Who, What and Why
If slaughterhouses had glass walls,
everyone would be a vegetarian.
Sir Paul McCartney 2
Millions of people around the world, of all ages, races, and religions, are vegetarians. College students, grandparents, babies, Gen Xers, teens, middle-aged working men and women – we abound in every age group and most nations. Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Rastafarians, atheists, Hindus, agnostics, yogis, humanists, Buddhists, Jains, Daoists, Bahais, and more – we come from every system of belief. Like humans everywhere who are passionate about their convictions, people who have made the commitment to live without eating animals generally love to share their ideas and experiences.
Perhaps you, too, are thinking of adopting a way of eating and living that embraces vegetarian ideals and leaves a soft footprint on our planet. If you have questions about what such a life might be like, a few keystrokes will have resource information rumbling across your computer screen. Virtually every library will have print material and comfy chairs for curling up and reading. Lots of DVDs on various aspects of vegetarianism are available for order or for viewing on line. One of your best resources may be face-to-face conversations with vegetarians themselves. Go ahead – ask us!
What does ‘vegetarian’ mean anyway?
At times, we’ve all probably encountered someone who states he’s a vegetarian right before ordering the wild salmon dish for dinner ... or is a vegetarian except for chicken ... or except on holidays or when they’re visiting their family. For anyone first thinking of joining the veg ranks, this can be confusing. What does the word mean, anyway?
In the world of vegetarianism, we find many degrees of conviction, but let’s define our terms clearly here and state that vegetarians don’t intentionally eat any form of conscious being, ever. No living being, that is, that has the ability to try to save itself when it senses it is about to be killed, for even plants have been found to be conscious to some degree. Vegetarians don’t eat other sentient beings, not when we’re home for a break from college, not when eating out in social groups we’d like to blend with, not when we’re hungry and the menu doesn’t show even a token veggie meal, not to please the boss who’s just ordered a steak dinner. People who eat some degree of meat in a few situations may be ‘partially vegetarian’ or ‘working on becoming vegetarian’. Many who have been committed vegetarians for decades initially made these kinds of choices before taking the bolder step of full commitment. Others felt ready to simply begin fully engaged.
Ovo-lacto (or lacto-ovo) vegetarian: Derived from the Latin terms ovum (egg) and lac (milk), this phrase refers to those who include eggs and dairy products in an otherwise plant-based diet. They may eat a plate of eggs, foods such as pastas and desserts that contain eggs, and any kind of dairy product.
Lacto-vegetarian: This category of vegetarian includes dairy in their diet, along with an abundance of grains, nuts, vegetables, and fruits. Lacto-vegetarians do exclude eggs, whether fertilized or unfertilized, from their food choices. They believe that eggs are potential vehicles for conscious life.
Vegan (pronounced vee-gun): Eating a completely plant-based diet is a commitment that vegans make to themselves, the animals they care about, and the planet we all share. A vegan diet and lifestyle does not include dairy products of any kind nor eggs in any amount, and sometimes also restricts the use of honey (derived from the labour of bees), the buying or wearing of leather for any purpose, and the use of cosmetics and products that have been tested on animals. As the vegan population expands, we’ve seen an increase of food products, books, magazines, and websites specifically for them. Restaurants around the globe are also offering vegan selections. This small but growing movement is motivated by a variety of beliefs but is more and more propelled by people who see evidence that living as vegans leaves the lightest possible footprint on our Earth.
At every level of the natural world we live in – from the lowly worm to the lordly lion – the life of one creature ends violently so another creature can survive. A gentle deer struggles and gasps its last breath held by the jaws of a tiger; scavenging hyenas and vultures snarl and snap at each other over the remains of carcases killed by other predators; to supply the meat industry, human beings wreak death upon millions of defenceless creatures behind closed doors and walls with no windows, so none should see the suffering caused. We live in a violent world. We cannot escape this fact.
But we can choose how we live with it.
A vegetarian lifestyle is an affirmation of compassion and an action we can take to support wellbeing and nonviolence in the world at large. By choosing vegetarianism, we opt for a life where we cause minimal suffering to creatures as well as having minimal impact on our planet’s resources. When living creatures are killed for food, do we really think they die willingly? Do we think they don’t suffer? Imagine a blade put to our throat, or witnessing the blows to the heads of our companions in the slaughterhouse. Would we not be terrified and try to escape? While animals may lack the higher thinking powers of humans, no one who has ever loved a pet believes they lack emotions.
Decades of studies of animal behaviour have reshaped our understanding of their intelligence and emotional complexity. Ongoing research continues to surprise and humble us, reminding us more than ever that we have much in common with nonhuman animals. Consider the contributions of such noted scientists as Jane Goodall, the English ethnologist who spent decades studying and teaching about the social life of wild chimpanzees, and Irene Pepperberg, whose work with the highly intelligent African Grey Parrot she named Alex reshaped our beliefs about the mentality and vocal abilities of birds.
Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, writes convincingly from both a scientific and experiential perspective in his book The Emotional Lives of Animals as he makes the case that mammals, fish, and fowl have complex, emotional reactions to their worlds.3 Most of us have seen animals – perhaps our pets, perhaps zoo animals, occasionally animals in the wild – display curiosity, anger, sadness, boredom, or joy. Now science is reinforcing the belief that animal lovers have had for untold years – animals have rich interior lives.
When a person chooses to be vegetarian, he or she acknowledges that interior life and steps consciously away from participating in the violence that so often surrounds even the raising and always the killing of these creatures. As committed vegetarians, we sweat the small stuff because we do not want to be connected to the suffering of other conscious, feeling creatures. In other words, we pay attention to details such as whether or not Thai curry has fish sauce (almost always!), yogurt has gelatin (made from animal by-products such as hooves, skin, and bones), or a formerly favourite salad dressing is made with mayonnaise (which contains eggs). Yes, this level of detail takes some getting used to, but it actually gets routine pretty quickly, as one learns what to reach for and what to leave alone – which brands of barbecue sauce are made without anchovies, cheeses without rennet, and breads without eggs.
We pay attention to these details because doing so is important as we work to nurture compassion. It doesn’t matter that anchovies can be less than one inch long; how big does a fish have to be before we let it live? It does matter that rennet comes from the stomach of a slaughtered calf and that eggs are meant as a vehicle for the life of a chick rather than food for a human.
Compassion is important to us. If we sow fields of bitter suffering, can we expect harvests of sweet happiness? Can our wellbeing be built on the misery of other sentient beings? Cause and effect, action and reaction. By acting with kindness, we receive kindness – even if we sometimes receive it eventually rather than immediately. What we give and what we get are inseparable. Understanding this principle, we realize that eating animals involves us in violence that is harmful to both ourselves and those animals.
The meat on our plates rarely comes from creatures that have led natural, tranquil lives but has instead been carved from animals that have suffered in life and died in pain. Knowing this, how can we continue to choose palate over compassion?
So we make the commitment, firm in our head and heart that being a vegetarian is who we are. We figure out how to eat, play, work, socialize, and live through the ups and downs and changing circumstances of our life while being vegetarians. Doing that generally requires time, trial and error, asking for advice, experimenting with different foods, delighting and rejecting, realizing that what worked one month when life was steady may well need adjusting the next month when life takes a tumble. At some point, we realize that we’re solidly, thoroughly, vegetarians and can’t imagine being anything but.
How do we, our families, and our communities benefit from this way of life? How does being vegetarian help us become more peaceful, healthier, and more conscious? Hopefully, this small book provides some answers to these questions; our own lives surely provide many more. Here are five important ways being vegetarian is good for everybody and everything:
- Planet Earth and its inhabitants benefit tremendously, beautifully. Imagine a resurgence of the rainforests that are currently being slashed and burned, cut and scraped away at the rate of more than one acre per second. Ninety-one per cent of this destruction is done to clear land for animal farming, including pasture and animal feed crops such as soybeans.4 Imagine cleaner streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, and more abundant water resources. Untreated manure from cattle just in the United States in one year alone is enough to cover eleven of the world’s largest cities – Tokyo, Paris, New Delhi, London, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, New York, and Berlin – plus the countries of Bali, Costa Rica, and Denmark!5 This huge quantity of faeces and raw urine, full of environmental toxins, seeps into our soils and waterways. In addition to polluting water through waste runoff, livestock production gulps inordinate amounts of water. A pound of beef requires up to 2,500 gallons of water, but a pound of tofu only 250–300 (estimates for all foods vary somewhat from source to source). Our Earth is feeling the effects of humanity’s addiction to eating animals. Imagine immediate alleviation of many of our most urgent environmental problems, including global warming, solved or hugely remediated by turning away from feeding ourselves on the carcasses of other beings.
- Our own health is enhanced, especially if we are eating a vegetarian diet rooted in whole, unprocessed foods. Many rigorously conducted inquiries – for example, The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted 6 and The Oxford Vegetarian Study 7 – have shown that vegetarians have significantly reduced risks for cancers, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. Eating meat, fish, fowl, or eggs puts one at risk for food-borne diseases and exposes consumers to toxins as well as a formidable variety of nasty parasites. While vegetarians are by no means exempt from the diseases that plague people all over the world, we are afflicted with significantly fewer ‘big killer’ maladies.
- The suffering quotient in the world is dramatically reduced when we no longer create demands for the raising and slaughtering of meat. Classically, humans have rationalized meat production with the belief that the animals involved have no souls and have very limited intelligence and emotions. We’ve told ourselves that they do not suffer, or if they do, their suffering doesn’t matter. We’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that many animals’ lives are spent in confinement – often extreme confinement – ending in brutality. Any feeling person who honestly examines the manufacture of meat must at least squirm with discomfort when the facts become clear. While farm animals are treated differently in different areas of the world, the increase in factory farming worldwide means that conditions for the vast majority of animals raised for meat are absolutely miserable, and their deaths are often unnecessarily cruel. We recognize that we can choose to step away from that cycle of cruelty.
- When we decide to live our ethics with every food choice we make, we experience deep satisfaction. That satisfaction grows and spreads within us. We realize that we are no longer making choices from just the point of view of self-gratification, but from compassion. We begin to see ourselves differently, for we are different. Our choices and actions now resonate with our ethics, and our sense of self becomes more whole. We have used compassion, reason and logic to guide our actions, and by living within these chosen parameters we support our own wellbeing and happiness, as well as the wellbeing and happiness of life around us.
- When we choose to live our values and stop eating other creatures, we reduce the burden of cause and effect that is the natural law of our universe. The word “karma” is in the everyday vocabulary of many people around the globe and is intrinsic to our discussion of the benefits of being vegetarian. The karma resulting from the taking of plant life – which has limited consciousness and volition, as opposed to animal life with its higher awareness and will – is much less severe.
Remember the child who knew that picking a flower would not get her in as much trouble as hurting a cat, which in turn brought about less punishment than harming a person? That same understanding applies here. We exist on what can be visualized as ‘a ladder of consciousness’ with humankind on the top rung and plant life on the bottom. This concept is easy to understand simply by observing how life around us operates every day. Among all species, only humans have the ability to do advanced reasoning, to question our existence and wonder about the universe, to seek to understand the mysteries and meaning of life and death.
While taking any life at all has consequences, killing lower forms of life naturally results in fewer consequences. The karmic burden of eating plants is analogous to climbing a steep mountain wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and hiking boots – easily done – while the karmic burden of eating animals is like making that climb with boots of iron and a very heavy backpack – virtually impossible. We want to divest ourselves of the weight of karma resulting from our participation in the deaths of animals.
So why be vegetarian? The answer is straightforward: for the Earth, for our health, to reduce the suffering of animals, to increase wellbeing and compassion, and to lighten the heavy load of karma that killing piles upon us. We can choose a way of living that benefits every aspect of life.