Tag Archives: vegan

Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

What am I going to do about it? This is a recurring question when people bring up this big issues of the day – and I suppose I mainly have climate change and climate justice in mind here, although other forms of social justice will be close behind. Coming away from Yearly Meeting Gathering, a week in which I have heard many people urging the community to act and act quickly, many people talking in more or less abstract terms about movement building, and, as someone put it in conversation, many “impassioned pleas for something”, it seems like an important question.

My instinct is to look for something clear and preferably dramatic to which I can commit in my own life. Change made, rules nice and simple, done. That’s what I did in 2011, when my Quaker community made our original commitment to being a sustainable community and I went vegan as a result. Of course, being vegan isn’t actually a single change, and the rules are neither clear nor simple, and it’s never done. There will always be a time when there’s no vegan option, and an argument about why it would be more environmentally friendly/socially just to eat local venison/sheep’s milk/misshapen avocados/nothing but water, and the eternal shoe problem, and someone on Facebook who thinks I’m the scum of the earth for eating Lockets with honey, and compromises to make even within plant-based food (like this: organic soy milk and a vitamin tablet, or fortified but non-organic soy milk?). For just as long, I’ve wished I could commit to going plastic-free. Wouldn’t it be clean, and simple, and give off the impression of being morally good, to not have anything to send to landfill?

It would also have the consolation of being extremely difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy and attention and thought, and being easy to explain to people and show off about. It would be satisfying because it would be entirely within my control – and its effects would be very minor, because it would involve going to considerable lengths for results which only affect my life. It is, if not a selfish answer, then at least an introverted one. Like other ways of shaving a tiny little bit off one’s own environmental impact, it lends itself to lots of research (and a certain amount of arguing on social media) and not to reaching out or making common cause with others.

(This might, of course, be just another excuse for not doing it, because it’s difficult and tiresome. But I think it can be an excuse AND genuinely onto something about why it appeals.)

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Allotment produce. Easy to brag about on social media, difficult to live on.

When I think about trying to break out of this way of thinking – moving the focus away from controlling the effects of my own life and towards working with others to change the world – I don’t really know what I’m aiming for. I am rather inclined to tell myself, for example, that I don’t really know any people, or that I don’t know the right people, or that I can’t do anything because most of the people I know don’t live in the same city. These things have a grain of truth – but I also have nearly 600 Facebook friends and my blog posts often have fifty to a hundred readers, so my sense of shouting into the void is mainly an illusion.

One of the things which creates this illusion is the choices I make about what to share and what to keep private. Sometimes I think this is right – my online presence is, among other things, a professional one, and some things about my life should be left out of that (everyone moans about work sometimes… except me, obviously, this is still a public space!). Sometimes it’s just a personal choice – I could tell you about the train wreck which passes for dating in my world, or my invisible illnesses, but I don’t think either of us would gain by it. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to post things which are good for my ego – look, I did this and that; look, I got published; look, still vegan; look, no hands! – and keep the moral dilemmas and hard work which underlie these things all to myself. A first step to building a movement around something has to be to talk about it, or I (and you?) will keep imagining being alone with the issue.

That being so, perhaps my next series of blog posts will be about my open questions, the problems I haven’t solved yet in trying to live a sustainable and just life, and the cases where there may be no single right answer. Would you read them? Will you share your own struggles, in writing or in person or somewhere else? (Is it too clear and simple? Too me-focused?)

V is for… Vegan

Sometimes when I say I’m vegetarian or vegan, I think people who aren’t take that as a criticism – or assume that I intended it as such. The other week someone called himself a ‘filthy meat eater’; we were discussing getting takeaway, and I’d said that Chinese was often good for me because many places do a range of bean-curd dishes. So let’s get this out the way. I’m a vegetarian-leaning-vegan because that’s what I’ve been called to do. If you are, to adapt an already apocryphal phrase, happy to eat it as long as you can, that’s fine by me.

So why am I vegan(ish)? What is a vegan anyway and what does ‘ish’ mean? Basic terminology, since this gets confused quite often: a vegetarian doesn’t eat meat. Has it got a brain? If yes, don’t feed it, or parts of it, to a vegetarian. (Some parts are sneaky – sweets don’t look like they contain bits of pig or cow, but many have gelatine in. Some people are pescatarians, eating fish but not other kinds of meat.) Vegans, generally, don’t eat meat or animal products. What counts as an animal product will vary, but to be on the safe side, assume that milk (and all milk products), eggs, and honey are included. (A freegan doesn’t buy those things, but will eat them if they’d go to waste otherwise.) What someone actually eats will depend on the motives for adopting their diet; if in doubt, ask.

I began vegan in the summer of 2011, having been vegetarian since my teens. I was at Yearly Meeting at Canterbury, and we were working on issues around climate change; I was repeatedly desperate for something I could do, since there’s a limit to how much a person with a chronic illness in rented accommodation on a very limited budget can do about their carbon footprint. The only thing I really have complete control over is food, I said. And I can’t even buy that without plastic packaging. But I suppose I could go vegan.

This was ironic, in that only a few months before I’d been heard to say to a vegan friend, “oh, I could never be vegan, it must be so hard!” Well, I’m here to report that it is and it isn’t. At home it’s fairly easy. I live alone, don’t buy milk, cheese, or eggs, and don’t have them in the house, so I don’t use them. Soy milk is easy to buy, store, and use, although it’s worth shopping around for the best brand; soy cheese is weird and icky, so I ignore it; egg replacer comes in a box and lasts forever, so that’s no problem. I do buy local honey, because after consideration I’ve decided that this is the best way to support our bee population. I don’t have a moral problem with the concept of eating milk and eggs (I’ve heard it argued that it’s wrong, because cow’s milk is for baby cows; when I was a baby, my mother had spare milk and gave it away and I was fine, so sharing seems reasonable in moderation – the problem with milk here and now is quantity and method). Sometimes I’ll have a craving for eggs (probably a vitamin or fat deficiency, since I don’t actually like them); I cure this by going down to our local organic city farm, luckily within walking distance, and buying a box of six organic eggs. It’s local, it’s organic, and they’d be keeping chickens anyway for educational purposes, so this is close enough for me. If it wasn’t, or wasn’t an option for some other reason, I’d try a week of vitamin B supplements and some plant oils with omega 3 and 6 to see if that cured the craving.

What’s hard is eating out. You’re stuck on a station and need to eat something. Unless boiled sweets will do, it’s probably got to be a cheese sandwich or a muffin with egg in it. You’re going to see a film and want to meet your friends and eat near the cinema. If the Harvester’s Just Salad isn’t enough (because it’s a cold day and you want something warm, or you don’t consider pumpkin seeds in the topping to be a complete protein content), it’s probably got to be something with cheese in. In Leeds we’re lucky enough to have two whole vegetarian cafes with good vegan options, but in many places it’s a baked potato with baked beans (please hold the butter!) or nothing. In these cases I find that I am usually led to make sensible compromises.

Does it really lower my carbon footprint? I don’t know, although experts tell me it probably helps a bit. Isn’t soy just as bad? Well, it seems more efficient to eat it directly than to feed it to cows and then eat them. Aren’t you short of protein? No, plenty of plants contain protein and humans don’t need as much as many people seem to think.

Is God really calling me to do this? I think so. The act of asking questions allows me to raise awareness about the issue. A while ago a Friend made soup for our lunch, and when I asked whether it was vegan she went, oh dear, I did put a little butter in it. I ate the soup anyway, but next time she might fry the onions in olive oil instead. If we’re to deal with climate change we need big changes as well as small ones – governments! landlords! supermarkets! get on it! – but if we can make lots of small changes they will both help a little directly and help to strength our case, prove that we believe this is the right path and that we’re committed to it, and thereby help indirectly with the big changes.