My name is Georgia, and I am a vegetarian.
I know that in writing that, I have already turned a significant proportion of my audience. The omnivores among you are rolling their eyes, skimming by, and looking for something else to read that will hopefully be less moralising and self-righteous. The vegetarians among you are probably already irked I’ve structured my introductory sentence as though stating I am an alcoholic or drug addict, conditions that while increasingly understood and even forgiven by society are hardly desirable to have on a resume. The vegans among you have sniffed condescendingly, but are possibly still reading.
I am a vegetarian, but I have only recently become one. Maybe that is why I am currently more interested in the politics of vegetarianism than I am in the actual eating of vegetables. (And other things, people. Vegetarians also eat things beside vegetables, let’s keep that in mind).
I became vegetarian around six weeks ago, after reading Eating Animals by Jonathon Safran Foer. Great book, great arguments, completely convincing to me. I made the ultimate switch because I finally found out the kind of lives animals actually have, and it was too revolting to perpetuate. But I’d been trending gradually vegetarian for years, largely because of concerns about sustainability and the environment’s ability to absorb the impacts of our choosing to eat large and unhealthy amounts of meat. I ate meat perhaps twice a week – rarely red meat because of the larger impacts of cattle – and got by. I probably would have turned completely, except that being allergic to dairy made turning completely vegetarian difficult. (Honestly, how often do you see vegetarian options in cafes or restaurants that do not involve cheese?)
Looking back at the above paragraph, I don’t know why I’m explaining my vegetarianism to you. I don’t know why I offer a defence without being asked. I don’t know why I am explaining a choice that has no impact on anyone but me (unless you’re cooking for me). I don’t know why I have to explain.
I do know why I’m trying, though. It’s very simple. It’s because any time I tell anyone I am vegetarian, they ask why. It’s a decision put on display for public scrutiny, for analysis and deconstruction. It’s not enough to state that I am vegetarian; I have to have a reason. And in most cases, my reasons will be deconstructed.
If I were in danger of starving, would I eat meat? The answer is of course I would, if I would otherwise die, which is taken as some sort of admission of defeat or failure, or a lack of moral absolutism. And this is ridiculous. That I choose not to eat meat on a day-to-day basis because I considered it immoral is not undermined because I would eat meat if I were in danger of dying – much in the same way that while I do not wear a safety harness walking on the street, it would not detract from my right to wear one if I took up mountain climbing. Choices for day-to-day life are not on the same tier as life and death decisions.
While I don’t eat meat, I will still eat fish. How can I believe in the sanctity of all life if I am willing to murder and consume innocent fish? Again my moral choice is being sabotaged, questioned, derided.
My answer is this: I choose not to eat land animals because I believe it is unsustainable, and because the animals undergo immense suffering. While fisheries of the world are largely also unsustainable, if only because of bycatch issues, I do not believe fish and other sea creatures feel pain in the same way as most animals do.
I eat fish once a week at most, therefore detracting from the sustainability issues. Eating fish also makes the life of a vegetarian who is allergic to dairy marginally more livable. Yes, I’ve compromised my moral ideals for the sake of practicality. I don’t actually think that detracts from my right to call myself vegetarian. Nor do I believe it exempts me from acting as morally as I can in all other situations.
Forget the defence for a minute – I’m sick of giving it. My real question is: why am I obliged to give it? Why do omnivores feel they have the right to interrogate me on this topic? Why is such glee taken in my inconsistencies, my so-called hypocrisy? Why is my vegetarianism seen as a personal attack?
I don’t actually feel the need to advocate vegetarianism to everyone I meet. I do believe if you are an environmentalist, you must also be vegetarian, but this is actually the first time I’ve declared myself one in public. I don’t much care about what you do or don’t eat in your kitchen, provided you don’t require me to do so. And I actually have no interest in your eating habits – so why are you so threatened by mine?
Eating meat takes a considerable toll on the environment. Factory farms have repulsive amounts of repulsive wastes that take huge amounts of land and resources to clean up. My job has required me to visit a chicken farm and an egg and meat farm that produced barn and free-range eggs (but no cage chickens). Even that was disgusting: there were dead chicken carcasses piled up for the rats to eat, and, strangely, four cow carcasses abandoned around the property, one in a revolting state of bloat.
Eating meat requires more water, more grain, and more land for each kilo of food consumed than eating grains or vegetables, and it produces more waste.
Eating meat also affects our health. Overconsumption of meat contributes to everything from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. It also causes more health risks, including the development of swine and avian flus, and has caused more deaths.
Really, I should be looking at the people in my life who do eat meat, and asking them to defend their choices. They’re taking more from me than I am from them. They’re damaging larger amounts of the environment, requiring more health care, and contributing to dangers that could affect everyone. And typically, not for any reason other than taste. When I tell people I’m vegetarian, more often than not, they say they couldn’t be because they would miss meat. Guess what? SO DO I.
I am just not willing to cause that much damage to the world so I can eat steak.
I know writing this isn’t going to make much difference. There are still going to be jackasses everywhere who feel my vegetarianism somehow comes from sentimentality, who feel threatened and the need to criticise. That’s okay, I deal with a lot of jackasses. I’m not asking you to become vegetarian, or to suggest that I am more moral than you. I’d just like a few people to acknowledge that my choices, for all of these reasons and more, are my own, and do not require a defence.