I am a work-in-progress vegan.
This is how it started:
When I was sixteen, and in the middle of those huge changes adolescents go through, three things happened at once. I left the Catholic Church; I discovered Zen Buddhism; I turned vegetarian (meaning I stopped eating meat and fish but continued to eat dairy products; and eggs).
In the wonderful Pali text The Dhammapada, which still lives by my bed 40+ years on, in Juan Mascaro’s translation I came across aphorisms 129 and 130. These confirmed my lifelong sense that animals matter as much as humans, and have their own rights and needs on a level with ours.
‘All beings tremble before danger, all fear death. When a man [sic] considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill.’
‘All beings fear before danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill.’
Not much later, I took a Buddhist precept – a vow – to respect the lives of all sentient beings*, and not eat them.
I confess, during this time, to having made my living, as a single parent, as a shoemaker for 14 years. Yes, I knew it wasn’t congruent, but I felt I had no choice other than to go on social security. When meat-eaters asked me about the contradiction (it was always meat-eaters, not fellow vegetarians, interestingly), I would say glibly: ‘I’m using up the waste you carnivores leave behind you.’
It was true, in one way, but also an avoidance of a deeper truth, which was I was contributing to the demand that turns the wheels of the meat industry.
When I had finally made the transition from shoemaker to writer and counsellor/workshop facilitator I felt the kind of relief that comes when you know you’re ‘living right’.
And, deep down, I also knew that true congruence would have to have me cutting animal products out of my life as entirely as possible, one day. I used to tell myself that it would happen when my (lifelong 100% lacto-veggie) daughter left home.
It didn’t. The usual excuses applied: what would I use in tea if not milk? How could I bear to omit cheese from my diet?
Then about 5 years ago I managed it; I discovered that life without cheese and butter and yogurt was manageable; and that tea with soya milk tasted better, eventually, than with cows’ milk.
BUT I continued to eat eggs (needless to say free range only); and if I was out I would occasionally eat dairy, given that most of my friends sourced their foods ethically (organic, free range, etc).
Then I lapsed back into lacto-veggie in France last year.
So here I am, trying to pull myself back up by the proverbial boot-straps, knowing that I will fail sometimes; knowing too that there are costs to eg soya (more in another post); and that, until they wear out, I will continue to wear my lovely old and well-looked-after leather footwear that is the product of animal suffering. The alternatives, made from the fossil fuel industry, have their own problems: the oil industry; lack of biodegradability (two hundred years before a pair of plastic shoes starts to break down??); lack of breathability; toxic materials; animal glues; aesthetics.
I’m investigating this further, and will report back.
Wool I shall continue to wear for the moment; synthetics raise exactly the same issues as for petrochemical-based footwear, and living where I do I see how the sheep in the fields suffer under a burden of heavy wool in a hot summer. I also see how they are shorn anyway, but the fleeces are simply left to rot on the ground. I may change my mind on this.
Honey: a worker bee lives for only about eight weeks, and in that time produces just a half teaspoon of honey. In America, bees are exploited enormously for pollination purposes, and in the process billions die or are killed. I can use apple juice concentrate as a sweetener; or if I don’t mind food-miles (I do; more anon), then there’s maple syrup from the still-living tree, or agave, or date syrup.
Eggs: tricky. My partner, a lacto-veggie, and I discuss this a lot. We share the cooking and eggs are a big part of it for him. (He can cope with not incorporating cheese and milk in his meals as he can add them separately.) I can buy eggs from a local free range flock (I see them in the fields). Is this OK? – Ideally, no. More anon on this too. My inner jury’s out on where I go from here.
The purpose of this is to share my experience, the difficulties, the truths, the joys, the recipes, the alternatives.
* Sentient beings: in my philosophical view, all beings are sentient because all beings are conscious – in their own way.
For the purposes of this subject, I am using ‘sentient’ to mean animals. birds and fish who can suffer physiologically, via a central nervous system or pain receptors, and also experience distress, i.e. have some cognition of suffering too: pain, fear, or anxiety.
Eggs: such a definition may also include eggs as ‘sentient beings in potentia’. But for me it has more to do with the suffering of the hen (even if free range forced to lay hundreds more eggs than she would if her usual two or three clutches of eggs hatched, with a cost to her calcium content at the very least), and the day-old male chicks that are killed in the process of keeping egg production going: by gassing, by suffocation in binbags or by mincing alive – yes, alive. And we won’t even start on the conditions for battery hens.
Bees? – it’s to do with exploiting them by eating the stores they lay up for themselves to survive the winter, and then cheating them by stealing the honey and feeding them nutritionally-inferior white sugar instead, which has the effect of weakening their immune systems over time.
Many people say: ‘Well, what about plants? Are you saying they aren’t sentient?’ The answer is no. However, we don’t know that they suffer, and we have to draw the line somewhere, or die ourselves.
Linda McCartney said she wouldn’t eat anything with a face. That works for me; but I’d extend it to say I don’t want to be involved in the exploitation of anything with a face, which rules out dairy and also, truthfully, eggs. (And honey; not that it has a face, but is made by a something with a face for its and the hive’s health, and survival.)