During the five years prior to writing this essay, I’ve made a concerted effort to live my life in a more thoughtful manner.
The main way that I have managed to achieve this is by asking the simply question:
Why is a wonderful questions, and if asked enough times in a row, it can often strip away layers of old-fashioned thinking to reveal a simple and yet unappealing truth:
We don’t truly think about most of what we do.
And research has backed this up.
As we go about our day to day, many of our actions are completed out of habit, on autopilot. While this is advantageous because you don’t have to remember every single turn in the road to go home from work, it can also cause issues when we simply believe that something is right because we have been told so, or because we have been engaging in a certain behavior for time immemorial.
The habit of eating meat is a great example.
Most people eat meat not because they have sat down and thought about it, and reached a conclusive judgment regarding the pros and cons, but purely because their parents, and friends, and family, and most people around them, eat meat, so it feels like a natural thing to do.
This is a dangerous way to live, because you don’t end up exposing yourself to other ways of thinking, which might turn out to improve your life immeasurably.
After all, if you haven’t spent the time to examine the way you life, what are the chances that you are doing it the best way possible? Or not even the best way possible, but just one of the better ways?
It’s essentially a coin toss.
So while this essay is specifically about vegetarianism, the deeper theme is actually about self-reflection, self-development, and challenging the status quo.
At the current time of writing, human beings are rushing towards using renewable energy sources, especially solar energy. This makes an incredible amount of sense, seeing as we cannot keep exploiting the planet in the manner of our forebears and expect not to face the consequences.
This is quite funny because solar power has been the primary source of energy for Earth since the beginning of time.
Plants use photosynthesis to convert the sun’s energy into energy that can be used by other beings.
Think about this.
A plant grows, is eaten by a small animal, which in turn is eaten by a bigger animal, which eventually dies and turns into oil, which we eventually dig up and refine and turn into kerosene so we can fuel our jet planes and fly around the world.
So most forms of energy are indeed solar power, just from a long long time ago. All we are doing now is closing the gap between the time the sun’s rays hit the earth and when we can use them.
Of course, the real next step is to try and replicate the conditions inside the Sun via a Fission reactor which would then give us unlimited amounts of cheap energy, which would take humans to the next step.
Imagine what we could do with unlimited energy?
You might be wondering why I am discussing energy sources in an essay about vegetarianism.
However, this is one of those topics that I have been thinking about for years, and I want to start at what are called “First Principles” and work all the way to the common (and uncommon) arguments regarding vegetarianism and vegan diets.
Facing the Music
Having moved to Asia from Europe when I was 22, I quickly encountered what can be termed as “culture shock”.
I had to confront a new reality, like the fact that rats are a delicacy, or that thieves don’t deserve to be arrested and tried in front of a court, but beaten to death in the street.
This is not something that one can accept easily, or at all, after twenty years of living in a first world country.
One small thing that really caught my eye, is the way that live chickens would be transported. I’ve seen them tied up in bunches, hanging outside of cars, motorbikes, even boats. Clearly, they are being transported to become dinner for someone, somewhere.
I often try imagining what is going on inside those little heads, but the chickens generally just looked scared and in shock, their eyes wide open.
I don’t believe I had ever been exposed to the unsanitized side of meat consumption back home.
I’d never been to a slaughterhouse, I had never seen animals cramped in the back of transport trucks, or being strung up while still alive, waiting to be cooked.
My experience was more going to the butchers and asking for a certain cut of meat, which was all perfectly on display, an abstraction of the animal that it belonged to.
However, we must face the music.
Every time we have a steak or a sausage, or some bacon, an animal had to be killed and cut up for us. Right now, that’s a fact. In the future, we may be able to grow meat in a lab at scale, but we are not there yet.
While this killing in itself may, or may not be, okay, it is something that we should keep in mind, especially at the scale that humans now consume animals.
Visiting a first world slaughterhouse, let alone one in a country like Cambodia in the 2010’s, is probably enough to make many people seriously consider their eating habits.
When you see the squalor, the pain, the torture, that these animals have to endure, simply so you can order bacon with your scrambled eggs at the overly expensive brunch café, you’ll understand how so many people make the choice not to eat meat.
The fact is, it’s not only the moment of death that’s bad for these animals, but their entire existence is completely and utterly miserable. All the usual meat producers such as cows, chickens, and pigs, are kept in small cages where they can barely turn around, let alone move. They are pumped with antibiotics and growth hormones, and often have to live in their own faeces because there is so little room.
All that suffering can be stopped, by purely changing what we order at a restaurant, and what we buy in our shops.
If framed in this manner, it doesn’t actually feel like a big life choice in a way, I know my own personal transition to vegetarianism took the form of a one month trial, after which I simply continued, and didn’t really give it much thought until I decided to write this essay.
What we eat is incredibly important.
Right now, it’s the only way that humans are able to take the energy that is stored in the world and put it to use.
As I write this, dozens of bodily functions are being engaged to ensure that I stay alive. These actions require energy and energy requires food.
Food consumption is an extremely loaded topic because this is something that everyone faces on a daily basis, and so everyone has an opinion.
These opinions vary greatly depending on your level of education, the country you were brought up in, and also your family background.
I’ve always loved the simple, yet striking, observation regarding religion:
Your family’s religion is the biggest contributing factor to your personal views on religion.
And the same it is with food.
This essay is an essay that has been in the works for over five years since I first become vegetarian.
As soon as I declared that I wasn’t going to eat meat, I was suddenly faced with people asking the question:
And I realized that not only did I not personally have a reason, but I wasn’t even educated on the nuanced arguments for each side.
I simply tried being vegetarian for thirty days, I enjoyed the simplicity and a vague sense that I was doing something positive, and then continued from that point on.
I must have been asked the “why” question hundreds of times, and over time, I’ve done my research and spoken to a whole variety of people who hold an incredibly varied array of opinions on this topic, and I’ve also visited chicken farms, organic farms, crocodile factories, and even pig transportation centers.
In these five years, I’ve arrived to, what appears to me, the simplest most logical conclusion that any individual with common sense and an aptitude for reasoned thought can arrive at:
Avoiding animal products (and by-products) is the simplest and most effective personal change that an individual can make that has the widest possible positive impact in the world.
It is simply not possible for the average person to contribute so much to the world in such an effortless manner.
In fact, it’s even better than that.
The issue is of not doing.
There is an interesting concept in Taoism that regards non-action as a powerful force in the world, and this is what I am advocating in this instance.
What I am hoping to avoid in what will, I’m sure, turn out to be a very lengthy essay, is becoming a preacher.
While I think it’s really important that the world as a whole starts to move away from an animal-based diet, I also even more strongly believe that personal choice is paramount, and that large complex changes such as the one I am proposing take time, often longer than an individual human life expectancy, to come to fruition.
The way I am structuring this essay is that I am trying to reconstruct my thought process for the last five years and distil it into a read that should take less than an hour or so.
My sincere hope is that at some point during this essay you will have that “Eureka!” moment and that it will all click and make sense.
However, I would also be pleased if it simply gives you food for thought. Horrific pun, I'm aware.
The First Principles that I want to look at are:
- Resources are Finite.
- We have a duty to the future.
- Are we Animals?
Resources are Finite.
As a first principle, I start with the fact that the resources in the world are finite. While humann and some would argue capital markets, are incredibly resourceful at finding efficiencies, we cannot actually escape the fact there is simply a finite amount of “stuff” in the world, and that is not going to radically increase at any point in the future.
If we take, for example, population growth, and extend the curve upwards and onwards, we would eventually arrive at a point where there are so many human beings alive in the world that you could not move. So clearly, there is a point, significantly prior to this moment, where population growth would have to stop.
It logically follows from this that we must then use the resources we have in a responsible and forward-thinking manner, potentially sacrificing our own comfort and desires for the benefit of the whole. For instance, in the not-so-far-fetched future, not having a child may be the most honourable and celebrated thing to do — sacrificing the right of passing on of your individual combination of DNA to another generation to ensure that others who do exercise their right can do so sustainably.
While this might be abhorrent to many in our current times, this may well be what happens in the future.
Of course, there is the possibility that humans manage to conquer space travel and colonize other planets fast enough to avoid the catastrophic situation on earth, but that’s a gamble, and not one we should make lightly.
However, if we start to think in terms of expansion across the universe, this gives us quite a bit more time.
The Future Argument.
This is an interesting argument for being vegetarian that is not normally discussed, but I think it could actually be the most compelling of all arguments.
Technological improvement is accelerating, at an accelerated pace. This means that soon we will make more technological progress in ten yeas than we did in the previous fifty or even one hundred years, and we are racing towards a point in time where there is either going to be an Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) presence on Earth or that humans will essentially split into two species: cyborgs and “traditional” humans. There is a wonderful book called Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari that you will love if you’re into this stuff.
Now, the interesting question will be this:
How will a super intelligent A.I. view humans?
We better hope that it is not in the same manner that we currently view animals, as consumable objects.
However, many people suspect that we cannot help but to create things in our own image, and so this is why there is a strong argument that we need to develop a heightened sense of compassion towards all lower species, because soon we may not be the top species any longer.
There is a rather humorous, and scary, version of how society as we know it might end. Imagine if you program a super computer with A.I. to produce paper clips as it’s primary function.
At first, things would seem to be on the up and up. A factory would be reconfigured to enable maximum efficiency, perhaps new alloys would be invented that make sturdier and yet more flexible paper clips, and an intricate system of just-in-time logistics would ensure that enough raw materials arrive at the factory to keep production humming away.
However, things could start to go quite wrong.
There are always slightly better ways of doing things, and this A.I. might decide that the best course of action is to capture all of the energy of the sun in order to power more powerful and numerous processors so that it can crunch even more data and run more hypothetical scenarios regarding paper clip production.
Worse still, it may come to the conclusion that humans are actually a key component of the paper clip production process, or that they are completely useless and use up precious resources that could be put towards further paper clip production, and suddenly we might end up as a raw material in the creation of a paper clip or as a target for termination.
While this may sound far-fetched, it actually isn’t so crazy when you think about it, because there are millions of points where things could automatically go wrong, and the A.I. would simply be going down the most logical route. We’re not even covering the possibility of intentional misconfiguration of such a system.
So, even if scientist and programmers took painstaking care over the creation of a paper clip production A.I., it could still destroy life as we know it.
Program the A.I. with human compassion, so that it understands where acceptable boundaries lie.
The only problem here is that human compassion at this current moment is rather flexible, or even broken.
As a whole, in the First World, we don’t really give a shit about people dying of disease or famine in the Third World, as we could quite have easily solved these problems if we really wanted to, but we haven’t got ourselves organized.
Compare this with the mass mobilization caused by World War 2, and you get an idea of what can be accomplished when there is alignment.
And here we come back full circle in regards to the way we treat other species on this planet. If we, as a society, feel that it is acceptable to imprison and slaughter, often brutally, billions of animals per year, then this shows a distinct lack of compassion towards “lesser” beings.
Remember, these are beings that share a significant portion of our DNA, which is the genetic code that makes us human. These beings also share other things, like emotions, and the need for freedom and independence.
Sure, animals are not the same as humans, but probably closer to us than we would be to an A.I.
So if we are going to be writing the code that powers the A.I. that will rule over us, we better ensure that we have our moral compass set correctly, so that we don’t end up as raw materials that are part of a production process in the future.
While this may appear to be far-fetched, and is perhaps not the strongest reason for the average person to change their dietary consumption , but it is something to consider, and it will become more and more relevant as time passes as we get closer to a point where, for whichever reason, humans are not the dominant entity on this planet.
Are We Animals?
An interesting question is:
Why is it not okay to eat other human beings?
Why don’t we have premium American (human) rib, or grilled Chinese (human) breast?
In fact, the mere thought is quite abhorrent, while most people are fine with eating parts of a pig or cow.
So what’s the difference? What turns us off so badly from human meat, but makes it perfectly fine to consume animal meet?
Clearly, we believe that there is something special, perhaps even sacred, about human life, and so it would be morally and ethically wrong to use other human beings as food.
As an Atheist, this is really difficult to answer, as I don’t believe that humans have souls, so then the only answer I have left to why I don’t eat human flesh burgers is a vague sense of solidarity to my own species.
It’s also worth noticing that Bonobos, the type of Chimpanzee that is not aggressive but rather partakes in group orgies, have been observed in cannibalistic practices with their own infants that died of natural causes. Considering how closely related these animals are to us, I find that quite disturbing at a visceral level.
We can flip concept on its head, and ask what is not special about animals that it is okay to eat them?
“Humans appear to have superior intelligence on an individual basis, expressed through symbol use and manipulation and observable by their intelligent behaviour, i.e. finding solutions to resource and physical constraints. The effectiveness and superiority of human intelligence increases with group size, until you consider them as a whole, at which point they may be the dumbest animal out there, potentially causing its own extinction.”
Before we tackle the question of whether there is something special about humans or animals, and then investigate any potential differences between the two, let’s take a step back.
There is a strong argument to be made that we’re not even the dominant species in the planet. While we may believe to be among one of the most numerous single species (when counted by biological mass), we are actually dwarfed by seemingly benign species such as Plankton or Earthworms.
It is estimated that humans have a biomass of approximately 150 million tonnes. The lower estimates for earth worms are 10x of that at 1,500 million tonnes.
Bacteria then completely blow everyone else away with a crazy 350,000 to 550,000 million tonnes of biomass across the globe. So for everyone kilogram of human on the planet, there is at least 2,333kg of bacteria out there.
Still feeling like humans are the dominant life-form on Earth?
So, let’s first see the difference between plants and animals (including humans).
A quite worrying conclusion, if we discovered that there wasn’t much difference between a plant and a human, would be that it’s ethically incorrect to eat anything at all!
However, that somehow doesn’t quite feel right…
Humans vs Animals
Humans have souls, animals don't.
One initial argument on why humans are special is that they have souls. Obviously, this is one of the key arguments put forwards by religious groups, but this argument holds certain problems.
The main one being that humans evolved from animals — and this is something that any rational person should believe in with the currently available information and proof — and so, there must have been, at some point, a child born that was the first ‘true’ modern human.
So far, so good.
Presumably, then this was the first living organism in the world that had a soul, but it was born from parents that did not have souls.
Even fervently religious individuals have a tough time being able to reconcile with this.
Of course, the difference between this baby with a soul and the parents would be minuscule, and yet the baby was for some reason eligible to have a soul (and presumably an afterlife?), but the parents are treated as automaton, nothing more that beings that react to impulses and conditions, but have no deep understanding of the world.
And, that this happened tens of thousands of times with lots of different combinations of parents across the world.
A secondary argument also asks the question of how are we sure that if souls did exist, that animals don’t have them? There is nothing that we can measure to dictate which living beings have souls and which don’t. A further enquiry would also dig up the problem of measuring an animals conduct during their lifetime. What does a lion need to do to get into heaven?
I feel we can place the soul argument to rest.
Humans have achieved.
Another interesting, and somewhat abstract argument I’ve heard, is that humans achieve incredible things. We’ve put people on the moon, built bridges, invented the internet, written symphonies, and changed the environment.
What animal can claim that?
This argument feels clever until one understands that the entire way that our planet is now is completely shaped by various organisms who literally changed the entire makeup of our planet. (Hint: we have oxygen because plants keep pumping it out!)
It could also be argued that we’re not the most successful species on the planet, as that award could easily be given to bacteria, cows, various types of insects, and even rats, depending on the criteria that we choose to define “successful”.
Is it the number of individuals in the species? In that case, chickens have done brilliantly in the last hundred years, with their numbers swelling to a total of more than 20 billion. And yet, most of them are living in complete and utter misery, so hardly successful in that front.
Not that humans are doing much better, our ranks have now swelled to over 7 billion, and we keep pushing our material standard of living higher and higher, but how do we explain the seemingly paradoxical situation where depression and anxiety are now more present that ever before? That the numher 1 killer of men aged 25–55 is suicide?
Of course, this is one potential answer, and not a very comfortable one. While there are obvious differences between humans and other animals, it can be argued that these are rather inconsequential, similar to the differences between a smart dolphin and a dump crab.
This would mean that there quantitive differences, not qualitative ones, and so we’re just plain animals, except a bit further along in regards to certain metrics.
Arguments for meat consumption.
Animals eat each other.
One argument in favor of continuing the status quo is that animals eat each other almost all the time. Even in the wild, most animals will die a violent and painful death, being torn apart and eaten by a predator further up the food chain. This happens millions, perhaps billions, of times each day.
Aren’t we just continuing the natural order of things by eating animals, albeit with a modern twist of production at scale?
As with any complex issue, the answer here is not yes or no.
We can frame it another way. If it’s fine for a lion to hunt, kill, and eat a gazelle, why can’t I indulge in bacon with my breakfast?
So either we believe that a lion should just stick to eating grass (good luck!), or that there is something else at play here, and that there is a fundamental difference between the two examples.
I think the main issue with the comparison is that the lion cannot understand the wider impact of his choices, and just acts on whatever instincts occur. In a sense, the lion has no choice.
Humans, however, very much do have a choice is how we consume food. In fact, the entire process of raising billions of animals specifically for our consumption, and ensuring that they are slaughtered and delivered just in time to all our supermarkets and butchers,is an extremely deliberate act.
The Argument of Existence
Another pro-meat argument argues that if we didn’t raise all these animals in the first place, they wouldn’t even be alive, so it’s okay to then kill them and eat them.
This argument ignores the small point that the way that many of these animals are treated goes beyond cruelty and that their lives are essentially lived in complete misery, and so we’re actually creating even more animals that will be subjected to this type of treatment. It would be better if we never created them in the first place.
Animals are killed anyway to create a vegetarian diet.
A vegetarian diet is not completely cruelty-free, of course. If you eat cheese or drink milk, for instance, you are still promoting the industrial food complex, and don’t think that dairy cows have it much easier than slaughter cows.
Also, during the harvesting of vegetables and grain, many animals are killed by being run over by machinery or perhaps by ingesting too much pesticide, and so we are still left with millions (or perhaps billions) of animals killed each year due to our diets.
While this is not defensible, it is at least not as directly attributable as eating meat, and also it causes a lot less long-term suffering for animals. It is also understandable that if you want to have a modern society that shapes the world in such an incredible way, you’re going to cause some harm, somewhere, and it’s more about limiting the damage you cause.
Going too far in one direction would be quite problematic. I remember once watching a documentary about a certain group of monks that wanted to build a new temple and before they put the foundations in and started building they had to carefully dig up all the soil and remove all the worms, something that took months and months of time and is generally impractical to do for every building that needs to get built.
So, perhaps, this gives us an insight that we should only care about killing animals that have a true consciousness, and that don’t act on “autopilot”. Taking this to the extreme, should we care about all the bacteria we eliminate each time we wash our hands? Viewed in this way, we’re all genocidal (bactericidal?) maniacs!
You can't build muscles without eating meat.
This is often something that is claimed, but can be refuted quite quickly by the following observations:
- There are vegan bodybuilders in existence with some impressive physiques.
- You can take a look at the muscles on a Gorilla, who are vegetarians! They share 98% of their DNA with humans.
The B12 question.
One major criticism of vegetarian and vegan diets is the problem that the cause a deficiency in the vitamin b12, which is key to live a healthy life.
This vitamin is only found in animal products, and so vegetarians must use supplements to ensure that they receive adequate amounts of vitamin b12.
Surely then, this points to the fact that humans are not supposed to be completely vegetarian? The logic is quite simple, if to be healthy we must have a certain intake of vitamin b12, and vitamin b12 comes from meat, then we must consume a certain amount of meat.
While the above argument appears to be sound, it can actually be refuted quite easily. After all, chemotherapy is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, it’s a human-made treatment to cancer, and yet nobody in their right mind would deny cancer patients the right to have chemotherapy and potential survive a cancer diagnosis.
In fact, we could actually argue that human society has evolved so quickly that the entire point is to overcome our hard-wired evolutionary baggage. While our physical selves take tens of thousands of years to change meaningfully, our environment is changing rapidly even when measured in years, so it’s the equivalent of having old hardware trying to run the latest software, something has to give.
And so, yes vitamin b12 is required, and the simple answer is that vegetarians need to take supplements to ensure that they receive an adequate amount of it, and that’s okay.
The key argument to be made for a vegetarian diet must surely be the ethical one. The belief that humans have the right to breed billions of animals each year purely for our gastronomic enjoyment does not stand up to ethical scrutiny.
The fact is, that most people could not bear to be inside a slaughterhouse with all the blood, excrement, and death, for more than a few minutes, and for many that would probably be enough to put them off eating meat for life.
In the current system of mass-housing of slaughter animals, to the extent where some of them will never even move during their lifetime, is indefensible.
Turning this argument on its head, we are also feeding all of these billions of animals with incredible amounts of food to ensure that they can fatten up quickly. Is this morally correct when there are still many humans who to this day are malnourished?
The maths doesn’t work out here, as it takes just one kilowatt-hour to produce a pound of corn, and 35 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce one pounds of beef. In terms of energy put in vs the amount of energy in the pound of corn or beef, corn is around twenty-five times more efficient with an efficiency ratio of 104% — so more energy comes from corn that is used to create it, we’re not breaking any laws of physics here, I assume this is just the Sun’s work. Beef has an efficiency ratio of 4.3%.
Try it for a month.
If you’re thinking about going vegetarian, the best advice I can give you is to try it for a month.
This is a great technique for any change because it has a limited downside and a great potential upside. This is actually a pretty good way to view any changes you might want to make to your own life, by reviewing the potential negatives and positives, you will often find that any potential negatives are normally temporary and not that bad, while the positives may well be long-lasting.
You will miss meat for a month, but then you’ve got the rest of your life to make it up, but you might also open yourself up to some positive change in your life if you like your meatless month and decide to continue.
I like to think that people that make this life choice are ahead of the curve and that in the future when people look back and judge our current behaviour by their future moral standards, we will live up to the test.