If you leave veganism and then post a blog entry about it, I will find you. Well not really, but if your omnivorous re-birth entry includes the phrase “brain fog,” there’s a good chance I’ll stumble across your blog one day.

But that’s not how I found Stella’s blog. In her leaving veganism entry, there was nothing about brain fogs, mind clouds or even cerebral mists. That surprised me; most of the ex-vegans that I’d known and read about only started to question their consistent, unassailable philosophy once physical deterioration struck.

So how did Stella free herself from the prison of vegan logic without that little nudge from bodily collapse?

Read on and find out.

Stella

What got you into veganism?

I’d been vegetarian off and on for about seven years, including one stint of near-veganism during college (totally vegan at home, pretty strict vegetarian elsewhere).  My first and main motivation was, as for most vegans, to reduce animal suffering.

Being a native Texan, I had always eaten plenty of meat, but I preferred the more processed varieties, even as a child — ground beef, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, sausages.  Anything that looked like an animal part always disgusted me, especially chicken legs and wings or fish with the skin on. My father, a typical East Texan, always went deer hunting every year, and I went along a few times, always thinking to myself, if I see a deer, I’m going to wave my arms and yell, “Run, run!” However, I was not an “early articulator;” I never disliked the taste or smell of meat in general, and I never felt any deep conflict or guilt as a child about consuming animal products.

I read vegan literature off and on throughout college, and considered becoming vegan, but was never able to overcome the cultural enjoyment of Texas food along with my personal love of cheese, milk and Mexican food.  Yet I couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt about killing other sentient beings.

Were you an animal lover?

I would’ve never called myself that, but I had grown up around dogs and cats and didn’t see any difference between eating livestock animals and eating them.  It began to weigh more and more on my mind, and, as I got older, I began to seriously consider vegetarianism as a way to both remove my own guilt and as a boycott mechanism against industrial agriculture, particularly factory farming.  I felt that becoming vegetarian, or ultimately vegan, would shut down the guilty voice of my conscience.  I could remove myself from the cycle and have no part in the death of any animals.

When I was in grad school in the UK, I became vegetarian, and kept that up for about six months while living in a dorm, making liberal use of Linda McCartney brand processed meat substitutes and Tesco vegetable gravy granules.  Then I moved in with a boyfriend who was very intolerant of my desire to be veg*n, and I went back to being an omnivore for a further three years.

When I found myself rather involuntarily repatriated to the US in 2005, after a nasty break-up, I was pretty set on resuming my vegetarian diet, and I felt for a long time that I would eventually transition to veganism.  It was a diet/lifestyle I viewed with a mixture of admiration and curiosity, and one that seemed to align perfectly with my anti-capitalist, anti-exploitation views.

After nine months in my hometown of Paris, Texas, during which time I was a reluctant omnivore, I moved to Austin in May of 2006 and became vegetarian in September.

Probably a better place for it than Paris, Texas.

It was easy in Austin.  I was happy as a vegetarian for a while, but always had a nagging feeling that I would eventually become vegan.  I was a little intimidated by the vegan foods, supplements and ingredients, though, so it took me a while to really make the commitment.

In February of 2008, I decided to give up dairy for Lent.  Looking for recipes and support online, I found a vegan forum and started reading and learning more.  I posted some questions about eggs and was rather taken aback by the judgmental, zero-tolerance responses I got from the vegans, but I was already pretty much on bandwagon of vegan logic, so I decided to give up eggs.  For the first few weeks I craved cheese, but then it became surprisingly easy (especially when I started mainlining avocados and olive oil); so, after Lent, I decided to keep being vegan.

I was very comfortable in the online community I’d found, and I tentatively became active in the Austin vegan community, mostly through my now-defunct blog, The Vegan Tree House, and with a few people I met online and at Wheatsville Co-op.

During this time, I also read more and more vegan literature, and became increasingly drawn to abolitionist arguments, struggling with the idea/belief that exploiting animals is always categorically wrong.  However, I was also increasingly interested in environmental issues and realized that meat-eating could certainly be sustainable (e.g. hunting and using the whole animal) and, in many places on Earth, unavoidable.  I didn’t begrudge Inuit people their seal and seafood diet; and I didn’t really have as much animosity toward hunters as most vegans seem to feel.

However, throughout my time as a vegan, I felt very committed to the diet and its associated, generally internally consistent logic.  I was definitely one of the vegans who frequently said it was “one of the best things I’ve ever done,” and I certainly did not foresee giving up veganism, much less reverting to being an omnivore.

How long were you vegan?

About six weeks shy of two years.

That’s not nearly as long as the forever you thought you were going to be vegan. How did you get out?

I first started reading Derrick Jensen’s work about four years ago, when I checked out his book Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution from the public library.  At the time, I was considering getting a teaching certificate and becoming a high school English teacher, but I had reservations about many aspects of the education industry. When I happened upon his book and read the flap, I sensed a kindred spirit.  From there, I began to read some of his more “anarcho-primitivist” work, and, for the most part, found even more incidents of kindred thinking.

Throughout my time as a vegan, I continued to read his books and articles, along with other authors I discovered through him or got interested in because of ideas presented by his books; these authors were all over the map, diet-wise, and I usually found myself exasperated by their justifications for meat-eating, or what I saw as their willful ignorance of vegan arguments.  Michael Pollan comes to mind as an example of someone on the “vegan shitlist” whose logic unnerved and enraged me when I was a vegan.

I also remained disappointed in Jensen’s love of salmon (both in the water and on his plate), and I remember engaging in several long discussions of his work with other vegans.  I particularly remember joining the vegan chorus in bashing his friend and colleague Lierre Keith’s then-recently-published book, The Vegetarian Myth. Which of course I hadn’t read.

However, I frequently linked to Jensen on my own blog, because I felt that the importance of his environmental arguments overshadowed my personal disagreement with him on the ethics of eating wild-caught salmon.  And, really, I didn’t see how I could dismiss as categorically wrong the idea that it might be better for humans to live in a natural, symbiotic relationship with salmon than to dam rivers to provide irrigation to Cargill or Monstanto’s industrial soybean farms and electricity to urban tofu eaters.  All along throughout my vegan journey, I was willing to admit that, yeah, in an ideal world, it might be preferable to eat animals.

I’m almost surprised you didn’t leave veganism earlier.

Like many vegans, I tended to view the contemporary arrangement through the lens of a “fallen world” approach and concluded that, as long as there were factory farms, it was better to be vegan. I also harbored pipe dreams of someday having a plot of land on which to raise organic food for myself and my family, and I wasn’t ever sure I wouldn’t raise chickens purely for their eggs and manure fertilizer.  However, at this time I still thought that a technological answer to my existential food chain dilemma would appear: veganic permaculture, hydroponics, human evolution, something.

Then around Thanksgiving this past year, I started taking this logic and concern with sustainability further than I had before.  It wasn’t any health issues (though looking back I think there were some), and I wasn’t having any uncontrollable cravings for butter or bacon. All along, I’d been feeling an internal tug of war between veganism and sustainability.  I broached this subject with fellow vegans, who predictably parroted the vegan talking points about cattle using more land and water than grains per caloric volume, and insisted we didn’t have to choose between compassion and sustainability.

Yet I never felt I got any satisfactory answers, and this conflict remained unresolved for me.  I was continually exploring it, and increasingly being open to ideas and facts that were taboo to vegans.  In my experience, a significant majority of vegans are urbanites, well removed from the realities of both farming and subsistence hunting.

But you were in touch with these realities?

Despite coming from a quasi-rural, Southern, hunting background, and having a sizable share of relatives and ancestors who were cotton sharecroppers, hunters, squirrel eaters, and subsistence farmers, I nevertheless had virtually zero knowledge of agriculture or hunting.  I knew nothing about soil chemistry or the necessity for organic inputs to grow food.  I had no idea the extent to which modern mass agriculture relies upon petroleum-based fertilizers.  I understood a little about “maintaining populations” of deer, and I was aware of the feral hog problem in Texas, but I had no idea about the realities of human subsistence or ecosystem balance.

I would never have admitted this as a vegan, and I would’ve probably looked down upon anyone who considered these fields of knowledge worthwhile.  It seemed inevitable to me that humans would continue to “evolve” into vegans, mostly of the urban variety.  We would rely more and more on vegan foodstuffs produced through a combination of organic permaculture and mind-blowing technological advancements.

Hell, I didn’t even think that was necessary; I really believed we could survive as a species eating only plant-based foods and using only plant-based materials.  We would become more and more enlightened, eventually eschewing the nasty business of hunting and fishing and pasturing and exploiting and killing.

Do you remember a specific turning point?

It was getting colder and I missed the fluffy, cloudlike duvets I’d had on my bed in the UK. I went to the store and looked at the astonishing array of them.  I had to choose between real down and “artificial down,” and I couldn’t decide what the “right” thing to do was. (Of course the right thing to do in an ideal world wouldn’t involve me standing in a wide aisle under fluorescent lighting, looking at twenty different blankets produced in a Third World sweatshop, but I digress.)

The down duvet was out of the question; it was of death.  It was made of the lives innocent birds, raised for their feathers and no doubt tortured throughout their short lives. On the other hand, looking at the artificial down duvets, I couldn’t ignore that they were made from polyester, which of course is a petroleum-derived industrial synthetic.

I debated myself:  I want to keep warm.  I do not have access to raw, organic, vegan fiber.  I also do not have access to wild or sustainably farmed geese.  I cannot afford to buy a blanket made from either of these sources anyway.  An artificial down duvet, made of petroleum derivatives, has contributed to the destruction of whole ecosystems in the extraction process and has contributed to the deaths of potentially hundreds or thousands of individual animals (including humans) through oil spills, pipelines, wars for oil, industrial processing, industrial factory smoke, industrial wage slavery and, finally, transport in planes, trains, and automobiles. The down duvet of course caused all of this, too, as it is also an industrially-produced consumer product, plus it also resulted in the torture and deaths of the birds whose feathers are sewn inside.

I realized then that I’d been fooling myself regarding the magic of vegan consumer choices, and that I cannot escape the system of exploitation.  I realized that in a healthy, natural, functioning ecosystem (or society), free of industrial exploitation, the best solution to my winter warmth problem would be to use feathers (or fur, or wool, or whatever material is supplied by my landbase).  Unlike petroleum-based products, or huge quantities of mass-produced plant fibers requiring massive fertilization inputs (also derived from — you guessed it — petroleum!), feathers are a renewable resource.

Of course, like my vegan logic, this logic is working in a hypothetical universe.  Like I said, I have no access to wild or humanely raised geese.  But standing there in the blanket aisle, I realized that no matter how much I wanted it to be true, veganism was not and could never really be sustainable.  Minus the industrial infrastructure, exploitation, and petroleum inputs, all these things I assumed enlightened future humans would rely upon in an enlightened vegan world would vanish:  artificial down duvets, vinyl shoes, polar fleece North Face Jackets, soy candles, the lot of it.

So you bought the down duvet?

No, I bought the artificial one!

Baby steps.

Then I finally read, among other titles on the vegan shitlist bibliography, Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth. It provided a jumping-off point for a broader exploration of agriculture, nutrition, and ethics — way beyond what I expected when I decided to open the scary, evil cover. I am not at all ashamed to admit that it did push me over the edge.

I regret the uninformed (and uninspired) attacks I had previously launched against her work. I now think it’s a very important book, not just for vegans or ex-vegans, but for the environmental and anti-capitalist movements more broadly.  I think she wrote it honestly and earnestly; I think she has been on the same quest so many of us vegans and ex-vegans have been and are on.  She understands why vegans are vegans, and, like me, admires and agrees with a large portion of their logic and approach.

I think she’s right about the quasi-religious aspects of veganism insofar as it functions as a belief system or even, sometimes, a cult.  I think she’s right about the unsustainable nature of both industrial agriculture and veganism.  And I share her sense of pain and frustration at realizing that this is in fact the case.

But this book provided a powerful catalyst for understanding my own interest in veganism and how to use that compassion and concern for fact-based ethics to begin creating a more sustainable — and, thus, ultimately, more compassionate — way.

Lierre Keith was vegan for 20 years before health issues forced her out. Health wasn’t why you left, but you mentioned having some nutritional problems with veganism in retrospect.

I never saw any marked difference in most of the areas both vegans and anti-vegans often cite as improved by their dietary choices.  I had no increase or decrease in acne, my allergies were and are terrible (ah, Austin!), my eyesight neither worsened nor improved, my hair and nails are the same thickness and texture, etc.

But I now wonder about a few things.  I definitely experienced the “brain fog” you describe, and now never fall asleep sitting at my desk in the middle of the afternoon despite a full night’s sleep.  I also had, after nearly 20 years with no tooth decay, four fillings for cavities last year, about a year and a half into my veganism.  Having read of other vegans’ and ex-vegans’ problems with cavities, I wonder if my diet was a factor.

I wasn’t a perfect, macrobiotic, healthy vegan but I didn’t subsist on junk food, either.  I love to cook (and blog about it), so I made tons of home-cooked vegan meals, usually using fresh organic ingredients, although I did have a few junky standbys in case of emergency (such as vegan queso and Amy’s frozen tamale pies, which I still eat).

Did you believe the urban legends about vegans getting sick when they eat animal products again?

When transitioning back to omnivorism, I had little fear about becoming sick upon eating animal products, though I was careful not to gorge myself on meats or anything like that.  The first thing I ate were fried (local, organic, fresh) eggs with homemade pesto and cremini mushrooms sauteed in butter, and it was one of the best meals I had ever had.  I never got sick or had any upset stomach issues upon returning to meat, milk, or any other animal product, but this may be because I was only vegan for about two years.  I suspect this might be a real side effect for some vegans.

The one really interesting and almost immediate improvement I noticed was that I felt more full, longer — and within two days I stopped craving carbs.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a bit of a carbaholic and always have been, but, while vegan, I had an insatiable hunger for pasta, potatoes, bread, and the like.  I can now eat a one-cup serving of carbs along with meat and/or vegetables and feel satisfied.  I also find myself hungry for all the food groups, not just carbs.  I didn’t realize how profoundly carb-driven my diet was until I started eating meat again.  This was a side effect I was not expecting at all.

Some people become vegetarian after quitting veganism, but you went straight back to omnivorism. Why didn’t you consider vegetarianism to be a worthwhile compromise?

Because I came to change my views on the nature of humans’ relationship to animals and vice versa.  A symbiotic relationship in a whole, healthy ecosystem is what I think we should be working toward, not an unattainable vegan heaven on earth.  There are the realities of human nutritional needs, the co-evolution of many species of livestock, soil’s unavoidable need for decomposing organic matter in the form of manure, the fact that many areas of the earth are simply not suited for agriculture of any kind, and so on.

Vegetarianism doesn’t present as much of a problem, since vegetarians still rely on animal products and generally do not eschew leather, tallow, gelatin, beeswax, whey in paper towels, etc., as vegans well know (and decry). My boyfriend, for instance, was mostly vegan while I was — as a show of solidarity and to avoid hearing lectures about the evils of milk in coffee. But he never sends anything back in restaurants, reasoning that it would be less sustainable and thus less compassionate to waste food rather than just eat the cheese.  This drove me up the wall when I was vegan.  I was personally disappointed that he didn’t see how morally wrong it was to eat a bagel with real cream cheese.  HA!

He is still vegetarian. Of course, he may not have the same deep, internalized desire to eat meat that I do.  Sadly, he’s a Yankee.

Some individuals will no doubt always choose this path, either for moral or taste reasons, and I don’t think that presents a significant problem.  However, veganism goes beyond this personal choice into a lifestyle, belief system, ethics, and proselytizing movement, and, as such, is problematic insofar as it is actually hindering long-term sustainability.

Did you know any vegans in real life who were disappointed by your going back to omnivorism? Any omnivores who were elated?

Those were pretty much the reactions, yes.  Not too surprising.  I had a few friendly emails from vegans who respected my decision and wished me luck and no ill feelings, and I had more than a few ranty emails not dissimilar to true believer religious harangues, in addition to the expected catty chatter in my former online community.

I even got a few long, argumentative, self-righteous emails from people I have never met online or in person, which I did find rather surprising.  I am just one person, yet my decision to eat an egg is so important that you want to personally send me a 3000-word email about why I am wrong?  It is rather reminiscent of the Christians who feel the compulsion to continually remind you that if you don’t agree with them, you’re going to hell.

I also thought it was somewhat shocking but telling that a few vegans who I had become quite chummy with online immediately unfriended me, without comment, on Facebook, despite no terse words between us personally.  Again, this isolationist, with-us-or-against-us mentality is frighteningly similar to some of my less positive experiences with religion.

All the omnis I know were very excited — more excited than any vegans were when I became vegan — and I had multiple offers for free “Central Texas BBQ Tours.”  Many of my omni friends and I are working together to learn more about supporting local, organic, humane and sustainable agriculture.  It’s been a fun journey with them so far.

I do think that one of the main problems vegans face is the self-isolation created by their lifestyle.  As they well know, because of all the crap they get, food is a deep, deep part of culture and family.  I think they tend to underestimate the importance of this, though I do agree with them that “tradition” on its own is never a solid justification for anything.

Are omnivores more annoyed with veganism than vegans realize?

I think vegans realize how irritated omnivores are, but assume omnivores are defensive and feel guilty; that’s what I believed, but now I think omnivores often (not always, of course!) have a healthier relationship to food, not viewing it in such absolutist and dogmatic terms.

Vegans are being honest when they say they are happy eating vegan — I know I was.  However, the first time I ate an egg again, and the first time I ate a cheeseburger, I felt relieved and deeply satisfied.  I am sure most vegans would say this was because I was selling out and taking the easy route and predicating my enjoyment on murder.  But that kind of black and white thinking is what turns so many off to veganism, or to the broader cause of ethically-informed or sustainable eating.

What else irritates omnivores about veganism?

Many vegans are proselytizers and judgers (as was made painfully clear to me when I told vegan friends I planned to eat locally produced, organic eggs from pastured hens).  And the vegan’s absolutist refusals to eat something that has a small amount of milk in it, despite having driven to the restaurant in an oil-powered automobile - I can see now how these contradictions are obvious to thoughtful omnivores.

As a vegan, I was always incensed when omnivores called veganism “extreme,” and countered with the talking point, “not as extreme as torturing and murdering animals!”  But now I see the omnivores’ point. Veganism as a form of activism for animal welfare or environmentalism would be equivalent to me as a feminist refusing to use any product that was made by, developed by, produced by, advertised by, or profiting a misogynist (or anti-choice legislator, or rapist). While I do personally avoid supporting misogyny wherever possible (starting with never dating Republicans!), to avoid all media, movies, literature, sports, etc. tainted by anti-feminists would be socially and psychologically suicidal.  As with animal exploitation, people exploitation is inescapable.

Vegans are indeed taking an extreme stance in refusing to use anything derived from an animal; though, of course, even they draw the line somewhere — vegans use computers, for instance, and computers contain animal products. Even most vegans would find someone who really avoided all animal products extreme, because that person would necessarily be a zealot and a hermit.  So I think it’s the preoccupation with animals and diet purity that really irritates omnivores.  It seems rather arbitrary and almost hilariously fundamentalist.

Speaking of fundamentalism, you said you agreed with Lierre Keith’s characterization of veganism as cultish. What about vegan behavior strikes you as religious-like?

I saw immediately upon leaving, both through revisiting some of my own statements and through the swift reaction of the vegan community, that veganism does share some attributes with a classic cult, including: self-isolation from society; adherents who are increasingly dependent upon the movement for their view of reality; making sharp distinctions between “us” and “them” that are not up for discussion; exclusivity (“we are right and everyone else is wrong”); instant acceptance from a seemingly loving group; and a philosophy that seems logical and appears to answer all or most of the important questions in life.

However, I would like to point out that not all vegans are ideological vegans, just as not all Christians are ideological Christians.  To me the issue isn’t so much that an individual believes certain things or wishes certain things were true or performs certain rituals; the real problem is when ideology becomes more important than the humanity of those outside the group.

But it remains unavoidable that if you truly believe that killing animals (or even “exploiting” animals for their eggs, say) is categorically wrong, then you must speak or act against it. A parallel would be the way in which religious anti-abortion activists believe that a human zygote or fetus, at any stage, is morally a human being and it is therefore wrong to injure, hurt, or kill said zygote or fetus (a belief very few vegans seem to share, interestingly).  Since they believe all forms of abortion are ethically equivalent to murder, they must speak and act against it.

Food is murder, say the vegans, and omnivores are the food choicers.

And why food?  For instance, almost all of the vegans I know, including the ones who berated me for turning my back on the cause, drive cars.  They are not absolutists about carbon emissions or supporting wars for oil, both of which arguably kill more animals (not to mention humans) than my choice to eat a locally farmed egg.  It just seems to be a misplacement of focus and a waste of energy to me.

Of course, we should all do what we can, and try to embody our ethics as much as possible — but, unfortunately, that isn’t very far in an industrialized, capitalist, declining society.  Neither my nor your consumer choices are going to save the planet.  And 7 billion improved consumer choices won’t save the planet either, because the problem is consumerism itself, tied into the fact that 7 billion people on earth constitutes a likely irreparable overshoot.

How could people who are so anti-religion accidentally become quasi-religious themselves? Are atheist vegans drawn to veganism to fill a religious function in their lives?

Like many vegans, I’m an atheist.  Veganism was not a surrogate religion for me, but the internal consistency of its logic (some of which I now see as dogma) appealed to me.

In my experience, most vegans view their dietary and lifestyle choice as eminently reasonable and unassailable, and therein lies a good deal of its appeal.  It makes sense that such a belief system would attract atheists, agnostics, skeptics and other freethinkers.  I admire this commitment to facts, logical thinking and consistency, coupled with compassion, and I think we should apply this standard to all forms of belief. However, I think that vegans are working with incomplete or incorrect information insofar as they believe veganism is sustainable and is, therefore, ultimately the most compassionate way of life.

Vegans like to think they are undeniably logical and that their philosophy should be self-evident to everyone.  However, their starting point is “killing animals is always wrong.”  This they cannot and will not question.  They do have lots of “proofs” of this stance, including, most convincingly, that animals are sentient and feel pain.  Of course I agree with that. But I no longer agree that killing animals is always wrong.

Is eating an industrially-produced, factory farmed burger at McDonald’s necessary?  Of course not.  But are animals a necessary part of the human food chain and of human agriculture?  I’m afraid so.  I, too, wish we could survive and thrive without using any animal products, but I no longer believe that’s possible, certainly not in a long-term, healthy and sustainable manner.

Like religious true believers, ideological vegans start with a dogma and then seek to defend it, rather than taking the more scientific route of continually evaluating all the available evidence and testing their own beliefs against the constraints of reality.

What do you miss about veganism, if anything?

Nothing, honestly.  I could say I miss the community, but as it was largely predicated on groupthink and cliquey-ness, that’s not really the case.  I feel rather similar to how I felt when I left religion and realized I was happy as an atheist.  I feel that the world is broader, more nuanced, more complicated, more inexplicable — but more magnificent, too.

In some respects, I can’t believe I was ever vegan at all and I feel a little silly having bought into it so completely; on the other hand, I learned a lot about food, cooking, and my own motivations and ethics.  I also learned that judgmental people (which I definitely have a tendency to be myself) are not only annoying, but almost always counter-productive, something I hope to take with me and incorporate into my often-outspoken atheism and feminism. And I learned that butter is a miracle.