Ethics of Vegetarianism: Evangelizing for the Environment

Ethics of Vegetarianism: Evangelizing for the Environment July 20, 2015

A recent NPR piece that someone shared with me reminded me why I no longer support them financially.  An Indian vegetarian diet and efforts to promote this are portrayed as a culture or caste issue, instead of one about the impact to environment, human health, animal welfare or religious freedom: the  “Egg War” seemed more of a war on Hinduism and Jainism. I have been raised on a traditional Indian, and to be even more specific, an Andhra vegetarian diet, while growing up in America – where being vegetarian has not been easy. Even my kids have been raised vegetarian, with a diet that is quintessentially American, including Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Middle-eastern, Thai, Andhra, Punjabi, Gujarathi, and of course, pizza – but everything is meat-free. That we are vegetarian is primarily due to an ethical approach to diet, with Hindu philosophy and religious practice linked to that highest of yogas, ahimsa (nonviolence): do no harm.

When I was growing up, it was even harder than today to be vegetarian: school field trips with stops at the Golden Arches often left me dissatisfied – the only food I could eat was the ice cream that really wasn’t – and emphasized even more how I was different from my classmates. My mother, pursuing her PhD in biology at SUNY Stony Brook, often explained how nutritional and balanced our vegetarian diet was – all without animal suffering. Using eggs was simply not necessary in her kitchen. And during my college days in India, I discovered how varied and rich India’s vegetarian cuisine is – with a wide variety of beans and pulses for protein, coupled with other ingredients that make it coveted around the world.

The NPR article ignored the value of a vegetarian diet to the environment and took me back a few months, to a workshop I attended in NY. Organized annually by the Council on Foreign Relations, as part of their Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative, this summer workshop brings religious leaders from across the country to CFR headquarters in New York to discuss pressing international issues. This past May, I listened attentively to the speakers in a session entitled “International Policy Options for Addressing Climate Change.” One was Rev. Mitch Hescox, President & CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, whom I had met earlier that same day. He is the founder of the organization behind – a website I had visited years earlier as part of a course I was enrolled in at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary.  Founded in 1993, the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) is a “ministry that educates, inspires, and mobilizes Christians in their effort to care for God’s creation, to be faithful stewards of God’s provision, to get involved in regions of the United States and the World impacted by pollution, and to advocate for actions and policies that honor God and protect the environment.”

During the Q&A portion, I asked the panelists why no one addressed the positive impact that encouraging vegetarianism could have on climate change, and got a collective murmur of approval from others in the audience. The panel’s responses didn’t satisfy, including the one from Rev. Hescox, who agreed that vegetarianism would have a positive impact on climate change, and pointed out that this is a personal behavior, not policy. I thought to myself, why aren’t faith leaders like him discussing vegetarianism at this panel on climate change? It is as relevant as policy, since it is faith leaders who tend to influence people’s personal behavior. Later when I checked the Evangelical Environmental Network website, I was further disappointed to note that the Evangelical Climate Initiative pledge does not refer at all to impact of vegetarianism on conservation of natural resources and care for the environment.

After reading NPR’s biased piece, I reached out electronically to commiserate with a few friends from the Bhumi Project: Director Gopal Patel, based in Oxford; staff member Mat McDermott based in NY; and former Bhumi intern Shreekari Tadepalli, based in Philadelphia. (Full disclosure: Shreekari is my daughter). Mat pointed out that some people think that eating meat is necessary for good health, “due in no small part to industrialized meat producers.” Shreekari’s take was that the article approached the issue from a “Western framework — sure, remove meat from your average American’s diet and you’re left without a reliable source of protein, but this is not the case with South Asians. Lentils are a key part of Indian cuisine, and to portray meat and/tor eggs as the sole source of protein is a failure to move beyond a fairly colonial, Western-centric mindset.” Fortunately, University of San Francisco professor of media studies Vamsee Juluri addresses the bias of both the NPR piece as well as a prior NYT piece in more depth, pointing out:

The bigger problem though is the intellectual inertia and malaise that has allowed an old, colonial, racist mythology about India to become synonymous with the progressive, anti-casteist position in India today. To put it simply, I think the beef bans and beef festivals both miss the point by fighting over rights bestowed by the past on the present. It has to be about the present preparing for a future where one day we might well wake up with a start, as we did about second-hand smoke, about the needlessness of the mass industrial slaughter of animals, birds, and sea-life that we routinely accept as a global way of life today.

We need to counter the narrative about the negative connotations around vegetarianism in India and reduce the challenges one faces in being vegetarian around the world. We need to better explain  the Hindu practices that promote vegetarian lifestyles (as they do here at Hinduism Today), understand and appreciate the value of going meatless, and perhaps evangelize vegetarianism to protect the environment.

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