This winter is my five year anniversary of being vegan. To the delight of many and the surprise of some, I am still alive after eating and living this way. Part of me wishes I had a story of radical physical transformation for you, about how changing my diet saved my life or made me some kind of superhero. In reality, I went from being decently healthy to remaining decently healthy. The real transformation I’ve undergone has been a shift in my thinking. So, in celebration, here are the top ten things I’ve learned in five years of veganism:
1. Veganism is not really radical.
In fact, the tenets of it and the beliefs underlying it are so simple that they can be both incredibly elegant and incredibly banal. There is not much that’s radical about eating plants, or more specifically, choosing not to consume animals. Choosing to be compassionate is not fussy or complicated. But society has to construe veganism as radical, as crazy, and different, because it’s one of the only ways it can justify how it consumes.
If you want to see something truly absurd, just watch the meat videos. Look at what a factory farm looks like, look at a slaughterhouse. Just look at the insanity we go through, all for food we don’t need. Look at the numbers, too, of how much energy this whole system takes up. It’s incredible. We are willing to destroy the world for this. That is radical, that is crazy, that is insanity at some of it’s most elaborate. Anyone who tells you that veganism is crazy is probably simply struggling to cope.
2. Most people are not willing to simply look.
We have an inkling that something is wrong, and maybe even really, severely wrong. But it’s so personal to look at how we consume. Especially when it comes to food, the substance out of which we literally create ourselves. To borrow the words of Jonathan Safran Foer, it is possible to wake up a sleeping person, but nothing can wake up a person who is pretending to be asleep. The most seemingly “unlikely” people, whether rural people, or older people, or very conventionally masculine men, or whoever else, have embraced a vegan lifestyle with enthusiasm after simply hearing the facts. But we have such a strong tendency to filter out what we don’t want to hear.
I’ve written other posts about how most people already agree with the underlying values of veganism; most people are against cruelty, torture, discrimination, waste, murder, unjust confinement, and the like. But we don’t want to look at how our personal choices support these things rather than fight them.
3. There’s only one justification for eating animals, and it is the flimsiest argument a human being can make.
Human beings as we know them today can thrive on a vegan diet. We have abundant evidence of this. Any time someone likes to bring out their horror story about the one vegan they knew who did it wrong and got weak or sick, I have to bring out my horror story about the millions of omnivores who died of heart disease last year.
People in western society eat meat because they like how it tastes. That’s it. It appeals to our taste buds and stokes our egos, makes us feel powerful. They do it for cultural reasons too. But when all is said and done, the last line of defense is simply that people like it. After hours upon hours of conversations with omnivores, that is all they have had to hang on to. We do it because we like it, and we can. Sometimes we understand it’s wrong, and sometimes we don’t. These are the reasons people rape other people, by the way. Because they like the feeling of it, and they can. And society makes them feel justified.
4. People are afraid vegan food is too boring, and they’re also afraid it’s too complicated.
Keep in mind that the edible section of the plant kingdom is abundantly vast.
Many people perceive a vegan diet as being a bunch of “fake everything,” unnecessarily elaborate and processed substitutes for “real food,” and too expensive to sustain. Others see it as eating twigs and leaves. In reality, vegan food can be incredibly complex, and it can be very simple. There is something immensely satisfying about savoring an elaborate meal into which someone has poured a lifetime of culinary passion and genius. There is also something immensely satisfying about simply biting into a piece of fresh fruit.
5. Being vegan is both difficult and easy.
It completely depends on where you are and where you’re coming from. Living on my own in Chicago, it is very easy. Less so over Christmas dinner with my family in the south. I was told recently by an acquaintance that he came from a rural town in which it would be impossible to be vegan. What I wish I had told him at the time is that it would have been impossible to be vegan the way one is a vegan with lots of freedom in a big city. It might have been less convenient, but certainly they had access to vegetables, nuts and peanut butter, beans, rice, bread… you know, the rest of the food pyramid, even if nothing fancy.
We need to acknowledge when it’s a genuine challenge to be vegan. We also need to acknowledge when it’s very easy, and seize those opportunities. We have a sad tendency to look at something inconvenient and label it as impossible.
6. Veganism is something you aim for, not something that can be done perfectly.
You can’t always know what’s in something. You could drive yourself insane trying to pursue absolute, 100% purity, but then you would be angry and crazy and we would be down one more person in the fight for the good. But if more people would simply aim, just be willing to get close, suffering on this earth could be reduced dramatically.
I manage to be 100% vegan probably about 97% of the time. I don’t get it right all the time. But trying means something to me, and that’s why I don’t give up.
7. Veganism is a means to an end.
The point of being vegan is not to be vegan, it’s to be ethical. We are striving for an ethical and compassionate world. We are not trying to shove our food down your throats for the sake of being right. I know both vegans and omnivores who do this, or have done so in the past (including myself). But doing so misses the point.
8. I want what I do to be obvious and unremarkable.
As much as I sometimes enjoy feeling rebellious, I want to live in a society where choosing to act compassionately is as obvious and unremarkable as brushing one’s teeth.
9. Veganism is just the tip of the iceberg.
Voltaire has a quote, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” What other absurdities might we believe? What other atrocities might we commit?
It’s amazing to me, looking at planet earth right now. We’ve never had a greater capacity to destroy. Our ability to obliterate, to inflict pain, to create chaos is at its historical peak.
The fortunate flipside to this is that our ability to think seriously about our actions, our ability to choose, and our ability to create has never been greater either.
10. Veganism is about animals and about food, but it’s also, really, about everything.
Here’s to seeing how much our consciousness can rise in the next five years.