I’m a vegetarian, but I still eat my dad’s hamburgers when I’m home, and last night I helped my friend finish her tuna sushi roll. While these days the word “vegetarian” isn’t met with the same blank stare it always was, I sure get a lot of blank stares when I say I’m vegetarian and then ask to taste your steak. I then qualify that I’m an “environmental vegetarian,” but that usually doesn’t help. As I’m sure my fellow environmental vegetarians can attest, this gets old. So, here is a list of things you need to know about environmental vegetarians, to make your and their shared meals much more pleasant and comprehensible:
1. Each vegetarian makes their own individual dietary choices.
There are practically infinite ways to be vegetarian, and infinite ways to interpret a “no-meat” diet. Pescatarians only eat plants and fish. Vegans eat no animal products at all. Some vegetarians don’t consider chicken or fish to be meat, but do not eat any red meat or pork.
Individual vegetarians make individual choices about their diets, each with their own personal reasoning. Many are opposed to the inhumane treatment of animals that end up on your plate, or the painful and terrifying experience of slaughterhouses that meat animals undergo before death. Some will not eat animals that feel pain, but are fine eating animals without a central nervous system (shellfish, for example). Some avoid meat for health reasons. Some just don’t like the taste. If you’re genuinely curious about a vegetarian’s reasoning, ask to hear their logic. Keep in mind, though, that each vegetarian’s choices are as legitimate as any individual’s personal dietary choices, and not for anyone else to judge. If you’re not into broccoli, you avoid it. Vegetarians are not into meat, or some kinds of meat, so we avoid it.
2. Environmental Vegetarians avoid meat to save energy.
Think of a steak versus an apple. For the steak, it takes energy to grow grain, to harvest grain, to transport that grain to the cow. It takes energy to raise the cow, to transport the cow to the slaughterhouse, to slaughter the cow, to pack the meat, to transport the meat to a grocery store. It take energy to keep the meat cold until it’s ready to be cooked, and finally, it takes extra energy to cook meat to a safe temperature. And that doesn’t even consider what to do with the billions of pounds per year of excrement this cow and its compatriots produce (which often ends up in our water systems). For the apple, it takes a lot less energy to raise the apple trees, to harvest the apple, and to transport the apple to the grocery store.
Since I’m the kind of person who turns of the lights when I leave a room, carries soda cans home to recycle them, and prints everything double-sided, not eating meat is, for me, the same kind of action. The average American eats 184 pounds of meat per year. It takes the same amount of energy to produce each pound of that meat as it does to power a microwave for a full hour and a half (5,275,000 J). This means that the average American eats through enough meat per year to power an entire house for a full week (970,600,000 J). So, every time I choose not to order a pound of meat in a restaurant or to buy it at the grocery store, it feels the same to me as turning off the lights when I leave a room. Except, the energy saved is equivalent to what it takes to light that room for nine straight days.
For a lengthier – and much scarier – picture of what kind of horror the meat industry is wreaking on the environment, read this excellent article from a few years ago.
3. This doesn’t mean that Environmental Vegetarians are 100% meat-free 100% of the time.
Humans are built to be omnivores, and I personally don’t have moral qualms with the platonic idea of eating meat. As I hope is now clear, environmental vegetarians instead take issue with the environmental impact of the meat industry. However, as far as I can see, when the animal is dead and cooked and on the table, it doesn’t save any energy not to eat it. If my friend hasn’t finished her tuna roll and it will otherwise be thrown away, I’ll try it. When I’m home and my dad makes hamburgers, it will actually take more energy for me to cook something else for myself, so I’m happy to eat them. When out at restaurants, depending on my location, I may even choose to order meat instead of vegetables. In New Orleans, for example, I might choose to order catfish pulled from the Mississippi only blocks away, over potatoes which were almost certainly flown in from another state. Environmental vegetarianism is about reducing meat-consumption, not eliminating it.
So, when someone says they’re vegetarian then asks to taste your steak, it’s quite probable they’re not being hypocritical, but instead are an environmental vegetarian.
4. Easy to say if you don’t like meat, but what if I do? Is there anything I can do?
Absolutely. Being environmentally-friendly doesn’t mean you need to upend your life, or even significantly alter your dietary choices. Many Americans eat meat three times a day, which is far more animal protein than we actually need. Eating just five to seven meatless meals per week – one meatless meal most days – is the equivalent environmental impact of switching from driving an SUV to a Prius. For breakfast, try reaching for eggs or oatmeal instead of bacon or sausage. For lunch, grab a PB&J instead of cold cuts, and for dinner, try ordering a Sesame Tofu instead of chicken, or vegetable lasagna instead of Spaghetti Bolognese. Remember, these choices don’t all have to be on the same day. Just one meal out of every three or four meals makes an enormous impact.
5. One person’s choices aren’t going to change to meat industry’s output, though. What’s the point?
One single person’s choices aren’t going to change an industry, yes. However, when millions and millions of people choose to reduce their meat consumption, even just a little, it will impact the industry and, consequently, have a huge positive environmental impact. So, yes, it doesn’t matter if I reduce my meat consumption, or you reduce yours, or anyone alone reduces his or hers. But the collective impact of each of us reflecting on our consumption choices and changing them, even just a little bit, goes far. That collective impact can’t happen, however, if I don’t make the choice to reduce my meat consumption, and you don’t make the choice to reduce yours. It takes all of us, and it takes each of us. So go eat (just) your veggies.