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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.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


A number of months ago, when I wrote a  post about how overwhelming it is to attempt veganism and to avoid foods now known to be problematic (i.e, all stuff with high fructose corn syrup) one of my friends commented (privately, I believe), that I should be careful, or I'd end up an alien in my own world.  (I was proposing giving up ALL products with high fructose corn syrup, all peanut butter and all products with GMO ingredients, AND being vegan and buying exclusively organic.)  At the time, I thought that comment was a bit dramatic, but now I'm not so sure.  He may be right; trying to do all these things will box me into a lonely, limited corner.  I suspect it's a huge reason why more people don't attempt veganism, or at least don't attempt it consistently. 

The ONLY vegans I know are you guys here on the internet.  I have no "real-life" vegan friends.  I find myself frequently in situations where I have to make non-vegan choices.  For instance, when shopping for sports equipment for my kids, I'm constantly confronted with leather.  Should I not let them play?  That choice seems ridiculous.  Should I just search higher and lower for the elusive non-leather baseball and soccer stuff?  I've tried the latter and had mixed results, both in terms of quality of items and in terms of ease of finding them.  One kid ended up with leather shoes because, after going to four stores, nobody had a non-leather baseball shoe in his size.  Maybe there's actually a hidden group of vegan parents of baseball players buying out all the shoes for 10-year-old boys.  I dunno.  I certainly haven't met them.  I suspect there's just a lot of 10-year-old boys playing baseball. :)

The latest alienating -- literally -- experience is the struggle I'm having over WHY to be vegan, and to what extent.  The most vocal (and academic) vegans emphasize that there is no sufficient reason to justify continuing disparate treatment of non-human animals (Thank you, Tim, for your words).  We don't *need* to eat them; we can get what we need from non-animal foods.  Despite that we know they suffer pain and know they're alive, we continue, as a society to treat them as objects -- as if they existed purely for us (for food, for clothing and for entertainment).  We know that over centuries we've bred them such that they meet OUR needs but would not exist in nature as they are (many domesticated animals no longer know how to breed and suffer horrible physical oddities because, for instance, we've raised them to have more meat than they "should" have or to produce more milk than they would need to have for their own young).

Despite the vast evidence -- philosophical, scientific and logical -- that one can present for WHY animals should no longer be treated as they have been, most people find it "extreme" to suggest that the reason to eat a plant-based diet is NOT just for us (it's better for the environment and our health), but that it is better AND MORE ETHICAL for the ANIMALS.  As soon as I even suggest that I'm starting to think that way, I feel as if my friend's warning has come to pass -- I'm an alien in my own world.  I'm an extremist and a weirdo.

The pull of cultural and religious and social norms is amazingly strong and those are the only arguments, really, that people can use to justify their continuing to eat meat and dairy.  And those norms are, as all cultural and religious and social norms are, relative -- they are not simply "right" or "wrong" but instead are what we are used to.

And the more I think about WHY people do what they do, the more I think -- even as a sociologist -- that simply doing what we're used to doing is not a sufficient reason to continue to do so.

But I still feel like an alien.


  1. Thanks for these brilliant reflections, Elaine. I would love to see this published to a larger audience.

    I am a carnivore, and have nothing to add except to say that thanks to you I currently sitting here eating couscous with vegetables, including kale, as well as with chickpeas. I added a tad of parm cheese and some hot sauce and couldn't be happier.

    This is progress.

  2. I know what you mean about the alienation... it's always true with being counter-cultural. This is why I think building community among vegans is so crucial. Alone, we will never create sufficient demand for non-leather shoes for our kids, but eventually, collectively, we will.

    I have a similar dilemma with my horse-hair cello bow. I know now that synthetic hair is coming around but I'm making do with this non-vegan bow. Thank goodness rosin comes from pine trees but I don't even want to know what kind of glue is holding my cello together or what kind of varnish covers it. My "new" cello is second-hand, and when I become a wealthy and virtuous player, I'll get a carbon fiber cello like Yo Yo Ma, but... yeah that's a ways off LOL

    Anyway, we all do the best we can. Keep up the good fight :)

  3. Study the history of farming and animal husbandry and you will find a tradition rich in respect for all living things and their interdependence. Certainly there have been cruel abuses and these are deplorable and avoidable by selecting meats and dairy carefully.

    I think that the main reason why people do not choose organic products is the COST. Go to any Whole Foods market (or similar emporium) to see that the vast majority of customers are well-heeled, young white people. What does this say about the practicality of organic products for the rest of us? Plenty.

  4. Thank you, this is spot-on. My family and I did choose to attempt veganism for ethical reasons. It is something we wanted to do for quite some time, but I'll admit that overcoming norms is hard and we had several false starts. Given that we all grew up on meat and dairy (and the rural town we live in is in dairy-farm country), making the transition is easier said than done. Now that we have jumped in with both feet it is going very well, but we have already discovered that our family members and friends are less enthusiastic. They think we're very weird, and while it might be something of a cute novelty to them to rib us about it at every opportunity, it quickly becomes alienating.

    I would like to mention an important structural barrier, as well: cost. We support 5 people in our family on a very modest income, and attempting veganism is more expensive than I had ever anticipated. Actually, part of me suspected that our grocery bill would go down since we were no longer purchasing expensive meat or animal products....silly me. There is one, yes one, organic co-op a reasonable distance from our home. Yet the steep yearly membership fee is not something we are really willing or able to afford right now. We can visit a neighboring city for more choices and did so last week, but driving 90 miles roundtrip for groceries and other necessities like shoes for the kids is a bit absurd. It almost feels as if the ability to embrace veganism is a bit of a privilege for those who have better financial means. I know there will be many times when I must make non-vegan choices because there is not anything else readily available or we simply cannot afford it. That's such a shame. I suppose this is the same reason why fast food places proliferate in low-income areas.

  5. elaine~ i had a family gathering yesterday - a barbecue - where my brother-in-law made jokes about ensuring he poured ample quantities of lard over my veggie burger so it would cook better and my sister's mother-in-law claimed that a whole sect of benedictine monks had all contracted alzheimer's because of their vegetarian diet.

    when we make the choices we make, we're choosing to step outside our culture and say "no" to the nightmare. most people don't have the courage to do so because as you suggested, they're afraid of being alienated. they, in my mind, are the aliens;)

    but, as difficult as it is sometimes, we're all human beings trying our best to navigate our way through life, some of us taking the easy route and others, carving their own path. i have to constantly remind myself to bring my compassion for these people to the table as i do effortlessly with animals.

    having seen many many people make overnight changes once something finally hits them, whether it be disease or witnessing animal abuse, i'm convinced we're evolving very quickly away from that alien culture.

    thank you for always investigating deeply. i love your journey.

  6. i've been fortunate i guess in my endeavors. i am friends with many vegans and vegetarians. but yet, i started at 14 (i'm now 31) so i've had time to grow into it and always made friends with people of like mind. and i purposely pick communities and cities when i move that have a sustainable vegan community and vast amount of resources. with your article you made me realize people aren't in the same situation as i.

    but know you're not alone! and you're not an alien. everything has a learning curve and i think it's hard until a groove is found. but good luck and don't let anything get you down!

  7. Hi - I completely agree that people have trouble with the view that eating animals is unethical. For some reason, there's very little mainstream acceptance that people should not eat animals because it's wrong. What do you think it is that makes people uncomfortable about this?

    But I disagree that cultural, religious and social norms are the only reasons people can give for eating meat and dairy. There's strong evidence that a vegan diet is better than the typical American diet (as you've pointed out), but I don't think there's convincing evidence that a vegan diet is the healthiest or ideal diet. I believe eating meat (organic, local meat) is healthy, mostly because humans have evolved eating meat. Our bodies are designed to digest and use the nutrition from meat.

    I also don't believe that eating animals is wrong. But I am absolutely capable of tolerating YOUR belief that it is!

  8. the misanthrope part made me think of you. you might like the entire interview? http://www.chow.com/stories/10872

  9. Just read the post and had 2 cents to offer...the ethical argument for "veganism" is bothersome to me after wrestling with it for a while myself. I feel that though the effort to be a vegan for ethical reasons is well-intentioned and very admirable in its own right, it is pretty narrow in perspective. The question I asked myself was, how much effort should I give to being vegan for ethical reasons when there are human animals that suffer, too? Should I spend the extra cash on vegan shoes/food, when I could give it to efforts to ease the suffering of hungry, homeless, sick human beings? For me and my family, we're happy to have a broader view, even if that means that we don't focus all our efforts on one cause.

  10. Darn it! I just wrote a long, relatively smart comment to all of you and somehow blogger deleted it! DARN IT!


    1. To Anonymous -- I don't disagree with you that at its best, animal husbandry has a history of appreciation for animals and interdependence. I have never doubted, for instance, that my grandfather, who ran a small family farm, truly loved his animals and appreciated their unique personalities and attributes EVEN though he eventually killed some of them for food.

    But what farming has evolved (devolved?) to is so grotesque and so completely wacky AND SO PERVASIVE that, even if one does not go vegan for ethical reasons, it is still a logical POLITICAL step toward hopefully stopping a sick system. When we buy food, we farm by proxy (Wendell Barry's words, discussed in Foer's Eating Animals). (I said so much more in the original post, but now I'm tired...) If we buy meat and dairy and do not know FOR SURE how it came to be, we are participating in a horribly unethical, cruel system. Watch Food Inc. Read Foer's Eating Animals. Though there are arguably a few ethical farmers out there (discussed in detail in Foer's book), they constitute less than 5% of the ENTIRE market. This is not a purely "vegan" answer to your concern, but hopefully you can see that what farming was (or even could be) and what it currently is is alarmingly, disturbingly disparate.

    I also don't disagree that Whole Foods and similar places cater to a wealthy crowd. I shop for *some* of my groceries at such places but ONLY buy what's in season AND what's on sale. In other words, I use such places selectively. Also, many big markets (Costco, Walmart, Target, Fred Meyer, etc.) now have organic stuff and it's DEFINITELY cheaper to shop at those places than at Whole Foods! Elephantjournal.com recently had a nice article called, I think, "Organic is Not Just for the Rich". If you shop selectively and smartly, you *can* afford some organic food. And there's research suggesting that some foods are more important than others when it comes to organics. For instance, if it grows IN the ground, buy organic (carrots, potatoes, beets, etc.). If you eat the skin (apples, tomatoes), buy organic. But something like a banana or an orange? Buy conventional. The purists will say organics always matters; most of the rest of us pick and choose. Do the best you can. Eating more fruits and veggies is better for you period, EVEN IF NONE of them are organic.:)

    2) Angela -- The fact that you are attempting veganism when it is so inconvenient for you is AMAZING. It is so much more impressive for somebody like you to be eating a vegan diet than for somebody traipsing around LA or NYC. You bring home a very important point: it sure is easier to do this in some places than in others.

    3) Michelle - If I were ever faced with the choice of feeding a person or buying a relatively pricey pair of vegan shoes, I'd feed the person and go buy a cheaper pair of non-vegan shoes or just get by with what I already had! But, I sincerely believe that if we don't work hard to change our relationship to animals and the environment, there will be no more hungry and homeless to worry about. We'll all be gone. Read Foer's book, or watch Food, Inc., or read the well-publicized UN report, etc. Factory farming has got to go...

    4) Anna -- if it were just about nutrition, I would have reverted to selective meat eating because I *do* agree that meat can be healthy and that people have evolved to eat it (and I miss it a little). But the point of this post is that the more I think about it, those are insufficient reasons to continue to eat it.

  11. Thank you for this well writtenn post. I am in about the same place you are. I try do the best that I can in the world in which we live and make the best choices in the situation I am confronted with. I too have kids that play ball :) And,I live with three meat eaters who luckily are supportive of my choices. My kids are learning to eat more veggies and actually think about the choices they make. They have both expressed interest in vegetarianism!

  12. I've known two vegans ... Elaine and Joe. Both are incredible people and all the more incredible because they made a choice to eat and think outside the mainstream carnivore culture. I've never felt judged by Elaine or Joe. They just set an example and are willing to talk about it. That's very cool. I'll probably never stop eating meat but that doesn't mean I haven't learned a lot from these thoughtful friends.

  13. The ethical argument for veganism is quite strong.(Most) everybody agrees that causing harm is morally bad. 99.9% of our exploitation of nonhuman animals is unnecessary, by definition. And therefore, since causing harm is morally bad, we should not exploit animals unless it is absolutely necessary. Veganism, therefore, logically follows.

    The health argument has been refuted. According to the ADA, veganism IS healthy at all stages of the life-cycle. Regardless of what we "evolved" to do. The point, then, is NOT that eating some meat is "healthy", but that veganism can be JUST AS healthy. (Arguing against that point these days is like arguing against evolution.)

    We have been slipping into "organic" this and "organic" that throughout this thread. But note: one does NOT have to eat organic food to be vegan. The (HUGE) fallacy in the argument, then, is making cost-comparisons between ANY omnivorous diet and an "organic" vegan diet. Thank you Elaine for pointing that out.

    Now since the ethical argument is SO strong, we have a moral dilemma. We exploit animals on an unimaginable scale, and yet, there doesn't seem to be a justification for 99.9% of that exploitation (because it is unecessary). So, us vegans DO FEEL quite alienated at times: here is an unbelievably unethical system, and WE are the only ones who seem to be challenging it consistently.

    But remember, slavery would not have ended without that first vocal (and no doubt quite alienated) minority. In my opinion, then, it is better to be in that minority, alienated or not, than in the majority, participating in something that is NOT ethically defensible. As Peter Singer always argues, being ethical is hard at times.


Politeness is always appreciated.