I’m writing to share a huge success story. A larger success than I ever imagined. Last year, 400 million fewer animals were killed in the U.S. than in 2007. That’s more lives saved in America than there are American citizens.
As a vegan I would love to take credit. But it’s not just vegans and vegetarians; in fact it’s not even mostly us. Most of those lives were spared by people who are simply eating less meat. It’s a known trend that as societies get wealthier they demand more animal products, but that trend is being reversed in the U.S.
There are various reasons that people choose to eat less meat. Animal rights, health, and the environment are among the top. Only about 3% of the U.S. is vegetarian, and only 0.5% vegan. But another 10% on top of that self-reports as vegetarian-inclined. (http://www.vegetariantimes.com/article/vegetarianism-in-america/ )
Some activist friends pooh-pooh campaigns to reduce animal use, or to use them in a kinder, gentler way. And to an extent I do too. As they say, we don’t want larger cages, we want no cages. But 400 million lives spared is hard to argue with.
Our efforts are working.
Sometimes it’s hard to care
When I shared the above story on Facebook, a vegetarian friend thanked me for sharing because of how isolated she feels in her semi-rural area. Knowing that it was paying off in sparing others a brutal life with a brutal end – the only numbers that really matter – is validating.
It can be really hard to keep going sometimes. It’s hard to do in a world where everyone else is doing something else and often critical of you. It’s a big deal to stand up for animals when we’re told we don’t need to or shouldn’t. And that’s probably true regardless of the cause.
A friend shared with me an article called “A Psychologist Explains Why People Don’t Give a Shit About Climate Change.” I really recommend it, but the gist is: We all want to believe that the efforts we are making, and the causes we are already supporting, are meaningful and important. Causes that we aren’t supporting, we want to feel are less important. We want to maintain our positive self image. Cognitive dissonance. This all happens below the level of conscious awareness.
And we also get easily overwhelmed with all the things that are going wrong with the world and all the things that we’re being asked to change. It’s better, according to the article, to focus on the positive. To highlight stories of ways people are making a difference. To show easy but effective ways that people can join in on a cause. “[W]e avoid doom, cost, and sacrifice framings, and talk about the issue in terms of opportunity […] we tell new stories of the dream, not the nightmares.”
The knowledge of all the lives spared last year was one of those dreams for me. As an activist – as a person who cares – I am all too aware of the nightmare. Over 9 billion lives are ended every year, either in the U.S. or to import meat to the U.S. The number is far larger worldwide, up to 50 billion. Change can feel impossible in the face of all of that. But then I read about the hundreds of millions of lives saved. Suddenly it feels doable. I feel re-inspired.
One of the biggest criticisms of veganism is that there’ll never be a perfect vegan world, so our efforts to change society would be better spent some other way. In the past I used to just cite Japan, which used to be largely vegetarian or pescatarian under the influence of Buddhism. It remained so for twelve hundred years until Japan was forcibly opened to the West in 1850. Many Asian cultures, notably India under the influence of Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, have had large percentages of vegetarians.
Those examples were my proof that a more perfect world is possible. Whole cultures really can change. But of course it all seemed so daunting. I’m not a Buddhist emperor from hundreds of years ago. What power do I really have?
There’s a small but growing percentage of the population that’s vegan, vegetarian, or vegetarian-ish. The numbers in America seem small but they’re pretty darn exciting. And with a population that’s 5% vegan and 8% vegetarian and rapidly growing more veg, Israel may become the first vegan nation. Recently, and not without controversy, the town of Palitana in India has become entirely lacto-vegetarian by law. Palitana is the holiest place in Jainism, a religion founded in India around the same time as Buddhism and committed to complete nonviolence.
Maybe that still seems too big.
In the Tao te Ching Lao Tzu said that a sage only does small things. What that means is that a truly wise person doesn’t attack an enormous project, but instead sets out to accomplish very small, easily-accomplished actions that can build up into something larger.
The difficult problems in life
Always start off being simple.
Great affairs always start off being small.
Therefore the sage never deals with the great
And is able to actualize his greatness.
The idea of working for a paycheck until I’m 65+ sounds like a lot. But I can go to work today, and when I wake up tomorrow I’ll probably find that I can go to work then too. When I’m running on the treadmill, thinking of the 20 minutes I have left is almost enough to make me give up. But I can ask myself if I have it in me to do another minute. And after that minute is up, I’ll see if I have it in me to do another one. Or if that seems daunting, I’ll see if I can take another step. When I forget to take the perspective of the small, which is all too often, I often won’t have the willpower to even start. Changing a whole nation, much less the world, is too much for most of us to wrap our heads around.
But our goal doesn’t have to be total world veganism. Or, I should say, that shouldn’t be the minimum acceptable achievement for us to say our efforts have been worth something. A story that’s stuck with me since childhood is the story of the boy and the starfish. In the story a man watches his son on the beach throwing washed-up starfish back into the ocean. The father criticizes that the boy can’t possibly save all the thousands of starfish on the beach, let alone all the other beaches of the world. The boy is temporarily taken aback, then throws another one back into the ocean. “I made a huge difference to that one!”
400 million individuals didn’t die a horrific death last year, and that’s because of people making an effort to change what and who they eat. Numbers like that aren’t pie-in-the-sky. It’s proof that change really is possible. That means at least 400 million animals in America will be spared next year too, and maybe even more if you want to think about trying vegan, vegetarian, maybe flexitarian.
“That’s more animals than are experimented on, hunted, used in circuses, puppy mills, and end up in animal shelters each year in the U.S.—all combined,” says Paul Shapiro, Vice President, Farm Animal Protection for The Humane Society of the United States. http://latestvegannews.com/400-million-fewer-animals-were-killed-for-food-last-year-because-people-are-eating-less-meat/
Ways you can help
The suggestion you’re probably expecting is to try out veganism. It’s the single most effective thing we can do to save animal lives and reduce climate change. (Environmental links at the end). But maybe you want to try something a little smaller, something bite sized.
- Meatless Mondays, or better yet, vegan Mondays. Try it yourself, suggest it at your workplace, recommend it to your children’s schools. It’ll be far better for your kids than what they’re probably getting now. And it’s a big movement where you can get plenty of recipes and support.
- Have one or two vegan meals a day. Vegan before 6 is pretty popular right now. Even if you love, love, love animals products, it’s just two meals a day. You can have whatever you want at the third meal, and I suspect you won’t even miss it. Meat, dairy, and eggs don’t have to be staples; they can be a treat that you enjoy once a day, or even once a week or less.
- Main ingredients vs. minor ingredients. When you’re first starting out, it’s a lot easier to avoid something like a hamburger, an omelet, or an ice cream bar than it is to avoid eggs in pastries or a touch of gelatin. You can work your way up to label-reading. Some people even consider themselves vegan (though I would contest this) if they only eat animal products that are 2% or less of a pre-packaged product because they believe buying such a negligible amount doesn’t increase the demand for and production of animal products.
- Vegan at home. One of the things that daunts people about trying out veganism or vegetarianism is the idea of trying to find something on a menu or asking friends and loved ones to cook something special for them at gatherings. I’ve found I can almost always find something on the menu, or ask if they can make something off the menu like pasta with marinara or a pizza loaded with veggies, hold-the-cheese. And at gatherings if you feel like a burden you can offer to bring something for yourself with plenty to share. But some people are going vegan at home and are more flexible when going out to eat. In their own domain where they control the pantry, there’s no temptation and no trouble finding something.
- Use small amounts of meat – view it as a seasoning rather than a main dish. In some places in China, less than a handful of meat might be added to a large pot of food just to impart some flavor to the whole.
- Incorporate some alternatives into your diet:
- Earth Balance is an easy switch and, to me, indistinguishable from butter, and it’s non-GMO and contains no trans fats. It’s not margarine. There are other non-dairy butters but this is by far my favorite.
- Non-dairy milk. You can use it for drinking, on cereal, and in cooking and baking. My personal favorite is almond milk but there’s also coconut, soy, hemp, and others. These are getting more and more popular and available, and if you’re lactose intolerant you won’t have to pop an enzyme pill to digest it.
- Vegan meats like Gardein and Field Roast are increasingly available and tasting more and more like their animal-derived counterparts. You can find vegan cutlets, burgers, hot dogs, sausages, and even shrimp and scallions. I encourage you not to think of these as fake, faux, mock, or imitation. Like tofu has been in Asia for thousands of years, they’re just delicious foods that you can enjoy for their own sakes without overly comparing them to other foods. If you find one that you like just as much as the animal-derived type, why not use it exclusively?
- The 30-Day Vegan Challenge. This is both a book and a subscription website. “Whether you want to improve your overall health, shed a few pounds, demonstrate your compassion for animals, or help the environment, expert Colleen Patrick-Goudreau gives you the tools and resources you need to make the vegan transition. Addressing your every question and challenge, Patrick-Goudreau holds your hand the entire time, helping you to break free from old habits and to experience lasting benefits – both tangible and intangible.” The website offers a free recipe on the homepage, no sign-up required. You might only do it for a month, maybe as a test of willpower or as a religious vow, much like some Buddhists make temporary vows of celibacy or Catholics give up something for Lent. And maybe you’ll find that you love it and want to go longer.
It was a little difficult for me to make some of these suggestions. I always hope people will go vegan. I rarely say it that way because no one likes to get told what to do, but I never want to put forward eating less animal products, or “happy meat,” as an ideal. But the fact is that vegetarianism, flexitarianism, and general eating-less-meat-ism is having an impact. The 400 million individuals that weren’t brought into this world last year just to suffer and die can’t be ignored. I may not consider it “perfect” but that’s 400 million individuals that won’t go through terrible suffering and death. That’s really awesome.
If you want to try any of these ideas, it’s always so much easier by planning ahead. It takes the impulse out of things when we’re hungry. Lately I’ve been preparing and freezing large meals ahead of time. It’s prevented many a binge at my local Indian buffet.
My soul food layered bowl recipe freezes very well, I’ve found. Maybe it’s not so much a recipe as a guide.
My friend Kimberly Steele made a blog commitment to share daily, simple, dirt-cheap vegan lunch recipes for a year. Her recipes prove that vegan meals don’t have to be complicated, boring, or expensive. Check out all 365 recipes.
Jar salads are trending hard. The idea is simple: layer salad ingredients in a canning jar and store up to a week. The way you layer them prevents the veggies from getting soggy. Dressing goes on the bottom, then the firmest, least-absorbent veggies. Next come the less firm veggies. Proteins like beans, nuts, and tofu can go next, and finally the greens on top. They can store for up to a week in the fridge which means you can prepare a week’s worth of lunches in not much more time than it takes to prepare one.
I avoided salads for a long time because I resented the stereotype that vegans eat rabbit food. And I never found them satisfying. I’d bring a salad to work for lunch, and by the time I got hungry I stuck the salad back in the fridge and went across the street to get all-you-can-eat Indian. But I’ve found that by planning my ingredients ahead I can make a salad really hearty and filling. I like to fill my salads with red beans or garbanzo beans, crushed walnuts, cucumber, shredded carrots, zucchini, bell peppers, chopped beets, and fresh mushrooms. I really hate cooked mushrooms but I find I like them raw. Adding some ground flax seeds will give you plenty of fish-free Omega-3s and adding chia seeds can reduce hunger. A lot of store-bought dressings and even many bacon bits are vegan. Make sure to pack plenty of leafy greens into the top because they’re the most nutrient-dense foods around. When you’re ready to eat, just empty it into a bowl and mix well.
You can also pre-prepare cooked meals and freeze in a canning jar, and thaw it out for lunch or dinner. I like to cook in huge batches, which isn’t much more time-consuming than cooking a single serving, and then freeze most of it in individual servings for later. Do that enough times and you’ll amass a large variety of meals. Make sure to label and date! Pair a thawed entrée with a thawed soup and a fresh salad (or layered jar salad) for a great quick dinner.
Breakfast can be pre-prepared too, from frozen home-made pancakes, to overnight no cook oatmeal, to smoothies that you chop and freeze ahead of time and blend up in the morning. Make sure to freeze your chopped fruits separately before putting them together into individual servings, so they won’t clump. Same goes for pancakes, though if I freeze a stack I’m usually able to pry ’em apart.
Maybe some of these ideas have inspired you. I know reading the huge success story at the beginning of this article inspired me. For me this article was half about sharing the good news along with some tips and suggestions, and half about demonstrating the idea that we can inspire more change with tempering the (very real, very necessary) gloom and doom with stories of people who are doing real change.
What are some ways you can present the causes you are passionate about in a way that inspires people instead of filling them with dread? What are ways you can try to head off our very natural response of cognitive dissonance? What are small changes we can inspire that hopefully lead up to even bigger and better things?
We don’t have to be perfect, and we don’t have to live in a perfect world, to really make a difference. If you try out these or any other ideas and slip up, forgive yourself and do better at your next meal. It’s a lot better than berating yourself and giving up. And it’s a lot better than doing nothing.
Environmental costs of meat: