In January 2011, I adopted a strict vegan lifestyle, eliminating meat, fish, eggs, dairy, leather, and many other fairly everyday products from my life almost in a flash.
I would never have regarded myself as a ‘typical’ – or perhaps stereotypical – vegan: politically I’m liberal rather than radical or left wing. When I became vegan, I had little interest in environmental issues, and the thought of owning a pet I found fairly horrific. And when people showed me pictures or videos of animals doing ‘cute’ things, it was more ‘yawn’ than an ‘awww…’
Instead, I turned vegan for one very specific reason. Humans had no need to eat animals – sentient beings that didn’t want to die. Eating meat and fish purely for culinary pleasure seemed morally inexcusable.
Dairy and eggs were similarly wrong, because they required animals to be confined, and then killed once they were no longer of use.
Of course, there’s cruelty and suffering in the world, and the origins of almost anything that we purchase may be highly distasteful. But this was different: the vast majority of humans were complicit in what was effectively mass murder.
This kind of motivation made sticking to what is a very restrictive diet – including ‘Tofu-key’ at Christmas – reasonably easy, even in a carnivorous, cheese-loving world.
But I brought my veganism to an end in November last year, not because of some irresistible craving for bacon but because I wasn’t so sure that a vegan diet is an appropriate one for the human population, or that it is the one hundred percent humane, ethical choice that it claims to be.
Although nutrition hadn’t factored in my decision to turn vegan, it did so in my decision to abandon it. The scientific consensus seems to be that a well-structured vegan diet will give you all the major nutrients that you need other than Vitamin B12, which you can get instead as a supplement or in B12-fortified foods. I’m still sure that the large majority of people can stay healthy with a vegan diet if they put the effort in – but that doesn’t mean that it’s optimal. By leaving out foods that humans have always eaten I was playing games with my health, trying to cheat my body into an unnatural way of existing. I never had any serious health problems as a vegan, but would a more rounded diet have been healthier both in the short and long term? I felt the answer was yes.
So the question became whether my health – and human health in general – is a sufficient justification for the death and suffering that eating animal products always to some degree entails. To answer this, I had to look at how far my basic beliefs might be based on guesswork. Do animals feel pain? Is it the same as our pain? Are animals ‘aware’ of their existence? Do they feel familial bonds?
I’m still of the opinion that pain is universal to the animal kingdom and that we have a responsibility to provide as natural and enjoyable a life as possible to animals that we domesticate – whether at home, in zoos, or on a farm. But the simple fact is that as a human being, I cannot comprehend what it is like to be a cow, a fish or a chicken. Asking myself and others to make genuine sacrifices based on hypothesising answers to these questions seemed, as a result, hard to justify.
I also found that being a ‘true’ vegan is impossible. To live in a city is to accept post-agricultural processes that are inherently destructive – loss of animal habitats, the killing of animals under the plough, the polluting of streams inhabited by marine life. Everything from my flat and the clothes I was wearing to my beloved bags of oats by necessity involved death.
Veganism seemed only to be possible because of all the modernizing, anti-vegan actions that came before it. So much so that continuing to be a vegan was in effect an endorsement of these actions.
I have great respect for vegans and vegetarians but for me, and perhaps others, turning vegan became too convenient a way to feel as though I was doing good without truly seeking to understand the issues involved.
So where do I go from here? What meat do I eat? What should I avoid? How strict should I be?
The answer is, I suspect, balance – and remembering that no matter how much thought or care I put into it, I can’t live up to my ideals. I try to eat humanely, and to think before I buy, but at the same time I recognise that the world is far too complex for grand, idealistic protests and constant agonising over what might be the perfect way to live…
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