Fifty Shades of Vegan
I think I knew deep down that the hammer would drop one day, I was just hoping it wouldn’t be for ages. I’d had this nagging worry that I was going to have to make some radical changes to my diet, mainly because I had slowly started realising how little I actually knew about the food I was putting in my body. It was like doing washing in Autumn, and leaving washing out on the line for a few days because the forecast looks ok. Clouds start rolling in, but grey skies don’t stop me running the gauntlet anyway - because the world isn’t that mean, right? - and I assume I’ll get away with not having to get my shit together and actually go outside to bring my clothes indoors. Of course then the heavens open and it starts pissing down. Suddenly Rolls is frantic, scrambling, sprinting outside to answer for his own naivety. When it finally happened, my first footfalls down vegan road weren’t in fact all that wobbly. If I'm being honest, I bloody charged the thing like a thoroughbred. And I wasn’t that happy about it.
As far as nutritional distance goes, I’d been living about as far from vegan as you can get. Meat and dairy every day, sometimes in the same meal, sometimes every meal of the day. Every now and then I used to have meat-free days, maybe once or twice a fortnight, which I felt good about. Not for particularly valid reasons, mind you. I was purely indulging in a fleeting detox fantasy, thinking that 24 hours would be enough of a break for my liver and kidneys to recover from the perpetual processing of dense, largely animal-based food. At the end of one of these days I would invariably be excited for a bacon and egg roll and flat white for brekky the next day. So yeah, I wasn’t even kidding myself, let alone other people.
But there I was, September 2015, somehow actually committing to being a vegan? Hypocrite! Don’t worry, it sounded like bullshit to me too.
Veganism was sort of a grey area of my nutritional education. It's not to say I wasn’t considering what I was eating - I was, only in a caloric, macro-nutrient sense. I paid more attention to nutrition panelsthan ingredients lists. I knew what Paleo was, I knew that gluten had become the latest devilish thing to avoid, I knew that there were now about 40 different types of non-dairy milk at Woolies.
But I hadn’t bothered to investigate what vegans were all about, and I wasn’t that interested. Only now do I realise this was probably because I had subconsciously allowed the awful stereotype to prevail, without any basis in fact or personal experience. What a funny thing! Maybe that’s because it’s a scary prospect to align oneself with a particular group frequently and harshly subjected to vitriolic judgement. Maybe I chose not to think about it on the off chance I might become one, and didn’t want to gamble with the possibility of dealing with such malice. HA. I was of course overestimating to the extreme, my dietary preferences obviously not that big of a deal to others and my skin a little thicker than that anyway.
I had therefore all but written vegans off as that one cartoonish image, one vacuous, self-possessed, holier-than-thou egotist intent on smugly preaching their way of life when offered even the tiniest of opportunities to do so. That’s the expectation, right? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely been too excited about various things in the past. When you’re fully obsessing over something, sure, it can feel nice to feel like you’ve got a great secret nobody else knows. So I kindof understood it in that remote capacity. But I didn’t like them, and I still don’t like a lot of them. I’ve definitely met some vacuous, self-possessed, holier-than-thou egotistical vegans and I'm sure so have most others too.
It just hadn’t occurred to me, however, that the practice of absenting yourself from animal products is invariably an expression of a political opinion. Veganism, like many other seemingly radical lifestyle choices, extends well beyond food.
Turns out all it took to tip me over the edge was some smalltalk (probably pretty poor-quality smalltalk) with an attractive girl while I made her a coffee at work. She smirked when I criticised her being vegan, and goes “sure mate, go watch Conspiracy and then tell me I’m full of shit”. With my flatmate’s Netflix fired up that evening, what do I see on the recommended list but that cheesily-titled film itself. Keen to have stronger chat with said girl than rubbish banter about the weather and whatever else, I put it on. 90 nauseating minutes later I was a fucking mess, already messaging her about having ruined my life. It probably looked like a pretty cheap come-on (which I’ll admit, in some capacity it was) but for the most part I was seriously rattled.
The nuts and bolts to make a documentary interesting are fairly simple. Even if I don’t feel I was particularly educated by university (Media@UTS, lol), I did watch a shitload of documentaries while I was there. I know that shock value and subsequent interest is achieved through the revelation of fresh - and usually far-fetched - information. Unfortunately such material is often either too conspiratorial to genuinely pique my interest, or so niche that I don’t feel it at all applicable to my life. Cowspiracy unfortunately nailed my narrow middle ground to such an extent that it was like a previously silent, invisible deity was now right in front of me, on fire, yelling in my face. “OI. DICKHEAD. LISTEN UP. THIS IS ON YOU”.
In case you haven’t seen it, Cowspiracy is nuts. It basically tears the bag open about the damage animal agriculture does to the environment. Stock-standard interviews and scenes with horrified insiders who know the truth kicked off the proceedings, but more confronting was the expected-but-still-terrifying hailstorm of statistics rapidly firing at me from the telly, as I curled up in terror on the couch with my Chobani. It was all fairly simple, a lot of which I instinctively called bullshit on, panic probably interfering with actual intuition. I fact-checked the first few myself to no avail, before realising that if the stuff in this documentary wasn’t true, surely it wouldn’t be endorsed so heavily by Netflix. I was also late to the party - it had been out for a while and received global acclaim, so surely any skeletons would have been pulled out of the closet by now. So I sighed, shut my laptop and strapped in for what concluded as the most severe televisual mindfuck I have ever experienced.
Everything about that documentary is compelling. Crowdfunded from a grassroots base, the approachability of it all is startling from the beginning. It’s an extremely relatable everyman situation which unfortunately left very little wiggle room for any excuses that my mind frantically tried to concoct to justify ignoring it. Unfortunately my subconscious is notoriously uncompromising, something I’m sure those close to me find equal parts dependable and infuriating. This being the case I just couldn’t not react to this barrage of mind-bending information before me.
It was humbling. Truly. An eye-opening realisation to my former arrogance, my former pretence that I genuinely gave a shit about the environment. My ignorance in believing I was making a difference by skateboarding to the shops instead of driving, when in fact the steak and sausages I was buying from that shop was contributing infinitely more harm to the planet than the 3kms of diesel would have.
I had no idea the extent to which agribusiness is destroying the environment (and I mean destroying). I also didn’t connect the dots of personal meat consumption directly contributing to that very industry. In all honesty I felt (/still feel) like an idiot for not making such a simple connection sooner. Suddenly it dawned on me that not all those who abstain from meat do so for some absurd puritanical vision of a world where no animal dies ever. Sure, there’s some of those people around, and (validity aside) they’re absolutely entitled to such a perspective. But I would tentatively say that at least an equal amount of people denying animal products are doing so for bio-environmental reasons instead.
Stats about the water needs of livestock. Stats about the fucked up by-products of breeding animals for human consumption, pig sewage and bobby calves that are killed almost immediately so their mothers can be impregnated again to re-start milk production. Land-clearing and deforestation for pastural grazing. The fact that if we transformed all food being produced for livestock to instead suit human ingestion (something that is absolutely scientifically possible) we would fucking end world hunger. END IT. This is the sort of sense that was being thrown at me by this documentary, and my brain was unfortunately catching every single piece of information.
So there I was. Can’t ignore, must react. Looks like I’m completely fucked.
It’s been about a year since then and against all odds, I’ve made it. I resolved to completely restructure my diet from the ground up and kept a record of my progress. The title of my diary was “Fifty Shades of Vegan” and it basically turned into a food encyclopaedia. It occurred to me that 1) a lot of the facts in Cowspiracy wouldn’t apply to me here in Australia and 2) there must be environmentally conscientious farmers who raise their livestock in ecologically and ethically responsible ways. That’s how desperate I was not to be 100% vegan.
My food education has been ongoing, I’m more nutritionally conscious now than I have ever been (and I feel bloody great for it). I’ll post up some excerpts of the diary over the coming weeks in which I discovered some of the more interesting revelations. Stay tuned!