When I was 20 years old, I was deployed to Guantanamo Bay in the Army. One night we went out for dinner to celebrate the birthday of a person in our unit. There are a few restaurants in GTMO, and we went to one of the fanciest, the one attached to the Officer’s Club. It was pretty lush compared to the chow hall fare I ate for most meals, so I decided to go all out and order filet mignon, just how I like it, rare. Everyone at the table gasped in surprise. “I thought you were a vegetarian!” one of my fellow Soldiers exclaimed.
I have never in my life been a vegetarian. For a few years in high school, I was a pescatarian, but that didn’t last. A pescatarian, in case you don’t know, is someone who doesn’t eat land meat. They won’t eat the flesh of an animal that lives on the land, but they will eat the flesh of an animal that lives in a body of water. At least, this is how I came to describe it when I was a pescatarian, because a lot of people out there do not understand what meat is. They’d say to me “So you don’t eat meat?” and I’d sigh “No, I eat meat, just only meat from fish and shellfish.” That’s the closest to a vegetarian I have ever been, and yet, somehow, all the time people make the assumption that I am a vegetarian, even people who, like my former Army coworkers, saw me eat two chicken breasts and a salad every single day for lunch.
I don’t know why people make this assumption about me. I don’t know if it’s because I enjoy vegetables, and people think you’re not allowed to enjoy vegetables if you eat meat. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t like hot dogs or ham or pepperoni, and people are under the impression that you must hate all meat if you hate those three. Maybe in order to be believed as a true meat eater, I need to be feasting on the jugular of a still live cow at least 18 hours of every day? I don’t know. But it’s frequently assumed.
Lately, I’ve been eating less meat than I did in my Army days, and I’ve been kind of vocal about why. Conventionally produced meat is an environmental catastrophe, and conventionally produced meat is all I can afford, so I’m choosing to at least cut back. When I talk about this, I often get accused of being a militant vegan, and trying to force my veganism down other people’s throats. I don’t know where the disconnect is between when I say “I’m trying to reduce my meat consumption” and people hearing “I eat no animal products whatsoever, and you should do the same thing or else you are a horrible person!” Lets clear a few things up that might make it easier for people to understand.
- A vegan is a person who does not eat anything that came from any kind of animal ever. They do not eat dairy, they do not eat eggs, they do not eat honey, and they certainly don’t eat any meat, ever, at any time. They also do not wear any fiber that comes from any kind of animal. Not even silk. In case you didn’t know, that comes from a worm. Vegans also won’t even use animal poop in their gardens, if they garden. Nothing that comes from an animal, for any purpose. EVER.
- I eat dairy. I eat eggs. I eat honey. I wear silk (well, not very much, because it is expensive, but I love the hell out of silk and would wear it all the time if I could), and wool, and leather. I use animal poop in my garden. In fact, I raise animals for their eggs and their poop to use in my garden. And I most certainly eat meat. I just don’t eat it at every meal. And when I do eat it, I tend to eat a smaller portion of it than a typical American, instead trying to have vegetables take up the bulk of my plate. Now, that might make you think I’m not a true-blue, red-blooded, American meat-eater, but all of this most certainly disqualifies me from being a vegan. I can’t even be a vegetarian.
- The word “reduce” and the word “eliminate” have two entirely different meanings. When a person says they are trying to reduce something, that does not mean they are trying to eliminate it.
Hopefully, this make it easier to understand what I’m talking about when I say I’m trying to eat less meat. I’m not going vegetarian, and I’m not suggesting anyone else does either (on the other hand, I’m not suggesting anyone should eat meat or other animal products if they don’t want to, by all means, be vegetarian or vegan if that is more in line with your desires, values, and/or physical needs, and rock on with your bad self). But as a climate activist, I would be deluding myself if I ignored the impact that conventional meat production has on the climate, so I do advocate that people reduce their meat consumption. Reduce can mean a lot of things, it all depends on where you are starting from and how far you want to go. I’m not making any statements on what reduce has to mean for anyone else but me. I have given suggestions for things people can try out, and talked about my own personal choices, but I can’t reasonably be expected to know exactly what every person should do with their diet, nor would I try to speculate on it if I could.
If I believe that conventional animal husbandry is bad for the climate, why don’t I advocate for complete vegetarianism, then? There are a lot of reasons for that. First, I don’t think it’s realistic. Expecting the whole world to go vegetarian is like expecting the whole world to give up abortion (and has about the same moral motivations), it’s simply not going to happen. Most people do not believe there is anything morally wrong with eating meat, and most people like meat, so it’s going to be really hard to convince them to stop. Ask the abstinence only movement how hard it is to get people to stop doing things they don’t think is morally wrong and really, really enjoy doing. You might be successful in convincing a few that there is something morally wrong with what they are doing, but most will never be convinced, either because their values are that dramatically different than yours, or because they like doing the thing more than they dislike the moral confliction, so they will ignore the moral confliction.
Second, I don’t think it’s necessary. Humans have been doing animal husbandry for thousands of years, and for the vast majority of that time, animal husbandry has not impacted climate change. It’s only been since we industrialized the process that it’s begun to cause problems (kind of like all industrialization caused problems). However, with our population levels where they are currently, and with our demand for meat as high as it is, there is no way we can produce enough meat to meet demand using anything but the industrialized process. Therefore, if we want to back away from industrialized meat, everyone is probably going to need to scale back to some degree, so yeah, I do think it’s a good idea to get that ball rolling. I do think we need to move to a more environmentally friendly and human way of raising the animal products we consume, but I don’t believe that is possible without a reduction in the overall amount of animal products that we consume.
Finally, and this might be the least important reason, but here it is: I like meat. I don’t want to quit it. If I felt that it was necessary for all people to quit meat, I would (with much chagrin). I quit smoking, so I feel pretty confident I could quit meat if I had to. But I’m really glad that I don’t have to. Not entirely. Maybe one day I will need to reduce more, maybe I will find out my current reduction is just right. Maybe one day I’ll get some evidence that makes me think, “Well, I guess I need to cut meat out entirely”, I don’t know. But for right now I’m going to reject the notion of AllorNothingism in my dietary choices and do the best I can in this moment. Just because something is bad in excess doesn’t mean it’s not safe in any tiny amount. Just because something is perfectly safe in small amounts doesn’t mean that it’s okay to be gluttonous with it. We don’t have to look at what we eat as black and white. It’s not as if when you make the choice to eat meat, you have to double down and eat all the meat you can cram in your gullet, forsaking all other types of food. Just as when you make the choice to eat less meat doesn’t mean that you have to go totally vegan.
Describe me as a flexitarian, a climatarian, or a reducetarian, if you need to label me. But none of these terms are synonyms for vegetarian or vegan.
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