The case for freeganism and flexitarianism

I take the following definitions from the excellent (if containing rather too many exotic ingredients) cookbook ‘V is for Vegan’, by Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms Marmite Lover).

Freegan: a portmanteau word combining ‘free’ and ‘vegan’; freegans do not buy animal products. This is an anti-consumerist, anti-food waste movement, so they will eat animal products if they would otherwise be discarded.

Flexitarian: semi-vegetarians. They occasionally eat meat. These are people who are ‘meat reducers’, that is, trying to reduce the amount of meat they eat, or at the very least, trying to source meat from ethical suppliers.

A DIFFICULT STANDPOINT

The environmental issues relating to the meat industry are numerous and this blog would be incomplete in its approach without addressing them. However, as the nephew of a butcher who consequently worked in my uncle’s butchers shop for over eight years, I hope you understand it is tricky to maintain a position which both avoids hypocrisy and maintains respect for my uncle and his business. Without the experience of working at the butchers I would certainly not be in the position I am in today, and would certainly have far less of a work ethic.

In 2014 I started to become very uneasy about the conflict of interests between my part-time job and having deep concerns for the well-being of the environment. The carbon footprint of the meat industry, largely due to methane emissions from the animals themselves, but also due to CO2 released during transportation of feed, livestock and meat products, accounts for almost 15% of the emissions from the entire world. That is considerably more than the aircraft industry. The energy requirement to make the meat eaten world-over comes with an increased need to grow crops, just to feed the farmed animals. If meat continues to grow in popularity as it has recently, this will require yet larger fields for growing crops. All of this comes at a time when we are failing to sustain millions of poor and hungry people across the world. Much, much more energy is being consumed feeding intensively-bred cattle to feed ourselves than would be required to feed the entire planet on those crops alone.

Aside from the environmental concerns, there are of course many arguments from ecological and animal rights. Deep ecologists recognise that there is value in all living creatures beyond their usefulness for our purposes and, further, animal rights activists insist that farm animals be kept in far better circumstances than the almost industrial ones they frequently find themselves at present. Beyond (but not far from) the meat industry, cows are periodically artificially raped by a farmer so that they become pregnant and can therefore lactate the milk which people enjoy on their cereal world over. This is the real, sickening answer to the commonplace myth that cows somehow need to be milked constantly. They do not, this is very unnatural. And when the cow does have her baby, this calf is stolen away, never for her to see again. Heavy stuff.

For some time I had been happy with the idea of only eating leftover meat I got from the butchers, which was going to be thrown away anyway. But after learning of the things I have mentioned above, the contradictions and excuses were becoming too much. Eventually, in the September of 2015 I put it to my uncle that I was going to become vegetarian (with the consequence of my resignation being somewhat obvious). You can imagine the response I got from that, and who could blame him, as someone whose career is built around the sale of delicious meats? Despite the upset my departure initially caused, along with my transition to veganism (well, freeganism) soon after,  I greatly respect my uncle for his eventual understanding and acceptance of my way of life. This recently included his recommendation to me of a vegetarian restaurant!

On a personal level, I feel the best side-effect of becoming a vegan was completely unexpected. Previously, being a good Northern lad, I enjoyed a meal of meat, carb, veg and some form of gravy for every evening meal (i.e. tea). Consequently, due to the delicious marinated meats I got cheap from the butchers, my cooking skills were somewhat lacking. Ripping up this whole cooking routine involved combining different foods, trying new things and structuring meals in a way which means the plate doesn’t revolve around a piece of meat. This is not only an interesting and enjoyable exercise, but also made me really appreciate what I was eating and the effort which had been made to get it to my plate. Cooking is so much more interesting within (even relatively minor) constraints.

NOTHING WORSE THAN A WHINGY VEGAN, EH?!

Veganism has been traditionally sidelined in public opinion, just like environmentalism. Stereotypes of the former involve vegans being attention seeking, whingy and with a lofty sense of superiority (all of which have been applied to the latter, too). I am not saying no vegans possess these traits, as some certainly do, but by and large the intention behind this particular lifestyle choice is heart-felt, not selfish. As what has been a tiny proportion of the population, little media attention has been paid historically. As I am writing now, I realise that none of ‘veganism’, ‘freeganism’ or ‘flexitarianism’ are words in the WordPress dictionary.

However, with 350% rises in veganism in the UK over the past few years, there has been much new media attention, particularly being drawn by 2014’s highly controversial documentary Cowspiracy and Simon Amstell’s feature length film of this year, Carnage: swallowing the past (currently available on BBC iPlayer). The mockumentary Carnage imagines the overhanging shame of a society which previously relied so heavily on the meat industry, but where in the vegan utopia of 2067 the exploitation of animals for any purposes whatsoever is strictly outlawed. However, as with action on climate change, blaming and shaming is not the way forward. Blaming a person for the worlds ills because they eat meat is unlikely to generate a positive response or reaction. The more likely outcome is the strengthening of the aforementioned stereotypes.

Like environmental movement, vegans and vegetarians are divided. Divided in their reasons, divided in what exactly they will and will not eat and divided on other aspects of animal rights such as whether or not to keep pets or go to zoos. Building upon these issues, my opinion is that the clear way forward is provided by freeganism and flexitarianism. Of course, very few people would ever actually label themselves with these names. In fact, it is suggested in Carnage that it is better to name those who eat meat as carnists than to endow a plethora of confusing titles to those who do not. My sister recently told her boyfriend’s grandma that I was a freegan (for some reason) and apparently she now thinks I only eat free food, following another usage of the term. Whilst dumpster diving can be an attractive prospect, completely consistent with the form of freeganism I refer to, that isn’t really what it is about. I use the names here merely for reference purposes and would not recommend labelling people as one thing or another. (The reputation of veganism in some circles already highlights the damage labelling can do.)

Flexitarianism focuses on reduction of meat and dairy consumption. Given the environmental and ethical problems mentioned above, it is hard to make a case that such a reduction would be a bad thing. By eating meat only a couple of times a week, as a treat, and by avoiding red meats, it is possible to drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint, be less at risk to heart disease and save the lives of numerous creatures. I recently met a woman on the tube who, after asking about what I was eating for lunch, remarked “I’d really like to stop eating meat, but I could never give up chicken!”. I feel flexitarianism is exactly what she was looking for, where you can still have a Sunday roast chicken, yet are making an effort to reduce your impact on the world. Besides, things are often more delicious when you only get them once in a while.

Freeganism is somewhat different in motive to flexitarianism, but shares the values of reduced consumption for the aim of a greater goal. As kindly defined by Ms Marmite Lover,  freeganism is a waste-free movement. As a freegan, I will never buy any animal products. However, if I happen to find myself somewhere where animal products are about to be disposed of, I will eat them. This is about efficiency, but also allows the reminiscent vegan the potential to enjoy that spot of blue cheese they found so hard to give up. In addition, situations where the vegan diet has not been accounted for. Those awkward conference lunches with only cheese sandwiches and times when you order chips at a pub and they bring you a little pot of mayonnaise that almost certainly will be thrown away if you leave it, are no longer the drama that some vegans are known to make them. (“What do you mean you don’t have soya milk for my latte?!”)

MOOVING FORWARD

I take much inspiration from John Burnside’s column on nature in New Statesman, which appears every three weeks in between pieces on both food and wine. Many of the things he promotes there remind me of what I feel drives the movements of freeganism and flexitarianism, with efforts made to rebuilt relationships with nature, reduce environmental impact and become more aware as a person. His first column of 2017 urged the reader to start the year by making the most of simple things and reads as follows.

‘As Ronald Reagan said: “just say no”. No to shiny, homogeneous fruit. No to bulking agents. No to farmed meat, unless it comes from a source we can verify ourselves. No to roundup. No to sick bees. No to subsidies for fat landowners and corporations.’

The environmental problems faced in the world today are most likely not going to be solved by hypothetical quick-fixes like a worldwide switch to nuclear fusion (which has been 20 years coming for decades), widespread application of (also as yet uninvented) geoengineering techniques or the shuttling off of millions of people to live on another planet (at precisely the time when many once space-faring countries’ interest in space exploration is at its lowest). These problems can only truly be faced by a widespread change in attitude towards consumption, collective responsibility and the kind of lives we wish to provide for ourselves and the generations who will follow. For, if there were no attitude and yet a quick-fix was found, we would be left still with a complex of over-consumption and therefore merely postponing an impending climate disaster.

In my opinion, the key lies in virtues such as those supported by Burnside above. That is, the key to solving the grandest of problems posed by climate change is to take time to reconsider the way in which we are living our lives, and thereby find happiness in alternative ways much more harmonious with nature. I believe freeganism and flexitarianism are steps in that direction.

On the tube, after meeting the stranger who was interested in vegetarianism, we arrived at Green Park, said our goodbyes and she went to exit the train. She then ran back and exclaimed “I’m gonna do it!”. What exactly it was is unclear, but whichever branch of vegetarianism she referred to, I am glad she felt so impassioned to act upon it and wish her the best of luck.

[Header image source]

[Originally posted to my personal blog Cut Waste, Not Trees (Down)]

Don’t just wait for a movement

A SUPER-WICKED PROBLEM

In my previous blog piece, I referred to climate change as the ‘grandest of all problems’ ever faced by mankind. Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute’s briefing paper ‘Towards a unifying narrative for climate change’ states that the problem posed by climate change is an example of a ‘super-wicked’ problem. This relates to four factors which make it such a fiendishly difficult issue: the requirement for a solution is increasingly imminent; a co-ordinated central authority is required, in a neoliberal age where business trumps government; those who continue to cause the problem are the very ones who seek to find a solution; and policy responses often disregard the future in an almost irrational way.

A powerful quote comes from John Ashton of Chatham House and is as follows:

“Humanity has never faced a problem like climate change. Unlike poverty, hunger, disease and terrorism it affects everybody. Climate change is a ticking clock that we cannot stop or slow down… The essence is not what we must do but how quickly we must do it”.

How on Earth to proceed in this minefield situation?

ONE PROBLEM, MANY NARRATIVES

It has been argued – notably by Al Gore – that the science of climate change is well researched enough and that we have the solutions available. Therefore in order to succeed in solving this grandest of problems we face the bigger issue of getting anybody to care and do something about it. Whilst this may well be the case, scientific study and technological innovation remain crucially important in analysing the problem of climate change, assessing our approaches to its solution and improving the technologies we apply to this end. We should be wary, however, in placing too much hope in a ‘techno-fix’ geoengineering-type solution appearing to the problem. Partly because the prospects are somewhat lacking, but mainly because of the consequent feeling of being off the hook with respect to emission reduction. Indeed, most geoengineering solutions which have been proposed merely mask the effects of climate change and do not account for vital factors such as ocean acidification.

In addition to direct gains of the science, the fact there exist (some very high-profile) climate change deniers is proof enough that scientific research into climate change can still be justified. There are plenty of people who are still not convinced either that climate change is happening or it is an issue. Yet many suggest we now live in a ‘post-truth’ era, wherein facts count for nothing and emotive statements possess the most power. How is it possible to make a case for action on climate change when such arguments rest mainly on science and often only stir in us emotions of fear and worry?

As was discussed at the Royal Meteorological Society’s February meeting, a major issue for the environmental movement is the lack of consistency of narrative. Previous arguments have left many with the view environmentalists only care about polar bears and (hypothetical) future generations. Peter Wadhams, Arctic scientist and author of the excellent book ‘A Farewell to Ice’, argues what is not being communicated enough is the fact the call for action on climate change is no longer about saving polar bears (not that it ever specifically was). It is about saving the human race. The ‘future generations’ narrative is also unhelpful. Psychologists have long-established that humans (and apes) will always choose a small gain in the short term than a greater gain in the long term –  be it with respect to getting one banana now or five later, or with respect to driving the kids to school in a comfy SUV rather than emitting less in the hope they might have a safer future.

The ‘doomsday is near’ narrative is one which is in vogue in some parts of the scientific community (which should be worrying in itself). Clearly such an approach, seen to be advocated by many ‘whingy environmentalists’, is not the way to proceed, no matter how much truth it may or may not hold. In the face of disparity comes the turn to denial and/or ignorance. Such ignorance is a contributor to the ubiquitous ‘disconnect’ between everyday actions and their environmental impacts. This refers to the disconnect between boiling a kettle and the CO2 emitted to generate the required electricity; between having cute pets and eating emission-heavy meat.

But we should not be too quick to lay blame for CO2 emissions. This has historically been the approach of many environmentalists and the result is highly polarising. It is much more productive to provide solutions than to go around blaming people.

THE MOVEMENT WON’T START ITSELF

Millions of journalists, bloggers and activists have already written about ‘what we must do now’, with a vast spectrum of ideas. This array is a manifestation of the lack of consistent narrative that I refer to. Here lies the Catch 22 of climate change: climate change is a problem requiring action on scales unseen before, but proposing a solution merely adds to the lack of consistent narrative, weakening the argument for action. Is all hope lost?

Of course not, and it is hope and positivity which provide the answer, as alluded to earlier. Hope lies at the heart of the many pieces written about the path forward. Only by aiming toward a better future can a movement ever be built. But don’t wait for the mass movement to emerge. Start it. Regardless of whether you go on big marches or arrange protests, you are part of the movement if you speak to people about the promise of acting on climate change. You are part of the movement if you do things in your everyday life like taking few flights, cutting down waste or eating less animal products. You are part of the movement if you convince just one more person that it is not good enough for the status quo to continue.

But just in case you do like to go to marches, there is one in London soon: https://www.facebook.com/events/747422225425039/.