May 2015: Why I think it is the only food and lifestyle philosophy that aligns with my value systems.
So shall we get the calls of “hypocrite” out of the way?
I am not a vegan (eats and uses only plant matter). I’ve spent my adult life oscillating between being a lacto-ovo-vegetarian (vegetarian, plus dairy and eggs), pescetarian (lacto-ovo-vegetarian, plus seafood) and omnivore (eats both plant- and animal-origin food). (I’m calling out the way I’ve used these terms, as there are so many types and definitions: eg, in Indian Hindus, ‘pure veg’ usually means lacto-vegetarian.)
Truth is, veganism is the only food and lifestyle philosophy that aligns to my belief systems; and food is the only aspect of my life in which I am a blatant hypocrite, where my actions don’t match my words. With a personality that’s “guilt-prone” (my therapist’s words, not mine), it bothers me no end that I am not even a committed vegetarian; niggling guilt and disappointment tinge the pleasure of a good steak. I cannot believe my lack of will power, that my tongue and hedonism (and laziness) win in a battle against my beliefs.
So what are the beliefs that point me straight to a vegan lifestyle?
Let’s consider, first, the mediocrity principle, the opposite of anthropocentricism. What is the place of humanity in The Grander Scheme of Things? We are, for all our self-aggrandisement, no more than one species on earth, and one of millions in the universe. If we are no more or less than the animals who co-inhabit earth with us, we don’t—shouldn’t—have rights over them.
Let’s say one believes the opposite, that humans are the most significant species on the planet, the very pinnacle of evolution, the Masters of the Earth. One could take an anthropocentric belief system to mean that we are the rightful owners of everything that lives—or see that it grants us agency, great power… and great responsibility. In a situation where we can control the fates of other species, how should we treat them? If you had a kingdom, what kind of monarch would you be?
It is not anthropomorphism to suppose that farm animals feel pain, loneliness, terror, fear; and also love, belonging, attachment, joie de vivre—no less than pets, no less than us.
I used to be afraid of the dark. Someone once asked me whether it was a fear of what was in front of me or what was behind. I thought about it—what’s behind, I said. “That means you’re afraid of what you don’t know.” (True!) When it comes to animal carcasses on my plate and their hides in my closet (almost zero) however, I am afraid to know. I can’t bear to see videos of animals in slaughterhouses and egg farms, and promptly choose the ‘I don’t want to see this’ option on Facebook when one of my many animal-loving friends posts something gruesome and graphic.
But these things are true. The horrific lives and deaths of animals in the meat and dairy industries are well documented. I was the child who’d cry outside meat shops (my parents didn’t permit me to give up non-veg as a child, 'coz protein), and I think Bakri Eid and other animal sacrifice is barbaric. How can I call myself an animal lover, be the person who does all this animal rescue (including that of a male calf—the vet explained that he was probably abandoned by a dairy farmer), believe in non-violence and animal rights, and still give my economic vote to the meat industry?! Not to mention the indirect deaths—the bycatch, the 1000s of species going extinct as the rainforests are destroyed to graze cattle, the male calves and chicks.
I’m not religious and identify as apathetic agnostic. The one guiding force in my life is to be ‘good’ based on my own moral compass—one could call it karma or tie it to the Christian good/evil binary or simplify it to the saying ‘What goes around, comes around’. I do not want to be the perpetrator of pain; I want to be compassionate, kind, gentle and without carnage on my conscience.
The question I’m not sure I have an answer for is whether human beings would let animals even survive if we could not use them, if they didn’t serve our purposes.
Need, Not Greed
Even though I have more of a stomach for human suffering than I do for animal suffering, the idea that the greed to eat meat deprives thousands of food they need, contributing to world hunger and famine, is unpalatable. “If we eat the plants we grow instead of feeding them to animals, the world's food shortage will disappear virtually overnight. Remember that 100 acres of land will produce enough beef for 20 people but enough wheat to feed 240 people,” says one article I read.
Let’s quell counterarguments of agriculture’s environmental impact and inherent cruelty with common sense and the proven fact that meat and dairy farming does much more damage—global warming, water shortage, deforestation, famine (the figures are readily available online).
While veganism is a significant counterculture movement, in India I notice far more children of vegetarian families eating non-vegetarian food, owing to loosening religious beliefs and improved spending power, than the reverse. More than enough people are choosing to override the forest and kill wildlife for their horns, penises and skins. We leave a carbon footprint by merely breathing and each one of us is, literally, one among seven billion, so it is easy to dismiss individual contribution to the conservation effort—but hey, why does one bother doing anything at all, right?
Also, I’ve retained this interesting idea that I once read in a quotable quote (god, I’ve looked high and low for that quote since)! The conservation of nature is not for nature, really, it is self-preservation; nature will go on much after the human race has gone and made itself extinct. If we are, indeed, the smartest, bestest creatures that have ever lived, having children to carry forward our oh-so-important bloodlines and planning for our reincarnations, wouldn’t we want to, like, not go extinct? Shouldn’t we also be smart enough to know of and make those choices?
Though advocates of non-vegetarianism believe the jury is still out on this one, there is ample evidence that vegetarianism is better for your body than meat eating. (From my reading of much research on the subject, I think the question that remains is: with or without milk and eggs?) From Ayurveda to Dr Dean Ornish’s ideas on heart health, researches on cancer, weight loss, ageing and toxicity, and the idea that human bodies were designed to be herbivorous—I’m fairly convinced. My health is important to me. From a personal point of view, of course, but also from a socioeconomic/consumerism/ecology point of view—an unhealthy body taxes available resources and healthcare.
Why am I still an omnivore? Taste: after a few days of being lacto-ovo-vegetarian, I crave the taste of non-veg food. And bacon. Hedonism: pleasure. Tasty new foods, exploring cultures through their foods when travelling, yum… But, mostly, laziness. As a foodie living in the most vegetarian-friendly country in the world, it’s not like I’ve made the most effort to find or cook the best vegetarian meals, for an apples-to-apples comparison (apples-to-chicken comparison, in this case). Neither have I bothered to explore the market of faux meats. And part of the reason I eat meat abroad is ease—though, if my in-laws, who are ‘pure veg’ for religious reasons, can travel the world with careful planning, I should be able to do the same for my beliefs.
Veganism embodies the values I claim to stand by, and, right now, I am my own "inferior other" (as described in this wonderful piece ‘Vegetarianism and the Idea of Untouchability’). I believe transition is a slow process, and I’m going to make a serious start.
This column appeared on 3QD in May 2015.