A couple of days ago, Food52 published a personal essay of mine on making the decision to shirk dietary labels. In my search to find a diet that nourished both my body and our planet, I found that supplementing a primarily plant-based diet with homemade bone broth gave me the energy that I needed to thrive. I talked about the shame I felt that my body wasn't "working" on the kind of diet that best embodied my own environmental ethics and called for greater compassion in how we talk about food. Eating is such an intensely intimate act. It can be joyous, it can be healing, it can be punitive, it can be a kind of activism. What we choose to consume and why is a vital way of connecting to our earth.
I expected some backlash. But I was genuinely unprepared for the slew of hateful comments that came my way. Although I received a couple of truly kind responses, many more were from readers who accused me of ignorance, cruelty, navel-gazing, and stupidity. I felt profoundly misunderstood and genuinely confused.
My first reaction was intense self-doubt. Over the course of a five-minute panic, I texted two of my best friends—both vegans and ardent advocates against animal cruelty—to double check that I wasn't, in fact, a terrible person (thank you, Regan and Lily, for fielding that bizarre stream of word vomit). When the waves of shame subsided, I could only laugh. It was unsettling to accept that to some strident readers, the nuances of my argument would never stick. But it was also liberating to realize that my beliefs were bully-proof. I deeply believe that we need to eradicate industrialized agriculture because it is destroying our planet and enslaving low-income and immigrant workers and turning living, loving animals into commodities. I deeply believe that for this planet to heal, each one of us needs to make a commitment to eat much, much less meat (watch Cowspiracy if you need a little nudge).
But I also believe that there are culturally resonant and climate dependent reasons for consuming meat. In some parts of the world, instituting agriculture would be environmentally destructive; eating animals is the less water-intensive option. And in the vast majority of indigenous cultures, considering animals sacred isn't separate from eating animals. There are health reasons for eating meat, too. Not every body is built the same and some thrive better with a little animal protein.
The trolling that I experienced is a microcosm of what I see a lot of in the environmental movement. It's important to be passionate and to pursue what you care about. It is equally as important to retain a "beginners mind." The people who have changed me most are those who hold true to their beliefs without minimizing mine, who look to have conversations and not monologues, who listen and who are open to learning. When we assume we have it right—that environmentalism is linear and not cyclical and the final destination ends with us—we totally shut down the possibility to have meaningful exchanges of ideas. What happened after I received so many hateful comments? I just stopped reading the comments. I intentionally took myself out of the conversation, not because I am interested in living in an echo chamber, but because my energy is precious. I don't want to waste time arguing when I can be taking action. The stakes are too high.
Because at the end of the day, the exchange of hateful rhetoric is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done to heal ourselves and our earth. When the Dalai Lama spoke in my adopted hometown a couple of months ago, his speech was interrupted by several militant vegan protestors rallying against his consumption of meat (the Dalai Lama eats animal protein for health reasons). That interference was what people talked most about; not the Dalai Lama's call to kindness, not his radical views on how to heal this earth. Everyone is entitled to their perspective. But if you want others to see where you are coming from, it's showing compassion—and not radiating hate—that will set the ball in motion.
Maybe you are a zero waste advocate and have been bullied online for producing trash. Maybe you care about sustainable fashion and have been told by haters that's nonsense. Maybe you're working on campus-wide recycling campaigns and have had an activist you admire tell you that the small steps don't matter. Maybe you are fighting against fossil fuels and have had some "expert" assert that your rallying is pure idealistic showboating. Whatever kind of activist you are, you are most definitely not going to be somebody else's definition of perfect. And that's more than okay. The environmental movement(s) doesn't need "perfect"—we need open-mindedness and energy, we need collective action and embodied hope.
So how can we start to challenge the hate coursing through the environmental movement(s)? We can focus on all the tremendous love that's also making the rounds. The overwhelming support I've seen so many activists send to Standing Rock in their brave fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline has reminded me that certain issues transcend boundaries. There is love, and there is hope, and you can find it, in abundance.
We can accept as well that each one of us is on our own cycle. I fully acknowledge that by consuming meat, I am contributing to another creature's suffering. This pains me, and so I do everything I can to give thanks for this animal, to ensure its life was a good life. And I know that when I die, I'll go back into the soil to feed the plants who feed the animals. This is the cycle I'm in right now. It might not be forever. It may be very different from the cycle you are on.
For the environmental movement(s) to make vital gains in the pursuit of ecological resilience, we need diversity of thought and difference of opinion. And we need, above all, compassion for these differences. It's what will heal us; it's what will change us.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT