“I ’m vegan” rolls off the tongue more easily than “I avoid eating meat, fish, eggs or dairy products whenever I can,” so I called myself vegan for simplicity’s sake when I first came to Penn. However, I soon became uncomfortable with the fact that the label “vegan” is considered as much an ideology as a dietary choice.
The problem is that the language and logic we see surrounding the issue of eating animals is largely black and white. Either it’s morally acceptable to eat animals or it’s not, and if you believe the latter, you should never eat meat again or else you’re a hypocrite and a bad person. Because we frame it in these absolutist terms, we divide ourselves into vegetarians and people who feel judged by vegetarians.
This approach is not ideal for a number of reasons. Firstly, the complex and uncomfortable truth about our globalized consumer culture is that if we’re in the business of drawing absolute moral lines about what we consume, vegetarianism doesn’t seem like the logical place to start.
Although I subscribe to the belief that, in our advanced society, it’s wrong to kill animals for food, I understand that we live in a world where there are enough starving people that moral outrage on behalf of the exploited honey bee seems a little misplaced, and where the objectification of women causes enough damage that PETA’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign makes me worry more about the state of women in our society than the state of cattle.
It seems to me that people aiming to be conscious consumers ought to start with human rights and work their way down to animal rights — not the other way around. Basically, I don’t want to stand here in my sweatshop Nike sneakers and judge you for eating yogurt.
Secondly, when most people see vegetarianism as a set of principles they have to convert to for life, they quickly dismiss the idea, realizing that acknowledging it would mean never eating their favorite foods again. I’m not asking anyone to convert to vegetarianism, and I think it would be useless if I tried. However, I will say this: It would be better for people and the ecosystem if, nine times out of 10, you didn’t buy that hamburger.
The call to reduce your consumption of animal products doesn’t require a morally absolutist appeal to animal rights. The truth is that each and every food choice you make has an impact on your carbon footprint and on the ecosystem, and this impact is less negative when you choose a plant-based food than when you choose food derived from an animal. No single food choice is going to have a huge impact, but over the course of a lifetime, the aggregate effect is significant.
If the average person switched to a plant-based diet for one year, she would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 tons. That’s compared to the one ton reduction from switching to a hybrid car. And here’s what I think: It would be just fine if you only reduced it by .5 tons. Or even .25 tons. If everyone reduced their consumption of animal products by a small amount, the aggregate effect would be the same as if a few more people were vegans.
When I imagine the ideal world, I don’t see it as devoid of livestock animals. I also don’t see giant meatpacking plants that pose health threats to their workers, or chopped-down rainforests for more beef cattle, or streams full of the antibiotics that are pumped into animals to prevent them from dying of infections in their dirty environments. I see animal products as niche, special-occasion foods.
For this reason, I keep most of my diet plant-based. But I don’t call myself a vegan anymore, because I’m not interested in drawing the line between vegans and omnivores. I’d rather call myself a morally conscious person, and minimizing my consumption of animal products constitutes a part of tha t.
Sophia Wushanley is a College senior from Millersville, Pa., studying philosophy. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Another Look” appears every Tuesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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