I became vegetarian half a life ago, at age 25. Worried by then-common fears that vegetarians don’t get enough protein, I began cautiously, substituting awful-tasting peanut butter-marinara combinations for meat sauce, and doing lots of stir-fries with added protein powder. I also briefly tried the non-dairy route, drinking soy milks which, at the time, also involved mixing strange powders. I swilled them down nonetheless, disgusted more by my new knowledge about meat’s impact on the environment and sentient beings than I was by the drink.
I abandoned the goofy menus eventually, as I realized that getting enough protein wouldn’t require a nutrition science degree, just eating a good variety of food. Besides, it made no sense to me that nature’s design would require humans to eat meat, considering the myriad environmental, world hunger, health and animal suffering issues. And I still can’t imagine it being in our basic nature to hunt and kill as predators do—a telling test, I think, for whether we’re really designed for meat consumption.
I’ve stuck with my meat-free diet (and made it through all the holiday in-law ridicule), and I’m rarely sick and hardly lack energy. I still struggle with giving up dairy, but for the same life-affirming and health reasons that got me off meat, I want very much to kick that habit, too.
And "habit" seems to be the operative word. We all grew up on meat and dairy, influenced by industry ads ("Beef Gives Strength," "Don’t Forget the Cheese!") and the old "food pyramids" that guided the dietary decisions our parents made for us. But I still find it shocking how many environmental advocates—who would otherwise readily boycott anything toxic or wasteful—will quickly roll out the rationalizations when the subject of meat is on the table.
And then there’s the political issue. Most green groups avoid association with the gung-ho, pro-vegetarian animal rights groups, which they consider to be emotionally driven and prone to conducting offensive publicity stunts. I’m of two minds on this: On the one hand, such behavior can compromise an issue in the short term, for sure. But the mainstream media have a pretty lousy set of priorities, comparing the small amount of time they spend on pressing social issues against that devoted to sex scandals and other titillating "hard news." Sometimes it’s necessary to "throw big rocks in the pond" (and suffer the immediate backsplash) to get attention for issues that would otherwise be ignored. As with many of the actions of those who brought civil and women’s rights so far in the last half century, the passing of time is likely to cast their tactics in a more favorable light.
Ultimately, what’s most important is truth and fairness, regardless of how we look upon the messenger. If environmentalists are not swayed by ethical animal rights arguments, fine. But—as I hope we’ve convincingly presented in our cover package of articles this issue—there is still compelling evidence that meat contributes profoundly to environmental problems and to food production inefficiencies that create much human misery. In light of that, I think it’s time for the environmental movement to embrace vegetarianism for a cleaner, more humane and more equitable world.