The powerful thing about veganism is that it is both philosophy and practice. It gives the gift of realizing your own agency in embracing or limiting suffering. A year into being vegan, I’m particularly proud of the way being vegan impacted my life in far-flung ways that go beyond proscriptions on diet and lifestyle. It has given me a continuing drive to be better.
On October 1st of 2016, I went vegan. About two weeks away from that milestone I’ve given some thought to how I’ve changed. What I find myself reflecting on isn’t the ways I’ve changed my diet or lifestyle, though I values those deeply, but the new frontiers I would never explore without making those changes. The once abstract arguments for veganism have become deeply felt in my life. There are three branches to the argument for veganism: suffering, environment or health (I frame this slightly differently than the above picture does). There are many arguments, but most of them are reducible to these areas. What is meant by each of these areas is remarkably diverse. For instance, the suffering branch is not confined to the suffering of cows, chickens and pigs, but also applies to the suffering of exploited slaughterhouse workers, or to the inefficient food production that exacerbates world hunger. Health is not only about cholesterol and saturated fat, but also about antibiotic resistance and food-borne pathogens (the two of which may even come together to produce a superbug). The environmental argument—beyond only climate change—bleeds into the health argument when we think of the pollution that directly affects the quality of the air people breath and the water they drink. Outside of the context of veganism, these areas are even more broad and there is so much to be done to improve the world in all three of these spaces. What’s interesting to me is that these arguments were once only abstractions—a tool for understanding the underpinnings of vegan life. In the intervening year, these thoughts have become actions.
I care more about the ethics of suffering than I ever have before. Realizing that I make a decision every time I eat to limit suffering or encourage suffering was revelatory. Once veganism became easy, it was only natural to want to do more. Effective Altruism (EA), led by luminaries like Peter Singer and William MacAskill, was the next logical step for me. EA tries to use charity as a tool to effect measurable change against the suffering of the world. If I can truly convert my extra dollars to decreasing suffering around the world, then I have to take that seriously—potentially even as a responsibility. I’m not living paycheck to paycheck and I spend my money frivolously all the time. There are things that matter more than the conveniences and luxuries of modern life. I’ve pledged to give a small percentage of my income each year to help fight causes I care about, some relating to animal welfare (e.g. The Humane League), mostly related to global poverty (e.g. helping Kenyan subsistence farmers through The One Acre Fund). Vegans and effective altruists make natural allies, which is why I write about the intersection of the two here.
I always cared about the environment abstractly. I worried about the right things—climate change, severe storms, melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels—and I did my best not to waste resources like food, water, electricity and gas. I even knew that C02 from cows was a huge driver of climate change, due to a particularly informative high school science teacher. Unfortunately, having the right opinions and being aware of the right facts doesn’t always translate into doing anything differently. Would the world really be different if instead of wringing my hands about the environment I had been spouting climate denial rhetoric? Doubtful. We like to think that having the right opinions matters. I’ve even thought optimistically, “I may not do much individually, but maybe I influenced someone else to live differently.” Yeah, right. If I’m not living differently, why would anyone else? Veganism is empowering because it’s a daily choice that has real-world effects. I like to concentrate on small actions that measurably reduce my environmental impact. Beyond veganism, limiting or eliminating consumption of palm oil (which is nearly everywhere in the grocery store) has been a priority, in order to alleviate the problems of deforestation that badly affect Southease Asia (notably Indonesia and Maylasia) and continue to move into Africa and central America. The other concrete step I’ve taken is to start a compost to reduce my food waste. It’s been amazing to watch the earth turn scraps of paper and food waste into nutritious soil. These are issues I never would have given a second thought to without the impetus of veganism.
I’ve never placed great value on my health. I’ve drank, smoked and been sedentary far too often. In fact, I still do those things sometimes, and it is important for vegans to give other vegans the agency to be unhealthy if they want to be. However, being vegan made me more inclined to be health conscious. In the decadence of modern society, concepts like self-denial and discipline are linked to health by necessity. Hedonism is nearly always the enemy of health, not just because heavy drinking and smoking are bad, but because overindulgence in just about anything is unhealthy. I don’t want to push this argument too far, because it is perfectly possible to establish good habits and basically eat what you want until you are satiated, but this is rarely an easy feat. Our society is set up so that the default option—the path of least resistance—is not very healthy. It’s easy to sell short-term pleasure, but hard to sell discipline and delayed gratification. Veganism is a door into this area, because, at least initially, it is a difficult choice. I was forced to sacrifice my habits and cravings in pursuit of a higher goal; ultimately, I’ve found that I am happier for it. I’ve since applied this same principle to exercise and fasting. I like to do very quick (12-15 minute) high intensity interval training (HIIT) a few times a week. For that brief window of time, I am in pain. HIIT should be an absolute struggle or you aren’t doing it right. However, in the long term I am rewarded with a body that feels better. Fasting is quite a controversial area, but it has measurable health benefits related to improvements in the immune system, regulation of insulin and longevity. A lot of the research centers on intermittent fasting, but I prefer to do a three day water fast once a month. The health benefits are actually pretty abstract to me, but it reminds me that I can will myself to do difficult things. For me, healthfulness is very often about restraining impulses in the short term, in exchange for long term reward.
In focusing this reflection on areas beyond vegan life, I don’t mean to imply that veganism is not a satisfying and worthwhile endeavor all on its own. However, veganism was never an end in itself for me. Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to remark that science is only interesting because it works. For instance, when you turn the key in your car, it starts. This is thanks to the principles of science. Veganism is only interesting because it reduces suffering, helps the environment and is compatible with healthfulness. The deeper truth that veganism has instilled in me is that these are values worth sacrificing for, in whatever form that sacrifice may take. It isn’t enough to have the right idea. I only made those values real when I backed them up with concrete choices. What started out as a sacrifice has turned out to be a gift.