Contribution to Earth Tongues, from The Ecological Citizen
by Dr. Eileen Crist
Eileen Crist is Associate Editor of The Ecological Citizen and an expert in sociology. Professor Emerita in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, she is the author of Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization, Against the Social Construction of Nature and Wilderness, and other hugely significant works on ecocentrism. As one of the founding voices in the Ecocentric Alliance, she focuses on protecting wildness from ecological crisis in an embodied endeavor to move humanity toward an ecological civilization. Significantly for us, her vision of an ecocentric world includes doing right by animals.
Despite a prescribing title, I am not inclined to tell anyone how to eat. I am inclined, however, to making a pitch for a vegan or plant-based diet. For those who wonder about the difference, vegan carries ideological overtones regarding animal rights, while plant-based is simply a statement about what you eat. I am going with “vegan” because I like the word and the spirit, though I disagree with certain slants of veganism. But I’m a card-carrying vegan who will never look back.
The truth is I was vegetarian for nearly 30 years before that, and never seriously intended to stop eating cheese. Like many, I was attached to the stuff. Later, I learned that cheese is mildly addictive — obvious handiwork of natural selection to get baby mammals to scream for their fix. Be that as it may, following personal and environmental convergences around diet, as well as my husband’s decision to go vegan, I became vegan in 2013. Within a year, I was a true believer.
The matter that often confuses dietary conversations is when a certain faction of veganism pegs meat-eating as inherently immoral: the argument being that it is in principle wrong to kill animals (or to use them in any way). This dogmatism, however, reduces to absurdity, for were we to consent that killing animals for food is immoral, it would follow that predators wrong their prey by killing and eating them. Yet predators are beautiful and good — every single one of them is amazing — and, as we now know, they make the world green and increase biodiversity (Eisenberg 2011). Since eating flesh is an aspect of nature’s order, it cannot be intrinsically wrong to do so, especially when that eating is dictated by a creature’s makeup and rarely violates the bounds of necessity.
There is, at the same time, a vegan perspective on killing animals that I find compelling: Namely, that if you desire to eat meat, you should be willing (at least sincerely in principle) to kill what you eat yourself. If you are not willing to kill the animals you eat, it’s the equivalent of saying: “Killing is nasty work. Or it’s ‘masculine’ work. I don’t want to do it. Somebody else can do it for me.” (Somebody else who’s on a miserable wage, to boot.) Of course, it is never easy to kill an animal which is why indigenous, religious, and spiritual traditions have always approached the matter with ceremony and prayer. But if you find it viscerally unpalatable or impossible to kill an animal, why should you have the right to eat flesh by externalizing an act you considerable unthinkable to someone else? Better go vegan or vegetarian.
The thing about vegan today is that everything happening around it culturally is fascinating. Just a few decades back, if you were vegan you were considered a freak — kind of borderline human. What’s happening now, on the other hand, is that vegan eateries are everywhere sprouting and mushrooming in all sorts of flavors. Vegans have all along been the gourmands that the Slow Food movement venerates, foodies of outstanding palates. Yes, it’s the vegans. Because the plant world (I include fungi as honorary members) is chock full of flavors and textures and their endless combinations, especially when we throw in the spices, herbs, and nuts, all (needless to say) also plants. Plant eating is wildly diverse and sensually extravagant.
Proliferating vegan establishments are vaunting the privilege to tantalize your taste buds with exotic, nuanced, delish, and nearly 100 percent guilt-free pleasure — topped with the cherry of high nutritional value. I am here specifically talking about vegan food that is free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, grown in nutrient-rich clean soils, preferably local, and cooked/prepared with love and attentiveness. Such food is relishing and wholesome.
Many things are being revealed in our time. For example, that humanity’s collective actions have changed the atmosphere and climate, and continue to impact both with mind-boggling oblivion. Also that we are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction event of the last 540 million years of Earth’s history but continue with mind-numbing stupor to wipe out wild places and beings (Ceballos et al. 2020). It has been documented, moreover, that glyphosate is in the rain and in most (industrial-society) sampled human urine, yet this has phased neither eating habits nor public policy. How is it that these cosmic-level events appear trifling by comparison to jobs, the economy, political wrangling, and celebrity gossip? It seems inscrutable that humanity could be so blind. Even so, this is not a judgement about humans. It is a judgement about the crass level of civilization that an anthropocentric worldview has produced: “For man has closed himself up,” William Blake discerned long ago, “till he see all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” The cavern is now collapsing, yet the chinks still prevent human beings from seeing that in nature lies their salvation and within their own bodies (also nature) lies the fountain of well-being.
Another revelation that has crystalized is that while humans are certainly omnivores, we do far better on the whole when our eating is weighted heavily toward the plant kingdom. We thrive on a diversity of plant foods (with perhaps some small amount of animal product occasionally on the side). The age-old term of “hunters and gatherers” needs to be corrected — for both political and empirical reasons — to “gatherers and hunters.” In humanity’s long Paleolithic phase, which spanned continents and millennia, the habits of human tribes intersected and overlapped in the nutritional primacy of women gathering plants, herbs, roots, fruits, nuts and such. A great diversity of them. To the extent that hunting, fishing, and scavenging contributed to what humans ate, they were complementary. We know from the shape of our teeth and the length of our intestines, from our color vision and our inveterate attraction to color, that we are largely plant-based creatures. We might salivate upon seeing a juicy ripe mango. We do not salivate upon seeing cows or elk grazing.
Cutting to the chase of the matter: If you abandon animal products and go vegan — as long as you eat a great variety of tasty, nutritious, colorful, and clean food — you start to feel fabulous. You stop getting sick. If you are taking meds, you might even find yourself weaning off them and feeling all the better for it. And no one has ever developed cancer from too many vegetables on their plate, while every additional serving of meat per week (especially processed meat) increases the risk. But there’s a catch to this too-good-to-be-true picture: you have to all but cease eating out and start cooking in. (Unfortunately the quality of the vast majority of dining-out establishments is wanting.) The next thing you may discover, if you like visiting the internet, is the sundry food connoisseurs on the worldwide web. Recipes rule the internet. For example, think of any three random things you have in the fridge that need to get used, and type the three food items into your browser requesting a recipe. You will be accosted by an embarrassment of riches. Humans are truly nuts about food. Thankfully, most food blogs have the feature “Jump to Recipe,” otherwise we’d be forever lost in the bowels of culinary homilies. My point: cooking-in (mostly) plant-based is healthy, it’s fun, and it’s the right thing to do for yourself and your family.
Give your body over to the plants. They deliver magical micronutrients and purifying fiber. They deep-hydrate the body suffusing it with a quality of juiciness, which amounts to the gift of youthfulness regardless of biological years. Bypass meat-heavy dietary fads: such eating will stiffen and dry you into old age.
The ecological footprint of vegan eating is far lower than that of omnivorous meat-eaters while vegetarians fall in between (Willett et al. 2019). It simply takes far less from the Earth to eat vegetables, fruits, and grains directly from the land than to pass the plant food through animals and eat the animals. By going vegan — or 80 to 90 percent vegan — we can vastly reduce the global livestock population. What a boon for the planet this will be! So much habitat can be freed back into a wild state, returned to the wildeors, pollinators, and thunderous herds of herbivores. Let’s envision, as an example, a huge chunk of the American prairie returned to wild herds of abundant bison. (Let’s say 50 percent of the prairie thus rewilded in accordance with the Nature Needs Half vision.) No, not so we can hunt and eat the bison, but so they can fertilize the prairie and revive the vitality, beauty, and abundance of wild grassland communities. As a boon for the human senses and spirit, and in honor of humanity as reverent witness of such extraordinary landscapes in the cosmos, we can create trail systems through the prairie where humans can be visitors who do not remain.
An amazing dimension of the vegan choice is that what’s good for the planet — and patently good for animals both wild and domestic — is also good for people. There’s something miraculous about that good-for-all alignment. After all, there was no necessity that it would be so — humans might have been outright carnivores. Yet not only are we not carnivores (just contemplate your lack of canines and claws if you have any doubts), we do not do at all well when we overeat meat and other animal products. So let’s say yes to that win-win-win alignment and return to the delectable, juicy, and healing habit of all or mostly plant-based eating. Just think fish for a moment. The vegan choice will enable the abundance of fish and marine life to return! (That abundance will also sequester carbon [Roberts et al. 2017].) So let’s stop eating fish — it’s full of plastic and mercury anyway — or eat it on very rare occasion.
The human body has extraordinary capacity for wellness, recuperation, resilience, and bliss. (By bliss, I mean a certain elation and vigor of embodiment.) However, human beings are unlikely to experience any of those things while they are putting the wrong food in their bodies. The wrong food includes many animal products — most especially those made by torturing animals in factory farms — as well as overeating those products, like Americans and Europeans do and now others following suit. Bad food results in ill health. Before ill health sets in, bad food yields sub-optimal physiological function and daily quasi-misery of body and mind. Eventual illness from bad food leads to dependency on modern meds, which compound the problem of quasi-misery by producing more ill health (“side effects”). The normalization of so-called side effects does not eclipse the fact that they are ill effects.
The modern pharmaceutical industry is a poster case of disaster capitalism. It parasitizes on the illness-producing effects of the modern food industry. Industrial (animal) agriculture enterprises get rich by making people sick. Big Pharma gets rich by making people “well.” Human beings become stuck in profound dependency on popping pills and injecting pharmaceuticals, while trundling along in day-to-day sub-function. Such sub-function is the story of our time, variously labeled: malaise (now a medical term), brain fog, (pre)diabetes, hypertension, bowel disorders, chronic allergies, attention deficit conditions, dementia, chronic fatigue, and depression and anxiety syndromes. All of this largely boils down to bad food and unnecessary pharma clogging and undermining human bodies. There’s nothing normal about any of it. May we decolonize our bodies from the ignorance and contamination that rule!
Within the human body, there exist supreme reserves for healing, as well as for vibrancy, energy, clarity of mind, strength of purpose, and feeling alive 95+ percent of the time. Modern people are deprived of this knowledge and experience that inheres within their very being — within the miracle of the body that is not only exquisitely orchestrated in its own workings, but abounding with “others,” such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. The human body is a skillful and complex symphony of self-cum-other working (it out) together. It needs nutritious and clean food (alongside a handful of other good habits) to thrive. Of course, the dominant culture likes to tout that modern medicine keeps people alive for longer. But if you aspire to genuine longevity and vitality — and not just to be kept alive in disabled or sub-optimal states — you will opt for neither industrial food nor its Big Pharma fix, but avoid them like the plague. They are the real pandemic of our time.
If you go vegan (or mostly so), opting largely for organic and local fare, you will be part of a movement to heal the planet. On the way, you will discover — as long as you eat healthy and diverse food prepared slowly and with love — that you heal many of your own ailments of body and mind. It is a stupendous convergence: the healing of the planet and the healing of the human are one. Thus this essay’s plea to inquire into the vegan choice: Give yourself the better part of a year (or at least 40 committed days in a row) to reap and feel the deep benefits. If you end up like me becoming a true believer in the plant-based choice, please leave dogmatic mannerisms and badmouthing predators to the side. These do not serve the vegan cause but rather undermine it.