I’ve met quite a vew vegetarians in my life, a few vegans too. And a few ex-smokers to boot. The most memorable of the vegans were a deliriously crazy husband and wife who lived on a narrowboat beside their own allotment, were convinced that eating meat would cause tumours containing undigested beef, and were so repelled by meat as an ethical and spiritual contaminant that when their dog was ill and the vet told them to feed it chicken, they had to buy a new pan, use it specifically to cook to dog’s meat, and then throw it away afterwards. Consumer fail, was my most significant thought.
Most of the vegetarians I know are saner than that. My father is vegetarian because he simply doesn’t like the taste of meat; fair enough. I’m not vegetarian, and I’ll come back to why in a bit. What set me thinking today was a friend on Facebook (vegetarian already) who commented that he was “in favour of giving up cows’ milk due to welfare issues”.
I’m always reminded at moments like that of a scene from the Kenneth Branagh film Dead Again. In the film, Robin Williams plays Cozy Carlisle, a disreputable shrink who was struck off for having relationships with his clients; the central character mentions to Carlisle that he’s trying to quit smoking. I paraphrase here because I can’t find a clip of the scene to re-watch it, but Carlisle’s reaction is fantastic.
“Trying to quit, trying to quit, there is no trying to quit,” he rants. “Trying to quit’s not about giving up smoking, it’s about pleasing other people.” This next bit I can quote verbatim: “Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that.”
At the end of the film, the protagonist, faced with a lifelong smoker still addicted enough to smoke through his tracheotomy tube, informs the addict that he just quit.
“Why’s that?” asks the addict.
“I’m a nonsmoker,” the protagonist says.
And I see that urge to please the people around you in a lot of the reasons people find to do things like “try” to be vegetarian, or be “in favour of” giving up cow’s milk. The particular friend of mine who’s in favour of quitting milk happens to adore icecream. Personally, I find that saddening.
What happens, though, if you come down on the other side? For example: I take the Cozy Carlisle approach to life, in many ways. When asked how I deal with the tension between having religious faith and being scientific and rational, I explained that I accept myself as a creature with simultaneous, conflicting needs, and choose not to punish myself for having either of them.
“Ah, so you deal with the hypocrisy head-on,” was the reply.
I am also a meat-eater in the Cozy Carlisle sense. Even before I developed so many allergies that meat became essentially the only good source of protein I can eat in useful amounts, I wasn’t interested in becoming vegetarian despite being deeply interested in conservation, wildlife and paganism. It took me a long time to articulate my deeper reasons for that but here they are: I don’t believe that idealism is a workable solution in a very non-ideal world. I live in a capitalist culture, where our treatment of animals in order to produce food products is contingent on consumer knowledge and consumer demands. So if I choose to take myself out of the consumer equation, to cease to consume any brand, type or origin of a given product at all, am I not then giving up my cultural voice, my ability to express an opinion through where I choose to spend? No-one hears what isn’t said, after all.
And furthermore, I also believe that if you care deeply about the welfare of the animal that produced a product – or any part of the way that product is produced – then you will have a far stronger emotional reaction to the idea of putting that product in your mouth, and that will inform your choices in a much more instinctive way than cold reason. When I’m tired in a supermarket, I’ll grab any old veg and tinned food, but I won’t pick up a cheap box of eggs for any price.
Then there’s working with what has meaning for you personally. Allergy aside, I’m down on dairy as a default food option because supermarkets are screwing over the farmers and that makes me angry. For me that’s purely because I see that kind of profiteering as immoral in itself – but framed in terms of the animals’ welfare, the villain is still the megacorp pressurising farmers into cheaper and cheaper methods and less welfare for the cows. The farmers are the middlemen; stopping buying completely just cuts down their meagre income even more.
But then, if I could eat dairy products again, I’d buy organic. Or whatever I could afford that wasn’t the mass-produced norm. I do buy organic eggs, because they taste of something. I’m stuck on a benefits budget so organic everything is out of the question, but my basics – flour and so on – I shell out on. (Organic onions I only do in winter, though, since they have so much glorious life in them they sprout when it’s warm!)
Meat, of course, is both the expensive thing and the ethical sticking point. I need decent nutrition and I can neither live exclusively on veg (thanks to IBS) nor regularly afford organic meat products. So with limited options I try to do what I can from my own end instead: be economical with the meat I buy, avoid wasting it, take a leaf out of my grandmother’s war-era cookbook and make a little of something good go a longer way. I discovered slow cookers recently, which are transformative on cheaper cuts of meat, and have had more affordable and nutritionally more balanced winters than ever before.
There have been times, on my tight budget, when I’ve gone for whatever really is cheapest, and found that it simply tastes too foul to think about eating at all. Money wasted, since I don’t have a dog. And it doesn’t take a lot for me to realise that the happier and healthier the animal is, the more nutrients it has in its system, the wider a range of ways it has to improve its body chemistry by action, stimulation and choice, then the better its meat is ultimately likely to taste. So I don’t buy the economy meat options firstly for common sense’s sake as an eater, but secondly I take comfort in knowing that there’s probably a difference in the net welfare impact of my shopping as a result.
So no. I’m not trying to be vegetarian. I’m not trying to quit welfare-uncertain foods purely because my pagan friends would approve. I’m choosing to be what I am – someone who likes to eat what nourishes, tastes good and leaves me feeling positive inside. Because I reject the false dichotomy that’s the deeper issue here. There is no opposition between eating meat and caring about animals – the happier the animal the better the meat. Or milk, or eggs, or any product at all. Happy animals, good food, happy people; everybody wins. And let’s face it, even if we hadn’t domesticated them to the point of near-dependence, pigs and cows wouldn’t get out of this world alive. We can none of us do that.
I should add that my life plan at the moment is to retrain as a vet nurse, because I do take issue with what we as a species have done to pedigree dogs and animals like them. I will be very happy to get involved on the front lines of that particular fight. If there’s use in the way we treat an animal I can see my way to a pragmatic tolerance of breeding for slaughter, but animals we breed for mere entertainment and make ill purely to please our own desires? That, for me, is where the dividing line lies. That’s why I rescued two sickly fancy rats, nursed them back to health, and will when they become too ill to have quality of life either let them go peacefully or help them out of their misery if I must. I could inflict every wonder of medical science on them if I liked – but fundamentally, they’re rats, not my children. They don’t need me to reassure them that I love them by fighting to the last – they just need a decent life (which I give them every day), and not too much stress at the sorry old end of it.
It’s what I want for myself, after all.