"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Vegetarianism - A Fairy Tale Of Planetary Health And Nonviolence

Bobby Jenks was a vegetarian, but when asked why, he demurred, mumbled something about the planet, animal welfare, and global warming. When pressed, he could never connect the dots.  “It’s the right thing to do”, he added.

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It is not surprising that Bobby and millions of Americans like him cannot quite figure out why they have gone off red meat; but they have happily and willingly subscribed to vegetarian calls for planetary health and animal rights.  It is a simple, easy, relatively painless, way to do something, to contribute, and to set oneself off from the legions who talk the talk but remain inactive observers.  

Progressivism, of which vegetarianism is an integral component, is all about a better world – a more peaceful, verdant, accommodating, generous, and inclusive one; and those who fill its big tent are one in purpose, ideals, and most of all community.  Vegetarians, like all progressives, want to belong to something bigger than themselves, to share in the conviction and camaraderie of like-minded people who believe in progress to a better world.

Yet for all vegetarianism’s idealism, camaraderie, and general penchant for doing good, most Americans give up on it because they can find no argument for it compelling; or trapped within their own Cartesian logic, find contradictions which they cannot overlook.  They wish they had the spiritual revolve, philosophical principles, and long religious history of Hinduism according to which killing of any living thing disturbs the moral order of the universe, and is therefore unconscionable and irrevocably wrong.

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The Jains, a Hindu subgroup found principally in the religiously conservative state of Gujarat wear masks and sweep the walk in front of them clean of insects in a symbolic statement of non-violence.  

For Americans, ahimsa has never has been part of their cultural DNA, and while often justifying vegetarianism in these spiritual ways, they can never square the circle.  Non-violence is part of a Hindu’s moral and ethical DNA, and vegetarianism is simply one expression of it.  Violence is America’s heritage, so refusing to eat killed animals is a drop in the bucket compared to the violent mayhem everywhere.

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Many find it ironic that ‘pure’ vegetarians willingly swallow metric tons of antibiotics every year – agents of death to microbial and viral life – and never give it a second thought. Is there a threshold to guilt ? How can killing single-celled paramecia or amoeba be considered a violent death? And once started down that road, what about shellfish?  Certainly there is no immortal soul residing there? Or fish, which fishermen hook, reel in, and leave flapping, floundering, and gasping on deck until they die.  

If fish were insentient, only eating and being eaten according to the laws of survival, then killing and eating them could not be considered an immoral act.  Such logical conundrums never bother Hindus, but to the more secular, Cartesian West, they must.

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The other side of vegetarianism is the environment.  While there is no doubt that animal husbandry and farming produce some negative environmental impact, few vegetarians have the patience or desire to look into similar issues with agriculture. Vegetarians, like anyone espousing a deeply held belief, overlook factors which disprove or at least introduce doubt into their cause.  

Vegetarians, so convinced of the rightness of their belief, prefer to ignore the environmental damage caused by agriculture.  Although animals emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other noxious substances each year and chicken farms dump tons more of animal waste into waterways, crop production requires huge amounts water, fertilizer, and pesticides and does its share to degrade the environment.

Recent studies of the environmental impact of human-consumed crops indicates that agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases and is estimated to account for 10-12% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 70% of global freshwater withdrawals.  Seventy-eight percent of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (the pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich pollutants) is caused by agriculture.. 

In addition crop production contributes to environmental degradation via industrial pollution, overuse of fertilizers and insecticides, and heavy metal and radiation stresses.  Many pests have become resistant to insecticides, thus spurring the development of more powerful and potentially more environmentally harmful products.

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On a more personal level, most  Americans, used to plentiful food and economic prosperity, pull items off the supermarket shelves willy nilly. Even if they are tempted by vegetarianism, they have little patience for the attention that must be paid to amino acid balance, nutrient sufficiency, and caloric intake.  A Big Mac with cheese has most of the vitamins, minerals, and lysine for an entire day.  

Unless plant-based food is balanced carefully, nutrition can be compromised, especially for adolescents who have high caloric and other nutritional demands.  Proper vegetarianism requires work. 

When Bobby Jenks informed his parents that he was becoming a vegetarian, his father, an accomplished international cook, agreed within reason to accommodate his son’s demands.  His culinary repertoire included many vegetarian dishes – creamy and rich spaghetti alfredo, penne alla gorgonzola, fettuccini alla crema e funghi and many more.  

A few times a week, attentive to the requests of his wife and other children for ‘big meat’, he would cook a roast pork, prime rib, or leg of lamb and ask his son to make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Bobby, in the full flush of adolescent idealism and faith in goodness, agreed, but to be honest, the smell of roast lamb, rosemary, and garlic from the oven was almost irresistible.  Yet for months, he persisted, and never once put a piece of meat or fish in his mouth.

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His reversal came on a school trip to eastern Siberia.  He and his classmates were housed with Russian families and were to live like them.  No special accommodations would be made for these young Americans.

Meat of course was served at every meal, and when Bobby told his hosts that he did not eat meat, they said, “Don’t eat it”, and went on to serve the family.  Other than potatoes and black bread, there was nothing for him to eat, and he went hungry.  Not only that he was exposed to an international dimension of vegetarianism.  There were entire cultures which went from beef to chicken to lamb to pork without a second thought. “Only poor people don’t eat meat”, Mr. Belenkaya said.  The three times a day rice-and-beans of Central America or the rice-and-dhal of India were a function of poverty, not principle.

When the class went on to China on the Siberian Express, his will was broken.  Even more than Russians, the Chinese valued every kind of fish, meat, foul, and insect.  Not only was there nothing for him to eat, all the dishes looked spectacularly inviting.

Arriving back home after a long summer abroad, he gave it all up.  To be fair, he gave each of the arguments for vegetarianism a hard look, but could find nothing convincing – neither ahimsa, animal intelligence, environmental issues, human nutrition, economics, or international cuisine were appropriate or compelling. 

Perhaps more than anything, he was reminded of what Tolstoy said in his memoir about a long life searching for God and spiritual fulfillment without success.  If millions of people believed in God and billions believed in the millennia past, he wrote, then maybe there was something to it.  If the world was a meat-eating place, then maybe meat-eating wasn’t such a bad idea.  It felt good to simply bite into a juicy hamburger than parse every fiber for meaning.

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