August 7, 2012

Going vegan is damn hard.

Vegan Sages: Jonathan Safron Foer {Volume One}

People care about animals. I believe that. They just don’t want to know or to pay.

~ Jonathon Safran Foer

First, a couple of clarifications:

  • >> Jonathon Safron Foer is not, to my knowledge, a vegan. He is, however, the writer of a moderately important work of nonfiction regarding the consumption of animals, apparently responsible for turning at least one celebrity vegan.
  • >> Sage, as per the Merriam Webster definition, means: one (as a profound philosopher) distinguished for wisdom. The efforts Foer went to in the development of his book—both in terms of personal soul searching and external research into the subject—I think qualify him for that status.
  • >> Volume One, because I intend to follow this up with more, so stay tuned.

A few more disclaimers:

I realize this article is not going to be read by vegans alone, so examining this quote properly means honoring those two perspectives—that of the ethical vegan, and that of everyone else.

Having said that, please don’t think for one second that I personally don’t appreciate and applaud the efforts of everyone everywhere to eat more consciously—from buying locally, organically, and vegetarian. It just so happens that I’m writing about ethical veganism here.

Finally, if I seem like I’m walking on eggshells (no pun intended), I am. I think it’s really important in these conversations that we honor and respect one another. To that end, I’ll endeavor to choose my words as carefully as I choose the food I eat.

Back to that quote.

As simplistic and straight-forward as it is, I firmly believe that it’s very important for two reasons.

First, the idea that “people” generally and genuinely care about animals is the thing that keeps ethical vegans sane quite a lot of the time. It’s our hope in the dark—not that the world will turn vegan in our lifetimes, but that our relationship with the other sentient beings on the planet will shift dramatically in response to a global awakening to the value of all life.

Secondly, I do agree with what Foer claims, but only to an extent. I think that people care about animals insofar as they’re given the chance to do so. People in global minority countries, like those of North America and Europe, do care about animals. We love our pets. We love (most of) nature’s fauna. We even love our image of Farmer John and his happy cows and chickens. However, I’ve lived in other countries where the way in which humans and non-humans interact is quite different, owing to so many things the subject would warrant an entire book of its own. So let’s say, for purposes of this article, that I agree with Foer’s first point…to a point.

But the second part of of the quote, contained in the third sentence, is equally important, predominantly for its potential to raise hairs.  It will quite likely be the point of contention for those sitting outside the ethical vegan box. No one wants to be told that by nature of their willful decision to remain either ignorant or cheap they are betraying something they care about—in this case, animals. Let’s be honest—no one wants to be told anything about what they eat. Still, from my personal collection of the million-or-so things “people say to vegans,” a few classics:

I would totally be vegan if I didn’t like cheese so much!

I know I should stop eating meat, but it’s just too much work.

As well as the ones Foer’s already covered:

I could never watch those videos—I don’t want to know!

Being vegan’s just way too expensive!

So should the quote read, “…They just don’t want to know or to pay or to give up their favorites or to try harder?” Or can these additons be covered by redefining “know” to include knowing how easy it really is (sometimes) and “pay” to include paying for the choice by way of sacrificing the things we love?

Whatever the case, I don’t buy it. I refer back to my hope in humanity, and that hope lies in my view of human beings as creatures trying, by and large, to do the best they can in the face of a whole barrage of obstacles. Our species does not consist of a majority who are willfully ignorant, lazy and greedy (inability to pay is something else entirely).

The fact is that going vegan—while far easier now than it was even just a decade ago—is still damn hard.

Particularly if one doesn’t live in a huge metropolis. Particularly if one is trying to raise a family on a limited budget and with limited time. And facing the realities of the meat, dairy and egg industries is profoundly difficult. It doesn’t just mean giving up foods that are ostensibly easier and cheaper to come by—it means living with that knowledge every day. It’s a lot of weight to carry.

I may not believe that the world will turn vegan in our lifetimes, but I have to hope that more people eat less animal products by the very nature of the fact that I’m an ethical vegan. For some vegans, that means trying to convert others; for some—me included—it means trying to find realistic ways to help people reduce the amount of meat they consume. For the sake of the animals, yes, but also for the sake of their own health and of the environment.

There’s been all sorts written about the various ways one can do this—“Meatless Mondays” and Mark Bittman’s “Vegan-before-6” being the two best known. But I think we need to stop looking at veganism as a burden or a sacrifice.

Veganism is not about giving anything up or losing anything; it is about gaining the peace within yourself that comes from embracing nonviolence and refusing to participate in the exploitation of the vulnerable.

~ Gary L. Francione

I just might use Mr. Francione for one of my upcoming posts. He’s got a lot of interesting stuff to say about being vegan. And I think he really nails this one.

But back to those previously identified dilemmas inherent in the transition to a vegan lifestyle.

I know I should stop eating meat, but it’s just too much work.

There is a bit more work involved in being vegan than in, say, eating at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. But the same can be said for healthy eating of any kind. Any diet based on whole foods takes more time. In return, though, one gets fewer sick days and a lot more energy, so I’m not sure it actually takes more time in the long run. Having said that, a vegan fast food diet is the quickest way to get really sick and swear off veganism for the rest of one’s life. Going vegan? Be prepared to cook.

Being vegan’s just way too expensive!

Just. Not. True. However, buying up a whole bunch of processed food is expensive, and if you’re going for the vegan variety, you’re probably going to get stuff with whole-er ingredients, which will mean they’re more expensive. Processed vegan stuff is also targeted at a completely different socio-economic group than processed other stuff…it’s way out of my price range, too.

But the good news is that beans and fruits and vegetables and whole grains and herbs and spices are really quite cheap. Soy milk and yogurt are very comparable to their dairy counterparts, and tofu is way cheaper than a decent piece of meat. But, no—you can’t get a vegan burger for a buck. As with the last point, cooking is key.

I could never watch those videos —I don’t want to know!

I know. I don’t watch them anymore, either. Earthlings just about killed me. But how many truths are truly convenient? The truth is that, in order to produce enough meat to feed the number of people who want to eat meat today, we must put animals through the most unimaginably horrific conditions for the entirety of their lives.

That doesn’t even take into account the trauma the humans working with them have to undergo (Foer covers this well in Eating Animals). It is really that bad. And I don’t even want to think about what the future holds if we don’t at least slow down our consumption. Which is why ethical vegans are pretty much okay with the next point.

I would totally be vegan if I didn’t like cheese so much!

Truth? I spent 14 years as a vegan convinced that there would never be a vegan cheese worth eating (and I’ve eaten ’em all). Until I tried Daiya. (They’re not paying me a red cent to say that. What’s true is true.) But nothing will probably ever taste like bacon. Or jerk chicken. Or my mom’s meatloaf (I swear it was delicious!). But no matter—nothing tastes as good as eating ethically feels. It’s really that simple.

There are millions of people on the precipice of changing the way the eat, in a big way or a small way, and possibly in a vegan way, for any number of reasons.  The obstacles to a full-time or part-time vegan lifestyle exist, but they aren’t impossible to overcome by any means.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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