I’ve been asked why, even though I promote this thing called the Global Vegan Waffle Party, I’m sometimes hesitant to use the word “vegan” to describe myself. Why do I often say “aspiring vegan,” “total vegetarian,” or sometimes even “conscious consumer?” Even though I’m not advocating using me as a role model (in fact, I’m begging you not to—please do your own homework!), I feel like I owe a bit of an explanation to those who are curious. For those who are not, it may seem like a long philosophical rambling.
Behaviorally, I’ve probably been more than 95% plant-based for the last several years. But for reasons I’ll explain below, I don’t always worry about trace amounts of animal products in foods, like small amounts of egg or dairy. I’ve eliminated animal-unfriendly products in many areas outside of diet. And, of course, I’ve put countless hours into a vegan website, event resources, and cookbook. But behavior is only a part of full-fledged veganism, as I understand it.
I hope to illustrate that you don’t need to have all the questions answered in order to do kind things for the world. You can throw an event celebrating completely animal product-free food, or do other things to increase awareness in this area, even if you’re not comfortable saying, “I’m a total, committed, lifelong vegan.” Because the truth is, I wasn’t totally there for very long myself. I’m very far from having all the answers.
Following an overview of where I presently stand, I outline a few things about which I’m pretty certain, and a few examples of where I still personally wrestle with things. The latter is longer because, well, I’m wrestling with them. However, most will be familiar territory to longer-term vegans.
Overview of current thinking
I have great respect for people who advocate for maintaining the integrity of the word “vegan” in its purest form. The growing community of people who actually call themselves vegan has become pretty diverse in terms of behavior, values, and motivations. I’m not entirely aligned with many of the most consistent and committed vegans, so I do my best to avoid misusing or misrepresenting the word—especially as I’ve become involved with this community only within the last five years.
Related to the above, there is a range of expectations and emotions surrounding the label “vegan,” depending upon whom you encounter. Labels may or may not accurately reflect one’s own values, visions for a better world, preferred strategies for achieving that, and so on. I tend to resist having my individual identity defined largely by where the handful of most influential and visible people in any given community decide to take things—even if we have a lot in common, and even if the community is diverse anyway. As a matter of personal preference, I tend to resist things like political party labels as well. They just don’t work for me. But calling an event vegan, or asking for a vegan dish, carries a pretty clear meaning–no animal products here.
The best way to summarize my current thinking is that I often take a utilitarian as opposed to an absolute individual rights perspective. In other words, it’s our ethical duty to reduce confinement, killing, and suffering for as many animals as possible; but in the cycle of life some animals must die (either directly or indirectly) in order for others to live. This includes weighing environmental factors into the equation, as environmental degradation ultimately results in death or suffering for certain animals. It also involves accepting the sometimes unfortunate reality of what we’ve already done to the ecological balance, and accepting that our past errors may require less-than-ideal approaches to get things back in order.
I believe it’s important to be as kind to other animals as possible, and this includes eliminating any unnecessary killing, confinement, or interference with their natural way of being. As sentient, intelligent beings, other animals can also experience pain and suffering. The inclusion of “unnecessary” is where I differ from the most consistent vegans.
In my current view, if a particular use of non-human animals appears to be necessary to the well-being or survival of some or all humans, then steps should be taken to minimize suffering for the non-human animals as much as possible while searches for an animal-free approach are actively continued. In other words, for me, abolitionist versus welfarist leaning is determined by human need, which is somewhat speciesist. But for someone who believes that it’s not possible for any animal to live without some other animals dying (even with a fully plant-based lifestyle), it’s hard to avoid some degree of speciesism.
A few things I’m pretty certain of at this point
–We need to reduce our consumption of animal products significantly, for a broad range of reasons. Not just because we’re being very mean to other sentient creatures, but because we’re harming ourselves and our environment. One of the largest areas where this needs to be done is CAFOs (concentrated animal farming operations), where animals are often kept in highly confining conditions, and where humans are also often subjected to highly stressful and dangerous conditions. This is cruel and unnecessary. Vastly reducing the human race’s total flesh, dairy, and egg consumption can reduce the perceived need for CAFOs.
–Most humans can thrive over long periods on a totally (if done properly) or almost-totally plant-based diet, and switching to a fully plant-based diet can improve or totally reverse certain common health conditions over a relatively short period. (I’m hesitant to say all and lifetime in the first clause for reasons outlined later.) The protein myth is indeed just a myth, and plants can also provide plenty of energy. I trained for and completed two half marathons and a marathon on a plant-based diet, which was plenty to prove things to myself. And I know that others have performed much more strenuous feats on plant-based diets.
–Violence toward non-human animals does have linkages to other forms of violence and oppression, so by reducing violence toward non-human animals, we may also help to reduce other violence as well.
–A broad range of delicious vegan foods is available, and plants are responsible for most of the flavors we experience; people just need to be more aware of them. In fact, exploring vegan foods can make one’s eating life much more interesting.
A few things I still wrestle with
Foster parenting and veganism
We currently have an infant foster daughter, which means she is under our care, but is officially a “ward of the state”—i.e., under the state’s custody. One of the reasons we chose to foster parent is so we could be parents without increasing the population, an issue which meshes with vegan-related concerns. (High population means higher stresses on the food production system, which increases likelihood of unkind practices.) However, it introduces a few other not-so-clean-cut areas.
Removing an infant from its biological mother means she can no longer breastfeed naturally. So, one of the next closest things is commercial baby formula, which is most often made from cow’s milk. (Or, more specifically, “whey protein concentrate, enzymatically hydrolized, reduced in minerals.”) And that’s pretty much all a baby drinks for the first few months, and they drink a whole lot of it. It’s particularly ironic to have cans of this sitting on our kitchen counter, given the theme of this year’s vegan waffle party. We’re looking to raise awareness of not-so-nice practices in the dairy industry, e.g., that baby cows are often removed from their mothers after just a few days and fed commercial milk replacer so their moms can produce milk for humans.
Soy-based options are available, but what do you do when common advice is to continue a baby on what she’s already accustomed to, and she’s on a brand of milk-based formula? And how do you answer questions like, “But isn’t cow’s milk still closer to human milk than soybeans, even if some chemical tinkering is done with either?” You can switch things around if you really want to, but then you run the risk of any health-related issues being blamed upon making that switch. Also, it’s still important to respect the wishes of a child’s birth family, who may have a few visits per week, and may become concerned if they suspect their child is at risk of being “veganized.” Not easy issues, and not anything that we wanted to put a small child in the middle of. We had previously planned on taking in an older (2 years or older) child, and had spent hours discussing how we might manage that. In this case, we decided it best just to follow the societal norm.
Some vegan health and nutrition gray areas
If I need to take a couple of supplements to save lives and spread kindness in the world, I’m for the most part fine with that. I’ve taken multivitamins most of my life anyway. This is particularly the case with vitamins such as B12, which we no longer obtain directly from plants as we once did simply because we wash them. I openly admit that I am selfish when it comes to personal health, so if I got the sense that eating certain animals were necessary, then I would just accept that as part of my human nature and it would outweigh other ethical considerations. So far, however, that hasn’t been the case.
Anecdotal evidence has its limitations because it’s impossible to control for a range of other potentially pertinent variables. However, when the anecdotal evidence is one’s own life experience, it’s hard not to weigh it more heavily. In my particular case, I suffered my first-ever fractured bone about a year and a half after shifting to a plant-based diet; and shortly after that, the first chipped tooth in at least a decade. I got a lot of questions about this, with others wondering if it had something to do with my giving up dairy; and I began to doubt things myself. I had previously endured a number of other falls and impacts with no such issues, so this did seem somewhat odd. Especially since kale, broccoli, calcium-fortified soymilk, and tofu made regular appearances in my diet.
Ultimately, I didn’t go back to consuming dairy, and concluded that the occurrences were most likely not a direct result of shifting to a plant-based diet. The fractured lower leg did result from my body torquing in a bizarre way when I fell (I was jogging and slipped on ice on a slight hill), and it could have been a lot worse. Also, I had previously been ovo-lacto vegetarian for a year or so, during which time I had ramped up my dairy intake to ensure I was getting enough protein (I didn’t yet know about the “protein myth”). Perhaps that phase had done more harm than good, and my body hadn’t yet fully recovered alongside the exceptional physical stress of training for a first marathon. That would be in line with much of what I had recently read regarding the calcium-leaching impact of animal protein consumption, including what seems to be decent research to support it. Impossible to say; it may have just been the unique circumstances of my accident, and nothing more.
However, being a “keep an open mind until lots of data are available” type of person, I started taking a vegan calcium/magnesium supplement a few times per week, and still do once or twice per week. This may or may not be necessary. Whatever the case, it still seems preferable to the various ethical and health issues linked to dairy. But I am more careful about including certain caveats if someone’s asking me about a plant-based diet in any depth.
One thing I’ve started to consider is the net environmental impact (since environment affects all life) of getting adequate levels of certain nutrients from non-animal vs. animal sources. This is something I’d like to see more data on. In other words, how much additional energy, natural resources, or mining is required to create supplements for nutrients that might not always be adequate in a fully plant-based diet? Is getting them from plants always the most sustainable (meaning friendliest to other life, even if less directly) way to go?
I’d also like to see more longitudinal data on people who are fully (realistically speaking, 98-100%) plant-based over a few decades, and comparisons between them and people who are mostly but not entirely plant-based (i.e., maybe they eat fish once or twice per week). There’s some good public health data showing that as animal product intake decreases, a variety of health-related factors improve, but as far as I know studies haven’t often included long-term totally plant-based individuals. Perhaps the optimal point for human health will turn out to be an entirely plant-based diet, but I’m open to the possibility that it could be a mostly plant-based diet. Or maybe a totally plant-based diet works for most but not all people over the long term, for whatever reason. Whatever the case, it’s still a big win on all fronts, because it’s a lot better than where we’re at now. And works like The China Study, the related Forks Over Knives, and much of PCRM’s work are great starts.
I don’t think that gray areas like the above are any reason to consider jumping off the vegan or plant-based bandwagon altogether, but they leave me hesitant to shout from the hilltops that a fully plant-based diet is the way to go for everyone. I’m pretty content telling people that a mostly plant-based lifestyle is a great direction to head in. I’ve already seen people try many strategies to begin with, ranging from “vegan until dinner” to “vegan on weekdays.” Of course, some might argue that this starts to water down the term “vegan,” reducing it from a matter of conscience or overall way of being to more of a strategy. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s different things to different people, if they’re trying to address some of the same issues.
Agricultural and economic realities related to veganism
While at this time I continue to believe that leading a totally or mostly plant-based lifestyle can help to improve the world, I believe things start to break down if we try to get too perfectionistic in eliminating animal products from our intake. Here’s why:
Many of the plants we eat still utilize animal-derived inputs (e.g., manure from animals in the meat and dairy industries), and come from agricultural practices that displace and kill thousands of animals as large tracts of land are cleared, plowed, and irrigated. Unless all of our food is organic, chemical fertilizers and herbicides add to the mix. A veggie burger, large colorful salad, or vegan bean chili is still always going to be kinder than a hamburger. But a salad from a farm that doesn’t fully embrace veganic, organic, and permaculture practices may not be any kinder than a loaf of bread that has a small amount of whey, a takeout dish with a bit of fish sauce, a veggie burger that absorbed some grease from the hamburger on the grill next to it, or sugar that was filtered through bone char.
I still think that practices such as requesting vegan dishes in the presence of others are a useful way to provoke thinking about how our food can be kinder. That’s one of the reasons for the Global Vegan Waffle Party. I also agree that once we start saying things like, “Oh, a little bit of butter or cheese here and there is fine,” it can create confusion and open a door to a very wide possible range of interpretation. A fully plant-based dish is not at all an unreasonable request. However, I think we need to be honest about how things are really connected, and fully understand the logic behind our requests–especially as we move beyond that 90-95% plant-based point where many inconsistencies develop. Otherwise, we may appear to be hypocritical or ignorant, and that doesn’t help anyone.
I’ve done some reading on veganic permaculture, but the jury still seems to be out on whether it could produce adequate yields if implemented on a large scale, given current human population levels. For this reason, I presently have difficulty supporting absolute exclusion of animals from any type of farming operation. However, if we find ways to address other issues such as rapid population growth, maybe it would prove to be adequate over time.
I also recognize there are many tradeoffs with living in a climate where a nutritionally diverse supply of plants is not naturally available year-round. Given that long-distance shipping impacts the environment, and environmental degradation ultimately harms animals, I can’t fault someone who believes that being a locavore has just as much merit as being vegan.
Is someone who is 80% locavore and 80% plant-based saving the world any less than someone who is 50% locavore and 98-100% plant-based? Hard to say, at least from my perspective. In some ways, the ethical frameworks have many overlapping values, but in slightly different hierarchies and employing different strategies.
The same holds true with buying mostly or totally organic, or non-GMO. I’m sure there are people out there who are attempting to address it all—vegan, locavore, organic, non-GMO, etc.—but at some point eating starts to become too costly (both time and money-wise) for many people with average economic means. So most of us make tradeoffs so that we can continue to lead a joyful life while making a reasonable difference, even if it’s not perfect.
I sometimes get people at vegan waffle parties who ask me if I made sure that all my ingredients were organic, or non-GMO, or local. After all, inattention to those factors is simply promoting harm in other ways. Of course, my answer is almost always “no.” I used to feel defensive. Inside, I assumed they were probably asking me just to assuage any feelings of guilt they had around not being vegan–by pointing out that I was far from perfect in these other ways, I was forced to accept that my approach was far from perfect, too. Over time, however, I realized that their questions were actually based upon a valid point, regardless of what their motives were.
For a short time I tried to pay attention to all these other things, but it became too much for me. However, I didn’t completely give up, either, as some people do, and start binging on hamburgers several times per week. That’s not a healthy reaction, in my opinion. I ultimately adjusted my approach moderately to something that worked for me, which was to be “mostly plant-based.” Interestingly, I found that I was actually more joyful about buying organic, local, and non-GMO items some of the time, and that I wasn’t as annoyed when people asked about these things.
Hunting and veganism
Obviously this word has strong connotations for anyone who has given serious thought to the rights and/or welfare of non-human animals. The topic comes up frequently for me because my partner and I were both raised in communities where it’s very popular. I don’t admire killing animals for “sport” and I don’t see killing in any context as a valid source of pride. And as a recent vice president reminded us, humans are sometimes shot alongside other innocent animals. It’s hard to imagine the pain and horror of being shot or otherwise killed to be eaten by a predator, as was probably more common for humans before modern civilization. That pain and horror is probably not that much different for other animals. Despite that, for a few reasons, I don’t entirely condemn hunting either. This probably sets me apart from fully-committed vegans.
I believe we humans have gotten ourselves into a bit of a pickle by forcing other animals into smaller and smaller areas, directly or indirectly killing off many of their natural predators. So that leaves hunters to play that role, keeping populations of certain species in check in some areas. (I don’t say all areas because I recognize that the overpopulation argument is sometimes a smokescreen. But when it’s valid, it may be helping to preserve other species in the long run.) I also understand that in rural areas, humans are often in a bit more competition with other animals for the same food sources (just talk to a few rural dwellers with gardens), and that in remote areas hunting some of one’s food may make sense.
There are some interesting strategies being employed where overpopulation truly is an issue, such as immunocontraception—this is where the animal’s immune response is used to prevent pregnancy. The thought is that this is more humane, because it eliminates the need for killing, hunting or otherwise. However, how can we know that a particular animal prefers a longer life without the ability to give birth over a shorter life where perhaps they are killed by a predator (e.g., a hunter) but had the ability to experience giving birth and raising young? Does that animal live a longer but less happy life? Many humans value longevity of life even more than quality of life–the growing quantity of nursing homes, alongside being a partial result of poor diet, may also be a reflection of this–but is this perception and value system the same for other animals? I have no idea. We’re assuming that the rest of nature follows our own preferences and hierarchy of values, which may or may not be the case.
Another thing that comes up in hunting conversations: Is hunting an animal in the wild less cruel than raising an animal for slaughter, particularly in a CAFO? Hunting can result in a slower and more painful death if the hunter is not skilled, but the animal is entirely free until that point. This seems to approximate how it would live and die in the natural presence of other predators, so in that sense I have fewer ethical issues with hunting than with animals confined on farms. However, it really gets down to how we choose to define suffering, which may or may not match other animals’ desires. We tend to impose our own values systems upon other animals, and they may or may not fit.
Having a cat and being vegan
I know a lot of people who call themselves vegan—longer-term and seemingly more committed than I—and who have cats. Cats seem to be wildly popular in the vegan community, which makes sense for people who love and respect other animals.
However, following veganism from a pure abolitionist vegan perspective would mean refraining from confining any animal in a human environment as a companion animal or pet. After all, the animal doesn’t have any say in the matter. But like many vegans do, we adopted LeMew from a shelter. This seems kinder because for a cat already in the world, adoption eliminates the shelter’s need to kill it. We actually got LeMew even before we gave veganism any serious thought, so some of the dilemmas described here actually arose later.
We enjoy LeMew’s companionship and he also seems to enjoy ours, as suggested by the frequency with which he seeks our attention. We spoil him and do our best to make our rowhouse comfortable for him; I’ve now built him two relatively large-scale cat trees. However, I often sense he’s not getting to exercise his natural hunting instincts as much as he’d like. He goes crazy when a bird or squirrel is sitting right outside the window. Also, I’m not comfortable feeding him vegan food even though it’s available, because I question the ethics of forcing a natural carnivore to eat all plants. (Per one vegan cat food site, a lot of careful dietary adjustments must be followed, esp. if a cat is already prone to urinary “crystals” as ours is. Dogs, from what I understand, are truly more omnivorous.) Since we’re already denying LeMew elements of his natural environment, I feel the least I can do is offer him some of what nature intended him to eat–even if it still has its share of non-natural ingredients.
This, of course, supports the same meat industry I’m seeking to avoid through my own habits. The food we give him probably has the same impact as would Jen and I eating fish once or twice a week. Additionally, both the earth-based (often requires mining) and plant-based (requires agricultural or recycling energy inputs) litters we’ve used require resources to produce, ship, and dispose of. These environmental effects undoubtedly have some impacts on other life. And having one of those fancy toilet-connected litter boxes isn’t feasible where we currently live.
So overall, I guess our having a cat has been a complex weighing of pros and cons where human needs and preferences play a significant role in who lives and who dies, either directly or indirectly. We gave LeMew the opportunity to live, but other animals have been displaced or killed for both his litter and food. And over the course of his life, it probably adds up to quite a few. Have our decisions been “vegan,” or have they merely been decisions of where to channel life and death, which ultimately balance themselves out regardless? That could be debated for some time, and I’d question whether attempts to label it really matter.
Social considerations around veganism
Being vegan was challenging socially, as it understandably makes others uncomfortable. Any vegan is a reminder of what’s wrong with our current food system, and a “shoot the messenger” reaction is common. However, being a mostly plant-based person who considered myself vegan for a while (and a relatively visible one, at that) has its own set of challenges.
In some ways, it’s even more challenging. There’s no longer a clear label to succinctly describe my beliefs, and often I simply don’t have the time or energy to explain my viewpoints. I sometimes still get some of the same questions from non-vegans when I bring vegan dishes to social events, or when I host events where I ask everyone to bring vegan dishes. At the same time, I no longer have the “I’m safe here!” card in face-to-face and online settings where mostly vegans are present. Vegans naturally want to know what precipitated my shift, and have a range of reactions. Some people have resonated very strongly with my words, while others have been disappointed and even angry. Sometimes they’re able to hear that our values are still pretty similar, and sometimes not. Sometimes it’s about the underlying issues, and sometimes it seems to be more about personal identity.
In a culture where labels make us more comfortable in a complex world, and where dichotomous thinking is perpetuated in a variety of ways, I’ve had to learn to accept such things. One eye-opener for me personally has been discovering how black-and-white thinking is often intertwined with addiction dynamics, and how prevalent addictive behavior has become in our culture. I, like a large proportion of people, grew up in a family that struggled with some addictions issues. Perhaps not coincidentally, some of my own personal growth points over the years have been around perfectionism and black-and-white thinking on certain topics. It’s difficult to know how many others out there are in the same boat.
One of the reasons I bring up the addiction element is due to the concept orthorexia, which means an unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating. While it is not presently officially recognized as a disorder in the DSM-5 (the guide utilized by therapists in making diagnoses), its use has been increasing in popularity.
I’m of the opinion that much is dependent upon social and economic contexts–if someone lives in a setting where healthy and relatively socially conscious food is easy to obtain, like an economically well-to-do area of a large urban area, then they won’t need to put much effort into it. On the other hand, someone in an area where very few people care about things like food labels may have to put much more effort into eating in a healthy and socially conscious way. For these reasons, labels like orthorexia have their limitations, and need to include many qualifiers.
My concern is that the term may at some point be used in an attempt to discredit many people who should be putting significant effort into healthier eating. And the minority of vegans who may actually fit the category of “overly obsessive” (e.g., having a need to change and control others’ eating in a way that borders codependency, or in a way that leaves one feeling continually unhappy) may be held up as (mis)representations of the entire group.
I hope the above clarifies where I currently stand on a few controversial areas, for those who have asked. Whether you decide to throw or attend a vegan waffle party, your thoughts and values are probably different from mine in at least some of these areas, but you may be able to relate to some of the dilemmas. And my own ideas will undoubtedly continue to evolve over time as well. At Vegetarian Summerfest a few years ago, Howard Lyman said something along the lines of, “We’re all bumbling along,” i.e., we’re doing our best to live in the most sensible way amidst a sea of varied opinions and complexities. Whatever you currently call yourself—vegan, aspiring vegan, conscious consumer, etc.—best wishes on your own journey!
By the way, you’re welcome to leave comments if the above stirs any thoughts or you’d like to express your own point of view, but please don’t take it personally if I don’t reply. I don’t have much time to engage in deep debate or discussion, but your own statements might influence how I or another reader resolves some of the above questions.