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Giving up the V-card

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It’s been a year since my most successful experiment. I had given up animal-derived foods to find out what it did for my health. After 30 years of indiscriminate eating, I finally gave the ethical issue surrounding animal food some honest thought, and ended up going vegan completely.

It’s been the best year of my life, and I’m convinced veganism is a large part of that. I won’t gush about the details but I’ll say that I felt altogether better physically and emotionally and I’m never going back to the way I used to live.

However, I don’t want to call myself a vegan any more. I’m giving up my V-card.

I’m still off meat and dairy and eggs, I still won’t buy wool or leather, I still won’t use animals for my entertainment, and I wish others would do the same. But my philosophy on it is quite different than it was a year ago and I don’t want to call myself the V-word. I’ll tell you why.

The first thing you notice when you go vegan is that everyone is mad, and they tell you you’re mad. You voluntarily enter the moral Twilight Zone. You discover a grotesque inconsistency between the beliefs people express and their behavior. You realize that we’re all highly irrational, and that it’s emotion that rules culture, and culture rules the behavior of individuals. No matter how much harm it causes, nothing we do needs to be justified as long as it’s popular enough.

Ask ten people on the street if they think it’s wrong to injure or kill animals for one’s amusement or pleasure, and nine or ten will say yes, of course. Chances are all ten of those people freely consume animal products, simply because they like to and they’re used to doing it.

A new vegan also encounters a bizarre compulsion in many otherwise friendly people to talk as loudly to you as possible about how delicious and juicy steak is. A certain contempt for you emerges seemingly from nowhere, and the most polite person can be overtaken by an urge to reiterate to you that they could never give up meat, because they just “love a good steak!”, presumably the way Michael Vick once loved a good dogfight.

For the recently converted, this inexplicable pseudo-hostility from everyday people can be alarming and it often triggers the kind of inadvertently sarcastic tone you saw in the last few paragraphs [Sorry! -D]. The effect is draining and alienating, and it’s hard not to feel a vague resentment for (or at least disappointment in) the ninety-nine percent of people who have no hesitation about exploiting animals if there is something enjoyable to be found in it. 

Tearing down the wall

Sometime last year I was listening to a vegan podcast in which the host announced that after months of examining her philosophies and liefstyle as a vegan activist, she realized she just couldn’t bring herself to dine with non-vegans anymore.

I understood where she was coming from, not that I’d ever do it. Imagine that everyone around you is indulging in something you think is horrible and unnecessary, and you’re supposed to be content to merely abstain from doing it yourself, and enjoy what you can about the surrounding social experience. Imagine realizing you’ll have to do this on a regular basis for the rest of your life. I can understand wanting no part of it.

But it didn’t seem right. Is this where veganism, as a personal commitment, inevitably leads — to a definite social divide between vegans and non-vegans? If so, the only hope for resolution is to nurture the vegan population to grow from the sub-one-per-cent level it is at now, to becoming as normal as being a non-smoker is today.

For most of the last year I felt that divide, not just between me and the omnivores, but the vegetarians too, who abstain from only one kind of animal exploitation. And not just the vegetarians, but the “vegans” who eat fish occasionally, or the ones who eat vegan but wear wool peacoats.

I even felt it between me and other vegans. I was an abolitionist, which basically means zero tolerance for any avoidable use of animals. But on the other side of the fence there were also welfarist vegans, who spent their time campaigning to improve conditions for food animals, encouraging vegetarianism or Meatless Mondays or other “partway” measures that make abolitionists cringe.

This alienation is real and I doubt there’s a single vegan (or vegetarian) reading this who doesn’t experience it. Right from the start it was always the hardest part of being vegan. It wasn’t the food cravings, it wasn’t the reduced clothing selection, it was the social weirdness that emerges when people learn you’re “one of those.”

In social situations — barbecues, parties and dinners out — people are generally polite and accepting, but they still can’t help but treat me as a special case with my special-case food. They probably can’t quite see me as a full participant. They make it clear that they have absolutely no desire to become a special case themselves, who isn’t “allowed” to do what normal people do. They are usually trying to be kind, but it still creates weirdness on both sides of the wall.

Now it’s clear to me that it’s the label that’s the problem. Not the labeling of food, or shoes, but of people. I think it creates animosity on both sides, it defines the wall itself, and that prevents that wall from moving much. It seems that generally, vegans love their label, and love to deny it to non-vegans. If you were to tell a group of vegans that you’re a vegan who enjoys a tiny cube of cheese once every leap year they’ll say, “Oh so you’re not vegan then.” And technically they’re right.

I think how we broach the issue with members of the omnivorous majority is extremely delicate, and most of the time it’s done badly. The word vegan has extremist connotations to most, and no matter how much the vegans think that’s undeserved, it is ultimately the omnivores who decide how quickly veganism is going to grow.

The end of us and them

So I tossed the label. I haven’t changed much about how I live, but I won’t call myself a vegan any more. It’s a handy label for classifying recipes, cookbooks, how certain products were made, but I won’t wear the badge any longer. Technically I don’t reach the bar anyway (as 99.5% of people don’t) because I ate two slices of pizza when I went to New York last month.

There are two main differences in how my new philosophy affects my behavior. They’ve made life so much easier on me, and have made me a better ambassador for the cause of moving away from using animal products.

1) I am careful not to harbor or express disgust for non-vegan food. When you learn about where meat, dairy and eggs come from, it’s hard not to feel disgust, even if you don’t change how you live in response. Most vegans feel some of this disgust whenever they look at those foods. Many won’t even acknowledge that it’s food.

I now see this disgust as a hindrance to the spread of animal-free living. The net effect of that disgust, more than anything, is that omnivores feel judged or dismissed by vegans, and begin to resent them. Staunch vegans might say “Who cares if they’re offended man, I’m doing what’s right.” — forgetting that souring people to veganism who might otherwise have become vegans is effectively erasing all the good they have ever done, and more.

A fellow blogger who calls himself Speciesist Vegan wrote a great piece here on why it’s so important for vegans to get over their disgust for non-vegan food, if they want veganism to grow.

2) I make the occasional exception when it comes to food and I don’t hide it from the omnivores in my life. There are three reasons I do this now. First, it demonstrates to them that I don’t think they’re disgusting or immoral, and that my philosophy on life is not categorically different than theirs. Second, by deliberately indulging in the odd act of exploitation, it eliminates the feeling of being permanently “outside” the world of normal people, by being someone who will die without ever eating ice cream again. And third, it shows them that how I live isn’t difficult, isn’t all or nothing, and is something they might actually do themselves.

I fully understand there are people who want absolutely nothing to do with having an animal food in their mouth again, and see no need to alleviate the social alienation by eating the odd non-vegan item, but I’m no longer one of them and I believe what I do does far more good than harm.

I also don’t go to great lengths to ensure a meal is vegan before I order it in a restaurant anymore. I will eat the free bread, with no investigation. Much more effective, I think, than nitpicking my way around every sprinkle of parmesan and every stick of egg-white-brushed complimentary bread, is to demonstrate that you can be a normal participant in everyday social activities while still avoiding animal products almost all the time.

A new vegan should realize relatively quickly that the vast majority of people alive today have zero interest in veganism and will never do it no matter what you say to them. The single notion of “no more ice cream, ever” is, I’m sure, an utter dealbreaker for the majority of people. Only a small proportion could potentially become strict vegans, and I think our energy is better invested in trying to get the larger proportion to experiment part-time with vegan options, rather than trying to get people to completely defect to the as-yet-tiny “other team.”

Looking at the endless internet banter whenever the issue comes up, what most vegans seem to forget is that for somebody to go vegan, it means an omnivore has to see veganism as something more appealing than what they already do. Yet they insist on driving home how uncompromising and all-or-nothing it must be. If you don’t believe me, go post “I avoid all animal products but honey and silk” on a vegan message board and look at the responses.

I indulged in this smug partisanship too. There is an abolitionist blog I once really enjoyed, even though it consisted almost entirely of ripping into celebrity vegans who go back to eating eggs occasionally.

I believe that in the current social climate there are probably twenty times more people out there who would potentially go 90% of the way to veganism, given the health, environmental and ethical incentives, than there are people who would ever arrive at a day when they declare they’ve had their last ever Ben & Jerry’s. There’s way more ground to be made — which represents many more animals to be spared — influencing the former group than the latter.

Between my abolitionist days and today, the difference in the volume of animal products I consume is pretty small. A few more of my dollars do go to paying people for exploting animals. These changes may represent the difference between say, 99.8% of my total buying power, and 99%. (Despite what some vegans may tell you, it is unlikely anybody is able to live 100% vegan, but you can get really close.)

But if my more relaxed, undogmatic lifestyle convinces even one person that they could live without animal products, even 50% of the time, I’ve already prevented more many times more harm than I’ve caused.

What I want is for the world to move away from using animals for their pleasure or convenience. I no longer believe that growing a small but intense group of zero-tolerance advocates is going to do that. It is easier and mathematically more effective to convince several times the people to go even just halfway.

But more importantly, it invites a culture where a large proportion of people have taken some action to reduce animal use, and have been exposed to the reasons why it might be a good idea. Right now, most people don’t honestly believe it’s possible to even have a delicious vegetarian meal that doesn’t seem like a compromise. I think encouraging them to cook their first enjoyable animal-free meal is more effective than posting abused pigs on their Facebook wall.

The biggest change I want to influence people to make is to find a personal philosophy that resonates with them most, rather than interviewing the various camps and joining one. [This perspective is often cited in positive reviews of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals — an anti-eating-animals book that’s ripped on as often by strict vegans as it is by anti-vegan omnivores. The reviews, generally, are glowing. Foer is not vegan.]

I think we’re better off easing the general population into no-pressure experimentation with animal-free food and clothing than we are insisting you’re either carrying the V-card, or you’re part of the problem.

Vegans, non-vegans, in-betweeners, what do you think?


Vegan Tikka Masala pic by miikkahoo

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Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm April 2, 2012 at 6:58 am

Great article – very well considered & written. I really enjoyed it. I agree completely, I think there is a compulsive aspect to the vegan lifestyle that contributes to success and at the same time as it pushes them into rigidity.

It’s a hard road – I’ve tried it and hated every minute. I reached a point where I couldn’t choke down another soy anything. And much a much more difficult diet for eliminating processed foods which is very important to me.

I find many vegans lack firsthand experience with livestock and farming which makes a huge difference in deep understanding. I have made my living twice from animals: first as a horse trainer, now raising heritage breed cattle. Many people may find this odd, but I have more conflict about the horse training than I do with raising beef. And I have no conflict with using well cared for horses or oxen for farm work.

I also don’t understand the benefit to either animal or human in avoiding certain types of consumption. For example, what’s the harm in eating an unfertilized chicken egg from a chicken you keep yourself, care for well and allow to die of old age? There seems to be an assumption that the animals have no joy in the relationship, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Animals don’t enjoy being poorly treated, but they often very much engage with and enjoy relationships with people.

Same for the milk of a goat or cow raised under the same conditions? And wool raised the same way? It’s unkind to NOT shear the sheep, so why waste the wool? Way better for the environment than synthetic fabrics.

Livestock would cease to exist and without the animal manure, our soil would become more and more reliant on synthetic petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides that are far from sustainable.

Extreme veganism is a mind-lock focused inward, almost a form of OCD. If a vegan has no direct experience with livestock, farming or nature, often the emotional aversion leads to the belief in dead ends and cul de sacs that don’t exist in Nature.

I get and commend the spirit and emotion, but believing man’s thinking is greater than Nature’s principles gets us into trouble every time.

Hopefully this is not just one long run-on sentence! I sincerely hope to hear from vegans about why those lovingly raised eggs & milk are unacceptable.

Olivia April 2, 2012 at 9:13 am

I’ve actually studied agricultural science for the last year. I’ve spent time on a dairy and beef farm. I can’t get past the exploitation of it all. Seperating calves from their mothers is wrong in my opinion. And slaughtering ‘spent’ animals is a horrible way to repay them for their years of service.

However, I would happily eat eggs from my own chickens. Their beaks would be untrimmed. They would be allowed to die of old age. They would live much nicer lives than others.

If everyone had their own cows, taking a small amount of milk a day would be no problem. It’s the total seperation of calf and mother that bothers me, along with the wonderful cows going to slaughter when their milk yield has dropped after a few years. You have to think of the vast majority of systems in place. Mass produced milk is what most people have access to. Not their own cow and a nice jug of milk a day where the cow and calf remain together.

I’m pretty well versed in most of what occurs right now, and I am happier with my decision every day.

David April 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm

> For example, what’s the harm in eating an unfertilized chicken egg from a chicken you keep yourself, care for well and allow to die of old age?

Perhaps none, depending on your philosophy about animal use, but clearly the vast majority of eggs are not produced this way.

Some vegans might be okay with animal foods produced in those rare circumstances, but there’s another school of thought that’s probably more common — that the human world is better able to keep itself healthy and compassionate if we get away from using animals altogether, and move towards the end of animal domestication. Domestication creates animals that are dependent on humans, and that alone is problematic. I know we’re nowhere near that but I think humans will one day look back on animal domestication as something unethical.

Allison Koberstein April 3, 2012 at 1:05 am

Also, I’ve read before that egg-laying hens often like to eat their own eggs to regain nutrients. So if you take the egg away, you’d still be taking something they might want to use themselves, which would be a kind of exploitation (if their body made it, they should probably have dibs on it if they want it). I’m not really an expert on this matter, just throwing it out there!


“If you look after rescued hens, do them a favour and crack open their own eggs in front of them – they will eat them! Eating their own eggs allows hens to re-gain many of the nutrients that their bodies lose through being forced to lay so many eggs in the first place. Us (humans) eating their eggs – even from backyard-type situations – is problematic because it deprives them of nutrients that they would benefit from.”

jkaes April 10, 2012 at 10:50 am

I am vegetarian, and often get pulled into debate by meat eaters when they find out that I am abnormal, I find it quite upsetting to tell them I have no problem with what they do, I say this because if I don’t I often get the conversion speal. an omnivores conversion tactic begins “but whats wrong with eating eggs you’re reared yourself and hunting for wild animals and if its had a good life, but if they take me down that route I have to point out to them the hypocrisy of their words I say something like “when was the last time you ate meat? where did it come from? do you know the animals name? did it have a good life? was it farmed intensively? did you hunt it yourself?” who do you know that can honestly answer yes to any of those questions?. the problem that I have is that the people I am forced into debate with are not critical thinkers, I know this because if they were they have already considered that it may be wrong to harm other creatures and they would not need to pester me, therefore I don’t tell people that I am vegetarian and if it comes up I tell them I am allergic!

Tatiana April 3, 2012 at 8:28 am

This is where I am at with my food choices – all our food dollars are spent supporting small, local farmers directly, that grow food (animal and otherwise) with plenty of compassion, and who are not driven solely by profit margins.

I will likely not ever be a vegan, as I too feel that there are far too many ways in which we subsume natural habitat around us in ways that has nothing to do with eating animals per se. I see far more common sense and welfare for all practiced at any well run polyculture organic farm where all the pieces of life are part of the self sustaining ecosystem.

Elizabeth Bell April 4, 2012 at 6:23 am

I like what you say a lot!

Elizabeth Bell April 4, 2012 at 6:28 am

Jackie, I like the logic of your comment very much.

Shanna Mann April 2, 2012 at 7:47 am

I agree with Jackie. I grew up on a ranch, and personally I think wool is the most amazing textile in the universe. There are decent synthetics, just recently, but man do I love wool. And growing wool doesn’t hurt sheep. Where’s the wrong?

I don’t understand why keeping livestock is exploitive and breeding animals as pets aren’t.

I moved in with a vegetarian roommate, and, since I’m away from the ranch, I pretty much went veg because I’m almost invariably disappointed in store-bought meat. Bland, textureless, eww. It’s not hard, since I know what meat is SUPPOSED to taste like, and that ain’t it. Occasionally I’ll get farm eggs, and last week I was in Amish country and had some roast beef that was pretty decent.

Some people are confused by the way I eat, but from my perspective, the local Krogers can’t screw up brown rice, spinach, potatoes, etc. The same is not true of the meat, fish, and god help me, I’m even an egg snob. If that chicken doesn’t get to eat grasshoppers the way god intended, the eggs just aren’t that good.

I think that the exploitation issue needs to be tackled with more intellectual rigor. The natural world is a web. It’s exploitative to take honey and care for bees, so is it exploitative to place hives where they can pollinate fruit trees and flax fields? Personally, it’s not the disgust that annoys me, it’s the parroting of vegan party line, not having even done the research to realize when they’re being hypocritical.

For instance, now that the beef has already been killed, isn’t it better to use every part of it, leather for boots, connective tissue for Jello, rather than cutting off a few choice steaks and making the rest into pink slime?

David April 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Most vegans do think breeding animals as pets is unethical. There are far more suitable pets alive today than there are good homes, so every cat or dog that is acquired from a breeder or pet store is a cat or dog that will die in a shelter.

As for wool, industrialized wool production is far from harmless. There is a load of information about this available online. You can start here if you’d like to know more – http://www.theethicalman.com/wool.html

You are right, there is a lot of hypocrisy among vegans. But we are all hypocrites, we are all underinformed on one issue or another. I think acknowledging that both sides of the fence are the same in this regard helps us all to understand each other and understand why each we do what we do.

Shanna Mann April 4, 2012 at 11:10 am

You’re right. I’d never heard of mulesing, and it’s always hard to remember that what I experienced in my own community isn’t what’s going on in an industrial scale.

Somehow the Icebreaker tanks I’ve been wishing for have lost much of their allure.

Vanessa April 1, 2013 at 5:11 am

Just FYI: Icebreaker wool comes from sheep that are not mulesed. Read the Icebreaker site and find out about their stance on the ethical treatment of the sheep.

Kat April 4, 2012 at 11:58 pm

I definitely agree that people should adopt as opposed to going to a breeder, but I would like to point out that (at least where I live) there are lots of pet stores who are now getting their cats, dogs and more from animal rescue groups.

Olivia April 2, 2012 at 9:00 am

I’m a vegan, and avoid using the word vegan almost entirely. Was offered chocolate by a few people last week and all I said was ‘Oh, no thank you, I try not to eat dairy if I can’ and it was a much more accepting audience than saying vegan. My friends have pelted me with responses like ‘but steak is just so good’ and the one that seems to be repeated the most is ‘If I wasn’t meant to be eating meat, then why do cows turn into burgers when they die?’ Really stupid childish digs. I mostly smile and leave it go. Actually explaining only alienates people in situations like that. I was also told that ‘animals are beneath us. We’re more intelligent therefore we have a right to eat them.’ That one, I didn’t hold my tongue. However, my response was pretty calm, and the smart remarks did stop after that.

I’ve made the little compromises when eating out like you’ve mentioned. A few times now i’ve gone out for dinner and realised there was something dairy in it, like little flecks of cheese in a pesto. They were entirely negligible compared to the size of the meal. I ate it. Didn’t mention it. And I pass no apology. It’s the small compromises that make this doable. At home I know what’s in everything i’m eating. I try and make the best choices when eating out and hope they work out.

Overall, the difficult part of all this is definitely other people. Some are actually quite supportive and think it’s great, just not something they could do. The rest are the comedians with steak jokes.

David April 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm

This is how I feel about it now. I’ve found that I hear fewer of the flippant comments since I’ve stopped dropping the V-bomb, and I think that’s evidence that the wall is coming down. The word makes people defensive, and for good reason, because it’s tantamount to telling someone that you think the way they live is wrong. So naturally they are inclined to fire back by making belittling comments, and become closed to the idea of reconsidering how they live.

Daniel April 2, 2012 at 9:01 am

I think you’re absolutely right that your new viewpoint will do more good than your old.

I myself am an omnivore, but one that eats very little meat (easily under 8 ounces per week on average). I do eat eggs and drink milk daily though. I really think that raised the traditional way, eggs and milk are not needlessly exploitative of animals. I say needlessly because I don’t see any way around the conclusion that living at all is exploitative of animals.

Wood, plastic, metals, oil, just about all common everyday materials are obtained through methods which disrupt animal’s habitats. Building cities takes land away from animals. Building highways or rail lines leads to deaths from traffic and can interfere with migrations. The noise can interfere with habitats near the highway or rail line. Even something as simple as electric lighting can have a negative impact on surrounding wildlife.

As for food, crops are grown on land cleared of its normal ecosystem, and mechanical harvesting kills animals.

Until we can replicate everything we need to survive, we exist at the expense of other life forms. And even then, our cities and transit will displace ecosystems. The only true zero-exploitation way of life is in space, with replicators, with all materials obtained from lifeless planets (but maybe the planets would have developed life if we didn’t use them for resources?).

Given all that, I think the important thing is that we leave some parts of the world untouched, leave some true wilderness, and that when we use animal products, we do it consciously, respectfully, and gratefully. I propose that with such an understanding even eating meat or wearing leather can be moral and not needlessly exploitative.

David April 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm

This is an important point — that using animals directly for food or clothing is not the only way in which we interfere and create suffering for others. Something made from plant-based fibres is generally thought of as “vegan” because it’s not animal derived, but it certainly came from a plantation that certainly displaced animals at some point. Some vegans (although I think it’s a minority) really do believe they have almost eliminated the harm they cause.

But we should be wary of the all-or-nothing argument. Just because we can’t light our homes without marginalizing animals somewhere, doesn’t mean we should feel free to watch dogfights or eat fois gras. Moving away from exploiting animals through industrialized food production is crucial for our social and environmental well-being, in my view, and it will change social standards such that we will be more careful not to exploit them in other ways.

Kelsen April 3, 2012 at 10:12 am

Good point. The biggest problem is probably industrialization itself, which artificially inflates our world’s population capacity. If we have so many people that we can only feed and clothe everybody by exploiting nature, that’s a problem (albeit one with no simple and ethical solution).

It’s strange, yet interesting, how it’s all linked. For instance, fighting against poverty and removing income disparity (within and between nations) would improve everyone’s quality of life, and the increased education and stability that brings often seems to lead to a vastly reduced birth rate (compare first vs third world w.r.t. number of kids per household). It’s a long-term solution, though, but perhaps along with new technologies would eventually lead to a sustainable and smaller population. I fear that if technology gets there first, we’ll just continue to multiply excessively and spread through the galaxy (perhaps good for survival of the species, but if it’s exploitative that’s a problem…).

Interesting to take the perspective that far ahead though. ^^

Lisa April 2, 2012 at 9:31 am

It seems like it’s really all about labels. I can’t walk around calling myself a bipolar, or someone who suffers from debilitating panic attacks. The world in general would eat me alive! Worse yet, if I expounded on that and said I received health insurance from the state…. My own family thinks I’m a lazy hypochondriac who is living off the state just so I don’t have to work. (Mom says: there are thousands of people with bipolar who work great jobs, what’s your excuse?) They forget that in the past ten months I also had a hip replacement, a massive pulmonary embolism, and am dealing with congestive heart failure.

When people don’t know the whole story, when they don’t understand the feelings behind a decision, they judge. They come to their own conclusions and make them the truth about you. It just seems easier to live how you want, be what you are, enjoy what you love, but to do so a little more quietly. Those who don’t get you, don’t need to know. It is exhausting to constantly fight for and defend who you are and the choices you make.

So, no more labels please.

David April 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I guess that’s what descriptors do. They allow us to generalize, to ignore details, to pass shoulds and shouldn’ts with the belief that the thinking has all been done already.

Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm April 2, 2012 at 11:26 am

I don’t disagree with you one bit about industrial food. My limitations are very much like a vegan’s when eating out – where did the milk come from? what about the cheese? What processed foods? I just buck up and eat stuff I don’t want to more often than I’d like to make the peace. It is possible to milk cows without weaning the calf although you won’t often get a chance to buy that at the store. Finding better chicken gets easier all the time.

I suppose my point is that while you abstain, you support exactly what you despise by failing to support alternatives.

Oh, and btw, it’s so nice to have a discussion about this topic that hasn’t sunk to sarcasm and name calling in the first round! I’ve learned something significant from every single comment. Thank you!

Olivia April 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I understand what you mean, but unfortunately I don’t feel it is possible to produce milk in the quantities needed in the manner i’d actually be happy consuming it. There’s also other issues outside of separating the calf and mother. Especially if it still involved young male calves being sent off to veal farms, or even raised as beef animals. I find it hard to see past all those things. I’m glad there are places where animals are treated with more respect, but I still dislike that they are raised purely for human use.

The one thing I will say about becoming vegan is that i’ve learnt how much dairy disagreed with me. I feel a lot healthier since changing my diet. I choose different alternatives like rice milk. And while I know that’s not for everyone, i’m very happy and feel better because of it. I feel i’m supporting what I feel is the right industry by buying those products.

Ela April 2, 2012 at 11:47 am

I agree that labels sometimes carry emotional baggage for either the person using the label or the person hearing it. They often don’t convey what we really want to say and therefore don’t create a connection with people.

Regarding using animal products I have another perspective. I am not able to get protein from other sources. I rely on animal products to keep me alive and well. I have extreme food sensitivity to many fruits, vegetables, and plants and cannot eat fermented foods, aged foods, nuts, seeds, or legumes. Without meat and raw milk I would be sick. I can eat a small number of fruits and vegetables but not enough to live on and without animal derived amino acids I have constant migraines and fibromyalgia symptoms that are debilitating. To my knowledge there are millions of us out there who have similar food related issues. We don’t all choose to eat animal products because they taste good. Some of us dream of avocados and tomatoes, not steak.

I was vegetarian and then vegan in my late teens and early twenties and again briefly in my thirties and was sick each time. The final straw was when I tried a raw diet and became really sick. This began a five year journey into food intolerance. I have studied nutrition and Buddhism for many years and often read perspectives regarding how best to eat for nutrition, for sustainability, and for ethics. For some it is a moral issue and for others it is a health issue. We are not all the same and I know that we cannot all eat the same diet and have the same result. My perspective is that you must feed your body and mind for wellness and this will not look the same for everyone. There are some people who are very aware of the issues facing our growing planet who choose to consume animal products in the most humane and responsible way possible out of necessity for their life and well-being.

Ellen April 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm

I completely agree with you. What bothers me on both sides of the issue is the amount of judgment and name calling without seeking to understand the other side’s point of view. It’s just, “You’re wrong, I’m right, and that’s all there is to it.”

My husband is a fish-eating vegetarian, and his body and spirit do well with it. On the other hand, eating mostly vegetarian made me sick and weak. Grains, legumes and soy give me headaches, acne, explosive diarrhea, sinus infections, joint pain and trigger anxiety. My body cannot function on a vegetarian diet in a way that makes life worth living. When you cannot get out of bed because you’re just that tired, what’s the point? Dropping the grains/soy/legumes and adding in pastured, humane meat/eggs/small amount of dairy (I don’t drink milk–eww) along with vegetables and fruits took away every one of those symptoms I was experiencing. I get more done in a day than I did in a month on a pescatarian diet.

Even my husband has been attacked by people campaigning for a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle. When someone handing out flyers at a street festival found out he ate fish, she started screaming at him and calling him names. I don’t see how that’s helpful for anyone.

I *do* want to know where my meat comes from and how it was raised, but I want to know the same for my fruits and vegetables.

I’m all for dropping the labels and having a little bit of compassion and respect for the way others choose to move about in the world.

David April 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Thanks for sharing this. I think it’s one of the non-vegan arguments that often gets dismissed, and I’ve been guilty of it too. I still do believe nearly everyone can live healthfully on a vegan diet, but food allergies and sensitivities are real and some people just don’t seem to thrive on a vegan diet for whatever reason.

Toni R April 4, 2012 at 5:40 am

I, too, suffer from fibromyalgia, and the food allergies are extremely restrictive. Mine include vegetable proteins, nuts and seeds, grains, nightshade plants, dairy, and tropical fruits. That leaves a narrow selection of fruits and vegetables, all meats, and not much else. If it wasn’t for the understanding of my friends, vegan and otherwise, I would have pulled my hair out long ago. We all have something in common – we are intelligent people, concerned for the welfare of animals. However, we also have an acceptance and encouragement of each of our individual choices. I don’t feel condemned by them because I can’t eliminate meat from my diet. That’s a huge blessing.

michi April 4, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Agreed, from another person with food allergies.

If I could eat the full suite of fruits and vegetables, I would have at least tried going vegan long ago. It’s hard enough for me to get a balanced diet as it is. Please, dear vegans, know that there are many reasons people do not comport to your lifestyle — though some of us very much wish we could! :)

Partha April 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Dear Ela, ask yourself this: If your doctor told you that the only way you could keep yourself fully well is by eating young human children — and assuming for the sake of argument that you live in a country where you’re allowed to do this, and there were a market for this sort of thing — would you do it still? (Sorry, didn’t mean to offend you — but why do we feel that our wellness is so very over-ridingly important that it justifies slaughtering cows and goats and pigs and fish and sheep? Why is that seen as an option at all?)

Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm April 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Sorry I can’t leave this one alone – it’s raising great issues for something of my own I’ve been working on.

The theme of exploitation keeps being raised and I can’t help but wonder if you feel the same way about the server who waits on you in a restaurant, the clerk in the store, the cleaning people in your office building, the workers who picked your vegetables?

Very few of us, two legged or four, are free of exploitation in some form or another. I find it an interesting line of thinking that I somehow don’t believe is being applied to other humans.

Olivia April 2, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Do waiters and store clerks have their every move of every minute of their life dictated by someone who owns them? Do they have a choice what they eat, if and when the reproduce, and when they die?

I think that’s the huge distinction between farm animals and humans, regardless of the trade. The only similarities that should be made between the two are slavery and farming.

Olivia April 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I do see the point you are trying to make. But you have to consider that unlike workers, the animals get nothing from it. Human beings use work to support their own chosen lifestyles. Animals do not have that luxury. And simply saying they’re the same even though they’re vastly different circumstances, at least in developed countries, isn’t a fair comparison.

David April 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm

It’s true, humans get exploited too, and none of us are saying the exploitation of human beings is not also a moral issue.

There is a world of difference though, between someone without a lot of employment options other than a nonglamorous job, and someone who is captive from birth to death and whose only destiny is to be a meal for someone else. I think others have already clarified this though.

Kenoryn November 8, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I know I’m posting way after the fact here but I’m very curious about this perspective and want to understand why it’s considered unethical.

I don’t believe that animals view captivity with the same negative connotations that humans do. Animals get fed, housed, cared for and protected, and live longer, healthier lives as a result. Obviously that’s not the case in factory farming, but for, say, my backyard chickens, or my pet cat, I think they benefit greatly from the relationship. If my cat had grown up in the wild, he would probably get by, but he would often go hungry, he would live with almost constant stress/anxiety, he would be riddled with parasites, if he were injured he would just suffer in pain and eventually die, and on average he would most likely live about 3 years instead of 18 years. Is ‘freedom’ more important to my cat than the pain-free life and companionship he gains from his association with me? How can I presume to know my cat’s personal values, nevermind applying them to all cats everywhere and assuming that no cat would want to be domesticated, given the choice? Are we supposed to give cats the choice? Not to be sarcastic, but given their limited grasp of language it may be difficult to explain to them the possible ramifications so they can make an educated decision.

The same goes if I keep chickens for eggs or sheep for wool. The chickens will lay eggs whether I eat them or not, and if they lay them somewhere sneaky and I don’t stumble across it for a month or two, it will just go bad. (Unless I had a rooster. Is it OK to keep chickens only as long as I keep a rooster to give them the option of reproducing?)

I think it’s important as we think about these issues to recognize that animals do not have the same decision-making capacity and personal values that humans do. Applying our human values and preferences to them, and saying, “I personally wouldn’t want to live in someone’s house and be taken care of, because then I couldn’t have friends or kids or a career” is not the same as your chicken having friends or kids or a career, because friends and kids and careers do not mean the same thing to a chicken as they do to you.

Ultimately, the chickens and cats are free to leave anytime, and choose not to, so hopefully that says something. :) Unless there’s a broader perspective here I’m missing. I do believe it is unethical to breed cats and dogs, when so many already don’t have homes – but then that’s because I believe they are better off with homes than without! If you believed cats should be wild, then in a roundabout way breeding them is less of an offense.

David Cain November 10, 2013 at 8:44 pm

If you really want to understand the ethical issues surrounding animal use, just google it, you’ll find plenty of things wrong with it.

Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm April 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm

If there’s an exploited worker on my farm, it’s me, not my cows. The cows are busy doing whatever they feel like with their buddies all day and all night, eating as much as they like and having free choice about being inside or outside. And I’m busy making sure they have enough to eat, a clean dry place to rest and that they are safe.

My animals very definitely get something beneficial from it. They are free from fear, disease, discomfort and starvation. They are playful and as happy as cows can be. Again I am speaking only about life on a sustainable, humane farm – specifically mine – and not a factory farm.

My cows do not define injustice or exploitation in the same way we do. Their system of justice is very simple and direct. And not so kind or enlightened. And good luck keeping the cows away from the bull – those girls like boys and babies.

And I think it’s hard to argue the average migrant fruit picker or laborer has much in the way of human rights, choice and freedom. I have doubts that many of those women get a choice about reproduction either. Our grains and vegetables come with social consequences too.

I don’t get to choose when I’m going to die and of what, I eat what I can afford and much of my time is not my own.

I do consider that factory farms are unacceptable and cruel and deny animals the right to express their natures. I do not support industrial food products. But I go out of my way to support farmers who are doing the right things for the animals and the environment.

It’s a one step at a time journey…

I’m certainly not in any way trying to convince you your feelings about eating animal flesh is wrong. I take that part of my work very seriously and do not shirk the ambivalence I also feel.

Should we let farm animals become extinct? No one could afford to preserve them if there was no profit, small as it is. And believe me, nature has many cruel deaths for animals fending for themselves. There are many times when a gunshot is the greatest kindness…

Do you feel domestic livestock and pets should be phased out? I have to laugh because if I freed my cows today, they’d all set up camp in front of my house….

Steph in Berkeley April 3, 2012 at 5:44 am


Meat eating is as strong as ever in the US. I don’t eat it personally but–and perhaps even more so because of that–I’m thrilled to know that there are farms like yours that are not factory farming, and that care and have high standards for the treatment of their livestock. In fact, when I buy meat (for my spouse) I make sure I buy it from suppliers that treat their animals far better than the typical factory farms.

Thanks for the work you do.

David April 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm

I’m sure the experience your animals have is vastly better than what factory farmed animals experience, and until human beings leave animal food behind, I would prefer it people got it from operations like yours. But if it were up to me in some hypothetical circumstance, we would end animal domestication altogether by no longer breeding any animal that is dependent on humans. Releasing them all doesn’t make sense to me since they are incapable of surviving on their own.

That does include pets, yes. I love the cats and dogs in my life so much, and I think pet-keeping is valuable in that it proves to us that animals have personalities and are capable of suffering and happiness. But at the end of the day I think it is another form of using animals just because we gain something from it. Even though many pets are treated like best friends, the institution of pet-keeping creates an enormous amount of suffering for millions of animals, and keeps certain kinds of animals dependent on humans, which aren’t always kind creatures themselves.

Jackie @ Auburn Meadow Farm April 5, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I think your beliefs about freeing all animals assume animals have nothing to learn or enjoy from their relationships with people.

We are meant to be interdependent, not distant from the messy business of life. This is a topic with no correct answer, and no matter how hard we try, we will all get our hands dirty one way or another.

I don’t mean this in a critical way, I just sense that a mutual exchange between well cared for animals and people is something most people have not experienced firsthand and do not believe is possible.

I’m not referring to people treating pets like babies, products or possessions and denying them their true nature.

A true, two way relationship with an animal is a special experience that needs to be recognized as a valid life lesson for both animal and person.

Many animals enjoy learning and expanding their horizons too and look forward to working with their favorite people. Those consider being “freed” or retired to be a punishment, not a reward.

Olivia April 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I assure you I wasn’t speaking about your cows in what I said.

The domestic livestock being fazed out is far too complicated to discuss, however, to sum it up, if they weren’t bred in such outrageously high numbers, they’d eventually live just fine on their own. Like all other animals that arn’t farmed. There’s a natural ecosystem in the world and it’s been pretty heavily altered. Animals can be cruel, but animals live to survive, and that’s why they hunt. Humans are capable of deciding what they eat in developed countries and there’s no emergency or desperation for food. We can choose not to eat meat.

It’s all well and good to have animals that are well treated. I genuinely wish there was more farms like yours, but unfortunately the vast majority of farms out there are less than ideal. At the end of the day, the animal is still slaughtered to feed humans. It does matter that they have a great life leading up to that point. However, myself, I can’t look past the slaughtering part.

Olivia April 2, 2012 at 2:16 pm

And just a small note on all your other points. Vegans live to reduce their involvement in suffering as much as possible. I certainly don’t go around feeling like I have absolutely no involvement in suffering at some end of the spectrum. However, I live my life to have as little involvement in it as possible. I know suffering goes on all over the world. That doesn’t mean i’m not going to try my best to limit part I play in it.

Felix van Driem April 2, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I understand being appalled at the way animals are treated in industrial agriculture. What I don’t understand is why, if nature is full of examples of animals ‘using’ each other (ant/aphid, predator/prey and other co-evolved relationships) it is somehow inherently wrong to eat the way humans have evolved to eat. If your argument is that we are not evolved to eat (some) meat then I will have to refer you to textbooks on biology and evolution. So if you spend your life (or pay someone to spend theirs) raising animals in a responsible fashion it seems to me that if a human eats meat it is as amoral (not immoral!) as if any other animal does. Aren’t we just as much a part of nature and the food chain as any other animal? It seems the vegan/vegetarian stance somehow removes humans yet further from nature.

David April 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm

> What I don’t understand is why, if nature is full of examples of animals ‘using’ each other (ant/aphid, predator/prey and other co-evolved relationships) it is somehow inherently wrong to eat the way humans have evolved to eat.

Here’s why. Human beings are capable of understanding the suffering they cause. Other animals do not have the faculty for philosophizing about what they ought to do given the reality that other animals suffer like they do. The proverbial lion is never going to be able to grok the suffering of the gazelle, and is so is never going to look for another way to get by. But that’s a moot point anyway, because lions don’t have any other options. It is not immoral for animals to kill for food because they don’t have the capacity for morality that we have (and they do not have any options for survival without doing it anyway.)

David April 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful and nuanced comments here. I will give each one a proper response. So nice to see that the tone of this discussion is a lot less heated than the article I posted a year ago. There are way more than two ways to see this issue and I love to hear them all. The Wall made it hard to be open minded on both sides, and the discussion seems a lot healthier this time.

Chase Francis April 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm

The problem here, like you said, is culture. Plain and simple.

Ingrid April 2, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I can totally see the paralell to my life right now. I am a student with no adittional income but the support from loan/state support. Nowadays my challenge is to save the environment from me wasting meat and energy for our eco system, and at the same time save money on my diet. Two months went, and I realized I hadn`t bought meat in that time. At all. I don`t miss it, and I feel a lot better when I eat vegetarian. I haven`t gone all the way yet, as I am in a process of social adjustment to it (beautifully potrayed in your post), and at the same time learning to cook from scratch more.
You should have part of the credit for being of inspiration to making this decition with your previous 30-days vegan project earlier.

You delivered a mind blowing post this time. I can`t but agree with the previous readers who commented above me. You leave me in an awe that paralyzes my own blogging .
I have yet to discover my personal way to contribute for the good causes.

Best wishes
– Ingrid

David April 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Long before I stopped eating meat I pretty much stopped buying it at the grocery store because it was getting expensive. I became accustomed to making meatless dishes at home and I think that’s why it was easier for me to give it up than most people say it is for them.

Kylie Dunn April 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm

A really interesting post David, very thoughtful and rather timely for me. My recently completed 30 day activity as part of my Year of TED was being a weekday vegetarian, inspired by Graham Hill’s TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/graham_hill_weekday_vegetarian.html whilst this still include dairy and eggs during the week it has enabled me to see that it really isn’t that difficult to significantly reduce the amount of meat in my diet, including chicken and fish.

It was a very powerful activity and I will be trying to retain it as part of my daily life from now on, as outlined in my reflection post http://bit.ly/H3yhXW

Your post has made me think that I should try a couple of days in the week without any animal related products, see if I can introduce a day or two of vegan as well. Something to consider at least, thank you for the inspiration.

Ray April 2, 2012 at 9:04 pm

That’s very decent of you to want to protect other animals. I wish more people were like this. As an animal lover myself, I have some cognitive dissonance when it comes to eating them.

On the other hand, Homo sapiens and our ancestors have been hunting and eating animals for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. We were also eaten by other animals (and some of us still get eaten today by crocodiles, sharks, etc). We are animals and thus part of the food chain. Because we can smash particles in the LHC and send a craft to the edge of the galaxy does not give us the right to believe we are above the other animals. The bluebird in my backyard and I (a primate) equally deserve to be eaten by something hungry, no matter which one of us is more technologically advanced.

People don’t eat animals for pleasure, they eat them for… nutrients. We also don’t exploit them by eating them. Our bodies just need the fuel to keep going.

Eating other animals is natural, and by restricting your diet you are unnaturally going against an ancient code of human living. If you have ever eaten a pure protein and fat meal, like a nice big egg omelette, then tried writing, programming, or doing other concentrated work you’ll know that the focus is amazing. Now load up on an all grain/veg/sugar meal and go try to do some concentrated work. It won’t happen or will be of quality below your capabilities.

You’ve obviously made up your mind on how to eat and you’re free to that choice. Based on everything I know and my intuition, I’d never choose to restrict my diet in that way.

Steph in Berkeley April 3, 2012 at 5:34 am

thanks for illustrating the classic argument heard from omnivorous types.

i (on behalf of those who don’t eat the way you do) Know your arguments. We Don’t subscribe to them. i could refute the arguments but can’t be bothered. you’d refute mine back, etc. –but please consider that most non-meat eaters also are educated; in fact, many are hyper-aware of nutrition and health, even having studied the optimal diet of human bodies, –and nearly 100% of non-meat eaters ultimately disagree with your editorialized statements.

David April 3, 2012 at 8:02 pm

The argument that it’s permissible because it’s natural is one vegans/vegetarians encounter pretty often, but it falls apart very quickly when you think about it. If anything that’s natural and ancient is justifiable, then so is rape, extortion, killing for territory or any other atrocity that humans have eventually learned to condemn.

> People don’t eat animals for pleasure, they eat them for… nutrients. We also don’t exploit them by eating them. Our bodies just need the fuel to keep going.

I don’t really believe that, and I think most people realize it’s not true. People do not eat bacon, ice cream, cheese or milkshakes for nutrients. They eat them because it is pleasurable and because they’re used to doing it. Even the ADA admits that well-planned plant-based diets are perfectly fine for people at any age. There may be some people that can’t thrive without some animal foods, but I believe they are quite a minority.

Terri Lynn April 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm

This article is very timely for me. I recently discovered that grains were a big part of why my blood sugars were so out of control. I have never been a big meat eater and now that I am learning how to live without rice and beans, my biggest fear wasn’t what my new menu would look like but how I would be judged for being a meat eater. I can see now by reading your article, that a lot of that judgement is my own. thx

David April 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Our health concerns and our ethical concerns don’t always lead us to the same places, and so we all have to find what does work for us on both levels, given that the lines we draw are ultimately arbitrary anyway. I just think we should be careful not to become complacent with where we’ve settled on either.

Steph Kelly April 3, 2012 at 3:15 am

Fantastic article and comes at the perfect time for me – I am in the middle of an experimental “vegan month” and have found it very easy top adapt providing one is not completely absolutist. Your point about alienating non-vegans is so so important and I think it’s generally overlooked – if we consider ourselves to be taking responsibility for the welfare of animals we have to consider the impact of our behaviour on others’ views and actions. People are generally put off by extremism (which is a good thing in my opinion), so the best way of “converting” others is by presenting it as less drastic and socially excluding than it usually is percieved as being.
Thanks for the wonderfully articulated “middle way” :)

David April 4, 2012 at 11:32 am

Yes, the middle way. I used to really resent the notion that veganism is extremism, and I don’t exactly agree with it now. But I acknowledge that it’s a perfectly reasonable impression for an omnivore to have, and it’s much more important for me to be able to understand where it comes from than to say, “No it’s not! Killing animals for fun is what’s extreme!”

The point of alienating vegans is so crucial. I think it is the biggest factor in determining whether animal use falls out of fashion or not. How we present our philosophies to others is so, so delicate, because talk about morality makes people feel judged and rejected. As soon as you put someone on the defensive, the openness to reconsider is gone.

DiscoveredJoys April 3, 2012 at 4:00 am

A very interesting article. If you put the details about animal products to one side and concentrate on the ‘labelling’ aspects you can see a very clear ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic, and how awkward it is for people to live free of labels.

I suspect a similar article could be written by an atheist who no longer chooses to embrace the A-card.

I am not a label, I am a free person. So to speak.

David April 4, 2012 at 11:36 am

Yes, I didn’t realize it until yesterday but I did this with the A-card years ago. I recognized that the label just reinforced the dichotomy and inhibited understanding between different people. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the “Us and them” mentality is to blame for nearly all humanity’s problems.

Fons April 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Very well said, I was thinking the same thing after reading this post. Labelling really does create and reinforce the “us vs. them” dynamic because it’s almost the same as “attacking” someone’s beliefs, since the labels usually are mutually exclusive.

This post also motivates me to finally get around to also try to go vegan for 30 days, as I originally put on my To Do list a year ago after reading about your experiment and the results.
Thanks for the motivation and also for all the other posts, it’s a delight to read them!

Benedict April 3, 2012 at 4:57 am

I think this is a brilliant approach to the topic David. It’s certainly inspired me to look into using fewer animal products, something that I’d never even considered before.

Your description of the social divide between vegans and omnivores reminds me of how it was only around 50 years ago that homosexual people and black people had fewer rights in the west than everyone else. Rights haven’t been around for female people much longer either…

Looking back at how much attitudes have changed for the better in recent times, it’s not hard to imagine in the next 50 years improved rights for all the people in the animal kingdom.

David April 4, 2012 at 11:40 am

Sometimes it seems like things will never change, because people are too accustomed to certain beliefs. But all we have to do is look back a couple of decades and see how unlikely 2012’s social realities might have seemed then.

Steph in Berkeley April 3, 2012 at 5:08 am

definitely the kind of post that gets people going.
i’m wondering all kinds of things, like…

1) what will your “story-bite” be when you dine with the omnis?
if you don’t flash a label, people will require a story to understand. Likely, they’ll stop you 4-seconds in to the story anyway with “your vegan, then, right?” –but still a good story bite will help.

2) i wonder whether you will also need a prepared response to omnis who learn you partake of non-vegan food on the odd occasion—when they inevitably try then to get you to partake at the given occasion.

In defense of those who utter…”I could never” it is a most natural response from those who’ve never tried a alternative lifestyle. I don’t think it is always merely defensive in reaction, but often is a considered response–something s/he truly considered *before* this moment and feels the need to share–many actually want to have a discussion because this is unchartered conversational territory and you’re the rare breed intriguing them.

I know folks who have uttered those words to me and at a later date became vegetarian. So, I think it can be looked at as a starting point for discussion…it just happens to be the one heard so frequently we’d rather hit the fast forward to escape than really listen/respond.

Different point. My husband is an omni. Since marrying in 08 I’ve become my spouse’s meat buyer. It’s something I never had to do (still can’t/won’t cook it) and it does, I’m afraid, gross me out. But because I do this the meat he eats is cruelty free, from operations like whole foods market–which is fantastic in this arena. I see my actions as serving a greater good, so I do it even with every fiber of my being shouting “no” in horror, because he will eat meat regardless. At least I can at least ensure it’s cruelty free and zero waste packaged.

what a crazy good post. thanks D!

David April 4, 2012 at 11:45 am

1) I tell people I avoid animal products, for a lot of reasons. If they ask me to elaborate, I do.

2) I would just summarize what I’ve said here. I just want others to see that you can be a normal person and avoid animal products almost all the time. I definitely don’t want people to think I’m judging them, and I think more harm is caused by that two-way coldness than is caused by the odd piece of cheese.

Steph in Berkeley April 3, 2012 at 5:14 am

yikes. it’s 3:12am. please accept this excuse for my poor spelling, grammar & repetitive bits in the above comment.

christine April 3, 2012 at 5:18 am

Another thought provoking post. It resonates with where I am at and its nice to know I am not alone.

I was vegetarian for over 15 years before going vegan just over a year ago for both health reasons and animal rights reasons. However, technically Im only 98-99% vegan (not a purest) as I have lunch once a week with my 83 year old mother. She still likes to cook and is fortunately still able to, despite advancing age. I choose to eat what she gives me which is always vegetarian but not always vegan. My relationship is more important than quizzing her to find out if she put a bit of cows milk into something. I dont eat out a lot but when I do – I too will eat the bread that comes and if a slip of cheese gets through then its not the end of the world. I prefer to live by example the best I am able and do not use the label of vegan unless asked about it directly.

In reply to Jackie, comment #1: I dont know about other vegans but I grew up on a farm so I have firsthand expereince of livestock and farming. I hated many of the “normal” practices çonsidering them unnecessary and cruel and I refused to participate. Still do today. I would not live on a farm unless it was an animal santuary.

David April 6, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I think the same way. Getting the rest of the way from that 98%-99% is often the toughest and most socially destructive part (rejecting well-meaning gifts, over-questioning serving staff, refusing dinner invites, etc.) and far more ground is lost than gained by pushing for it.

marylin April 3, 2012 at 6:17 am

Very interesting topic. I can only imagine the problems one would run into on daily basis when one chooses a vegan life style.
And there are indeed 2 sides, yours and theirs! Even in my simple attempts to create awareness, I notice anger.
I am an animal lover but I do eat meat. I console myself by only buying meat and meat products, in limited amounts, that are certified cruelty free. I also live in a farming community and have a “animal friendly” butcher (oxymoran?!) with his own livestock.
Being an advocate for animal welfare in my circle, I find it difficult to travel to certain places, observing how little awarenes there is for the welfare of animals world wide. It makes me feel ill and very helpless, and yes, angry. How does a vegan deal with animal use/abuse and cruelty when on the road? It is easier to stand by your beliefs on this topic in and around your own haven, in other cultures and countries, it’s a whole different story.
It will take many, many years before the world realizes that respect for nature, animals, humans is the only way to go.

David April 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm

That’s right, there are normally two sides, and generally people don’t switch very easily when there’s a clearly delineated divide. A label makes a dichotomy, because you either are or you aren’t.

Stefan April 3, 2012 at 6:19 am

I used to be vegetarian for a little more than a year, then I started to eat some fish, now i sometimes eat meat.
I first started because of the moral cause, that I dont want animals to die for my use. But I realized that this is not possible. Even when I drive my car, I kill flies and so on, maybe a mouse that passes my way on the road. Also some veggies are sparyed an so birds and other anymals may die through it as well.
After some time my body also felt like it needs some meet from time to time, say once a month. So I gave it to me and that was okay.
Still I think that beinig vegetarian is a good way. I also felt much better, physically, emotionally… just more vital :)

David April 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Feeling better physically was a huge incentive for me to continue to eat a plant-based diet. I wonder where I would have settled with my ethical rationales if it made me feel worse. I like to think it would be in the same place, but I’m not so sure.

Elizabeth Bell April 3, 2012 at 7:34 am

Thankfully you reveal your self to be a non fanatic. Excellent! I believe the ‘all or nothing’ stance of moral high ground-ism to be a dangerous place.
I myself practice the Dalai Lama Diet which, I’m sure you already know, is to live by my choices at independent or when with like minded friends but when out in the wider world or with my family to graciously eat/accept what ever food or product is presented and honour the generosity of the gift.
Years of experience has taught me that broadcasting one’s ‘better than’ views to save the world, the animals, the trees, the the : the the : the the: always provokes animosity from the one who perceives they are being looked down on for not doing the same. This is terrible the social fabric and, as you observe, does nothing to further the greater cause of animal welfare.
Thanks for you work,

Steph in Berkeley April 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm


I’m curious. Do you accept/eat meat if it’s presented to you when you dine with others? -Just curious. I agree with the principal of gracious acceptance, but don’t think I could eat meat at this stage (haven’t eaten it for 20ys) without experiencing extreme discomfort physically and emotionally; ie. I think I’d become anxiety stricken and it would show.
How do you handle these situations?

Steph in Berkeley

Elizabeth Bell April 4, 2012 at 1:33 am

Hi Steph,
It’s an interesting thing.
My vegetarianism of 15 years grew from a spiritual and ecological motivation rather from personal health and taste and although meat tastes very dead these days it is not inedible. I try not to let emotion get in the way. And add lots of salt and sauce usually! But yes, when I dine with others I do accept meat and although it is not easy I make it appear so – I say a prayer for the animal, smile and begin to eat and contribute to the general conversation. Under no circumstances will I announce that this is a huge sacrifice etc. If someone is generous enough to prepare a meal for me I am not going to impose my beliefs and requirements on them. It is not as though I can’t physically eat it after all!
Fortunately most of my friends know me to be vegetarian and so the situation doesn’t arise that often. I thought that if it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama then it’s good enough for me!
Gotta floss a lot when I get home…..

David April 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm

That’s the bottom line. A better world is a world in which we rely less on exploiting animals in order to be happy and healthy. I think we get there faster by being gracious and forgiving than by being staunch and intolerant.

Vilx- April 3, 2012 at 7:42 am

No idea whether I’ll get a response or not, but it’s worth I try, I guess.

David, what’s your take on the “synthetic meat”? I recently read an article about scientists that have produced from genetically modified cells a piece of pure meat. As in, no nerves, no brains, no nothing, just pure muscle tissue. They were planning on making a proof-of-concept hamburger sometime in the autumn, if I remember right. Of course, there is still a long way to go and a lot of problems to solve, but if humanity did perfect this solution – growing of pure meat in a special farm – would you think it unethical to eat it? After all, the “animal”, if you can call it that, wouldn’t be killed, and wouldn’t experience any suffering at all. The same goes for wool, milk, etc.

David April 6, 2012 at 2:23 pm

I don’t know much about it, but it sounds great to me. I’d like to try it.

GoodGravyBoat April 3, 2012 at 7:45 am

This is a great post…having gone back and forth in my own eating choices, it is discouraging to be dismissed because you’re not “really” a vegetarian. (You knoooooooow that has gelatin in it, don’t you?????) I can do better, but for now, it’s better than a Big Mac. Like everythig in life, it is a process. All the “partway” efforts are valuable. It create grows the concept that sustaining the ‘animals as food industry’ is not as critical as we once thought. It definitely does not have to be an all or nothing choice. I love that the label can be removed.

David April 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Yes, and dismissed from both sides too. I’m avoiding the word vegan and vegetarian, just as I’ve been avoiding the words atheist and agnostic. Labels are handy descriptors, but they allow us to dismiss people more handily too.

George April 3, 2012 at 8:21 am

Nicely done David! It’s such a pleasure to read these thoughtful comments on ethics and lifestyle.

I can’t help but think the entire group would be fun to have at a dinner party together….Jackie and Olivia would HAVE to sit next to each other :) Organic wine anyone?

Olivia April 3, 2012 at 11:32 am

Heh, I would happily sit next to Jackie :)

Mark Steele April 3, 2012 at 9:26 am

There is a Hebraic concept of Shalom Bayit, or “peace in the household.” Throughout the history of the Jewish people, Jews have held an ideal standard for family life that is manifested in completeness, wholeness, and fulfillment. Hence, the traditional Jewish marriage is characterized by peace, nurturing, respect, and chesed (roughly meaning kindness, more accurately loving-kindness), through which a married couple becomes complete. It is believed that God’s presence dwells in a pure and loving home.
While I am now a Jew emeritus–an atheist sitting with the Buddhists these days–I respect this concept…and this is what I kept running afoul of for the five years I was a vegetarian. I finally made the choice that Shalom Bayit was more important to me than my V*-card. I could spend hours in marriage counseling hoping for my wife to unpack why my dietary choice posed a marital problem so annoying, constant and costly. Instead I caved and chose the Boss over the cows. I’m at peace with my decision. We buy only organic, humane, blah, blah, blah…. but still.
Otherwise, I pretty much agree with Daniel (above), and I’m blown away by the thoughtful, reasoned, respectful comments your post today has attracted. Love you all, and wish you all Shalom Bayit, as well as “peace at your table” but I don’t know there’s a Hebrew phrase for that one.

David April 6, 2012 at 2:29 pm

I’m also blown away by the civility of the discussion here, and I hope that’s a result of putting down the banners on both sides. I find as I look through the comments, I don’t have the same “With me” and “against me” reaction I often feel with divisive issues.

SpeciesistVegan April 3, 2012 at 9:45 am

> it is ultimately the omnivores who decide how quickly veganism is going to grow.

So true. The vegan worldview can become so myopic that we spend more time enforcing purity than we do thinking about what will actually make veganism (or veganishism) more appealing to people that don’t currently see any reason to consider it.

Great post (and thanks for the shoutout/link). Good luck with what you’re doing.

David April 4, 2012 at 11:14 am

Hi SV, good to hear from you. Your blog was the first whiff I had of a saner take on veganism and it was crucial finding a take on it that really sat well with me.

I appreciate your writing and I’m glad to see you’re posting again.

Kelsen April 3, 2012 at 9:55 am

This is a very good idea. It reminds me of similar parallels with regard to sexual orientation: the overly flamboyant gay pride parades and many GLBT celebrities and TV characters potentially do more harm than good when it comes to increasing tolerance and acceptance among the general public.

I think a lot of the stigma comes from the fact that people consider their food choices and preferences (which almost always simply means “taste”) to be a very personal thing, strongly tied to their identity. So expressing disgust at their foods is effectively insulting who they are – it’s no surprise they’re going to take it personal and dig in their heals and become defensive when their identity’s under attack. There’s a big difference between saying “You are a bad person” and “This thing you’re doing is bad.”

I also think that a lot of people’s food preferences are strongly tied up in their psychology and childhood, as with habits, comfort foods, and various pleasant associations when it comes to particular restaurants or meals. If you can still respect that while encouraging them to consume less meat, or to at the very least think about where it comes from and educate themselves about alternatives, I wholeheartedly agree that it would make a much bigger difference in terms of the industry and factory farming (after all, they respond better to market pressures than angry e-mails) than nitpicking about bread at a restaurant and embarrassing the people you’re eating with.

That said, thank you for the article. I’ll try to be more conscious of what I say when eating with vegan or vegetarian friends. I’m one of those omnivores that abolitionists probably hate, who agrees that modern industry’s treatment of animals is awful, yet only goes so far to actually change my own consumption patterns. But if you can convince every second person like me to simply think more about our choices, and if we end up eating animal products once a week instead of every day or two, it’ll go a long way toward reducing suffering. Making it all-or-nothing just gets everyone for whom this isn’t their biggest value or passion to tune it out as a fringe idea.

Thanks for sharing, I’ll repost the article to my friends. :)

Tatiana April 3, 2012 at 11:10 am

One of the most interesting things about dietary choices is how very differently our bodies respond to what we eat. Some people go vegan/raw and their skin glows and they feel amazing. Their choices are congruent with their values and they radiate happiness. Some people thrive on paleo diets, they drop excess fat, glow with health and radiate happiness. Their choices are congruent with their values (most paleo proponents espouse grass-fed, organic meat), and they radiate happiness.

Both of the above groups proselytize to all and sundry, especially in the honeymoon phase. Both need to realize that different things work vastly differently on different people. It’s the mainstream eater that buys unconsciously and perpetuates a system we all agree is cruel and misguided (as well as incongruent with what they usually profess such as love for animals) that would make the most impact by shopping differently.

Abby April 3, 2012 at 1:18 pm

A great post, very thought-provoking and I can’t wait to dive into the comments as well (at work, so not enough time at the moment). This is an issue near and dear to my heart. I have been doing freelance work on and off this past year with an animal welfare advocacy group (http://www.farmforward.com) and doing some of my own personal learning and thinking about my food choices, as well as what food means in our culture and world in general. Great to get a window into other people’s hearts and minds on this one.

Jo April 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm

I really enjoyed this post. I’m a ‘vegetarian who occasionally has gravy on my french fries” and yes, I get raked over the coals for that.

Emily April 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I really enjoyed this article! I categorized myself as vegan until very recently. But, I wore wool and silk and occasionally ate things that had honey in them. I find it very difficult to accurately label eating habits, as no two people have exactly the same diet. I prefer to simply eat/wear/buy things that I am comfortable with, and avoid those that I’m not. Constantly trying to figure out which “category” of veg*n you are can be completely exhausting, and completely unnecessary.

Danielle April 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Thanks so much for posting this! My boyfriend is vegan, and I’m now in the 90% you mentioned, eating mainly vegan myself.

I just started a blog about healthy eating. I mainly started cutting animal products out of my diet for health benefits, I feel amazing and have lost a bunch of weight, so I’m trying to share what I’ve learned. :)

Mel April 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Nice article about your views. I do have a couple Vegan friends and find it interesting the various sorts of view. Even though I have several friends who subscribe to the lifestyle, I find vegetarianism and vegan a bit off-putting as a whole by the aires they put out. All I’d like to do is have ever omnivore to be full cognisant of the choices they are making and then make the choices. Unfortunately with the constant separation we have from our food producers, people are apt to care less.

When I gutted and cleaned my own fish, I was blessed with a reverence of the food I was about to receive. I baked the bones in the oven and scraped every last bit off. It was not to go to waste for the life given so I could live. This feeling goes the same for the harvest in my garden too. I try hard to buy from those who have that care for their farms and their customers. I’d like other people to experience that kind of relationship of revering how their food is produced and by whom. A person just cares more about other living things when they are allowed to have that kind of connection. I feel there is a moral inconsistency that there is little value put on “abusing plants” because plants are living things that are being harvested for our own purpose. All living things should receive respect.

If people have that kind of connection, I believe they would care more for the animals they consume – if they choose to make that choice. I’d also find people would also waste less in that manner too.

The exasperating part with dealing with certain segment of vegetarians are the ones who like to put aires that they are “better than thou”. I certainly would not like to be associated with that and I am glad you touched upon the point that is a problem with the vegan movement. I am thankful that my friends don’t insist that I cook to their liking or refuse to come to my home because I don’t. They are more than happy to bring a little something to the party to make sure there’s something that they are happy eating and don’t impose. So I am happy to include them in all my functions.

I am also bothered by the extreme processing foods undergo for vegetarians that I can’t find myself eating some of them. In fact, one of my vegetarian friends became omnivore again because her stomach became overly sensitive after digesting one too many tofu-based products.

I think that at least the vegan and vegetarian communities would like people as a whole to care about their food as much as I do as an omnivore. The whole food system is broken, including the crazy amount of waste that is generated. I’d love to eat a mangled shaped organic Apple rather than a perfect looking plastic shaped Apple.

I guess one last thing I should mention how the symbiotic relationships have worked in nature… like aphids and ants, that why is it wrong in a human-animal symbiotic relationship? The domestic animals are subject to danger as preys to wolves, cougars, etc.

Sheila April 3, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Hi David!
First off I must say I’ve been following you for a while and a really enjoy reading you, is like reading my thoughts! :D
I have never labeled myself as a vegetarian or vegan, I just go with the “I don’t eat meat and I feel good!” thing. But it seems like I’m labeled by “no-vegan people” and they certainty feel uncomfortable when sitting at the same table with a “vegetarian” (they often don’t know what vegan means). They usually are on the defensive and without me saying a word always bring out the “issue” saying that meat is basic for our nutrition, that vegetarian people is so rude (referring to those videos of animals being brutally harmed and killed) and sometimes even telling me that I’m doing wrong! (remember that I never say anything about what they’re eating?)
What I mean is that the few things they know about vegetarianism and veganism are surely threatening. So I totally agree with you. In other words, we just can’t make people change their mind or even consider the change if “we” threaten them and treat them as killers…
Ok, ok! that was a long comment right? haha
Thanks for this amazing blog David! ;D

Tiva April 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I went vegetarian for a while, maybe about a year or two. I did it mostly because I saw, through documentaries, how the animals were struggling for their lives in the last few minutes before they were killed. The first 6 months, I was meat free, almost totally dairy free, and even gluten free. I tell you what, I lost 50+ pounds… that plus exercise. I understand the compassion towards animals, and how much less fat and calories are consumed on the stricter diet. I wasn’t totally vegan because I enjoyed eggs and stuff like that, but I got some grief from everyone. People worried about my protein intake mostly. I still would crave meat almost every single day, not like when I quit smoking; those cigarette cravings eventually went away, but not the meat cravings. This past Thanksgiving holiday I gave in to a turkey sandwich… it was the best turkey sandwich I ever ate. Slowly I worked meat back in to my diet.
Sometimes the fanatic vegan/all organic conversations remind me a tiny bit of the religious conversations. Both parties think they are right and want what is best for the planet, or afterlife. I truly don’t mean to offend anyone, but just stating my viewpoint. I tried the religious route as well.
People want what is right and good when they try to put their opinions on others, but the fact will always be that we need to respect each other’s choices. The universe is balanced, and honestly I don’t think it would be too balanced if everyone treated animals the way they wanted to be treated… that wouldn’t be earth, it would be heaven. Lol!
I was always taught that it’s okay to eat animals. I wouldn’t be able to kill my own animals in order to make a meal, and if it would ever come to that point, I’d probably become vegetarian again.
One thing I have taken from the vegetarian lifestyle is I cook more foods and add much more veggies to my diet, instead of eating burgers all the time. I choose to eat the vegan cheese almost all the time, and don’t really drink milk anymore. I take my coffee black now because once I started looking at the calories that some of these creamers (that make me so happy) have in them, it’s ridiculous… then multiply that by 2-5 cups per day of coffee, no wonder we american’s are an overweight nation. (No offense, because I am american.)
It seems throughout the centuries, we find it easy to segregate people and make a divide, no matter what the subject matter. It’s harder, but more peaceful to accept people for their choices and try to see things from the other’s viewpoint… like Lisa said, ” Those who don’t get you, don’t need to know.”
I think that it’s good to try different things and new way of doing things… it gains wisdom for the individual, and that’s never bad.
Great article David, and I wish you luck in all your health endeavors.

Kat April 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Yes! I tend to go back and forth between calling myself a vegan and an herbivore, depending on whether I’m feeling it’s more important to build unity within the vegetarian/vegan/less-meat community or quit having to justify the honey in my tea to everyone and their mom.

I’m so happy with the change in my diet, but sometimes sticking a label on a lifestyle just makes everything more frustrating. Thanks so much for saying exactly what so many of us wish we could express!

Thomas April 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm

If everyone was vegan, then the farmland around my house would have no cows on it. Probably be turned into a housing estate or something. I just don’t get how removing animals is beneficial.

nrhatch April 3, 2012 at 4:49 pm

We’ve been happily vegetarian for 15+ years . . . and rarely feel judged by others. When asked, I explain my rationale for not eating meat, milk, eggs, etc. If not asked, I assume they aren’t interested in learning more about the issue.

We watched an even-keeled documentary this week about the health benefits of a plant-based, whole foods diet. I shared it on SLTW:


Definitely worth a watch.

David April 3, 2012 at 8:06 pm

Overwhelmed with the response to this article. So many great points of view here and I’ll continue to field them a few at a time, because they all deserve addressing. Thanks everyone.

David April 4, 2012 at 11:47 am

The awesome emails and comments keep coming. I’m going to be off the internet for the next 48 hours or so, but I will be back to this discussion Friday. Love reading all your responses.

Tatiana April 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I also wanted to link to the timely article on the ethics of eating animals, which may give a bit more food for thought.


Maia April 4, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Hi David,

I agree with your view, I tried being vegan for a month, but failed miserably and only lasted 2 weeks, but I have to say I did feel the best that I had ever done, really energised and healthy.

Since then, I have considerably reduced eating meat, and feel much better for it. I would love to have another go, but I do find making vegan food quite challenging and am in need of more good recipes.

Well done to you for sticking to it!

Kat April 5, 2012 at 12:25 am

Great article and lots of great discussion going on too!

I would just like to remind everyone that just because you don’t want to support factory farms doesn’t mean you have to go vegan/give up animal products.

Now more than ever there are other options in the grocery store and I think that it’s important that instead of bashing people for exploiting animals so that they can eat eggs or steak, we need to remind everyone that you can make a choice to support humane organic farms instead of cruel, unhealthy and poisonous factory farms every time you visit the grocery store. I really think that it’s important to do that especially since there are a lot of people who will never be convinced to go vegetarian or vegan. A free market is driven by the consumer – it provides what the consumer demands. When people buy factory farm foods they are sending a message to those companies that yes, keep doing what you’re doing because I will keep buying your food. In reality these farms wouldn’t exist if people were to to take a stand and refuse to buy their products.

Even though right now it seems expensive, it’s partly because we’ve been conditioned to think that our food should come at the incredibly low prices that are only possible thanks to cruel and unhealthy practices such as pumping animals for slaughter with debilitating, sickening hormones, or spraying the land with awful chemical pesticides/herbicides (which then go on to poison our rivers too, not to mention the effect it has on wildlife – such as the recent decline of the honeybee/bumblebee). The other part is that it’s become very difficult for organic farmers because they have to compete with factory farms – the less people buy their products the more they have to charge the people who do in order to survive.

There may never come a day when all humans are vegetarian, BUT when more people support sustainable, healthy, environmentally friendly and organic farms, there could come a day when there are no more factory farms, and organic healthy food will no longer come with such an exorbitant price tag attached.

Kelly April 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm

The “recent decline of the honeybee” is the result of a mite becoming much more prevalant in North America – NOT due to pesticides.

This is also an example of a case where “exploiting” an animal is keeping North America as well as much of the rest of the world supplied with the plant-derived foods that we need to survive. Much of what we eat comes after pollination, and this just wouldn’t be happening in North America if it weren’t for the beekeepers. The feral honeybee population is almost non-existant.

This is likely an example where our technology (mite-resistant bee hives) and our expoitation of bees has helped not only our species, but also many other species’ survival.

That said, I completely agree, David, that labels often say the wrong thing about a person. For example, I’m a Christian, but often avoid using that label with those who aren’t. I prefer showing my faith rather than throwing around a label that might close someone’s mind to what I’m actually doing and saying.

Negative connotations surrounding labels are why the socially accepted term has gone from “negro” to “black” to “African American.” These connotations are also why many who have what could be defined as liberal political views balk at being called a liberal (the same could be said for some conservatives who also prefer being labelled as moderates).

We like to file people into neat, tidy little cubbies.

“Oh, he’s a ___________. That means ___________.”

Unfortunately, these mental shortcuts are often wrong — whether you agree or disagree with being a _________.

Michael Vaughn April 7, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Here is an interesting article that disputes your statement that honey bee decline, aka Colony Collapse Disorder, “is the result of a mite becoming much more prevalant (sic) in North America – NOT due to pesticides.”

EXPERTS believe that CCD is due to many factors, including viruses caused by mites.

Michael Vaughn April 10, 2012 at 1:40 am
Bob April 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Hi All
I just started eating less meat, and avoid places where I know meat is from poorly farmed sources ( yes McDonald’s and co)
But I’m not a vegan or veggie, but a few of my friends seem to think I am.
I do curries with Quorn fillets and this tastes so must better than with meat.

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