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JULY 20TH 2011 

What’s your excuse?

By Guest Blogger: Theresa Diederich

Someone far wiser than me once said that in order to change you have to first run out of excuses. This blog is an examination of excuses, of the comforting reasons we tell ourselves that prevent us from making changes we know would improve our (and others’) lives.

As a long time vegetarian, I am always curious to know how meat eaters react when they read articles exposing the abhorrent conditions of factory farms or divulging the amount of water, grain, and energy required to raise a single pound of beef (let alone package and transport it). Or, for that matter, studies that note continued surprise at the remarkable degree to which animals possess intelligence, sentience (the ability to feel pain and suffering),  and indeed, language and culture. Do omnivores squirm uncomfortably or feel a stab of revulsion for a few moments before contenting themselves and returning to their chicken sandwich? Or are they reasonably self-assured in their decision to eat meat and have no qualms about whatever they might read?

(Michael Pollen has certainly tackled the omnivore vs. vegetarian face-off and come away with his meat-eating habits unscathed.) Or, most disturbing of all, do people willfully blind themselves to the truth regarding the food they eat, avoiding such articles and discussions altogether?

There’s no denying that the vegetarian debate is complex and multi-faceted. There is the moral argument for vegetarianism against harming another being, human or otherwise. There are evolutionary arguments and purported health benefits on both sides. There are cultural considerations of the role of meat in cultures the world over. And then there is the condemnation not of meat eating in general but with the modern industrialized food system in particular. It is this final argument that seems to carry the most weight.

Whatever your feelings about the moral status of animals or the cultural importance of meat, the fact remains that within our current system, one of the simplest and most powerful changes an individual can make to become more sustainable and have a proportionally significant impact on the sustainability of the world is to eat locally-sourced, vegetarian options.

So what’s the deal? Why has it been so characteristically difficult for people to choose vegetarian alternatives even one day a week? I have no answers. In fact, in reflecting on my own behaviors I realize that even as a vegetarian, I am no saint, and I have more than a few excuses of my own.

First of all, being vegetarian is by no means a sure indicator of sustainability or health: I could eat candy and soda all day, and while I would satisfy the definition of vegetarian, I would by no means be supporting ecological or personal health. Furthermore, if my objection to meat is largely due to the conditions and ramifications associated with the industrial food industry, how can I possibly justify eating dairy or eggs, both of which are products of the same system, require similar intensive energy inputs, and come from some of the most abused animals in the industry (dairy cows and laying hens)? If I were to practice what I preach, should I not be vegan rather than vegetarian?

The answer, unquestionably, is yes. And yet, I have long struggled to make the transition to vegan. I tell myself there are many justifications for this: Vegetarians are already a fringe group, but you can usually always find at least one vegetarian option, but as a vegan, you’re just being difficult, requiring all sorts of special accommodations at restaurants or by hosts. And it’s so much harder to get sufficient nutrition as a vegan. Right?

While all of these considerations have merit, I admit, ultimately, the decision is one of taste. I really like ice cream. And some mornings there is literally nothing more satisfying than a spinach and feta omelet. Do I really want to give all that up for the sake of maybe, somehow, somewhere making the world a better place? Not really, no. At least not when there’s a delicious piece of cheesecake in front of me.

So, there it is, the crux of the problem. What we must really work to change is our preferences–our preference for overly salty and sweet processed foods, our preference for tomatoes every day of the year, our preference for the biggest chicken breast possible, and our preference for perpetual meat.

It seems difficult, impossible perhaps, and it is challenging to think about changing our very likes. But it is possible, and preferences are as much about cultural influences as they are about personal taste. Communities like Citizen Capitalism offer a culture where we can all, every one of us, begin to question our “inherent” inclinations and behaviors and to challenge ourselves to make changes (big or small) that reflect our core values. Maybe then we won’t have to choose between the things we like and the things that are good for us and for the planet because they’ll be one and the same.



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