The Visibility of Vegetarianism: Show me the herbivores!

The Visibility of Vegetarianism: Show me the herbivores!

Would you rather change your car or change your diet? Why not both?

As climate skeptics become more heavily outnumbered, concerned citizens are trading in their SUVs for hybrid cars, exchanging incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents, and sorting their garbage into separate piles for recycling, compost, and waste. However, if you ask the average omnivore to give up meat for the environment, you should be prepared for a strong reaction. Human beings are very attached to their meat habits; as Americans, most of us eat meat every day, some with every meal’we consume an average of 200 pounds of meat, fish, and poultry per person every year!

So, why is vegetarianism such an unwilling sacrifice for most people? We don’t need meat to live or be healthy; I’ve abstained from meat for 10 years and I’m still standing. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the production and consumption of livestock, a larger portion than the entire transportation industry. Many vegetarians base their dietary practices on personal beliefs, ethics, and health reasons; now, herbivores may use ecological considerations to support their choices. If you drive a Prius instead of a Hummer, no one will argue that you are lowering your ecological footprint and pursuing a greener lifestyle. As a vegetarian, I’ve often been met with criticism; many people want to know why I bother, since I’m only one person. However, if we don’t believe in the power of individuals to make change, then what can we believe in?

During the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, increased attention was given to food choices and their connection to climate change, largely thanks to the followers of Ching Hai, the leader of a Buddhist activist group that promotes vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. Throughout the conference, Ching Hai’s followers braved freezing conditions to distribute meat-free sandwiches and hot vegan drinks to COP-15 attendees and other protesters clustered by the entrance to the Bella Center. The activists’dressed as chickens, cows, and pigs’certainly increased the visibility of vegetarian interests at the conference. The question is whether their “alarmist pamphlets” and “outrageous claims” did more harm than good. As vegetarians, we must find a way to organize effectively, without seeming radical. We have power as individuals, but much more strength on a global scale if we can form effective coalitions that present vegetarianism as a healthy, ethical, ecologically-responsible life choice.

When the Prius was first introduced, it was lapped up by environmentalists and bleeding hearts; now, over 1.2 million models have been sold globally. At first, this hybrid car was mocked in the media and popular culture. South Park dedicated an entire episode to the affected mannerisms of Prius drivers, from speaking with their eyes closed to enjoying the aroma of their own flatulence. Sometimes I think meat-eaters have similar views of vegetarians; they view us as preachy, pretentious, and self-righteous. With new data about the ecological costs of livestock production, we may be able to prove them wrong and find a place for vegetarianism and veganism in mainstream culture.

Photo courtesy of Gregory Williams