It‘s amazing how seemingly chance events can shape us. This can happen at any age, but it is especially true when we are young. In 1995, at the age of 12, I saw a film that would change my life. Ironically, it wasn’t a very good movie. When I heard the premise – about a pig that learns to herd sheep – I thought it seemed much too childish for sophisticated, William-Blake reading, 12-year-old me. But when I saw Babe, I was forced to confront a reality I’d never known existed.
Up to that point I hadn’t given much thought to where my food came from. I ate the bacon and eggs my mother made for breakfast; I ate the liver or chicken breast or steak that my grandmother would prepare for our weekly family Sunday dinner; I relished my Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham. My contact with farm animals came mostly on those occasional spring and summer Saturdays when my parents and I would leave our inner-ring suburb of Buffalo, NY to visit friends in the country. As we drove past the rolling hills and farmland, I loved watching the cows and horses that milled about in green pastures. Every so often, we would visit a local farm where visitors were allowed to pick whatever crop was in season – strawberries in June, tomatoes in July, corn in August.
Up until the age of twelve, I imagined that this was what farming was like: idyllic, pastoral, straight out of a Sesame Street episode until or nursery rhyme. But then, the movie Babe showed me a different vision: huge numbers of animals housed in ugly, factory-like buildings. Was this the way most farm animals spent their lives? The movie also made me realize that pigs are extremely intelligent animals – indeed, they are as smart as dogs. I shuddered at the thought of my wonderful border collie, Boots, being slaughtered for food. At that moment I made a decision: the pork and beef in my life would have to go. How could I possibly eat other mammals – animals which my middle school biology class revealed to be so closely related to me?
Fortunately, my parents got on board with my decision to cut pork and beef from my diet. They expressed a little concern, however, when after my first semester of college in 2001, I announced that I had become a full-fledged vegetarian. The initial jump was basically a caprice – during the first week of school, I ate the cafeteria’s attempt at Buffalo chicken wings (my hometown’s delicacy), and I decided that the tofu tasted better. And, I soon discovered that honestly it’s not the chicken that makes Buffalo wings so delectable. It’s the sauce.
While my first steps toward vegetarianism were propelled more by impulse than rationality, I found that good reasons came later. Discussions with my cousin – a hospital dietitian – revealed that meat consumption was not needed for healthy living. I took heart in the notion that I was not killing animals (alas, at this time I did not know about the brutalities of dairy farming). Finally, in 2005, I learned of the environmental argument. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to land use – indeed, 45% of the earth’s land is devoted to it – and a greater contributor to carbon emissions than all our fossil fuel use combined. It is also the cause of 91% of the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. For a few years I lived contentedly, confident in the belief that, by embracing vegetarianism, I was making the world a better place.
However, cognitive dissonance reared its ugly head again just two years ago when I saw another excellent film. Speciesism: The Movie, a thorough and surprisingly entertaining documentary by college-aged filmmaker Mark Devries, made me face an inconvenient truth. While giving up meat had been no real sacrifice (sorry Grandma, but I never really liked your liver and onions all that much anyway), I’d never seriously imagined renouncing cheese, or ice cream, or eggs. But, this film forced me to learn that on the whole, dairy cows live in much harsher conditions than beef cows, and most of them end up getting killed for meat eventually. And, even so-called free-range chickens live in crowded indoor conditions. Looking at this reality, it became clear that vegetarianism was not enough.
During the past two Lents, I have tried to embrace veganism as part of my spiritual practice. It is not easy – particularly since I’ve moved to the US heartland, where meat and dairy stand at the center of every meal. It’s also difficult because, as someone who generally finds cooking to be a chore more than an art, I don’t share the thrill some vegans experience at trying new recipes. But, as time goes by, my conscience is pushing me more and more in that direction – and I am urging others to follow the same path.
I know that this is not a message most of us want to hear. The consumption of meat and dairy forms the basis of our society; the cooking of meat is an art. Several friends have told me that they could never be vegetarian – the sacrifice would be too great. And, admittedly, I feel the same way about veganism. I love my Wisconsin cheese curds; I love my chocolate ice cream. I wear makeup. I am ashamed to admit that my car has leather seats.
And yet, the evidence suggests that some degree of sacrifice is necessary. In terms of animal cruelty, we might argue that there are other ways to avoid this without renouncing meat, like swearing to only eat animals that have been humanely raised, or working in other ways to resist the capitalist system that gives rise to these cruel practices in the first place. But unfortunately, there is no rebuttal for the environmental argument (unless you believe we can colonize space within the next forty years and that this possibility would justify the destruction of our ancestral home). The inconvenient truth that even Al Gore did not want to mention is that animal agriculture is the number one source of carbon emissions, Amazon destruction, species extinction, dead zones in the ocean, fresh water consumption, and indeed world hunger (were we all to become vegan, we could currently produce enough plant-based food to feed 10 billion people). These are facts that, as Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn’s recent documentary Cowspiracy disturbingly reveals, the mainstream environmental movement does not want us to know, as it receives some of its funding from big agriculture.
What are we to do? The current course most of us take – consuming meat and dairy products on a daily basis – is cruel, destructive and unsustainable. But, as I have said before on this blog, sacrifice does not need to be all or nothing. We do not need to make a binary choice between strict veganism and an omnivorous diet that places meat its the center. If all of us could become vegetarian for three days a week, the negative impact on animals, land, and water would be hugely reduced. This is an issue where I would urge us all not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Whatever our limitations may be, we must not let them become an excuse for doing nothing.