So I’ve written and said a lot about veganism over the past 3 months and I just wanted to drill down on an issue that seems to crop up in almost every conversation that I’ve had on the topic. And though I’ve been mindful of this recurring issue, an explicit clarification at this point seems overdue.
When talking about veganism there’s just an ever present issue of inadvertently coming across as an excessively self indulgent and righteous proselytiser. There seems to be a sort of self masturbatory tone to this entire enterprise, which manages to fit you perfectly to this stereotypical image of a ‘pushy vegan’. For instance any discussion about animal agriculture in general seems to effortlessly get conflated with a scathing criticism of meat eaters as people. To me this is an issue that we must get past. I’d also like to address and unpack this notion that talking about veganism in a developing country like India and using English as the medium of conversing, somehow puts you out of touch with the practical realities of the Indian landscape, thereby giving you an elitist hue.
Firstly, I don’t think that anyone who eats meat or chooses to wear animal skins is necessarily a ‘bad’ person. Most, if not all of our thoughts and behaviours are influenced heavily by the socio-cultural, religious and traditional contexts, in which we happen to have taken birth. They seem to have an import on our thoughts, intentions and actions in ways that we’re seldom aware of. So it’s not the actions or choices per say that need focussing, but instead the sheer ‘ignorance’ of how our food and clothing industries operate; since that’s what makes and keeps people oblivious of the consequences of their daily and seemingly benign choices. That’s the real needle that we have to find a way to thread here. The choices of most reasonable people would begin to change gradually over a period of time, once they’ve truly made contact with reality.
If you feel that veganism is all about proving how a vegan has a superior, logically consistent and fine-tuned set of moral standards, than a non vegan, then you’ve genuinely missed the point. It might appear as though this is precisely what any discussion about veganism devolves into, especially when passions are running high and where ‘shame’ is used as a provocation to create ‘shock’ value. But the drawbacks of the methods used to promote veganism by activists cannot and should not, be taken as a shortcoming of the philosophy itself. In fact, veganism is quite literally a logical extension of the existing moral standards that most of humanity already abides by. It simply brings to light some of the most obscene hypocrisies of our society by questioning our moral intuitions around the treatment of non human animals.
For instance how can one claim to love animals if they pay for their needless exploitation, torture and eventual death? How can one claim to love and bond with a golden retriever simply because they feel it understands them, but then eat a pig (bacon) for breakfast, that’s much more intelligent and capable of a reciprocation that far exceeds that of a dog. This sheds light on a stunningly disjointed and irreconcilable moral positions held by most of humanity. It’s the inconvenient questions of this kind that reveal something about the society that we’ve created. And veganism is simply the bridge that allows people to walk the talk and to live out their morals. And in this sense veganism is less about preaching or proselytising and more about actually living a philosophy, and inviting others to try the same. It’s an invitation to recognize that veganism is not just a moral virtue but a moral obligation, that is logically consistent with our present moral standards.
Secondly, using English certainly cuts one off linguistically from a substantial section of the Indian population. But provided one truly understands what the issue is and has the flexibility to switch to a different language depending upon the situation and who they’re talking to, this problem of coming across as an elitist never arises. This seems to be a non issue, given the fact that most Indians are bilingual.
Also the idea of not causing the needless suffering of sentient beings is not as alien as it might seem in the Indian context. A vegan way of life is in fact the least disruptive in terms of the conventional Indian values already espoused. Apart from being grounded in rationality, empathy, gratitude and love, veganism reduces the resource intensity of our agriculture, minimises greenhouse gas emissions, allows for a greater biodiversity, reduces deforestation and requirement of land for cultivation, reduces the pollution and the resulting diseases and potential pandemics caused by close confinement of animals and allows for the much needed refinement of our moral standards.
Contrary to this popular belief, even from a cost stand point, a vegan lifestyle ends up being much cheaper. Having access to animal products like chicken, mutton, fish and bacon is considered a luxury in India as compared to conventional vegetables, whole grains, legumes and pulses. Even clothing that uses pure leather and fur come with a hefty price tag. The reason why eggs are relatively cheaper is because most layers are kept in battery cages, with minimal welfare costs, that not only maximises profit margins for the business but also results in a cheaper retail price. Milk alternatives in India remain the only costly item on a vegan shopping list.
Though milk assumes salience in an agricultural economy like India, milk alternatives made from rice, soya, almonds, cashews, coconuts and hemp can easily address the financial concerns of dairy farmers, especially once they achieve economies of scale. The success of this gradual shift would depend on the demand for milk alternatives, which directly relates to what we as consumers choose to buy more often. Veganism as an ethical philosophy, therefore, to an impressive extent, successfully tracks the essence of the Indic ways of living a simple life.
- State of Food security and Nutrition in the world 2020, Page-102 (reducing health costs), Page-106 (vegan diet reduces diet related GHG emissions), Page-109 (minimum social costs of GHG emissions for a vegan diet)