Q: How many vegans does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. Everybody knows they can’t change anything.
That’s a ‘vegan joke’, one of many I could find online, and, while I don’t agree that vegans “can’t change anything”, this joke encapsulates what I want to address in this blog post: the problematic mindset often imbued in vegan activism.
People seem to hate vegans—not really because of their veganism, but because of their activism. This is a pity, because the original goal and premise of veganism—to “exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” —is very positive; something we should all aspire to follow. There is, however, a more problematic side to veganism that isn’t sufficiently addressed.
This article is not a critique of any single strand of vegan activism, nor of veganism in itself. It’s a reflection on the ways in which veganism as a phenomenon has come to be understood and portrayed in our society today, and how these might be misguided, misleading, and, regrettably, counter-productive. It’s a suggestion for a new framing, a new focus, for future meatlessness.
Veganism has come to acquire multiple meanings. First and foremost, the term describes a set of (primarily dietary) principals to live by, as in the definition quoted above. But it is also the term for a social movement and a certain mindset. These understandings of ‘veganism’ as a concept need to be recognised to fully make sense of it as a phenomenon—on the one hand, it’s a lifestyle; on the other, it’s a mode of activism.
When I refer to veganism in this article, I refer to all of its components; I refer to it as a phenomenon, as a whole; as the picture of veganism that has been painted in my mind (and probably others’) by the many streams of vegan activism that are so omnipresent in today’s western society.
We should all agree that, as a concept, veganism is nothing but positive. No-nonsense, bullshit-free, sincere veganism, that is. However, I do think there are reasons to question some of the activism and morally simplified mindset that tends to follow veganism.
Before I explain further, let me give some insight into my own relationship with eating animals.
Up until a couple of years ago, I ate a lot of meat, dairy, eggs. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I would go out of my way to consume animals. I was an athlete, and I thought I needed animal protein to stay fit and healthy. A meal without animals wasn’t a meal, it was a snack. I didn’t know what I know now, although I thought I knew it all.
In my second year of university, I decided to experiment: what if I didn’t eat meat? I had watched some YouTube videos and read some articles about veganism and the environmental impacts of animal agriculture and the meat industry. As I got more inspired and more educated, I slowly started phasing animal foods out of my diet. I didn’t feel any different physically—no ‘perfect skin’, no ‘endless energy’; nothing like that. But I had done something I never thought I’d do, and I felt absolutely fine. Mentally, it felt good to make a change for the positive; to be more mindful of my consumption habits.
Today I’m still an omnivore. I eat fish more often than I should (although I try to make sure it’s wild caught). I still eat meat on special occasions, when I’m offered it at someone’s dinner—and, I must confess, when I crave the occasional burger. But I don’t buy meat to cook for myself anymore, and I haven’t done so in a long time. I don’t consume dairy, except for the rare piece of cheese or a little butter. I rarely consume eggs, perhaps unless they’re mixed or baked into something else. I’ve started ordering from the vegan or vegetarian menu at restaurants more often than not.
On a daily basis I think it’s fair to guess that I consume less animal products than the average vegetarian.
I’m becoming better. And I’m enjoying the ride. But I have no plans of ever strictly limiting myself to the confines of veganism, vegetarianism, even pescetarianism. I hope you’ll understand why at the end of this article.
The very crux of veganism is that it’s a reductionist approach to creating a better world. It quickly creates a very binary conception of human morality. This is unfortunate.
Veganism swears by the notion that vegans are better than non-vegans. To simplify a little—if you’re vegan, you’re a good person; if you’re a meat-eater, you’re a bad person. It sets up a neat little hierarchy; you climb the ladder, from omnivore to pescatarian to vegetarian to vegan, all the while excluding and eliminating foods and behaviours. With every step of the ladder, you become a better human being. While I won’t state that this is wrong per se, I think that this represents a partial and flawed understanding of food consumption.
Because there is so much more to one’s morality than the food one chooses to eat. First, social, cultural, historical, economic, and environmental factors play part in consumption and need to be analysed as a backdrop for any individual’s choice of what to eat. Second, while veganism is largely about consumption, morality is also about production; what good people produce in this world, what they give back. Simply put, it’s impossible to judge people’s morals based solely on what they eat, wear, and buy.
Moreover, veganism is an ideal—not a reality. Not in our contemporary world, anyway. What I mean by this is that being a so-called ‘strict vegan’ should be seen as an ‘ideal type’, i.e. the purest form of diet/consumption, not the possible reality of all human diets. A belief in collective veganism borders to perfectionism. Unfortunately, most people have bigger fish to fry (pun intended!) than to conform with the utmost ideal, the perfect.
Veganism is therefore an end result, and not the process. And it’s the process we should focus on. It’s the process that matters.
In many ways, veganism has become a Western ideal. If you’re a student in London and you don’t consume animal products, you’re a vegan. Perhaps you eat quorn burgers and quinoa. If you’re a farmer in rural Bangladesh or Zimbabwe or Brazil who don’t consume animal products, you’re poor. Perhaps you’d eat meat every day if you could afford it.
In the shape and form it has now taken, veganism depicts a reality that is skewed, partial, and self-centred. It has become the face of a booming industry that cares more about making money and sustaining people’s self-image than saving innocent animals. It has become a manifestation of perfect health, of perfect ethics, of perfect worldview. As a phenomenon, veganism includes the commodification of ethics, of moral, of health.
In the end, veganism is also an industry, a corporate machine.
When Bill Gates is portrayed as unethical, a bad person, for advocating meat consumption for malnourished people in poor developing countries, I think ‘veganised bias’ has gone too far. It represents a distorted, Western-centric worldview; one that seems to increasingly have penetrated—and, I would argue, corrupted—the logic and nature of veganism itself. When people get richer, they eat more meat, and the planet suffers more.
Should we (in the so-called ‘First world’) tell them (in the so-called ‘Third world’) not to eat meat because we screwed it up ourselves? Can we deny them that privilege when we consume so much meat ourselves? Again, this is an example of reductionist thinking. It’s complicated.
For most people, veganism simply isn’t sustainable, no matter what people say.
First, there is the nutritional side of things. While veganism undoubtedly can be a healthy diet, you need a certain level of knowledge in nutrition to ‘do it right’. That requires time, effort, and education; not to mention willpower and determination.
There are plenty of vegan junk-foods and unhealthy meat substitutes available. Therefore it’s easy to adapt an unhealthy diet as a vegan. Moreover, when one is constantly short of foods to select from, cravings for what can be eaten (I’m looking at you, sugar!) often become worse. Once on this path, it’s worth to note that vegan branded foods tend to be much more expensive than ‘regular’ foods—hence the “…but I can’t afford it!” arguments.
So, the issue here is that while veganism can be healthy and sustainable, only a very few people will be determined enough, and have the knowledge needed, to achieve this. Believing otherwise is wishful thinking.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, there are the social and cultural side of things. It’s at restaurants, dinner parties, at grandma’s table, and while travelling that vegans are really being put to test. In theory, it’s easy to ask for a vegan dish at a restaurant (or order that one, non-appetising-sounding vegan dish on the menu), stick to potatoes and veggies at the dinner party, or avoid tasting local (but meaty) delicacies while travelling.
In reality, it’s not that easy. We want to conform, we don’t want to make a fuss. We don’t want to disappoint grandma. We want to enjoy ourselves. We want to be respectful and try new things. Hats off to those who manage to work their way around problematic scenarios such as these—but it would be naive to expect everyone around you to manage the same.
Add to this the enormous amount of meat we’re already consuming in the Western world—in fact, Americans eat 120 kg (264.5 lbs) of meat EACH a year, which amounts to more than staggering 37 billion kg (81.5 billion lbs) in total (!!)—and you know the tide will be hard to turn.
And so there aren’t a lot of vegans or vegetarians in the world today. It’s simply too hard to sustain for most people who try. While figures do vary, in Western countries, 2-10% of the population are vegetarian, while 0.5-2% are vegan. That’s not a lot.
In the UK, there are now more than 500,000 vegans—a statistic that has increased by 360% in the last decade. While this might seem like a big number, it’s less than 1% of the total population. Less than 1%. 88% of these live in urban areas, where it’s (presumably) relatively easy to sustain the diet due to a larger sortiment of vegan foods available.
The high increase in vegans in the last decade is thought to be largely because of social media activism. As a teenager said in an article from The Guardian: “On Instagram, people make veganism look like a very desirable lifestyle”. I think this is a good point—but there are two issues. Firstly, it targets only a certain percentile and demographic of the population. Secondly, this notion emphasises the ‘want’ to be a vegan because it has become seen as a ‘desirable’ lifestyle—in other words, the motivation for change is not necessarily for a ‘greater good’ but for more selfish reasons. This, then, feeds into the aforementioned veganism industry.
We need to make sure that removing animal products from our lives isn’t about looking good in the eyes of others, about heightening our own self-perceptions, about being trendy. Perhaps paradoxically, I believe that creating the concept of ‘vegan’ and ‘veganism’ as an isolating factor, a ‘purity’ against the ‘filth’ of animal consumption, can be counterintuitive.
My point is that we’re far better off with 50% of a given population cutting their consumption of animal products in half, than with 5% of the same population trying—and likely failing—to be vegans. The animals are better off, the environment is better off, our health is better off.
To be a ‘strict vegan’ (which, by the way, shouldn’t be a term), you need to have a very good understanding of food; what it’s made of and what it does to you. To be a healthy vegan you need to make sure you eat a balanced diet and get all your nutrients. Being perfectly healthy as a vegan is perfectly possible, but it’s also demanding. If veganism is something you care about to the point that it fills your life, you’ll be able to be a healthy vegan. If you’re like most of us, i.e. you care about animals, the environment, your health, but these concerns lie only next to other interests, being vegan is difficult. Reducing your intake of animal products, on the other hand, needn’t be difficult at all. Besides, it’s more sustainable in the long term.
Veganism is, at its core, about removing, minimising. When you remove too much too quickly, you lose faith, you lack motivation. If you care about the environment, removing animal products from your diet won’t make a difference if you simultaneously increase your general consumption of marketised goods. Reducing the amount of animal products you consume must therefore be part of a broader shift in mentality—and that takes time.
If the goal is to kill, torture, bother fewer animals, we need to stop the industries that govern the production of animal products; i.e. (primarily) the meat, dairy, egg industries. How do we do that? By not creating a large market for animal consumption. In other words, by reducing our consumption of these products. This will create less demand, thereby reducing the scale of these industries. Supply and demand, that’s all it is. The fact of the matter is that a few vegans here and there won’t do much to slow down the production of animal products. They’re raindrops in an ocean of meat-eaters. A general reduction in consumption of these products, however, most surely will.
And I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re learning more about the consequences of animal consumption and the benefits of lowering it. Apparently, 2017 will be the year of ‘flexitarianism’. I think that’s great—as long as we don’t lose sight of the big picture and get too self-obsessed in the process.
So—let us stop preaching ‘zero tolerance’ for animal consumption, and start preaching awareness and change. Gradual change. Let us educate our peers instead of shaming them. Let us not look at animal consumption through a reductionist lense, but as one part of a vast mosaic of social, cultural, historical, economic, and environmental factors contributing to our individual and collective world-views. Let us focus on the process rather than the end goals. Let us be realists and not perfectionists.
We need to move beyond veganism; beyond binary categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food consumption. We need to integrate rather than isolate vegan values into a broader and better practice of consumption and production.
Personally, I’m very comfortable having reduced my intake of animal products to, I would estimate, 25% of what it used to be (at least in the everyday). If I ever felt that veganism needed to be my ultimate goal, I don’t think I would’ve changed anything in the first place. It would’ve been a battle, and one that I wouldn’t have been motivated or ready to fight.
But people pick their battles every day, and for most people whatever they put in their mouth isn’t one of them. So why make it a battle to begin with?
So, in 2017 we don’t need a world of vegans. We need a world of conscious human beings who are reflective of our environment, our health, our treatment of animals; people who are willing to act and eat according to their moral compasses, and who are motivated to keep learning, keep educating, and keep improving themselves and the world around them—without employing a grammar of moral superiority and inferiority in the process.
It is with this mindset I believe we can create a healthier and more sustainable future for our people, our environment, and our animals.