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You Meat Eating Murderer! Non Vegan Guilt

On the backchannel we’ve had a bit of buzz going about our diets: who’s veggie, who’s vegan, why, what we feel bad about, what we wish we did better, and what tips we have to make lives easier. There’s a lot to talk about and we’ve covered a wide range of topics, but the underlying message that I took from this conversation is that nearly everyone feels guilty. We feel guilty about when we eat meat, about not being able to spend more time on food and food ethics, or we even feel guilty about the needs of our minds and bodies. All of us is a pro at beating ourselves up about not being a perfect vegan with no impact on any creatures whatsoever.

I’m here to say STOP.

Now I’m not about to deny that food ethics are important. I’m not going to deny that we have a long way to go before we have an ethical and sustainable food system. I won’t deny that we should all be working to improve our own little corner of the world in whatever ways we can. What I will say is that feeling guilty and beating yourself up over your food choices almost never does anyone any good, and feeling horrible because you aren’t perfect really doesn’t align with the facts of how ethics works. And in addition, food ethics seems to be somewhat different from many other areas of ethics in that it makes sense to have different expectations of different people. There are a number of reasons food ethics is unique in this way.

Changing diet is a major choice. It can affect nearly every element of your life, from finance to health to social life. That means it’s a serious commitment to make changes to diet. And because it affects so many areas of life, there are many problems that can get in the way of making changes. There are numerous examples of this. I have an eating disorder, which means that my mental health is intricately tied up in my food choices. I don’t want to put myself in danger of a serious relapse with more food rules. Just from the conversation on the backchannel I heard people explaining that they are feeding families with a variety of dietary restrictions and already spend many hours a week planning their food. They wouldn’t want to have to decrease their food variety and increase time and money spent to add veganism into that list of restrictions. There are people with health restrictions, or others who can’t afford to change their diet, or who stretch their veganism and vegetarianism when they are a guest. Each of these examples shows how another element of life intersects with food, and how complications in that other area can get in the way of perfect food behavior.

Unfortunately many of us view these perfectly legitimate reasons to continue eating meat as excuses. It’s easy to see it this way: we’ve come to the ethical conclusion that eating meat and animal products is wrong, so we are being wrong by continuing to enact those behaviors. However we know that life is more complicated and sticky than that, so it might be time for a reframe. I often find analogies helpful in these cases, so let’s try one of those.

My boyfriend often feels that he should visit his parents more often. I see my parents far more often than he does, and he sometimes feels guilty that he doesn’t make time to see them. Abstractly, it seems that he probably should see his parents as often as I do: it hurts them when he’s not around, he’s come to the ethical conclusion that family is important, they need his help around the house, etc, and yet he is not acting in accordance with that conclusion. However when we move beyond the abstract and look at the actual experience, it’s obvious to me that visiting his parents is draining for my boyfriend. He comes home hurt and frustrated, he often feels attacked, they expect a lot of him and give very little in return, and it’s a long drive out to see them. So should he still feel obligated to see his parents as often as I see mine, when I feel rejuvenated and safe after visiting them? I don’t think anyone would say yes, as his well-being is an important part of the equation. Depleting those resources makes him a less effective and less ethical person in the long run.

So let’s move back to eating. From this analogy we can see that not every abstract ethical conclusion demands perfect compliance because our own well-being should be part of our ethical calculations. Each of us has a finite amount of time, money, and energy, and we have to decide which arenas to focus those resources in. There are an amazing number of things we could do to improve ourselves and our communities, and we simply cannot do all of them. If changing our diet deeply depletes our resources, it may hurt us, or leave us anxious, angry, unhappy, and incapable of acting ethically towards the people around us (as an example I know that I am a cranky bitch when I don’t get adequate protein). If one particular ethical choice leaves us without anymore energy or resources, it may not be the most effective way of improving the world.

In addition, many of us have chosen other arenas in which to push ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on rape prevention instead of food ethics. Again, every time we choose to throw ourselves into one cause, we are taking away resources that could be spent on another. That doesn’t mean that focus is wrong or makes us bad people. Each cause is important, but it’s nearly impossible to be fully dedicated to both rape prevention and food ethics in such a way that your behavior always perfectly matches with your ideals. Values are aspirational: that means that they are things we will likely never be able to live out in real life, but we keep striving for them. This means that there’s no reason to feel guilty that we can’t solve every problem and act perfectly in accordance with our values every day, particularly when we have many values that ask a lot of us. No one is capable of perfection.

When we feel guilty about doing the best we’re capable of, we increase the number of shitty feelings in the world. This, in my humble opinion, is a net negative. While we should be aware when we wish we could do better, we don’t need to beat ourselves up about it. Of course this is easier said than done, but reminding yourself over and over that there are many things you do right, that you’re doing the best you can, and that there are always barriers can help. Remember that your well-being also counts, and it should be part of your considerations when you’re choosing your behaviors.

EDIT: I am not trying to assert that veganism is perfect nor that being vegan is the only way to improve one’s food behavior. All of these concerns about guilt would apply to any ethical conclusion an individual makes.

 

Olivia

Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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65 Comments

  1. While I understand and agree with what you are saying for the most part, I must point out that you have equated being vegan with “perfect food behavior”. I understand it is your opinion, and that of many others, but you have stated it here as if it is a foregone conclusion.

    Some practices that eating meat leads to, such as factory farming, clear-cutting of the rain-forests, overuse of antibiotics, etc. are clearly morally bad but it does not follow however that a vegan lifestyle does not have ethical issues that are of concern. One need only look at the effects of quinoa on Peruvian farmers or the chocolate trade’s dependence on slavery just to name a couple to see where veganism is not necessarily purely ethical.

    I have no doubt that vegans believe themselves to be very moral when it comes to food choices, and they are in the large part, it’s important that we keep in we each have our own morality as you have stated here. I just think it is important not to hold being vegan up as perfection without pointing out that even here there are grey areas in they choices they make.

    Perfection is after all a hard standard to achieve.

    1. Some practices that eating meat leads to, such as factory farming, clear-cutting of the rain-forests, overuse of antibiotics, etc. are clearly morally bad but it does not follow however that a vegan lifestyle does not have ethical issues that are of concern. One need only look at the effects of quinoa on Peruvian farmers or the chocolate trade’s dependence on slavery just to name a couple to see where veganism is not necessarily purely ethical.

      Except those things are not vegan ethical issues. They are issues that non-vegans are faced with, too. I find it quite unfair to try to pin those things on vegans as if they are ethical problems only vegans face.

      And, if we want to play this tu quoqu game, I fully acknowledge there are ethical issues around all sorts of food sources, but I’m always doing (at least) one better than meat-eaters by not engaging in that practice. =P The whole “but vegans consume products from unethical sources, too!” doesn’t have any bearing on the ethics of consuming animal products. And further, any vegan who is serious about making ethically informed choices will fully acknowledge those unethical problems and seek to remedy them or at the very least not engage with them.

        1. My comment about doing one better was tongue-in-cheek (hence the emoticon), but it’s an argument I face a lot when people find out I’m vegan and they automatically get defensive and start spouting off about “but vegans are unethical, too!” It’s an unconvincing way to avoid looking at the ethics of animal consumption.

          And critically examining the ways that our behavior can be unethical is not necessarily about seeking perfection or making ourselves or others feel like shit. It’s about making improvements in whatever ways we can. It’s not necessary to just throw up our hands and say “nothing to see here, move along” because we may experience some guilt when we do things that we consider unethical. We can talk about those things and try in whatever ways possible to avoid them in the future.

          1. I wouldn’t presume to speak for mrmisconception, but my takeaway from his comment was not so much “tu quoque” to vegans (although Will I can understand where you’re coming from, I get a lot of pre-emptive defensiveness when people find out I’m a pescetarian), as a statement that the ethical issues surrounding food are complicated, and it’s not necessarily obvious to everyone that veganism is the preferred option in every case. Yes, most of us would prefer to reduce animal suffering and agree that veganism offers advantages to that end, but others might prioritize, say, reducing the fossil fuel usage in transporting goods, and therefore select locally produced meat over imported grains and vegetables. It’s not immediately clear to me which of those is the greater good, and I don’t think it’s as simple as veganism always being the preferred option.

          2. Will, what biogeo said is close to what I was talking about. I was bothered by the term “perfect food behavior” because what is perfect to one person is far from perfect for another.

          3. mrmisconception, even still, your argument was that veganism was not perfect because of ethical issues with the production of quinoa and chocolate, things that are not vegan ethical issues per se. They are food ethics issues, certainly, and you’ll get no argument from me that food ethics is complicated.

            Also, I didn’t read her post as saying veganism was perfect food behavior. I read her post as saying that there is no such thing as perfect food behavior and that there are myriad factors that go into why we eat what we eat. She even explicitly stated in the post that those of us who are vegan do not feel that we do it perfectly and that we sometimes beat ourselves up over it. So, I guess I just don’t see her post as equating veganism with perfect food behavior but rather as a critique of everyone who allows themselves to feel like shit for not being perfect, whether its perfect at being vegan or some other ethical issue. I see her using veganism as a framing device to talk about giving up the idea of ever being perfectly ethical and to instead strive to be as ethical as possible given real life constraints.

            biogeo, I understand what you’re saying, but I reject the dichotomy you set up between locally produced meat vs. imported grains/veggies. It seems to me that if you’re shopping somewhere that locally produced meat is available that it is likely that locally produced grains/veggies are available (also depending on at what scale you define local). From what I’ve read, the kind of food you eat has a worse negative impact on the environment than where it comes from (this study finds that only about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions are related to food transportation, while about 83% are related to agricultural production, specifically meat (and red meat in particular) and dairy production). That being said, it is certainly best to buy local, but it’s not as if it’s a strict dichotomy between those things and that the production of meat and grains/veggies has the same carbon footprint that is simply offset by how far it travels.

          4. Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest that there is necessarily a specific dichotomy between locally produced meat versus imported grains/veggies, I was just using that as a somewhat theoretical example of a specific decision someone might face under some circumstance. I should have been more clear; all I intended was to illustrate that when we hold multiple values around food (or other things), sometimes specific circumstances will force us to make decisions trading one off against the other. If faced with a specific decision (due to some hypothetical circumstance) between local versus vegan, I could expect a reasonable, ethical, critical-thinking person to choose the local meat OR the imported vegan dish, and I wouldn’t fault them either way. Of course I think you’re right that in general, this is a fairly artificial example, and in many cases these particular values will align. Maybe I could have thought of a better example.

          5. Actually Will, I wasn’t making an argument at all. I was simply pointing out that even if one is to achieve the “perfect food behavior” (a phrase that Olivia used to define the goal, not one I read into it) there are still ethical issues.

            I agree that vegans tend to be more moral in their food choices, but not only is it simply not possible for everyone to live a vegan lifestyle, those who can achieve the “perfect” goal still have issues to deal with.

            I was bothered by the use of the word perfect and wanted to point out that the perfect is not so perfect. Not that it’s not better, just that it’s not perfect.
            You are seeing an attack where there was none.

          6. Nah, I don’t see it as an attack. I see it as a misreading of Olivia’s post. The way I read her post is essentially exactly what your last comment here says. She was using “perfect food behavior” not to describe veganism, but to describe the ideal that many people–and particularly many vegans–hold for their food ethics. Your initial comment made it seem like you thought she was saying veganism is the perfect food behavior (which I didn’t read from her post–being a “perfect vegan” is not the same thing as saying “vegans are perfect”), when her post was actually saying there’s no such thing as perfect anything. She even explicitly said “there is no such thing as perfection.”

          7. Will, I saw that Olivia had mentioned perfect vegan and then later perfect food behavior and conflated the two. That was my mistake, after rereading I can see that is not what she was saying and her edit points out exactly that.

            I saw it as saying that being vegan was the perfect behavior (and I inferred a “for all”) and was simply saying it’s not necessarily true for everyone.

            Olivia – I saw this post as mostly right but with the reread I can say I totally agree. Sorry for the misconception. :)

  2. And lets not forget the mess involved with “growing’ food. People hate Monsanto’s practices, so they attack GM, even when its not run by big-aggro. Often, doing so for totally nonsensical reasons. They talk about organic farming, but miss the fact that such farming was the norm at one time, and when it was, we had “fewer” crops, not more, and they where more prone to being lost in totality, due to infestations, molds, etc. The assumption is no pesticides are used, only.. they are, and some of them are worse than their artificial equivalents. We have people whining about saving bees, who ignore the fact that its not an insecticide that seems to be the problem, but a fungicide, and one of the reasons is because its legal to spray those during the time of the year when bees are pollinating, but **not pesticides**, but, every time a new pesticide comes out, I get emails now calling for me to help sign a petition to “save the bees from the newest toxic poison.”, from people that have no F-ing clue what they are even talking about. Oh, and.. burning rain forest to raise cattle has been a failure, and it declining. You want to know what “isn’t”? Its burning rain forest, to plant Cocoa, because the cosmetics industry is all into “cocoa butter” in every damn thing, as a “natural” ingredient, which various non-existent, imaginary, benefits, which defy the laws of chemistry, and they are planting like mad, to have enough to ship everything from anti-aging cremes, to shampoo.

    And.. none of that quite explains where we get, for example, organic fertilizer from. Sure, composting is possible, but its a bit more common for small farms to use product from the farm animals for that, and besides, there are experimental programs to turn waste plant matter into oil and fuel, instead of fertilizer, so.. where does that lead in the long run, in terms of trying to use to for both? Its one big, complicated, mess, and half of the hype about its “health benefits” are only relevant due to a) over consumption of it, not consumption in general, and/or b) a fair amount of total nonsense, mixed in with the facts (much like the supposed ‘purity’ and ‘environmental friendliness’ of all organics, even the ones that still use pesticides, and run a higher risk of contamination “from” some of those organic fertilizer sources.. Something they escape only due to the added expense of better picking practices, and care in handling, none of which will remain if the whole industry changes over to large scale “factory farming”, like the non-organics are doing.)

    Its one big bloody mess, and, like most messes, the solutions being applied seem to create, or engender, as many problems, due to misinformation, ignorance and bad assumptions, as the original perceived problems. Why? Because its not addressing the actual problems, its replacing one highly profitable industry with a different one, which we may know no more about, or what it is doing wrong, than we do of the one that is being “fought”. And, that isn’t exactly a recipe for success, especially since one really “huge” part of that industry has, since 1994, become the $34 billion dollar “natural additives/remedies/supplement” industry, which thanks to the law passed in that year, is excluded from proving their claims, admitting that the chemicals in foods are chemicals, and can have side effects, or testing them for safety (beyond, say, what ever regulations are still in place for, for example, your cosmetic industry hair product with some absurd list of things that may or may not be harmless, at least on your skin, but can only claim to “do” what they do via the same, untested, invalid, and often completely wrong, claims made for the same thing, when its sitting in a bottle next to the “vitamin C”, which you may, or may not, be so obsessed with, that it is, unknowingly, increasing your cancer risks by taking it. Not that you are likely to find anything on the label warning you that it does this in high doses…)

    Personally, I will do what I can, but.. too much of what I have seen from “almost” everyone coming into where I work to buy things, on such diets, just makes me shake my head and think, “Wait.. WTF did they just say?” Its almost never just, “Factory farming is cruel.”, its two dozen other things, at least half of which are, to be charitable, not at all accurate.

  3. I consider being vegan an essential part of critical thinking and atheism+. If we can’t recognize that animal products are dangerous to us and the environment (disproportionately impacting poor persons and persons of color) (also animal ag is responsible for 51% of GHGs), and that animals are sentient beings who deserve to be treated as persons with respect, I can’t really give this movement any serious consideration. “nearly impossible to be fully dedicated” ??? It’s easy–order the pasta instead of the burger. We’re not asking you to stop eating, we’re saying stop eating in ways that hurt others. Unless you live in a food desert, I don’t get the issue. Given that the majority of the atheist movement is white, middle-class, and quite privileged, arguments about it being “hard” doesn’t really apply. I think it’s quite telling that people of privilege get to sit back and decide what causes are worthy or not–reminds me of all the misogynist atheists who brush off feminism as unnecessary.

    1. And what would you say to those of us who aren’t middle-class, like me, a college student relying on student loans (and now GoFundMe) to completely pay my way through school because I can’t afford it on my own, and since I can’t pay off the private student loans I have a credit score so bad I can’t actually get anymore loans and since my parents are still recovering from bankruptcy they can’t co-sign?

      I would challenge the idea that “most” atheists are middle class… indeed I would say that a HUGE portion are lower-class and poor… maybe even homeless.

    2. I will run my car off the road before I will hit a person but a squirrel will not get the same respect. What logical path did you follow to reach the conclusion that animals deserve to be treated as persons?

    3. So your conclusion from your supposed critical thinking is that you never eat anything that causes any harm? Ever eat Quinoa? Sure none of the produce you eat was picked by slaves? Do you live like these people: http://freegan.info/ ? If not, they are doing more to avoid harming others than you are. Why doesn’t that make you a privileged asshole?

    4. ” It’s easy–order the pasta instead of the burger.”

      And this totally showcases how freakin’ ignorant you are on this subject. Wow.

      it’s far more than just “ordering the pasta instead of the burger”. Must be nice to be able to order out all the time, though, right?

      Anyway. If you are willing to pay for my vegan diet that I CANNOT AFFORD, I’ll be taking donations! Mostly donations. Are you willing? No? Then please stop your overly-privileged judgement of people YOU DO NOT KNOW.

      1. *MONTHLY donations. Not that she’ll offer, of course. But she will judge judge JUDGE!

        Also, I had lamb last night. I volunteer a lot and the woman that was throwing a big, fancy thank you dinner for us volunteers made a really great lamb dish. And I ate it. ALL OF IT. Because it was free and it’s been MONTHS since I’ve had a decent home-cooked meal, especially something so well made. She’s also Greek, and moved here to the states after college.

        I suppose you expected me to starve instead of eating the free, lovingly made meal?

        I don’t think any of the food was vegan. Not a bit of it.

        Also, most pasta isn’t going to be vegan unless you actually make it vegan. Just sayin’.

        1. Also…

          Also, I had lamb last night. I volunteer a lot and the woman that was throwing a big, fancy thank you dinner for us volunteers made a really great lamb dish. And I ate it. ALL OF IT. Because it was free and it’s been MONTHS since I’ve had a decent home-cooked meal, especially something so well made. She’s also Greek, and moved here to the states after college.

          Don’t you know, lamb is not meat!

      2. it’s far more than just “ordering the pasta instead of the burger”. Must be nice to be able to order out all the time, though, right?

        Not only that, but most pasta you can order when you’re out eating is not vegan because it’s made with eggs. And if someone has gluten sensitivity, good luck getting alternatives to egg-based or wheat-based noodles while eating out. And that’s not even to mention that how it’s prepared may not be vegan if they use a butter or cream sauce.

        To be fair, though, I don’t pay much more to eat vegan than I did when I was vegetarian or non-veg. But I eat a lot of rice and beans, peanut butter and jelly, and some Gardein products that aren’t much more expensive than actual meat. That being said, if you go straight up all organic and all that jazz, it can definitely get really expensive really fast.

        1. I actually eat a mostly veggie diet. It’s cheaper ANd easier that way. Vegan would be near impossible, though, because I often don’t have a huge choice about what I eat. Cutting out meat is pretty easy and often the best choice for a number of reasons (mostly budget-related because I DO NOT HAVE THE LUXARY to think about much else at the moment; cutting out ALL animal byproducts is VERY VERY VERY HARD.

          It’s also not something I’m interested in, for a variety of reasons, and I don’t think I need to feel guilty about them, either.

          I’m broke as fuck, guys, dealing with anxiety and depression that I have a somewhat hold on but not always and I lack health insurance so it’s sort of something I always have to deal with on my own.

          I have enough to worry about.

          Being poor is stressful. Being poor makes it much harder to make “perfect” decisions about everything, including food choices.

          Sometimes I just want a fucking steak because my friend makes damn good steak and I haven’t been eating much except cereal and that pasta someone here seems to be so obsessed with.

    5. I gave a number of examples about why it’s not that simple.

      Again, for me: When you tell me “order the pasta instead of the burger” my eating disorder goes nuts. I WOULD PUT MYSELF IN THE HOSPITAL IF I DID THAT. Should I prioritize animals over my own health? That seems odd as we’re given the right of self-defense even against other humans.

      It seems odd to me that you think “doing your best” equates with “it’s not worthy”.

      1. I agree that her comment was absurd, but this…

        /takes another bite of burger

        …really? Isn’t that exactly the kind of shit we’re trying to avoid in this thread? Those of us (besides Corey Lee Wrenn) who are not meat eaters have gone to great lengths in this thread to avoid being or expressing judgment about people’s food choices. And so you come in and write this to…do what, exactly? All it does is demonstrate your condemnation of those of us who choose not to eat meat, which seems to me to fly in the face of what Olivia is trying to do with this post.

        1. Excuse me? I’m not shaming people who choose not to eat meat. I’m shaming people who tell ME what I “can” and “cannot” eat. And quite frankly I don’t have the time or the energy to waste on making logical arguments with such individuals.

          1. Yeah, okay. That’s not at all how it comes across. You’re trolling a thread about not trying to make people feel like shit by…trying to make people (or at least one person) feel like shit. The absurdity of her comment has already been pointed out and called out for being against the spirit of Olivia’s post, and your comment in reply to her is not helping but is reproducing exactly what Olivia is advocating against.

      1. I AM A TERRIBLE PERSON!

        I mean I don’t volunteer at a homeless respite center or anything. I didn’t risk arrest which could have fucked me very much, all because I felt very strongly about repealing DADT. I haven’t let near strangers sleep on my couch for weeks at a time without providing anything in return. NOPE. STILL A TERRIBLE PERSON BECAUSE I HAD LAMB YESTERDAY.

        1. Marilove, I read your post about that protest and you have a lot to be proud of!. That would have taken some guts! So few of you, yet you stood firm. Much respect!

          Nicely written, too. When are you going to post another?

  4. Another aspect that’s usually overlooked is that when you clear land to grow crops, you displace the animals that lived there. And a lot of those animals then want to eat your crops. So what do you do? I’ll give you a hint. You don’t trap and re-locate them.

    Responsible livestock grazing is actually more wildlife friendly than crops.

    You may not have personally shot them, you didn’t see them bleed, but you took the food out of their mouths just the same.

    1. That’s true, but keep in mind that, at least under standard American agricultural practices, those animals which are pasture-fed graze so intensively that few other species can coexist on those pastures. And in reality, most meat animals’ diet consists mostly of grain, grown intensively in crop monocultures. So while one might imagine small-scale farms which permit a certain amount of wildlife to occupy a niche alongside, say, cattle, the reality is that very little American meat comes from such farms (your mileage may vary depending on your nationality; I don’t know much about farming practices elsewhere).

      A typical rule of thumb in ecology is that every time you move up a trophic level (one step higher in the “food chain”), you lose about 90% of the original energy. If this is accurate, then 1000 calories of corn-fed beef represents 10,000 calories of corn, which could have been directly consumed by humans. This also means that ten times as much acreage is required to grow the corn to sustain beef cattle as would be required to sustain humans eating corn. This obviously has a MUCH greater impact on wildlife.

      So you’re right, growing crops for a vegetarian diet does displace (or more accurately, kill) the wildlife that would have subsisted on that land. But growing crops to feed animals for a heavily meat-based diet has the exact same problem, at a larger scale. Of course, I realize that by “responsible livestock grazing,” you probably don’t mean feeding livestock cultivated grain, but at least in the U.S. (again, your mileage may vary), a decision to consume X calories of meat rather than X calories of grain represents, to a first approximation, a decision to use 10*Y rather than Y acres of agricultural land.

      However, I’m curious if you have any evidence to support the idea that “responsible livestock grazing is actually more wildlife friendly than crops”, or if that’s just a conjecture? I don’t mean this to be a loaded question; I’m genuinely curious if you know something I don’t. I would be surprised to discover that it’s that simple. I presume that “responsible livestock grazing” involves maintaining pastures with native grasses, allowing pastures time to recover between periods of grazing, etc. The problem I see with this is it’s necessarily a low-density agricultural practice. The environmental impact per acre may be lower, but much more acreage will be required to sustain the same level of meat production. I’ve encountered some ecological literature showing that, at least for some species, the negative impact of transitioning from completely undisturbed wilderness to lightly disturbed habitat is much greater than the impact of transitioning from lightly disturbed to moderately disturbed habitat. For some species at least, concentrating agriculture into a smaller, but heavily disturbed, footprint may be preferable to converting most or all potential habitat into lightly disturbed, low-density agriculture.

      Personally, I think an important goal from an environmental perspective should be to find a way to make more efficient use of the agricultural acreage we have, so that more land which is currently devoted to agriculture can be returned to wilderness. Reducing meat production is probably a necessary part of this process, but hardly the only step. And it may be that there are “managed ecosystem” approaches to agriculture in which meat animals play a critical role (with their manure as fertilizer, e.g.) that will turn out to be the most efficient way to use agricultural acreage. While I definitely think there’s a place for low-density agriculture as well, I think that expanding wilderness should be considered the gold standard of success in environmentally conscious agricultural practices.

      I should say that I’m a pescetarian, and I think Olivia’s completely right: no one should feel guilty for their personal food choices. I think we should all be prepared to think about where our food comes from, and what kinds of personal choices we’re prepared to make based on our ethics, but different people have different needs. While the individual choices we make are not unimportant, lasting solutions to the impact of agriculture on the environment and animal welfare (both wildlife and production animals) need to come from policy, regulation, and the elimination of perverse subsidies.

      1. Absolutely cattle feed lots are not responsible. There actually is still open land grazing in this country (US), though I don’t know what percentage of grocery store meat it produces. Unfortunately a large percentage of that is not done responsibly, ie overgrazing. The ironic (or sad) part is with good practices you can actually graze a higher number of animals without degrading the range. But the usual practice is too keep the herds in one location until they’ve stripped the vegetation, compacted the soil, etc.

        The landscape evolved being grazed, and most of the dominant plants respond to light grazing by putting out fresh growth. But the industry still has a lot of the old “this is the way we’ve always done it, and no dam college boy’s gonna tell me different” attitude.

        I don’t have anything on hand proving responsible grazing is better for animals than farming, and I’m going to have to take a cop out as I’m too busy to really go looking. But again, when you clear the land you displace most of the animals on it.

        I completely agree that we need to make more efficient use of the current agricultural land. We also need to stop turning our best land into shopping malls and condominiums.

        Ultimately we need to reduce the human population, but that’s going to take a long time.

        1. I agree with you completely, and can definitely sympathize with being too busy to look for sources. One additional point I’ve heard regarding grazing on North American prairie is that apparently the foraging strategy of cattle is somewhat different than that of bison (the main native grazer), which is part of what leads to overgrazing. Supposedly, bison ranching on the prairie therefore has a lower environmental impact compared to cattle ranching.

  5. Corey Lee Wrenn’s comment is the kind of thing I find myself constantly fighting against. I don’t go around proclaiming I’m vegan and everyone needs to eat exactly as I do or they’re Horrible People™. I also am unconvinced by personhood arguments for most animals (there are a few that I could see extending personhood status to, but certainly not a blanket all animals are persons).

    But it’s this antipathy–or worse, hostility–towards (actual) people’s lived experiences and health concerns that people like Corey Lee Wrenn seem so eager to poopoo on. One of the things I mentioned repeatedly in our discussions on the backchannel is that being vegan is a personal choice for me that I am willing and able to make, and that people’s health and well being should come first. Everyone has to decide for themselves what kinds of food they want to eat based on what is available to them. If they are concerned about the ethics of consuming animal products, even just reducing meat and dairy intake a little bit is better than doing nothing at all. For me, it’s not about perfection and it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s about awareness and doing my part to (A) make myself feel better (physically, emotionally, psychologically) and (B) reduce the harm that I put out in the world. Notice I say “reduce” and not “completely remove”–that’s not possible. Which is I think the point of Olivia’s post here.

    For me, being vegan is not about trying to be perfect. That’s not ever going to happen. For me it’s about doing my best to live by a set of ethics I believe in.

    Also, I think our efforts are better directed at the systems that are in place that produce food and other products in unethical ways. Public education and outreach is great, but chewing out individuals for their choices (which are often constrained by many other factors) doesn’t do much but alienate people and turn them off to the idea of vegetarianism or veganism. And for many of us, if we wanted to have people preaching at us and trying to make us feel guilty, we’d go to church.

    And so I walk around constantly trying to counteract the “militant vegan” stereotype produced through comments like the one made by Corey Lee Wrenn. I respect her decisions and her dedication to the cause for animal rights, but I disagree with some of her message and I strongly disagree with the way that she sometimes puts the well being of animals in the abstract ahead of the well being of real, individual people. I guess it kind of boils down to a sort of idealist vs. pragmatist approach, where I don’t expect perfection in others because I don’t expect it in myself. The ideal will never be a reality because humans are not ideal. Our lives are messy and full of complication, and especially if adding food ethics is going to push people into unhealthy territories, then it’s something that we should not be trying to push on them. Instead, in my view, we should just be vocalizing the benefits of being vegan, and those who are convinced by our arguments and are wiling and able to make changes in their lives will do so. But I cannot and will never get behind this evangelical veganism–especially when its face is a totally fucked up organization like PETA.

  6. I’m a non-vegan vegetarian (I eat milk and eggs, and yes, I’m aware that their harvesting can cause suffering too). I got this way because of an ethical principal that I apply in other situations as well. I’d put the proposition this way: “It is unethical to cause suffering to another creature without a good reason.” Suffering isn’t too hard to figure out — it seems pretty clear that just about any creature with a nervous system must be capable of suffering. The tricky part is figuring out what constitutes a “good reason.” And that’s a judgment call — it varies from person to person.

    So there aren’t really absolutes — just lots of balancing. As others have said, no one can live perfectly so as to cause NO suffering whatsoever. If I drive down the street, I’m going to kill bugs with my car — even just living in a house, I’m interfering with the lives of animals living around me. But there’s nothing to feel ashamed about taking my own personal needs and abilities into account.

    Now, it just so happens that, as a middle-class American, It has actually been fairly easy for me to give up meat — just pick up veggie burgers rather than hamburgers. (It also helps that my wife is a committed vegetarian who happens to be a great cook.) But if I was stranded on a desert island, and the only thing between me and starvation was a herd of wild pigs — I wouldn’t think twice about putting my survival over theirs. Likewise, if I had dietary or budgetary restrictions, those would change the equation as well.

    There was a while when I was a partial vegetarian — I mostly stuck to plants when I was alone, but if I went to a party and someone served meat, I’d eat it. So at least to me, back then, social and budgetary considerations were “a good reason.”

    So I don’t have a problem with just about anyone who’s making an effort to cut down. But I do have a question for people who have dismissed all the arguments for at least cutting down on their meat intake. Is “I like the taste” really enough of a good reason to justify the conditions in a factory farm?

    1. Oh of course. “I like the taste” is a shitty reason. Even I, an omnivore, get pissed at people who try to pull that one out. “You mean to tell me that your taste buds are more important than the suffering of a conscious being? Well fuck you, then.”

      My “good reason” is budget. I have to get things that I can turn into a week’s worth of food. Which usually means I prepare my breakfasts, lunches, and dinners on Sunday, and they last me until Saturday. And I have to do this with a very strict budget. A lot of cheap things are meats. Meats are also very easy to prepare.

      My problem is that (I’m sorry, Olivia), I DO feel guilty. I’m acutely aware of how cattle and pigs and fowl and so on are treated by big farms in the US, and it honestly makes me sick. So I go with free-range and natural whenever I can afford to, and I’m actually slowly starting to replace meats with mushrooms (indeed, next week my dinners will consist of portabello mushroom cap burgers… I’m a HUGE fan of mushrooms, though… once I live in my own place, I’ll be growing all the non-deadly kinds… and yes, I do mean ALL of them :D), mainly because I hate fake substitutes of anything, so you’ll never catch me eating vegan “meat”.

      But it’s all about my budget. I currently owe my school $3500 and I’m having anxiety attacks over what to do, because $3500 is damn near impossible for me to come up with, so my budget, as you can imagine, is insanely tight. So I have to hold these considerations. This is why I found Corey Lee Wren’s comment so insulting. I’d LOVE to be middle-class! That’d make my life! But I’m not.

      Luckily, I can afford vegetables, and I absolutely adore things like broccoli and edamame and corn and green beans and sugar snap pees and salad (Italian!)… so I eat them as much as I can. I also enjoy fruit, especially oranges, berries, kiwi, pomegranates, and plums.

      But all of that is actually expensive, and has to be budgeted for. It’s much cheaper to go for pre-made or pre-prepared meals, and those are rarely vegan.

      1. Rice and beans are pretty cheap, too! =) But yes, this is exactly what I was talking about up above. Food choices are constrained by lots of factors, and doing your best to be ethical in whatever situation you find yourself in is better than doing nothing at all.

        1. Rice and beans can also get really boring and bland if you’re sort of only an okay cook like me. And yes, I’ve tried, it’s just not something I can put a lot of effort into. And as I’m broke as fuck, I have to place my energy elsewhere, and not on something I find somewhat stressful.

        2. I actually have rice. But as marilove says, that can get pretty bland, and I LOVE to cook!

          To be honest, I’m not a big fan of beans, outside of green beans. It was never the flavor, but the texture always turned me off. Mainly I like black beans in tacos and nachos and stuff… but that’s it. Which means that, if I do eventually go vegetarian, I’ll need to find sources of protein that I’ll actually like… like edamame, though they’re expensive…

          Oh… I do like Lima Beans… but only mixed with other things and only heavily cooked.

          1. Speaking strictly on nutritional front (not on affordability front, which I fully acknowledge is a limitation), there’s lots of mock meat products that are either vegetarian or vegan. Some of them are better than others. Gardein makes great vegan products, like frozen “chicken” tenders, “beef” and “chicken” sliders, grilled “chicken” patties, etc. All great sources of protein and they taste really great. Even my brother who is an avid meat eater likes the chicken products (he’s not a fan of their beef stuff, though).

            But it’s not usually protein deficiency that is an issue for vegans, it’s B12 deficiency that can crop up. I drink fortified almond milk to get my calcium and B12. The American obsession with getting tons protein is an artifact of the meat industry’s marketing in this country (generally Americans consume much more protein than they need to be healthy). There are lots and lots of sources of protein that don’t come from meat. Aside from beans, there’s also nuts, seeds, grains, and other veggies that contain a good amount of protein. Peanuts (and peanut butter), cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, spinach, broccoli, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, etc., all contain protein in decent amounts. Much of that can be found for fairly cheap, though some of it (cashews, for example) can be more expensive.

          2. Very good points.

            I always assumed there was a required amount of protein for a balanced meal. Not as high as the meat industry claims, obviously, but still one.

            Sadly, I don’t like nuts, accept for peanuts, which aren’t actually nuts. I absolutely adore sunflower kernels, so that’s a plus. I also like pumpkin seeds when they’re roasted. Peanut Butter… yes please.

            I do know that, nutritionally speaking, getting B12 is a lot harder than protein on a veggie/vegan diet. But I have no trouble getting that even when I don’t eat meat. I’ve been counting calories for a year now, and my biggest issue is, according to MyNetDiary, needing 5g of fiber at breakfast, and I absolutely abhor most sources of fiber; they just taste gross. Lately I’ve been using Thomas Multi-Grain Muffins with… stuff. Eggs usually, to be honest, though I’ve started buying cage-free/free-range when it’s affordable.

            But… yeah…

  7. The theme of the post was, Do what you can to make the world better, but you can’t do everything. So choose what you do best and don’t feel guilty about not doing the others.

    And the replies run, But my thing is more important than yours, so you should so feel guilty.

    Thats one of those quod erat demonstrandum moments.

    1. And the replies run, But my thing is more important than yours, so you should so feel guilty.

      I’m sorry, but can you give a specific example of anyone besides Corey Lee Wrenn saying this? From what I can tell, there was exactly one comment that had that implication, and the rest were basically hashing out food ethics and/or agreeing with the sentiments of Olivia’s post.

  8. I loved this post Olivia. I have a lot of food related anxiety problems, so making food restrictions is very mentally unhealthy for me. However, I feel mentally healthy by doing what I can to reduce harm in the world… and we all know factory farming produces a hell of a lot of harm to animals, people, and the environment. I’ve recently taken to calling myself “flexitarian” which is a word to describe someone mostly vegetarian or vegan but makes choices to eat animal products and meat periodically. When faced with “eat chicken broth or have a panic attack” (sounds silly to someone who’s never faced this) I’ve mentally prepared myself prior that eating the chicken broth is okay and avert the panic.

    “All or nothing” can be a really damaging mindset. “Do what you can” is much easier to follow.

  9. Cool post and thank you for this. I’m struggling enough, as is, to de-program the food moralizing thrown in my face at every turn by this culture within the context of anti-fat bias, to say nothing of food ethics in addition to that. It takes a LOT of bandwidth and a lot of my income just to feed myself ENOUGH on a daily basis without adding dietary restrictions or guilt to the mix. I know it *can* be done, but I can’t imagine how *I* would sustain my highly active lifestyle, including marathon training, on a vegan diet. Food restriction is super-triggery for many people and is not something I can safely attempt. We have to choose our battles and how we prioritize our individual well-being.

    1. I get that food restriction is triggering for many people and there are other reasons people cannot or will not go vegan or vegetarian.

      But the idea that vegans cannot be athletes or highly active because the diet doesn’t support an active lifestyle is a myth and demonstrates a misunderstanding of what a vegan diet can be like.

  10. I really do empathize with anyone who has an eating disorder. And Olivia, I appreciate your writing this article in an open minded manner. But eating disorders don’t justify forcefully impregnating pigs, locking them in tiny gestation crates in their own waste where they can barely move just so they can have their babies ripped away to be fattened up and have their throats slit to provide people with pork dinners. They don’t justify throwing live baby male chicks who are useless for egg production into grinders while the females are debeaked without anesthesia (yes there are nerves in there) and then stuffed to small cages (or in the case of “free range” chickens often packed into some sort of extremely crowded) to become egg factories until they’re of no more use. I could go on and on, but I think my point has been made. Of course I can’t force anyone not to pay factory farms to put animals through this treatment, so this is just my opinion. Rather than asking people to feel guilty, all I ask is for people to feel empathy and to apply their already existing morals. A lot of meat eaters were mad when Mitt Romney strapped his dog in his/her carrier on top of the car when he went on his family road trip. A lot of them were upset with Michael Vick. There’s clearly a disconnect somewhere.

    Abusing and killing an animal is not comparable to failing to visit relatives who miss you, sorry. And avoiding animal products to the extent of one’s ability is only analogous to focusing on rape prevention if by focusing on rape prevention you mean “not raping people and not paying for people to be raped”. Animals are forcibly impregnated, by the way (dairy cows for example need to be impregnated over and over again so that they keep giving milk and in turn they get to experience having their calves taken away from then over and over again, in some cases to become veal), so the two aren’t entirely separate.

    There is an important difference between eating animals and abusing, raping and murdering people though and that is that eating animals is currently a social norm and only seen as morally problematic by a minority of people. Most of us are raised to eat animals, our friends do it, and so on and so on. Breaking away from a social norm is very difficult. I’m sure anyone who was raised religious will attest to this, and eating animals is a far bigger norm than any particular religion is. So I don’t view omnivores as bad people. Most of my friends and family eat animal products and I ate them myself for more of my life than not. And I do view rapists, rape supporters, victim blamers, murderers and so on as bad people because societies generally recognizes (for the most part at least… there are obviously still cultural problems that need fixing) rape as a bad thing. Just in case anyone thinks I’m lumping rapists and meat eaters into the same category. I’m not. And I don’t think focusing on who’s good or bad or whatever is useful anyone. I’m just interested in focusing on making what I think are good choices and encouraging others to make good choices.

    As for cost, veganism is basically as cheap as you want it to be. You can spend a lot on any diet. But all the foods that are by far the cheapest are vegan. Flour, oil, sugar, rice, beans, lentils, oats, pasta, peanut butter, bread, tortillas, bagels and so on. And supplements are very cheap, assuming you don’t get ripped off.

    1. Ok, a couple of things.
      1.I think you might need to refresh on the definition of “analogy”.
      2.I’m gonna have to call you out. You don’t get to say that you empathize with me and then turn around and say “But eating disorders don’t justify forcefully impregnating pigs, locking them in tiny gestation crates in their own waste where they can barely move just so they can have their babies ripped away to be fattened up and have their throats slit to provide people with pork dinners.”

      I want to qualify before I say this next thing that I AM NOT BLAMING YOU for my life or what happens in my life. If you trigger me, that isn’t your fault, I am not mad at you, it’s a thing that happens. Rather I want you to understand the experience of an eating disorder to the best of your ability, understand what you’re telling someone they need to do when they tell you that veganism/vegetarianism would trigger their eating disorder, so that you know the things that I am balancing and just how triggering, insensitive, and disrespectful your statement was.

      Since I read your comment about 3 hours ago it hasn’t stopped running through my mind, usually followed by some variation of “you fat fuck, why do you think you deserve any food at all?”, then followed by the firm decision to not eat today. This is what even the suggestion of veganism does to me. I am not making a conjecture when I say that it will trigger a relapse, I have good evidence of that. Eating disorders aren’t just the desire to be skinny, or a diet. They have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Most of the people I know with eating disorders have been hospitalized thanks to them. I know people who have died from them. When you tell me that my eating disorder doesn’t justify my decisions you say that trying to keep myself out of the hospital and not dead doesn’t justify my decisions. I’m not sure if you would say the same thing to a person with a physical illness that prevented them from a vegan diet, but I really want you to think about what message that sends. Essentially you’re saying that my life, whatever I do with it, is not as important as the animals that I might eat. Regardless of how careful I am to get non-factory farmed meat, or to cut down meat as much as possible, my life still isn’t as important as theirs, because you’re willing to tell me that acting in the interest of my health is not justified.

      In addition, I want you to know that an eating disorder is a form of torture. If anyone else were to enact on me the things that my own mind does, they would be put away for a very, very long time. So not only are you asking me to put my life in danger, you are asking me to give myself up to torture for the sake of animals.

      All of this sounds melodramatic, I understand that. It is also my reality, and I am not exaggerating when I say that an eating disorder is psychological and physical hell. I understand that animals also often live in hell, but that doesn’t mean you can ask me to walk right back into my own. If you want to be empathetic, then please don’t tell me that trying to protect myself is not justified. My mind has enough fodder to tell me I’m not worth the food I eat without others confirming it.

      1. I apologize for triggering you (even though you are not blaming me). It was not my intention. I must admit that I do not know what it’s like to have an eating disorder, nor do I know an awful not about them. And because eating disorders can vary a lot from person to person I didn’t realize yours was as severe as you describe. I will try to learn more in the future. I also retract my statement as far as it concerns you and anyone else who would be put through torture and possible death by not consuming animal products.

    1. This link to your Vegan Feminist Network answers none of the questions raised after your first post. I spent a bit of time on that site and I couldn’t find answers anywhere else either. I still want to know just what rights you think non-human animals should have and why.

      When radioactivity was discovered people tried to link all sorts of snake oil with the science involved. This happened again with quantum physics and innumerable other scientific advances. You seem to be trying to legitimize your positions by shouting “Skepticism” while never explaining the logic. If you have an essay that does that please point it out, I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to understand your reasoning.

  11. Without rehashing what has already been brought up, I think we can all agree as skeptics that there’s a lot of misinformation and pseudoscience out there about diet and food production. No one diet has been proven to be “optimal” for humans, despite what some vegan, paleo, or whatever advocates might say about it. Do Americans and other “first worlders” overconsume meat? Yes, and overconsume other processed foods. The US food industry depends on undocumented workers and slave worker conditions in other countries for our food. I would love to be able to subscribe to my local meat and veggie CSA, but can’t afford it at the moment. Urban food deserts are a reality and there are people, including atheists and skeptics, that don’t have the means to choose.

    Thus, the ethical choice for me is to be aware of these issues and to try to make the best choices for me at any given moment. I consider veganism a privileged choice that is not without its own set of issues, but one that I respect as long as others respect my choices. I personally could never be vegan. I have digestion issues and my body doesn’t absorb iron and B-12 well. Even eating meat regularly, I have to supplement to prevent being anemic and regularly get my blood tested to check on my health.

    I personally choose to focus on worker rights issues more than animal rights issues. I don’t feel guilty eating meat, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the potentiality of intelligence and cognition of the animal that died for my meal. Basically, the choice is complicated and I refuse to believe or advocate in one kind of ethics or diet for other people… just leave the pseudoscience out.

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