October 24, 2023

TEBBUTT | Tough to Swallow: Ruminations of a (Self-)Righteous Vegetarian

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There toll the jarring chimes of cognitive dissonance. It is a feeling I have become used to over the course of my 20s; the more secure the identities I build up, the more freely I permit the difficult questions and introspection that throw them into doubt. While these philosophical whacks around the head don’t always hit with quite the force they used to, they can still provide a visceral reddening of the face, and a few weeks of thoughts to chew on.

This particular instance was occasioned by the newsworthy appearance of Elwood’s Organic Dog Meat just a stone’s throw from the clock tower and, crucially, en route to my usual lunch spot in Willard Straight Hall. After experiencing the intended surprise at the flyers advertising “free range” delicacies such as “golden retriever milk” and “corgi legs,” I quickly ascertained the message.

 “This is satire, right?”, I asked the “salesperson” running the stall.

“Absolutely not,” she replied, citing numerous assurances of animal welfare that would hardly raise an eyebrow when applied to chickens, cows and pigs. She asked if I would like to buy some. Now was the moment to hoist my colors, to let this long-suffering activist know that I was, in fact, a comrade in arms.

“I’m vegetarian,” I say, barely fighting the self-satisfied grin breaking out across my face. While renouncing fish and then meat has never felt like much of a burden to me, the occasional moment of shared camaraderie certainly lightens it.

“OK — so how do you get your protein?”, was the retort, without the warm relaxation I had anticipated.

“Peanut butter, lentils, tofu,” I said, running through a quick shortlist of recent meals in mind.

“OK fine,” came back, somewhat resigned, as though I hadn’t taken the bait. “But do you still eat dairy?”

My smile shifted to apologetic: “Well, I try to reduce my intake, but I just can’t go without cakes and ice cream every now and then.”

I am well aware that I am now rehearsing a minor variation of the very same arguments that make vegetarians’ eyes roll when advanced by meat-eaters. “It’s just too difficult,” “I need a treat every now and then,” and so on. At this point it is worth stressing that I have lived with, loved and appreciated many non-vegetarians, and have always prided myself on not being evangelical in my beliefs (which, some would argue, defeats the point).

I am now presented with a series of disturbing facts about the dairy industry: the hundreds of thousands of male calves shot at birth, the repeated forced impregnation of mothers to keep them producing milk, not to mention the trickle-down effects of effluent runoff that pollutes local river ecosystems. She has a point. If I had to shoot a calf in the head every time I wanted an éclair, I would probably forgo the choux pastry.

Did I already know all this? If so, what made me decide all those years ago that stopping at vegetarianism was enough? If not, how can I continue to profess a love for our natural home and the creatures we share it with while contributing toward this systematic cruelty, just for the momentary satisfaction of my dietary whims?

On the other hand, I tend to justify my vegetarianism as environmentally motivated, but neither does that argument bear much scrutiny. If vegetarianism nearly halves the carbon emissions of an average diet, veganism can shrink them eight-fold. Of course, it has to be the right kind: Swapping out dairy for almond milk still comes with a boatload of other environmental impacts, so I tend to stick to oat and soy as the best trade-off between nutrition and environmental impact.

The complexity of these decisions multiplies as one accounts for the many other problematic aspects of food production, from economic inequalities to plastic consumption to airmiles. Like you (and quite possibly like those cows), “I contain multitudes,” which is abundantly clear from the cacophony of voices that accompany me down each supermarket aisle: Should I choose the locally-grown, organic strawberry from a greenhouse heated through the winter, or the certified fruit of a small cooperative flown halfway across the world? All too often, this feat of ethical gymnastics must be carried out within a brief window of time at the store, in the context of budget constraints and the bright yellow labels urging you toward further snap decisions. If perfect information is key to a functioning market, we might need to revise the model.

So, as someone who is limited by neither culture, religion nor income from making the change, why am I still not vegan? My mind keeps returning to Julia Lohmann’s “leather bench or ‘bovine memento mori”: striking, cow-shaped animal-skin furniture which forces sitters to recognize the living being embodied in them. Likewise, decades of artifice and cultural conditioning mask the slaughter and the carbon emissions behind each clinical square of nondescript supermarket meat. So too, the cows that smile back at me from my carton of heavy whipping cream are an invitation to distract myself from the realities of our food systems and keep on consuming. Whatever you think of their methods, the provocateurs that have now left Ho Plaza added a discordance to the chimes of McGraw Tower, which continues to ring in my ears.

Charlie Tebbutt is a third year PhD candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His fortnightly column Rêveries is a collection of musings that wander from the hill, over the Atlantic and out to the beautiful planet that we all share. He can be reached at [email protected].

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