My sister started it, which is ironic, as she is now about as vegetarian as Hannibal Lecter, but when we were teenagers she went vegetarian, and then, after leaving home and joining a squatter community in London, vegan. I mocked her fairly heavily about it, but I was a bullying brother anyway, and would have mocked her for something.
Then, after I’d grown up a bit, although not much, I met a girl who was out of my league, really, but who put up with me for the better part of two years, and she was veggie. She was very beautiful but a little facile and I discovered a couple of years ago that my family couldn’t stand her; not even my sister, who is hot on women being loyal to one another. I suppose she was a little smug, but I was a little up my own arse, so that may have been what made it work, at least for a while.
Anyway, vegetarianism wasn’t an alien thing to me by the time I reached my twenties. It just didn’t seem to be for me. I was wedded to the idea of being normal, or, at least, of not being freakish, or something. It didn’t hurt that my mother is an excellent cook who makes really lovely stews and roasts and meat gravies, and I suppose you love what you know.
One experience had undermined my commitment to carnivorous gluttony though, piercing even my self-satisfaction, and that was my first full time job. For three months in the summer of 1985, a couple of years before I got together with my trophy girlfriend or was challenged by her vegetarianism, I worked for a company called Sappa Chicks, who “produced” day old chicks for the egg and meat market, and assisted farmers in the rearing and exploitation of them. They had a ‘hatchery’ in Fornham All Saints, and, that summer, every weekday morning, I drove my first car, a Mark 1 Escort that had cost me £400, out there at four o’clock to meet the ‘field staff’ vans, in which we’d travel round East Anglia. Our job was to supply the bulk labour for the farms, for most of whom chicken rearing was a sideline. They fed, watered and, nominally, cleaned out the birds, and we went in for the purposes of vaccinating them, debeaking, loading them onto transport for slaughter, or transferring them into battery cages from litter huts: tens of thousands of the company’s living product at a time.
The farmers weren’t paid all that well to farm the chickens, so they didn’t put too much effort in. The litter often didn’t get changed, and sick birds were left among the, – well, – healthy would be too strong a word, but the as yet undiseased. So, after a couple of weeks of use, the litter huts were usually pretty appalling.
I hated being in the chicken huts. In the litter ones, the litter the birds were supposed to live on soon became a rubbery shit cement. If it wasn’t cleaned out at least once in the month or so that the birds spent in there before being moved to the battery cages, two diseases would break out: cocksy and staffs. Cocksy was an infection of the crop; staffs, an infection of the bones and joints. Even back then, thirty years ago, they were being bred and fed to gain weight far too fast for their strength, so staffs would floor them if they got it. That left them sitting on the shit cement, exposed to the dirt and the cold of the floor; pathetically resigned but still horrified by their predicament, craning their necks, on the lookout for predators they couldn’t escape. It usually fell to us to weed out these poorly ones and ring their necks.
I passed the test of doing my first killing, and earned the respect of my more experienced colleagues. They weren’t hardened men: they understood that some people weren’t suited to that sort of work, so when I did take a diseased, filthy, ruined bird in my arm, handling it gently and kindly, right up to the moment when I grabbed its legs in one hand, looped two fingers of my other hand round its head, and pulled and twisted, they said I’d done a good job, even though, as it started to flutter and convulse in its death trauma, I dropped it to the floor in disgust.
Compared to the battery huts, however, the litter huts were places of pleasant calm. Nothing really can describe the repulsive collision of utility and spite that the design of a battery hut represents. They are long buildings, and they are full of shit dust, so that you can’t see from one end to the other. The racks of cages go from a foot or so off the floor to above head height and the alleys between them are a little wider than a man and a half. We’d either be taking the birds out, six to a hand, to carry them to the door to be vaccinated, or we’d be carting them to a waiting lorry to be taken for slaughter, when they’d reached the end of their useful lives as egg layers.
Our presence, and the panic of the birds we were mishandling, and their wailing, heightened to a more frantic coda by their renewed terror and agony, roused the rest of the birds from the clucking torpor of their accustomed level of hell to a refreshed and sharpened panic. We would try to not panic the birds; to work as quietly as we could, but within five minutes of our starting in a hut, the cacophony would be deafening and heart breaking. We were not supposed to carry a bird by a single leg, but it allowed us to carry more at a time, and time is money, so… As I staggered along one of the runs, with my shoulders aching from the weight of the terrified creatures jerking in my grip and trying to raise their heads to peck at the hand that was pressing their already wire-cage-mangled legs in a new type of joint-crushing torment, it dawned on me that I must lead a good life, because I knew now the form my personal hell would take.
They do scream, by the way. It’s clucking, obviously, because that is the vocal physiology they have. But clucking is expressive. If you pet a hen, and treat it gently, and sit it in warm sun, it will make contented sounds. If you torture it, as it was my job to do, it screams.
I’m ashamed to say that I might have got used to it, if I’d stayed. I’m equally ashamed of the fact that the reason I left wasn’t a crisis of morality, but the utter outrage, as it seemed to me, of starting work at 4 am. I was seventeen and, daily glimpses of damnation aside, in some ways, it wasn’t a bad job. Working in a gang of men is a good experience for a young, shallow, uncertain teenager. In several good ways, it did ‘toughen me up’ a little. On the down side, it scarred my soul with a conscience debt I will never outlive, and it confirmed me as a committed smoker, but it also gave me the opportunity to visit and work with some communities who wouldn’t have welcomed me in any other circumstances: farm families on the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire fens whose lifestyle wasn’t completely changed from the way their grandparents had lived at the end of the nineteenth century. I particularly remember a South African immigrant farmer, who’d come to Cambridgeshire to a take over the farm he’d inherited from his great aunt: she’d been a widow whose husband had died on National Service in the fifties. His wife brought us tea in a delicate tea service on a plate silver tray, and they treated us as honoured guests. His huts were immaculate, and his chickens were disease-free, but he only reared them; he wasn’t interested in egg huts. His pride was the thousand acres he was rotating between wheat, barley and sugar beet, making more money in a year than he had made in two decades on the veldt.
Insensitive and self-absorbed as I was, I did give up eating chicken as a result of that job. The men prided themselves on not being put off it by the work conditions, and I steeled myself to continue eating fowl, despite the faint scent of shit that would rise in my memory whenever my mother had cooked chicken, but a particular event finally tipped me over the edge and I had, apologetically, to decline any more of it. We had a colleague; an irritating weed of a young man, who had that indifference to being liked that is the hallmark of the really weird. His most annoying habit, among many, was that he could not take a pull of a cigarette without blowing elaborate smoke rings, with a look of considered connoisseurship that belied his vapidity. He was also incapable of saying anything without an edge of spite. He was, in his immaturity, a fully polished facsimile of whoever he treated as a male role model: I always imagined it was a creepy step dad who had ‘taken him under his wing’, and in partnership with whom he spent his evenings unsubtly humiliating the barmaid of his village pub, before rolling home to torment his mum. The contrast between the appearance of this physically underdeveloped apparition and the affected tone of wisdom and experience in which he couched his venom was creepy and alienating. He was tolerated but also despised. We closed ranks out of a collective disgust.
One day, when we had stopped for lunch, he pulled out from a large Tupperware box a giant turkey drumstick, and blithely dug into it. I didn’t say anything, but our charge-hand, Steve, who had struggled with his irritation with the weed for weeks, muttered “filthy bastard”, and I was glad of it, because it meant I wasn’t being over-sensitive. This was in ’85, remember, so, given that I gave up chicken and all other fowl as a result of that incident, that means that my first self-imposed food taboo is now thirty-one years old.
I left that job to work in a hamburger shop, a Wimpy, of the style that aped McDonalds. My soul debt to tortured animals was mounting. It had many of the same virtues as the chicken job: it exposed me to people I wouldn’t otherwise have met and the hours were better, but the pay was truly pathetic and I didn’t know how to get out of the trap of hourly paid work that really only paid pocket money. Eventually, to my parents’ well controlled glee, I decided I needed A levels. I went back to school, met my girlfriend, had a great couple of years then had my heart broken, and went to university.
I embraced university life, joint, pose and barrel. I was still a naive, impressionable young man, even though I was a couple of years older than many of my contemporaries, who had come up straight from school, without the intervening years of work. I spent the first year stoned on excellent opiated Afghan hashish, called gold seal, that had a Muslim crescent moon stamped in gold leaf on one side of the pound weight blocks that my dealer bought, and the Soviet hammer and sickle on the other. I threw myself into new social arenas, became an utter fantasist who told outrageous lies about myself (a tendency I had always had but which escaped its inhibitions once I had moved away from my small town) and, thank god, listened enough to other people to have some of my certainties challenged. It was a time of transition and disruption anyway: a strange time, but a beautiful one: Nelson Mandela was released that winter and the Berlin Wall came down soon afterwards and, for a while, anything seemed possible. In that time of collapsing certainties, I think I benefitted from a sense of possibility that flickered around the world for a little while.
Most of those certainties I have since readopted: my university flirtation with atheism never felt natural to me, for instance, and I returned to faith even before I had graduated, at least in my head, if not in practice. However, my sense that meat eating was a normal behaviour and that vegetarianism was some sort of affectation that came from being a show off was pretty comprehensively demolished for me in one conversation with a friend early in my first year. So, I unlearnt big chunks of my conservative conditioning, and I learnt idealism, and its most concrete expression, for me, was giving up meat.
I have never regretted it; never. Any health benefits were masked by my smoking and my alarming alcohol intake, which I only got under some sort of control when I became a taxi driver, about a decade ago, but I have been lucky with my health anyway. And, for me, health has never been the point. I have learnt to cook as a non-meat eater and I do not think that I have missed out on anything, other than that slightly sour, sugared-shit smell that meat eaters sometimes get when they sweat. It took me years to pin it down, but it is the smell of a red-meat eater, with the long bowel of a mainly herbivorous digestive system clogged up with the rotting remains of compacted pig and cow flesh.
As for the fabled ‘sacrifice’ of bacon: maybe, for about a year, I might have sometimes wished for bacon. Getting a cup of tea at a burger van first thing in the morning after a night of clubbing and there not being anything on offer that I would want to put near my mouth was inconvenient, but it had more to do with the fact that I had woken up to just how wretched the food I had been used to eating was, rather than a longing for forbidden fruit. Now, the smell of bacon reminds me of fly-tipped nappies. Watching someone ingest that horror is like watching an addict shoot up. It is mildly disgusting, but it is their choice. I do not judge, but I certainly don’t lust after it.
And that sense of fairness and moderation may be, I think, why I took another twenty-five years to make the full leap of logic. I accepted the validity of the argument for veganism fairly early on, but I resisted the personal implication of it, again, I think, out of a desire to avoid being ‘extreme’, and because, subconsciously, I bought the messages that are pushed relentlessly, in opposition to reality, that say meat and dairy (‘liquid meat’) are essential to health. Now, after a year of having an entirely plant-based diet, I can’t believe how stupid I was to think that veganism would be too difficult, or to have been swayed by the fearmongering propoganda of the meat industry that pushes the obviously absurd lie that humans must have meat or their balls will drop off. Science, direct experience and bald common sense are all clear on how harmful the eating of meat in anything but the smallest and most infrequent quantities is, and, when you think for more than an instant about what milk really is, and how not designed for human consumption cattle milk is, that propoganda’s success becomes pretty impressive. It takes a certain creative genius and dogged persistence to construct so radical a distortion of reality and to make the consumption of animal products seem normal, necessary and sane, rather than the social and cultural sickness it really is.
Meeting Amanda has been the turning point in my life. Sometime, I will write a full appreciation of my luck in that regard. Her being veggie and in fact, having been vegetarian for longer than me, was a definite thumbs up sign in the beginning of our relationship. She is very involved in her health and so, when I watched Cowspiracy a year or so back, and told her that I thought it was time to try veganism out, she was really cool about it. It turned out she had been considering it for ages, but thought I would resist it.
So, we gave it a month, planning menus and getting all worked up about protein, iron and rare B vitamins, as you’re supposed to when you’ve been subject to pro-meat propaganda all your life. Then we began to relax about it all, eat the things we like and hope for the best, which is what people who eat ‘normally’ do. I love stews and gravies; Amanda loves pasta, and spinachy, nutty, nutmeggy things and we both love yeast extract on toast and porridge in the morning and we’ve both got used to UHT soya milk in our tea, which really isn’t so bad. In fact, on the occasions when I have accepted a cup of tea with dairy milk, out of politeness, I have found it too oily, and sort of smeggy smelling. My tastes and my sense of smell have changed, not to mention my digestion, which has other ideas about my determination to be flexible about veganism when we’re in company. I am still at heart a moderate and a pleaser. I have accepted that my choice is not, in fact an extreme one, but a rational and moderate one, but I am still a coward about the sense of embarrassment caused by other people’s extreme responses to it. If I could have stayed a nice, easy-to-accommodate, milk-and-cheese-consuming vegetarian, I would have.
But I couldn’t, and my decision was not principally about animal suffering. I had grown used to the awareness that I was contributing to a brutal, unceasing process of slaughter. I turned my attention from it for over two decades: it’s no secret that the dairy industry is just as vicious, revolting and creatively cruel as the meat industry. Veal is a by-product of dairy herds, after all, not of beef. My ignorance of the specifics or the numbers of horrific deaths was not because the information was unavailable, but because I accepted it as just ‘the way the world is’, divorced from my responsibility, and didn’t want to know. It took a marketing masterstroke to get me to look at the situation.
That masterstroke is Cowspiracy, which I am sure, if you are at all interested in anything to do with food politics, equality, environmentalism, or are just a Netflix subscriber, you will have heard of, if only through being bored silly by someone whose mind has already been blown by it. Cowspiracy is not that different in content to many other food documentaries: it’s about an hour and a half long, it draws on Campbell’s China Study to make it pretty clear that all meat consumption is toxic to humans; it draws on The Omnivore’s Dilemma to examine the forces that are behind the religiosity of meat production in the U.S. and it is very strong on the insane economics of mass meat consumption. However, its genius is that it is marketed as being an attack on the environmental movement and, specifically, on the environmental movement’s failure to address the climate change consequences of the meat industry. Rather than going for the meat industry itself, it takes a sideswipe at Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, and various other fashionable, but, presumably, well-intentioned environmental campaign organisations, for ignoring a very, very straightforward fact: meat production is dirty.
In fact, the meat industry is the dirtiest industry there is. Yes it is. It does more damage to the global environment than the oil industry or mining or even the transport industry. The main issues with it are that it uses a shitload of fossil fuels and has an eye-watering CO² burden and that it puts out a massive amount of methane. Methane, as a greenhouse gas, is actually more damaging than carbon dioxide, but also more volatile, so that a reduction in its emission would create a useful and real environmental benefit far faster than a reduction in CO² emissions, which stay in the atmosphere for much longer.
Besides the methane issue which, on its own, was enough to convince me that it was worth going vegan, the CO² figures really shocked me. I have tried, as far as I can, to be environmentally responsible for the last ten years, since I shared a flat with a geology student who convinced me that there was little hope of avoiding civilizational collapse due to climate change, because the economic changes required were so severe that they wouldn’t happen. Up until that point, angry about the world as I had been for much of my life, I had held a sort of, ‘It’ll be alright, long term; no need to panic’ view of politics. The wonderful events of 1989, totally unforeseen in the dark world of my teens when we all thought that the nuclear apocalypse was imminent, had given me a rosy view of reality: a faith in the ultimate goodness of people. When I realised that the predictions of environmental catastrophe really were hard science and that this was not a trendy marketing position to keep us scared, I felt a powerful desire to not be complicit. So, rather than buy a car to get to work, I bought a bike. I shopped locally. I tried to not buy anything I didn’t have a good need for. I gave up, as far as I could, using anything disposable, like coffee cups and plastic cutlery. I practised an entire litany of self-imposed dicta that made life complicated but gave me a rosy glow. “At least,” I thought, “I’m not ruining the planet with a car engine just to get to work.”
It turns out that I really needn’t have bothered. ALL transport: that is, everything that burns oil for movement, produces only 13% of greenhouse emissions. Now, that’s not trivial. It’s incredibly bad, in fact, and it needs to change, if only because there are too many non-smokers getting lung cancer, and too many people are dying from being hit by cars, and too much of the fuel is burnt in the high atmosphere by jet aeroplanes, where its damage is magnified. However, livestock production contributes 18%, and it does so in complex ways: through transport within the industry, yes, but also through the destruction of habitats, and simply through the fact that animals make a lot of shit:
The livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The largest share of this derives from land-use changes – especially deforestation –caused by expansion of pastures and arable land for feedcrops. Livestock are responsible for much larger shares of some gases with far higher potential to warm the atmosphere. The sector emits 37 percent of anthropogenic methane (with 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2) most of that from enteric fermentation by ruminants. It emits 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide (with 296 times the GWP of CO2), the great majority from manure. Livestock are also responsible for almost two-thirds (64 percent) of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. Livestock’s Long Shadow p23
The inherent environmental problems with animal manufacture are magnified by intensification and industrialisation. The best description I’ve read of the real damage done by this process is in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. The first third of this book is superb: the rest is pretty compromised by his determination to justify his own inclination to continue eating meat, despite the obvious conclusions his research drives us towards. I suspect this is a political decision: he can get his research into the mainstream media so long as he doesn’t cross the meat industry head on, but it may be that he is, as I was, at heart a moderate, who is inclined to liberal compromise despite the obvious logic of his findings. However, on the relationship between seed monopolies, meat cartels and the absurd structures their rationalised methods have given rise to, he is good. If you want to know why cows – grass eating animals – are fed corn and kept in concrete pens where their shit is dumped into the water system, read his book. If you’re more of a hour-and-a-half movie sort of person, try Food Inc., but bear in mind that both these sources are sponsored by Pepsico. Their refusal to accept the outcomes of their own logic compromises them badly.
The glaring element that Michael Pollan fails to adequately address is land use. His solution for the disasters raised by industrialised meat production is de-industrialisation: let’s only eat ‘nice’ meat: the main deceit of Mcdonald’s’ “good to know” lies. Cowspiracy pretty much demolishes that in five minutes. It shows a ‘nice’ farm, and then it calculates how much land it would take to supply America’s current volume of meat consumption with ‘nice’ meat, ignoring, for the sake of argument, that most land isn’t rich enough to make the sort of ‘nice’ meat that Pollan advocates for. Each calorie needs a vast acreage. There is no such thing as sustainable meat farming. In a way, the current, industrialised methods are, at least, honest about what it means to consume meat and dairy. It is a meat grinder, even before the slaughter.
So, yeah, beef is a problem, but why not go small scale? Well, keeping your own hens is fine, but what are you going to do with the cocks? Okay, you probably won’t put the live chicks through a grinding machine, as the industrialised egg industry does, but you’re going to have to deal with half your flock being useless. Will you eat them? Well, that’s a neat solution, but you’ve got to feed them until they’re at the right weight, and you then hit another illogical element in the meat economy: the wastage that meat production actually is.
Two thirds of the land being used by humans is currently used to produce feed stock for animals. Two thirds. We have a billion people who routinely suffer hunger. Food prices are insanely high for most of the human population of the planet (excluding the spoilt population within the third of the world where their food prices are subsidised by the rest of humanity’s hunger) because agricultural land is reserved for the production of waste calories, to be fed into animals, rather than to provide nutrition for humans. That wasted food produces one calorie of meat for every seven calories produced, and that is a cautious figure, so six sevenths – 86% – of the food produced in the world, is used to make shit and sweat and cow farts, without ever producing a usable product. We are, in effect, burning nearly nine tenths of our agricultural production, and using live, suffering creatures as the furnaces: 65 000 000 000 of them per year, and rising.
And that land, it’s not a benefit. Agricultural economists refer to the ‘development’ of land, when it is turned into agricultural assets. What they are referring to is the cutting down of trees and the burning off of undergrowth: a genocide of the richest life supporting environment on the globe. The expansion of industrial agriculture has been into exactly the environments we can least afford to lose if we are to avoid disastrous climate change. That land is already providing optimal benefit, and turning it into cow pasture is a radical diminishing of its true economic value. Since the 1970s, 20% of the Amazon’s rain forests have been destroyed, and 80% of that land is being used for livestock, the overwhelming part of it for the American meat industry. Besides the very significant impact this has had on the ecosphere’s ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, and besides the frightening disruption this represents to the global water cycle through the diminution of the evaporation that is forests’ role in the hydrological process, the loss of species diversity is huge: a quarter of all mammal species, one eighth of bird species and a third of all fish species are at risk of extinction. We simply cannot know the figures for plant species.
And we need those species. It is now accepted that less than 1% of flowering plant species have been studied for nutritional, medicinal and other resource value. Many of the plant species we are wiping out with the eradication of rain forests will not have been known; their value as nutrient providers or antibiotics never discovered. Thanks, in large part, to the meat industry, we are on the verge of being once again vulnerable, as a species, to untreatable bacterial disease. My grandfather, a village doctor who had been traumatised by deaths from infection among his patients in the first world war, treated the miracle of anti-biotics, when they became available for prescription, as a wonder akin to ending hunger. In just over two generations, we have reached the point where we can see the end of that miracle and, if you read the WHO factsheet closely, you’ll see that, behind the measured and politic tone, it is anti-biotic use in the livestock industry that is promoting anti-microbial resistance.
It is thanks to large scale use of antibiotics in meat farming that we are facing super resistant bacteria. Anti biotics are used in factory farming both to attack bacteria and because they act as growth promoters. The animals are already very sensitive to disease because they live in what is, effectively, a monoculture and are fed a very restricted, processed diet and this inhibits the development of their immune system. Plus, the crazed circle of feeding maize to cattle – an unnatural food – means their digestive immunities are ineffective, so digestive diseases are endemic and have to be controlled by antibiotics.
Thanks to this pathogenic stew, the emergence of new diseases in non-human animals is accelerating: because animals are being kept in exotic conditions, they are vulnerable to exotic and novel diseases. And these are transmitting to humans. 60% of human pathogens are of non-human origin anyway, and 75% of emerging animal diseases can be transmitted to humans. Treatments for human sufferers of these exotic diseases are made difficult by the vicious circle of wasteful use of anti-pathogens (antibiotics and anti-virals) in livestock production. These ‘biosecurity’ responses are terribly expensive, wasteful and, on a large scale, ineffective and, until these diseases get a grip on the human population, we cannot know which we have to guard against, which is why all the massive mobilisation against swine flu and against avian flu was pointless, but the next one might not be.
I love a good apocalypse scenario. I grew up in the eighties, at the high peak of cold war hysteria, and there is something comforting to me about being able to identify a clear route to imminent human extinction. The counterpoint to that, however, is the desire to learn enough to understand that it is not as likely as it looks. That was how it actually was in the eighties: once we were able to look back, we saw that the Russians had not had any intention of rolling the tanks and would not in fact have been able to afford the fuel to do it from about ’82 onwards. The economic collapse of the Soviet Union, and the exhaustion of the Soviet military after Afghanistan, actually made for a far more stable world in my teens that we thought at the time. The essential element in a good millennialist fantasy is that there needs to be a get out clause: an escape route.
I don’t buy the suggestion that there is a conspiracy of silence about the contribution of meat production to climate change. The IPCC seem to take agricultural contributions to anthropogenic climate change seriously; the UK government at least measures and publishes figures, and, indeed, Greenpeace DO campaign on the issue, despite Cowspiracy’s narrative trick. That was the hook, to make a good film that stood out and was able to circumvent some of the fear, uncertainty and doubt about the reliability of climate change information that the food industry circulates. Over the past twenty years, they have done a very good job of marginalising an extremely large and passionate popular movement – the animal rights movement – from mainstream voices. They even sued Oprah, for fuck’s sake! (The link is to the excellent website of an admirable gentleman who appears in Cowspiracy and who was co-defendent when Ms Winfrey was persecuted under the Texas “veggie libel ” laws – laws sponsored by the meat industry and designed to give the it free rein to silence criticism. There is a doctoral study on the case here, which I link to mainly because the supervising academic is the wonderfully named Professor Hamm.) By apparently shifting blame onto a surprising source, Cowspiracy was able to use a little of its own fear, uncertainty and doubt tactics against the liars of the meat industry. It was a clever approach, that served its purpose in publicising a very concise and clear summary of the issues around a terrible and growing disaster that was close to being immune to criticism. I highly recommend the film.
However, while environmental issues may have been what drove me to become vegan at last, what is keeping me so is a broader mixture of motives. Not least among them is the fact that it is quite pleasant. I am feeling very well, thank you very much for asking, despite still liking a couple of beers most nights and having smoked for much of this past summer. At the age of forty-nine, I cycle to work two or three times a week, towing a trailer with about twenty kilos of paperwork and laptops in it. Last week, my total mileage, including a leisure trip into Newport on Saturday, was over fifty. I have not had the routine two colds a year that I used to get and am nowhere near as unhealthy as I was when I was a taxi driver. I am back down to a thirty-four inch waist, having got to a point at one stage, on a dairy-rich diet, where thirty-six was tight.
What has surprised me is how veganism has changed my attitude towards animals: the cruelty blinkers do drop. In trendy vegan-speak, your compassion is heightened by not participating in the cruelty. I have always considered myself a little over sensitive, for a man, but this past year, I have been surprised by the degree to which the level of suffering in the world has bothered me, and my inability to shut it out. Powerless, I sign petitions and rant on Facebook, but it does no good. My politics have become less domesticated; the neutering effect of the media fog no longer works on me and I am looking elsewhere for my explanations of what is going on in the world.
For a middle aged man, who grew up in an agricultural area, and whose life has been marked by a desire to fit in and be normal, calling oneself a vegan feels like a peculiar step: one of those irreversible decisions. It is fourteen months since Amanda and I decided to try it for a month and I have no desire to go back. I still try to be a little flexible where it might cause awkwardness; in restaurants or at friends’ houses, but I have got a point where I pay a digestive price for that flexibility, and I am also more practised at working around the difficulties; taking some non-dairy milk with me for tea, or phoning ahead to arrange something with the restaurant.
Clothing is an interesting area, where I am really noticing that I have crossed a line. I could not afford to just throw out my clothing: I am still wearing leather boots, for instance. However, I have needed to replace some clothing, particularly for cycling. I have always worn merrino wool baselayers in the winter, but I have just bought a couple of bamboo-viscose baselayers. They took a bit of finding, and they are not cheap (though no more expensive than the posh wool ones that have now developed holes through overuse) but they are better, in terms of resisting becoming wet and smelly under heavy use, and in terms of wind resistance and cosiness, than the animal hair products they replace. Cycling shoes, fortunately, don’t seem to use much leather nowadays: there is plenty of choice: I just need to save up, but even the cheaper Specialized ones seem to be vegan friendly. As for day-to-day footwear, that is still undiscovered country. I have had my Docs resoled, and intend to continue to do so: it is the right thing to do. Surprisingly, though, I do feel a little sensitive about the fact that they are leather, even though I think the reuse rather than replace principle trumps the squeamish, disassociate yourself from the death industry principle. I have my eye on a pair of rather nifty vegan boots, but they will have to wait a few months yet.
This started with my sister, and it will end with her. She eats meat now, and that is her choice. I do not judge. In her teens, however, she was quite intense about injustice, cruelty and illogic, and her wide ranging cultural influences have effected me throughout my life. On her bedroom wall, among the posters for bands like Everything but the Girl and The Smiths, Crass and The Cure, she had a flyer from an animal rights meeting. It contained a quote from Peter Singer, the great philosopher of animal rights, which I now understand to have been a borrowing from Jeremy Bentham. That quote has stayed with me, nagging at me like a sort of inevitable moral burden, through my progress from meat eater, to vegetarian, all the way to the point where I could no longer ignore the fact that my consumption and luxury rested on an ongoing monstrosity that was hurting my soul, and the collective soul of humanity. The flyer had a picture of a lamb, pictured from a distance, from above, looking alone, wobbly, threatened by its isolation and physical vulnerability. Beside that image, Singer’s words said:
The question is not, can they think, or can they talk. The question is, can they suffer?