Michelle Schaefer © March 17, 2019
Message boards and comments sections are full of a handful of questions repeatedly asked of vegans. The most common, of course, is, “Where do you get your protein from??” Men often worry they will become too thin. (Men need MEAT!) Women, too thick. (All those CARBS!) But recently, there’s been an expansion away from body-centric concern into the moral sphere. Why, carnivores wonder, do so many vegans love to eat ‘fake meat’? And if a vegan noshes on chick’n nuggets, ‘shroon burgers, and not-dogs all day long, isn’t that a clear indication that they really just want to eat the ‘real’ thing? Following Mind If I Order The Cheeseburger? author Sherry Colb’s edict of taking seemingly ridiculous questions seriously (though you won’t find a response to the ever-absurd, “Can vegans have oral sex?”*), here are some answers that may prove satisfactory to inquiring minds.
VEGANS LIKE BARBECUES, TOO: FOMO 101
Maybe vegans just don’t want to miss out on Every Single Summer Cookout their friends have. Perhaps vegans occasionally enjoy the company of other humans, and don’t want to be excluded from the Superbowl Sunday bash just because they won’t be sucking down chicken’s wings with wild abandon. So they bring a bag of FRuffalo Wings and try to blend in. Veggie Burger as social lubricant? Wouldn’t be the first time a human’s tried to make socialization a little easier.
A BURGER BY ANY OTHER NAME
Ask anyone schooled in adoption, and they will tell you the use of the term ‘real’ mom to indicate ‘birth mother’ is a great big fat NO-NO. Even in lay society, we’ve come to know, accept, and enthusiastically understand this. The same may be said about referring to animal products as ‘real—fill-in-the-blank’ (burger, milk, cheese) and ‘fake.’ Take the example of a homemade mushroom burger, mixed with salt, spices, and breadcrumbs or vital wheat gluten. There is nothing fake about it. It’s an uncomplicated food source, shaped to be convenient for a modern busy human. It’s a plant-based something—it’s just that that something is shaped like what we’ve come to know as a burger. So it’s a plant-based burger—not a fake burger. If you think this is wrong, think of pie. Pie is usually round, whether you but the adjective ‘pizza’ or ‘blueberry’ in front of it; yet you’re not likely to confuse one with the other. The recent lawsuits by Big Ag against calling plant-based milks ‘milk’ is indicative of desperation on Big Ag’s part, not genuine confusion on the consumer’s part. And to anyone who would argue that plant-based burgers are the stuff of scary modern food science: that ‘real’ burger you’re enjoying is actually a Frankenfood congloberate (sic) of up to 1,000 ground-up land animals, food coloring, and saline, so chill with the righteous indignation already. (And stop accusing vegans of being sanctimonious; meat-eaters are just as bad or worse.)
Rocky Mountain Oysters are bull testicles, and no one in Colorado or elsewhere who chooses to eat them is chewing away on those deep-fried balls, confused that they’re swallowing a saltwater bivalve mollusk. So relax, Big Ag. Consumers aren’t as dumb as you look when you pull your ‘can’t call it milk’ lawsuit stunts.
WHICH CAME FIRST: THE CHICKEN SALAD SANDWICH, OR THE EGG?
But the real reason some vegans love ‘fake’ (ahem) meat is simple: humans love to eat handheld, high-protein food. We want to walk and eat, drive and eat, watch sports and eat. It’s tough to do any of those things if the food of choice is an arugula salad with pomegranate seeds. So it’s not that vegans are trying to be more like meat eaters, it’s that humans like convenient food—and vegans like convenient food that didn’t involve any bloodshed. Read Carol J. Adam’s Burger, and prepare to be astounded. Hint: we’ve liked handheld protein-rich foods for a really long time. Just ask the Earl of Sandwich, i.e. John Montagu, circa 1762. No one wants to leave the gambling table for a bite when the cards are hot.
Whether as a means of blending in with our carnivorous compatriots, proudly downing a plant-based option le familier, or simply embracing a smart and natural transition in food trends, finally, vegans can have their protein-rich ethics—and eat it, too.
* Oh, for goodness’ sake, YES.
2026: Year Zero?
by Michelle Schaefer, MA
WE HAVE SEVEN YEARS BEFORE YEAR ZERO
Scientist and engineer Dr. Sailesh Rao, who achieved his PhD from Stanford, was instrumental in the development of the internet in the 1990s, is the founder of Climate Healers and an eminent vegan activist, aims to create a vegan world by 2026. The year of choice is not random. According to a Living Planet report from 2014, “Population sizes of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—have declined by 52% over the last 40 years.” Add to that some fancy calculations involving linear extrapolations, and you are looking at a prediction of 100% of wild vertebrates dying off by Year Zero: 2026. As in seven years from now. (For more details, see climatehealers.org/facts.) Though the ‘amphibian apocalypse’ is thought to be caused by the release of an ancient fungus, Dr. Rao says “Climate change is a threat multiplier, which makes other causes such as this ancient fungus more potent.”
Dr. Rao urgently reminds us that we are facing something that we, as humanity, have never faced before. He states, “Humans currently kill more animals in 4-12 hours than all the humans who ever died in wars throughout human history put together.” There is a huge ecological toll on all this killing, and it goes something like this: Industrial Animal Agriculture destroys land with over-grazing, deforestation, hyper-use of pesticides, antibiotics, and water use (the amount of water it takes to raise one cattle for beef could float a battleship). According to Scientific American, the poisons of Big Ag get into rivers and thus, the ocean, creating ‘dead zones,’ or oceanic zones so low in oxygen fish cannot survive. When oceanic life can’t survive, algae blooms, which the EPA says causes acid rain and potentially severe air pollution. Land degradation kills off wildlife and the lungs of our planet—trees. The Co2 that was sequestered by the trees gets released into the atmosphere, and the ozone layer becomes compromised .
Considering the startling redistribution of biomass in recent history, it’s fair to say that the loss of biodiversity on our planet should land at the top of our ‘things to worry about’ list.
WHAT IS BIODIVERISTY, AND WHY DO WE NEED IT?
Biodiversity refers to the wide variety of life on earth—from phytoplankton to fungi to fish to wolves to humans. Though scientists have identified over 1.75 million species on Earth, most also believe that number to be about 0.01 percent of all species that have ever existed. In other words, species are dying off faster than we can discover them. Every living thing on earth depends on other living things to survive. This irrefutable interdependence of life on life is really what we mean when we use the term biodiversity. Megafauna refers to large animals (such as humans, livestock, and wild animals) weighing in at anywhere between about 100-22,00 pounds. What would happen if our planet’s biodiversity were to disappear? We would have no food, no clean water, no medicine, and no oxygen. Obviously, biodiversity does more than help us live happy, healthy lives. It’s directly responsible for Life-with-a-capital-L. Since every living thing on Earth requires water, it’s important to appreciate the role biodiversity plays in naturally cleaning water. Clean water would not exist without good soil, which traps particles as the water seeps deeper and deeper into the soil’s layers. Micro-organisms and bacteria further break down contaminants and nutrients, which naturally purifies water. Joseph Poore, a zoological research scientist at the University of Oxford, determined that the global land currently used for livestock production is about 1.3 times the size of Africa. According to a recent article in Forbes, Oxford researchers have determined that
animal agriculture is the number-one contributing factor to wildlife extinction worldwide. Given the prolific use of pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and pesticides, as well as ‘waste lagoons’ (literally leaking toxic lakes of feces and urine), it’s easy to see how compromised our usable water levels are, and how that alone may contribute to the tragedy of dozens of species going extinct every day. It’s also easy to see how important the goal of a global adoption of a plant-based diet truly is, and why Dr. Rao is earnest about his Vegan World 2026 goal.
ARE WE EXPERIENCING THE 6TH MASS EXTINCTION?
Many experts say yes.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “Because of their sensitivity to environmental changes, vanishing amphibians should be viewed as the canary in the global coal mine, signaling subtle yet radical ecosystem changes that could ultimately claim many other species, including humans.”
Since the creation of Earth about 4.5 billion years or so ago, there have been five mass extinctions. The most recent happened about 66 million years ago, when the dinosaurs died off (due to an asteroid that hit the Earth). For her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert (of The New Yorker) traveled the world and met with respected scientists who warily point to events such as the destruction of many coral reefs (including the Great Barrier Reef) due, at least in part, to agricultural runoff. Coral reefs are to the ocean what the Rainforest is to land. They are the lungs of the sea. And they’re dying—just as the Rainforest is. This does not bode well for the rest of the living creatures on this planet, including the most successful invasive species of Earth’s history: humans. In fact, the most terrifying and hope-giving aspect of what may very well be the 6th mass extinction is that humans are the direct cause of it. Does this mean humans may be the cure, too? Not if it’s true that the extinction is already underway.
Fortunately, not everyone thinks it is. Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin points out that if we were in the middle of the 6th great extinction, it would truly be too late to do anything about it. Instead, he suggests we’re likely on the verge of a mass extinction, and a change in human activity could still prevent us from crashing and burning into non-existence. In an interview with Peter Brannen of The Atlantic, Erwin states, “I think that if we keep things up long enough, we’ll get to a mass extinction, but we’re not in a mass extinction yet, and I think that’s an optimistic discovery because that means we actually have time to avoid Armageddon.”
Still, the time has more than come for we humans, as Earth’s stewards, to take global action. Saying we’ll wait until we have to go to war over water before we’ll trade cow-burgers for veggie burgers is like saying, “As soon as I’m diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, I’ll quit smoking.” Timing is everything.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It’s been said that vegetarians and meat eaters have more in common then vegetarians and vegans. Speaking as someone who’s been all three, this statement seems accurate. In fact, Cattle-rancher-turned-vegan-activist Howard Lyman says “Milk [and its derivatives] is just liquid meat.” So what would happen if we all significantly reduced our meat and dairy consumption? The truth is, without quantum computing and a dedicated team of well-funded scientists working on this question, we cannot truly answer it. However, scientists are able to take what is already known, especially about carbon sequestration and trees, and come up with reasonable hypotheticals. We know that 220 Mt (metric tons) of Co2 can, over time, accumulate in one acre of mature forest, and that each person on earth (average of 7.6 billion humans) generates about 4.7 tons of Co2 annually. Multiply 4.7 times 7.6 billion, and you have humans emitting 35.9 billion tons of Co2 collectively every year. This is not great news. However, Dr. Rao and his team showed that 292.7 billion tons of carbon can be sequestered in native forests on 19.6 million Km2 of land, which is very good news. There are almost 150,000,000 Km2 of land on Earth.
In addition to recharging ground water, supporting stream flow, providing wildlife habitats, and reducing soil erosion, trees also lower global temperatures by shading surfaces and transpiring water. Basically, trees trap Co2, preventing it from reaching the ozone layer.
Planting trees is still the most cost-effective, simplest ways of sequestering Co2 from the atmosphere. But we can’t plant trees on land that is dedicated to animal agriculture (CAFOs, grazing, and productions plants), which is why a global vegan diet and commitment to afforestation and reforestation are key to saving our planet. Author Keith Akers explains. “In turning land back to nature, a considerable amount of ‘idled’ land would revert to forests, which would suck carbon dioxide out of the air.” According to Dr. Sailesh Rao, the amount of carbon we could sequester [through afforestation and reforestation of land currently used for animal agriculture] would be approximately equal to the amount we’ve put into the atmosphere since 1800. This would exceed the expectations of even the Paris Climate Agreement, which sought to keep global temperatures under 2°C above, and no more than 1.5°C above, what they were before the Industrial Revolution.
Even Big Ag companies recognize how unsustainable the current industrial farming practices are and have invested millions in plant-based foods in order to stay relevant and turn a profit. For example, Tyson foods has invested in both Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats (clean meat, also known as lab-grown meat), and animal-feed company Cargill foods joined forces with PURIS, the largest pea-protein producer in North America.
In other words, not only is it not too late to slow down or even reverse the climate crisis, it’s time to speed up our slowing down game. We’re not at Stage 4—yet. Let’s make sure we don’t get there.
Lovingly remind all your friends who still order meat and buy chicken and eggs at the store purportedly ‘because those animals are already dead, and it would be a waste to have them die fore no reason’ that every time they put in an animal order at a restaurant or buy meat, milk, cheese, yogurt, ice-cream, or eggs at the store, they are actively telling the store or restaurant manager, who tells the suppliers, who tell the farmers, who tell the cattle-grazing ‘developers,’ “Keep burning the Rainforest. Keep cutting down trees to make room for more cattle. Keep trawling the ocean and destroying the topsoil and obliterating wildlife habitats, because I want more of this food.” Many people still do not understand how what’s on their fork affects the future of children and grandchildren they care about. Help them understand, and keep more than just the frogs jumping for joy.
Activism can be a great antidote to feelings of helplessness, apathy, situational depression (as opposed to clinical), and vystopia. Don’t let anyone tell you to sit down and shut up like a good little vegan. Whenever possible, stand up and speak out like the magnificent vegan that you are. In the meantime, cherish the fact that as a dedicated vegan, you are already doing the single best thing you can do to improve the quality of our collective atmosphere—both literally and figuratively.
Michelle Schaefer has her BA in English, MA in Psychology, and is a certified vegan lifestyle coach & educator (VLCE). She is a freelance writer who has been featured in the USA Today network, bUneke magazine, Elevate Difference, on the Main Street Vegan Academy blog, and in American Vegan Society . VeggieChel.com
DESERT ISLAND VEGAN
© Michelle Schaefer
My amazing little cousin, B, who is in her late teens and finding her way through vegetarianism, occasional veganism, and perhaps some moments she refuses to disclose to her fully vegan cousin (that’d be me), recently asked me a question I hadn’t heard in over 20 years. I suspect one of her friends asked her the question, and she wanted to know what I thought. The question in question was, “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only eat rabbits, would you do it?”
Her inquiry brought back a flood of awkward memories from a time in my life when questions like this one were fired at me in regular, unapologetic intervals. I’m so glad those days are behind me, but she reminded me they’re still alive and well in many circles. So, to answer the question of whether I’d eat a rabbit if I were stranded on a desert island with nothing else to eat, of course—but I consider these hypothetical/philosophical (I think ‘philosophical’ is stretching things a bit, but hey) mental masturbatory exercises to be ridiculous distractions designed to take the burden off of the person posing the question from looking at the real question, which is the one they refuse to ask themselves: “What are you willing to look at right now, in this real world, where you actually live?” And, more importantly, “What changes are you willing to make in this oh-so-NOT-hypothetical life you’re living?”
The ‘desert island’ question calls to my mind sanctimonious little a-holes (I’m petty) who think they’ve figured it all out. If the vegan answers, “Yes, I’d eat the rabbit,” she’s labeled a hypocrite and her world views are dismissed entirely. If she answers, “No, I would not eat the rabbit,” she’s labeled an idiot and her world views are dismissed entirely. It’s all a loud smokescreen (bordering on verbal abuse in some cases) to keep purportedly-inquisitive minds (note: not remotely inquisitive in actuality) from considering, even for a moment, that every bite of food they take says something about their attitude toward their own health, the health of the planet, the exploitation of humans forced to work in animal agriculture (i.e., mostly undocumented immigrants), and, of course, the animals themselves. Examining those issues is infinitely more difficult than taking a quick glance at a hypothetical, so I get why the latter gets more play. But still.
When B asked me the desert island question, my first reaction was to roll my eyes. This was a mistake. My first metered thought was that these types of questions are primarily found in the teenage/early-twenties crowd, where a whole messa stuff is going on in the brains of these burgeoning adults in general. That was also a mistake, because such inquiries are in fact not at all limited to teenagers and twenty-somethings. There is a learning curve to anything new, and part of learning is clumsily plodding through the early stages before equilibrium and balance are achieved. Some people never get there, but I applaud anyone at any age who approaches new topics with genuine curiosity. The truth is, though some questions fired at vegans are designed to catch the vegan in hypocrisy or ‘prove’ that veganism is dumb, many seemingly-silly questions really are asked in earnest. In fact, Sherry F Colb, author of Mind If I Order The Cheese Burger?, tells us that we vegans must treat all questions seriously. Even if the question strikes us as illogical, we must answer with logic.
Do vegans have oral sex? How can you be vegan but also pro-choice? Don’t animals eat other animals? …are just some of the questions I have heard in recent years. Some of these discussions are more interesting than others. I want to remind my fellow vegan activists, though, that turning the tables and asking your inquisitor more direct, immediate questions is a powerful tool. Saying something along the lines of, “Would I eat a rabbit on a desert island? OK. I’ll be happy to answer that, and I’ll answer it honestly. But first, let me ask you a couple questions. Are you willing to watch this video I have [pulled up on my phone right now] about what really happens on dairy farms? How about we watch Earthlings together and have a discussion about it afterward? How familiar are you with the effects that current animal agricultural practices have on our planet? Do you know how much water it takes to raise one cow for her meat?”
I mean, I’ve been vegetarian for 23 years with 10 of those years vegan. I’m 47 years old. I travel fairly regularly. And I have never ONCE been stranded on a desert island. The animals trapped, tortured, and killed really don’t give-af about what we would do IF we were stranded on a desert island. They care about what we’re going to do while they ARE stranded in factory-farm Hell. To me, that is a much more important question to ask, to consider, and to act upon.
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Sometimes, I feel like my body is a real disappointment to the animals. Human animals, that is. But also factory-farmed animals. How is this? It’s all in the elevator eyes. Scenario: a new or quasi-familiar person and I get to talking, and the subject of my veganism emerges. “You’re a vegan?” they ask, not bothering to maintain direct eye contact. It’s in that moment—that elevator eyeball body scan—that I feel I lose some potential vegan converts. Their words are polite, but their eyeballs are screaming: “If you’re vegan, why aren’t you super skinny?”
Now, I realize that the media promotes primarily bullet-proof, supermodel, vegan-athlete types, and that’s cool. Those Sexy MFs do a lot of good for the vegan community, and if even one person goes veg as a result of looking at Natalie Portman’s hot vegan bod, then a-thousand-times yay. But what about the rest of the 99%?
I do believe veganism is the healthiest diet in the world, and I love to hear health-transformation and cancer-be-gone stories after a person’s given up the meat teat. I also enjoy gazing with respect and envy at hot, healthy, vegan bodies—but sometimes I want to scream: THAT IS SOOOOOO NOT WHY I’M IN THIS.
I’m in this because:
A) Animals are awesome
B) This planet is awesome
C) Veganism is a spiritual mindset that feeds both my body and my soul
Thus, I’m not all about raw veggies and oodles of quinoa. I can savor a tasty raw-veggies and quinoa bowl, don’t get me wrong—but I also love me some Daiya pepperoni pizza piled high with savory Miyoko’s cheese. (That’s called A Typical Saturday Night in my world.)
Now that I’m in my 40s, French fries and Coke—formerly common companions—are rare and special treats, but food (and plenty of it) is a non-negosh. Being hungry is not part of my veganism.
I’ll always be in love with food, and I’ll rarely say no to a vegan doughnut (or a bag of Dandie’s marshmallows, some Nutter Butters, Oreos, Ritz bacon-flavored crackers…). Committing to veganism-for-life has significantly deepened my love of food, because at this point in history, there are just so darn many amazing vegan food options.
These days, you can veganize almost whatever you can imagine. I’ve heard a handful of stories about folks who go vegan and gain a fair amount of weight—and I totally get why. Pre-vegan, food was riddled with subconscious guilt and remorse. Post-vegan, the soul’s been released. It’s like WE are the cows saved from slaughter, jumping and kicking in the field in joyful delight. Only we do this by buying ALL THE VEGAN FOOD and eating it with abandon, reveling in how delicious and cruelty-free it all is. Point is, size doesn’t matter. Passion does. I wasn’t a wraith as a meat-eater, so why would I suddenly become a wraith as a vegan? Wraith isn’t my body type, and obsessively eating arugula while rejecting flesh-based chicken parm hasn’t changed that. And that’s OK.
At any rate, if a person’s sole reason for ‘trying out this new vegan thing’ is to lose weight and look hot, veganism is destined to fail them because it’s being treated as a diet. Those ‘potential converts’ I think I’ve lost by not looking like Natalie Portman are not real converts at all; thus, my un-wraithish body is nobody’s failure. Veganism is not a diet. It’s a mindset that holds passion for compassion at its lovely center. That is what makes me feel juicy, alive, sexy, spiritual, light, happy.
To all vegan body types, all over the world: You are gorgeous. You are doing more to heal this planet than you’ll ever know. You are a passionately compassionate soul, and that emotional eloquence glows all over your face. You are an inspiration, and that makes you unassailably attractive. Thank you. You’re making the world a better place with your bewitching bodies of all shapes and sizes: curvy, skinny, voluptuous, fit, flabby, squishy, stick, thick, muscular, round, sculpted, wish-you-could-lose-10-pounds, happy-right-where-you-are, whatever. Your heartfelt life force will live beyond your body anyhow, no matter what it looks like. So go forth: eat plants, eat dessert, eat dessert again, and love your luscious vegan body.
All the vegan food!
Donut by Cinnamon Snail in NYC