Notes on a Personal Journey Towards Veganism

This is a long “thinking out loud” post and so I apologise but also want to say at the outset that I am a work in progress and just finding my way along; so I’m happy to engage in constructive discussion.

Sometimes I am embarassed to admit that it was “Skinny Bastard” (The male version of “Skinny Bitch“) that tipped the balance for me. It is rampant vegan propaganda, it is emotive, it repeatedly uses a mere handful of original scientific sources, it relies on shock tactics but … it was enough to provoke me to respond to some nagging thoughts in the back of my mind.

I think the most significant change came when I was empowered to challenge the myth that humans NEED animal products in order to thrive. I had enough good ammunition for this from three years at university, studying anthropology and particularly specialising in behavioural ecology – but I had never really worked it through. If I didn’t need meat then the only arguments in favour of it were that it tasted nice and (as I’ll discuss shortly) what we think of as “delicious” is culturally constructed.

Vegetarian

The first and easy step was to stop eating meat. For this I was convinced initially by the environmental arguments and secondly by the animal welfare perspective and the health implications. I had already reduced meat consumption deliberately in light of the recognition that our western habits of meat eating once or twice a day are simply unsustainable in global terms. Giving up meat is a “no-brainer”.

It is easy to give up meat and it is enormously enjoyable to rediscover the joy of vegetables in their own right. The only awkwardness was dealing with the social fallout of changing from someone who would eat anything to being the fussy one when giving and receiving hospitality or eating out.

Public domain photograph of various meats. (Be...
Yuk!

Initially, I determined to be vegetarian at home but when receiving hospitality, to allow gratitude to triumph and to eat whatever people were kind enough to prepare for me. However, a vegetarian friend gently suggested that this was ethically inconsistent and that abstaining from meat at all times was an opportunity to “witness” to my moral principles. Fair point. So now I was the fussy one and proud of it.

Ovo-vegetarian

I quicky surmised that all the arguments in favour of abstaining for meat held for dairy as well. I have had quite a bee in my bonnet about it ever since as my “Milk Monday” posts will make clear. At the end of the day, dairy products are not kind to animals, the environment or our bodies. It is clear to me that the only morally consistent way someone can be vegetarian but continue to consume dairy is (once again) because of taste. I know a few vegetarians who simply do not eat meat because they don’t like the taste of it. That’s fine, but if there is an ethical dimension to the choice then I don’t see how it is consistent to eat dairy which is just as dependent on slaughter and exploitation and just as damaging to the environment as meat. In fact, as Gary L. Francione points out (rightly I reckon) that there is more animal suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak.

So dairy was off the menu, too. At this stage I had not given much thought to eggs and didn’t want to go there just yet, relying on them for nutritional reasons and not yet having got used to cooking differently.

At this stage it was interesting to note some of the responses:

What do you do for protien?

Well, we don’t need as much protien as we think we do. 50-60 grams a day is enough and we can get that from a variety of nuts pulses, grains, vegetables and fungi.

What about Calcium?

Firstly it is not a matter of forcing as much calcium down our throats as possible, there are other factors that affect the absorbtion of calcium and particularly the need for vitamin D and magnesium. Secondly, there are plentiful non-dairy sources of calcium, like brown bread and green vegetables.

What about B vitamins?

Again these can be sourced from judicious use of green vegetables, fruit, yeast extracts and so on in the diet but I do take a supplement and some of the soya products I use are fortified.

What about humanely reared and slaughtered animals and “happy” milk?

These responses are getting into more interesting territory. Is there such a thing as “humane slaughter”. I think there might be. Roadkill might be a good example of this. The animal doesn’t see it coming and death is hopefully instantaneous. It is possible to sneak up on a hog and stun it before bleeding it, sure, but unless I saw the animal die I can’t be sure; and all the meat available to me comes from a process that happens behind closed doors. I cannot garuntee that just because the packet says it had a nice life and died happy that this is true.

There are different sorts of Happy Milk, too. The bottom line is that in order to consume milk we have to take from a cow what was intended for it’s calf and we at least need to rely on it to produce enough for us as well as the calf. From where I am standing, all this seems to be quite bizzarre considering that milk is a luxury and not a necessity. Nobody would suckle from a cow, but this is what we do, albeit in a clinically removed way. I suggested that it would make more sense if supermarkets sold human milk but who is going to agree that that is a good idea?

Why don’t you eat, say, wild caught fish?

Good question. The person who asks this has seen that there are environmental implications for farmed or trawled fish; but surely a salmon that has been hunted with a fair chance of escaping the hook is okay. Now the question comes down to an animal’s capacity to suffer and a humans moral right to inflict that suffering. It was pondering this question that lead me to make another step towards veganism.

Veganish

I concluded that there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that birds, mammals and fish are sentient beings with a capacity to suffer. I have also thought long and hard about my right to be complicit in the infliction of pain and distress in any form. I have concluded that it is not acceptable, and it could in fact be dangerous to our collective conscience as a race.

In conversation I keep coming back to the fact that consuming animal products is a choice based on taste rather than necessity. To abstain from them is not to make a great sacrifice at all but to embrace an integrated and wholistic way of life that is non-violent and ethically consistent. We are addicted to animal products and that can change. Honestly, food actually “tastes” better this way – in the broadest sense of the word. Show me an aubergine or a pile of lentils and a steak and ask me which one “tastes” better and there is no competition. For some, purely on the level of chemical pleasure, the steak might taste better, but surely there is more to the flavour of something than that? When we elevate stimulation of the senses above morality we are on shaky ground.

This is what is at the front of my mind when people in conversation try to ascertain under what circumstances I might be prepared to consume animal products. There is a sense that they are trying to find a way for me or them to escape from the ethical ban and find an acceptable way to maintain the addiction. That is honestly what it feels like to me. Whichever way I look at it I can’t escape the conviction that the aubergine is a wholesome, joyful and virtuous thing and the steak and cheese has nothing to commend it. I don’t need rescuing from an austere self-imposed diet I just want other people to be set free.

The Abolitionists

More recently I have stumbled accross a new sort of human, a growing global movement with a compelling vision of a vegan world in the future.

Abolitionists are part of a movement that draws inspiration from those who campaigned to end slavery in bygone times. They emphasise the personhood of animals and challenge our “speciesist” ideals. At the same time their critique goes deeper, challenging any form of oppression from a non-violent platform. In years to come, they believe we will look back on our exploitation of animals in the same way that we now regard slavery. Abolitionists are highly critical of “welfareists” who they regard as enemies of the true and fundamental ethical shift that needs to take place. The welfareists are just soothing our consciences without tackling the moral problem. I can’t do all the arguments justice here but encourage the curious to explore.

Check out the Abolitionist Approach Commentary Podcast, for instance.

I am really grateful to the abolitionists for the debate they are opening up and the ways they have helped me to think through my own ethical choices. However I am not quite ready to sign up wholeheartedly.

Pragmatics?

From a pragmatic point of view I would like to know what the plan is for humanity to transition away from dependence (psychological and otherwise) on animal products. Here I think some kind of “step-down” process would be necessary. We have created this monster and it needs to be dismantled carefully otherwise we have herds of dairy cows turned out to die. Transitioning to small-scale localised agriculture practicing as humanely as possible in respect of animals may be a way to go? From an educational point of view, too, welfarist organisations such as Peta and Animal Aid have helped me to progress in my thinking and have awakened my conscience rather than  merely soothing it.

I guess that is why I want to keep exploring dairy issues on Milk Mondays by keeping the debate open and exploratory, rather than coming down hard on one side.

Gary L. Francione who is a primary architect of the abolitionist approach seems like quite a reasonable guy who wants to really have conversations with people and help them think. But some of his disciples come accross as a bit shrill in their attacks. I can understand, because sometimes I want to shout at people to think about their choices and want to aggressively dismantle their thinking. I have not made any progress by being attacked but through having the opportunity for dialogue without feeling judged.

What about the Inuit?

Is there an abolitionst answer for ethnic groups who have good reason to depend on animals for survival because of where they live? It is difficult to see how their way of life could be suddenly altered without causing more suffering.

Theology

Ultimately, I think I am on a subtly different track to the abolitionists while very much appreciating their contribution. At the end of the day, it is us, not the animals, who are thinking about these issues and have the power to do something about it. That is a reflection of the fact that humans are uniquely placed in a position of responsibility and stewardship in relation to the rest of creation. I think this is not coincident but divine design. It is out of that sense of responsibility that I am making my choices. That makes me speciesist because I think humans are special – it’s what we do with that specialness that matters.

Scripture, which abolitionists may see as a homophobic, speciesist, racist, and sexist collection of documents, nevertheless begins and ends with a vision of a vegan world. Originally, humankind lives harmoniously in a garden, eating fruit and lording it over creation without a hint of exploitation. Ultimately, even the lion eats grass in a new creation and nothing hurts or harms on God’s holy mountain. I think that is the creator’s ultimate intention. That’s my dream, too. Being vegan gives me a taste of a time yet to come and is part of making it a reality now.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,” says Yahweh. (Isaiah 65:25 – WEB)

Veganism: A Truth Whose Time Has Come – M Butterflies Katz

The Vegan Solution – Angel Flinn

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Milk Monday: Dairy in the Days Before Pasteurisation and Refrigeration

In Biblical times, what was a land “flowing with milk and honey” given that that land was very hot and they had no fridges to store the milk? It sounds pretty smelly to me.

For thousands of years before the invention of pasteurisation and refrigeration, nomadic peoples had found ways of storing dairy in a hot climate and while moving from place to place. Among cultures such as the Masai and the sheperds of the Caucasus, these techniques are still the only way to keep milk. For such people, the word “milk” never means the homogenised cold white stuff we love to quaff by the glass and pour on our cornflakes. Rather, it is some sort of sour, fermented derivative that is nutritionally enhanced and partially digested by the bacteria it contains.

Lacto-fermentation and Kefir

Culture complexes of yeasts and bacteria are used the world over to create kefir, yoghurts, and cottage cheeses – each region historically developed their own unique cultures. When added to the milk, these cultures go to work, in some ways speeding up the decaying process of milk but keeping it safe to drink. The growth of the “good” microorganisms is vigorous enough to repress the development of other harmful ones and often renders the environment too acidic and hostile for the “bad” bacteria. Many products now available in western supermarkets and marketed as health drinks with “friendly bacteria” or “probiotics” are simply derived from these traditional cultures and can easily be made at home.

Photograph - 90 grams of kefir grains in a dis...
Kefir Grains (via Wikipedia)

Kefir is a “grain” treasured by shepherds in the caucasus region and enjoying a resurgence among health food enthusiasts. The culture itself can be divided and passed on from one person to another, often taking on unique regional characteristics. Added to milk, kefir grains cause fermentation, acting on the sugars to produce acidic by products and alcohol. Kefir drinks can be made and kept at room temperature, varying in thickness and alcoholic content according to the specific culture and how it is treated. It is often mixed with salt or sugar to make a refreshing drink.

Lacto-fermentation is also the process that results in yoghurt which can also be made on the windowsill in a warm climate but using a different starter culture that usually includes Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.

Lacto-fermentation has been described as “the poor man’s refrigerator.”

Raw and Curdled Milk

The Maasai people of Africa are one of the oldest pastoral cutures on the planet and their entire life revolves around their cattle who provide milk and blood and, only very occasiaonally, meat. In spite of consuming more fat than would be healthy for a westerner, cardiovascular disorders are virtually unheard of.

For the Maasai, the primary way of storing milk is in the cow. A Maasai is never far from the source so can just squeeze out some raw milk and drink it on the spot, sometimes mixed with blood. To preserve it, milk is kept in hollowed out gourds that are blackened inside with smoke that may go some way to keeping the contents. The milk is then allowed to curdle and is still different to the foul smelling lumpy stuff we get if we leave the milk bottle out, by virtue of it having a rich complex of microorganisms in it to begin with. I have spoken to people who have had the dubious pleasure of drinking this stuff and by all accounts it is not to everyone’s taste, although highly nutritious and prized by the people themselves.

Slate and Teracotta Fridges

In the pantries of old victorian houses it is still possible to find a huge slab of slate on which dairy would have been stored. In temperate climates, the cooling properties of slate were sufficient to keep cheeses and milk at a low temperature for every bit as long as in our modern refrigerators. The victorians also made use of terracotta pots that had been soaked in water. As the water evaporated off from the porous material it would carry heat away, keeping the contents cool.

A “pot-in-a-pot” fridge is simple to construct using unglazed terracotta pots and sand, and this technique has been used in arabic countries for hundreds of years to preserve vegetables and dairy products. The Arabs call this type of refrigerator a “Zeer” pot.

Given that the refrigerator is only an invention of the last sixty years in human history and that it consumes up to 20% of our household’s energy, we could do well to learn how to live without it for the sake of the planet and discover a range of new tastes and techniques in the process.

Should I live Without a Fridge?

The Pot-In-A-Pot Fridge: Zeer from goselfsufficient.co.uk