Vegetarianism and the Environment: A Quest for Personal Responsibility

For those driven by a sense of personal responsibility towards saving the environment, the reasons to turn to vegetarianism may be compelling.

| May/June 1990

  • vegetarianism cartoon
    An anti-vegetarian cartoon from the 19th century warns against the dangers of a plant-based diet.
  • vegetable compound cartoon
    Another 19th-century satiric cartoon depicts the consequences of taking too many vegetable compound pills.

  • vegetarianism cartoon
  • vegetable compound cartoon

I've always tried to be good. As a kid, I made my bed whenever possible. Later I joined the Peace Corps—mostly for the adventure, I hate to admit. Now I do green things. I separate my garbage, grow a garden without pesticides, drive a fuel-efficient car. Trendy, but still not wholly satisfying.

Our times cry out for a larger response, an enterprise that matches the magnitude of the environmental emergency. Something in me envies Mother Teresa. She knows how to respond. I listen to Eastern Europeans, hoping to discover the secret of their recent miracles. "The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in…human responsibility," Vaclav Havel, new president of Czechoslovakia, tells the U.S. Congress. "We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility." Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in literature, writes in Granta: "What remains today is the idea of responsibility, which works against the loneliness and indifference of an individual living in the belly of a whale." I am left with a quest: What is the link between the environmental catastrophe and personal responsibility? At the end of my quest, I will find my answer in the link between vegetarianism and the environment.

"Try Vegetarianism"—But Why?

Try being a vegetarian, suggests my neighbor, who later drops off Ellen Buchman Ewald's Recipes for a Small Planet, first published in 1973. It turns out my neighbor is a "beady-eyed" vegetarian, her own description. She is perfectly willing to eat the flesh of fish and chicken, who have beady eyes, according to her, but not that of cuddly creatures with big brown eyes—not pandas, obviously, and not bears and pigs and sheep and certainly not Bessie and Bambi. Highly sentimental, I think to myself, and not much of a sacrifice, certainly not for someone who lives in Ralph Lauren country, where the calories count and the wine is white. She would appear perfectly normal in those circles. Her path is not exactly mine. So my search continues.

Try vegetarianism, insists my student, handing me a dog-eared copy of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, also first published in the early '70s and reissued this year with a lavish publicity campaign. Needless to say, she supports the animal-rights movement, and her advice is essentially ideological—that is, anchored in a new ethic for the treatment of animals. The vegetables in this kind of vegetarianism are beside the point, for they serve chiefly as an alternative to the killing and eating of animals. As one who has whispered sweet nothings to plants and seen them grow healthy and strong in response, I have come to doubt the moral superiority of cows over cowpeas.

The ideology of this rapidly growing movement still implies an evolutionary hierarchy, with the human species in the penthouse, the animal kingdom in the middle and the botanical world in the basement. It seems to me this value-loaded stratification is equally useful to those who enjoy eating meat. "Let's eat the losers," say modem Darwinists in pinstripes as they happily head toward a power lunch at a fancy steakhouse. They want it all—the meat and the potatoes—and make no bones about it. I admire their relentless consistency; it's just their environmental sensitivities that leave me hungering for something else.

Try eating vegetables, says my wife, whose interests include saving money on food and keeping me fit for work. She gives me a book also: The Vegetarian Epicure, by Anna Thomas, which first appeared in 1972 and is still available. Eating more vegetables and less meat speaks to my frugal soul. Dan Rather never says, "Romanian peasants are tightening belts this winter; some have only steaks for dinner and won't see a cabbage for months." When peasants are in trouble, they get vegetables, not beef.

Sherri Beyer
5/13/2009 8:39:32 AM

I read an article back in the early 80's about Burger King cutting down rain forests to get "rain forest" beef. I would love to read the article again but cannot find it. Can anyone help me?

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