When I moved out to Kenya in September 2017, I had been ‘vege-quarian’ (pescatarian) for about two years with no intention of changing. However, this quickly changed. My local supermarket, or more appropriately termed ‘hectic corner shop’, did not sell fish or cheese and coupled with my aversion to frequent shopping and milk’s short lifespan, I found my diary & meat intake curtailed. To my surprise, I had slipped into being vegan. (Veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products – meat, fish, eggs, dairy).
On arriving in the UK I found that, despite what the French think, the huge variety of cheese was grating on me. I had to re-evaluate my decision and develop a stronger rationale. This is my current rationale, which is always susceptible to change, and my response to the best arguments I have heard against it. In this blog, I delve into how I imperfectly implement this veganism as an eternal hypocrite.
Why go vegan?
Most people ask this question with an expectation of a single answer: ethical or environmental concerns. Whilst I applaud those who can, one reason is not good enough for me. Full of my own hypocrisies, any singular reason fails when put under scrutiny. Instead, I prefer to have an arsenal.
A principled stance
Ethics, moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity, are full of blurry lines – some blurrier than others. As I wrote in this post, my life is shaped by a hypocrisy around my principles. Fortunately, the food choices governed by a principle ‘to not actively cause unnecessary harm and suffering’ is remarkably simple.
Indeed, this was the principle that prompted my initial step into pescetarianism. However, I was always aware that exempting fish was arbitrary at best and naïve at worst. This sat uneasily with me so I turned to vegetarianism. This also remained naïve but then I was blissfully ignorant. As this very well written article puts it, ‘the entire life of a dairy cow is a never-ending nightmarish cycle of depression, torture and rape. Yes, rape.’
As beautifully highlighted in the book Sapiens and as I wrote in 25/12/17: A human centric world: are humans really central?, we have falsely created a human-centric world. At the core, there is a great disrespect for other animals in our culture. The loss of any animism, the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence, is symptomatic of this. Whatever the realities of their sacrifices on animals, it was out of respect for some greater animal being. Previous hunter-gatherer societies had a necessity for meat that justified their actions and a respect for the contribution of these animals – this is lost in the ‘commodification’ of animals we have today.Humans are on a spectrum of intelligence, ability, strength with other animals and on many criteria we are rather pathetic. We draw very arbitrary lines. Why should an animal’s harm and suffering, with whom we share 99% of our DNA with, equate to nothing?
But, even if one accepts that 1% on one specific metric is enough to enslave and murder millions – take this thought experiment. There could be aliens who exist as far more capable on this metric. Much like we look down upon chimpanzees who couldn’t write Shakespeare (or at least with finite time), these aliens could look down upon our incapability to write Shakespeare 2.0 (or at least with finite time). Would we think they had the same right to torture, enslave and murder millions of humans for their own pleasure? I would venture not.
This programme cleverly and humorously highlights that with the right perspective, we may gain insight into how reprehensible our actions are. A perspective from which our ‘imagined reality’ that legitimizes the meat and dairy industry is not taken as a given.
Life offers few instances of perfectly carrying out a principle. With my food choices, veganism was a clear way to live by my principle of not actively causing undue harm and suffering.
The principle of stopping undue harm extends to the earth as well. Unlike with animals, harm to the earth is inevitable and as such, it is important to stress the ‘necessity’ element as human existence is detrimental in and of itself. Unfortunately, I am guilty of additional unnecessary damage, most notably I travel & fly too much. Over the past 3 months I have taken 11 flights, largely intra-Africa. This is partly thanks to having a nomadic family spread across 4 continents and the work required traveling. However, it still remains too much.
Both from a principled stance as well as offsetting this damage, being vegan is a way I can lessen my impact on the earth. There are countless studies and resources showing that a vegan diet is far more sustainable and whilst the precise values vary considerably, the direction does not. It is also important to note that this impact on the earth is directly having an impact on people as well. Climate change will continue to create new environmental disasters, leading to further refugee and humanitarian crises.
Healthier living and feeling
A lot of studies, like this one from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have shown that a vegan diet is healthier although there are also ways to be vegan which are less healthy, a ‘fat vegan’ is not oxymoronic. For most, however, a vegan diet or moving closer to one would be better. From a personal perspective, I have felt less sluggish and lethargic after eating meals and my energy levels are more consistent and higher. It is possible this is entirely ‘placebo’ but nonetheless, I do feel better!
Cooking wise, becoming vegan has forced me to look, find and become more creative with my use of vegetables and beans. There is also research to suggest that you change your taste buds as you eliminate meat from your diet, garnering a better appreciation for delicious kale smoothies!
When I consider why I would eat meat or dairy, I can only think of one reason – ‘I want’. Veganism is an opportunity to practice control over this desire and particularly when it comes at the cost of others.
Aren’t humans amazing?
Well, no …. as I argue here. However, it is remarkable that we have managed to create a fully sustaining plant-based diet for humans. Making it possible for humans to move from omnivore to herbivore. It seems a shame not to partake in and enjoy such a feat of human knowledge!
The best reasons NOT TO
In writing why I have gone vegan, I also want to address the best reasons not to. From discussions with friends, these are the strongest counter-arguments I have heard:
But ‘Free-range’ or organic farming is ethical
Many people view free-range farming as an ethically soothing alternative. However, one could challenge how ‘ethical’ such ethical farming is. This article provides a strong case more on how ‘Free range is a con. There is no such thing as an ethical egg’ As the author writes, ‘beak trimming is commonplace in the UK. Almost all young hens have part of their beaks burned off without anesthetic to stop them pecking at the other hens in their cramped, traumatised flocks. Free-range sheds can contain up to nine birds per square meter – that’s like 14 adults living in a one-room flat. Some multi-tier sheds (still “free range”) contain 16,000 hens. So while these poor birds can theoretically go outdoors, they can also be too crammed in and too traumatised to find the few exit holes.’
Besides, organic livestock remains below 3% of livestock in the UK. Stats found in this government paper. Very little of the meat available is organic or ethical. Even if the meat one sources is genuinely ethical, ethical husbandry remains far more environmentally damaging than a vegan diet.
What would happen to the cows?
Some argue that domesticated animals have done incredibly well thanks to humans. There are more cows, chickens and lambs than ever would have existed otherwise! As Harari writes, ‘we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us’ – some say this is also true of livestock who have piggybacked on our expansion.
However, despite being plentiful, their existence is miserable. Living in cages, raped and then murdered is probably not what an animal species would deem as success. See this list for films on factory farming. Most of the livestock would have been better off had they never existed in the first place. The same could be said for many humans but that is for a different blog post. Then there is also the fact that, at its core, by bringing an animal into this world you expose them to the reality of death they never would have known had they not existed. So, yes, most of the cows would not get to live lives they would not want to live anyway – that doesn’t sound too bad.
Again, the environmental case against so many livestock would still stand.
What about farming jobs?
I liken this argument to saying we should start another World War to return to the days of full employment. In many ways, the first and second world war can be seen as positive for their impact on employment, women’s empowerment and medical and scientific breakthroughs. Yet, to suggest we should have another is reprehensible. The end does not justify the means. If it is bad, it is bad – externalities should not be taken into consideration. Similarly, if we agree that environmental damage and animal cruelty is bad, jobs is not a justification.
Also, humans still have to eat. True there will be fewer jobs initially, but humans will want more variety in their vegan diet. This could create a whole class of new farming we could never envisage. Ironically, this concern gives too little credit to humans. Just like Industrial revolution, mechanisation, large-scale manufacturing and previous automation shows – humans find a way to create new jobs.
Ignorance is bliss
Most people would agree that environmental damage and animal cruelty are bad. They would also agree with the principle of not causing undue suffering. How, then, to reconcile their meat and dairy eating behaviour? It’s a tough question.
I do so by considering their meat choices as passive. We have built a society which disassociates itself with the consequences of its choices. We build long supply chains with 12 ‘middle-men’ between the animal and the final customer; slaughterhouses are rarely located near schools and we create a human-centric world. In this podcast, ‘Do Animals have rights?’, they make the great point that even the names of meat help us disassociate choices with consequences. If we termed ‘veal’ as ‘dead baby cow’ or ‘bacon’ as ‘dead pig’ we might think twice. As encapsulated in this Michael Sandel talk with the classic trolley problem, we are far happier making passive as opposed to active choices despite the fact that the consequences are the same.
A Tentative Conclusion
I initially went vegan by accident. It was just convenient and cheap. Then I came to the UK, and it became considerably less so. This forced me to think about my choices and their consequences – something I had been remarkably happy to ignore. From an ethical standpoint, environmental, health, self-discipline and human achievement perspective – I have come to see the value of a vegan diet and am proud to follow it.
I do not want to evangelise for a Vegan diet, it would not convince anyone and nor should you convert because someone told you. However, I do hope this blog post gives you ‘food for thought’ to turn a passive decision into an active one – whatever that decision may be.
Happy New Year!
Update: Recently got this hilarious advertisment, clearly Google’s advertising isn’t that accurate! Who would wear this?! (Lady Gaga perhaps)