range bison that use natural water supplies vs vegetable farming that must divert water from natural sources? That's a far tougher analysis, especially if you expand that analysis to not isolate only water, but consider water as just one factor, in a holistic, complex systems analysis, which is what is called for?

What about the FACT that the mere presence of bison on a Great Plains ranch actually serves to restore the ecosystems to a far more ecologically balanced state? That when you add bison, you then see everything flourish: flora, insects, bords, predators, etc? Bison is a keystone species in the Great Plains – what would an ecological analysis look like if bison were excluded and only vegetable farms were allowed?

In fact ,what if we flip your false dichotomy around, and point out that huge farms that grow only vegetables (including organic ones) first must kill off or drive away ALL animals and then establish that veggie farm acreage as a permanent animal exclusion zone? So much so that we now feature, world-wide, about 3.8 BILLION hectares of land where animals – pollinators excluded – are not permitted? This is ecologically irresponsible, to put it mildly.

Let's consider for a moment Aldo Leopold's land ethic:

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

If you are willing to accept this ethic (which I am), then the case can easily be made that eating bison is far superior to eating only veggies (unless those veggies were produced in a permaculture-based scenario), in terms of ecological benefits. Especially if the harvesting of bison is done humanely (see: Buffalo for the Broken Heart, by Dan O'Brien).

I would also argue that the science shows pretty clearly that eating a diet largely based on plants, but that includes animal products such as meat, eggs, and small-scale, local dairy (e.g. raw goat milk), leads to perfectly healthy individuals, and in fact to individuals far healthier than many vegans I know whose health is appalling thanks to huge intake of non-fermented soy (often in the form of 'meat substitutes') and vegan processed foods (often based on high omega-6 oils, which inarguably leads to chronic inflammation).

But in the case that you DO continue to push veganism (which, don't get me wrong, can be done healthfully, if one is willing to invest the thought and the time [approx 2 hours per day for cooking] and the money), then I'd suggest you also offer this valuable information along with that recommendation:

You see, the problem here is not as simplistic as 'should I eat feedlot beef or go vegan' – the problem is with our proclivity for short cut thinking – using labels (like 'vegan' or 'organic') in order to avoid having to think through what is a complex issue. And engaging in fallacious 'false choice' reasoning, as this article does, keeps people in that short cut mode. As a fellow engineer, I'd encourage you to allow for more of the variables that are at play here to enter into your thinking, and your writing. It's just not as simple as you've made it out to be, and that does people a disservice.

Daniella Feb 4, 2012 6:52pm

so the vegans you refer to are insufferable for having a point of view that's different than yours – way to be tolerant Doctor

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Sara Gottfried, MD

I believe in evidence-based ancient wisdom. I believe in eating your leafy greens rather than popping synthetic pills. I believe in Ayurveda and integrative medicine. I believe in botanical therapies over synthetic hormones. I believe you deserve to feel sexy, ripe and delicious. I believe in tending your flame. I believe that proactively managing and optimizing your health is your divine responsibility and a path to personal power. I’m a mother suspicious of processed sugar and a yogini hotly pursuing lithe, lean lusciousness. I’m committed to deep green, organic living. I’m a scholar and a seeker of truth, vitality, hormonal balance, sacred balance, spirituality and divine self-actualization. I’m Sara Gottfried, MD and you can find me at my website or love my Facebook page.