Ve­gan­ism’s moral high ground needs some flavour to save planet

Toronto Star - - NEWS - Emma Tei­tel

For any­one who be­lieves cli­mate change is a gen­uinely ter­ri­fy­ing threat to hu­man be­ings, hur­ri­canes Har­vey and Irma haven’t just up­rooted houses and ir­re­vo­ca­bly al­tered land­scapes — they’ve al­tered our psy­chol­ogy.

This is be­cause post-Har­vey and Irma, cli­mate change is no longer a scary idea to be reck­oned with at a much later date. It’s here, right now, play­ing out in real time, if not out­side our doors then in our news­feeds and on our TVs. It’s un­der­stand­able, then, that the im­pulse to do some­thing — any­thing — to stall en­vi­ron­men­tal tur­moil may ap­pear much stronger to­day than it did a few months ago.

But im­pulse comes eas­ier than ac­tion, es­pe­cially when that ac­tion in­volves bid­ding farewell to baby back ribs and in­cor­po­rat­ing some­thing called cashew cheese into your diet. Yes, I am talk­ing about ve­gan­ism, the great green hope of planet Earth — the plant-based life­style that could, if ev­ery­one in the world adopted it, cut an­nual green­house gas emis­sions in half, but that, sadly, tends to in­volve a lot of flax seeds.

Calls to go ve­gan in the fight against cli­mate change have rung out far and wide re­cently, from academia to cli­mate ac­tivism to the restau­rant in­dus­try. Ear­lier this year, Ge­orge C. Wang, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of medicine at Columbia Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter, ar­gued in a col­umn for CNN that “adopt­ing a plant-based diet is one of the most pow­er­ful choices an in­di­vid­ual can make in mit­i­gat­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and de­ple­tion of Earth’s nat­u­ral re­sources.”

Last week, the Guardian editorial board de­clared that “ve­g­ans are of­ten un­fairly mocked” and “should in­stead be praised” be­cause of their life­style’s po­ten­tial to re­duce emis­sions. And this week, a group of veg­e­tar­i­ans took to the streets out­side a down­town Toronto pub to protest meat eaters, a type of protest that will one day ap­pear com­pletely or­di­nary, ar­gues celebrity plant­based chef Matthew Ken­ney.

Ken­ney told the Times in the U.K. last week that eat­ing meat will one day “be­come the new cig­a­rette — where it’s just not cool to con­sume it, at least not fac­tory-pro­duced meat. It may sound hard to imag­ine, but 20 years ago it would have been hard to imag­ine no smok­ing in restau­rants. It may not be­come il­le­gal to eat the way we eat now, but it will cer­tainly be passé.”

This is like ar­gu­ing that plea­sure will one day be­come passé. Ve­g­ans may have the moral high ground when it comes to treat­ing Earth with re­spect, and plant-based di­ets may be the key to slow­ing cli­mate change, but moral high ground is, I sus­pect, ul­ti­mately mean­ing­less if you’re ask­ing peo­ple to give up what is ar­guably the great­est plea­sure in their lives: the food they love.

Re­search shows that if they have to choose be­tween the two, many peo­ple choose food over sex and the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple on this planet are not ve­gan. Ac­cord­ing to sur­vey data pub­lished last year by on­line per­sonal chef mar­ket­place Mi­umMium, nearly one third of re­spon­dents said they’d choose the best meal of their lives over sex. Ac­cord­ing to an­other sur­vey con­ducted in 2013 at Columbia Uni- ver­sity, 42 per cent of re­spon­dents (all of them col­lege stu­dents at the school) said they’d give up oral sex be­fore they’d give up cheese.

I know how they feel. If I’ve ac­com­plished an im­por­tant task or met a dif­fi­cult goal, my re­ward is al­ways a hunk of un­pas­teur­ized cheese. I would sooner lose a limb than aban­don this re­ward sys­tem be­cause, be­sides my fam­ily and friends, eat­ing cheese is hon­estly what brings me the most joy in life.

Granted, I would prob­a­bly give up cheese in or­der to avoid a cli­mat­e­change-in­duced nat­u­ral dis­as­ter, but the re­al­ity re­mains: re­quest­ing that peo­ple cut back on the food they love is no small thing. It’s ask­ing that they rad­i­cally re­duce the amount of plea­sure they ex­pe­ri­ence in their daily lives; it’s ask­ing too that they rad­i­cally al­ter fam­ily tra­di­tions. No turkey at Thanks­giv­ing, no brisket at Rosh Hashanah. (Ab­sent th­ese mouth-wa­ter­ing roasts, some fam­ily din­ners may get vi­o­lent.)

If ve­gan ac­tivists are se­ri­ous about get­ting peo­ple to give up an­i­mal­based prod­ucts, they should drop the moral high ground ar­gu­ment and in­stead trans­fer all their en­ergy to ad­vo­cat­ing for the pro­duc­tion of le­git­i­mately de­li­cious and af­ford­able ar­ti­fi­cial meat, à la the crit­i­cally ac­claimed plant-based ham­burger re­leased by Im­pos­si­ble Foods last year that sold for $12 at New York restau­rant Mo­mo­fuku Nishi. The plant-based burger (that bleeds!) has since at­tracted ma­jor in­vestors, among them Bill Gates and Hong Kong busi­ness mag­nate Li Ka-shing. And what do you know: it’s ac­tu­ally sup­posed to taste re­ally good, and re­ally meaty.

The ve­gan ar­gu­ment will suc­ceed, I pre­dict, if it shifts from “you’re do­ing what’s best for planet Earth” plat­i­tudes to “you’re do­ing what’s best for planet Earth at no real loss to your taste buds.”

Un­til then, peo­ple will turn to their an­i­mal-based com­fort foods in times of tur­moil, even if such food ac­tively con­trib­utes to that tur­moil. Be­cause for many of us, a life with­out cheese, or a sub­sti­tute that ac­tu­ally tastes like cheese, sim­ply isn’t worth liv­ing.

And I’m sorry, but the cashew spread just doesn’t cut it. Emma Tei­tel is a na­tional af­fairs colum­nist.

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