If I manage to talk anyone down from a leap into veganism, I may have improved their quality of life in a general sense, but I haven’t addressed the striving for goodness that put veganism in their orbit. All I’ve done is help someone go on eating meat while feeling hollow inside. That filet mignon is tasty, but without a philosophy attached to it, it probably won’t fill the void.
History teaches us not to revolt without a solid post-revolution blueprint. Something has to fill the ideological vacuum. So here are a few other ethical eating ideas that might work for you in lieu of veganism:
That’s right, I’ll fight to the death against animal-product-free living, but I don’t actually think it’s all that terrible to be a lacto-ovo vegetarian. Most of the nutritional, psychological and social minuses that I associate with veganism are avoidable with just a small dose of animal products.
I interview ex-vegans who go back to vegetarianism, but I never interview ex-lacto-ovo vegetarians who goes back to eating meat. That’s because going from vegan to vegetarian is a more dramatic change than going from vegetarian to omnivore.
Though vegetarians avoid meat just as much as vegans do (excluding self-proclaimed “vegetarians” who eat meat), something especially significant happens when you say to yourself, “As Donald Watson as my witness, I will not let even a single drop of animal product pass my lips.” That, not just giving up meat, is what turns someone into a label-checking purity-obsessed ethics absolutist who thinks everyone else is the devil.
From a health perspective, eggs and dairy seem to do a decent job of picking up the slack from the missing animal parts. On the other hand, I should say that the morbid tiredness I felt as a vegan began while I was vegetarian.
The main problem with vegetarianism for me is that it leads so easily into veganism. Give up meat to acquit yourself of animal suffering and the logic trap is set.
I remember, right after going vegetarian, agreeing with an omnivorous friend who said that veganism was stupid. “Yeah, that goes too far,” I said. In less than a year, I was thinking, “Vegetarianism doesn’t go far enough.”
Nobody goes straight from non-Mormon to Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint. But for a normal Mormon who already believes that Joseph Smith was a prophet who had revelations from God, believing that plural marriage was a legitimate revelation too is at least in the realm of possibility. This is why vegans, who are annoyed with the “hypocrisy” of vegetarianism, at least tolerate the lacto-ovo compromise. “Go ahead and eat those yolks,” vegans think. “It will be your sustenance as you intellectually grow and develop. Soon you’ll hatch into a cruelty-free world.”
But if you’re vegetarian for too long and stop giving off the potential vegan vibe, vegans will resent you for trying to share their moral status while giving up less.
There is a fundamental contradiction in ethical vegetarianism that vegans don’t hesitate to point out. Once you accept that you should evade responsibility for the torture and death of animals by not eating meat, the consistent application of this logic is veganism. Dairy contributes most to the miserable lives of factory farmed cows, just as eggs contribute most to the miserable lives of factory farmed chickens. That’s one reason I didn’t even consider vegetarianism when I was planning to quit veganism. Vegan values taught me that I wouldn’t be any less evil.
“Eggs are the worst!” Jonathan Safran Foer said on Ellen. I think he still eats eggs, though, which should give you would-be vegetarians out there some hope. As long as you’re fine with vegetarianism being a symbolic gesture, it could work for you. After all, veganism is a symbolic gesture too. If you’re going to restrict yourself for symbolism, you might as well be eating a goat cheese omelet while you do.
Just be on your toes around vegans, and if you hear them start to say, “But dairy farms…” cover your ears, shout “la la laa!” and run away.
The Ethical Butcher, an ex-vegan named Berlin Reed who became a butcher (and you thought I was evil), seems to consider uninformed pescetarianism to be the worst possible diet from an ethical perspective. Whereas land animals are a renewable resource of sorts, we’re depleting our fish supply to non-existence. So if your conscience is telling you to give up all meat except for fish, you might reconsider putting The Ethical Butcher’s blog in your Google Reader.
The good news is that even Berlin Reed has faith in organizations with good fish/bad fish guides.
Sure, pescetarianism might be ethical eating for posers, but according to a lot of studies, you’ll be the healthiest poser around. Word of warning: don’t call yourself a vegetarian within earshot of an actual vegetarian or vegan. They’ll crucify you to a tuna.
DEVOUT VEGAN AT HOME, EAT-ANYTHING OMNIVORE WHILE OUT.
Some people don’t mind spilling a little blood on themselves. They just don’t want to leave blood tracks in the house.
When I went to Toronto to take photos at a vegetarian event, the guy I stayed with called himself a vegan. That wasn’t hard to believe when I saw the wheat gluten, almond milk and coconut water in his fridge, and Veganomicon on the kitchen counter. But then a few days later, we went out to eat and split a beef heart between us. And the heart was his idea!
“I only buy vegan groceries and I only cook vegan food,” he explained. “But if I’m out and I have a craving for meat, I satisfy it.” He believed in veganism, but recognized that long stretches without any animal products whatsoever didn’t work for him. He settled for being vegan at home and being open to anything while out.
Full-time vegans will call this hypocrisy, but what won’t they call hypocrisy?
Devout vegan at home, eat-anything omnivore while out avoids all the social problems that come with being vegan in a non-vegan world. You blend in with us wolves just fine, but at home the fangs come off as you set the brown rice boil. When you’re alone with your thoughts and most prone to a bothersome conscience is when you’re on your best behavior.
Like with vegetarianism, you spare yourself the self-flaggelating purity mindset. You’re also hedging your bets. If veganism is the healthiest diet, you’ve got that covered pretty well. But if it’s a bad idea to prance innocently through life totally flesh-free, you just need to get out a little more.
Unlike normal veganism, which most omnivores find to be a downer, this on-and-off veganism is a good way to make friends. Your dining companions hear you are vegan and expect you to hassle the waiter with annoying questions about trace animal products and so on, but then you surprise everyone and order the duck. Now you’re no longer a killjoy, you’re the most interesting person at the table.
But you shouldn’t call yourself vegan around a real vegan. You’ll break their hearts if they ever spot you sinking your fangs into a steak.
ONLY EAT ANIMALS WHEN THE WORD “HUMANE” IS SOMEWHERE IN THE VICINITY.
The Michael Pollans and Lierre Keiths of the world might not have all the logic shored up yet, but they’re onto something in their attempts to develop a “selective omnivorism” that at least ties with veganism in all its ethical goals. Imagine feeling as good about yourself while eating bacon as a vegan feels while eating tempeh bacon, and you can see why vegans find this movement so threatening.
Vegans will tell you the “humane” label is meaningless, and that even if it weren’t, it would still be wrong to use animals for your own ends. They’ll also point out that selective omnivores are never 100 percent, often indulging in factory farmed delicacies. Shrug your shoulders and continue eating your pasture-raised pig that might have swallowed some grains at one point in its life.
You’ll have to read books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Vegetarian Myth to take a serious crack at this one. Be careful with The Vegetarian Myth, though, or you might start feeling guilty about all the food you eat, including vegetables and nuts (“plant babies”). Plus, if you take to lecturing vegans about the need to dismantle civilization, you’ll come across as a bigger maniac than them.
KEEP EATING MEAT BUT UNSYSTEMATICALLY REDUCE THE OVERALL AMOUNT.
For inspiration, watch Jonathan Safran Foer’s TV appearances. But whatever you do, don’t read Eating Animals! Eating Animals is just like any other animal rights book as far as arguing that eating meat is the worst possible thing you could do. For some reason, though, Foer is a lot more forgiving on TV, usually saying that it’s good enough just to cut down on meat. Maybe his televised persona is soft on meat to sucker you into buying his book.
Though his book argues that we shouldn’t pick and choose between which animals we care about and which animals we don’t, it’s clear from his appearance on The Colbert Report that Foer does just that. Foer laughed when Colbert brought out a plate of bacon from anonymous pigs. Would Foer have laughed if Colbert had brought out a plate of Foer’s dog George?
If JSF can pick favorites among the animal kingdom, you can too. Just be sure to eat smaller portions of the animals you think are less worthy of your compassion.
Eat anything that is near you. Vegans are jealous of the growing popularity of this one, and they’re annoyed that locavores are not interested in arguments in favor of reducing or avoiding meat. This is another one, like humane meat, that is difficult to do 100 percent, which vegans feel discredits it as a coherent lifestyle.
But if all you care about is the environment and not animal lives, this might be for you.
You can eat any animal product as long as it has been thrown out, or you know for sure that it is about to be thrown out. That’s because at that point you aren’t contributing to the demand of it. This puts you on par with vegans ethically, and theoretically ahead of them in the culinary department.
Downside: if you’re not that cautious about the meat you take from dumpsters, veganism might have freeganism beat on health.
Freeganism is the opposite of vegetarianism in that the risk isn’t in getting closer to veganism. The slippery slope leads back to normal omnivorism. If you’re eating dumpstered meat every night, you’re not developing a psychological aversion to it. A vegan who finds themselves in a situation where buying meat is the most convenient thing to do won’t even consider it — the thought of it makes them nauseous. But a freegan might think, “Well, I guess buying it one time’s not a big deal.” And it’s all downhill (or arguably uphill) from there.
SHMEAT/TEST TUBE MEAT.
Only eat meat grown in a lab from cells that were procured without killing any animals. Can’t do this one yet. Look for it in 2020.
This isn’t a diet exactly, but if you had an almighty deity (or deities) who promised you everlasting life, you might not be so desperate to fill your spiritual potholes with soy products. Of course, religion comes with its own set of onerous rules, but even the The Pope is more chill than Gary Francione. Just don’t pick a religion with a lot of dietary restrictions or you’re doubly screwed.
With no big man upstairs judging you, who is going to stop you from gorging on animal parts until you explode?
FOOD-RELATED LIFESTYLES THAT LACK AN ETHICAL COMPONENT.
A good example of this is the caveman lifestyle that gurus like Mark Sisson and Arthur DeVany promote. You’ll be so preoccupied with glycemic indexes, good fats vs. bad fats and doing sprints in your backyard that you won’t have time to wonder if the animals you’re eating suffered.
And with only your health and not your soul at stake, you can be more flexible. I’m sure a lot of absurd things get said on caveman diet forums, but nobody is going to say “Oh my God, I just found out the fish I ate was breaded, tell me I’m not evil!”
The downside is the caveman jokes will never end.
WEIRD ANIMAL PART-ISM.
This is what I do, as an extension of the caveman diet. If I see organ meats at a restaurant or a grocery store, I pounce. It’s got to the point where eating just the muscle meat seems kind of wasteful to me. Not that I never eat the muscle — or mussels, ha! — but when my local Asian grocery store has more kinds of animal parts than I could possibly try in a year, I’m not going to waste my time eating chicken parmesan and roast beef.
So there’s the culinary adventure of it, but I see an ethical component too. By trying to eat mostly livers, kidneys, ears, tendons, stomachs, intestines and hearts, I’m helping the entire animal get used. One vegan told me that all animal organs that humans don’t eat end up in pet food (all? really?), but I still think harvesting the vitals can function as a freeganism of sorts, sans dumpster diving.
Another tip: eating smaller animals like frogs, snails and mice is allegedly easier on mother earth than eating cows and whales. Bonus if you eat your fish bones and at least try to eat the bones of other animals too (they’re softer than you think, but chew carefully and don’t choke!). Sucking out the marrow is the absolute minimum.
Plus, having fewer food hang-ups means you can try the most unusual local foods while traveling (deviled balut anyone?). And the off-brand parts tend to be the cheapest yet the healthiest. Aaaand vegans will be powerless to gross you out by referring to meat as “animal corpses.” “I know that, dude. Hey, you wanna see me wolf down two pizzles at once?”
That’s a fancy way of saying “Eat your insects, child.” Even vegans barely care about the feelings of insects, and raising bugs is way better for the environment than raising animals. Entomophagy even sort of has a movement behind it, though the bring bug eating to America campaign has mostly fizzled. I only know of two blogs devoted to promoting insect eating as a cause, Small Stock Foods and the Insects are Food blog. Between them, they have 19 entries.
But that’s okay. Insects aren’t going anywhere.
Technically insects are animals, so according to the definition of veganism, bugs are a no-go. But that doesn’t mean you can’t snatch the moral upper-hand from vegans on this one.
Since just as many insects are killed in the production of vegan food as are killed by eating insects directly, you can use vegans’ favorite argument against them. They claim to be using fewer resources by eating grains directly rather than inefficiently feeding grains to animals and then eating the animals. But you can do them one better and point out all the insects killed by pesticides to protect their grains, fruits and vegetables. Insects, then, are even lower on the food chain than the most eco-friendly vegan food!
There’s very little that a vegan can say against “I’m vegan except for insects” besides “Eww.” Which is kind of their argument against all animal products. But at least this time there’s no doubt who deserves the A+ in citizenship. It’s you.
If you’re having pangs of conscience, don’t trade in all that animal protein for soy and wheat — switch to bugs. They’re nutritional powerhouses (dense in vitamins, minerals and protein, low in fat), which means your morality and your health will skyrocket together.
Downside: Availability. You didn’t think I’d say taste, did you?! As much as I believe in bug eating, so far I’ve only tried one kind for real, silkworm pupae (alright, taste was a downside on this one, but I hear other bugs are delicious). You might assume bug eating would be incredibly easy. The damn pests are everywhere. But unless the insects were intentionally farm raised or come from a certifiable pesticide-free zone, you’re not supposed to eat them. Too toxic.
I’ve heard that it’s okay to buy insects at bait shops, though. And if you have the space (and you live alone), it’s apparently pretty easy to raise your own.
Combine this one with weird animal part-ism and you’ll win Fear Factor just by busting out your mid-afternoon snack. Just try not to get known as that crazy bug guy.
MYSTERY FAIL-PROOF FUTURE REPLACEMENT FOR VEGANISM.
I’ve heard whispers from some vegans who are devising a diet that is as ethical as veganism but allows for some animal products that meet their stringent environmental/ethical criteria. I won’t say what it is — that’s for them to reveal to the world. Until then, I suggest you go with insect eating.
But no matter what, accept that your life will put a strain on the world’s resources, including the world’s lives. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can restrain yourself so much that the world won’t notice you stomping around on it. The world does notice. And it loves you anyway, damn it.