§ Today it’s been a year since I went vegetarian after six years of veganism. I never did it for health reasons—it just seemed like the right thing to do. Nor, incidentally, did I stop for health reasons.
Veganism is a life-altering practice. If you succeed in keeping it up longer than a few months, you’ll of necessity learn a lot about food—and a lot more about life. I don’t believe you can practice without changing. There just isn’t room for veganism in whatever life you live prior to veganism. You have to pass through a door or two.
One of the harshest, and most surprising, lessons the practice of veganism taught me is how interrelated are death and life—how death is part of everything. I mean, everyone knows this on some level. I grew up on a small farm and knew it firsthand, and perhaps that was part of my motivation. One of the main reasons many people practice veganism is to reduce the death and suffering in the world. So, if death is inevitable, and it’s part of everything—then if you go to an extreme (such as veganism) to try to reduce at least a small part of it, and find it still with you in that new ethic, then you learn, more deeply in your heart, how constant it is.
Knowing that, you then have to find a way to accommodate this new perspective. If you’ve been raging against death, it is difficult to accept your humble place in the natural order as one who suffers, and inflicts, death. One does not practice veganism humbly: it’s an ipso facto effort to better yourself, to transcend and change the way the world is, and—on some level—to deny that you are another strand in the web of life like any lamb or tiger. Accepting your place brings you down, and any sense of your own moral purity goes down with you. If you can continue doing what’s right even after learning it can’t be done perfectly, I think you’ve learned a lot about your place in the world.
§ I still practiced for a long time. It’s still a good act. I stopped after observing my remaining rage against not death, but environmental collapse. Perhaps that’s merely another death, I don’t know.
Capitalist, industrial civilization produces a sick society and destroys its own foundation: nature. Nobody who doesn’t see themselves placed on top of the world by the industrial machine disagrees with this, but there’s plenty of room to disagree about how to respond or whether it’s possible to respond meaningfully. Certainly it’s possible for only a very few people to cause large-scale systemic change—but all individuals can make changes in their own lives. Even if you don’t change the world much, you make your own life healthier.
Veganism is one response: cut out a large, well-defined cross-section of everyday consumption. It reduces exposure to a lot unhealthy food products and dietary trends (which I suspect follow mostly from marketing rather than nutritional science), forces you to quickly come up to speed on healthy eating (which is useful to you and those around you), and substantially lowers the draw you take from the machine. It’s a good response to industry.
It’s certainly not the only response. Is it the best? Veganism is only made possible by a substantial, well-developed food system infrastructure. In the reality of day-to-day dietary decisionmaking you only have the options in front of you, and without vegan options you can’t practice veganism. In an industrial society, our vegan options are still by and large produced by industrial processes—as bad as or, sometimes, worse than the majority options. There’s a price, in the form of lowered efficiency, to creating and including specialized consumer options.
Whatever is the best response to a sick system would simply not participate. Veganism, practiced healthfully and not as a long-term hunger strike, is a participant. True non-participating responses—such as small farming, local food, and organic gardening—work with, base themselves on, and respect nature… they don’t simply do less with civilization. And those nature-based food systems involve at least some inclusion of animals among the resources managed.
So, that was the line of thought that led me to let go. I felt incoherent for my simultaneous beliefs in sustainable food systems, and vegan food options.
§ Perhaps I will continue to practice veganism someday. It’s benefitted me tremendously in so many ways, and even if it may not be (as I suggest) the most appropriate response to nature, veganism remains an appropriate response to industrial civilization, and a fantastic practice for personal growth. I suppose it is only my attitudes which will be changed.
If you are someone considering practicing veganism tomorrow, whether for the first day or one more day in a life of it, I would make three suggestions. I don’t have any practical or dietary advice—except make sure you eat a lot and take supplements. Other well-developed resources already exist for that. Instead my suggestions are for the heart and mind.
Practice because you love the world, not because you hate yourself. Veganism is itself an inherently loving gesture, but like all loving gestures it can be done badly. Self-hate is a powerful source of motivation, and enables amazing feats of transformation. It also enables amazing feats of disconnection from reality and from people. It hurts everyone else if you hate yourself, and an isolating discipline like veganism reinforces unhealthy patterns as it strengthens other aspects of personality. “Though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains—if I am without love, I am nothing.”
Don’t worry or obsess about purity. It’s not about that. It’s about love and it’s about doing what you can. Do as much as you can, definitely, but don’t try to save the world by not eating certain things. You already have the arrogance to declare that there is an ethical way to allocate and consume resources and to determine that you’ll live according to it—take the next step and decide that you make the call from moment to moment on what details matter and how the resource that is you should be maintained and allocated. “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here” and you are “a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, [the continent] is the less”.
Let it proceed naturally. Veganism is easy to pick up. It really is. It’s easy to pass on to others without even trying or pushing. Just the practice is work and advocacy for everything that you believe in (or that I assume you believe in as a vegan). And even as you work to make the world a better place by living more lightly through it—respect the world more than you respect your efforts. Just as your life should start, proceed, and end when it should, so should everything you do. “Once the river has been crossed over, the raft is of no more use”.