Between a rock and a crazy place

My case for veganism


I'm going to try to make an argument for being vegan, but, to be clear, it is not very likely to convince you to change your eating habits. It is not designed to - it is only supposed to change the way you think about it. I mention all of that, so you are aware that I don't care what your conclusions are here. If you are reading this, you should do so out of a genuine interest of my motives and for the purpose of self-reflection - not to pick a fight with that vegan dude and really show him he's wrong. I will not debate the content of this article with you. So, with that out of the way, here is a thought experiment:

Say, we would live in a Star Trek like post-scarcity society. Energy is all but abundant and we figured out replicator-technology, that can instantly create anything we like out of it. You get offer the choice between two meals, one is a delicious steak dinner (or whatever), made in a traditional manner. The second is the same thing, but from a replicator. Both are indistinguishable, they taste the same, they have the same nutritional and chemical composition, they cost the same. They only differ in how they're made.

You might be trying to rules-lawyer this. You might be trying to make up an argument, for why the replicator-steak would have to be worse. Or that the cow would already be dead, so it wouldn't matter. But that is obviously not the point of this thought experiment (and remember, you don't have to convince anyone of being right, here). The point is, that I strongly believe that the vast majority of people would agree, that all things being equal, choosing the meal that no animal suffered for is the correct choice. And if you truly believe that it isn't, if you can honestly say to yourself that it doesn't matter: You won't gain anything from the rest of this article. You are relieved and might now just as well stop reading.

The point I am trying to make, is that you probably already know all the reasons you should be vegan. It's very likely that you already have an intuitive understanding of all the reasons in the "pro veganism" column of your pro/contra list. And it really shouldn't be necessary to convince you it's a good idea, in general.

Why then, do so few people actually choose to be vegan, if they are fully aware of all the reasons to do so? The obvious answer is: Because not all things are being equal. There is a "contra veganism" column and it's filled with many good reasons not to. What reasons those are, is deeply individual. It might be due to health. Due to an appeal to nature. Convenience. Money. Availability. Taste. Or maybe just priorities: Other things seem more important and deserving of your energy. And that's okay. We all have to make hundreds of decisions every day and weigh these kinds of questions. And sometimes we do things that we shouldn't and we usually have good reasons to. And sometimes we compromise and don't go all the way, but just do the best we feel able to and that's fine too. Nobody has to be perfect all the time.

The reason, I'm writing this article anyway, is that there is a fundamental difference between the two questions "Why are you vegan?" and "Why are you not not vegan?". When you ask me why I am vegan, you are making the conversation inherently about my values and you will usually end up attacking them - not because you disagree with them (you likely are not), but just because that's the natural progression of this question. And to be absolutely clear: I don't owe you a justification for my value system. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh, but the topic is mostly really annoying to me (as hard as that may be to believe at this point).

A more sensible question, though, is to ask how to best mitigate the contra-column. If we agree that, fundamentally, the points in the pro-column are valid and shared reasons, we can proceed into the much more productive conversation about how much weight the downsides really have and how you might be able to reduce at least some of their impact. And, again to be clear: The outcome of that might very well be, that your reasons are completely valid, rational and that, applied to your personal situation, veganism wouldn't be a good choice. (And to be also clear: I might not be in the mood to have this conversation either. But it's much preferable).

So, what I wish people to take away from this is

  1. Stop asking why you should be vegan (or why I am), you more than likely already know. If you are really interested in making an informed choice, bring up your concerns instead, but also accept if I don't want to talk about them at that particular time - it's a lot of emotional labor, to give the same explanations repeatedly. It might not seem like a big deal to me, to ask these questions, but I've repeated most of my answers literally hundreds of times at this point and might prefer to just enjoy my food.
  2. Stop treating veganism as a preference and start treating it as a moral choice. There is a qualitative difference between someone who does not like Italian food and a vegan. This is interesting when choosing what or where to eat as a group: This is hard enough as it is and I at least usually try very hard to accommodate everyone and not be a burden. And I absolutely do not expect to be treated like I'm better for that. But if it actually would come down to a choice between a vegetarian restaurant or a steakhouse, just because you really like meat: Yes, I do absolutely expect us to avoid the steakhouse. (To be clear: In my experience, it rarely actually comes down to only those two choices. And there are good reasons to avoid vegetarian restaurants that are not based on preference which should be given ample weight too - e.g. someone I know has Coeliac disease, fructose intolerance and lactose intolerance and tends to have a very hard time eating non-meat things. In my experience, though, people who have needs and not just preferences tend to ironically be more open to compromise anyway, so it is less often a problem with them).
  3. Maybe think about your reasons for not being vegan and evaluate them seriously. To be clear, this is a stretch-goal and not the actual point of this article.

And if you want to, you can watch someone who does eat meat say essentially the same things here:

Thanks for reading, don't @ me. ;)

Reasons I'm not not vegan

Now, the main point of this post is dedicated to the general question of "how I think about the topic and how I believe you should think about it too". But I also want it to serve as a reference of my personal, specific thoughts driving my decision - so if you don't know me well or are not interested in my personal reasons, this would be a good place to close the tab and do something else.

I'm still writing this, because I hope this can be the last thing I ever have to write about this (yeah, lol). Because again, I don't actually like discussing it, as unbelievable as that may seem. So here is, as a reference, why I am vegan (and I might add to/change this list over time, when my viewpoints evolve). Why, after ten-ish years of thinking "I should be vegan, but…", I decided to make the switch - or at least give it a serious try. So, this is a list of reasons I gave to myself to justify not going vegan and why they stopped being convincing to me. Your mileage may vary.

Meat/Cheese/Eggs/Bailey's is awesome and I can't imagine giving it up.

For most of my life I didn't think about vegetarianism or veganism at all. Eating meat was the default, so that's what I did. When I did start to think about it, I convinced myself that I couldn't give up meat, because most of my favorite foods where meat-based. However, a lot of people in my peer-group around that time (university) where vegetarian or vegan, so I naturally got into contact with a lot of good food that wasn't naturally meat-based. So I started eating less and less meat - and the less meat I ate, the more I realized I didn't really miss it that much, given how much good alternatives there are. Eventually I decided to become a "flexitarian", which very quickly (in ~1-2 months) became "vegetarian", when I realized that it didn't actually bother me to not eat meat at all - and making that commitment meant less decisions, so it made things easier. With Cheese/Eggs/Bailey's, I basically went through exactly the same transition, six or seven years later: "I can't imagine giving them up" - "Actually, there are really good alternatives" - "Let's just try reducing it and see how far I get" - "Meh, might as well just commit completely".

So, to me, giving up animal products just turned out much easier, than expected, when I actually tried. And I'm not saying I don't miss them, every once in a while, I will still look longingly at a steak or think fondly of my scrambled eggs. But for the most part, the alternatives are just as great (or at times better), so it isn't as big a sacrifice as expected.

Being vegetarian/vegan is unhealthy.

There is a bunch of research about this and for a while (especially before actually looking into the details) the health implications of veganism (vegetarianism not so much) did concern me. But, it turns out, this topic is pretty complicated. Nutrition research is very hard - and that manifests in the fact that for most of it, the statistical significance is usually low and the effect sizes usually small. Now, I'm not denying, that there are health downsides to a vegan diet. But even with the general mess that nutritional research is, it doesn't seem very controversial that if you are concerned for your health, there are much more important factors to consider. If weighed against the health benefits of sleeping more, doing more sports, not sitting all day, stop recreational drug use, taking extensive vacations… (neither of which I seem to be willing to do, even though they would be easy enough), the relatively minor health effects of eating animal products (contrasted with a somewhat balanced vegan diet plus supplementation) just did not seem to be a relevant driving force for that decision and more of a rationalization.

That being said, from what I can gather so far, there is a general consensus that if a) you pay attention to having a somewhat balanced diet and b) are willing to supplement the nutrients you can't actually get, the health impact of veganism is pretty low, if any. Personally, I am supplementing Vitamins B12 and D right now, which has very low quality of life impact - so I don't consider that a significant downside. I also pay a little bit more attention to what I'm eating, which I consider a good thing.

If it turns out that I can not sustain a vegan diet, I will reconsider it, but for now, I don't see any realistic danger of that happening.

It is cumbersome to know whether or not something is vegan.

This is mostly true. As a vegetarian, this mostly revolved around looking for gelatin in the ingredients of sweets and asking in a restaurant whether "Lasagna" is made with meat or not. Being a vegan does involve a lot of scanning ingredients-lists of basically every product I buy. Though I'm positively surprised how many vendors are recently starting to choose to get their products certified - and not only brands you would expect to focus on that, but also, increasingly, all kinds of mainstream products.

That being said, there is an availability issue (especially around "may contain traces of…", which is basically saying "if you are allergic, we can't rule out cross-contamination of other things from the same factory"). I tend to be pragmatic about this: If I have the choice, I will buy the certifiably vegan option, otherwise I'm also fine with traces of animal products, personally. If I don't know, I will go with my best guess and how I feel in the moment.

This is definitely the most true and heavy argument still on the contra-side for me, but being kind of pragmatic about it helps alleviate most of the pain.

It's hypocritical to draw the line at X and not at Y.

You can always be more rigorous and there are a lot of line-drawing questions that come up when thinking about vegetarianism/veganism. For the record, a lot of that is just plain nonsense, but there are some legitimate questions to be asked around whether or not insects count, for example, or certain shellfish, whether you would eat meat if it would be thrown away otherwise or would eat an egg, if the Hen laying it was living a happy, free life. In the end, the vast majority of things you can eat will involve some harm to the environment or animals and you won't always know, so where do you draw the line?

Personally, I decided that definite harm is worse than potential harm and more harm is worse than less harm. "It is hypocritical to not eat meat/cheese/eggs but still kill a wasp entering your apartment" is about as convincing an argument to me as "it is hypocritical to eat meat/cheese/eggs but not also eat dogs/jellyfish/human". The world isn't black-and-white and it's fine to choose a gray spot in the middle that makes you comfortable.

Eating out becomes a PITA.

Yes. Going out and eating in a group is a PITA. Honestly, there are no two ways about it. I do have to actively make sure that a chosen food place has options for me and more often than not that does involve making special requests and/or making do with less great meals.

In general, this still works reasonably well. The cafeteria at work has great vegan options most of the time, Zurich has an amazing choice of great restaurants for vegans to offer, most other restaurants can accommodate too and even if not, I'm fine just eating a little thing and then later eat some more at home.

The main problem is working around the social issues associated with it - dealing with people who are unwilling to be accommodating, having to justify/discuss my choice or just exposing something about my person I might prefer to keep private. Basically, I wrote a whole thing about this.

But this is simply one of those downsides I chose to accept. Nobody said going vegan wouldn't come with sacrifices.

Being vegan is expensive

I am not sure this is true in general. I am relatively sure, that being vegetarian at least actually ended up saving me money as a student. But I can't be completely certain, as the change also came with other changes in circumstances. My vegan diet is probably more expensive than my vegetarian one, mainly because it includes a lot more processed substitute products ("faux meat" and various plant milks, which are at least in Switzerland still significantly more expensive than the cow-based variants), but again, I didn't actually run any numbers.

I'm pretty sure it's possible to have an affordable vegan diet, especially if limiting processed substitute products and not eating out so often. Luckily, this isn't really a concern for me, right now, though. Food and Groceries is a relatively small proportion of my monthly expenses and as such, the impact this has on me is pretty limited either way.

I convinced myself, that if I can afford spending money on all kinds of luxury items and electronic gadgets, I can probably afford spending a little more on food.