About Me

My photo
My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sufficiency and Veganism: Is "Almost" "Enough"?

Note:  This will be cross-posted at my friend Gina LaRoche's blog, Seven Stones Leadership.  The two blogs and their audiences are quite different, though Gina and I both think that the theme of sufficiency -- something she often writes about and something I've implicitly discussed in several blogs -- is a common thread.  For those of you already super familiar with veganism, much of what is here is not new.  For some of her readers, however, it might be.  

Even since I started this vegan "thing," I've had this nagging question in the back of my head:  is what I'm doing "enough"?

The hard-core vegans -- those who NEVER eat any dairy or meat, NEVER wear any leather or fur or silk, NEVER eat any honey, NEVER wear any wool -- those people adamantly believe that my "almost" veganism (I wear leather shoes that I've had forever, though I haven't bought new leather since going vegan, and I occasionally consume dairy and honey) isn't enough.

Consuming meat and dairy is normative in American (and indeed, *most*) cultures.  So is wearing wool, eating honey, wearing silk, wearing leather, and for some classes, wearing fur.  It's not surprising, given how "normal" all of that is, that many people think vegans are, well, a bit nuts.

At its core, veganism is about not using animals for human use (other than for pets).  Hence the bans on so many things that most people don't even think about.

When I first heard of veganism, back in the early 90s, I wasn't terribly impressed.  The gal I met hid behind her dyed jet-black hair and talked in imperceptible tones.  I didn't connect at all.  I was already "mostly" vegetarian, though more for economic reasons than for any sense of the environmental degredation caused by factory farming or the inherent cruelty involved in killing animals for food.  (If you want a lazy way to learn about the true horrors of factory farming and the (hopefully) unintended health consequences this kind of "farming" creates, just watch the excellent documentary Food, Inc. or see my post, "Overwhelmed".  Not a bad idea to re-read that book you skimmed in high school either-- Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.)

Most of us know that as a species, we’re destroying the planet, using up natural resources, putting ourselves and future generations in literal and figurative debt. It is HIGH TIME that we all think of sufficiency, rather than excess or abundance, as one of our goals. 

One way to think of sufficiency is to consider how our diet choices have far-reaching consequences for both the environment and the lives of others (human and non-human).

Among vegans, the idea of sufficiency is much less talked about than the goals of "being humane" or "promoting animal rights" because, by definition, they preach a no-animal-products-ever hard line, which obviously goes beyond the mere goal of “sufficiency”. I've seen discussions among vegans on the use of worms and ladybugs in home gardens (both should not be purchased, according to vegans). I've seen discussions of how important it is NOT to use manure as fertilizer because it is an animal product produced by the factory farm system. (Yet, in my own experience, nothing is better than a little poop to get those vegetables to grow!) I’ve seen discussions of vegan condoms (honestly, I'd never thought about condoms in terms of veganism). I've participated in discussions of whether or not it's ethical to sheer sheep and use their wool (see "The Wool, Our Eyes and 'Truth'" ).

If you're wondering if some of this vegan stuff is going a bit too far, you're not alone.

But this leaves me wondering:  What *is* enough? I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to have this conversation with hard-line vegans because their entire philosophy holds that human use of animals is immoral and should therefore be forbidden.   Sufficiency isn't a goal for them.  Though perhaps it's a more politcally palatable and attainable goal for the vast majority of us.

I'm left wondering whether it's enough to have eaten meat only once this past year (as I did)?  Or for the rest of my family to have taken a less drastic approach and simply cut their meat consumption by nearly 50%, and to have switched from conventionally raised meat to that which is organic, grass-fed and free-range?  Is it enough that I have nearly eliminated by dairy consumption by switching to non-dairy milks and flax seed egg replacers in my home, though I allow myself dairy when outside the house?

Behind most of the facts that vegans often espouse lies a simple one that bears repeating, often: EVERY thing we do has a consequence.

Some vegans counter my "almost veganism" with a rather depressing idiom:  "Every raindrop thinks it doesn't contribute to the flood."  This point of view, obviously, is an anti-sufficiency perspective.  Others quote the philosopher Peter Singer, who wrote that "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we'd all be vegetarians."   Indeed, I have no doubt that a huge majority of people I know would rethink their meat consumption if they had to watch animals being slaughtered.   Others counter my almost veganism with a very true fact:  "Factory farming is neither sustainable nor humane." (If you watch Food, Inc., you'll KNOW, and this is why I've forced my family to choose different meats if they're going to continue to eat meat.)  Finally, other vegans put the reality quite bluntly:  "Meat is covered in poop."

OK, this last one is a *bit* overstated, but with all the E. coli outbreaks in the news -- look at the CDC website if you don't believe me -- we *should be* aware of how often our meat (and sometimes other food) is contaminated. The American value of efficiency -- getting the most bang for your dollar -- has led to unintended horrible health consequences.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote that "to light a candle casts a shadow". To live is to affect the planet. That much is human. But to live as abundantly, as extravagantly, as most Americans do – privileging efficiency over sufficiency – is, by definition, to be terribly wasteful and poor stewards of our environment.

How often do we eat out when we could have chosen to eat in? How often are our portion sizes ridiculously too big (especially in restaurants)? How many of us are overweight?  (The official statistics suggest that more than 50% of Americans are overweight -- THAT is NOT just genetics!) How many of us have too many clothes largely because they’re cheap due to being made overseas by grossly underpaid workers? How many of us are convinced that we “need” a new cell phone every two years even though our current one works just fine?

When we think of sufficiency, we have to be prepared to say we don’t *need* something. We don’t need a new pair of sandals just because the press says that last year’s model is outdated. We don’t need a medium scoop of ice cream just because the price differential between small and medium makes the medium a “better value”.

Similarly, we don’t need to eat meat every day just because that’s normative or because it’s relatively cheap (due to US subsidies of the industry, by the way --- read Skinny Bitch, too, or Eating Animals).

Sufficiency. Most people can get their head around this goal.

What, however, is a sufficient change in our diet choices?  

I'm a big believer in:

"The good is not the enemy of the excellent."

"A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step" (Chinese proverb).

I'd bet the planet and the animals and humans on it would all do better if people moved toward "almost vegetarianism". It's not veganism (arguably the "best" diet choice in terms of environmental impact and humane treatment of animals).  It's not even true vegetarianism.

But it’s probably politically more palatable and therefore more attainable.

And it may be sufficient.


  1. What an excellent post, Elaine. I think the vegans you have encountered are fundamentalists with an all-or-nothing mentality.

    What would happen if every American started eating meat only once a week? What kind of impact would that have?

    I don't think you are capitulating to anything. You are living in the real world, raising children, connecting with folks who don't share your sentiments about food and other stuff. We can't change the world unless we build bridges with other people.

  2. I am so impressed by your thoughtful perspectives on these issues! It seems there are no absolutes to this although so many try to make it that way. We have only ourselves to answer to. Each person is free to make choices. I don't think I have to be as "vegan or vegetarian" as the next guy. Wherever I am on that continuum should be enough. The fact that one is caring about and taking actions to make things better are steps in the right direction. Hopefully when they understand the implications of sustainability, they will choose better with that knowledge. Radicals of any group turn most others and moderates off. People cannot hear the real message because all they see are the crazies saying they want to protect life but acting with anger and violence towards others.
    Well said Elaine! :) April

  3. Excellent post, Elaine. I think there is too much of an emphasis on 'being' a vegan or vegetarian versus just eating a certain way as much as possible. I don't think anyone tormenting oneself over a pat of butter, or their choice to wear leather sneakers one owned before learning about its source, etc. helps animals in factory farms. I argue it's worse since many aren't open to learning about vegan food since they think they'll have to live up to restrictions associated with the label.

    It doesn’t help when some vegans oversell how easy their lifestyle is or when they put others down for not being as 'perfect' as they allegedly are. Most people's path to vegan wasn't overnight, but I find some so quick to judge others for not being on their level.

  4. OUTSTANDING post!! When will you start writing for pay????

    I could not read all of this b/c I have a wee tiny brain. But I more than get the gist of your message and I agree 100%. "The good is NOT the enemy of the excellent" is so true, so true! We as a society can make an enormous difference to animals, to our health, to the environment by switching from daily meat/dairy consumption to weekly, monthly or rarely. Each person can do his or her part and *the world will be a better place for ALL creatures.* Isn't that the goal, ultimately??

    As you know, I am not a vegan. And I never will be. I do believe that humans are worth more than any animal and that therefore the use of wool, eggs, etc is justifiable on some level. (I particularly have no problem with shearing a sheep for wool.) But as most reasonable people, I can see that factory farming is just cruel, that free-range cows contribute to environmental pollution in a myriad of ways, etc. I am not against change, not against improvement, not against limiting our use of these animals.

    But I think the MAIN reason to limit use of animals is health. Americans ARE fat! If Americans switched to a diet much higher in grains, veggies and fruits, obesity and its associated diseases would start to decrease dramatically. The only person who might suffer would be me, since my job is dependent on sick people! Ha!

    Keep up the great posts! And for God's sake, start publishing!


Politeness is always appreciated.